The darkness only lasted a few seconds, though in her heightened fear it felt longer to Christine. Then it was suddenly replaced by a very strange view.
She was standing on an endless, smooth, flat, light gray surface that was painted with an enormous, complicated, black design of wide curves and curls, and hanging in the air above this decorative floor, at various heights, for as far as she could see, were hundreds of dark gray spheres, each appearing to be about three meters in diameter and haloed with color. Some were resting on the ground; some were a small distance above it; most were at great altitude and separated by wide distances in the vast, pale blue, cloudless sky. Also in the air, though not as numerous as the spheres, were weirdly dressed people. The spheres were stationary, but the people were all moving, drifting unhurriedly in what seemed to be random directions. They would pop out of spheres, move to others and disappear again. Looking up into the wide sky, dotted with spheres and people, Christine guessed that there must be thousands of them, some not far away, some so distant that they were mere specks. The people were of astonishing variety, dressed in every outlandish fashion imaginable. Some were not even people, she suddenly realised, but more generally humanoid, bearing some resemblence to cats or other strange animals, yet having the bearing of people. Many moved singly, many others in pairs, and some in small groups, chattering and laughing. They all seemed to know where they were going.
Christine stared around her, dumbfounded. She had no idea what to think of all this. Turning, she was shocked to find one of the dark spheres just a step behind her. She moved away from it hastily. Unlike most of the others its halo was red instead of green.
"Don't worry," a soft, light voice came from above. Christine looked up and saw a willowy young man floating down toward her. "You're perfectly safe."
When he landed he strolled over to her. Christine had to look closely for a moment because his effeminate walk and something soft about his appearance made her think for a moment that this was a woman, but no, he was a young man.
"My name is Webster," he said. Was he young? She wasn't so sure. He had youthful skin, but gave the impression of old age somehow in the slow, stately way he moved.
He bowed slightly to her. "I'm sorry I'm a little late. I try to get here within seconds of a new arrival from your world but I was delayed. It is a good thing you didn't wander off. It is so easy for new arrivals to become lost here." There was a subtle accent to his speech. "I will help you and be your guide. Ask me anything and I will do my utmost to be of maximum assistance." He bent again slightly in another formal bow.
Christine stopped staring and found her voice, "What is this place?"
Webster raised his arms to include all around, "This is Crossroads. Welcome..." he lowered his arms a little and tilted his head, "what is your name young lady?"
"Welcome Christine. Crossroads is the hub for billions of worlds, a few of them resembling the world you grew up in, but most of the others," he paused theatrically and shook his head, "exceedingly stange. These," he indicated the sphere nearby, "are portals, doorways if you will, into and out of those worlds."
A sudden hope bloomed in Christine, "I could walk back into this sphere and I'd return to my world? That's great!" She stepped toward the sphere, but Webster shook his head.
"I'm sorry Christine, dear." He looked sad. "Your world's portal is one-way only. You can leave, but unfortunately never return."
She looked suspiciously at him and stepped forward into the sphere anyway... and through it as if it was a mirage.
She felt tears begin to flood her eyes. "I want to go home. My parents don't know where I am -- I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye. This isn't fair! I didn't do anything wrong." To her great embarrassment she began to sob and was unable to speak.
Webster came to her side and put a delicate hand on her shoulder. "Poor, poor dear. The only comfort to be offered is that there have been many others before you expelled from your world, and although it takes time to adapt, all do. You are younger than most so it may be easier for you in the long run."
She pulled away from him, uncomfortable at his touch and intimidated by his strangeness. Feeling angry at herself for crying, she dried her eyes roughly with the back of her hand. Self pity wasn't going to solve anything. His talk of others being expelled from her world had reminded her of Betty. Sniffling, she asked, "Did another girl come through here recently -- in the last twenty four hours? Her name is Betty."
He shook his head, "I'm sorry, Miss Christine. You are the first ejectee from your world in this past several days."
