I awoke on an examination table. Monitors built into the walls displayed medical information: height, weight, dental X-ray, MRI data. There were several unfamiliar charts that I couldn't read. I sat up and saw a doctor taking notes, so I inquired.
"What is this screen describing?"
"That's an inventory of augmentations to your body. We scan for everything from pins holding bone together to nanomachines in the blood." The doctor turned toward me and approached the monitor I had referred to. I noticed that his voice and appearance were nearly identical to mine. "Looks like you're completely natural."
"Why have I been taken here?"
"I would have shown you when you woke up, but you've come to a few minutes ahead of schedule." My double tapped the closest screen. I discerned that he was checking the measurements of medications administered to me.
"A timing error. That means you probably aren't actually my duplicate."
He chuckled. He must have thought I was making a joke. "I'm you if things had gone a little differently, Doctor. I would continue the exam, but I know you won't cooperate until you get answers. Come along."
"Our most popular hypothesis is that a reality-bender opened a bubble between universes for personal use." The physician told me this as he led me across the wing. "Those of us who study spatiotemporal anomalies believe it's far too stable to occur naturally. I trust them on that.
"The earliest known arrival was first detained here six years ago, so we believe that to be when initial construction finished. However, the base has continually expanded since then to make allotments for certain outliers in our population."
"That doesn't satisfy my previous question."
"I know, Doctor. I try to err towards caution with new arrivals and ease them into the knowledge, but I know enough about you to know that you're only intellectually aware of the concept of shock. So here you are." He opened a door to another hallway, and we entered.
As we did so, a second duplicate of myself approached the first, and they exchanged information on tablet computers. Down the hallway, a third and fourth conversed while gathering medical supplies.
"The population I mentioned earlier, Doctor Gears? It's you. It's us. Two hundred and eighteen instances, gathered from across the multiverse. Welcome to the House of Gears, Charles."
"I know what you'll ask next. Just a moment." My tour guide opened a picture on his tablet and showed it to me. "Is this the woman who abducted you?"
"Her face was concealed, but I recognize the mouth."
"The face is the least important part. The suit and gun, did she have those?"
"Okay, that's almost definitely Black Queen Persephone. Which is good, she's one of the kinder ones. Her real name is Alison Chao, but she probably told you that."
"She mentioned her first name."
"She's your daughter. Or rather, she's a version of your daughter. …More precisely, she's the daughter of a version of you." He scratched his chin. "Do you have children, Charles?"
"I never married. Please don't call me Charles."
We passed out of the medical wing and into a carpeted hallway. "Here we have the recreation wing." He opened a door to a room with a dozen chess tables, each occupied. "I can get you in on a game, if you like. I'll even make sure you get white."
"No, thank you. I've never been one to play chess with myself."
"Fair enough. Where were we… oh, yes, a lot of the Gearses in here don't have living daughters. Not all, but…" He trailed off as he tapped idly at the screen of his tablet a few times. Perhaps he was impatient at a load time. "And I'm sorry about that. It'll be 'Dr. Gears' for the rest of the tour. It's just that you don't have your designation yet." He pulled his arm a few inches further out from his coat sleeve to show me a tattoo on his right wrist. "We get them during the third stage of processing, after the exam and initial orientation. I'm C-44."
"C-44. Is the tattoo mandatory?"
"Yes. It's the most efficient way the logistics officers have found to avoid confusion." He scrolled through columns of information under the photograph of Black Queen Persephone. "The only way to get out of it is if you can think of a more practical system and convince them to adopt it. Which I encourage wholeheartedly."
We turned a corner into a row of doors. "This is the housing section. you'll likely end up living here. It should fit your tastes — maximum efficiency, easy to clean, a computer with access to all the information I can give you."
I opened an unlocked apartment. "These remind me of Foundation containment chambers."
"I think that's the aesthetic they're going for."
I didn't respond.
We reached a fork. "At this point," C-44 told me, "we can go right, toward the cafeteria and the workspaces. your specialty is…" Two taps on the tablet. "…mechanical engineering, right? I can show you the lab."
"And on the left?"
"Maintenance, the garden, and… other housing arrangements."
"So the question is which end of the facility you will show me first?"
