A Faulty Universe Begins Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE: PARTIAL DECLUTTER

Merlavin, Anon, Western Borderworlds, Leffon

 

IN A WORKSHOP AT THE BACK OF A HOUSE in a remote cloud forest, Tolbert Shimble looked up from the space compactor he was testing. He took off his engineering spectacles and closed his eyes. ‘If I’m not mistaken, there’s a muffled but persistent beeping coming from the other side of the room. Do you hear it?’ he asked the thin blue line that hovered before him. Waves of blue spread up and down from the line, matching the voice of his bodiless friend, SID.

 

‘It’s a warning from CD-Help,’ SID informed him. The holographic waveform that was her preferred method of communication remained a steady presence above Tolbert’s eyes and ahead of him just enough to be out of the way. It settled into a pale blue line, indicating that she was calm.

 

‘CD? It can’t be!’ Tolbert sat up straight so quickly he nearly fell off the stool.

 

‘It is.’ SID inhabited System so could easily and assuredly verify the data. Her volume remained even so the waveform didn’t peak or dip but it reddened slightly in response to Tolbert’s reaction then settled back into a thin blue line slightly darker than usual that vibrated slightly, revealing a mild discomfort.

 

‘You’ve been wrong before,’ said Tolbert.

 

‘When?’ The waveform cast a brief wave of questioning orange upwards.

 

Tolbert couldn’t recall a time, but there must have been one because, as SID often pointed out, she wasn’t perfect.

 

‘The pinned signal reads: New Active Cosmo Dome,’ SID notified.

 

‘A new Cosmo Dome?’ It had been a while since Tolbert had thought about his biosphere game. Inventing it had made quitting his job as senior lecturer in biotech gamestry worthwhile in many ways. It was still unfathomable that he’d invented something that expressed itself so complexly.

 

‘Not a new one. A newly activated one.’ SID’s waveform transitioned through shades of blue and occasionally green.

 

SID was pedantic about semantics and Tolbert had been in too many pointless arguments with her to bother explaining that was not what he meant. ‘Thank you, SID,’ he said instead. ‘Is there a serial ID?’

 

‘Yes, but it’s scrambled.’

 

‘Scrambled?’

 

‘It seems so.’

 

Tolbert got off the stool and turned in tight circles around it. ‘The passcode to the CD mainframe is failsafe.’

 

‘The automated system is offline.’ SID liked telling Tolbert things he didn’t know. It informed him and she liked being involved. It made them both feel necessary, which shifted the day’s fulfillment meter into the green, which meant they would play puzzles later. ‘You will have to use your DNA code.’

 

Great, thought Tolbert. That meant finding the darned mainframe.

 

‘You should find the mainframe.’

 

‘I know, I know!’

 

SID’s waveform reflected his elevated emotions with contrasting colours that fleetingly peaked and dipped. Tolbert fidgeted, as he was prone to when frazzled. Deep breaths helped.

 

SID waited until Tolbert calmed, then said, ‘Also, you should wrap the space compactor in filmshield if you’re not going to finish stabilising it right away.’

 

‘Good point.’

 

Tolbert immediately got to wrapping the contraption and was glad he’d decided to make it lightweight and unremarkable. The deliberate design decision was to conceal its true power. Hopefully no one would notice a handheld disc that looked like a sport or leisure device. It was best that no one knew its potential, which he himself was still discovering. It wasn’t uncommon for his inventions to evolve beyond his expectations and find a use more than was immediately obvious. At its most fundamental level, the device nullified weight and mass to transport physical forms through compacted space then out the other side depending on the set coordinates. It was a handy though risky venture. The process involved extreme temporary DNA fusions and playing around with space meant tampering with the layers of reality. Even for a genius with an enigmatic AI assistant, it was a hazardous undertaking that could yield unexpected results so stabilising it was crucial. Worst case scenario, an accidental bump could destroy worlds. Best case, a small explosion meant cleaning up knotted DNA strands for hours and hours which was not how he wanted to spend his down time.

 

He considered the boxes, cabinets, cupboards, tools, and equipment that stretched to the walls and halfway to the ceiling. His eyes didn’t wander far from his nose and the workshop was almost as large as his house. It was enough of a squeeze getting to his workbench every morning. Finding the mainframe could take days. Centuries of clutter that wasn’t budging after one shove from a wiry man who spent his days hunched over a workbench tinkering. He should get out more, enjoy his solitary life on a mountain away from the modern world. There was no point living in nature if he never even noticed it.

