Everything is music, like in string theory. Every atom sounds in a circle where each universe beats its singular melody on account of a mutual rhythm that we all share with a distant drummer. The clapping song of the window coming up from the third-floor apartment leads this block symphony. Inside Gonzalo Guerrero’s home, the walls filter the car horns that have been honking randomly throughout the day. Raised in Spain by his mother, a Japanese cyborg musician with incomplete memories, Gonzalo is obsessed with the past and can also play any song after hearing it only once. So, he listens to this anxious New York building’s anthem, and then taps its melody into his biological rhythm, which generates a beat tapped out on his desk as he works.
Ambidextrous, with brown eyes and the appearance of one of those painted Greek sculptures, Gonzalo is a Spanish refugee who miraculously survived the Great Tsunami of La Palma in 2029 when he was only four. Almost his entire family disappeared in the tragedy. Ironically, he doesn’t remember how they looked, just the horror blurring their faces; thousands of people running for their lives, drowning amid desperate screams unable to outrun the rumbling monster that was chasing them.
Only Gonzalo and his mom kept afloat during the horrific wave that killed almost two million people around the world. London, New York, Boston, Miami, and the Caribbean were all wrecked by the killer wave that also hit Central and South American countries following an underwater landslide in the Canary Islands.
A small scar under his left eye is the only apparent mark left by that experience. Nevertheless, still waters run deep, and Gonzalo cannot yet fully understand how people are able to experience the same event but recall it so differently. For him, it’s not just a simple mismatch between perception and reality. This struggle to find the true meaning of something makes him feel somehow constantly upset, and sometimes really angry.
In any case, his mother has a bigger issue. Her terrible amnesia is a consequence of the traumatic brain injury she suffered during the tragedy. Regardless of all medical efforts to restore the neural network around her prosthetic memory, there was always something missing. Generally, neural implants can learn to recall new information, and later replicate that activity with electrical signals to improve your short-term memory. In her case, however, an unresolved disconnection between the amygdala and hippocampus makes it difficult for her to rewire and access most of her emotional moments. As a result, she can walk, speak, and perform all major integratory motor and cognitive brain functions normally, but she’s trapped in the present. There’s no other past or future for her in this world.
But if unpleasant things happen to everyone, Gonzalo and his mom understand that their survival is not only a personal responsibility but a way to find meaning in their suffering.
The 2030s in Spain were hard for everyone, especially for a single mother with a brain implant whose memory never fully recovered. Many sounds and thoughts of the past were completely or partially wiped out by the tsunami, which also took away the mental impression of most of her family members. Her life became a book with only one character—her son. However, even under this diffused light, she was still able to recall one last happy moment vividly: a gorgeous afternoon in the Canary Islands, eating chocolate with little Gonzalo at Café Xokolat. Almost by accident, Gonzalo found that a trigger for this happy memory was a mere piece of chocolate, and he made sure that she had that bit of enjoyment every day.
Finally, in 2035, Gonzalo and his mom were accepted into the United States, and they moved to a rebuilt section of New York City where he became a professional time traveler, devoting his life to the study of Displacement and Memory, a new discipline better known as the Traveling Memory Design.
As a designer, barely twenty-three years old, Gonzalo is in charge now of designing a model that mirrors how the structures in the medial temporal lobe support memory retrieval. These time-travel recollections are biometric footprints that allow the brain to retrieve a sequential code similar to the time stamp that computers put on files. This way, his users can use chronological brain simulations that link the electrical activity of their brains with purposely modified cognitive functions to move through time. That’s how we can learn from our future in the same way we learn from our past.
He knows that time travel can make you more creative and promote your overall brain health in the same way that many people would respond to chocolate. Both things equally blast people’s neurotransmitters of happiness and positivity. But right now, the only difference between a time tour and a bite of chocolate is the possibility to coexist at a specific given time. Because today, May 23 of 2048, Gonzalo Guerrero is designing another journey but chocolate officially no longer exists.
Both are in the headlines: cocoa and time travel. That brown marvel that causes euphoria can no longer be produced on Earth. The reasons are too many, from fungal disease to climate change. But what seems to be inescapable is that Gonzalo and his mom are sharing their last piece of happiness today.
