Featured November 17, 2017 Science Fiction Strange Parallel universes Hard science fiction


By Gary Gibson
Oct 31, 2017 · 7,935 words · 29 minutes

Photo by Matt Milton via Unsplash.

From the editor:

Ever since Joel’s mother and fiancé died, he’s been obsessed with drawing maps of the utopia he’d imagined as a child. But what happens when strangers around the world start to recognize it? Enjoy a longer read this weekend by Gary Gibson, a science fiction novelist with several books out by Tor UK, and be sure to tip if you like it!

An audio version is available for this chapter. Listen online →

‘Congratulations,’ said Chase, when Joel showed him the letter. ‘Looks like you’ve got your first stalker.’

‘Let me see.’ Phil yanked the letter out of Chase’s hand. ‘And she says she lives in Scienceville?’ He darted a look at Joel. ‘Oh man. Even I don’t get ones that crazy.’

‘Asshole.’ Joel snatched the letter back. ‘She doesn’t say she lives there.'

A look passed between the two other men. ‘No, just that she used to,’ said Chase.

‘Which isn’t at all weird,’ said Phil, ‘what with Scienceville not actually existing and all.’

Over on the far side of the teacher’s lounge Janice Glynn, who taught art, gave them a leery eye from above a chipped mug reading World’s Best Cat Mom.

Joel’s face reddened.

‘Ignore Miss Havisham,’ said Phil, dropping his voice. ‘Please tell me you’re not actually going to write back to her.’

Joel forced a laugh. ‘Not a chance. She’s obviously crazy. Anyone who’d write a letter like that has to be.’

‘Assuming it’s really a she,’ said Chase.

Phil snapped his fingers. ‘Might be a he. A truck driver. Some sweaty forty-stone guy who lives in a basement.’ He rubbed his chin as if in thought. ‘Who else do we know spends most of his time in a basement?’

‘Hey, screw you,’ said Joel. ‘I didn’t need to show either of you the damn letter.’

Phil put his hands up. ‘Okay. No offence intended. Maybe this isn’t the best place to talk about it,’ he added, glancing towards Janice.

‘You’d better just hope she never hears what you call her,’ muttered Chase.

The end of recess came, and Joel spent the rest of that afternoon teaching. He wondered if he should have told Phil and Chase about the photograph that came with the letter, or that it wasn’t even the first such letter he'd received.

A month before, a film crew from KSTV had interviewed Joel and some of the other artists taking part in the Fountain Grove Gallery's annual “outsider art” exhibition. They’d given Joel just enough space for a couple of boroughs, and nothing more. He’d stood before a blown-up poster of one of Scienceville’s main districts while a reporter with carefully blow-dried hair asked why he’d spent a significant fraction of his adult life designing enormous, intricately detailed maps of a place that didn’t exist.

Scienceville, Joel explained to the increasingly bemused reporter, was a utopian community he’d dreamed up as a kid. It was a place where advanced scientific research for the genuine betterment of mankind could be carried out free of interference. Then he spent the rest of the evening watching people hurry by his exhibit on their way to see Gwen Frith’s fine-art renditions of scenes from hardcore porn films with monkeys replacing the actors.

The next morning, he caught his interview on KSTV’s morning show. He’d been cut down to a ten-second soundbite that made him look deranged.

The first letter arrived shortly afterward, care of the gallery, all the way from France. It had been written on a manual typewriter by some guy called Fredrick Milan who insisted not only that Scienceville was real, but that he’d been dreaming about it and painting pictures of it since he was young. He was old, which went some way to explaining the avoidance of email.

Joel googled Milan and found pictures of an old, crumpled-looking man with a crooked nose and eyes that gleamed from beneath a shinily bald head. More, he was a real artist - and a renowned one, at that.

Joel kept browsing until he found some of Milan’s work, but there was nothing even vaguely reminiscent of Scienceville. Most of Milan’s paintings consisted of swirling abstracts, or near-blank canvases with tiny smears in one corner - all of which sold for a lot of money.

Milan wanted Joel to get in touch at the soonest opportunity, but Joel just shoved the letter inside one of many folders of sketches shelved in the basement where he worked on Scienceville. More than likely, the old man’s mental faculties were declining with age.

By contrast, the second letter - also sent care of the gallery - made him wonder if he was the one losing his grip on reality.

I read about you online, the letter read. I grew up in Scienceville, and even though it was a very long time ago and I was very small, I do remember that Newton Avenue isn’t parallel to Atomic Road. Instead, they cross over each other - and the Halls of Justice are east of Bohr Parks, not west.

It was from a woman called Natalie Donaldson, in Scotland. She explained she’d asked the gallery for his email, but they refused. Clearly, the gallery owners had no similar qualms about forwarding snail-mail.

There were more details than just that. At first, when he saw she’d accurately named places on the map, Joel got a shiver down his spine. But then he remembered the gallery had scanned portions of Scienceville and put them online, most particularly the section where Newton Avenue and Atomic Road were shown running north and south through Bohr Parks. She must, he realised, have gotten the details from there.

