When it rains, it pours. Or rather: When the glass shatters, everything breaks. In their case, it’s the entire universe. After the deed has been done, it’s easy to claim that it was an accident. I didn’t mean it rises to Henley’s lips even more often than I didn’t really do anything. She did, though, and she knows it. The mere lack of action is never enough of an excuse, enough of a get-out-of-jail-free card…
…that is, if humanity (humanities?) didn’t have more pressing concerns right now than determining whether acute thumb-twiddling is enough of a mea culpa for government work.
These days, it’s vital to be sure of one’s steps – just another detail that Henley must consider on her quest for fixing what she broke. Yeah, sure, it’s something nobody asked of her, but come on. How on Earth (Earths, rather) is she not to blame? How? Inexcusable. Unjustifiable.
Where the cracks in reality convey, where the danger is greatest – that is where the answers must lie. To her great surprise, this turned out to be not the little lab of horrors on Fairview Station itself but the colony on Faenyr’s moon Marradan. Did the signal overshoot its original destination? Have the walls between realities always been thinner at that particular location? Was the fault lines theory correct?
Does it matter?
Well, yeah, of course it does. Doesn’t make a lick of difference right now…won’t until the current crisis is solved.
Henley and her euphemisms, Skye would say. Henley and her dozy hippy nonsense. They’d never sound mean, though. On the contrary: There’d always be that corners-of-the-mouth twitching, that twinkle-in-the-eye bit that made them look so much younger than they actually were.
No more time for euphemisms or dozy hippy nonsense, although Henley does pin the pink-and-silver flower brooch to her coat, as she gets ready to land on Marradan and head into the lion’s den…no, lions. Dens? Everything’s either a darned plural or a darned non-existence these sorry days.
Her eyes fixed on the bleeping dots on the display of her little spacecraft, Henley grimaces. Sigh? As part of her inner monologue? That just blows. She brays some decidedly unladylike laughter, shakes her head, and punches numbers into the old keyboard she’s rigged to work as a console for the rift calculator. No-one’s ever accused her of being incompetent. Good thing she’s got this one bit right, too. All the digital thingamajigs have a sad tendency to conk out whenever they get close to a rift.
Faenyr is right at the center of the mother of all rifts – or a bunch of vicious little rifts conspiring to swarm across all known universes. There’s really no way to be sure.
She can see them popping up on the cracked display, blooming like nasty flowers.
The nice kind is on Henley’s lapel.
Thinking about how she hasn’t come across a single other version of Skye won’t do (either darned plurals or darned nothings). She’s got a job to do, a task to fulfill. No more standing around, slack-jawed and useless, wringing her hands while the universe itself breaks apart – shatters, as it were.
Her mistake. Her sin. Her responsibility.
Faenyr is located inside a broiling, stormy nebula that seems hellbent on murdering everyone who dares to even squint in its general direction. No matter. This is where the party’s going to happen. It’s not just a single rift being multiplied and mirrored by the nebula gases like the galaxy’s creepiest fata morgana. Nope, despite the clamoring of the scientists huddling together at Brightpoint Station, running around and spewing data like hyperactive robots, Henley is convinced that she’s accounted for all variables. This is the place. This is the hour.
Time to make it all go away.
Never mind that she didn’t cause the malfunction itself. Never mind that so far, she hasn’t been blamed. It’s not about how others perceive her. It’s about what she knows to be true.
Skye isn’t here to make fun of her tendency to overinflate her own importance, so the mere memory of them doing so will have to suffice: their mischievous smile, the twinkle in their eyes, the merriment in their voice, the…
…oh, the everything. Everything and nothing, all at once or none at all.
Henley has not met a single version of them, has not detected anything in the years that have passed since the incident, the cataclysm, the ruddy end of everything. Okay, there’ve been hints of traces that have led her to wildly speculate, but no certainty. That’s the crux, isn’t it? How can she be sure without actual evidence? Even a sign from the heavens would do at this point.
The Science Directory didn’t want to give her a ship, but to heck with them.
She screamed and pleaded and cried and argued (all without expletives, which was a feat and a half!) to no avail. Okay, stealing isn’t cool, but what else was she supposed to do? There was no choice.
They didn’t give her any choice.
Now, for this, she will take full responsibility but none of the blame. Okay, yeah, stealing ain’t nice and all, but seriously? So worth it. Everyone will be so relieved once she finds a way to make it all go away. Your fault, honey, so you better make sure you find a way to fix it. She tries to sound like one of her folks in her own mind when she thinks self-flagellating stuff – doesn’t work.
