I Am Metamorphic

Submitted into Contest #196 in response to: Write a story involving a portal into a parallel universe.... view prompt


Science Fiction Sad Adventure

This story contains sensitive content

CW: Depression, parental abandonment, discussion of suicidal ideation

I've been falling for hours.

Depictions in movies and TV gave me–and I'm sure many others–the expectation of bright, fluid lights and uncanny imagery like fish with legs or quadrupedal people; they were wrong.

There is nothing but darkness.

The absence of light is so omnipotent that I had to check that I'd actually opened my eyes by touching my face and feeling that there were two distinct lash lines. Without visual cues, the only indicator I have of my orientation is the feeling of my hair whipping out in front of my face, consistently. I'm falling with my back down, and despite my best efforts I have not been able to change that. Wherever I land, assuming that I eventually do, I can only hope that the damage to my body is minimal. What would be the point of interuniversal travel if I just die upon impact?

Varis Hanger came back in one piece, though, and she said her trip was incredible. Before detailing the thrilling experience of life in an alternate universe she'd described an extensive fall through total darkness, much like my current situation, but she couldn't speak to her landings at all.

"So, Captain Hanger, in interviews you've given abundant details regarding the interuniversal travel process. In fact, you've described the 'fall', which sounds absolutely terrifying to me, as if it was a spa experience–"

"Actually, Dave, that's a wonderful comparison that I hadn't thought of before. People seek out sensory deprivation therapy all the time. If you could institute the darkness and silence into an indoor-skydiving tunnel I imagine it would feel very similar to portal travel!"

"Oh, what a thought! Maybe a potential for training for future explorers? Anyway, I'd never be brave enough to do that myself, but to continue my question: there's a notable lack of description of your landing in the Betaverse, or when you returned home. Could you perhaps elaborate on that here?"

"Dave, I'm afraid that the lacking description is simply due to the fact that I have no memory of landing at all. I was just falling, and then I wasn't. It was like a clip-glitch or something."

"Aha. Well that sounds almost worse than the falling itself!"

"Hey, I'm just glad I came back to the correct planet in one piece and with minimal psychological trauma."

"And we are all oh, so thankful for that! I hate to try to speak for others but I think the human race as a whole is as grateful for your safe return as we are astonished by the stories you came back with."

"Thank you for your kind words, Dave. Any time I got scared–and that happened a lot–I just kept thinking of the support that rallied behind me as an explorer and a scientist, and that kept me strong."

"Well, again, Captain Hanger, thank you so much for joining us on our show today. We can't wait to hear more about your discoveries and any future endeavors."

"Thank you for having me, Dave! Take care."

"As for you folks back home–sit tight! We'll be right back after this sponsor break."

Just, nothing.

It wouldn’t really matter if she’d been able to describe it anyway because there’s no way to guarantee that any particular portal will land an explorer in the same universe. Having an actual firsthand account of it may have been helpful for my current anxiety, though. Physicists have been researching this for centuries and still only have ‘significant confidence’ in how to return to our universe; they determined that the key to identifying your origin, or Alphaverse, is to note the average vibrational frequency (AVF) of all objects in the observable universe. There are plenty of unobservable objects, but that can reasonably be assumed to be true in all universes.

Finding the AVF of your location takes a long time—a minimum of five years local time, actually and during that expanse of time you’re also building your return portal frame. The thing is, time doesn’t work the same way in every universe, so this is again a variable that we just have to account for after the fact. Varis Hanger’s expedition, for example, took twelve years—for us. She reported having lived seven years in the Betaverse; other missions have been gone for as long as sixty-four years, but due to this inconsistency we cannot officially assume those expeditions failed. Five years is the estimated minimum time necessary to record and analyze the data needed for tagging the location with its AVF, and Varis said she was confident that the tag she’d made was good. If everything that physicists have been putting together for the last two hundred years checks out, then the next expedition should be able to calculate a trajectory to find the same Betaverse where Varis left her portal frame. As I said before, though, there’s no guarantee.

In lieu of guaranteed safety, explorers have estate lawyers, grief therapists, physicians, and–most importantly–theoretical physicists that make up a team of support. Their suits are equipped with a microchip containing a digital encyclopedia of all the information and guidance deemed necessary by the Interuniversal Exploration Oversight Committee, and an AI that is set up to help them understand and execute any concepts listed in the encyclopedia. The microchip also passively collects information about the environment as well as the explorer's physical state so this data can be studied upon return to Earth. A separate microchip stores a few years' worth of entertainment materials–chosen by the explorer–and the AI is capable of creating brand new content should the pre-loaded library run out or the explorer loses interest. Other tools in their packs include binoculars, a telescoping machete, undergarments, a sewing kit, various crop seeds, a water filtration system, and collapsible kitchenware.

The explorers also carry a lethal dose of pentobarbital in the form of one tablet that is only accessible if the AI has attempted 50 hours of psychiatric care from first initial request over a period of six weeks, or if it senses physical symptoms similar to those of people actively dying. The justification for this highly-controversial inclusion is that an anguished explorer, whose missions are typically carried out alone and without any foreknowledge of what environment or populations they may come into contact with, should have the option to end their life swiftly and peacefully if their circumstances become dire.

