SE
Between Worlds
A short illustrated story

A few years from now, somewhere in a distributed Metaverse...

Qadun is in his favorite state of mind: fully awake but relaxed, unperturbed by thought or emotion, extending his senses outward, into the landscape around him, becoming one with it.

Sky. Rocks. Sea, glittering and ever changing, murmuring and whispering to him... He closes his eyes and lets the sound of breaking surf gently rock his consciousness.

As wave after wave sweeps in from the bay, time collapses to an eight-second loop on endless repeat.

Wave. After wave. After wave.

A young woman's cheerful voice snaps him back to linear time: "Hi! Is this your place?"

Startled, he breaks out of his meditation pose and turns around. She is traditionally attired in an embroidered Han-style dress reaching all the way down to her heels, tied around her slim waist with a silk girdle. Her delicate Asian features are framed by a cascade of jet black hair and crowned by a bun at the back of her head.

"Hello" he says, getting on his feet. "No, I am just a visitor. And you are the first person I've ever seen here! Besides me, I mean. Have you been here before?"

She shakes her head, a hint of puzzlement in her smile as she looks him over. The voice is a man's, but the creature standing in front of her is definitely not human. Bipedal, little more than half a meter tall, with a flat, ridged head, short but muscular limbs, powerful claws, undersized bat wings and a segmented body extending into a long, curled tail. Thick, yellow plates on the front; scales everywhere else, shifting from black on the sides to cobalt blue on back and tail, spiky and glittering like metal. Unmistakably reptilian, with yellow eyes and slit pupils, he looks like an oversized, armored newt with avian aspirations.

"I just got here. Where are we?"

Qadun shrugs apologeticaly. "As far as I can tell, at the site of an ancient Greek or Roman settlement, on an island somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean... I guess."

"You just found it too?"

"A few months ago. I've been exploring it. By the way, I am Qadun."

"Pleased to meet you, Qadun. You can call me Li Chi."

"Like the fruit?"

"Ha, not quite. Like the princess from the Yung mountains."

"Never heard of her, I'm afraid." Quadun bows slightly. "My apologies, Princess Li Chi, I am but an ignorant basilisk."

"It's an old legend involving a giant serpent", she says. "You don't eat princesses, do you?"

"Uh, no. I do like princesses, but... not that way."

"Glad to hear it. Just call me Chi, then. By the way, does 'Qadun' mean anything?"

"No idea. I got it from a web site with a dragon name generator."

Chi's smile grows to a broad grin, but her voice is warm. "Sorry I asked... Is there anything to see here?"

"Plenty if you like Greco-Roman mosaics, urns and statues. Most of them badly broken."

"Any interesting buildings?"

"Mostly ruins. Except for one, but it's not really a building, more like an open-sky amphitheater... with a twist."

"A twist?"

"A stellarium, I think. It's over there, on the promontory." He looks over his left shoulder and points toward the sea.

"Ah yes, I think I see it. So close to the landing point that new arrivals can hardly miss it."

Qadun looks straight at her again. "Were you expecting something harder to find? A puzzle, maybe?" Had he been equipped with eyebrows, one of them would be raised now.

"Either that or something extraordinary", she says. Then, after an almost imperceptible pause: "No offense."

He flicks his cloven tongue between gaping jaws, as in a silent laugh. "None taken. So you solved the moon lander problem?"

"Moon lander? No, nothing like that. Is that how you ended up here?"

"Yes. An Apollo LEM at the Space Museum. Punch in an AGC program to land it safely, ride it down, and you step out where you are standing now."

"Who would have thought", she exclaims. "A basilisk hacker!"

"Basilisk hatchling. We are renowned for our technical prowess." He hints again at a bow, little more than a slow nod this time.

"Of course", says Chi, managing to make it sound like the most obvious thing in the world.

Qadun doesn't skip a beat. "May I ask how you got here?"

"I was touring Uraniborg. Have you been there?"

"Sounds familiar, but..." He tilts his head, as if to peer behind her.

"A reconstruction of Tycho Brahe's observatory. The famous 17th century astronomer?"

"Ah yes, now I remember. So it was an astronomical puzzle?"

"A set of observations in the logbook on his desk, missing times and dates. I computed them, completed the logbook entries... and was teleported here the moment I finished the last one."

