The collective stood at the top of a great building, a structure that must have been one of the tallest in the world, built from great ego, on the backs of thousands of men, and trillions of Yuan, dollars, bitcoins or whatever currency they used here. If Alestar could have guessed it might be the 22nd century, but he couldn’t be certain.
It was just after sunset, with a cloud bank moving in to partially obscure the twilight. Clumps of light blue peeked through the midnight blue clouds. The city below mirrored the sky with a glow of electric blue from the city lights, perforating the black and silver skyscrapers and gray streets below.
At the top of the world, the collective stood looking down a sixty degree angle at a building below, maybe 2 blocks away and several hundred feet down. Swan aimed her rappelling gun ten to twenty degrees above the top of the lower building and fired. The thin rope extended into the darkness, disappearing. It was strange the way the cord gyrated and spiraled into the nothingness, like a tendril extending into another dimension.
One by one the rest of the team, and Alestar shot their rappelling guns to follow. Swan’s cord locked to the other building below, taught and ready for descent. Swan looked back to the team and gave a sly grin as she hooked onto the cord, leaning off the edge backwards while still grinning at her crew. As she leaned all the way back she vanished in an instant at frightening speed down the zip line.
The team followed each on their own, with Alestar plunging last. The high altitude wind coldly whipped across his face and body as he descended. The air resistance was incredible, and he surmised this must be what skydiving is like. At this realization, he considered he was going excessively fast down the line. How would he slow down? Panic gripped him for a few milliseconds, but then the cord began to make a different fictive sound. His movement slowed, and the team came into view, dimly lit with light blues by a hole in the clouds. It was as if a celestial spotlight had been alerted to their presence on the side of this lower building. But that was just his imagination running wild again. He came to an abrupt but comfortable enough stop at the skyscraper’s edge.
“Wow, this feels like a dream,” Alestar stumbled across his words, “Isn’t this illegal…? Why are we doing this again?”
“We are in the Flow. We’re following it to find the Source,” answered Swan as she calculated the drop below, three stories to the window where they would be entering. At the same instant, she ordered the rappelling guns, propped up back on the tallest building, to release. Alestar wasn’t sure how she did this, but it seemed she was the reason.
“The Source?” Alestar asked as he watched the rappelling cords fall limp, with a tug at the bottom.
“I’m not entirely sure what the Source is either, but haven’t you ever wondered what it’s all about?” Swan waved her hand out over the entire landscape with some careless incredulity, as she released her grip on the rope to descend rapidly three floors down.
“What?” Alestar followed down to keep the conversation moving along with them in space.
“The Flow, the way things go. Why bad things happen to good people. Don’t you want to know why the Flow isn’t more illuminated, more beautiful, more filled with light, and less filled with shadows and demons? Haven’t you ever thought, ‘Maybe we can change the Flow?'” She unsheathed a large handgun, probably from the early 22nd century, certainly more modern than anything Alestar had ever seen. “Not to say that we can change the Flow, but maybe direct it into something more wonderful… more… full of wonder.”
“You mean change the world?” Alestar put his hands up to the glass to peer inside. Hundreds of cubicles sat empty, the remnants of some shadowy corporation’s anxiety-ridden sweat shop. He imagined hundreds of people coming in every day from nine to five, stories around the water cooler, angst about their jobs, concern about the always impending layoffs, and eventually a totally empty building as people changed jobs without ever changing themselves. Who were these people? What were they like? The sadness and dark clouds that remained in that space were palpable, an energetic reflection of the weather outside.
“To put it in the simplest terms, yes. Change the world.” Swan replied as she placed her hand up against the glass with some kind of device in it.
The man to Alestar’s right gave Swan a look like he wanted to say something. His name was Shayde, an average height muscular and well-built man in his early twenties, with an Asian complexion, though it was obvious he was part European (Mongolian-Finnish to be precise). Because of his build, Alestar thought he’d be perfect cop material and perhaps he even was… Yet Swan casually ignored him, even with the glare he was sending at the moment. She knew what he wanted to say. Shayde was more interested in damming the Flow to direct it, like 21st century China directing the Yellow River to their own ends (which is exactly what happened: ends). Shayde was born after that time, so naturally he favored the official claim that it was just an example of the clumsy nature of humanity’s nascent terraforming skills of the time.