She, too, wanted him to write back, although she was vague as to why. It occurred to Joel the letter might actually be from Milan, or from someone else entirely, pretending to be both people. It simply wasn’t possible that two strangers could independently write to him acting like a place he’d invented as a kid was real. So when he got home Thursday evening, he shoved Natalie Donaldson’s letter into the same place he'd put Milan’s, so he didn’t have to think any more about either of them.

That evening, like every other since Dale and his mother passed, stretched out like a long and empty highway. He ate and watched TV, then made his way down to the basement, switching on the overhead lights before stepping up close to the outer edge of Waverley Borough, one of the newer outlying districts.

Over the last five years Scienceville had spread, sheet by sheet and district by district, until it covered very nearly the entire basement floor, except for a narrow margin around the edges. Detailed drawings and sketches of its principal architecture were pinned on the walls all around. The city was a smorgasbord of influences drawn from Buckminster Fuller, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ebenezer Howard, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Korda’s vision of Everytown. Dozens and dozens of sheets of paper of varying sizes were carefully arranged according to a key system scrawled on the back of each, indicating how that sheet linked to each of its neighbours.

The whole thing was laid on a series of rubber mats that were a lot easier on the knees than the basement’s concrete floor. A small plastic crate sat next to the boiler where he kept pencils, erasers, tape, crayons and paints. For some reason he’d never been able to envision what lay beyond Scienceville’s borders: it was as if the town was its own self-contained universe, part of yet separate from the wider world.

One wall of the basement was almost entirely hidden behind a row of tall Ikea bookshelves he’d scored off Craigslist, their shelves crammed with file boxes where he kept the rest of the city: Scienceville was now much too big to fit on the floor in its entirety, so much of it was stored according to a catalogue system he’d invented. There were also a number of books on city planning and architecture, some well-thumbed and some hardly touched, and nearly a dozen volumes of history. Yet more boxes contained detailed histories of Scienceville’s origins, and major events that had occurred since its founding.

Waverley was shaping up to be a new district on the absolute periphery of Scienceville. Most of the high street was still missing; Joel didn’t need to refer to any of his files to know that following the Nuclear Treaty of 1962, negotiated and signed in Scienceville’s Halls of Justice, there had been an influx of East Germans and Russians once nuclear weapons facilities on both sides of the Iron Curtain began to shut down. Most of the new immigrants, Joel had decided, would have wound up in Waverley, and would almost certainly have arrived with pretty specific requirements when it came to their culinary habits. Waverley’s high street shops would need to sell both Russian and German food, and books and newspapers in both languages as well.

Joel sat by the desk, opened his Macbook and spent the next hour browsing for books on German and Russian immigration, until he found what he needed and clicked Buy.

‘So,’ said Chase on Friday morning, ‘my cousin’s back in town. Sherylyn? Who just got divorced?’

Phil let out a soft groan from across the teacher’s lounge, his laptop balanced on his knees. Chase glared at him, but Phil just grinned around the bagel half-wedged into his mouth.

‘You met Sherylyn, right?’ asked Chase, turning back to Joel.

‘Didn’t she get married just last year…?’

Chase made a face. ‘Didn’t last long. Just moved back here for a job. Maybe you could…take her out and show her around?’

Max grunted around his bagel. ‘You don’t want her, I’ll take her.’

‘Shut up, Phil. You’re a pig.’ Chase looked hard at Joel. ‘You’d be doing me a favour. Otherwise she’s going to sit around all evening at home with Marge bitching about her ex and I’ll have to listen.’

‘I’d love to,’ said Joel. Chase’s face brightened. ‘But maybe some other time.’

‘Don’t be so pushy,’ said Phil, putting his laptop back in his duffel bag and moving towards the door. ‘But if he’s not available, I am.’

You have a reputation,’ said Chase. ‘And not a good one. Joel…’

Joel stood. ‘I’ll think about it.’

‘You mean no,’ said Chase. ‘You always mean no.’

‘I’ll see you Saturday.’

‘How long’s it been, Joel? Getting on what, four years?’

‘Five,’ said Joel, stepping towards the door Phil was holding open. ‘Let Phil take her. He knows more places.’

Phil nodded vigorously. ‘I know all the best restaurants.’

‘You know,’ Chase said to Phil, ‘there’s a reason Marge made me promise not to tell you she was back in town. Joel, I-’

Joel just shook his head, laughing, and let the door swing shut behind him.

‘Saturday at six!’ Chase yelled through the closed door. ‘Barnaby’s before the game!’

The next day, Joel arrived at Barnaby’s to find Sherylyn sitting alone in a booth.

She darted a look at him. ‘You’re not-‘ She closed her eyes. ‘Ah, Jesus.’

Joel looked down at her, then at the other, mostly empty booths reaching into the dim interior of the bar. He couldn’t see Chase, or anybody else he knew.

‘Sherylyn,’ he said, sitting across from her. ‘I guess we’ve been set up.’

