Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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Ultima Thule

by J. B. Toner




“Travel across the floor,” Bartholomew said, “and fetch a fat old man a bottle of Scotch.”

Durance obeyed. Any mundane task, he knew, might hide some arcane lore-bit; and besides, his Falstaffian sensei grew functionally wiser when the spirits distilled his impatience.

“Quite the odyssey, hey?” Filling both his chair and whiskey glass to overflowing, Bartholomew Telos gestured sloshingly. “You went straight for a few steps, then curved to your left, and finally took a step up to reach the bar.” He sipped his drink, somehow managing to glower with his eyebrows expectantly raised.

Profound, Charles Durance thought. But the old man clearly expected some counter-mundanity. “Walked all the way back, too.”

“Indeed! Zags abounding, zigs galore.” Another weighty sip of Scotch; a moment’s rumination. Then: “Yet men talk of time travel as if there were but two directions. When did you last hear someone speak of going upward through time, or left? Of traveling diagonally through time, as if it were the fourth dimension, not the second?”

“Well. . .” The lean apprentice scratched his head. He’d expected to be surprised, but he was more surprised than he’d expected. “S’pose never. What would that even mean?”

“Ah, Charles.” Rising pachydermally, Bartholomew raised ponderous hands and wove them with sinister dexterity. “Or rather, merely Charl. Twin perpendicular eternities of Durances stretch away to both your left and right, through planes more rarefied than time and space, yet you stand there in isolation. Why, just there—” he jabbed a finger “—a scoundrel of a Chuck who brought tequila when I asked for Scotch. And over there, a lovely Charlie with the courtesy to fill his teacher’s tumbler.”

“So you’re talking about parallel realities.”

“Parallel to the sphere of space. At right angles to the spear of time.”

Durance frowned at the ledge of comprehension to which he so tenuously clung. “Okay, I think I see what you’re—wait, where the hell did that come from?”

Weaving innominate designs with enigmatic fingers, Bartholomew had casually produced a plump lime and was rolling it across his palms like a lazy juggler. “From a nearby self, obviously. The very one whose pupil just blighted him with a bottle of Mesoamerican worms.” He tossed the lime in the air, caught it, and revealed that it was now a salt shaker. “But we’re a stoic breed, we Barts, and make the best of troubles.”

“You—you can’t pass physical objects through Thule-space!”

The old man clapped his empty hands and sat back down. “Well, you know best.”

“Just. . . how?”

Gigantic sigh. “Charles, don’t you see. Passing a thought is far more momentous, more miraculous, than passing a piece of fruit. A thought is a configuration of neurons, as a lime is a configuration of molecules; but one distinction prevails. The neurons are configured by an act of Will, which is outside the spacetime fabric. Invisible, impalpable, the Will can weave and wield the atoms of the human brain. Every single time you lift a hand or entertain a thought, a miracle occurs: a glimmer from the immaterial realm impacts the corporeal universe. The fact that you can dialogue with adjacent Durances, in truth, is tiny compared with the simple fact that you can monologue at all. And as for handing a mere object from one reality to another—” he scoffed “—small beer, friend, small potatoes. The domain of milk and diapers.”

Durance opened his mouth, found no reply, and closed it again. He turned and stalked to the window, slashed by the everlasting rain.

The guttering neon city of Enoch was the cradle of the Way of the Polycosmic Fist. Practitioners of this martial art had learned through intense meditation to enter the Thule State, wherein the mind connected with the minds of alternate selves throughout the multiverse. Adepts (called Folders) could then enter timelines in which their fights went well, essentially folding their whole universe into a new reality predicated upon a single victory. It sounded like madness; but after all, there were infinite if-worlds in which Durance hadn’t brushed his teeth this morning. Every action, every choice, created an alternate timeline. The cunning warrior could use this multiplicity to his advantage.

But the power of Folding had limits. One of them was that only the mind could cross continuums, not matter. And yet, Bartholomew.

“All right. In theory, all right. If I can share data with another self, then I guess it makes sense that—”

“Stop, stop. Your difficulty arises from thinking of your other selves as separate people. They’re all you, Charles. There’s only one of you, as of me. Spread across all possibilities like the sections of a millipede, but all the same being. If one of you is holding a glass of Scotch, then you are holding a glass of Scotch.”