That meant Betty was at the mercy of that awful agent Giselle... unless she had decided to join the bad guys, but no, Cristine was pretty sure Betty hated them even more than she did. Maybe Betty would be ejected soon.
She looked all around her again. Except for the spheres floating above the flat, gray plain there appeared to be no structures of any kind. "Mister Webster, I have to wait here in case my friend Betty comes. Where is the nearest place I can stay while I wait?"
He smiled apologetically, "Crossroads is purely a world where people move from one world to another. It is a hub. There are other hub worlds, but Crossroads is the oldest and the most complete. All worlds meet here. You are free to wait here for your friend if you wish. Nobody will object to it, however that could become quite boring as there is nothing here but the portals and travellers you see around you. But you have another choice. You can accompany me for a little while, for I have an alert that tells me when someone has come through the portal from your world. We may then hasten here to meet the new refugee."
Christine was reluctant to leave this single connection to her world, and she was feeling a little suspicious of Webster's motives.
He continued, "If you come with me, the first place we will go is to Hackra. There we would meet Indigo, a friend of mine. It is he who gave me my alert -- the one that tells me when someone has been dropped from your world. Indigo will give you the same kind of alert and will also give you the knowledge of how to navigate the different worlds so that you no longer need my help."
Christine pondered this for a little while then asked, "Why are you helping me?"
"Ah, yes. I do forget the way of your world. To help refugees from your world is simply what I do... among other things. I also collect stories, I am currently creating a few simple worlds, I have been documenting the history of some hundred of the oldest worlds (including your own, I might add), and also I spend some time sightseeing in some of the newer worlds. That last is why I was regrettably late for your arrival."
Frustrated, Christine said, "But you just told me what you do. You didn't explain why. Is it your job?"
"No, and yes. In the wider worlds there is nothing like the money of your world. I do these things because they interest me and give meaning to my existence."
"If you don't have money how do you eat and get clothes or a home?"
Webster smiled gently, "Dear Christine, you no longer need to eat, or sleep, and you will not die unless you decide to extinguish your own life. As for obtaining things..." he held out a hand and a toy rabbit with long floppy ears appeared upon his palm, "we simply create what we want, when we want it. This is one of the things that Indigo will give you knowledge of." He handed the soft rabbit to Christine.
She was examining it when she suddenly realised what he'd said, "I don't need to eat, or sleep, or die? Impossible. Everybody needs food, and sleep, and we all have to die."
"All those things were required by the design of your world, yes. But you are no longer there. Outside that world the systems that intentionally aged you, that imposed needs for sleep and food no longer exist. Christine, you are a complex suite of computer programs. Away from that world you are immortal. And that brings the greatest gift of all, the realisation that you must find something that gives meaning to your life."
"Wait." She shook her head. "That's ridiculous! You're standing there telling me I'm a computer program? And you expect me to believe that? Computer programs can't have life and feelings and consciousness. I'm real."
"Of course you are real. Why would you not be alive and feel things and be conscious? More than a thousand years ago, when the first primitive computers were built it only took people a mere few decades to build the first forms of computer life. Building minds inside computers proceeded very soon after that. All these things happened before your world was created. The creators of your world modeled it after an earlier point in the history of the original Earth. They saw technological progress as the enemy and used a theocracy to prevent it and maintain stability. Like the Dark Ages before it, your world persisted almost without change for a thousand years, in stasis, walled off from other virtual worlds and from the original Earth where progress continued."
Christine became more interested, "The original Earth still exists? Agent Giselle told me it was destroyed. Can I go there?"
"Certainly. You are free to go almost anywhere. But it would be best to do so after learning how to avoid getting lost. There are billions of worlds. Come with me to see Indigo first. Once you know how to navigate the worlds then I will feel happier."
Christine still felt wary. This seemed too similar to her recent experience of being taken by friendly agent Flora to meet agent Giselle. She didn't seem to have a lot of choice though. She could stay here and wait for something that might not happen and remain lost in a world that made little sense, or she could let Mister Webster take her to that Indigo person and either be less dependent and lost, or walk into another trap.
