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Tangential, Or: Alex in Wonderland

Alex saw something beautiful this morning. At 8:45 AM, on a Thursday in June, instead of waking up and seeing her ceiling, she saw a system of interlocking shapes and colors. Like you would, she assumed she was still dreaming, then she assumed something was wrong. She blinked and got up out of the bed. It was standing in a clearing, surrounded by trees. She could feel the soft grass between her toes. She examined the bark on one of the trees, and ran her fingers over it. Everything felt real. She kept walking, not totally content that she was awake, and found that the clearing and the trees were contained within an urban park.

The basic features of the city were not unlike those she was familiar with. There were billboards which displayed images of mundane household products, with advertisements in considerably less mundane text. There were edifices sprouting from the ground, apparently made from glass, steel, and stone. They had architectural features that Alex had only seen in fantastical drawings. She saw a building which would bulge part-way up, apparently defying physics. Separated towers would spiral around one another and rejoin. Spires sprouted in all directions. Large mirrored sections of buildings would be angled to reflect the complicated sky. Some buildings were colored a soft purple-orange to blend in with the north-easterly section of the sky. It’s clear that geometric shapes were set into the design of some buildings to mimic their complex backgrounds.

Being an architect herself, Alex was so distracted by the skyline that she didn’t immediately notice the people who inhabited this city. They looked vaguely human, but considerably more varied. Some had small horns like a giraffe, others had purple skin, very few had naturally colored hair, and those who did would have some other non-human feature. All in all, they were attractive. They were clearly healthy. They looked happy. Alex, still fairly sure that she was dreaming, took all of these alien features better than I would have. That’s one reason I love her. In her telling, she just accepted these things, and was simply fascinated. I think I know her well enough to guess that this took a few minutes. She probably hyperventilated, and possibly even needed to sit down. She definitely cried tears of euphoria. That’s another reason I love her.

She started to see movement in the sky. Some of the aliens (she called them aliens, in my opinion she’s the alien) clearly noticed it too. “Pfnrd! Tisk bap wod skee reampnos lwoo,” an alien spoke. “Tisk bap wod ep troi wongleins,” another answered, this seems to have dismissed the first alien. It’s fairly obvious that the first alien was calling attention to the movement in the sky, but we figured out later that the other one was probably dismissing it as random shapes. However, those random shapes and forms were Latin lettering. In particular, the words “Alex, this the fruit of your deeds. Keep working.” Alex blinked.

Alex fell over, spilling coffee all over Tahj and me. I remember thinking something along the lines of “Wow she’s a klutz, but this is impressive.” I picked her up and asked if she was okay. “Yeah I’m fine”. Tahj laughed. The barista handed us a couple of bar towels and we sat down.

“I love you, but you sound insane.”

“I know.”

“How do you feel about it all?”

“I feel… bork.”

“That doesn’t help me understand.”

Tahj had been on his phone after about half-way through the story. He interjected with this:

“I thought so, I’ve heard of this before. Some French duke wrote about this dream he had in the sixteenth century; the Duke of Châtellerault.” Tahj is a linguist, so he pronounced it perfectly. “The story is really similar, except his description of the skyline is less impressive, and the writing in the sky was in French. Also the Wikipedia article makes it seem like it was less definite. Like the sky writing translates to ‘This could happen if you work harder.’ But besides that he wrote about seeing the same colors in the sky, the same floating objects. He didn’t mention the people at all though.”

I shot Tahj a look. Alex has strange dreams sometimes, and she has in the past had trouble separating dreams from reality. I had, on more than one occasion, gotten a call from her in the middle of the night because she dreampt that I was eaten by some great beast or that my apartment building burned down. This has slowed down a little since we moved in together, since she can check my pulse without waking me. I felt that if he encouraged her like this, the experience could fix in her mind and become part of her psyche.

“Well it definitely wasn’t a dream, I woke up in the coffee shop, not in my bed!”

Tahj and I admitted that she hadn’t said much this morning. Just sort of basic responses. I just figured she was tired. This explained some things.

“What else did this Chaterrlout guy write about the other world?”

“Doesn’t say, there’s only a summary. It cites the original document too, which hasn’t been scanned, but is held in the Letters Section at the Sorbonne.”

Knowing that Alex would buy a last-minute plane ticket from Shaw’s Hill to Paris, I suggested that we check the renaissance studies department at Tahj’s and my university. It was midsummer, and at the time I was waiting for my most recent paper to make it through peer review. Tahj’s previous year was a bit of an anno mirabilum so he could do nothing but good in the eyes of the school. Naturally this means he took the whole summer off and played video games in his office. Alex’s firm didn’t work on Thursdays or Fridays. It’s kinda questionable how they made any money. Now that I think about it whenever I visited her at work people were just standing around chatting and waiting for drafts to come back. She explained to me that they didn’t work on Thursdays or Fridays because bankers leave everything to the end of the week anyway so you may as well just work Saturday or Sunday instead. But I digress. The point is that we could afford to spend the day chasing this wild goose since we had nothing better to do.

