The man who hacked the universe is said to have been an inconspicuous young geek who believed we lived in a simulation and wanted to prove it. He did and the simulation, now observed by an object from itself, was irreversibly altered by it. No one knows for sure whether he rewrote the underlying code subconsciously or on purpose. As if it mattered years later. People slowly accommodated like they always do. They learned positions of the cracks and the way they move. They learned and later also accepted that one wrong step might lead them to a different world entirely. They learned to be extremely careful.
Or chose the opportunity not to.
Since the other worlds and cracks between them formed, it was a dream or a nightmare of every writer to meet some of his characters. Sometimes both at the same time.
She felt it the same way. However, she wasn’t prepared at all for meeting one of them so soon and so unexpectedly – and for him saying just an hour later: “I know it sounds weird, but I must tell you: I dreamed about you.”
She blinked in utter surprise.
“Sometimes almost every night, then not in a year, then very often again… You must think me mad.”
“No, not at all.” Her throat was suddenly extremely dry. She had to cough to gather her voice back. “It’s just strange. I never expected this. I wonder if others did have such dreams too… You must understand:
While you dreamed about me, I thought a lot about you.”
Now it was his turn to look surprised. “You did?”
“Yes. You know… You know how it is about the worlds mixed, every remembered story existing at the same time somewhere…”
“You mean we are both characters from some book? That we are linked somehow, maybe supposed to meet for the story to happen?”
She shook her head. It took her still bigger effort to speak. “No. You had dreams about me. I thought about you. I… thought you.”
A second passed before a shocked look appeared in his eyes. “You…”
“I’m your… author.” Suddenly it became much easier, words ran quickly out of her mouth. “I never imagined I’d be telling you this so soon after we met but I often wondered how it would go if we ever ran into each other. I wrote your story. And couldn’t be more sorry for it. If it ever occurred to me that it could somehow really happen, I’d never put a word of it on paper. I am the reason why your life had the way it did, I led you to all that suffering. I’m sorry.”
He stared at her for very long while her innards shrank in tremor. Though she often imagined having this conversation, she was never sure about his reaction. Sometimes she thought he would feel an urge to kill her, but he was not that kind of character, he would never do such thing; so he would just walk away from her forever in fear that if he ever saw her again he might become someone else, someone he feared more than anything else. Or maybe he’d just shout at her in rage until he could feel no more anger and then he’d whisper his bitterness and hatred and wish he never met this dreadful woman.
“Don’t be,” he interrupted her train of thoughts.
He produced a faint smile. “Exactly. Don’t be sorry.”
Worlds merging with each other and colliding presented an excellent tourism opportunity. Brand new travel agencies emerged and offered taking you to the strangest places of your liking – as safely as possible, of course, but you still needed to sign a form relieving the agency from responsibility for your life and health.
However, one of the first tourists preferred to travel on his own. He let the madmen, adventurers and brave explorers to map some of the cracks first, then packed a bag and off he went. He only visited the places he wanted to see, the ones he liked. What would be the point of travelling to a sad dangerous world? He could have plenty of that at home.
He had a small list, some of the items already crossed out:
ancient Rome (not in Nero’s or Caligula’s era!),
He was delighted as he first saw the magnificent Tower of Arts really towering above the vast city. With some luck, he might have arrived here before Twoflower, which would make him the first tourist in this whole world!
When he arrived to the city, he knew immediately this was not the case. He saw the Watch, the modern Watch. Any chance of meeting Sam Vimes? He’d like that. He might stay longer to observe some of his adventures closely.
Maybe the irony was somehow built-in in this universe, but a moment later he found himself lying still on the street. A man was running away and someone was chasing him, a policeman. Oh, there he is, brilliant!
The tourist reached for his camera but could not hold his to his surprise.
There was a deep cough behind him.
“Oh,” managed the tourist, suddenly understanding all too well and strangely calm. “Never mind.
Nothing to do with it now, is there? And actually… I would’ve never had a chance of an afterlife in my original world. This might actually be very interesting.”
Though being dead still felt weird, he was becoming more and more excited about it.
The Lost Girl
She went through so many cracks that she could hardly remember her way back. Sometimes she felt happy somewhere and almost couldn’t bring herself to move on. Sometimes she ran or fought for her life. One day, she ate pheasants from a silver plate, the other, she slept under a bridge, hungry and scared.