She peered at him. ’Did you know…?’

‘Not a clue.’ She fixed him with a look and he raised his hands. ‘Hands up. It’s the truth.’

She pushed at a paper napkin, then sat back, shaking her head. ‘Marge…I’m gonna kill that fucking girl. I told her not to…‘ She glanced at him through a tuft of hair. ‘Look, it’s not that you’re not-‘

’It’s fine.’ Joel shrugged. ‘We could call it a night and engage in some angry texting, or…’

She looked at the door, then at Joel, then towards the bar, tapping long fingernails on the table top.

‘What the hell,’ she said at last. ‘You couldn’t possibly be worse than the last guy she set me up with.’

‘How did that go?’

‘We got married. You going to buy me a drink or not?’

They talked small stuff for the next couple hours, how little San Jose had changed since they’d both graduated, Sherylyn a few years after Joel. She’d gone to work in the New York Museum Archives before getting married and nearly as quickly divorced.

She gradually moved around the booth until they were sitting side by side and touched his arm a couple of times. She’d known Dale, but only from a distance, Dale having graduated when Sherylyn was still finishing high school.

‘Marge mentioned you were known as an artist these days.’

He took a sip of his Moosehead. ‘You really want to know?’

She nodded, and he told her about Scienceville, and how it brought focus back into his life after Dale died. To his surprise, she didn’t get the judgemental look people sometimes did.

In fact, it wasn’t long before she asked if she could see it.

She kneeled on the floor by his side, peering down at the streets and alleys and buildings laid out across the basement floor, then up at the myriad sketches Joel had pinned to the walls to help him construct the map in all its myriad, swirling colours.

‘This is amazing, Joel,’ she said. ‘I had no idea it was so…so detailed. And you really just made all of this up?’

‘I…sure.’ He nodded.

She laughed, her shoulder brushing his. By the time they’d found a taxi, they were both so drunk they were having to hold each other upright. ‘You don’t sound sure.’

‘After all this time, it feels real to me.’

‘What about the rest of the world?’ she asked. ‘Is it like Scienceville…wherever Scienceville is?’

‘Honestly, I don’t know. I never really thought about it for some reason.’

She put her hand over his, her gaze only slightly unfocused. ‘So what made you start it?’

‘The world’s full of failed utopias, some good, some bad, some crazy. I just wanted to imagine one that worked.’ He winced. ‘I was only thirteen when I thought it up, and I didn’t have any idea how things really worked.’ He’d used the coloured pens that came with the Vintage Craft Master World of Plants Poster Set his father gave him just a week before he walked out on Joel and his mother. ‘I put it away soon enough, but all those years later, after…’ He shrugged.

She gave him a sympathetic look. ‘I heard all about the accident.’

‘Mom was driving, Dale was beside her. Ice on the road, the truck driver lost control…’ he shrugged and forced a smile. ‘I guess that makes all this a coping mechanism.’

She was silent a moment, then leaned in to kiss him. Her lips, thought Joel, tasted of jasmine and cherries.

‘Well, Marge did say you were a bit different,’ she said when she pulled back. ‘Maybe you could show me the rest of your place?’

He woke in the morning alone and half-wrapped in his bedsheets to find a text message on his phone. Thanks Joel. It’s been a lousy week and a lousy year and you did a lot to make me feel better about myself. Take care - Sherylyn.

Something in the words told him he wouldn’t be seeing her again. For the first time in a long while he found himself wondering where he’d be in another five years, and if he’d still be on his own.

After breakfast, he made his way back down to the basement, intent on clearing up, and found he’d opened the folder where he’d put the two letters. He picked up the second one, from Natalie Donaldson, and read it again.

What the hell, he thought: you only live once.

Dear Ms Donaldson,

Thanks for your letter. I’m going to have to disagree with you about Atomic Road and Newton Avenue because I remember them incredibly well. Matter of fact, my parents worked at the particle research lab right where they intersect (the same lab, by the way, run by Dr Wu, after he escaped a Chinese prison through the fifth dimension). Were you there when the giant radioactive gorilla tried to climb up the top of the Halls of Justice back in 1998?

Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

- Joel Kincaird.

He couldn’t help smirking to himself right after he posted the letter. Giant radioactive gorilla. Let’s see how she likes that.

The reply came back just ten days later:

Hi Joel,

Well, I might not be remembering things exactly right, I’ll admit. I was pretty sure it was a giant mutant sloth with death ray eyes, not a radioactive monkey, and that it all happened way back in the Fifties before either of us was born. However, I do recall when I was six I was sure I’d be senile by thirty, so clearly my faculties are deteriorating right on schedule. We should compare notes so I can maintain what slim grasp I still have on sanity a little while longer. Besides, I’m sure we’d have a lot to talk about.

- Natalie

At the end of the letter, she had included her email address.

Joel had googled Milan, but not Natalie. He soon discovered that a Natalie Donaldson taught computer design at a local community college in Edinburgh. The photograph on the college website looked an awful lot like the one she had sent him.