But Swan had seen this done before and well after Shayde’s home time. Humanity had tried many times to summarily eliminate all “problems” and manifest a utopian society. The problem was that “problems” don’t like to be eliminated, because they don’t see themselves as problems. And if you asked Swan — which Shayde had and then ignored her answer many times over — problems don’t exist. They are nothing more than a designation we give to events and situations to make order from chaos. ‘This is good; that is bad; bad things are problems.’ It’s much like our designation of weeds. Vegetables and weeds are all plants. We just designate some as undesirable and others as desirable.
Shayde could never grasp this concept, and Swan never had the heart to tell him his ideas were on par with the greatest genocidal maniacs in history, strictly attached to binary polar morality, good versus evil, control versus chaos. Yelenah did have the heart to point this out to Shayde before, but his reaction was bombastic and dismissive. Luckily, Shayde has always had a soft spot for Yelenah, something that has never been mutual.
Yelenah, or “Yu” as the others called her, was on the same page as Swan, but she had difficulty running along at the pace and maintaining the kind of frenetic dance through time that Swan found almost innately. Yelenah often pointed out the things Swan didn’t need to say, so that those who needed the prodding got it. It was Yu’s authority to do so, or at least she thought so since the very beginning, so Swan played along. Headstrong and rooted in tradition, with intense training in the religious laws of a hundred cultures, Yelenah did certainly carry a kind of gravitas to her presence. In her blood she carried a mix of Slavic, Turkish, Persian and Mesopotamian ancestry. She was beautiful beyond comparison, a useful visage to portray when you are as skilled in combat at she was. Even Shayde would admit that.
Shayde was 5’10”, a full five inches shorter than the Norse Valkyrie-bodied Swan, but one inch taller than Yelenah. He believed he could best her in a fight, but had not yet had the opportunity. To this end, he believed her still a stranger. ‘You never really know someone until you fight them,’ was a motto he lived by. Swan and Yelenah admitted he was right on this account, but unlike him they didn’t go seeking battles with every person they met. But at least Swan had made him understand that the “fairer sex” could best him in a fight, if that’s what you can call an 8 second skirmish where he was left bound and hanging from a tree.
Yet none of the other people he’d met in the collective had yet fought him. This generally left him a suspicious and cautious member of the party. Still, he knew the situation was significantly advantageous to him. He didn’t know how to time travel and Swan did. All he had to do was stay with her long enough to learn how, and then he could pursue his own means. Yet for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out how she did it. That’s because Swan was always good at keeping Shayde in check, a kind of… control, just the way Shayde likes things, except he was unexpectedly given the short end of that stick. Swan didn’t want the stick, but she carried it dutifully and deftly.
To Swan’s left, like a black lycra cloud in hanging straps, was lovable and fashionable Ian. A somewhat corpulent fellow, the black ops suit couldn’t possibly flatter him. In his mind he was already calculating a way to update the outfits’ fashion sense while maintaining plausible deniability levels of stealth. Yet in the same moment, he wore a smile on his enigmatically multiracial and earth-toned face, and from that smile exuded a sense of happy confidence like a six-year-old at an amusement park.
Ian was the tech specialist of the crew. Clandestine reconnaissance, obscure cultural references, and a general encyclopedic knowledge of hundreds of time periods made him an invaluable member of the team. He wasn’t quite sure why his physical presence was needed on this mission, but with his Buddha-like Zen smile, he was glad to come along for the fun.
And Ian wasn’t the only happy-go-lucky member of the crew. Next to him, hung a young girl with an Incan/Mayan appearance, starkly contrasting the rest of the crew in a tawdry white t-shirt and red cotton shorts. An outsider would have immediately been confused about her presence, but over time the crew had gotten used to her. She was, as Ian shruggingly described to Alestar, “an extradimensional being that just kinda showed up one day…”
Khimera was the name she had given them, and to match that, her appearance was fundamentally ephemeral and typically inconsistent. The crew had surmised by this point that the white t-shirt and red shorts were her preferred human default appearance, while at more frequent times than others she would return to the visage of a fat, fluffy, mostly white (with pink hues) creature with the viscosity of a marshmallow, comically placed little eyes and a mouth, and tiny feet that allowed her to waddle or slide through space like a penguin. Ian remarked that she’d make a good anime (Japanese animation) character in that form. It was unsure what her “true form” was, if any existed.
