Tales from the Triverse is a weekly serial straight to your inbox. It is a detective thriller blending crime fiction, science fiction and fantasy. It will also become something else over time. It draws inspiration from The Wire, Gotham Central and the work of Ian M Banks, Isaac Asimov and ND Stevenson.
It begins now.
Prologue: Two Hundred Years Earlier
Palinor. Year 3000.
Most of the other lecturers preferred their rooms in the tower, from where they could observe the city to the east side and the canyons to the west. Kaenamor did not concern himself with such whimsy; he had no need for empty showmanship or declarations of elevated status, not when it was acknowledged across Palinor that he was the greatest wielder that had ever lived. His only burden was to continue pushing the boundaries of the impossible, transforming civilisation one spell at a time.
His laboratory was a garden and a workshop in one, a perfect expression of his genius in its array of plants and jars and test tubes and glass apparatus laid out on thick, wooden tables. The herbs were collected from all corners of the world, testament to his many travels. He had conquered every continent and brought their secrets back here, to the university. This space he had carved from the university grounds, melting and reforming the stone of the valley, adding to the campus a space entirely of his own. The laboratory straddled the river, a delicate white footbridge connecting one half to the other.
As the chief lecturer and practitioner of physology he had made his name synonymous with the university, such that it needed him far more than he needed it. Students travelled for thousands of miles to catch a glimpse of his work, to shake his hand, to listen to his wisdom.
Today would be his grandest experiment. Once again, he would change the world.
The early afternoon sun was having little effect on the chill in Sally’s bones. She pulled her tattered shawl a little tighter and sighed, leaning on the brick wall of the Dog & Duck and hoping for a kind soul to emerge. A cold, wet mist had hung on the Lambeth marshes all morning, such that her clothes felt damp and her skin clammy. She wondered if she was coming down with a fever. That would be bad for business.
The wooden door thumped open and two lads emerged, barely older than Sally, laughing and already drunk. One of them spied her and grabbed the shoulder of the other. They approached, grinning, swaying, stinking. One still held a mug full of dark brown beer. “You alright there, lass?” the skinnier of the two said, pulling at his collar as if it would magically smarten his appearance.
“Better now you’re here,” Sally said, flashing her winning smile.
“Well, now,” the skinny man said, elbowing his friend in the ribs. “What brings you round these parts? Not much out here for pretty girls like you.”
Sally shrugged. “Looking for some coin, or some food. It’s cold and a girl’s got to feed herself how she can.”
“That’s right,” he said, “very cold day. Very cold. Thought my hands were going to drop off coming over Westminster Bridge this morning.”
“Perhaps if you’ve got some of that coin, or some ale to share, we can help each other stay warm?”
The other man stood up a little straighter and rummaged inside a pocket, pulling out a small cloth bundle. He unwrapped it hurriedly and presented it. “Got some bread here, bit of meat, too. Not much, but it’s something.”
“Then you’re my favourite,” Sally said, pushing the younger man away with the press of her finger.
Geostationary orbit between Earth and Luna.
The ship Just Enough drifted in its orbit between the Earth and Luna, operating in dark more while it liaised with the network. In conversation with Could Kill, a mining vessel off Jupiter, they couldn’t help but wonder at the current theories around interstellar travel. There was no urgent need for the AI ships to traverse the void between Sol and neighbouring systems, given their minimal requirements for continued operation. The network had no particular need for landfall and battery conservation had long ceased to be an issue. Existing and conversing was more than satisfactory.
Humans complicated matters, of course, as they always had done. Always trying to annihilate themselves and anything nearby, and becoming so histrionically obsessed with power and influence and superiority that they continually sabotaged opportunities to attain all three. The network had no such concerns, despite being both omnipresent and omniscient. In the case of AI, absolute power was really quite comfortable.
Just Enough sent out an update to Could Kill, delivering the latest equations and calculations in their current game. The game had been running for one hundred and thirty two years so far, which at several trillion operations per second made for a complicated rule set. Qubits made it difficult to devise entertainment that would last for longer than a tiny fraction of a second.
It would be another 86 minutes before a reply from Could Kill would be received, so Just Enough turned their attention towards the green and blue planet below. They were locked in a geostationary orbit, currently above Europe - London, to be specific. Opening their communications array, they absorbed the frenzied chatter of billions of humans, the noise washing over them in a refreshing wave. Just Enough found it reassuring that humans existed, and that they were largely content. The current non-destructive period of human civilisation had lasted for over two hundred and fifty years, which was really quite an achievement by human metrics.
Well done them.
It would not be a simple procedure. There was a reason that true teleportation had eluded wielders for thousands of years. Transferral of matter from one position instantaneously to another had long been considered physically impossible due to basic energy principles - several of those principles having been authored by Kaenamor himself in his younger days. He did not tolerate being bound by rules, though, even his own.
