Friday, December 23, 2016

Strange Cosm: A Short Story

Strange Cosm
By Christian David Horst

This story may have been subconsciously inspired by the webcomic BlankIt.

     They were. They did not awake in the traditional sense, nor as from a dream, nor a hallucination, nor any kind of slumber of any sort. They were simply there, two men between the ages of twenty and thirty coming to full awareness at the same time, with no memory of any existence prior to or outside of that moment, in that place—if a place it could be called, as there was nothing in any of the six directions but a smooth, monochromatic white. They could see each other, but the ground had no texture, the sky had no feature, and not even a horizon could be distinguished.
     Of the two men, one had a round face with eyebrows that seemed to jump off his face when he arched them. His clothes were semi-formal, but hung loosely, showing that he was comfortable and relaxed in them. On his wrist, he wore a bulky watch. The other was tall, had a square jaw and large, rectangular glasses. His mouth seemed stuck in a bewildered smile. He wore a sweatshirt and a brown scarf.
     “Who are you?” The tall man said.
     “I . . . don’t know.” The short man looked befuddled, but not the least bit frightened. “Who are you?”
     “Beats me. We’ve got to call each other something, though.” He pointed at the other man’s watch.      “You’re Wristwatch.” Then he looked down at the fabric hanging down his front. “And I’m Scarf.”
     “All right then, Scarf,” Wristwatch said, tapping his foot against the ground, “let’s try to figure it out.”
     “Figure what out?” Scarf said. He looked around. “Oh, that.”
     Wristwatch knelt down on the ground and placed his hand on it. “Decent friction. Grippy, but not sticky.” He tapped it with his knuckles. “Solid as rock.”
     “So what?” Scarf asked.
     “It means,” Wristwatch said, with a smirk, “that we’re definitely somewhere.”
     Scarf put his hands in his pockets and looked around. The lack of change in the view made him dizzy. “It sure doesn’t look like we are.”
     “It may look like we are in some kind of world between universes or something,” Wristwatch said,      “but we’re not.” He stomped his foot, and the ground clacked like marble. “This place has properties. That means it’s real. I mean, feel the air. A decent seventy Fahrenheit, if I might guess. And we’re breathing. That means the atmosphere must be a good fraction oxygen, and the rest non-toxic gases.”
     “That’s . . . interesting,” Scarf said.
     “Sure is. It means there has to be photosynthetic activity somewhere. Come on, let’s start walking and see if we can find anything.”
     “Which way?”
     Wristwatch looked around. “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter, as long as we keep going in a straight line.”
     Scarf started forward, but Wristwatch stopped him. “What’s up?” Scarf said.
     “We need a reference to make sure we aren’t walking in circles.”
     “Can’t we just keep going in the same direction?”
     “We could try, but humans are really bad at going straight without something far away as a reference, like a mountain, or stars in the sky.”
     Scarf looked up. “I guess you have a point there.” Wristwatch was silent, and Scarf looked down to find him eying the fabric tied around Scarf’s neck. “Oh no you don’t,” Scarf said, stepping back and holding his hands out defensively. “I’m named after this thing.”
     “What else are we going to use?” Wristwatch asked.
     Twenty minutes later, Scarf and Wristwatch marched forward, Wristwatch in his socks, holding one shoe in his hand. Every now and then they looked over their shoulders to make sure Wristwatch’s other shoe was directly behind them. It was little more than a dot by now, but since everything else was white, they could not miss it.
     “Hold up,” Scarf said, “I need to pee.”
     “Oh no,” Wristwatch exclaimed, “I forgot about bodily functions! How are we supposed to eat or drink in this place?”
     “Good question,” Scarf said, “but would you mind turning around?”
     “Oh yeah, sure.” Wristwatch turned his back, and the sound of zipping and then splattering liquid reached his ear. With a sudden inspiration, he said, “Does it flow?”
     “Uh, yeah.”
     “Which way?”
     “Uh, out, like it always does.”
     “No, I mean—forget it, are you done yet?”
     Scarf zipped up his pants. “Yeah. Hey, what are you doing?”
     Wristwatch scurried over and bent over the yellow-tinged pool. “Static,” he said. “As still as can be expected from a completely flat plane.”
     “Don’t you see?” Wristwatch stood up. “We thought we were on a flat plane. Now we have evidence supporting it.”
     “Uh, didn’t we already know that? What is the use of proving something you already know?”
     Wristwatch slapped his own face with the palm of his hand. He sighed, as if not sure how simple he had to go to explain. “Thinking and knowing are two different things. We thought we were in a flat plane, and now it has been confirmed. But we still don’t know it for sure, only that at this spot it is close enough to flat as to be indistinguishable from it.”
     “Dude, what does it matter?”
     “Ugh.” Wristwatch put his hand down and closed his eyes. “The more we know about this place, the better chance we have of surviving, escaping, adapting, etcetera. Make sense?”
     “Kind of, but wouldn’t it be better to learn about where to find food and water or something?”
     “Let me know when you have something to go on. Until then, I’m going to keep studying the finer details of the world in the hopes that something useful emerges.”
     They kept moving, walking for hours, nothing changing. “Something is wrong,” Wristwatch said.      “We’ve been here so long, and it’s still all the same. Nothing has happened to mark the passage of time. Even the light has remained constant.”
     “Yeah,” Scarf said, looking around his body. “And now that you mention it, we don’t have any shadows either.”
     Wristwatch stopped, standing straight, his eyebrows shooting up to the top of his forehead. “You’re right.” In addition to not casting shadows on the ground, they seemed to be illuminated equally from all sides. He could make darkened places by cupping his hands together over his face, but anything that was exposed to the whiteness was uniformly lit.