“But I’m not holding a glass of Scotch.”

“One of me says otherwise. But wait—one of you is now handing that glass to one of me. And here we are!” The old man raised his hand, now armed with a clinking glass of aromatic amber fluid. “Drink?”

“Gods, yes.” Durance snatched and gulped. “What you’re saying, what you’re doing—it’s not what I was taught.”

“Oh, I’m well aware. Your old master, Grey, and his teachers before him: infinitude itself at their fingertips, and they use it to punch opponents in the face. Or, to be fair, let us take my brother Nathaniel: free to roam the very vaults of the multiverse, and he doles out his hours fondling commodities in the stock market. Too focused, the lot of them, on using Thule for gain to train themselves in pushing beyond the possible.”

Durance had come to his florid new sensei by way of a quarrel between the Church of Gnosis and the Telos Corporation. Peter Grey and Bartholomew’s brother, representatives (respectively) of the most powerful organizations in Enoch, had used him to pass notes to one another until his accelerating use of Folding had run him afoul of the Telechaotic Effect: an iffish undercurrent in the Polycosmos that brought about the most bizarre improbabilities. Thus, by chance, he’d met Bartholomew in Dill’s Bar. The rest, as they say, was a trillionfold googolplex of converging alternate histories.

He finished his drink. “As long as we’re already shattering my synapses—what did you mean by going diagonally through time?”

“That? Simplicity. As you move laterally into a parallel timeline, you also move into the past or future of that universe.”

“Hell’s goblins, you can do that?”

A sudden shout like a thunderclap: “Charles!” He jumped, and the half-melted ice cube flew from his glass and clattered on the tiles. “Will you not cease from thinking like a microbe? Who are you, man? When are you Durance of Enoch? At this instant? Or this one, or this? When is a man complete? Even death is but the drop of a moment in the flood of a life. No, your true self is all of you, wholly present in every lonely blink of future and past. All your possible selves throughout the multiverse, and all your bygone selves and selves as yet to be. An army of millipedes. But a single mind, a single Will. Mind, Will, these alone are unbounded by time and space. These alone transcend. Every instant of your life is you, and you will learn to be present, perceiving, and active in all of them at once.”

“Bartholomew, you’re talking about godlike power.”

The old man shook his head. “The consciousness of an Ascended Folder, such as you shall become, may span the entirety of Creation; but the gods are those who precede Creation itself. The gods are those who Create.”

Without even thinking about it, Durance flicked into the Thule State, reached into a neighboring cosmos, and accepted a triple bourbon from a sympathetic self.

The corners of Bartholomew’s eyes crinkled. “Nicely done. Entering Thule by instinct is the next step after entering by meditation. But when your training’s done, you’ll simply be in Thule all the time.”

“For the love of the Archons, why me? And please don’t say I asked for it, I know I asked for it. Why say yes?”

Solemnity’s weight. “Because the gods are not alone. Other things exist outside Creation, and threaten it. Threaten all. Warriors are needed.” And the tiniest trace of gentleness, no sooner seen than gone. “Recollect, my friend, that I warned you. It’s already too late to go back.”

“. . .What things? What things outside Creation?”

“There’s no room in your consciousness, yet, for the answer to that question. You’ll glimpse the enemy when you break the limits of Folding.”

Durance heaved a sigh. “Fine. Then tell me this: you mentioned moving upward through time. What did you mean by that?”

“Hit me.”

“Do what now?”

“Inertia exists in extra-dimensional space as well as in our own. I can’t lift you except by using your own momentum. Now use your vaunted Polycosmic Fist and hit me.”

Not for a picosecond did the apprentice believe his attack on the master would connect. But once again he obeyed, expecting to be surprised. And once again, he was more surprised than he could possibly have expected.

Hoping to ventilate his confusion and hyper-existential fears, he launched his most powerful technique. All over the multiverse, there were realities in which he was standing a third of an inch to the left—a quarter of a millimeter to the right. A step closer to his opponent, a half step farther away. A million might-have-been Durances, stuffing the dim-lit room. And the world-smashing confluence of all those selves, punching from every conceivable direction at once. If that move had landed, Bartholomew would have been splattered like a watermelon.