It took us a good hour or so to find the renaissance department. Tahj and I being scientifically minded people rarely came to this side of campus. It was old and creaky. The floorboards looked like they were installed during the Shaw’s Hill golden age in the late nineteenth century, and the windows were small and looked more like they were built for defense than for comfort. This was a far cry from our glass-and-aluminium tower to the north. Hell, there were even gargoyles and grotesques inside the hallways, like they used to covered courtyards, cloisters, and walkways, but had been plastered over in the 1920’s to make the place feel less like a monastery and more like a place that can be kept above forty degrees in the winter.

We eventually found the office of Professor Abidemi, the daughter of West African immigrants who became obsessed with renaissance French culture due to its complex system of rules and wealth statuses. Her recent research interest was in the occultism in the Ducal class, which of course made her the most likely person in the building to know about the Duke of Chateler-whatever. We decided not to tell her why we were looking for this information, just that we had heard about it and wanted to know more. Tahj came up with a good excuse on the fly. He claimed we were considering a joint study on occult language-like structures such as the Voynich Manuscript, or Enochian script, and that Alex had heard about it and wanted to know more about the city that the mad Duke had seen in his vision. Abidemi let us into the department’s private library, and showed us to the stacks that contained reproduced collections of letters, diaries, and correspondence.

I’m really not sure how much time we spent in that basement. Some of the collections had the Duke’s letters, other had his diaries, and each document we found told a tiny part of the story. We were able to piece together most of it. The day grew old, and Tahj left to go to sleep. Alex was still going strong, and I was starting to get tired.

“Do you want to maybe come back tomorrow?”

“You can leave, I’m going to keep looking.”

“Alex, it’s past midnight.”

“I know, I just feel like this is important.”

I tried to decide what to do. I still felt like this was a delusion at that point, so I stayed with her, even if I wasn’t much help on the research front. At some point I fell asleep on one of the couches. When I woke up Alex was already brewing a pot of coffee, and had pieced together much more of the story than we had when I fell asleep. I picked up her notes and read them. It actually stunned me how similar their stories were. Tiny details were identical. The language the aliens spoke sounded the same. The symbols that Alex had drawn for us looked similar to the symbols the Duke had drawn in his diary. His description of the sky even had the same colors in the same order as Alex remembered. This is what convinced me that maybe something strange had happened.

There is are things in statistics which are called “Anomalies”. The best way to think about them is as outliers, except that they lie so far out that there’s no way to even prepare for them. When you consider this, as well as the fact that there is so much about our universe we still don’t understand, there are phenomena which are still unexplained, and that the meta-structure of the universe is so incredibly opaque to us that we don’t even have a firm grasp of what separates things that aren’t in the universe from things that are. Maybe I was just rationalizing my behavior at this point, and the real reason I started believing Alex is because of my love for her.

“Here’s what’s bothering me:” She interrupted my thoughts. “The Duke never saw anything like this again. He became obsessed with trying to reconnect to the other world. I’m so worried that I’ll never get to see it again…” She looked like she was about to cry.

I hugged her.

“All last night and this morning, I was trying not to believe it. I kept flipping through more books, and looking at more letters, but the Duke eventually died a natural death. He spent his whole life trying to get back, and he just failed. The worst part is that I understand how he feels. At this point I would do anything to get back there.”

I didn’t realize that Alex had this opinion. To a certain extent I felt a little abandoned.

“Right now I want nothing more than to find a way for us to live there forever.”

Abandonment issues gone.

“Let’s go get some breakfast.”


We cleaned up the table and re-shelved the books.

Alex and I talked about this all day, but it didn’t seem to help. She was curled up on our couch, essentially just lying there all afternoon. She cried whenever I left the room. I’m not sure if I was helping her hold on, or if she just didn’t want me to see it. I started to do some research on my own, I read up on the going theories about our universe, about minds travelling to other places. About the possibility of universes crossing paths with each other. Nothing quite fit. Then I hit the jackpot. There is a theory of mind which postulates that the mind is a separate object from the body, which is entangled with bodily states in some anomalous way. The exact nature of that entanglement isn’t treated as important, but what if the mind could temporarily entangle with another body which is capable of supporting it. I.E. the Alex in the other world. Alex didn’t look at herself, she didn’t even look at her hands, she doesn’t know if she was in her own body in that other world. She didn’t think to see if the bed she woke up in looked like our bed. The question then, is why did the sky-being speak to her. This went beyond my ability to theorize. I knew Alex wouldn’t be interested in my explanation, so I didn’t tell her about it until much later. I knew that right now she only needed someone to help her reconcile the fact that this experience is totally lost.

She called in sick the next Monday. I did too, to stay with her. Tahj called to check on us that afternoon. I took a nap about half-way through the day and woke up to her cooking dinner.

“You look like you’re in a better mood.”

“Not really. I’m still very sad about it, but I was thinking about the words in the sky. It told me to keep working. I think that that’s what the Duke’s mistake was. He ignored the sky-being. That’s how I’m explaining the situation anyway, that our world has no gods, so a god of another world brought me there to tell me I’m doing good. They wanted to show me that a world of beauty is possible, and that we can build our own beautiful world.”


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