Mom and Dad never blamed her for anything.
Hard to figure out whether this makes her feel better or not. The crushing weight on her shoulders and her headache would suggest one of them, at least. Jury’s still out.
Flying through this darned nebula is quite something. First of all, it’s all sub-lightspeed. Second of all, she can’t entirely leave navigation up to the onboard computer. Too many variables, too much tech conking out. The ship’s a bit of a rust bucket, cluttered with scavenged parts and the odd pinned-up photo, so she’s switched life support down to a minimum to keep it from wheezing itself to an early grave. It’s freezing, and the air smells stale. Maybe that’s psychosomatic. Who knows? Doesn’t matter.
Henley hasn’t washed since she left Goldfield Station four days ago. Her ruddy hair is pinned up and beyond contempt. Another thing that doesn’t matter, but her dry hands and cracked nailbeds? They do. Soon, everything will change. This nightmare will be over. The mistake will be fixed, her cowardice made up for.
Once she’s cleared the nebula, she can speed up and set the autopilot to take her to Faenyr. The computer’s programmed to avoid the cracks in reality, but she still needs to be vigilant. After all, flying into one of these is about the least savory death a person can experience, or so the theory goes.
Nobody really knows what in the blue moonflower actually happens when a sorry soul stumbles into a rift. Do they die? Do they merge with a different version? Do all versions of them disappear (all or none, nothing or everything, dear Lord)?
Soon, these questions will be only academic in nature. The rifts will seal. The universe will become whole again. The glass will un-shatter.
Henley can barely remember the sound of Skye’s voice.
Okay, time to focus. Does being easily distracted by metaphysical broodings count as dozy hippy nonsense?
The signals seem to be converging on the moon’s northern continent, in the middle of a dense temperate rain forest. Wasn’t there…is this the place they found that ancient observatory about fifty years ago?
Ah, if only she had uploaded the free encyclopedia before limping into deep space. Right now, she’s busy circumventing the bleeps and bloops and finding a safe space to land. There’s no way she can squeeze her ship all the way through to the center of the signals without connecting with one of the cracks, so she lands the poor little thing some ten kilometers south of the epicenter. Sucks to be her, as she’s never up for a hike, but what can one do? The scans indicate that the atmosphere is stable, temperatures tolerable, and the weather kind of okay for the season. Not that any of this means much.
She buttons up her coat, pushes her scarf up over her nose, dons her old gloves and woolly hat, grabs her modified scanner (no way the Science Directory people would let her use this mongrel creature at the lab), and sets out. Marradan has no fauna that could pose a threat to her, and yet, she takes the stupid-looking coppery mega-shooter she lifted from that one museum. Will it shoot? Maybe. Does it make her feel better? Kind of.
The cold air outside hits her in the face like a tidal wave. It’s humid, too – best combination, really. There are noises all around – birds, rustling leaves, trickling water, croaking frogs or whatever comes closest.
Squinting at her scanner, she stomps away, sidestepping roots and steering clear of mud. Part of her hopes she’ll run into people, but that’s unlikely. The sensors didn’t pick up anyone, although, given the general state of things, that tell her nothing. As she moves ahead, zigzagging and backtracking to avoid running face-first into a crack in reality like a right doofus, she starts sweating. Jeez, is she reeking like this, or is there a bog nearby? This trip is taking longer than she anticipated.
Skye always loved hiking. They’d tell marvelous tales of fun and adventure until Henley would agree to accompany them to wherever mountains flip off the sky. Hiking sucks, but those trips were still the best.
How can everything, all everyone has worked for, the entirety of their lives, even the knowledge they all thought they shared about the universe just be gone inside of a single catastrophic minute – an incomprehensible cascade of failure?
How can Henley, who just stood there watching in paralyzed horror, ever sleep through a night again if she doesn’t manage to fix this?
Some things cannot be fixed. Time cannot be undone. Mistakes cannot be unmade. You have to learn from them and move on. It’s the only way you’ll grow. Okay, that really does sound like one of her parents.
The problem is, the entire universe has been unmade – possibly all the others, too.
Oh, that terrible, awful day! If she’d moved, if she’d kept her wits, if she hadn’t been so afraid of making it even worse, then none of it would have happened.
Or it would have, and you’d be dead, Skye says in her head, as she swats at gnats, pants into her damp scarf, and slip-slides down a small slope. Maybe you would have made it worse. The point is, you can’t know.