It didn’t land.

As soon as he entered Thule, he became aware of strong hands gripping him. They didn’t grab him suddenly; rather, he realized they’d been there for some time, already holding him tight. He remembered that he was sparring with a man who was, apparently, capable of fluent communication with his own past selves: capable of manufacturing a universe in which a Graham’s Number of Bartholomews had been lying in ambush all along. With a gelid frisson, he saw that these restraining Thule-fingers might have been clutching him intangibly for hours, awaiting his assault. They could have made a “preemptive counterstrike” at any moment; but what they couldn’t do was pull him into Thule-space. That, he had to do on his own.

Now that he was here, however. . . The hands, the clutching, uncountable hordes of them, dragged him away from the infinities he knew, the eternities he understood. Into deep waters, into ancient silence. Into dark.

Alien time-flow. Five senses meaningless. Awareness—dawning—something new. We learn the concrete first—Mama, blanket, milk—then the abstract—causality, perspective, time—and then we die. But now something else, something new—another category. Beyond abstraction.

The level of pure Will. Here, the languid plutocrat’s agnosticism failed. Here at the ultimate macrocosm, there was nothing but the Absolute Choice: to make or destroy. And from the profoundest depth of his innermost being, Charles Durance chose. Had always chosen, would always choose. He was an ally of the Everlasting Makers.

In this vestibule of Creation, he discovered a new sense, a Will-sight, whereby he gazed down across the curving sweep of aeons. Bright clouds, filled and driven by divinity, swiftly coalesced into spinning orbs of golden radiance—swelled into crimson vastness—burst in soundless conflagrations or collapsed in lightless abysms. All the while, they hurtled outward from the center point where the spirit of the Makers exploded in the nothingness and breached the Void. Outward, through miles and millennia without fathom, till at last they began to slow. To cool.

Then the two Folders went rocketing back down through time. For a moment, Durance felt the floor against his soles and smelled the whiskey—but their temporal freefall continued. He caught a glimpse of the terrifying focus in Bartholomew’s eyes, and the lids moving ever more slowly in a glacial blink; then he saw the photons coming at his own eyeballs; then darkness came again.

His Will-vision returned as they entered the microcosm. Glimmering luminescent sphere-systems whirled around him, charged with the energy of the gods. As the zeptoseconds ticked by, the systems crashed into each other again and again, fusing and splitting in kaleidoscopic patterns. As he descended to even greater speed and smallness, the quantum systems became a seething froth of sheer trans-corporeal Will, a boiling sea that flowed from the Place beyond all things.

Then back. He drew a long, deep breath through his nose and opened his eyes like a man awakening from years of slumber. Without a word, Bartholomew handed him a drink.

Durance fell into a chair. “Good fight,” he mumbled. “We’ll call it a draw.”

His sensei cracked a smile. “Magnanimous.”

“I feel about fifty years older.” He wiped his brow, and his palm came away red. He’d been sweating blood. “I already regret asking this, but where the hell do we go from there? You said I’d glimpse the enemy, but all I saw was stars and atoms.”

“When you break the limits of Folding, I said. There’s one more step to go.”

“That was the most harrowing experience of my life, old man. I dunno if I can handle another step.”

“You can.”

“Why?”

“You’re on the side of Creation, Charles. That means Creation is on yours. Have some faith in the Powers you serve.”

“. . .What’s the last step?”

Bartholomew lowered himself into a chair across from Durance. Leaned forward, resting his massive elbows on his massive knees. And fixed the younger man with a stare like a symphony in a sepulcher. “Know this. Progress along this road is not unilinear. If your Way of the Fist is a line, you’ve just been shown a square. You’re about to become a cube, and it will shred the page it’s written on. It cannot do otherwise.”

“Then how are you still sane?”

“Pish, that’s easy. Of all the multitudinous Barts in existence, none is ever sober.”

“Funny.”

“Immeasurably serious. You miss the significance of the statement. Multiverse theory mandates that for every reality in which a man is sober, an alternate reality exists in which he isn’t.”