I, however, have access to none of these resources, because I am not an official Interuniversal Explorer. I'm just a nineteen-year-old girl who's apparently too smart for her own good and has nothing left for her in the Alphaverse.

So without all the training, equipment, funding, and comprehensive support that career explorers such as Varis have, how did I wind up falling for hours through what is assumed to be a black hole?

I wanted to escape. I've wanted to escape Earth for as long as I can remember–not because of any particular concentrated evil, but I've just never felt like I was meant to be there. Parents tossed me out when I was seventeen and that's the last I ever saw or heard of them. I don't have a "found family" either, thanks to my apparent incapability to maintain relationships and the insurmountable isolation of being a hobbyist-cosmonaut. It became exhausting and depressing to try and memorize what it takes to survive in "polite society": All those expectations that just seem to exist without anyone ever explicitly lining them out, no definitive answer to where exactly a line is until after I'd crossed it, and even then only sometimes clarified. For a long time, this urge to flee manifested as suicidal ideation–some might argue that this is still the case, as this solo endeavor of mine carries a level of risk that is damn near unrivaled. Nobody would miss me there in the Alphaverse, though, and I'm not expected to make any groundbreaking discoveries, so I don't really care where I end up or if I even survive–the only hope I have is that I'll either meet an exhilarating new life or a swift end to this one.

When Varis Hanger's expedition began, I was seven, and life wasn't so bad. Watching that moment as it happened on a classroom holoboard and then on repeat for weeks and weeks cemented the association between the moment a human being falls into nothingness and the concept of ultimate success. So, I studied. I opted into every extra class, every tutoring session, every data download available on what it takes to be an interuniversal explorer and how to craft my own tools and equipment. This dream of mine sprouted eleven years ago, so I've had plenty of time to study and even build my portal frame in secret. Around the age fifteen my mindset transitioned from believing I was destined to get into an official expedition to just desperately trying to find a way to leave, with or without institutional support. A scientifically-backed possibility of a new life was–and is–much more appealing to me than the lacking evidence of an afterlife.

I know that a lot of people who survive suicide attempts report feeling significant regret in the moments that seemed like their last. If I think about the similarities between the decision I might've made four years ago and the one I made today, I just can't agree with those who say they're the same thing; doing what I did is proof of hope, in my opinion. As long as I've been falling, I've been thinking and remembering my earthly life. I don't regret my decision.

The first risk is survival of the portal itself. When Varis returned to Earth, her suit had recorded a consistently survivable oxygen level throughout the round trip, but that may not have been the case for previous expeditions. It's also possible that other explorers simply never landed. Maybe Eric Voh is still falling, sixty-four years after his family said goodbye. Perhaps Tambo Okadigbo had an entirely different travel experience and instead spent the trip being pulled up towards infinity like a stunt harness was tied around their middle. I recognize that there is also a chance that I am actually already dead and stuck with this experience for eternity, which sounds horrific.

Next you have to hope that wherever you land is capable of sustaining human life–air, water, climate, food, and hospitable-enough fauna. You have the crop seeds, machete, and water filter, but without air or a moderate temperature those things don't matter.

You're also risking the possibility of landing in a universe that is so similar to your own that you don't realize you aren't home until you're attacked because you're not supposed to be there. Or, you actually do land back in the Alphaverse and have to spend the rest of your life paranoid and uncertain of your surroundings.

Then there's the possibility that I'm hoping for: a plane of existence where everything makes more sense and feels more comfortable than it did before. Maybe I'll find someplace where the wellbeing of all is truly valued over the wealth of the few, or where the misfits like myself are actually able to live without people assuming their emotions or lack thereof.

I imagine myself in a life where people believe me when I tell them I didn't know that I was being offensive. People don't demand that I answer them immediately, but allow me to think about my responses carefully to be as clear as possible. There's nothing wrong with sitting on the floor or with my leg up in the chair while I'm working and I don't have to explain myself when someone points out that I am doodling while they're talking to me. Maybe I even end up in a universe that's similar to the one I left, but with better parents and more observant healthcare providers.

I'm smiling now, a little bit. That life has been a vivid recurring daydream for years. I know it's pretty unlikely I'll end up with something exactly like that, but far from impossible. 

Maybe I end up in a universe that is exactly like the one I left except that there's common-knowledge magic, or the whole thing just exists as an extended and expanded version of a movie or book. Anything, truly anything, is possible.

Grass and a warm breeze brush my skin, waking me and carrying a bright, floral scent into my face. I open my eyes to find that I'm lying in a hilly field spotted with wildflowers, some of which I recognize. There's a patch of buttercups next to my backpack on my left. Sitting up, I pinch the stem and pull a flower from its roots so I can enjoy the sweet scent.

I get up from my spot on the ground and look at my surroundings again, finding no evidence of people or animals. The waterskin in my backpack sloshes as I put my arms through the straps and I stop, realizing that I don't actually know how long I was falling and should definitely drink water now that I'm still.