Time travel is the other most common headline. Excursions into the future happen every day, and going back in time to visit an earlier era is also becoming increasingly popular. Drastically opposed to Generation Zeta, who was obsessed with augmented reality and tactile holograms, Gonzalo’s peers are more spiritual. Generation One, often called the Hybrid Generation, learned how to sync their minds in a human web, sharing and accessing information at will. With this enhanced version of the old Internet, they connect their brains instead of computers to control all kinds of web-connected objects through an improved cross-cultural understanding. In a world where supercomputing and pervasive broadband allow real-time translation of speech, Generation One’s members like to wear flat devices like skin patches that function as earbuds and blend in with the surrounding skin. The most advanced of these devices make it possible for a person to communicate with animals and plants. Thanks to this little wonder, Gonzalo can instantly speak and understand any language wherever he goes.
Self-motivated and full of ideas, Gonzalo is a reluctant fighter who is always excited about making discoveries or developing new products for his company Mirrors Inc. This work-from-home company grants all employees and contractors access to the Mirrors Machinery, a system that gives its users a second consciousness. This second apperception runs in parallel with the first mind but in a different direction so, at every moment, its user will have a double stream of thoughts running in their mind, one in the present time, another divergent to it. In the beginning, Mirrors’ users were deeply confused, and they used to suffer severe side effects after experiencing a time reversion that caused the second consciousness to overlap the first one. However, things improved greatly in 2046 when the company introduced their initial Stop Entropy, or SE, module. This patch slows down the motion of the first mind close to zero, so the opposite stream of thoughts will tune in the direction of reversed time and the person’s consciousness will shift to it. In other words, Mirrors gives people a second mind that is somehow a reflection of the first one, but moving in a different direction.
“It is like dreaming, like traveling through memories,” one of his users said after trying the system for the first time.
“Yeah,” answered Gonzalo. “Dreams from the future.”
Gonzalo enjoys working from home. Rational yet unpredictable: Gonzalo’s home reflects somehow his personality. A conservative, open living space, full of invisible high technology, where thousands of appliances have become so profoundly unobtrusive that they are hidden from view entirely when not in use. When he’s home, his apartment walls feel like a second skin on which he sees no issue with wildly mixing art and decor from a variety of cultures and time periods. In his own words, this apartment “represents the union of dualities within the human soul: dark and light” where he delights himself in creating a mishmashed visual goulash on its walls and surfaces.
But even a homebody like him moves around a lot. He is always in action, jumping from conversation to conversation, riling things up. Energetic, joyful, and a bit childlike, he doesn’t have a lot of free time, but he spends it all playing war games.
“Good morning, Gonzalo,” says the hologram of a skinny young brunette, wearing a blue plastic dress and tall white boots.
“Hi, Hana. I’ve been waiting for you,” said Gonzalo without looking up.
“Really? I never called because I assumed that you hadn’t finished your project.” She has dark green, shadowed eyes.
“I know, sis. I know that you need to check up on me.” She wasn’t his real sister but the one he would like to have.
“So, what’s new?”
Gonzalo took a moment and brushed his palms together. “I got an idea for a new trip, but I still need to try it myself.”
“A new trip?” she said, shoving her hands in her blue dress pockets.
“Yeah. Are you following the news about the chocolate thing?” Gonzalo asked, keeping his eyes and hands busy.
“Oh, that thing, how sad.” Hana had a girlish voice that stopped just short of lisping.
“Well, I’ve been checking all the data, and I believe this would be the perfect moment for us to launch a travel option to the origins of chocolate. Don’t you think?”
“Sounds tasty,” she joked. “The Mayan Dream.” Her thin voice took on a pedantic tone. Then her attitude changed completely. “So, what’s the catch?”
He lifted his shoulder in a half shrug.
“Come on, bro.” Hana always thinks she knows what others feel, but she’s always wrong. “Are you going to tell me that you’ve spent a month planning on how to send people back in time to experience the flavor of chocolate?”
Gonzalo made a face like knowing that the most simple motivations are the hardest to explain. “Do you remember my old friend José González?”
“The same. Well, we’ve been talking a lot about this problem we had with cocoa trees… Do you know that there were three main varieties of cocoa trees—Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario?”
“Uh-huh.” She played with a lock of hair while pretending not to be interested in the details.
“Anyway, we found that there’s an ancient variety of Criollo that can survive in our environment…”
“Are you crazy?” Hana always hides emotion until the sudden display. “Do you remember what happened the last time you imported a memory from the past? The system almost collapsed!”
