From the cradle of civilization to the peaks of the Andes, from the primeval to the postmodern, would-be thieves have grappled with a consistent problem: how does one get into a locked room?
The only way to ensure success in my mission of bank robbery would be to consider the worst possible scenario. Lo! Chuck Norris has locked himself inside the Stars Hallow local bank vault. In one hand he wields a welding torch, which he uses to seal the entrance. Pow! In the other are three fists which spontaneously sprout from his palm. Also, mudslides have opened a sinkhole to the center of the Earth and that’s where the bank is now: floating in a sea of white-hot magma.
Burrowing Worboles of the Flesh-Eating Wormholes! Someone would have to be out of their mind to break into a place like that!
“Exactly.” My vast new horde of mild minions stood motionless. “Which is why the place will break into us!”
The Navens stared blissfully at me. Yes, you fools, don’t question it!
Leaning against the paper-towel dispenser, my second-in-command Jalas (a Novan scholar learn-ed in the art of Naven breeding and training) whispered a short prayer to herself. Crocodile tears. If we succeeded, there would no longer be a need to pray.
“War-mommy!” the station monitor choked. “The shiny light on the tunneling beam is red now! You said to tell you when that happened.”
“It’s war-master, but you can still have apple-drink because you tried.”
Miss Manners approves of positive reinforcement as a learning aid, after you get past her nihilistic rhetoric about shaking hands and bathing.
I turned my attention to the continuity accelerator. Blue light poured from its undercarriage, illuminating the ground under the crystal sink. A red light by the USB port signaled a new era in bank robbery, and the Navens fidgeted as if sensing the full scope of what they were witnessing; on the other hand, they had gone several hours without restroom breaks, despite our location.
“Fiddle those knobs! Twist them dials! We need precision, semi-people!”
“Warmaster,” Jalas nudged, “have you considered alternatives? Telekinesis? Underground tunnels? Bribing a guard?”
“All alternatives have been considered and rejected.”
“Warmaster, please! We’re about to open a hole in space and time, teleport ourselves outside the universe.” She shuddered at the accelerator. “It has never been attempted. No life can exist outside the universe, can’t you understand?!”
“That is why we’re wearing scuba gear, Jalas! This was all in the briefing I almost sent you.” I handed her a snorkel. “You should be more precognitive in the future. What number am I thinking of, you, you...”
“Who did you lose?”
It took the wind out of my argument. Dumbfounded fugue state. A distinct absence of thought plastered my faceplate as the question played over and over in my mind. “I’ve got a sick chimney, Jalas,” was all I could say.
She stared at me with kind eyes that held an inner and most excellent wisdom. “How did it happen?”
Doctors had asked me the same thing many times this year, but I’d evaded them all. I’d never felt comfortable with this topic before, but something in me just... let go.
“Last autumn a chimney sweep came by, charging reasonable rates... too reasonable, I guess...” Numbness. “There was a storm the previous week, and I wanted to be post-paired.” He never took off his boots. “There was something strange about him, but I let him in anyway. The smoke was white, Jalas. It was always black, but then it was white.”
“He never took off his boots.”
“No. He didn’t. I read up on it, after the winter ended, when the symptoms really started.” Hiccup! “It’s dying, Jalas. Brick by brick. No mason will touch it, no mortar will heal it. Can’t you see what’s at stake now?”
“You can’t be that selfish,” she scathed. “Risking the universe for one chimney?”
“It’s my chimney!” I shouted loud enough for the Navens to hear.
“Is everything all right in there?”
Jalas slapped a cold-blooded hand over my eyes, knowing that that’s how I really communicate: not through speech, but by facial ticks and gamuts. “Who’s there?”
The knocking stopped. “I’m Marvin Gale, the manager. Some customers complained that the door was stuck, are you all right in there?”
“The door is welded shut from the inside! An eye for an eye, eh, Chuck Norris? He sent you, didn’t he?!” No advisor would prevent me from exercising my right to free speech.
“I’m calling the police if you don’t come out in five minutes,” said this so-called ‘manager.’ What kind of manager didn’t carry a pulse cannon to enforce his will?
“Ignore him,” I held out my hand to the Navens. “The Manager is obviously one of those super-heroes trying to foil our plot. But Marvin Gale made one crucial mistake — he told us his secret identity. Full steam ahead!”
Sweet Passenger Pigeon of the Nexus Ribbon! I had preoccupied myself so much with my knaves that I’d overlooked the viper in my cuckoo’s nest. Just as my hand began the final initialization sequence, Jalas pitchforked me in the back!
Shock. There was a memory lapse, objects glided past my head. Brief disorientation; then sudden remembrance. Betrayed by Jalas? Why?!
“Jalas!” Wrenching the pitchfork from my spine, I acted quickly to dodge a rambunctious Naven as he swung a javelin unintelligently and laughed. “¿Qué es el dillio?”
She slammed the machine frantically. “The Sus idled while our people were subverted by the Calderans! Our credibility, our nobility, our future, all taken away — by you!”
Moi? I pointed to myself. “There must be some mistake, I’m perfect!”