"That must have taken quite a bit of work."

"Probably less than coding up a lunar landing", she volunteers. "There's standard software, it just takes a little scripting to drive it."

"An astronomer princess. Now that's something!"

She smiles again. "Speaking of which: want to show me the stellarium?"

"With pleasure", says Qadun. "Follow me."

He turns around and bounces toward the sea on stiff legs, long spiky tail swinging behind him. She suppresses a giggle and follows, making sure to stay well clear of the spikes.

The amphitheater is surrounded by the sea on three sides. It has been carved out from the rock at the end of a round promontory. The entrance opens into the top seating tier, in front of a stairway descending to the stage. Three more stairways at right angles from each other delimit four seating sections in a classic sunwheel layout.

As they walk down the stairs, Li Chi notes the many signs of time's passage. Seats and steps are worn down or broken. Only one thing does not seem to have been exposed to millennia of wear and tear: a black sphere, about ten meters in diameter, standing at the center of the stage. As they approach, it remains perfectly smooth to the eye. There are no struts or other visible support elements. Instead, the bottom half meter of the sphere seems to have been cut off or sunk into the ground.

"This is the stellarium?", she asks. "Where is the entrance?"

"None needed. It's a phantom sphere", says Qadun and steps right through it.

She tracks the swinging tip of his tail until it too vanishes into the sphere, but sees no sign of it moving lower. Flat bottom, she decides. Then she turns her attention back to the sphere's surface, and can not contain her surprise: "Neat!"

Qadun's voice is loud and clear, unaffected by the phantom object surrounding him: "Care to join me?"

"Just a moment", she says. "I want to see the rest of the map."

"You have a map?"

"On the sphere...", she begins. Then it hits her: "Oh, didn't you know? The sphere is an Earth globe. It lit up when you entered. Except... it's not Earth."

Qadun's head pops back out. "I had no idea. I guess it turns off when I exit."

"Yes, it does", says Chi, looking again at a perfectly smooth, black surface. "Please step back in. No, wait. Let me throw you a camfeed first."

He watches her tap her left forearm a few times, the telltale sign that she is using a standard arm-mounted touch display, invisible to all but her, and glances down at his own. Her invitation is already there, flashing slowly. He taps 'Accept', and the back of the screen sinks into his scaly arm, turning into a rectangular box filled with a miniature replica of what she sees. Rather than keep staring down at it, he grips the edges of the box, detaches it from his arm, and moves it to the upper left quadrant of his field of view.

"Ready", he says.

"All right, in you go again."

Qadun steps back into the sphere and watches the camera view of its exterior light up. It is indeed a map, with blue oceans and continents in shades of brown and green. "You're right", he says. "It looks nothing like Earth."

Chi is walking around the sphere now, gradually climbing the stairs to see the whole map. "Not the way it is now anyway", she says. "Maybe in the far past, or far future."

"Continental drift? How long would that take?"

"Not really my field but... hundreds of millions of years, I think. I can look it up later."

The camera image stops moving. She is standing at the amphiteater's entrance again, looking down at the sphere from the highest ring of seats.

"Want to see the stars?", he asks.

"Yes, I think I have the whole globe recorded now."

He detaches the camfeed, drags it back down to his arm-mounted display, trashes it, and looks up again just in time to see her slender figure emerge from the starfield in front of him. She steps closer, then starts turning slowly to take in the view. Looking up, with her arms slightly raised as if to touch the stars surrounding her, she almost seems to dance in slow motion.

"So pretty", she says, smiling.

"See anything familiar?"

"Um... no. This is not Earth's sky". She is pensive now.

"Far past or far future again?"

"Either that or another planet."

"I guess that's your puzzle right there", he says. "Think you can figure it out?"

"If it's Earth within a few hundred thousand years, probably. But that wouldn't fit the continents outside. And if it is another planet... hopeless." She shakes her head.

"Wouldn't the constellations look the same anywhere in the solar system?"

"Sure, I mean a planet orbiting another star. There is nothing this Earth-like nearby, other than Earth itself."

"Maybe there was, or will be?"

"Possibly Venus, millions of years ago." She looks down, frowning, and freezes. "Hey, we are falling!"