She reminded herself not to stop.
For them, she’d cross all the seas of all worlds. She remembered them like it was yesterday she saw them last. How many months ago did they die? She almost lost her track of time. In some worlds, time just didn’t work the way she was used to.
After the accident, her therapist said she’d come to terms with it slowly. After all, there was no way of bringing them back to life. People died and it wasn’t always fair. That was life.
Except there was a way to bring them back. Only time travel didn’t exist in the original universe.
One night, she packed a few things and just went through the nearest crack with a single aim: Not to stop until she finds someone capable of not just traveling in time, but also traveling back in time in her universe. That unfortunately excluded most of time travel stories worlds. But she had hope anyway. It didn’t exclude one of the best known time-travel-possible worlds – one of the most powerful in human minds.
Back home before her voyage, she heard that only worlds that were remembered by humans at the time of cracks formation were brought to existence. Some of them were sort of compressed – the ones that could exist in the same universe did. She wasn’t sure whether it meant Annie Hall and The Squid and The Whale taking place almost simultaneously in the same New York as well as hundreds or thousands other stories but guessed it was at least a bit like this.
The universe she searched for could technically be compatible with just about any other but she felt it would stand on its own. No need to compress this one, not with so many people thinking about it.
And she knew that she might try to find it for decades and still not succeed. The human imagination was just too large for any one person to go through.
But she had hope and that was enough for now. Today, she went to sleep below a tall dark tower, determined to find a crack outside as soon as possible. However, she needed to rest now. She fell asleep almost immediately and dreamed about a strange whizzing sound and a big blue box magically appearing before her eyes.
“They always ask me why I joined the space program and trained to be an astronaut to spend a few dozen days a year on the ISS and have a faint hope of seeing Moon or even Mars someday – when I could have just found a crack leading somewhere else where space is not as out of reach as here. I could have joined some star fleet, visited strange new worlds, seen space battles or become an alien planet explorer.
So why didn’t I? It was easy.
I never liked the shortcuts. Sometimes you have to do things the hard way to learn something. It wasn’t about running about in fancy spacesuits. I wanted to push our own real-life space exploration forward. Ever since I was a child, I looked up to the stars and wished we’d reach them one day – but also knew that it would be at least centuries of hard work. Doing that, we could learn so much about the universe! When the cracks appeared, I was thirteen. I could have easily decided to try my best in another world.
I’ve never been in any. I’m very careful about the cracks. I’m just not interested in products of our fantasies, even if this universe, our universe, is just a long string of code too and perfectly comparable to them. To me, just this one is reality. I worked hard to become an astronaut, to sweat in the EVA suit while repairing the station or to make routine experiments in the small tin, looking at the Earth from above. And you know what? It feels fantastic.”
People are lazy. They like their certainty and comfort. Venturing where no one has been before? No, thank you, I’d rather read at home about it.
That’s what the crook thought when he eyed the line of aristocratic-looking young men, frowning a little. None of them fit the role he had in mind. Nevertheless, he might find some use for them. He didn’t find his Dorian Gray but with a little work could present Heathcliff, Henry Crawford or John Willoughby to the ladies eager to meet their favorite character but scared of going through the cracks to explore the many actual worlds of the stories.
Actually, the crook found that decision very sensible. You never knew for sure whether the crack didn’t change since the last time and you might very well end up in Alien instead of one of Jane Austen’s quiet little worlds.
“You,” he said eventually and pointed to a tall handsome man. “And you. The rest of you can go.”
The ladies would pay him well to bring the real literary gentlemen along for tea. But he felt an urge to expand, to offer them more. Austen or the Brontës were quite easy – and their fans of the type who didn’t try to find the characters in their own environment usually similarly easy to fool. He long wanted to find someone who could impersonate Dorian Gray and someone for Henry Wotton too; however, he was far from success. There was always something too earthly, too human about them – either they had signs of aging, or looked like they went through a cosmetic surgery. None of them was perfect. None even approximated the look of a beautiful man whose picture aged instead of him.
