Orlando focused his attention on the task before him and ignored the knot of judges on the other side of the bridge. The assessment board meeting and the subsequent lukewarm response to his wormhole modelling had convinced him that without a decisive demonstration he’d look back on his time Navigating for Captain Fernanda with nostalgic fondness. He had no doubt that he’d forge a new local route, they’d have to appoint him as a Master. But his standing in the Guild and his ability to negotiate royalties on the new route would depend very much on how the panel judged his techniques. He had to prove without doubt the superiority of his approach, so after days of deliberation he had made the decision to alter his pattern. If it worked this new construct would take him to a viable world on the other side of the galaxy, a feat never achieved in the history of the Guild. He could be expelled for changing his masterwork without permission after passing the theoretical stages of his testing, but he was betting on spectacular success outshining any administrative irregularities.
It wasn’t all bad. The Guild couldn’t afford to be complacent about their place in the scheme of things, and diverted a significant portion of their considerable profits to finance the means by which the Republic expanded its borders. As a result this top-of-the-line Guild of Navigators ship was everything the old freighter he normally served on wasn’t. Designed for exploration, it had state of the art quantum manipulation equipment. He loaded his base programs, noting with satisfaction the speed with which the initial configuration took hold. This system outstripped even the most advanced simulators available to Journeymen in the Guild training facilities.
As the chair of the assessment board, Wainwright had exercised her right to lead the test voyage. Her voice cut across the background hubbub. ‘Are you ready to begin, Mr Orlando?’
At Wainwright’s words all attention shifted towards him. Orlando didn’t trust himself to speak and confined himself to a quick nod.
‘Well then, you’d better get started,’ said Wainwright.
Orlando took a deep breath, and brought up the holographic interface. Flares of orange and red dominated the threads. He began to adjust and equalise, his body in constant motion while he brought his consciousness into alignment with the machines. With such advanced instruments he could feel subspace around him more precisely than he could recall. He rapidly smoothed the fluctuations which threatened to unravel his wormhole link before it could begin to form.
As the initial confusion settled into slow-moving green patterns, Orlando risked a glance at the assessment panel. They were making small talk among themselves. His introduction had been flawless but not remotely creative. He allowed himself a tight smile. He’d have their attention soon enough.
Using his left hand to keep the local conditions in balance, he gestured with his right hand to start his revolutionary substrate manipulations. He smirked when the bored looks of his evaluators fell away. Swirls of purple infested his field of green. Judging eyes focused on the instruments around them, trying to work out what was happening. A muted buzz filled the room. Orlando tuned it all out as the requirements of his weave took more and more of his attention. Colours bloomed as he moved to quell increasingly complex eruptions of subspace.
He felt the moment of connection before he saw any coherent patterns. Orlando’s heart soared. As good as the Guild’s simulators were, candidates could not be sure of success until they tried their creation in practice. Unprecedented complexity surrounded him, marking his entry into virgin territory. Other realities pressed in, their potential thrusting against his attempts to punch a hole through his own universe. He’d reached the danger point, where all his skill and experience would be needed to bend space and time. His movements became laboured. Time passed, tiny increments accreting into ages as the universe screamed and fought his attempts at mastery. Only willpower and the muscle-memory of long hours of physical training kept him on his feet.
It was magnificent work. Orlando sensed the pattern forming and the wormhole link taking shape. Sharp intakes of breath intruded on his awareness. His evaluators had begun to see his creation, the first hints of beauty emerging from the background bedlam.
Humanity reaching for the far edge of the galaxy. Not even the most experienced of Masters had seriously considered the concept and Orlando would be the one to bring it to pass. He’d never need to Navigate for an outdated freighter again. He tugged at a persistent subspace snarl with more vigour than strictly needed.
And the thread tugged back.
Orlando froze. A heartbeat later he sprang back into action but his attempts to save his pattern from collapsing were superfluous. All around him more and more threads began to manipulate themselves until the nascent wormhole started to gain substance without his interference or control. It felt wrong, a connection that was tainted with a nagging sense of perversion. His hands fell to his sides as the colours coalesced into a three-dimensional structure. He could still see glimpses of his weaves underpinning the new edifice, but the wormhole had arranged itself into disturbing patterns. The lines were aggressive, without the sculpted beauty he had planned. It seemed hive-like, conjuring insect images in his bewildered brain.
In fact, the construction was so alien he began to understand what had gone wrong. Some aspect of the techniques he had used to create this weave combined with the power provided by the advanced Guild ship had allowed someone — something — in one of the parallel universes to reach through and complete a connection. And through that connection cold, hard thoughts battered against his senses. He felt the overwhelming hunger of trillions of beings on billions of ships joined together by a single will. That combined consciousness shone out like a beacon where in most universes there was only the static of individual minds. Through it he saw images of desolation, of a reality devoid of substance. They had stripped their domain bare and now waited impatiently to find their way into another.
In those moments he saw the future laid out before him. Wainwright, when faced with the possibility of intelligent life that could also form wormholes, would most likely jump at the chance to make first contact and use the prestige gained to establish herself as the only viable candidate for the position of Grandmaster. While she could see the shape of the wormhole, unconnected from the generator she couldn’t feel what he felt. She wouldn’t listen to him, or at least would hesitate for long enough to let one of them through. Breaching universes must require anchor points on either side of the link or they wouldn’t have needed his weave, but once even one ship was here they’d be able to open more and more of their own wormholes.
Then this reality would burn.
He wondered how many of the Lost had not been weak-willed as everyone assumed. It was his mind that was securing the wormhole and that meant there was only one sure way he could stop the current sequence of events. Had his Master been faced with the same choice? He hoped not, because the right thing to do was clearly hazardous to his health and he did not have a predisposition towards noble self-sacrifice.
He cast about for another solution, a way to save both himself and the universe he’d spent a lifetime growing fond of. A bead of sweat travelled a meandering path down his face. Around him the sounds of the bridge crew took on a sharper intensity. The wormhole was only moments away from stabilising. The external sense of hunger and anticipation filled him until he could barely sort his own feelings from those of the invading force. The act of breathing became a conscious chore as he tried to force his panic down. There was no time to think of a last minute piece of brilliance, no rabbits to be pulled out of hats. Hell, he couldn’t even find a hat. With an effort of will he took a deep breath, let it out and faced the truth. No matter what happened next he would be gone.
‘For fuck’s sake,’ he muttered, then inserted a catastrophic discordance into his end of the wormhole link. He smiled as the anger of thwarted ambition crashed over him, then awareness drained away.
‘He’s waking up.’
Orlando struggled to push his consciousness towards the voices that echoed in a barrage of vaguely medical sounding terms. Despite his dazed state, he felt somehow more real than he had in days. A gnawing emptiness gripped his stomach. He embraced the feeling as evidence he must have survived the collapse of the wormhole, given that to the best of his knowledge dead people didn’t feel hungry.
The concerned face of a doctor swam into view. He knew he had a duty to warn the Guild not to let anyone follow in his footsteps, but he took a moment to appreciate his own continued existence. A revolutionary new Navigation technique that would allow travel between alternate universes, the fact that he had saved all of humanity from a terrifying fate and his survival against all odds. If that didn’t secure his future in the Guild, he didn’t know what would.
As if waiting for joy to manifest his momentum chose that moment to falter, the journey towards lucidity slowing as if a mental gravity had taken hold. As he reached the apex of his alertness and began to fall back into confusion, he threw all his energy into one attempt to speak.
‘Don’t…,’ he croaked.