Qadun follows her gaze. The floor is flat but transparent, and the sphere extends below it to provide a fully omnidirectional view of space. Where there had previously only been stars, a planet with blue oceans and continents in familiar shades of brown and green is now rapidly growing larger.

"That's odd", he says. "I've never seen that before... oh wait, I have! Please come with me."

With sudden urgency, he exits the sphere. Moments later, they are both back outside, in the amphitheater.

"I think I know what that is now", says Qadun. "It's not a stellarium, it's a lander."

"Like the lunar module you hacked?"

"Yes. If we ride it down to the surface, I'm pretty sure we'll end up on that planet. Ancient Venus or whatever it is."

"Great!", exclaims Chi. "Let's go!"

"Wait. I've had more time than you to think about this, and I have some concerns. May I explain?"

She gives him a puzzled look. Then she nods. "Sure, go ahead."

He sits down on the floor, facing the sphere. She sits down beside him, legs neatly folded under her gown.

"First of all, somebody put a lot of work into this. I've been exploring the place for months, and it's very detailed, ridiculously so if its only purpose is to be a vestibule of sorts. And then there are the puzzles. We stumbled upon two of them, but there may be more. Even just those two must have taken significant effort to create and put in place."

"So you're saying this is not some lone hacker's work", she interjects. "There is a company behind it. That's not surprising, is it?"

"A company or some other kind of organization. Not surprising by itself, but... sorry if saying this gets us disconnected or something... they have gone to great lengths to conceal their identity."

"Oh?"

"There is nothing to identify them here, none of the usual embedded terms of use and copyright notices. And the server is effectively impossible to trace. Every time I try, and I have tried many times, I hit a firewall at a new location, often in a new country. I can see more net hops behind it, but everything is masked. All I know is that they either operate a very large number of identical servers or they are hiding behind a very large number of proxies, spread out all over the world."

"So it's a shady organization with resources. And you think they are monitoring everything we say and do."

Qadun nods. "That was my second point. Third... and I'm glad we are still here... the 'stellarium' only revealed its true function when you arrived. I was stuck, but the mystery and level of detail kept me coming back. I think this place was designed to make me wait for you. And I bet that if you step into that sphere alone, it won't go anywhere until I join you. Whoever did this wanted to create a team with a specific set of properties."

"Namely?"

"Interest in space and maybe history seem obvious. I would also guess above average curiosity, tenacity, complementary technical knowledge... and probably something else. Let's call it compatibility."

"You mean psychologically?"

"Yes. How would you say that we're getting along?"

She hesitates. "So far so good."

"See? For me, that's high praise. If there ever was an archetypal solitary nerd, that's me. I was happy to spend months exploring this place on my own. Then you invaded my little kingdom of one and... it's been what, half an hour? And I still haven't bitten your head off!"

Lower, as if slightly embarrassed by this turn of events, he adds: "I think I'm even beginning to like you."

"Thank you", she says quietly. "You're not so bad either... for a basilisk, I mean."

"Much obliged, Princess. But from the point of view of our mysterious hosts, how special would you say that you are?"

She laughs. "Special? Me? Not at all!"

Qadun speaks with emphasis now: "You may want to give that some more thought. They could be targeting something about you, like your job or some particular expertise you have."

She shakes her head. "I really can't think of anything. Look, I might as well tell you, I am an astronomy grad student. That's about as practically useless as you can get in science. I can't build nukes or anything."

"Then", he says, "I think there may be other teams. That would explain the large number of vestibules. Each one may be keeping a candidate busy until a suitable match gets through the puzzle filter."

She tries on the idea for size. "Multiple teams created in parallel... yes, that would make sense. Try different team compositions, see what works best for whatever it is that they want us to do. Maybe we'll meet them as competitors."

"Quite possible. Or maybe the next step is more puzzles and we'll end up merging with another team."

"Multi-stage team building? I suppose." She looks him in the eye. "Are you sure that you are not the special one?"

"Heh. Quite sure. I am just a nerd with a lively imagination."

"All of this was born out of somebody's imagination", she says.

He nods. "And, this is what I'm getting at, we don't know why. Maybe it's an online recruitment scheme. Software companies and intelligence organizations have been running those for years. But I've never seen one as elaborate as this. Or maybe it's a reality show. Watch teams of geeks explore an alien world and race each other to discover its secrets."