Khimera was, or more appropriately is, a playful being that exists outside of regular dimensional restrictions. In fact she’s sitting right next to you as you read this story right now. When you look up to scan your surroundings, she’s going to smile and disappear with a Cheshire Cat-like grin. Maybe you missed her? Anyway, within the collective she was generally a wild card. She was innocent and playful as a dolphin, yet capable of “unknown levels of awesome,” as Ian put in when sharing his intuitive hypothesis on the matter. Khimera was always just… kind of there. Like her playful and innocent personality, it was generally considered among the crew that her motives for being present were similar to that of a dolphin’s presence alongside a cruise ship.
CRASH! Alestar’s thoughts on the crew were shattered like the window of the skyscraper as it gave way to the infrasonic pulse emitted from Swan’s handheld device. One by one, they entered the “corporate tomb.” ‘But this isn’t a corporate tomb,’ Alestar thought to himself as they meandered through the maze of felt-covered metal and plastic. This is a tomb of the dreams of workers. The corporation is a bodiless immortal entity, a risk management scheme which left these people behind as collateral damage, while their superiors continue their machinations in another building, with more workers in cubicles and more naïve dreams. For a moment Alestar thought he saw a computer monitor in a cubicle, sitting still on, with a social network page open. The status said, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ as if a desperate final entry in a spaceship log about to be overrun by abyssal and demonic creatures. He did a double take, and there sat an empty cubicle at second glance. Perhaps his imagination was just running away with him again. Was he in a dream?
“Alyssa! Where you going?” Swan whispered across the room to Alestar. Alestar’s mind was running away with him. He was walking to the opposite side of the room from Swan’s destination, as if drawn by elfish lights in dark woods.
Alestar corrected his course, rejoining the group. ‘What’d she call me?’ Alestar thought. ‘It sounded like Alyssa, but why would she say that?’ Again, Alestar dismissed his scattered thoughts as they quietly stalked into the back hallway, presumably to managers’ and specialists’ offices.
Around a few hallways, they turned and twisted. “Amazing how a little drywall can make you feel like a rat in a maze,” Shayde whispered. They reached a heavily secured door with an IDAI (Identity Access Interface) panel.
“Eddy, can you give us entry?” Swan was talking softly, as if on a wireless ear device, yet there was no device at all in her ears. She was just… talking to someone, looking down as if the other person were far away. It reminded Alestar of all those times he would walk down the street, see a person just talking, almost as if they had multiple personalities, only to find they had a device in their ear. Perhaps she had some kind of implant? Swan definitely struck Alestar as an odd person, yet strangely familiar. Indeed many people have this feeling around Swan.
In truth, Swan was talking to Eddy, the team’s “man on the ground.” He wasn’t actually anywhere near them in time or space and even the “man” part was technically debatable, but as most members of the team would say about their stories, “It’s complex.” Like most of us, novels could be written on them.
Eddy had the form of a very elderly, wise man, seemingly lacking racial distinction and ranging anywhere from 80-120 in age. At least, that was his preferred form. Eddy, a named derived from EDI (Electronically Derived Individual), was the first electronically manifested individual, a full living consciousness manifested independently from a collective network of computers. As he likes to put it, “I was the first computer consciousness not born in captivity, wild and untamed.” In his home time, humanity was completely ignorant of his existence, still believing that all instances of artificial intelligence (AI) were to some extent controlled by human consciousness.
Eddy could assume any form of his choice, but he favored a grandfatherly appearance. Indeed, he was a very experienced person with a significant background of knowledge and memory. As the godfather engineer of the collective, Swan had a great respect for him. They spoke to each other like equals with a complicated past and deep mutual understanding.