‘Oh man. Oh Jesus.’ Phil held Natalie’s picture out at arm’s length. ‘You’ve been catfished.’

Joel stared at him, perplexed. ‘I’ve been what?’

‘Tricked,’ said Phil, tossing the picture back over. ‘Conned. Ask her to Skype and I bet she won’t because then you’d know she was faking. Why even waste your time, dude?’ he demanded, ‘why?’

‘I’ll admit to being a little surprised,’ said Chase, giving him a stare, ‘after hearing how things went the other night with Sherylyn.’

‘I don’t like being set up,’ said Joel, ‘and neither did she. Sure, she was nice, but I bet she told Marge she’s not interested in taking things any further. It was a one-off. ’

‘So…something happened?’ asked Phil, looking between them. Joel nodded. ‘And you’re writing to some lunatic instead?’ Phil cried out in anguish, clutching at his scalp. ‘Why?’ he hissed, ‘why?’

‘Shut up, Phil.’ Chase turned back to him. ‘Marge wondered if maybe you freaked Sherylyn out by talking about your, uh, hobby. Did you?’

‘Sure.’ Phil groaned. ‘Before she decided to spend the night,’ Joel added, ‘so I guess it wasn’t such a bad idea.’

Chase nodded in resignation. ‘You could still maybe call her,’ he said.

‘I don’t want to.’

‘Because this other woman - if it even is a woman - wrote this stupid letter?’

‘Sure,’ said Joel. ‘Why not?’

‘Because…’ Chase shook his head in resignation. ‘Fine. Have it your way.’ He looked Joel hard in the eyes. ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’

‘Of course not,’ said Joel, standing as the recess bell went. ‘Does anyone?’

The next weekend, he spent most of his time emailing back and forth with Natalie. It only took a few exchanges before they dropped any pretence about Scienceville being real, and he was surprised to learn just how much they had in common. Like him, she had suffered a terrible tragedy, losing both her parents and a sister in a car accident when she was nine.

Weeks passed, and then a month, and they emailed each other every night before finally moving to Skype. Natalie was first to broach the subject of meeting up. School was about to finish, she pointed out, and her college’s summer term was drawing to an end. He could see how nervous she was, how much she used her jokes to cover her shyness.

‘I’ve never been to Scotland,’ he said abruptly.

‘Then I guess I’ll have to show you around.’

A week later, on the morning of his flight, a large, stiff-backed envelope arrived, again from Fredrick Milan. Joel stared at it, knowing it must contain a picture of some kind - an illustration, or a photograph, perhaps. His taxi arrived and honked its horn and he thought about taking it with him, but instead dropped it on the table by the door. Mail from genuine lunatics was the last thing he needed, and there was a long flight ahead.

She picked him up at the airport half a day later, and drove him into Edinburgh, pointing at the castle brooding high on its rock, at the winding cobbled streets, at the pipers busking along Princes Street, the skirl of their bagpipes making her wince (I fucking hate bagpipes, she told him). They spent that first day walking around and taking in the sights, although she steered him away from the castle, claiming it was a tourist trap. Instead they climbed Arthur’s Seat, and he saw the whole town laid out before them as night descended.

At some point she took his hand and led him back to her cramped third-floor flat where they made noisy love until dawn.

‘So why did you write in the first place?’ he asked, as the first grey light showed through her bedroom window.

‘I saw your picture on the gallery website. You had this look about you like you were lost. Then I read about how you lost your family, and it reminded me of me. ’

‘You saw my picture online and you were struck by my overwhelming beauty?’

She punched his shoulder playfully. ‘I don’t know. Why does anyone do anything? I hate sitting around and waiting for things to happen. I’d rather make them happen, wouldn’t you?’

‘So basically you just felt sorry for me,’ he said with a grin.

They took off in her ageing Volkswagen and went for a long weekend drive through the Highlands. He told her about the show, and how his sister had been the one who first put the gallery in touch with him, and how some other gallery in New York now wanted to put Scienceville on display.

‘That’s amazing!’ she exclaimed. She was wearing the same grey slicker she’d worn in the photograph, taken, he learned, by an ex-boyfriend who went travelling in South America and never came back. ‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’

‘I only got the email the day before I flew over.’

‘Then I guess you’ve got extra motivation to finish the map,’ she said, steering carefully past some sheep that had invaded the narrow road ahead.

‘What makes you think it isn’t finished already?’

‘You said it wasn’t finished. That there was still more to be done.’

He was pretty sure he hadn’t said anything of the kind. ‘I only made the map in the first place to keep myself together after Dale died. It’s nice having the attention, but…I thought even before I came over here that maybe it was time to stop.’ He reached out and squeezed her arm. ‘Maybe I don’t need it any more.’

‘Well, maybe you shouldn’t stop,’ she said. ‘Not if you don’t think it’s finished.’

He laughed uneasily. ‘What does it matter? I’m glad I did it, because it brought me here. Maybe I’ll do something else now, something completely different and see if they want to put that in an art gallery too.’