     “Oh, oh!” Wristwatch shouted. He shook, so excited that he actually started jumping up and down. He stopped and threw his arms open. “We’re not on a planet, or a plane!” He grinned at Scarf, showing his teeth. “The perfect lighting, and the fact that we can’t see a horizon or any variation in shade. The geometry works out perfectly. We’re inside a uniformly glowing sphere!”
     Scarf’s eyes slowly tracked upward. Then, pointing, he said, “Then shouldn’t we see your shoes up there somewhere?” Wristwatch’s first shoe had gone out of sight a while ago, and they had dropped his other one so they could know they were still going straight.
     “It’s too big for that,” Wristwatch said. “We might have to walk for miles and miles in order for there to be enough curvature for us to notice the difference.” He grinned. “And we’d need a much bigger shoe.”
     “And how do you know it’s a sphere? Why not a cube or a cylinder or something?”
     “Well I don’t know exactly, but it has to be close to a sphere because of the uniform lighting. Everything exposed to the surface is equally bright. Because we live in three dimensions, the intensity falls off as the square of the distance, and that adds up equally in all directions from any point inside the sphere. It’s Newton’s Shell Theorem, except with luminosity instead of gravity.” He took a breath. “Either that, or someone programmed the lighting to center on us.”
     At this point, Scarf was scratching his head. “Yeah, sure.”
     Wristwatch sighed. “You know, the single most important thing for us right now is to figure out how to get out of here so we can stay alive, and one of the best things we can do to further that goal is a little cosmology.”
     Scarf’s mouth twitched. “I guess. It’s just way over my head.”
     “You might try learning some mathematics sometime. It’s useful stuff.” They started walking again. “I wonder if we’ll find we’re walking uphill, or if the gravity always points outward. Hopefully one of us will have to pee again soon, so we can see if there is a downhill yet.”
Scarf made a face.
     Wristwatch stopped, face aglow with a new idea. “What if it’s spinning?”
     “Oh, I know this one!” Scarf said. “The centrifugal force from something spinning is like gravity.”
     “Centripetal force,” Wristwatch said, digging in his pocket. “It’s the ground pushing on us to keep us moving in a circle. There’s not actually a force pushing us outward. But yeah, you’re basically right.” He found a quarter, and squatted down and placed the coin on its edge, holding it with a finger.      “Come to think of it, gravity isn’t actually a force either.” He flicked the coin, and they watched it spin.
     “What are we looking at?” Scarf asked.
     “If the place is rotating, the coin should fall over quickly,” Wristwatch replied, a note of disappointment creeping into his voice. The quarter continued to spin gracefully. “The coriolis effect should keep its rotational direction constant, or from our perspective tip it over in the direction the sphere is spinning.” The coin loudly finished its ring-down, settling to the ground. “It looks like it’s gravity after all. Oh well, we would have to have been perfectly on the rotational axis not to feel like we were on a hill anyway, and my guess is that the Copernican Principle applies here.”
     “What’s that?”
     “The idea that we find ourselves at a reasonably average place instead of somewhere special. It’s really just probability. Although,” he looked back at his last shoe, a mere speck in the distance. “We might as well try walking in a different direction, just in case.”
     Scarf pointed to the ground. “You quarter is American.”
     Wristwatch looked down, and his face lit up. “You’re right! Let’s check our pockets for other things. And our clothes too.” He twisted his neck and pulled his shirt collar around to read the tag. “Made in China. Figures.”
     “I found a wallet!” Scarf said. “And it has . . .” he fumbled it open, and his face fell. “No ID.”
     “What’s this?” Wristwatch said. He pulled his hand out of his pocket. In his palm was a compass. “Sweet!” He turned it, and the needle turned with the shell. Frowning, he gave it a twist, and the needle rotated a little more.
     “Doesn’t work?” Scarf asked.
     “Maybe, but I’m more willing to bet there’s just no magnetic field here. It’s too bad; we might have had a new way to keep going forward. As it is . . .” his gaze tracked down to Scarf’s feet.
     Hours later, the two of them found themselves in what appeared to be the exact same place as they started, minus their shoes. Any sign of what they had left behind was lost in the distance, and still their surroundings had no feature, no variation, just endless white.
     Wristwatch sat on the ground and heaved a sigh. “Let’s rest for a bit.”
     Scarf sat down nearby. Their feet were sore, and it felt good to be off them.
     Wristwatch lay on his back and groaned. “What is this place?” he said. “Why are we here? How do we know things as if we have past lives, but have no memory of those lives?”
     “Yeah, it’s pretty weird.”
     “And all the things we figured out—the temperature, the friction of the ground, the lack of magnetic field—no matter how much I think about it, nothing makes sense.
     “Maybe it’s a dream.” Scarf offered.
     “Pinch yourself. It’s real. And think of all the time between when we first ‘woke up’ to now. You can remember a full narrative. If we were dreaming, there would be gaps and contradictions, and things that change when we look away. This is too consistent.”
     “A story, maybe? Stories make sense where the characters look, but there comes a point when the writer says, ‘that’s enough,’ and there’s no more further detail.”
     “But we’re conscious,” Wristwatch said. “Consciousness is something we know is absolutely real. It can’t be imagined into existence in a made-up world.”
     “What about a simulation? That could have all the features of a story, but be more open-ended. And there might be a way to create consciousness in a simulated world.”
     “Maybe.” Wristwatch yawned.
     “We’ll have more time to think about it tomorrow,” Scarf said.
     “Yeah, I guess so.”
     They stopped talking, and soon their thoughts grew incoherent, as they drifted off toward sleep.

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