“It wasn’t exactly like that,” he said in his defense. “We were using the oldest SE, and the system wasn’t stable, nothing like the one we are currently using.”
“Gonzalo, you sound like a child.” She threw her hands in the air. “I’m not even worried about my implications on that kind of project. I care about your safety. The architect said that we shouldn’t try that ever again.” Her voice had taken on a more empathetic tone. In the end, she was a pacifist.
“Thank you, Hana. I appreciate that. You know I do.” He put his hand on his heart. “I just feel that we are about to make a change for good here,” he said, appealing to her altruistic nature. She didn’t immediately comment.
“You said the word.”
“What word?” He kneaded his shoulder.
“You said ‘change,’ and you know that my job is to provide adequate operational oversight. We cannot interfere with history, even when we may believe that it is for the good of everyone.”
“Well, I don’t know how bringing some seeds could affect our history negatively.”
“Exactly, you don’t know. Bringing physical seeds is very different from just experiencing chocolate in the past.”
“Whatever person could find the same seeds hidden in a box, in a basement. No one would ever know the difference.”
“Maybe.” She drew out the word, and he knew she didn’t believe it.
“Okay. I admit it. I need this for my mom. I can’t send her back in time and she needs a piece of chocolate every day, something I can’t give her anymore.” He noticed that Hana was still listening so he continued. “Now imagine how many people would benefit from this operation if we succeed.”
On one hand, Hana was the kind of person that seemed to care immensely about the plight of humanity and how to make things better. On the other, she was able to perform rapid mental calculations without effort, which was good for business.
“So?” Gonzalo waited.
“Let’s say that I like your idea for the trip.” She fiddled with her earring, and he smiled hopefully. “I would send a second-guesser if our proposal is finally approved.”
“Yes!” he exclaimed.
“Hey, say ‘hi’ to your mom and, Gonzalo…” Hana warned: “Don’t ruin it.”
“Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll take good care of your Dutch uncle,” he said, and she took his word for it.
“Who’s there?” His mother, a beautiful woman in her fifties entered the home office. “Gonzalo, I heard a woman talking…”
“It was Hana, Mom. She says hi…”
“Hana.” looked like she was trying to remember her face. “Hana….”
“Don’t worry, Mom, someone who loves you.” Gonzalo cupped her chin and turned her face up to his. “She kind of looks like you.” He smiled playfully.
“Nonsense.” She turned her head downward. “I’m going back to my Grasp.”
“What are you reading?”
She showed him a haptic projection, or Grasp of an old book.
“The time is ours,” he wondered briefly about the book she was showing him.
“Reading is good for my brain.”
“I know.” He touched her head tenderly. “So, you like”—he looked at the summary—“Fukuzawa Yukichi?”
“He is just one of the characters along with Futabatei, Ichiyo, and other writers during the enlightenment in Japan.” She raised an eyebrow at him while reading. “It is just a language game.” Words were hanging on her mind for who knows how long.
Gonzalo zoomed in on the Grasp and played with the paragraphs and interactive images. The soft holographic pages reacted, moving like flowing waters.
“Hmm, set in Japan in 1888. Love that period.” He waited for her to speak. “Who’s the author? Oh, never mind, Lucas McGill. Hm…McGill, sounds familiar. Do you know him?”
She saw her reflection in the window glass. Brown, shoulder-length hair braided to reveal a lean, lively face. “Maybe,” she said, bright-eyed. Now she was following him. “The book is full of keywords and hidden messages.” She undid her braid and shook out her hair. “It’s about time for big changes.” The light faded from her eyes until they were dark and empty. “Big changes.”
“Look, Mom.” Gonzalo faked a smile and raised the book to draw her attention. “There is an entire collection of codices from the same epoch. Isn’t this man Mori Arinori?” Visual cues are generally more helpful than verbal suggestions for people suffering from memory loss.
He understood her struggle and looked at her with love. “Thanks for sharing.” He rubbed her hand. “It is a compelling story. I’m going to read it too. What would you like to do now?”
Gonzalo observed how meticulously she sat down, like organizing her thoughts on how to proceed.
“I think…” Her eyelids drooped. “I’m going to take a rest for a bit here with my eyes closed if you don’t mind.”
“That’s fine. Just cancel the noise, so I don’t bother you while I’m working on my project, okay?”
She nodded like a little girl and asked half asleep, “Do we have any chocolate?”