‘You shouldn’t do that,’ she said, her voice abrupt.

He stared at her. ‘What are you talking about?’

She shook her head, then guided the car to a stop by the side of the road once they were past the sheep. ‘You’ve been working on it for five years now. I don’t want to be the reason you stopped doing something that means that much to you.’

‘But Natalie,’ he said carefully, ‘if you’re the reason, you’re the best possible reason. Surely…’

‘I just-‘ her face coloured, like she was angry, then she seemed to catch herself.

‘Sorry,’ she said, and forced a smile. ‘I’ll try and explain later.’

But they didn’t talk about it. Not that night, when they stayed in a former castle converted into a hotel, nor when they arrived back in Edinburgh the following night. They made love with the window open, the summer breeze cool against their skin, but Joel could sense something had changed and that it had to do with the map. Why, or how, he had no idea; but when he looked down at her, at her hair fanned around her face and those wide, bright eyes looking up at him, he couldn’t bring himself to ask just what it was.

He knew only that he did not want this moment to end.

He woke to darkness and knew he’d never get back to sleep. He made his way down the narrow, creaking stairwell to Natalie’s living room and pulled his Macbook out of its sleeve.

It wouldn’t start up; nothing but an error message on the screen. He put it back, silently cursing, then remembered Natalie’s computer in her office. Surely she wouldn’t mind if he just checked his email…

She had two big flatscreen monitors and a large stylus pad for drawing. He checked his email and was about to get up when he saw a folder on the desktop called Scienceville.

He clicked on it and found it full of image files. One, called Waverley, opened up to a picture of a high street somewhere in the American Midwest, but rendered with some graphics package.

He zoomed in on a shop and saw its sign was in Russian as well as English. The towers and swooping skyways of central Scienceville were visible in the distance, and rendered in exquisite detail.

It was like seeing them for the first time…indeed, almost like seeing them in real life.

He clicked on more pictures, icy tendrils encircling his heart. He was looking at Scienceville - but always from a distance. Its towers reached up from a far horizon, or above distant rooftops. There were mountains in the distance, but barely sketched in.

He selected more pictures and found himself looking at parts of Scienceville that had never been put in a show, posted online or seen by anyone but him. When he checked the dates, he discovered to his shock that some were apparently more than five years old…

A creak, from behind.

He turned to find Natalie standing by the door in a t-shirt that hung down to her bare knees. To his surprise, she looked as frightened as he felt.

‘How long has this been going on?’ he asked, the air cool and moist in his lungs.

‘It’s not what you think it is,’ she said, her voice husky.

He gestured at the screen, suddenly all too aware that he would have to get past her if he wanted to get out of the house. ‘How could you have known about all this before you even heard from me? How is it even possible?’ A thought occurred to him. ‘I told you about the letter from Milan. Was that really you?’

‘No. Look, I…‘She pushed a hand against her temple, sweeping it back through her hair. ‘No, but I do know him. We talked about how to approach you, and Fred…well, he kind of jumped the gun, so we-‘

‘We?’ Joel nearly shouted. ‘Who the hell is we?’

‘All right,’ she said with a shaky breath. ‘Cards on the table. There are maybe a dozen of us, including me and Fredrick Milan. We found each other online. There’s this book…’

The book, Joel learned, was called Scienceville. It had been published some in the 1950s by an obscure writer called Wolfgang Ramble, and told the story of a town that changed the history of the world and ushered in an era of unlimited peace and prosperity. Ramble never published anything else, and both he and his book soon faded into obscurity.

Milan, then still a young man, and having already dreamt of that same imagined city long before he first stumbled across the book, immediately wrote to Ramble.

‘I saw Milan’s art online,’ said Joel, remembering the unopened mail from Milan back home. ‘I didn’t see anything that made me think of Scienceville.’

‘That’s because none of that stuff is online,’ she explained. ‘But I can show you.’

No one, she explained, had ever shown the slightest interest in Milan’s paintings of Scienceville, which were far more traditional and representational than the abstract work he was now famous for. She stepped past Joel and tapped at the keyboard, opening a new folder and bringing up yet more images. She showed Joel a series of Milan’s paintings that struck him as bucolic, even kitsch, although immediately recognisable to him, if no one else. If you weren’t aware of their significance, they appeared utterly forgettable - like something you’d find in a thrift store.

Having made contact, Ramble and Milan kept in touch. After all, if two people who had never previously met could have powerful visions of the same imaginary place, who was to say there might not be a third?

But it wasn’t until the arrival of the internet that those few who dreamed of Scienceville finally found each other.

‘Every one of us had some tragedy in our lives that seemed to trigger the connection,’ Natalie explained. ‘Milan saw his entire family murdered by Nazis. Ramble found his parents dead after they killed themselves. Your dad left you, but it took your mother and your fiancé both dying to put you on the path. And…you know about me.’

‘Why not just tell me all this at the start?’ asked Joel.

