Somewhere in the deepest recesses of the common imagination, clustered behind the sphere of memory and more often than not entwined with the smell of autumn rain, is a collection of unborn stars. The technicalities, being centuries beyond our time, would be certain to bore you immensely, though it is safe to tell you that exactly seven years after their discovery, this rarely frequented zone of the human mind brought yet another frenzy to the academic media.
In a lab just south of greater Stockholm, a grad student with an unhealthy preference for Mountain Dew and grunge rock had been comparing the various brain scans currently stored in the international archive, with particular attention to this specific area of the brain. There were bright, colored bits printed in startling accuracy, as well as a proliferation of finely printed abbreviations that he had memorized and duly forgotten a few years prior, and on the whole he was convinced that it was well past time that he turned in for the night.
In the end, his drink was what saved him. For exactly thirty minutes after the caffeine drew him back to his work, his eyes, muddy with the desire for sleep, widened to the diameter of most respectable dinner-plates.
In the year 2344, Michael Hannock took another look at our inner map of stars and found that, in every person ever to live or to die, that map was exactly the same.
In a branch of the cosmos uncharted by the greatest pioneers of the galaxy, where time runs into space and plays a waltz for the spinning dimensions, the Creators roll dice to determine the fates of Men.
... At least, so Man likes to think. He's not that much off, either, but these dice have more faces than they want you to think, and can occasionally be talked into sprouting a few internal fusion reactors and wandering off to start a galaxy or two, which takes the edge off of the entire "arbitrary simplicity" facet of the observation.
Additionally, it should be noted that if any being that lived in less than seven dimensions were to so much as look at one of these particular die, they would unravel into sub-sub-atomic particles which would in turn be scattered across the various corners of the omniverse like so many bad pennies. The Creators have heard of Man's quest to the heart of his star, and have considered it rather droll. That is, until it was found out between them that none of them, in fact, could point out our race's existence on a map. The closest guess landed us in a rather inconvenient nebula infested with things that would potentially be horrifying, if they weren't five billion light years away.
On this particular day, the game wasn't dice at all. It was cards.
"And just how," said a voice like the collision of dying stars, "is this going to work?"
"Cards," said Someone else. "Back in Namacore, we never played cards. We had proper games in Namacore. The galaxies were nicer, too. Not this stringy slop you have over here."
"Stop it. The both of You." The third presence was, if the word can be applied to beings that stretch across not only the majority of the far end of the multiverse, but also the span of a few trillion years, considerably larger than the other two. From the void, something lurked, watching. It did not seem particularly pleased.
"Your temper would improve," and here came a virtually unpronounceable series of cosmic residuals, which have been handily translated, like everything else, into common English. It is easiest to call it: "John, if you would simply apply your ability to our Games."
"Can't properly mook our stock if you haven't won any yet, now can you?" smirked the other Entity, whose name was certainly not Charles.
"The rules are simple," said the central figure. "We play to the end of Time."
"Long walk, that," Grumbled the Entity not known as John. "Not much to see, either," he added, "and the hospitality could use some revision."
"Nevertheless. I place my gamble on the Yagarian System."
"Very well," Sighed not-John. "I shall stake my stars. I have quite a few of them, floating around somewhere. Let me see. . . "
Not-Charles shook his head. "Ah, but my friend, I am putting in the Ununkakar." He hesitated. " . . . Paul . . . is ransoming the Yagarian. You must have something larger, than a handful of stars."
Not-John shrugged. "Let's see what I can find."
We have never, in our system's existence, been considered an at all interesting stop on the universal agenda. In response, our kind has developed a behavior considered very curious among interstellar circles, in which we convince ourselves that we are the greatest of all beings of the universe because we are the only race to inhabit it.
Occasionally, academic debate will spring up on slower rotations, in much the same way that dispassionate scientists will sometimes bandy debates about the behavior of linear worms. It is altogether ridiculous, many decide, that anyone should be able to hold a focused macro-photonic projector within half a light-year of the night sky, and consider the cosmos a cold and uncaring expanse of black.
And yet, humanity has done so.
Which created rather a dilemma when Mr. Hannock submitted his report to the larger community of science. If the cosmos was bitter, emotionless, separate from the mortal existence, then what to make of this?
"Coincidence," was the most common response, followed closely by "Insanity," which rather died out as confirmation reports began to flow in.
At one point, a heady man by the name of Hasmin read over the contents of the final thesis, and called Hannock to his observatory in San Francisco, where they sat down to afternoon tea. Hasmin was a tea man, and had an impressive array of jams and interesting aromas waiting for his distinguished guest.
"I take it," the older man said, once a good portion of the scones had disappeared, "that there is no chance that your findings are arbitrary?"
Mr. Hannock bit off half of a small, glazed pastry, and frowned. "What, you mean, you think it's just nonsense? Like, it doesn't mean what I think it does?"
"Well, more the second than the first. Because I wonder, Mr. Hannock, how anyone can be sure that your self-named sub chamber actually aligns to the Ruidinas system?"
"Oh. Um. Well, we did the math," Hannock tried, and ate the rest of his pastry, chewing it very loudly. "All those triangles, and everything." He was not an astronomer. All he knew, was that for some reason, everyone had the exact same pattern of neuron pathways in a very odd section of the brain, and this pattern always appeared in not only the same proportion, but in identical sizes, in everyone from newborns to genetic giants, to patients diagnosed with lethal brain cancers. It didn't shrink. It never was decayed or infringed upon. Even in those afflicted with strange cancers and diseases, which riddled the brain with tumors and holes and pustules, it was fully intact. He'd thought it was pretty neat on its own, and then this had happened and, well, he wasn't really sure what he thought. He had scriptwriters now, to do that for him whenever he got lost.