“So?”

“So it’s possible to transcend the multiverse. If, if, every last one of your infinite iterations converge upon a single act.”

The young man opened his mouth, found nothing to say, and closed it.

“The act can be whatever you like: anything at all. But it must unite you in a single moment, a single mind. All of you.”

Charles Durance was a master martial artist, and a genius Folder. After what he’d seen today, he retained no doubts or misapprehensions about his teacher’s words. He heard, and he saw. Part of him thought wearily it might be wise to wait, recuperate from the exertions of the lesson; but most of him thought, Aw screw it, let’s do it.

He entered Thule.

Serried unthinkabilities, Durances by the duodecillion, extended to his left and right in the timeflow. Realities exactly the same as his, but for the position of a single hydrogen atom in the Pleiades. Those selves fell quickly into line. But as he stretched ever further into the Polycosmic byways, he began to sense incarnations of himself who differed more substantially. Durances who lacked his training, his conviction, his Will. Durances on drugs, Durances with innocent blood on their hands. Dark Durances who brooded on destruction—alter-selves opposed to the Makers of All, twisted by hatred or power, thirsting for ruin.

But such is any mind, he thought. Every human Will is riddled with bits of smaller wills asking for conflicting things. He felt it every day when he got home: part of him wanted to train, part of him wanted to sleep, part of him wanted to sit on the couch and eat chips. It was only natural that an over-mind filling all of Creation would contain aspects that quarreled with each other. And yet, in some fundamental way, they were he, and he they. They shared something, some quantum quiddity that made them all Charles Durance. Who was he?

I’m a fighter. Let’s start with that.

Slowly. . . slowly. . . he curled his hand into a fist. The curling rippled out through all realities. A splish presaging a tsunami. The endless ranks of Durance, infinity after infinity, began to clench their fists. From one end of Creation to the other. A single act, united.

And it happened. He opened a single pair of eyes and saw the whole of existence. All possibilities fused in one super-dimensional awareness, all pasts and futures, macrocosmic, microcosmic, ultimate. The limitations of potential snapped like twigs. He saw the gods.

He was back in Creation’s vestibule, his Will-vision keener than ever; but no longer as a drifting multiversal fragment. This time, he was a completed being, wholly Real, and this time, he could turn. As an Ascended consciousness, he could gaze down upon all times, all places at once—or turn upwards, to behold the Making-Place.

It was not, of course, a “place” in any sense he could have envisioned in that bygone life before his Ascension. It was (it IS) a state of being: the state occupied by the uncreated Wills that forged all things from nothingness.

A Presence approached. Not as a man might walk toward another on the street; rather, Durance now saw that physical motion was simply a shadow, a metaphor, of the movements of thought in this demiurgic empyrean. By thinking of Durance, the Presence was there with him.

Here, there could be no deception, no misunderstanding. The being from before eternity unveiled its Will to Durance, and he perceived that he was welcome here. That the gods wished him well, and were pleased with his work. He in turn Willed allegiance to the Creators, and to their creatures, whom he fought to defend.

And by thinking of the battle, he thought of the enemy. And by thought-travel and Will-sight, he saw. He saw the hole in everything. Saw Nothing.

Behind the gods, like the lip of a precipice, the Void. But no mere absence: it had a Will—no, an anti-Will—of its own. To suck all Wills, all existence, into itself. To uncreate.

Disgust and dread filled him like smog, and he fell from his Ascended state. A moment of blackness—then he found himself sitting on the floor.

Laboriously, Bartholomew lowered himself and sat cross-legged by his protégé. “Welcome to the fight.”

“That thing. That Nothing. It was horrible.”

“It’s beyond our power to contest the Void itself, but it has spawn. Little spreading cracks in the cosmos. They’re known as the Apophasis.”

Durance frowned. “That sounds familiar.”

“It’s a rhetorical device. Saying something by explicitly not saying it. As in, ‘I won’t say I told you so.’” Absent-mindedly plucking a mug of ale from the multiverse, the old man took a lengthy draught. “They’ve been among us, I fear, for an awfully long time.”