‘And would you have believed me?’ She nodded at one of Milan’s paintings on the screen. ‘You didn’t believe him. ‘I never even thought of making a map of the city; none of us did. That you did has to mean something.’

Some of his earlier alarm began to creep back. ‘What do you mean it has to “mean something”?’

There was a wild gleam in her eyes he hadn’t seen before. ‘Scienceville reached out to us, Joel. We didn’t invent it - it brought us to it, don’t you see? It’s using us to find a way into the world.’

A sick feeling grew in the pit of Joel's stomach. He stood, pushing past her towards the door.

‘Where are you going?’ she asked, alarmed.

‘Nowhere,’ he lied, one hand on the frame as he looked back at her. ‘I just need time to think. None of this makes any sense.’

‘I didn’t mean you to find out like this,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry, I just didn’t think…’ she cursed under her breath. ‘Look. Just imagine, just for a minute, that Scienceville is real. Can you really tell me it isn’t?’

He hesitated at the door. ‘You can’t say it isn’t, can you?’ she said, triumph creeping into her voice. ‘You can feel it.’

‘It’s not real, Natalie.’

Even so, she was right about one thing: saying it somehow felt wrong.

‘But it could be real!’ she insisted. ‘Think about all the things that are wrong in the world. You read the news and you wonder just how many more generations we get before the human race dies out. That makes Scienceville all the more important - and why you have to finish the map.’

‘And what the hell do you think happens then?’

‘I think it’ll become real,’ she said.

Joel laughed. ‘We’ll just wake up one morning and Scienceville’s just…there?’

She slammed a hand on the wall beside her hard enough to make him jump. ‘Just listen. One of us is a theoretical physicist. He says there’s all these multiple realities stacked one on top of another, each one with a very slightly different history from the next. He thinks the fact we all dream about Scienceville means those universes could merge somehow. If he’s right, we could make Scienceville real. Wouldn’t you rather live in that world?’

‘Look,’ he said carefully, ‘when I was a kid, dreaming all this up, I had no idea how the real world worked. Scienceville isn’t a democracy. It doesn’t answer to anyone or anything, and that’s just one reason the world’s up as big a mess as it is. A bunch of mad scientists with made-up jetpacks and robot servants aren’t going to fix one damn thing, real or otherwise.’

‘Joel, I-‘

‘I don’t believe in utopias,’ he said abruptly. ‘They all turn into nightmares the moment someone tries to make them real. If I thought even for a second that anything you told me is true, I’d…I’d burn the damn map.’

Natalie stared at him, mute.

He went upstairs and got dressed and packed the rest of his clothes as fast as he could. She didn’t say anything at all until he got down to the front door.

‘Please, Joel,’ she said at last. ‘Don’t leave. Not like this.’

‘Then at least admit you made all of this up.’

She stared at him in fury. She had been holding something in her hand, and she threw it at him. He put his arm up to shield himself.

‘Fuck you, Joel,’ she snarled. ‘Look, why don’t you? Look!’

A mouldering paperback, decades old, lay on the pavement by his foot. It was called Scienceville, and the author’s name was Wolfgang Ramble. Some of its pages had come loose when it hit the pavement.

He stared down at it, then picked up his case and made his way down the street and away from Natalie, he hoped, for ever.

Eighteen long hours and a change of ticket later, Joel arrived back home to find summer had given way to autumn. He picked up Milan’s envelope from the table he’d left it on, carrying it down to the basement and staring at the finely detailed streets and districts laid out all across the floor.

For the first time, the sight of it frightened him.

He opened the envelope: it contained a colour photocopy of one of the images Natalie had shown him. He threw it into a metal wastebasket along with an accompanying letter, sight unseen.

He went upstairs and lay back on his own bed, imagining towers and buildings spontaneously erupting from the soil like great glistening teeth, and remembered what he had said about destroying the map. As if Natalie, or Milan, or anyone else had the right to change history, to judge the real world errant and alter it according to their whim…

He closed his eyes. He dreamed he was looking out his kitchen window, but instead of the row of maples fronting his neighbour’s houses, he saw Scienceville’s broad boulevards, driverless electric cars floating high above buried superconductor strips and dodging pedestrians and bicycles with silent computerised efficiency. Cargo blimps floated far overhead like shoals of fat fish, and when he stepped outside and felt the warm sun on his face, he somehow had the sense that this was more than just a dream.

He woke, sweat clinging to his skin. He checked his watch and saw he’d been asleep for more than twelve hours.

Then he heard a thump from downstairs. When it was followed by a faint squeal, he knew without doubt someone had just opened the basement door.

Back when they got engaged, one of Dale’s cousins gave her a gun and made a joke about shooting him if he ever got out of line. They put it in a shoebox hidden beneath a loose plank behind the toilet cistern.

Joel dug it out as quietly as he could and loaded it, then dropped it in the pocket of his bath robe. He had no idea if the damn thing even worked after all these years, but he felt better for having it.

He crept downstairs and saw the back door lock had been jimmied. The basement door was fractionally open, and the lights were on. He heard low voices, then a muffled cough.