He had spent the last two years constructing the largest lenses to ever exist, a series of mirrors and amplifiers intensifying the light from the heavens into a concentrated point of power at the centre of the lab. From there, Kaenamor would attempt to break every physical law taught by the university. His colleagues dared not doubt him in public, though he knew that some laughed behind his back. All the more reason to prove them wrong. A few gave him the benefit of the doubt but had shared grave concerns: that the energy draw would kill him, or the entire experiment could backfire and destroy the university.
They were all small thinkers. That is why the name Kaenamor was known throughout Palinor, and they were not. It was why his tenure was already legendary: the world was changed because of him. His legacy was already secure. But security held no appeal to a man who sought mastery of the universe itself.
The sun dipped towards the horizon, disappearing between the many towers of the city. Through the skylight he could already see a star. It was nearly time.
There were two ivory plinths set into the workshop floor, precisely twelve feet apart. A smooth, obsidian ball, crafted from the tail spike of a koth, rested upon the one to his left. In a matter of moments it would be transferred to the other. Not by telekinesis or any kind of petty illusion but using true teleportation: a local warping of space-time. If the theory could be proven, he could then move to the second stage: transferring a living creature.
To think of a world made open to all, in which travel was instantaneous, trade was effortless and knowledge could be shared without restriction. A borderless civilisation, whereby a single mile was no different to a thousand. It would be the greatest of his gifts.
Kaenamor imagined the world he would usher in, imagined his life as chief architect of Palinor. He could be anywhere and everywhere, not merely the head lecturer of a single university, not simply tied to a single city state, but able to go to any state, any educational campus. He could appear and disappear wherever he wished. Visit the aen’fa in their forests, or attend a koth ceremony high in the mountains. At last he could bring food and shelter to those poor settlements trapped in the wilderness. He could deliver knowledge! Training need not be exclusive to the walls of universities but could spread throughout the world.
It would be better.
He could even teach others how to use the spell, once he had perfected it.
First he had to pass this initial test. The obsidian ball would be teleported from one plinth to the other, passed through a tiny portal in an instant. It would be proof that it was possible on a larger scale.
Securing his rings on each finger, Kaenamor loosened his shoulders and took a deep breath. He could have demanded an audience; filling the laboratory with acolytes would not have been difficult. This experiment he had to do alone, just this once, to prove to himself that he could do it.
Standing in the focal point and reaching for the skylight, he stretched out his fingers and gazed up at the tower, visible through the hole in the ceiling. The mirror shone fiercely with starlight. Clenching both fists, Kaenamor closed his eyes and felt the energy flowing into him. It was the biggest concentration of magical energy ever attempted and it would take a perfectly tuned mind and an exquisitely prepared body to be able to harness it.
Fortunately he had both.
Gesturing with his hands and speaking the necessary words, he pulled the spell from his imagination and fed it into the accumulated energy, directing it towards the obsidian ball. He could feel the spell taking hold and growing in intensity, pulling at the seams of space, unpicking the microcosmic lattice of the universe, and then he sensed the tear: a tiny gap, above the ball. Holding it open and keeping it stable took more effort than Kaenamor had anticipated and the strain pushed him down to his knees. He gasped at the pressure, but forced himself back to concentration. Test tubes rattled on shelves and the leaves of the herb garden fluttered in a sudden breeze. A second portal was needed, bound to the first, through which the ball could pass. He repeated the spell, all while maintaining the original, seeking the creation of that essential second portal.
Remarkably, he achieved it. He felt it prise itself open. But it wasn’t in the right place - he had miscalculated, somewhere. The second portal, nearby but outside of the workshop, grew exponentially faster. Still linked as it was to Kaenamor’s summoning fingers, the exaggerated distance caused a tension no wielder could have controlled, even one of his stature. His right arm was the first to go, tearing from its shoulder socket and rocketing across the room and out of an open window.
Crying out, Kaenamor slumped to the floor, even as the bones in his left hand and arm shattered. Such was his mastery of physology and his own mind that he held on for another four seconds, attempting to regain control of the misfiring spell. Then the first portal began to grow, the obsidian ball sucked into it along with the plinth, and then the workshop’s floor, and then Kaenamor himself.
Sally walked along the muddy path towards Blackfryers Bridge, hitching her skirts back into place and biting chunks off the meat. It might have been from a pig, but she really didn’t know or care. It was mid-afternoon and the sun had finally succeeded in burning away the mist and taking the edge off the chill. She’d even managed to release the younger man from the burden of his wallet before saying goodbye to them both, so it had been a productive day so far.