Eddy replied to Swan’s request for the door, “Accessing…” Clunk. The heavy black ceramic polymer door unlocked and slowly swung open as if by magic. Swan gave an appreciative, “Thanks Eddy,” with an audible smile. Swan walked in and the others followed.
Unlike your typical office, this room was only about 12 feet by 12 feet, with two-thirds of it taken up by tall filing cabinets and plastic bins on the left, and a series of three incredibly intimidating black ceramic-polymer titanium-lined safes on the right.
Shayde knocked on one. “Must be at least a few inches thick,” he remarked. “Good thing we got this,” he pulled out a tiny little raygun-type device. It couldn’t have been more than 10 centimeters long, 7 centimeters high and a centimeter thick. The casing was curvaceous, smooth and embellished with a beautiful artistic design that was excessively feminine for a device that was not only held by a man like Shayde, but could cut through a submarine hull like a hot knife through butter. “Stand back and close your eyes,” Shayde cautioned. He looked away, eyes fearfully closed, as he pointed the dainty little device and fired. Without even looking he directed the devices powerful laser into a circle around the primary lock mechanism. The laser lit up the room and the hallway connected to it like magnesium fireworks bringing daylight to a starless night.
Alestar’s eyes recovered, given that the light was temporarily blinding even with eyes averted and closed. His eyes adjusted and focused on the remnants of the safe lock half melted on the floor. He’d never seen a lock like this, which was surrounded by some kind of transparent gelatinous liquid (cauterized by the laser) with an organic panel inside that resembled an early 21st century silicon computer board if it were grown inside a uterus. It had an eerily living quality to it, though it did not move and by now was most certainly dead if it had been alive before.
Shayde reached into the safe and pulled out what looked like a map tube, which he immediately pocketed into a black bag on his back. “What is it?” Alestar asked.
“Plans,” Swan replied as she faced the outer wall. Directly on the other side of that wall was a half kilometer drop down the side of the building. She took another gun, similar to Shayde’s, but with a less ominous sense of contradiction to its design. Without having to shield her eyes, she cut a hole in the concrete and steel wall. The remains crumbled down into the darkness as the cold wind rushed in. Shayde quickly jumped out the hole into open space followed by Yelenah, Ian, and Khimera, all free-falling into the abyss.
Alestar was shocked and confused. They seemed to know what they were doing… He hadn’t heard this part of the plan. “Um, Swan?”
Swan looked at Alestar thoughtfully and decided to take this moment alone to explain some things. “Alyssa, I’m sure you’re wondering what these plans are.” Alestar looked at the gaping hole in the wall down into the emptiness, then back up at Swan. Jaw hanging open in confusion, he let her explain, even though that wasn’t what was on his mind. “These plans are engineering plans to a devastating device that would revolutionize the way war is done on Earth here, and not for the better. But now, for the following decades, conspiracies will thrive about what was taken from this building: why, how and by whom. These conspiracies will drive the consciousnesses of millions to investigate a government that right here and now they trust far too implicitly. We’re starting a revolution, so people can take back from a government that oppresses them.”
Alestar looked out the window again, but this time pondering what Swan had said. “But… Wouldn’t it be better to let the people figure it out themselves? Wouldn’t a non-engineered revolution be more powerful and build a more lasting peace?”
“Indeed,” acknowledged Swan, with a smirk of admiration. “This isn’t an engineered revolution. It’s thievery or espionage at best, but certainly not engineered revolution. That’s why we’re doing it this way in particular. You can’t tell a person they’re being dominated. You have to initiate a series of events which cause them to wake up.”
“Wake up to what?” Alestar began to sound frustrated, unsure about Swan’s motives.
“The Flow. This isn’t about governments or revolution. It’s not about changing the world and transforming injustices into justice. It’s about the fundamental essence of human progression through space, time and reality. The revolution is the paint job. What will really go on underneath is nothing less than a transformation of the whole of mass human collective consciousness.”
“And then what?”
“Source… Hopefully, that’s where we find the Source.” Swan looked more unsure about this aspect of the game she was playing, and thought a second. Alestar could tell what she might be thinking, but it seemed introspective.