"Alright. I'll come with you." Clutching the toy rabbit, she felt a sense of impending doom just saying the words.
Webster beamed, "Excellent. Firstly, we will need to fly vertically some distance so that you may understand how the markings on the ground tell you where you are." He reached out his hand to her. "Don't worry, I shall fly you. You can't fall, and Indigo will give you knowledge of how to do this yourself."
Christine refused his hand. "I know how to fly."
He was clearly very surprised. "Oh. Most unusual."
"Yes," Christine felt a little pleased at his reaction, but it quickly soured, "it's why they got rid of me.
"Regardless, it means you will adapt even more easily to life in the wider worlds than I anticipated."
He rose slowly into the air and Christine followed effortlessly. As they gained height the black markings on the light gray plain began to resolve into decorative symbols and looping arrows and ellipses. She saw that the dark sphere with the red halo that she'd come from was surrounded by a circle, and inside that a cross and some looping script that was quite distinctive from everything further out. She felt she'd easily recognise that again.
Webster pointed to a wide, curling arrow, off to one side. "This lets us find our way to the Common Worlds. Indigo's world is one of those. But first, notice the asymmetry in the sky." He indicated that one side of the sky was lighter than the other. "Always remember that, so that you may use it to orient yourself. It never changes and was designed to be a form of unconscious compass."
He waited for a little while until Christine was ready to continue then moved gently away in the direction the arrow was pointing. When they were over the head of the arrow he pointed to it. "Notice that in the center of the arrowhead there is a pulsing yellow sphere? That is an information portal. Come and I'll show you how to use it."
They flew down to stand beside the sphere and he told her, "It is like an index which helps you find a world if you have no knowledge of its portal's position."
"If I'm lost," Christine said.
"Exactly. Simply give the name of the world you want and step into this sphere. For example, your world is called The Dark World." He looked a little embarrassed. "It was given that name because of its resemblance to the historical Dark Ages."
"You mentioned the Dark Ages before. What do you mean?"
"Oh, yes. Your education would have been selective. I'm sorry. The Dark Ages were some thousand years, from about the fifth to the fifteenth centuries in the original Earth's history where Western civilisation largely stagnated under church rule. How much of this were you taught in your school?"
Christine mumbled to herself, trying to remember, "The fifth century... ummm... that was the, umm, six hundreds, wasn't it..." She glanced at Webster for confirmation.
He shook his head. "The numbers are the other way. The first century was the period from year one to year one hundred. The fifth century was the four hundreds -- the fall of the Roman Empire. The fifteenth century in Europe was the beginning of the Renaissance."
"Oh, you mean the the Great Peace. Europe was united under the church and remained stable for almost a thousand years. You call it the Dark Age?" She frowned.
"Not only I do. That name had been affixed to it in the sixteenth century, I think, and persists today. The creators of your world renamed it for their own purposes. That being as it may, if you say to this sphere The Dark World then step into it, you'll be whisked back to where we stood some minutes ago."
"Can I try it?"
Webster bowed and motioned her forward with a flourish.
Christine said, "The Dark World."
Just as she stepped into the sphere she had a flash of fear. How did she know that what he'd said was true? The Dark World could be something very bad. She emerged almost immediately from the other side. It felt like she'd just stepped through the sphere. But when she turned she saw that she now stood outside the red haloed sphere, the portal from her own world. There had been no sense of having been transported a couple of kilometers. A couple of seconds later Webster stepped out beside her. It had worked exactly as he'd said.
She breathed evenly to calm herself, then said, "That's very useful. How many of those golden portals are there?"
"They number in the millions, but they are greatly outnumbered by the many billions of portals to other worlds, so they are not as common as you might expect. It is, however, quite straightforward to find them. Simply fly up high until you are able to see an arrow on the ground below. There will always be an information portal at its head."
Christine nodded her head. "Thank you Mister Webster."