He grabbed hold of his keys, then stepped outside with his cellphone and dialled 911. The dispatcher told him to sit tight and wait for a car to arrive. Then he stepped back inside to listen again and heard a softer voice mixed in with the others: Natalie.

He made his way down the basement steps and found her there with two other men, standing around the edges of the map. One he recognised as Fredrick Milan; he was bent-backed and frail-looking, but his eyes were filled with a fierce energy. The other, whom he didn’t recognise, looked a few decades younger than Milan, with olive skin and white hair cut close to the scalp. He stared at Joel, clearly terrified. A number of folders had been opened and their contents carefully laid out across those few parts of the basement floor not already covered by the map.

Instead of anger, Joel felt only a devouring sadness. ‘What the hell are you people doing?’ he demanded.

‘Mr Kincaird,’ said the second man, his voice trembling. ‘We came here as fast as we could. We were afraid you might make a terrible mistake.’

‘Who the hell are you?’ Joel demanded.

‘His name is Jose Vargas,’ said Natalie, speaking up. ‘He’s the physicist I told you about. Please, Joel. We’re here to help you.’

‘Help me?’ He barked out a laugh. ‘Just get the hell out of my house and never come back!’

‘The map,’ said Milan. ‘You told Natalie you intended to burn it. We are here to prevent that.’

His voice radiated surprising authority. The way he looked at Joel made him feel as if he were the intruder, rather than the other way round.

‘I said you didn’t really mean it,’ Natalie blurted. ‘I got the first flight I could and they insisted on meeting up with me.’

‘What I do with the map,‘ Joel said evenly, ‘is my choice.’

‘You must not harm it,’ said Vargas, his voice shrill. ‘You would be committing a terrible crime!’

Milan put a hand on Vargas’s arm. ‘Mr Kincaird,’ the old man said, ‘I understand how strange all this must be, how very unreal. But despite appearances we are all three of us sane, and quite sincere. I know Natalie told you about our shared dreams and experiences. Until now, all we had were unrelated fragments of Scienceville: but your map, we believe, is the final piece necessary to conjure that world into existence. We have known all this - felt it - for much of our lives, as did Wolfgang Ramble.’ He pointed at Joel. ‘As have you.’

‘No.’ Joel flexed his fingers, but couldn’t help remembering the dream. It had been so vivid, so real. ‘I think you’ve all convinced yourselves,’ he said. ‘Like some insane cult.’ Milan was an old man, and Vargas was shaking like a leaf. Adrenaline made the blood thump in his ears.

‘He has a gun,’ said Milan, very calmly, his eyes on the bulge in Joel’s robe pocket.

Vargas muttered something under his breath in Spanish that might have been a prayer. Joel slid the gun out and held it by his side with the muzzle pointed at the floor.

‘Joel, please…’

Milan shook his head sadly. ‘He doesn’t want to listen, Miss Donaldson. Nothing will convince a man who doesn’t want to be convinced, not with all the evidence in the world.’

‘You’re wrong,’ said Joel. ‘It’s not that I don’t want to believe. I do. But if what you’re saying is true, what does it matter if there’s a map or not? It’s just paper and ink. What the hell does it matter if we believe in it or not?’

‘Then why the dreams?’ asked Milan. ‘Why the obsession? Listen to what Jose has to say - the universe and how it works is far stranger than we can imagine.’

Sirens, in the distance. Coming closer.

‘What have you done!’ demanded Vargas.

‘I called the police,’ Joel replied.

Natalie stared at him. ‘You didn’t-‘

‘I heard intruders in my house,’ said Joel. ‘Why wouldn’t I?’

‘We need to get out of here,’ said Vargas.

Joel shook his head. ‘I locked the basement door. You’re staying right here until the cops arrive, all three of you.’

He stepped towards Vargas, who ducked out of his way, and picked up the metal wastebasket, placing it on the edge of his desk.

He turned so he could see all three of them, the gun still in his right hand, and used his left to scoop up some of the pages of the map from the floor. He shovelled them one-handed into the bucket, then slid a desk drawer open and extracted a lighter.

‘Joel,’ Natalie begged. ‘Stop.’

‘Even if I believed you,’ he said, his voice trembling, ‘you don’t have the right. No one does.’ He flicked the lighter on. ‘If I’d never heard from you, I might have gone right on working on the map. But not now. Not any more.’

He applied the flame to the edge of a sheet. It burned quickly, and within seconds bright orange flames rushed upwards. Joel heard a roaring in his ears, an express-train rush of blood that made him giddy.

The sirens drew closer, then faded into the distance once more.

‘He’s lying,’ Vargas shouted. ‘He didn’t call the police!’

But I did, Joel was about to say, when Natalie rushed him.

She grabbed for the gun, and he turned sideways to block her, his elbow knocking the wastebasket onto the floor. The gun went spinning into a corner, the contents of the wastebasket scattering across the map on the floor and sending up clouds of burning ash and smoke that blinded him.