"Wouldn't we have heard of it?"

"Not if they are just recording it now and plan to air it later. Would you be comfortable with that?"

She looks unconvinced. "I am pretty sure they would need our consent first. No way around it if they want to get paid, they can't stay anonymous at that point."

"Probably. It's all conjecture though. We really don't know what's behind all this, or what will happen if we step back into that sphere."

She thinks about it for a moment, then stands up. "That's what makes it exciting. I still want to go."

"In that case... ". Qadun taps his left forearm. "That's a throwaway email account I just created. I assume that our mysterious hosts can read our text messages while we are on their servers, so I will only use it once and then delete it. Since I'm being paranoid, please use your phone or another computer, not the one you are connected with, to send me an email from a trusted account. Ideally a new one which our hosts couldn't know about. Write a few words for me to include when I reply, so you can recognize my answer easily. I'll reply from a new account of my own, and then we'll have a communication channel which they hopefully can't monitor."

"Email? Really? How old are you, exactly?"

"Ancient", he answers dryly. "I still keep my first clay tablet in a drawer. Don't worry, you can give me a chat link and whatnot in your next mail."

"All right, give me a minute... there. Got it?"

"Checking... yes. Throwaway account deleted, reply sent from new account."

"Waiting for it... there you are. All right, we're all set."

He stands up. "Last chance to bail out."

"After all this trouble? No way!"

"OK then...". He walks up to the sphere and waits.

"Come on, sidekick!", she says, and rushes right past him.

Qadun rolls his slitted eyes, sighs, and follows her into the sphere.

Afterword

Qadun's appearance is based on the Basilisk Hatchling avatar created by Second Life user Daryth Kennedy (pseudonym). The basilisk is commonly known as a legendary reptile "reputed to be king of serpents and said to have the power to cause death with a single glance", but in cyberpunk literature it can also be an image capable of inducing lethal reactions in those who look at it, a device first introduced by David Langford in BLIT and later used by Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash (which in turn inspired the creation of Second Life).

Li Chi's appearance was chosen to (as far as possible) fit the look of a young, unmarried, somewhat tomboyish, Chinese princess from the Han era. She wears a Han dress made by Second Life user comilla1023 (pseudonym) and "Abelli" hair by Second Life user Kateforster Akina (pseudonym). Li Chi's name is borrowed from the serpent slayer of the ancient Chinese legend mentioned in the story.

Landscape, buildings and 3D scenes were created and photographed in OpenSim using the Firestorm viewer. Firestorm was also used to photograph avatars against neutral (uniformly white) backgrounds in Second Life (legal note: Linden Lab's Snapshot and machinima policy grants a license to use snapshots "within or outside of Second Life in any current or future media"; the photographer owns the copyright). The images were edited, composited and processed using GIMP to create the final, cartoon style illustrations.

The sketch of an Apollo Lunar Excursion Module was created by passing a snapshot of a 3D model through Artify and manually cleaning up the result in GIMP. The drawing of Uraniborg is a minimally processed public domain photo of a copper etching from the 1663 Blaeu's Atlas Major. These less realistic styles were chosen to fit the nature of the illustrations: memories recounted by the characters rather than parts of the scene.

The web page where it all comes together uses Pure.css.

The whole process began by dreaming up the (intentionally open-ended) plot and writing the story (in English, past tense) during the Christmas holiday of December 2016. I then translated the text to Swedish (still in past tense), assembled the assets for the avatar images, did initial photography in Second Life, built the 3D scenes in OpenSim, and went through several rounds of photography and compositing. Final selection of the illustrations and integration with the text began a few days into the new year, at which point I realized that present tense works much better for an illustrated story. If you find spots where the text suddenly switches to past tense, it means that I missed them during the ensuing revision.

Finally, after it was all done, it occurred to me that a mysterious black object perfectly embodying an elementary geometric shape, "full of stars" and capable of transporting travelers to other worlds, has previously graced the annals of Science Fiction. But at least it wasn't spherical, and I don't think it ever displayed maps.


Tommy Anderberg
January 10, 2017
(Retouched May 14, 2017)