He smoothed her hair and kissed her on the head. She closed her eyes. “I’m working on that, Mom. Going to find some, promise.”
So far yet so close, in one of the thirteen realities that coexist in her multiverse, Erin Mayer has traveled forward through an unfamiliar portal in a hidden temple. An astonishing world immediately meets her. Gravity is far stronger here, and she can feel its pull with every step she takes. She is lean and flexible, but even for her, it is exhausting. A sense of calm takes over this curious girl with dreaming eyes and long red-brown straight hair as she begins to breath in the magnificent sights before her very eyes.
In spite of the unknown landscape, Erin doesn’t feel a sense of dread or danger. She knows that she is dreaming because her hair changes according to the dream in which she is awake. This world is as treacherous as it is pleasing, and the only real obstructions are her abilities.
All around, Mayer feels vibrations in the air created by creatures never before seen by anyone of her kind. There’s some hostility going on; better safe than sorry, she keeps a reasonable distance and her eyes open. Erin sees traces of rounded beasts, slithering and gliding creatures.
After walking in a circle for hours, she returns and decides to create a makeshift backup camp around the portal as a realm of mysteries awaits her, for better or worse. With a great sense of adventure, the right amount of caution, and a bit of luck, this young explorer will be able to create the first foothold in this world. But before beginning her journey, she closes her eyes to visualize what is beyond reach of her vision.
Not far from the camp, she can see that a massive gate with enormous wooden doors and archer holes guards a tranquil city within an extinguished volcano. The large entrance is the only way in, for those who are not familiar with the castle and its surroundings. Large boulders litter the fields outside the fort, paths to and from the stronghold snake around them, and farm plots are small and scattered all around. This citadel shows signs of expansion as some parts were built more recently than others. The inhabitants are already working on another section and hope to keep expanding. Thirteen lean, low, square towers are set firm and unyielding for a strong defensive line, and they are connected by broad fortified walls made of green stone. Stylish windows are placed generously around the walls in seemingly perfect symmetry, along with overhanging crenellations for archers and artillery.
Erin can also see Queen Babalon standing by one of the windows in the central tower, looking straight ahead into the distance with the strange feeling that someone different has crossed the boundaries of her kingdom. The queen is genuinely feared. Wisdom, dreams, and pain are the essential elements this divine being is associated with, and most would describe her as ambitious and disturbing. Often depicted as a humanoid serpent, Babalon is usually worshiped through alms and atonement. There are many different places for those who wish to devote themselves to Babalon, but towers that resemble cosmic mountains are the most common shrines throughout the lands.
Queen Babalon adores textiles, draperies, and elegant hanging lamps. Her primary residence resembles an exotic bazaar, stuffed with all the spoils of the souks she’s visited on her travels. Everything in her castle is arranged tastefully, and nothing is overdone or feels sloppy.
She is spooky and magical and rules naturally over the followers of the occult sciences. The true meaning of the word occult is hidden, hence the tendency toward secrecy and inscrutability. Thus no one sees the currents or waves rippling through her facial expressions; much of what she feels, she won’t express overtly.
The queen usually has a distinct idea of how her followers think things should go and tends to intimidate everyone around, often without meaning to. The serpent goddess does not enjoy being contradicted and manipulates others easily to get what she wants, even if it is for sinister purposes.
Babalon governs a large population of dark-lights who are cold and tend to darken the atmosphere around them. They shine in dark tones of luster giving the air surrounding them auras that range from dark gray and purple to bloodred.
These beings look entirely human but frighten humans with their speed, power, and dehumanizing qualities. With neural claws and electric teeth, they can eat people from their fears, hiding within their nervous systems.
Notwithstanding all of her might, Queen Babalon doesn’t have total control of this world. On the other side of the mountains, Kaos, the king of the arbitrary, tyrannizes the neighboring nation.
Depicted as a burning lion, Kaos is the king of the luminous-shadows and god of the wild. Rebirth, question marks, and symbols of knowledge are the main three elements associated with his image, and many followers think of him as brutal and heroic.
Babalon’s soldiers fear Kaos for a good reason: no one has seen this god and lived. So, they secretly pray not to face the glowing lion on the battlefield. Terrifying, with a distinctive roar that can be heard for up to fifty miles, he is a fascinating and dark creature who is always fighting his own reflection with extreme passion.