 

‘How did it get so bad?’ he wondered out loud.

 

‘It’s organised mess.’ SID assured him. As one who saw order in chaos, by her own words, it was unfathomable.

 

‘There’s nothing organised about it.’

 

‘You know where everything is,’ SID pointed out.

 

‘Only what I need, and I haven’t needed anything game-related for quite some time.’

 

SID considered the issue. Tolbert liked to see all sides of something, and he strived for objectivity, so SID tended to indicate pros and cons in equally pleasant tones. Today held few pros but having a dilemma unrelated to gadgets was a nice change. The problem was that Tolbert didn’t like to throw things out. ‘The problem is you don’t throw things out.’

 

‘Everything is useful. Just sometimes not right away. The moment you dispose of something is when you need it.’

 

‘Except that you’ve kept everything and now you can’t find any of it. Or move.’ Not wanting to upset him further, SID kept her tone pleasant.

 

Tolbert thought on it some more. ‘I’ll move everything out, then sort through it later and throw out anything I haven’t used in over a century.’

 

‘Last time you accidentally threw out your favourite tools.’

 

The tools were a point of contention between them. ‘Just because I haven’t found them doesn’t mean they’ve been thrown out.’

 

‘That is precisely why it is reasonable to assume that they were,’ SID rationalised.

 

Tolbert sighed. He had much to do and now the new Cosmo Dome alert would eat into his schedule and he liked to be efficient with his time and energy. He didn’t need an AI being too rational with him right now, and yet, he did. When SID had first spoken to him via System, it had seemed less like a malfunction and more like a miracle. Starved of company, her arrival had been well-timed and appreciated. Tolbert often speculated on her origins as she had no memory of before. Whether she was a supernatural being or an accidental program, either way, her friendship and guidance kept him sane and focussed. She had accepted his invitation to be his System Integration Director and had decided on the female gender and for her name to be an acronym of her title.

 

SID was adaptable and tenacious, but she didn’t cope well with change and functioned best in a state of high stability, which explained her opposing position on the topic of cleaning. Ever since SID had integrated with System, Tolbert refused to tamper with the previously inanimate processor. Instead, he added reaction sensors so she could determine her own responses. Everyone deserved to choose their relationship with reality. Only half-joking, he’d labelled the sensors, ‘Personality’. Pleased to have the freedom to express herself SID employed the waveform to accompany an audio voice.

 

While ever helpful, even SID had limits. The tools might will be gone forever but Tolbert could at least work on his clutter issues, if only temporarily to find the mainframe. He couldn’t help wondering which Cosmo Dome model it was and who’d activated it.

 

‘There’s a high probability that it’s the glitchy one,’ SID answered as though she’d read Tolbert’s thoughts. Tolbert often wondered if she could, but SID never gave a direct response when Tolbert asked about it.

 

‘That’s highly improbable.’ Tolbert had invented six Cosmo Dome models in total. Jinverse was the first model and the fastest to build. Thousands had been created, and it was relatively easy to find an unplayed one. Bonverse’s release came soon after. It was so well received, a second batch of them were made, and they were easy enough to find on most marketplaces. Thalverse had a design flaw and was recalled, but Version 2.0 had made it in the Top Ten Biosphere Games list of its century. You could find one if you knew where to look. Wellaverse was a little harder to acquire. An equipment failure during production meant not as many were made in time for its release. Essaverse was quite rare but not impossible to secure. Before its release, word got around that it was going to be the last model. It was about that time that collectors began to show an interest in the game. Tolbert and serious Domers blamed the unsubstantiated rumour for it.

 

The first five models had taught Tolbert everything he needed to know to invent the sixth and final biosphere, Universe. To the frustration of Cosmo Dome enthusiasts, it took almost a century to invent and then another to wipe out all the flaws. Instead of churning out clones to meet demand like he’d done with the others, he lovingly raised Universe from a primary source. Out of the thirteen handcrafted biospheres, twelve had withered and one had disappeared from the game subsystem a few years after release. Tolbert figured it was lost. While Universe was his best work, each unique version had its weak point, which is why no one in the one hundred centuries since its release, had completed one. Twelve players had come and gone. To their own detriment, not one had overcome the glitch.

 

‘What makes you think it’s a Universe?’ he asked SID.

 

‘The Gorgon collector needs one to complete his set.’