"Trust me, we'll only have time for one."
"I see. Who is responsible for the equipment in the lab?"
"The engineers make requisitions for parts or equipment, and the logistics officers pass these on to the Black Queens, who approve or deny them. There are a few limits… spacetime research is severely restricted, and you'd have trouble getting things that could catastrophically damage the facility—but the engineers have pooled their knowledge and it's resulted in quite a few innovations."
"Pooled their knowledge? Elaborate."
"Each Doctor Gears adds the sum total of his knowledge to the facility's resources. There are alternates of you from universes where quantum physics is decades ahead of what you'd know, where materials science has produced things you may have theorized were possible… everyone works with the best that the multiverse has to offer."
"Take me there, C-44."
And so he did.
For the sake of time, I shall relate several examples of what I saw there rather than a complete inventory. The initial notes I made on the engineering labs, which I took down from memory once I had access to paper, filled my first journal, and continued into most of the second journal that I was provided.
I saw entanglement experiments at a scale such that they involved apples and billiard balls. I saw innovative human organs designed to provide new resources to the body without rejection. A small team had devised a method of encoding messages into genetic material that could be read in a blood or tissue sample, a process they tested during the cloning of species that had become extinct on their respective planets.
One laboratory was dedicated to advancements in clockwork technology. I watched an analog computer evaluate sorting algorithms powered solely by a wind-up key. In a corner, researchers took turns monitoring a complex arrangement of gears surrounding a receptacle. It was explained to me that occasionally the readout shifts to one of several settings, such as Coarse or Fine, and an object emerged. It was partly a game and partly a compulsion amongst the clockwork researchers to determine what sort of object the machine was requesting based on its output.
"I hate to cut this short," C-44 told me, "but it's getting late. you'll need to squeeze into the last shift of processing if you don't want to spend the night on a hospital bed."
"Very well." We adjourned to the medical wing. C-44 found the room marked Processing - Housing And Designation.
"This marks the end of the tour, Doctor Gears. Ah, right, one last thing I need to tell you." C-44 tapped a nearby wall monitor. He opened a menu and dragged it downward, off the edge of the screen, and it appeared on his tablet. "This is the information on your retrieval. It should be released to you before long."
"I expect it to include the reason I was abducted."
"It varies depending on the instance of us and the instance of them. Some take us because they think we've blocked out the memory of our children, or have had it removed. Some think the doctors they bring in are psychologically damaged and in need of treatment. Some of them just consider us resources to be used to labor in labs and workshops. If we were the targets they actually sought out, we wouldn't be tossed… in… Here it is.
"Like I said earlier, one of the kinder ones." He turned to me. "She brought you in because she doesn't want you around for what she's going to do to your Foundation."
The processing clerk gave me an apartment key and a badge which denoted that I worked in engineering Lab 3. He asked me to place my arm into a machine, and I did so. A cuff restrained my arm to prevent movement, and a tattoo was inscribed, relatively quickly and painlessly, onto my skin. "I hope you enjoy your stay, B-85," the clerk said. I looked at my wrist and verified that he had called me by the correct name.
My initial visit to my apartment and sleeping were uneventful. At the cafeteria, I was served corn flakes with slices of banana, which is my preferred breakfast. Once I had finished eating, I began to travel to my workspace. At the fork in the hallway, I decided to head left to briefly survey that area, but was told by a security officer that I would require an escort with the proper clearance. I accepted this.
That evening, I left my shift early (relative to my normal schedule; at the Foundation it would have been considered two hours late) and registered an appointment with C-44. He would agree to complete the tour. The clerk asked me why I was interested in touring the wing. I deflected the question, as I was unable to answer.
I met with C-44 the next day after work. (Details of my research fill my second journal. By request of the supply supervisor, I began keeping digital records only after that to save on paper.) He asked to see my badge, and I complied. I expressed my intention to visit the maintenance and "alternative housing" he had mentioned, and he led me. As we walked, C-44 engaged in small talk.
"So, you're B-85… and you got a job in the lab? Congratulations."
"Was there any uncertainty?"
"Unfortunately, not everyone can get the position they prefer. Someone has to do the unpopular jobs. Human Resources does a good job of providing most of us with a position that best suits us. Those of us without doctorates go into low-qualification tasks, while those of us who are more, ah… personable are assigned to work in the more social jobs."