He feeds himself rays of sunlight, but at times, he also hunts and eats the dark-lights who step on his dominion looking for adventure or attempting to expand Babalon’s stomping grounds.
His followers, the luminous-shadows, are creatures who effortlessly teleport themselves to any space-time combination. They are hardly visible, but everyone can feel their uncomfortable presence. These creatures could be considered miniature black holes. If a luminous-shadow passes too close to a dark-light, it could tear him apart. Those who have seen them under special conditions describe luminous-shadows as human-size solar eclipses or blue moons.
There are three types of luminous-shadows. The most commonly found are the Stellar. These are small but deadly, like little stars that burn through the last of their fuel, always about to collapse or fall into themselves. Rounded but incredibly dense, they consume the energy from all dark-light creatures who pass around them, growing in size or number according to the opportunity.
The second most common shadows are the Intermediate shadows, mid-size spinning monsters that are stuck in the middle of this bright realm. They have three “layers” or body parts—the outer and inner edges and La Boca. The edges of a shadow are the boundaries around La Boca where every dark-light loses its ability to escape. Once a particle crosses that terrifying threshold, it cannot leave.
La Boca is a connecting point between space and time and the most dangerous part of the luminous-shadow. In theory, nothing can escape from a luminous-shadow. However, things shift when dark-lights play with the equation. Under Babalon’s reign, for every particle, there is an antiparticle, a particle with the same mass and opposite electric charge. When they meet, particle-antiparticle pairs can annihilate one another.
During an extraordinary council meeting, Babalon’s scientists are sharing things the soldiers have learned in the battlefield against the forces of Kaos. Applying all that military intelligence to different models, the scientists are working hard to understand the equations by which luminous-shadows function, and how their main weapons, the obscure blades, spin around. Some of the high ranked officers are discussing their needs for the upcoming campaign to gain control of the most vulnerable part of the luminous-shadows. Their wide eyes study the new weapons design from their enormous sockets.
“We need a device to create a particle-antiparticle pair just beyond the reach of a shadow,” said Twelve-life to the Royal Armorer, and then made a muffled squeak. His overbite took all the attention. A gentle smile revealed several large broken teeth and a flat tongue.
“Yes, that’s what we need,” added Seventeen-life in a hoarse whisper while looking at the armorer’s design. “A weapon that fires one element of the pair into the shadow while ejecting the other. This action will close the beast’s mouth forever, and the monster will quickly die.”
“What do you think?” said the armorer to Twenty-life, noticing how his long, slim body stands straight. Two thin branchlike arms hang at his sides ending in long hands with stubby fingers.
“If a luminous shadow eats you, the gravity will stretch you out like a string. Your death would come before you’ve reached La Boca,” said Twenty-life.
“However,” intervened Thirty-life, “many other dark-lights who have engaged in combat with these creatures suggest that quantum effects cause the blades to act much like walls of fire, instantly burning anyone to death.” Thirty-life drew a spiral on the dusty floor with one of his wide feet.
“How about the giants? Do you think this may work with them too?” The armorer squinted out into the officers.
“There are hints that they exist, but those shadows have been acting like long-lost relatives that aren’t interested in being found,” Twenty-life said in response with a detached voice.
Supermassives or the giants, Stellar’s cousins, dominate the invisible side of the land of Kaos. They gather mass from other living beings around them, material that is plentiful in their homeland, allowing them to grow to enormous sizes. These creatures may be the result of hundreds or thousands of shadows that merge into one. They are slow-moving scary beasts that Babalon’s followers describe as slow inevitabilities.
“Don’t worry about them right now,” suggested Twenty-life with the dry crackle of someone who has outlived his enemies. “They are incredibly massive but cover only a small region.” Some of the officers cast a skeptical eye on him.
Supermassives are believed to have a mighty gravitational force. Virtually nothing can escape from them; not even Babalon. The troops must rely on the radiation that is emitted by these creatures to find them, as they process all the surrounding energy into their dense bodies. Although soldiers can detect their presence by different means, these gigantic luminous shadows themselves remain unseen.
Nevertheless, like every other multiverse that Erin Mayer has visited so far, the same maxim rules here: everybody lives surrounded by things they can’t see in spite of how deeply those things affect their lives. Thus, on the walls of the hidden temple, before falling asleep, Mayer reads an ancient prophecy:
“There comes a day when the mark of the one becomes the mark of many; a proposition shall bring an age of inhumanity and the downfall of two kingdoms.”