“Yeah, it’s coming back now. Some of I have met them before.” He slipped into the new grammar without even realizing it. Now that he had Ascended once, it seemed, his full Polycosmic self remained quietly in the background, ready with memories and knowledge. And opinions. “Apparently, some of I like them and some of I don’t.”

“Tiresomely common, you’ll find. The more you Ascend, the better you’ll grow at consensus.”

“How do we fight them?”

“That’s your next lesson, but I think we’ve done enough for today. Let’s get down to the serious drinking.”

“Bart, there’s one thing I don’t get.”

“Just the one, hey?”

“When we first met, you were slouching around Dill’s Tavern mooching beers. How is that same guy an ultra-universal warrior against the anti-gods?”

Bartholomew gave a tired smile. “It’s who I was. When I crave respite from my toils—which is often—I revert. Nathaniel and I discovered Folding as young men, and I deduced that there was no point in anything. Whatever I might do, another me had done the opposite. Whatever I desired, another me had already obtained. For decades, I worked very hard at doing very, very little. But, as you no doubt intuit, many things change after one’s first Ascent.”

Durance fished a pint of stout from the spacetime fabric. “How’d you make your first?”

“The same way I do everything.”

“Drunk?”

“Just so. As Alexander Pope observed long since, ‘In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts’—but I, possessing neither bravery nor youth, employ an equalizer. I was embroiled in a drinking game one night with some particularly boisterous alter-Barts, and we tempted the highest Arts conceivable. Our competition ramified throughout the cosmoi until, in one fateful moment, every one of me raised a glass in concert. And here we are.”

“A stupid accident.”

“Stupid, doubtless. But, having seen the overarch of interlinking destiny, you can hardly question that there’s a design behind it; whether you care for the design is a separate issue. The gods choose whom they choose, and it’s up to the chosen to accept the call.”

The newly Ascended Folder sat on the floor and drank his beer in silence. Rainfall rattled on the window.

“I can’t wait till tomorrow,” Durance said finally. “Tell me how to fight them.”

Bartholomew clapped him on the back and then hauled himself to his feet. “Let’s go for a walk.”

Orange and purple neon lit the streets. Steam rose from every sidewalk grate, and the undercity thrummed with fifty-mile subtrains. Buzzing autocars splashed through the dreary mist of smoke and drizzle; weary peds trudged through the litter of cigarettes and sandwich papers. Eructating winos sprawled in doorways.

Teacher and student trod the streets with confident wariness, clad in the hooded cloaks (grey and green, respectively) worn by all the folk of Enoch, coated in a bead-sheen that dryly shed the dirty raindrops. Durance had lost track of the time, but it didn’t matter: except for a few hours in the late morning, it was always dusk in this town.

“Where we heading?” he asked.

“I have no idea,” Bartholomew replied, so decisively that it sounded like the perfect plan.

“Okay, I’ll rephrase. Why are we walking?”

“To give chance a chance.”

“What in— How about we find a universe where you give the occasional straight answer?”

“Your old master, I believe, taught you about the Telechaotic Effect. The more we Fold, the more we’re assailed by coincidence. But of course, in the long view, there can be no such thing. What our temporal myopia forces us to treat as chance, is in fact the working-out of vibrant fate-strands plucked by our own choices and those of our fellow beings. The fact that we cannot typically read those strands does not excuse us from following them. If you don’t know precisely where to go, it’s best to pick a direction and simply go. As long as you’re taking action, the powers we describe as chance and luck have the opportunity to operate. If you sit and do nothing, luck will still find you—but in those cases, it’s rarely good.”

Durance strode along with a scowl. “So I’ll know what to look for when I see it.”

“Precisely.”

“I see it.”

A tall, cadaverous fellow in a brown cloak was wobbling down the sidewalk in their direction. From a block away, Durance could see a loosely held bottle of Nolo in his hand: a new brand of “relaxing beer” from the Telos Corporation. He’d avoided the stuff on principle, as the inimical Nathaniel was the company’s CEO, but reports on its flavor and effects were mostly positive. There were a few whispers to the effect that some kind of opiate had been secreted into the recipe, but several reputable studies had already exonerated the crafters of the beer. It was less than a speck of a blip on Durance’s panorama.