He twisted away from her, coughing and gagging and his eyes smarting.

‘Put it out!’ he heard Vargas screech, as if from very far away. ‘Put it out!’

Joel’s vision cleared enough that he could see Natalie and the two men desperately trying to grab up as much of the map as they could. They didn’t appear to realise how quickly the flames were spreading, or that some of the wall hangings had also caught fire.

Soon the basement was filled with choking black smoke. Joel pulled his robe over the lower part of his face and felt along the wall with one hand until he had reached the stairs beneath the basement door. Then he realised with a terrible lurch he had dropped his keys, most likely when Natalie tackled him.

He twisted around, and saw nothing but grey and black billows of ash that blinded him.

It was getting harder to breathe. He stumbled back down the steps, desperate to find the keys before it was too late, and collided with someone. When he felt hands on his face, he knew without a doubt it was Natalie.

He tried to draw breath, but there was nothing left but smoke and ash. He felt it filling his lungs, hot and thick and choking. He clung to Natalie, but before long he felt himself spiralling down into a darkness that had no end.

With a soft hum, the fire engine lifted into the blue morning skies to join the rest of the morning traffic headed downtown.

‘We found four bodies,’ said Detective Harper, ‘one woman, three men, all in a basement locked from the inside. There’s signs of a struggle, but I can’t say anything definite until forensics file their report.’

‘Perhaps not,’ said the seven-foot, silver-skinned android facing him. ‘But if you were to make a preliminary conjecture…?’

Harper glanced at the nearby house. It stood on its own, surrounded by a small fenced lawn. Its walls were blackened, although the actual burn damage to the upper floors was minimal. A small white tent had been erected on the lawn to conceal the bodies they’d recovered.

When the android had shown up half an hour before, complete with the authorisation to take over the investigation, Harper had made it a point of honour to kick up as much of a fuss as possible. First he called the Assistant Commissioner, then the Commissioner, then the Assistant Mayor and finally the Mayor himself, demanding to know why a machine belonging to Scienceville’s High-Energy Physics Research Lab had been given the right to interfere in a police matter.

In the end, however, he had been forced to concede defeat.

‘All right,’ Harper replied. ‘I think they were terrorists, planning something big in time for Founding Day. One of them got cold feet and tried to destroy their plans, and there was a struggle. The fire spread so fast they probably didn’t even have time to react.’

‘I was given to understand,’ said the android, ‘that no bomb-making facilities were found - nothing, in fact, that might suggest terrorists or anything of that nature.’

‘Look,’ Harper snapped. ‘maybe they weren’t building bombs down there, but they did have highly-detailed hand-drawn maps of all of Scienceville’s major precincts, including all the research facilities. We found half-burned, hand-compiled histories not just of the city, but most of Scienceville’s leading civilians! Add the fact we can’t identify any of the deceased, let alone who even owns this property, and it’s not hard to guess these people were planning something unpleasant.’

‘Almost as if,’ suggested the android, ‘the house and its occupants dropped out of the sky from nowhere.’

Something in the way the android said this unsettled Harper. ‘I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of it.’

‘But why,’ the machine insisted, ‘would terrorists not only hand-draw maps, but make them large and detailed enough to cover an entire basement floor? And why hand-compile information about our citizens, rather than acquiring it online? Why not simply purchase maps of the city?’

Harper had no answer to that.

The machine nodded. ‘Thank you for your input, Detective, but this investigation is now a classified matter. If you could ask your men to finish up, we can bring in our own teams and-’

‘Now wait just one second,’ said Harper, his temper eroding. ‘I don’t care if it’s classified or not, I want to know why a research lab gets to take over a police investigation!’

The machine glanced over Harper’s head at the smouldering ruins, then back. ‘Very well then. But I can’t promise to make the matter any clearer.’

‘Go ahead.’

’Our current conjecture is that this house is proof of an imperfect merging of an abstract number of closely related alternate realities. It may in turn also represent proof of an underlying mechanism behind any number of inexplicable phenomena observed throughout history, ranging from sightings of the Yeti to reports of advanced civilisations hidden in remote valleys, to unidentified flying-‘

‘That’s enough.’ Harper could feel a headache coming on.

‘You did ask. Is there anything else I can do for you, Sergeant? Or can I bring my men in now?’

‘I’m good, thanks,’ he said with a sigh, picking up his jetpack and strapping it back on. ‘If you need me, I’ll be at police headquarters.’

The charred ruins of the house soon dwindled beneath his feet. He caught sight of the bronze statue in Waverley Park, of the giant radioactive ape that briefly terrorised the city back in ’58, and used it to orient himself. Farmlands soon came into view, great long rows of tiered hydroponics that stretched all the way to the mountains and the very edge of the force field that surrounded and protected Scienceville from the ravaged, lifeless continent beyond.

Before very long he had joined the rest of the morning traffic en route to downtown - and with any luck, he’d never have to think about that damn house and its mysterious inhabitants ever again.

This story originally appeared in Interzone.

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