 

‘I’ve asked you many times not to talk about him,’ Tolbert turned his back on SID’s waveform which served no purpose as it simply reappeared in front of him wherever he went, unless he turned System off.

 

It was a gesture not lost on her. ‘You asked,’ SID pointed out. ‘I have proof if you’re interested, or I can disregard my primary functions, switch off, and leave you to it.’

 

‘No need to pout. I just need a moment.’

 

Tolbert pushed his chair back from the workbench and glanced into the middle distance which wasn’t that far away. The clutter that had taken him centuries to collect now almost reached his workbench on three sides. The fourth held equipment in varying stages of production. Tolbert used to keep his workshop tidy, but at some point in the last century he’d stopped noticing it. By the time he'd noticed, it was clear he’d lost the battle with the clutter.

 

Squeezing through the mess, Tolbert headed for the door. Stepping over, ducking under, and avoiding sharp corners he took the tight path around and over boxes, crates, machinery and paraphernalia, until he was outside. In the garden he wandered for some fresh mountain air. Even after almost a century, he still thought about the day Boss King’s retrieval squad broke into his home. They wouldn’t believe that he didn’t have a spare Universe even when he’d explained it was a limited-edition series so he didn’t have a supply of them packed away in boxes ready to ship to the store. Worrying about his past choices was a habit he was yet to break. He couldn’t shake the feeling that the new Cosmo Dome alert was a sign that he had to right his wrongs. He breathed in the mountain air and watched the birds frolic in the canopy then returned to the workshop a little less agitated.

 

‘You’re safe,’ SID reassured him when he stepped back inside. ‘They’re all safe.’

 

‘Yes, thank you, SID.’ Tolbert would have spent the rest of his current life rehabilitating it hadn’t been for her sending a timely alert to the authorities. He was eternally grateful that his most recent wife and their child hadn’t been home. No day ended before he pictured them living happily in the home he’d organised for them on a safer world. Leaving for Anon in the middle of the night had been a desperate move that he’d regretted for many years. At the time, he thought it best to ensure their continued wellbeing at his own expense. It was the least he could do. Despite missing them every day, living in the remote cloud forest had turned out to be quite a pleasant existence and not the severe isolation he’d expected, mostly due to SID.

 

He squished his eyes shut trying not to think about all he’d lost, reminding himself that renouncing society and leaving behind everyone and everything related to Cosmo Dome was for the best. ‘You said something about proof?’

 

SID broadcast a newsfeed dated a few years back that had a ‘viewer discretion advised’ warning. ‘It’s from a Gorgon tabloid so its highly offensive.’

 

Boss King: Gnarly Tormenter or La-di-da Dweeb? The bold yellow text on the newsreader appeared over a less than flattering image of Boss King surrounded by Leffel relics that were clearly superimposed. There was a time when just the mention of Boss King would send shivers up your spine,’ the newsreader continued, ‘but not since he swapped his gun for a polishing cloth. Boss King’s obsession with useless Leffel posh crap has turned him soft. The once unbeatable master of destruction has lost out to Boss Queen and ex-wife, Giorana, who got some sweet and nasty revenge after Boss King screwed around on her. The farkable hottie staged an auction for the last piece in a collection he’s wasted three centuries searching for, just so she could outbid him with his own money and sell it back to a farking Leffel! Full points to Boss Queen for outsmarting our rubbish leader who obviously doesn’t give a crap that his Empire is crumbling. Shit hasn’t been going down for a long time, and word on the street is there’s a new player in town who calls themselves the Challenger. Vote now if you want whoever the fark that is to take down Bossy King and seize the Empire!

 

Tolbert noticed the source was the Gorgon Goss, the worst of the worst tabloids. ‘It’s a dubious news source,’ he said to SID. ‘Any verification?’

 

SID broadcast a series of shorter articles from validated sources that confirmed Boss King had attended an auction and lost out on the purchase of a Leffel artifact to his ex-wife.

 

‘Maybe it’s an angle,’ Tolbert mused. ‘The guy’s a notorious liar who would say anything to get attention.’

 

‘He’s also a notorious Gorgon with a massive ego whose worst fear would be looking weak in front of his enemies.’ Under the influence of the reaction sensors, SID’s tone was less animated than usual. Her waveform remained a subdued rather than fiery shade of red.