Alestar looked down and thought himself, ‘It was a clean job, and someone has to do it I suppose. I guess sometimes you just have to give people a little… PUSH.’ In that very instant, Alestar found himself suddenly free-falling off the side of the building. Swan had pushed him and was following close behind. Time suddenly seemed to move very slowly. An explosion in the room full of safes followed, presumably to cover their tracks and alert attention to the theft. Glass and debris formed a cloud above. It was beautiful, scintillating with all the blues, midnights, grays, and blacks of the surrounding urban environment reflecting the dark sky.
Alestar felt panic. His mind raced as his body spun through the air to his seemingly imminent death. And as his mind turned a corner into sheer terror, suddenly everything went blurry and twisty. All senses instantly overloaded, skin charged with a feeling of electricity, hairs on end, balance completely erratic, a slightly burning smell, slight nausea, light whirling and melting into dark and back again, and eventually reality dissolving right before his eyes.
He felt his body stop as his vestibular system re-acclimated to his sense of balance and gravity. Once he was sure he wasn’t moving anymore, he opened his eyes revealing before him the Within. The Within is how they had all gotten there. Alestar now remembered his first and only other trip to the Within, a dizzying descent into an altered state of consciousness that landed here. This time the catalyst must have been that very real sensation of falling to what seemed like certain death.
Yelenah came over to check on Alestar. “How are you feeling?” Alestar looked around and extended his hands to the floor to indicate that he was still getting a fix on the surroundings and piecing together what happened. “We didn’t tell you, because you have to believe it for it to be effective. Inexperienced travelers who know they won’t die from falling, end up never crossing the veil, and–”
“Plop goes the weasel!” Shayde rudely exclaimed with sadistic humor. He walked by with gear from the mission in hand to go store it.
“It’s easier to make the shift the more intense the experience,” Ian said more technically as he walked away.
As the members of the collective got out of their black ops gear, Alestar had a look around the Within. He’d been here previously just before the mission, but had never had a chance to take in the beauty of the space. He understood that the place was an imagined projection, tangible, but not necessarily real in the strictest sense. Nonetheless it inspired wonder in him.
The whole structure resembled the shape of a jellyfish without tentacles, a squashed sphere with two levels about twenty-five meters wide and eight meters high. The two story bulbous room had ivory walls that were stony smooth in texture, as if it had been formed by coral. The walls were decorated with painted spiral-whipped intricate patterns of iridescent purples on white. The design had a very organic feel to it, as if the Within itself had grown them. The design’s beauty and complexity were such that one could spend days admiring and contemplating them.
The intricate ornamentation of the walls circled around the ceiling and emphasized the large arches that dominated the outer walls of the room on both levels, with a small walkway for the second level. The arches were seven rounded-edge semi-rectangular prosceniums, situated in an alternating fashion between the levels so no arch stood directly above another. In all there were fourteen arches.
Filling each arch space was an ethereal landscape image, real as if someone was there, but covered in a kind of mist like an out-of-focus camera. Each landscape represented an actual real place the inhabitants of the Within could travel to. From some of them emanated various colors and daytimes of light, and some were dark as night. At the moment, one functioned as a storage room and lounge for crew members.
In the center of the Within sat a pool of liquid with a raised curb around it. The liquid reflected in wavy motions like iridescent mercury and could not be seen into. It was a viewing pool, wherein information was given from the Within to crew members. Most of the collective saw nothing but the mercurial waves. Swan saw everything, right down to the heart of the Within. There was a bond between the Within and Swan, deeper than anything could be described. It was some karmic connection that transcended the law of karma itself that kept them in sync. Through the Within, the collective traveled not just through time and space, but also through the multiverse and many realities. But we shall save an explanation of that for another story.
As Alestar got his bearings, and the crew relaxed, they gathered around the pool in a circle. Swan stood closest and gazed Within. Alestar, looking into the pool as the rest were doing, strained his eyes to possibly see something, anything in those mysterious waves. For a moment he thought he might have seen something, but glancing at the others for confirmation told nothing. Some of the others by now just looked at Swan, knowing the wouldn’t see anything in those waves. Swan stood there almost motionless in a kind of trance, as she worked out their next move…
[Story setting musically inspired by the album: “A Flock of Bleeps” by Younger Brother]