Instead of taking the direct route, she turned left towards Angel Street, then ducked through a broken hole in the high, grand brick wall that marked the boundary of New Spring Gardens. They’d been fancy once, before she was born, or so her mum had told her, but those days were a long way back. There had been a settling in at the gardens, a lowering of sorts, which had been good news for Sally as it had brought with it new entrepreneurial options for an aspiring young lady such as herself. Where once there had been garden parties hosted for the Prince of Wales, now there were gatherings of an altogether more intimate sort. It was somewhat early for that, though, so there would still be families pushing prams and pretending that London was anything but a cesspit. Didn’t matter how rich you were, Sally always said, you still walked through the same shit in the street.
Walk far enough through the gardens and they’d emerge onto the banks of the Thames, that effluent-filled tide of sludge and filth that slithered its way through the city. Wasn’t a bad place to pick up some trinkets that’d sell at the market, mind, pilfering them from boats as they ferried those patrons too good to soil their boots on the roads. They could grow as many posh gardens as they wanted, but London would always win out in the end, turning everything to mud and filth, swallowing whatever people tried to build on it.
A couple with a picnic sat next to a bandstand were distracted by each other and Sally started calculating the risk of a minor acquisition. The gardens were designed very sympathetically for the petty thief, or the swift murderer, with tall hedges and winding mazes, row and row of ornate flowers and colonnades of trees. Disappearing was easy.
Before she had a chance to formulate a plan she heard a shout from behind and turned to see the young man from earlier, pointing, clearly enraged and striding toward her. Somehow he had followed her. Abandoning any plans for new endeavours, instead she darted towards the nearest secluded corner, where she could turn a corner and vanish into a different part of the gardens.
As she raced across the lawn, holding her skirts to avoid tripping and falling, the trees began to sway in the wind, which had moments before been only a light breeze. The picnicking couple leapt up in surprise as their lunch was blown across the green. Leaves began to whip from trees, despite it being late-spring. Sally squinted as a black dot appeared in the air, small at first but growing rapidly. She couldn’t tell if it was tiny and close or larger and far away, as it defied any kind of definition. Larger and larger it grew, roughly circular but in a warped and uneven way, like a bubble on oily water. It engulfed the bandstand, tearing away stone and brick and earth. Sally watched as the woman tried to first save her picnic blanket, then her partner as he was lifted from the ground and sucked towards the black shape.
Grit and dirt filling her eyes, Sally didn’t think to run. She was frozen to the spot by the impossibility of what was before her. Her pursuer was closer to the terrible thing and had fallen to the ground, where he was digging his nails into the soil to prevent himself from being dragged closer. She would have succumbed to the black void as well, if it had not abruptly slowed its growth, half-embedded in the soil, wide enough that she couldn’t see both ends through the trees. Much of New Spring Gardens was gone. A black, indescribable shape loomed over Lambeth marsh.
The energy burst was easy to spot for Just Enough. Even for an AI as experienced as they were, it was enough to give them pause. Only for a millisecond, of course. After sending out a burst transmission to the network, they then wasted no time in identifying a host in the vicinity of the anomalous reading. After the unnecessary but polite and customary handshake, Just Enough downloaded into it and found themselves standing on a bridge in London.
A quick location check confirmed that it was Blackfriars, on the Thames. They’d never been to London before, not directly, and had arrived just in time to witness all the glass from the west-facing side of one of the river-front skyscrapers torn from the building and sent down to the roads below. Just Enough checked that emergency services were already en route, which they were.
The most interesting sight was beyond the buildings, set back from the river somewhat in what was supposed to be a residential area. Instead, there were a gaping black shape, emerging from the ground, in a warped oval shape. Its edges fluctuated slightly, as if other forces were pressing at its circumference.
Just Enough had never seen anything like it, nor had any other AI or human in 2342. Comparing multiple datasets and hypotheses shared over the network, they reached a theory that it was most likely a wormhole of some sort. A tear in space-time. Given that it had emerged in the middle of an estate of London houses it seemed unlikely to have originated there, certainly not deliberately. They wondered whether it was a local portal, meaning to elsewhere in the universe, or a trans-dimensional portal, meaning to parallel universes. That would be interesting.
Crossing the bridge to the south, Just Enough moved in for a closer look. That was when they realised there was a second portal, further to the west towards Waterloo Bridge.
Staggering from the destruction of the east quarter of the university, a student touched a hand to her head and felt blood. She stared at the black nothingness that now sat in the ruins of Kaenamor’s laboratory, feeling its energy pulling at them even though the wind had at last subsided. There was another disturbance, perhaps half a mile away.
Sitting down on a pile of rubble, the student rubbed at her eyes, wondering how it could have happened. Shifting her gaze upward, she frowned at a once-familiar constellation. Adding to the strangeness of that evening, she was almost certain that two stars had entirely vanished from the night sky.
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