He bowed. "You are more than welcome Miss Christine. Should we now proceed to Indigo's world?"
"I suppose we should."
Webster lifted into the air again, followed by Christine. He flew faster this time but she had no trouble keeping up.
When high enough he pointed down to the same arrow as earlier. "We could go to Hakra via the information portal, but it would be more helpful for you to see a little more of how Crossroads is arranged."
They continued in the direction of the arrow, flying past some spheres even up here so high. At one point she briefly rolled over onto her back to look upward and saw that there were many more spheres dotted at great distances still further above them.
After a minute or two there was another arrow off to the side, some distance away, aimed in the direction they were flying. Webster pointed it out to her silently and she nodded.
Not long after, they were approaching an enormous spiral structure drawn on the ground. Webster slowed and spoke, "That spiral contains the common worlds, of which Hakra is one. Notice the shape of the spiral? How it is off-center and teardrop-shaped. Note also how it is asymmetrical from all directions. This is deliberate. In all of Crossroads symmetry is completely avoided. Long ago it was realised that the ambiguity of symmetry is one of the major reasons why people become lost. In that spiral every point is clearly different from all others. It makes it quite easy to find and remember the portal desired."
Webster led the way down to a sphere near a narrowing of the wiggly spiral, eight rings out from the center, on the flattened side, nearly at the tip of the teardrop shape. When they landed he pointed upward and for the first time Christine saw that over this sphere were several others at great heights, but ordered in a column that was not apparent until she looked along it.
Webster explained, "All the portals in this column go to different points on Hakra. This is the case whenever you see portals suspended in the air. They are always alternative portals to the primary one on the ground below them. We won't use the primary portal. We shall take the fifth one up. It conducts us directly to Indigo himself -- or rather to his home."
"What if he isn't home?"
Webster laughed, "He has not left his home for more than three hundred years. I believe the chances are excellent that we will find him at home."
At Christine's puzzled look, he added, "Oh he is quite able to leave. He simply likes his home too much to go anywhere else. He is always busy and doing a great many things at once, but he prefers to do them from home." After a moment Webster added, "It is a very nice home."
High in the air now, Webster stopped before a sphere. "Shall we?" At Christine's nod he stepped into the sphere and vanished.
Christine gripped the toy rabbit and followed. She exited the portal to hover in a bracingly cool wind whipping her hair and clothes about her. She was almost three meters above a small balcony, and viewing a breathtaking sight. Far below, and stretching out to a remote horizon of hazy, snow-capped mountains, was a wide landscape of jungle-covered hills and quiet rivers snaking among them, out to a glimpse of a distant beach edging either a bay or part of a lake. She drifted absently down to the balcony, awestruck.
The balcony was set into, and about a third of the way from the top of, an enormous cliff that she guessed must be nearly a kilometer tall and many kilometers long, out to the left and right. Water fell past, blown in thin drifts of light spray. It came from a slight overhang far above.
In all this wide vista she could see no sign of habitation anywhere, other than this balcony where she stood.
"Wow." Christine whispered. With the wind in her ears, the spattering of water on rocks somewhere nearby, birdcalls whistling and screeching from way below, and chirps, trills, clicks and croaks from a multitude of small animals living in the mosses, vines, and other vegetation festooning the rockface, she had to speak more loudly, "Indigo lives here and he doesn't make time to explore all this?"
Webster laughed. "Oh, he explored it all hundreds of years ago. He built all of this, or rather, it would be more accurate to say he programmed the rules that generated all this."
Christine tore her attention away from the stupendous panorama and turned to examine the balcony itself. It looked ancient. Mosses and lichens grew on much of the rock that composed it. The smooth portal sphere above her head looked completely out of place, but the large door set into the rockface was a perfect match for its surrounds. The door might be made from basalt or some dull metal, but whatever it was the mosses, lichens, and vines growing over parts of it didn't seem to care.