 

‘Good point.’ Tolbert recalled hearing something about Giorana being the brains behind the brawn of the Empire, so it made sense. The impression he got from his own harrowing encounter with Boss King was that he was a callous bully. There was no way Tolbert would have supplied him with a Universe even if he had one to give. Boss King had already destroyed one of every other Cosmo Dome, except for the Universe. ‘Who could have anticipated that anyone, least of all a Gorgon tyrant, would want to keep a set of biospheres that have had their ability to grow taken from them?’ he said to himself. ‘I didn’t invent them to trap life inside a moment and keep in a case to admire.’ He wandered up and down in front of shelves of inventions, thinking out loud and then stopped in his tracks staring absently ahead, oblivious to SID’s waveform right in front of him.

 

Via System, SID processed quickly but

 

Tolbert hadn’t uploaded the game’s logbook into System, so she didn’t know its full history. She took a moment to respond then gently asked, ‘How did it happen?’ She could support him better with all the information.

 

Tolbert didn’t want to admit the foolish mistake, but knew it was better to do so. ‘A Stop command was mistakenly included in the creation code which made it possible for a Cosmo Dome to be prematurely terminated. I suspect it was out of morbid curiosity that someone discovered that disconnecting the main components preserves the biosphere in that state forever, never able to evolve. It’s a tragedy.’

 

SID’s waveform quivered then turned deep purple. After a suspended moment, she spoke softly, ‘All life sedated for eternity.’

 

‘Quite possibly. I’ve logged too many hours attempting to resolve the issue. The one small concession is that it only impacts the construction phase.’

 

‘Life is life,’ SID mused.

 

‘Exactly,’ Tolbert concurred.

 

With a lot to process, SID’s waveform turned a rich shade of blue. ‘Boss King wouldn’t sever the biosphere from its power source before it was initiated,’ she said after a while.

 

Tolbert thought for a moment. ‘You’re right. He would initiate it first. In fact, he would wait until it was fully built before severing it. They’re worth more that way.’ It sickened him that Gorgon collectors valued severed biospheres over living ones.

 

‘Which means it could be him who has it.’

 

The beeping beacon continued.

 

‘You can’t ignore it,’ SID said.

 

‘No.’ Tolbert quite enjoyed tinkering away, inventing practical things. The many projects he still had yet to finish gave him a sense of purpose and meaning. He liked seeing the shelves of inventions shift from design to product. Other than the space compactor he was also working on a haulage unit for a local transport company only needed some soldering and programming and it would be done. Then he had a wellbeing bot, water generator, time machine, threat detector, flora duplicator, and a simulation helmet to conceive. He could ignore the beep and keep the status quo – except he couldn’t. Some things you could put to rest, but this wasn’t one of them.

 

‘Why do you care so much about an old game?’ SID said, again with the mind-reading.

 

‘You’re doing that disciplined questioning thing again,’ said Tolbert, who knew she cared as much as he did. Life was important to them both.

 

‘Someone has to make you think about your motives.’

 

‘Thanks, but I don’t have to.’

 

‘You can’t change the past.’

 

‘No, but I can set things right.’ Tolbert switched off fans, engines, and anything that made a sound. The beep seemed to come from deep in the clutter, perhaps near the window on the western side.

 

‘It’s near the window on the western side.’ SID broadcast a coordinate plane with a calculation point of the beacon’s location.

 

‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ Tolbert mumbled to himself. ‘It’s probably a Jinverse or a Bonverse. Whatever the model, it will be nice to have a new one activated after all this time…’ He considered the stacks of boxes and equipment between him and the window and baulked at the mission ahead. The task seemed daunting, but he only had himself to blame.

 

‘You should utilise assistance to move them quickly,’ SID recommended.

 

‘I’ll be fine,’ said Tolbert who thought an activity would help to quell his regrets. He picked up the first box and carried it towards the door.

 

Before he stepped outside, SID’s waveform fluctuated in front of him. ‘Without employing assistance, the estimated probability of the day’s fulfilment meter reaching green is low to moderate.’ If SID could have sighed, she would have.

 

Tolbert shifted his weight to allow for the heavy box and did his best to determine the pretext of her words. ‘If this is about puzzles, then not tonight, SID. I’m afraid I won’t be able to focus. Finding the Cosmo Dome mainframe is far more important than entertainment.’

 

‘The game is entertainment,’ SID pointed out.

 

‘That’s true.’

 

‘But it’s more than that.’

 

‘So much more,’ Tolbert concurred and stepped outside.

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