“These! And these!” Documents appeared at her uniform’s hand-holes, shooting out like magicians’ bouquets. “Incontrovertible proof that you provided aid and comfort to Darl the Bloody in his coup! Thousands of Hinterlanders died at his hands. My people, shamed forever.”
“There’s not a violent bone in my body,” I protested, stabbing my pitchfork at a smiling Naven reaching for a hug. Miss Manners will have to bite the bullet on this one. “I resent this.”
I inched closer to the accelerator. Jalas wasn’t trained in quantum tomfoolery, and I much doubted anyone could stop the chain reaction at this point. The status indicator was almost green.
“Take my hand.” Waves of anger hit me. Daggers in her eyes! Fear, uncertainty and doubt! “It is far too late to stop it. Take my hand, and together our fingertips will kiss ever atom that has ever been born. Join in my chorus.”
Around us Navens danced in their carnal ignorance. Our eyes connected, reflected the paradox of grief. But I think we both knew our paths would never again converge.
The light blazed green.
Outside the Universe ±00:00
Mundane things: the prism created by a glass cup, fragments of the sun passing through a cloud patch, a bear on a unicycle, clear, rural water lapping at the banks of a small-town river. Mundane things.
If the right person sees one of these things, it can cause them great pleasure, or pain. Suffering or joy. Morning dew on a freshly-cut field can trigger a dormant childhood memory, and a single lumpy cloud in an otherwise clear sky can inspire sonnets.
Being outside our universe, where the infinite smacked of the unlimited, where the clocks ran backwards and forwards simultaneously, at the place where matter and energy blended into nonexistence, I felt... mundane.
“Have a little mineral water, you silly.”
I peeked an eye. Light from every part of the spectrum came from all directions. No walls or floors or ceilings denoted dimension, but luckily I’d just found a guide.
“Al Gore!” The former vice-president helped me up and patted me down for bugs. Satisfied, he handed me a bottle of Poland Springs.
“Welcome to my special place, Gyrobo.” he motioned to a large steampunk supercomputer hovering over the undifferentiated floorboards. “Welcome to the universe.”
“I don’t get it.”
He licked his lips, and I was disgusted. “It’s like the Matrix...”
“Is Keanu Reeves here, too?”
“The world you know is all just a simulation.”
“Is Keanu Reeves a simulation?”
“Yes,” he conceded.
“But... if Keanu Reeves is a simulation and he stared in the Matrix, which was a simulation, that cancels out and makes him real. So he should be here.”
Al Gore thought that over. “No. Maybe I should use Socrates’ cave analogy.”
“Can I kiss every atom with my fingertips now?”
“Why not, you green-thumbed emo kid?!”
“The matter and energy you know exist only within this computer,” he tapped the glowing behemoth. “And, like the Matrix, we can hex-edit the universe to whatever purpose we will. It’s called ‘miracles.’”
“If you can alter the universe, why are you such an environmentalist?”
“Clean code is easier to document.”
I’d totally vote for him.
“So...” I teetered comically, “What’s that over there?”
“That? That’s just the floor. Well, it’s not a real floor. Funny story, actually...”
What luck! With Gore off on one of his long-winded rants, I brought up the universe’s hex editor somehow and used my knowledge of trigonometry to isolate the Milky Way. Schrödinger’s ghost! Free cable! “Don’t get distracted... eye on the ball, eye on the ball... mind over matter...”
“...16th century France, where cats were burned for entertainment. Complete barbarism. Louis the 14th-”
“Thanks, but I have to go home now. Just point me to the nearest airlock.”
He blinked. “But can’t you stay a while longer? I can bake some ginger snaps, and we can talk about cat-burning...”
“Sorry, but I’ve got a bank vault full of ill-gotten dough to kneed through waiting at my bungalow. I’ll just burn some cats when I get home.”
“No! Don’t do that!”
“Yeah.” A green light on the holographic display blunk. “That must be my ride! If you have some free time in the future, send Babylon 5 a telepath with a penchant for wedgies, would ya?”
The blood in my arms froze as I was thrown back into normal spacial rotation, but that’s not something you’d notice during bouts of unconsciousness. I felt unburdened and very, very heavy. There’s no reason I should remember being torn between worlds. I definitely was unconscious. But... for one tiny fraction of a second... and this I remember...
My fingertips kissed atoms.
Stars Hollow: McDonald’s Restroom 8:35 P.M.
“I’ve called the police, they will be here in-”
Crash. The restroom door fell off its frame; surviving Navens with fresh play-battle scars walked out first, dragging Jalas behind them on a bed of expertly-stacked pitchforks. At last I emerged, my flashlight glowing with enlightenment.
“Call the police back and tell them... tell them someone miscast a string as an integer.” I winked.
“I... what were you all...” Marvin Gale grabbed the unhinged frame and gawked at the sight of pitchfork-splayed Navens and fortean anomalies still emanating from the accelerator. “What happened in there?”
One short burst of a synapse. Ripples of laughter, a joke come and gone. I chuckled outwardly, but the exact words took a second to process. Taking a sip of bottled water, I grabbed the stocky man and projected my ambient personality into the deepest depths of his soul. And smiled.