He’d never admit it, but he was fascinated by this character ever since he read the book as a teenager. But deceiving those who shared his fascination was no big deal; on the contrary, he could understand them and sort of help them – they’d never know it was just an illusion. Like a picture.
He was thinking about that while taking his usual stroll home. But there was a diversion; one street was closed because of a gas leak. He absentmindedly chose another way, a small dark alley. When thinking later about it, he wasn’t sure he saw it ever before.
He went around the corner and suddenly realized the street smelled wrong. Modern London, his London, smelled like cars. This one didn’t at all.
Before he gathered enough conscience to turn and run back, a young man emerged from a shabby door, followed by a faint whiff of opium. The man looked at him coldly. His face was like carved from the finest marble.
“Oh no,” the crook whispered. He blinked. When he opened his eyes again, the unworldly beautiful man was gone. But the smell of smog, horses, piss and cigarettes remained. He turned his back and ran back to the crack – but it wasn’t there. Or was it just a bit elsewhere?
He spent many hours searching frantically before he admitted he’d become a prisoner of this world, at least for some time.
His business at home would come to an end. His flat – what would happen to it? And his car? Could he ever again spend a holiday on sunny Mallorca?
The crook looked around desperately. Old London from fiction. It was worse than prison.
Suddenly his face enlightened. He knew this London. He knew Gray and Wotton and Hallward and others. With a little luck, he might use his knowledge.
Enough deceiving gullible old ladies. This time, he’d find a truly grand mark.
Ever since she was a little girl, as she read stories, watched movies or learned history, she wished she could just go to the characters or the long-dead people and tell them to beware dangers that would kill them later – or even save their lives personally.
There were plenty of stories constructed around famous historical personalities. She started with them. She told Abraham Lincoln to duck. She brought Mozart modern medicine. She stole all Isadora Duncan’s scarves one morning. And she had a pleasant warm feeling that she was gradually making the worlds better places.
One day, she was hidden behind a car parked by the street, waiting for another one of her small victories to appear. There he was! And now she also could see the car that would hit and kill him.
Before she could run to him and push him away from the approaching car, she saw a fast movement.
Another girl ran there quickly – and just in time, she got them both to safety.
The savior froze. “Oh my god,” she exhaled hoarsely.
It was her. She just saw herself saving the man from his otherwise certain death. The same face, the same hair, even the same clothes.
How was it possible? She was just one person, herself, an original, end of discussion! But she knew what she saw. She couldn’t have been mistaken.
Am… am I a character? she thought dreamily. Only fiction. Someone’s girl who wished to save people.
She came to life – and fulfilled her crazy wish. And two or more worlds originated around her… Or they didn’t originate around her at all.
She was… just a setting.
Nonetheless, settings were allowed to live their own stories now too. She smiled a little with that thought.
In some of the unending rumors, the man who hacked the universe committed suicide shortly after his discovery – erased his subroutine, some would say. Others would strongly argue that he spent the rest of his life running through countless worlds, chased by those who hated him for the change he triggered and eventually hunted down like a desperate animal.
Or he found some secluded place where he lived alone, a strange modern hermit, haunted by his own guilt.
But what if he didn’t feel guilty at all? For all we know, he might have been proud of his doing. Being a loner loving his favorite fictional universes before, he might well have wished for them to come to life.
Then he’d go there and live happily ever after.
Or not. The characters who learned the truth about the worlds sometimes questioned themselves. So did I behave like this because some screenwriter told me so? And now I wonder whether it made sense…
Suicides or rebellions were common among them.
He might have found himself in the middle of one. He’d explain in vain that people loved them this way. Now it was their turn to do what they wanted. And the hacker would end up sad, desperate and sorry.
Again – or not. Some people imagine him picturing himself as a leader of the ultimate rebellion, a liberator of whole universes of poor slaves.
And maybe–just maybe–he lived a different kind of story entirely.
Julie Novakova was born in 1991 in Prague, the Czech Republic. She works as a writer, evolutionary biologist and occasional translator. So far, she has published five novels and more than thirty short stories in Czech, and three stories in English. Besides speculative fiction, she regularly writes nonfiction, usually concerning either science and technology or publishing. She’s a severe were-workaholic (which means that most of the time she’s quite lazy and she magically transforms the night before deadline). Her website is http://www.julienovakova.com
Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center