Something moves in the grass at the top of a hill on my right. I go still except to grab the pocket knife I stashed before I left the Alphaverse behind. Do I yell out and risk being attacked? Do I stay quiet and potentially miss out on an opportunity to find resources? Was that motion even human?

Decision made, I clasp my pocket knife. "Hello?" I try to emphasize the pitch change at the end of the word, because hopefully whatever language is spoken here, if there is one, will have similar pitch interpretations to English. "Hello? I'm alone and lost. If there's anyone out there, I'd really appreciate help, or at least a quick and painless death if you must." The likelihood that I'm heard, let alone understood, is slim. Better than zero, though.

The waist-height grass parts again, and this time the indentation slithers toward me. "I don't want any trouble," I shout. Slowly, a pale figure stands from the grass. Definitely human-shaped.

She walks toward me, and I start to make out details as she gets closer. It looks like she's wearing a t-shirt, slim-fit cargo pants, and a bomber jacket, all white. At ten yards I can see that her shoulder-length hair is wavy and tousled, framing an oval face with plump lips and barely-arched eyebrows. Her eyes lack color entirely, no iris or pupil, but it doesn't look like special-effects contact lenses that people wear for costumes. Initially I thought this woman lived with significant albinism and enjoyed playing it up with her wardrobe, but now I can see that there is no pigment in her body, or clothing, at all. 

In fact, the texture and color of her body and her attire are perfectly matched–crisp white and… glossy.

As I stand there staring in my own t-shirt and slim-fit cargo pants, I reach up to touch the ends of my wavy hair where they lay on the collar of my bomber jacket.

Her slow approach finally brings her within conversational distance, having stopped about six feet in front of me. She raises her open palms to show they're empty, then points at the knife in my hand. I take the hint and slowly put the knife back into my pocket before mirroring her open pose. We keep our hands open and visible as she continues her slow steps toward me, and I move to meet her in the middle this time. I'm shocked by how comfortable I am with this stranger, but have no desire to stop the interaction.

"You seem to understand my speech, but I haven't heard you say anything. Are you nonverbal?"

She cocks her head slightly but makes no other gesture. I assume this means that she can hear me but does not actually understand what I'm saying.

Within arm's reach now, something compels me to bring my right hand forward, and again she mirrors me with her left. Our fingertips meet and I feel the cool smooth surface of carved marble.

She is a literal living statue. 

Of me.

She turns our hands down into a gentle hold then nods toward the hill she'd come from, leading me in that direction. I imagine we look like twin sisters cresting a flowery hill… sort of.

We slow at the top and my breath catches. Her smile is unleashed as she points toward an enormous cavern in the distance. The opening is at least as big as the city of Manhattan and where you would expect to see darkness is flooded with a soft yellow glow. She squeezes my hand twice, then points to a much smaller cave only a hundred yards or so from where we're standing and slides her gesture smoothly from there to the bigger one.

I hesitate and pull my hand from hers, realizing that she's perhaps a little too excited to have me join her. Is this a trap? Does she eat people? She cocks her head again, then seems to grasp what's happened and points again to my knife and waves her hands up as if she's inviting me to wield it, so I do. She nods and again gestures for me to follow her. It's hard to think about anything outside of life versus death despite looking at a living stone and my thoughts once again turn to compare the likelihood of death by homicide against survival in an unfamiliar universe. At this point I'd much prefer to experience something fantastical before I slip away rather than waste away in isolation.

So, once again, I follow a path down into a dark and mysterious hole, gambling on the unknown with only myself to trust.

May 05, 2023 22:01

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Rain Dyer
19:19 May 11, 2023

Hi Shawn! I got your story as one of my weekly circle critiques! I'll write down my thoughts as I go. I like the hook. It’s a very interesting idea to fall for so long. I’d be careful about showing and not telling though. Maybe the story starts right after Varis Hanger gets back? The italics for dialogue aren’t necessary. The quotation marks work great. It’s also a bit confusing who is talking. More ‘He said.’ With some description. I didn’t realize she was on a show at all. Who is the narrator? You’ve created a very interesting world he...


Shawn Wier
03:27 May 12, 2023

Thanks so much for your feedback! I definitely have a hard time staying within 3000 words so I have to do a lot of trimming; sometimes… it doesn’t work as well as I hope for. A lot of what you critiqued falls in line with this pretty well. Also, when I write, my brain defaults to “cinema” mode and I think this particular story was really hard for me to get into the reader perspective. Would you mind elaborating on the show/tell point? I’m having a hard time mentally re-working that bit. As for the italics, that was meant to indicate that...


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Mary Bendickson
06:02 May 06, 2023

Free falling. Good descriptive portal.


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Arpad Nagy
21:28 May 10, 2023

Interesting concept, though I did struggle with the shifts in narration and essay-like internal dialogue.


Shawn Wier
03:31 May 12, 2023

I appreciate your comment! Another commenter mentioned this, too, so it’s certainly on my radar for when I expand on the story.


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