The point is, I have to try to fix it, because nobody else will – not the right way, at least.
You can’t know that, either. Perhaps they’re right and you’re just so bent on fixing everything, you can’t see the forest for the trees.
As much as she loves imagining arguments with Skye, that’s all they are: figments of her imagination.
Time to get this show on the road.
Not a good thing that it’s getting darker. Getting to the darned epicenter is taking her too long. Maybe she should double back and start again early in the morning? The night’s only six hours long, anyway, so…
…she looks up through the trees and sees something that makes her stop dead in her tracks.
Holy moly, is that…is that an aurora borealis? But she’s not even in the right region for…oh. Right. The broken realities. The shattered universes. Okay. Does it make sense? Who knows? Moving on.
As the shadows deepen and Henley has even more trouble seeing farther than a few meters, the dancing ribbons of blue and green light get stronger far up in the sky. Funny how she didn’t spot any of this from orbit – or how the sensors picked up a total sum of nada.
That’s when it happens: From one moment to the next, within one step and half a shuddering breath, she’s stepped into a clearing, marked by a seemingly perfect circle of tall trees. There aren’t any bushes, roots, dead leaves, or even tall grasses. There is, however, a building smack in the middle of it all: black and square, it sticks into the darkening night like a giant Lego left lying by a forgetful giant. Ominous. Foreboding. Plain weird, to be honest. Is this the ancient observatory? Is this the…huh, the lights above are crashing into each other, swirling, collapsing, and bursting apart like the universe’s trippiest waterpark.
Meanwhile, Henley has frozen to the spot. She’s barely breathing, pressing her scanner to her chest with one hand and gripping the flower pin with the other. At least that feels real. All around her are odd sparks floating here in there, in patterns, maelstroms, then seemingly at random. Drunken fireflies? Outliers of the aurora borealis that shouldn’t even exist? An illusion? It takes her almost superhuman effort to unfreeze enough to peep at her beaten-up scanner. This is it. The building right ahead? This weird black box shrouded in mist and danger and darkness? That’s the place she’s been itching to go for the past three years. She’s had meltdowns and tantrums, has researched, begged, stolen, lied – all so she could be here and prove everyone (herself) wrong.
She’s frozen to the spot, though, her boots sinking somewhat into the muddy ground, her heart fluttering, an iron grip around her roiling innards. The air is cold and thick and smells a bit like burned ozone. A storm of cracked universes has waves of reality crashing into each other above.
If she steps ahead, there’s no avoiding the lines, the fissures, the overlaps – the uncertainty. It might kill her. So far, there hasn’t been proof that this is fatal, that anything apart from being taken somewhere else even occurs. However, nobody who has come into direct contact with the rifts has yet returned.
That doesn’t mean they can’t, says Skye’s voice in her head.
Why would I even venture closer if I can’t get to the observatory? What can I possibly hope to fix if it’ll kill me?
The readings never indicate death, Hippy.
“No,” she murmurs into her damp and smelly scarf. “They indicate nothing.”
Because our scanners can’t pick up the data. There’ve been traces, though, enough for you to theorize that maybe, all that’s needed is for someone to walk right into the eye of the storm and pull the proverbial plug. In Henley’s mind, Skye is pacing through their lab, gesticulating like they always do (did?) when they have (had?) a brilliant thought when that famed eureka moment is just around the corner.
She can feel it, somehow – feel Skye, their warmth, their endless cleverness, their courage.
Is that why her internal monologue sounds like them?
Oh, but she is frozen, sinking, bogged down, as all of life and the unknown storms and swirls, crashes and cracks above her, all around her.
I did this, she thinks at Skye. I did, because I’m a coward, and now, I shall do it once again because I can’t know. I can never know, just speculate, and that isn’t enough.
Before her mind’s eye, beyond the gathering darkness and deepening frost, just around the corner, Skye smiles. It’s warm and bright. Of course it’s not enough – never will be. But it is a start, wouldn’t you agree? The risk. The gut feeling.
“The leap of faith,” Henley says, and she sounds like both of them – like all of them. She unglues her tingling, icy feet from the boggy ground, pushes her scarf down, drinks in a lungful of air. Smells cleaner now – clearer, too. “Okay, then, Skye. If you’re not nowhere or everywhere, you better be here with me, at least.” She exhales sharply, feels herself smiling, and steps forward, into the eye of the storm.