Substrate Research Station

When one stumbles drunkenly into the noisome alleyway between The Dodge Room and the boarded up shop to the east, one might notice a corroding metal door between two of the cabaret's overflowing garbage cans. This door is unmarked, firmly barred from the inside, and featureless save for a closed viewing slot at about eye level; no handle, keyway, or visible hinges present themselves to the observer, and the tolerances of the doorjamb are so tight that it looks like the door could even seal out the air. For most drunkards, the door is merely a curiosity - a place to drop trash, sleep off the worst of a buzz, or fight another barfly before the liquid courage can fade away.   Would that this were the truth.   Tonight, in an alcoholic haze, you find yourself in the same old alleyway, the stench of yesterday's kitchen scraps causing your eyes to water. This time, though, as you reach to stabilize yourself against the old door, you hear a faint click - and, just that quickly, find yourself falling through a blindingly-lit corridor. The walls here, padded with a riveted quilt of some indistinct, brilliant white fabric, are a dazzling contrast to the bespoke decay of the rusty metal door which has clicked softly shut behind you. Strange, pale-white rods above you illuminate the corridor in a cooler shade than any of the incandescent lamps you're used to seeing, emitting a faint buzzing sound that threatens to start your hangover headache early.   The faint tang of ozone pricks your nostrils as you right yourself, your buzz mellowed by a sudden, phantasmal sense that you do not belong here, that this is not a natural place, that you have committed a sin by trespassing beyond the unknown door. Still, despite your misgivings, your curiosity is drawn to the room beyond the corridor - the apparent source of the metallic smell. A thick curtain, reminiscent of the privacy screens one might find in a hospital room, separates the corridor from whatever lies beyond. What could this place be, you wonder, and who is keeping it so immaculate when it opens into that dingy alleyway? Perhaps, you reason, you could speak to the owner of this place and at least apologize for your intrusion. And, if you get a chance to look around and have something interesting to tell your drinking buddies next time you come to the Room, well...   Reaching the end of the corridor, you part the curtains and find yourself looking into a cube-shaped room about fifteen feet on a side. Curious, you think. Shouldn't The Dodge Room's floor only be ten feet up from street level? Again, a nagging sensation in your mind tells you that something is off about this place. The whole southern wall is stacked with two tiers of glass-faced sample cabinets, the large bell jars within laden with brightly-colored fluids, some of which seem to twitch or pulsate when you see them out of the corner of your eye. The northern wall has another set of two tiers, only these have a small kitchen, open shower, and lavatory on the bottom, while the top is arranged with a set of bunks. Opposite the doorway in which you now stand, the western wall is arrayed with a large desk strewn with notebooks, writing utensils, and what seems to be a vertical lightbox of some sort. All of the furnishings, from the spiral stairwells to the top tiers to the cabinetry and furniture, are comprised of sterile steel and white cloth - a rather spartan affair for what is manifestly a place where one is expected to live and work for long periods.   Presently, your eye is drawn to a large, elaborate journal page open on the desk. You walk over, making careful footfalls as though every patter of your Voxelian suede boots risks drawing the spirits of the Celestial Realms to smite you for your trespass. After what feels like an eternity, you arrive at the desk and begin to read:  
...really don't understand why the boss bothered. The concept is interesting - five spatial dimensions, with the subjects stuck maneuvering the unfolded three-dimensional nets - but surely it isn't a practical choice? We can't expect the True Instance to conform to such outre physical laws and still be inhabitable, can we? The gravitational fields and geological processes require constant outside manipulation by the construct blanks, which isn't ideal if we're looking for somewhere to escape heat death. Better to pick a version that has, you know, constants and geometry which match the ones we were evolved for. Then again, the fact that the poor saps here can't traverse out of the instance through normal means does make this Manifold quite the effective prison for dangerous defectives. I imagine that was the point all along - the boss doesn't make these instances willy-nilly. Still, to reiterate, I'm not sure what good my observations will do here.   Anyways, that's enough complaining. I have a job and I'm fixing to do it. You can expect my report by...
  "Who are you?"  
Voer Offur by Artbreeder
You whirl about to face the source of the voice behind you. A white-haired Human man in his mid-forties stand before you, his flesh as pale as though he'd never seen the sun and with sharp blue eyes that seem to bore into your soul. He regards you with the sort of hard look that one might reserve for a particularly interesting - but no less disgusting - undiscovered invertebrate. He grips a massive leather-bound tome in one hand while he uses the other to set down a steaming cup of coffee on the end table beside the door. His cold gaze never leaves you as he does this. "You gonna answer me or not? You're one of those hominids that speaks Voxelian, no?"   "W-who are you?" You stammer, momentarily forgetting your name in the wash of adrenaline and alcohol coursing through your synapses.   "That was my question, man" he says, furrowing his brow. "I'm Voer Offur." His eyes are hidden by the glare of the odd light tubes against the lenses of his thick scholar's glasses. He reaches into the book in his hands - the spine of which was emblazoned with the words Manifold Sky Compendium in shimmering League electrum - and forcefully grasps at a page within it. An icy pang of terror grips your bowels at the sound of the man's strangely tinny voice. "Not that you'll remember it. Sorry, chap, but this is really for the best." With a smirk he rips away the page - and with it, your memories of this pla-  
The Dodge Room regular slides you another pint. "So," he pleads, "go on. How did you end up in that ridiculous getup? Surely there's an epic story in there, bro. C'mon, you gotta tell me! It'll be good for a laugh at least..." You find yourself reiterating the same old words you feel you've told people dozens of times - first to the constable that found you, then to the psych doc sent to evaluate you, then the curious barflies who thought the part about the clown makeup was pretty funny. "Sorry, I can't... I can't... the page could not be found..."  
Why, yes, I did just have you read a short story which ended up being an overextended "404 - page not found" pun.   Sorry, but you've likely found your way here because you've stumbled onto a link to an article that's private, patron-only, incomplete, or missing entirely. Click here to go back to the Manifold Sky homepage, or use the back button in your browser to head back to where you came from. If you think you've been sent here in error, drop me a line in the comments and I'll see about getting the link fixed. Thanks for reading!

Cover image: by BCGR_Wurth


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