But now it caught his gaze and held it. He hardly noticed the drinker. An adumbration of his Will-sight snapped to attention when he saw the Nolo, and he recognized the real spirit in that bottle. Infinitesimal, a tithe of the Planck-length, but present and pulsing: a fragment of the Void.

“I cling to the hope,” Bartholomew murmured, “that my brother is unaware.”

“It’s his company,” Durance said through clenched teeth, as the man with the bottle walked by. He leashed the urge to snatch it and smash it on the ground. The man, he knew, would simply buy another.

“Built on his polycosmic abilities, I know. But ‘coincidence’ can serve the other side as well as ours. It’s not improbable that Dark Folders have found their way into his ranks without his knowing.”

“Dark Folders. You mean servants of the Void.”

“And wielders of Apophasis. Come, let’s get ourselves a drink. I feel an unwelcome tinge of sobriety creeping in.”

They entered the first bar they saw: a hole-in-the-wall sort of place, like all the bars in Enoch, called the Overhang. The barkeep was a broad-shouldered matronly woman with dark hair and clandestine smile-lines on her face. “Getcha, boys?”

“Good morrow, madam,” Bartholomew said expansively. “Would you perchance have Nolo on tap?”

“Sure do.”

“A brace of pints, then, by your leave.” The old man pulled kopins from an empty pocket and stacked them on the counter. “And keep the change.”

“’Preciate it.” She poured two glasses and set them on the bar.

They sat.

“Oh, beer,” Bartholomew sighed. “My truest ally, all these years. A cruel fate made you the chariot of the foe.”

Durance peered into his beer, and it was the tomb. To guzzle any filth, any poison, would be preferable to a single sip of that ghoulish brew. “Do we have to?”

“Alas.”

“Well, bottoms up.”

They drank.

“Now what?”

“Now the fight. They feed on dreams, on what’s best in us, and mediocrity is their excreta. Prepare.”

As Durance sat tensely on the barstool, a gentle lassitude crept into his limbs. One by one, his muscles unclenched, and his mind relaxed into reverie. He found himself daydreaming as the pleasant torpor spread, and the drive to actualize those dreams grew faint. It was sweet to sit and think on things he might have done.

No. I’m a fighter.

Forewarned, his spirit quickly rallied against the soft, warm slop of non-being. He shook himself and entered the Ascended Thule state—Ultima Thule, as he would later come to think of it.

The millipede. He saw his future unspooling through the timescape: himself at this bar drinking Nolo five seconds from now, himself at this bar drinking Nolo five decades from now. Sinking into entropy, rotundity, decay. He saw the ranks of millipedes on either side, all possible future selves, every conceivable choice and destiny. And he saw the easy confluence as they merged in the single tepid pool of squandered potentialities. Drowned in Nolo. Drowned in Void.

Never.

With all his infinitude, with all the power of Creation, he rebelled. Somewhere in the omnicosmic smash of deities and devils, there would always be room for the Will of a single soul, and Charles Durance would not be swallowed in banality.

The floor rocked gently, and the bottles on the bar-shelves rattled. The tendress looked around and muttered, “The hell was that?” And the other patrons glanced up, shrugged, and returned to their beverages.

Durance was back on his stool. Bartholomew sat next to him, smiling broadly. “Well fought, my friend. A strong beginning.”

“What just happened?”

“A little detonation. The Apophasis departed this establishment, and all surroundings for at least a mile or two. It’s not the war’s end, to be sure, but it’s a tidy skirmish won.”

“I’ll take it. Glory to the gods, I’m tired.”

“Come on, Charles. You’ve earned a night’s sleep. Tomorrow the real training begins.”



THE END


© 2019 J. B. Toner

Bio: J. B. Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College and holds a black belt in Ohana Kilohana Kenpo-Jujitsu. He's published work with Asymmetry, Aurora Wolf, Brick Moon Podcast, Crimson Streets, Danse Macabre, Horror Zine, Liquid Imagination, Silver Blade, Theme of Absence, and Unfit magazines, as well as a novel with Sunbury Press and an upcoming novel from Beacon Publishing Group.

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