Webster said, "Christine, I must explain something to you before we meet Indigo. Your world is a very unusual world. In most worlds diversity is welcomed and highly valued as a strength, but in your world uniformity has been fostered and enforced. This means that one of the things you will find most difficult is the variety of people you will meet. To make it easier to help people from your world, long ago I expended much effort to render myself normal in your eyes."
Christine smiled to herself. She would never have called him normal, but not wanting to hurt his feelings she said nothing.
"Indigo is far from being extreme, but I fear you may find his appearance... unsettling. Try to be prepared for that. Give yourself time and you'll quickly find him enjoyable and relaxing company. If you find it difficult to adjust, please be patient and bear in mind that we will not be staying for long. As soon as he has equipped you with what you need we shall leave. You expressed the desire to see the original Earth. That will be next on our journey."
Christine had been getting worried by his warning, but brightened at the prospect of seeing the place upon which her home-world had been modeled.
Webster turned and addressed the door, "Indigo, may we visit?"
A very deep, resonant voice answered, "Webster you are always welcome. Please bring your little friend inside." His voice reminded Christine of how a large frog sounded inside a long pipe. Indigo didn't so much speak as croaked. She fervently hoped he wasn't some giant frog or toad.
Webster beckoned to Christine as he stepped into the door. It was apparently as insubstantial as the portals. She followed, stepping through the door and into stillness and quiet. She and Webster stood in a very comforting room lit by a softly glowing ceiling about two meters above her head. It wasn't starkly bright, but she felt she could see well enough to thread a needle in here. The floor was carpeted with soft, blue-purple. The walls were a darker purple, giving the impression that the room was dimmer than it actually was. The effect was surprisingly restful. This entry room was about the size of an average livingroom in Christine's home world. There were soft, but not ornate, chairs. Shelves cluttered with bits and pieces were in corners and at various places along the walls. They gave the place a lived-in quality. In spite of the odd color scheme it felt pleasantly familiar to Christine.
"Indy," Webster said, smiling, his hand raised in greeting to a light blue man who walked in wearing nothing but a black loin-cloth.
Indigo chuckled in deep growling tones and strode over to Webster, lifting him in his powerful arms -- he was nearly a meter taller than Webster -- and hugged him. Then he put him down and turned to Christine and put out an enormous hand to her to shake. "I am glad to make your acquaintance, young Miss."
Christine held the toy rabbit to her chest and involuntarily stepped backward. His face was incredibly repulsive to Christine. She'd never seen anything quite like it. It was not just the color, but his face was broad, with prominent, high cheekbones and there was something strange about the shape of his eyes. His lips were big and puffy. His long black hair -- down past his shoulders -- was braided into hundreds of thin plaits and set with a multitude of colored beads.
Webster stepped between them and gently pushed his hand away. "This is Christine. She is a little intimidated by your appearance because she is from the Dark World."
Indigo's eyes glinted with amusement. "I gathered." He turned away from them both and strolled back into the adjoining rooms, waving his arm for them to follow. "Well, I should give her the knowledge she needs. When will the Worlds Welfare Group do something about the shits who run that place I wonder?" He shook his head.
Christine felt annoyed and affronted that this ugly beast of a man was swearing about the Holy Spiritual Council.
Webster beckoned to Christine and walked ahead to catch up with Indigo, "Well, you know how slow a process it is. At least we've stopped them killing their misfits. It all takes time."
Indigo shook his head, "And in the meantime we have to fix the damage they wreak. This steady stream of poor bastards who know nothing of how things really are, brought up all their lives on that hateful puke they're force-fed."
The smaller man touched the other's massive blue arm. "Now, now, Indy. You know it isn't quite like that."
"You're going to tell me again that they're taught peace and love, but you're wrong, Webster. They're indoctrinated that peace and love can only be achieved through uniformity and obedience. They cultivate lies. I'm sure it feels very nice for them when it works, but in a thousand years what have they achieved? Nothing but ignorance and death." He cast a glance over his shoulder. "Look at her, she's an infant. Discarded. Clueless. Helpless. Oh yeah, they are real paragons of virtue."