A hopeful look scanned the room. No one else here. Michael sighed. He told the other man what little he knew. He ate some more pastries. After a while, Hasmin spoke, though slowly.
"In fact," he began, "we have been running a few tests of our own, here at the Clinton." He rubbed at the top of his bald head, looking ruminative. "And you're absolutely right. But you understand, that's just the problem."
"What, the implications of the universe being a parallel to the development of individual organisms in an isolated corner of its greater majesty?" He burped, and added, "Or something like that?" in a smaller voice.
Hasmin gave him a long look. "Actually," he said, "we're more concerned with the fact that your discovery was rather . . . obvious, in hindsight." He gave a short laugh, and used the interval to take a sip of steaming tea. "The brightest minds in history have come and gone, and now they're all up there thinking, 'how the hell did we miss that?"
Had there been just a few less systematic paradoxes floating through the air, one could have potentially called the thing a jack. One could even have classified it as a rectangle, which was certainly generous, in the circumstances. It was currently a shape that the more arrogant breed of ignoramus would confidently call a tesseract, when in fact it was the sort of thing that made tesseracts feel rather small, and its presence at the larger get-togethers of the universe usually meant that the tesseracts would be going home early, though not without a large cut of the meeting's supply of alcohol.
An Entity that could be given no age, for the construct was, to it, ridiculous (would you measure the existence of a dog, by the number of steps it has taken?) considered it very carefully.
"And what does this mean, exactly?" It said.
"I believe I have won Ununkakar." The voice was dry, in a way that caused not discomfort, but instead droughts across a few hundred of the nearest galaxies. With what, for lack of better description, had to be called a hand, it swept up a collection of stars and swirling dust, and moved it closer to its own domain.
"Well, sod this," came another voice. Not-Paul looked over, and blinked.
"The Aankihars are not too respectable a system. I'd not care too harshly to lose them."
The Being seemed to frown. "All I've got, though, innit? Besides, they don't call it that anymore. Not since the Mondarins all moved to Andromeda. 'S called the Milky Road, something like that."
"Curious. In any case," A implosive motion of randomized atoms, and the stars themselves parted before the swirling dimensions, as the cards rearranged themselves in the deck. "We play on." Looking askance at the system once known as Aankihar, It added, "Do you know, I could quite use a little snack."
Grandmother Ridley was a queer soul in life, everyone had said so. It was only upon her death that it was also discovered that she had been the owner of the most extensively archived collection of newspapers on this side of the northern hemisphere, which was promptly taken up by the local records department. The formal analysis took several years, and at the end of it, a curious fact was remarked upon as the first of the papers was shipped to the Records Hall.
Though each year had had hundreds of publications under their headers, the small, faded folder labeled '2345' had exactly two.
Their front pages read:
"REVOLUTIONARY 'STAR COMPLEX' PROVED FALSE, INTERNATIONAL REPORTS SAY" and "MASTERMIND OF HANNOCK HOAX FOUND DEAD, AGE 28: VERDICT SUICIDE"
But, after all, she had been rather a peculiar woman.
"Three kings," said a voice in the cosmic void. "And the game is done."
A massive force swept through the outer reaches of the universe, similar to a solar wind sweeping over a solitary ant. It stopped, at the omnipotent equivalent of someone clearing their throat.
"Well, not as yet," said the Entity who, in all the infinite perambulations of time, space, and their questionable acquaintances, has never been known as John. "I haven't played my hand yet, see?"
There was a pause as the other considered this. It looked down at a massive graveyard of stunted realities, currently being used as a card table.
"I see an eight, and the third of Pyramids," It intoned, "and no path to a satisfactory solution." Something peered through the reaches of the void. "What is it you are trying to do?"
The Entity tried for a shrug, and scowled as he toppled a few newborn stars into self-collapse. "Belief is relative," It said. "The only subjective force in the omniverse."
This was considered. "I accede Your point, if not its significance."
"Well, I'm only wondering," said the Other, touching his cards very tentatively as he focused on each in turn, "what one may do, under threat of what he believes. One star to another, perhaps a stalemate is reached, but," a remarkable collision, a broadcasting of events many billions of years behind them that weaved its way through the long tunnels of unpredictable space, and the Entity paused. "What of one man," It said, "who must look upon the assembled void, and spit upon the gathered tradition of the years?"
This drew a funny look. "An anomaly? These things are destroyed. Some things are not meant for the worlds where they are born."
"True, true . . ." It decided on one of the cards, and balanced it between two fingers. " But do you think, perhaps, that such a thing . . . it need not die. Given time, given light, it may rewrite the stars."
On the night of November 23, 2346, on the anniversary of a most sensational death, an astronomer looked at the stars. By incredible coincidence, he was the only one doing so, in all the sleeping world, though the sky was bright and beautiful. His journal lay open on the table beside him, scrawled thrice over with wild, determined script. He turned the lens to a new direction, deep into a structure of grimly memorable stars. Ruidinas gleamed like the eyes of a corpse, and for a moment which would hang forever in his recollection, like the gleaming drop of madness which spoils the whole of the river, something crossed his wandering gaze, and sent him, heart pounding, to his chambers.
From the wrong sort of angle, it looked rather like an ace, of crisp and glowing spades.