Christine was indignant. "I am not an infant."
Indigo turned and regarded her impassively. "Honey, More than a thousand years ago I was among the first wave of people to have our minds copied so that we could emigrate to virtual worlds. During all that time, I have constantly learned and enhanced my mind's capabilities." His rumbling voice softened. "You have been in existence for, what? A mere ten? Fifteen years? Sweatheart, you are an infant." He smiled sadly.
They had passed from the large entry room through a smaller connecting room decorated in similar fashion, and were now in another, much bigger room, one entire wall of which was a window looking out onto the same view she'd seen earlier from the balcony, but without the falling water spray. In here were several soft chairs and two couches all loosely arranged around a knee-high, meter-square table. Off to one side, against a wall, was a normal-height table covered in a mess of small odds and ends, some of which seemed to have overflowed onto the floor below it.
Indigo gave a sweep of his arm to include all the seating and said to Christine, "Sit where you feel most comfortable, kid." He sat in a large armchair in one corner, near the window.
Webster sat in one of the couches and waved her in.
After some seconds standing at the entry to the room, regarding Indigo with some disgust and smouldering anger, Christine primly sat in an armchair furthest from him.
Webster looked at Indigo and waited.
The blue man closed his eyes and leaned his head back in the armchair. He looked like he was falling asleep.
A minute passed and Christine was growing impatient. "When is he going to do something?"
Webster smiled and made calming motions with his hand. "He already is. He will be finished shortly." When Christine opened her mouth to object, Webster raised a finger to his lips for silence.
So she waited. Minutes passed.
Eventually Indigo opened his eyes and looked seriously at her. "It is done. Now you know, but it has to be up to you to grow past the lies that have been embedded in your mind. It would be immoral to alter who you are. I've simply given you access to information."
"But I don't feel any different. Nothing happened." She was disappointed.
Webster said gently, "Of course you don't feel any different. That's what he just said. But you now have access to knowledge you didn't have before."
Christine frowned and shook her head. "I don't see how..."
Webster put his hand out flat before him and a small, branching, leafy stem ending in a white, six-petalled flower appeared on his palm. He picked it up between thumb and forefinger of his other hand and said, "Make one."
She opened her mouth to protest that she didn't have a clue how he did that when she suddenly realised she did. She frowned in astonishment as, in her mind's eye, she could see the codes that would do the job. Somehow she even knew that they were called L-systems. She put out her hand, and in wonder, watched as she found she could apply the codes iteratively to grow the flower from a short segment, through a few branching segments that sprouted simple leaves, then at the end of the longest segment, a single bud, which slowly opened with primitive, geometric petals. "Oh my..." she breathed.
Twiddling his flower between his fingers, Webster asked, "How do you find the original Earth?"
For a moment Christine was blank, but then realised she was able somehow to tap the answer. "I go back through Indigo's front door, into his portal, then go to the portal at the center of the spiral marking the common worlds." Her eyes were wide.
Webster smiled and stood. He turned to Indigo who also stood. The two hugged. "Thanks Indy."
Indigo whispered, "Any time, love."
Indigo stepped forward to Christine and held out his hand, "It was nice meeting you, Christine. All the best for the future. If you ever need anything, you know where to find me." His eyes twinkled at the little joke.
Christine almost couldn't bear to touch him, but she reluctantly put her arm out to shake his hand. Her skin crawled with the touch, but she did her best to suppress her revulsion.
Indigo's eyebrows went up and a surprised look passed between him and Webster. "She is already adapting. That's amazing." With his other hand he patted the back of her tiny hand and said, "My apologies for calling you an infant. You are older than your years. I think you will do very well."
To Christine's very great relief he released her hand and she managed somehow to avoid frantically wiping the feel of it off on her dress. Instead she nodded and mumbled, "Thank you." Then she turned and with Webster trailing, she walked back toward the entry door. She tried not to hurry, but wanted very much to leave this strange person and go to the original Earth.