"Is that what happened to you, C-44?"
"That's it, yes. I worked as an MRI technician at a private hospital, but now I handle these initiations, because apparently few of us are good at that sort of thing. But enough about that. you should see the garden."
C-44 brought me into a solarium outfitted with artificial sun lamps. Rare species grew here [list some], caretaken by assistants of a Dr. Gears A-20, who greeted me cheerfully.
"Isn't it beautiful?" he asked me.
"I'm sure it's a useful collection."
"Useful…" A-20 removed a work glove and rubbed his chin. "Empty your mind for a moment, B-85. Just feel the energy here. As each cell drinks in sunlight and each plant reaches toward it… don't you feel God here?"
"Well… yes, it's a useful collection. you'll probably appreciate the hydroponic crops. They're just past that door." A-20 replaced his glove and began to prune a bush.
"Don't mind him," C-44 whispered to me. "Back home, he was part of something called The Church of the Winding Branches."
"Alright. I suspect he's correct about the crops, C-44."
I saw a chamber filled with staple crops, herbs, and other edible plants growing in water.
"This is where most of the cafeteria's food comes from. Here, and the cloning lab. Some things are transported here, but we try to be as self-sufficient as possible. The Black Queens spend less and less time here."
"I think they just want us to find the Tree." One of A-20's assistants muttered this while taking tomato inventory.
"Don't tell me," C-44 said to him, "that your boss converted you."
"It makes sense, doesn't it? Biodiversity is cranked to extremes in that botanical garden. Literally more plants than a universe has to offer."
I interjected. "Only in the sense that the garden contains plants from multiple universes. That's a very misleading statement."
"And when and where is the only other place that has so many plants in one place, with only one man to take care of them?"
"Again, that's not—"
"The Garden of Eden, brother. Humanity branched out from that one spot, from the Tree of Knowledge. I think… that the Black Queens are trying to remake it."
"C-44, why don't we continue the tour?"
"That, uh… yes, very well."
C-44 took me further west. Additional security guards patrolled this wing—Dr. Gears in face-covering visors. I was shown a locked vault door.
"No badge reader here, B-85. No electronic systems of any kind in the door's mechanisms. There's a key that a few security staff and Black Queens carry, but otherwise…"
"What's behind it?"
"Behind it is a similar, but separate facility. It's that alternative housing I mentioned. It's locked because… well, I'm not sure you're cleared to know that."
"What information can I access with Level 2 security?"
"You don't have a tablet yet, do you? Here…" C-44 held the screen up to me; the front camera was engaged. "Show it your card."
I scanned myself in.
"Ah, okay, here's a report." C-44 summarized the information for me. "So… if a Gears arrives with any artificial body parts or other implants, such as a digital eye, surgeons detect and remove or replace it with a part cultivated in the cloning lab. (Rejection is almost nonexistent, due to inhabitants sharing virtually identical genes.) Some, however, are beyond corrective surgery. Those are quarantined from the rest of the population in their own facility."
"I don't see the reasoning."
"Some of them have transferred to or been augmented with strong AI. If we gave them a moment to make their case, they would likely completely control the facility within a day."
"If they're that qualified, it sounds like a practical decision."
"The Black Queens don't see it that way. So they strictly enforce quarantine, and keep them next to… that room." C-44 pointed to the end of the hall. "I know you can't approach there."
A pair of security officers stood two or three yards away. The door they guarded was matte gray and bore an insignia painted in red.
"Recognize the symbol?"
It was a ring, with five arrows pointing outward from the center in the shape of a star.
"Something about it is dimly familiar."
"Maybe because it reminds you of the Foundation logo. I understand that there's a splinter group of the Foundation called the Insurgency, or Chao's Insurgency, or the Porridgemongers, or…"
"The Chaos Insurgency."
"Correct. That's a cast-iron door, B-85. Supposedly it protects us from their magic. I don't know anything about it, but the Black Queens work with a Gears, A-something, that calls himself a 'sorcerresearcher', and he handles CI policy."
The door opened from inside. A Gears was behind it holding a clipboard. "Requesting clearance to exit the salty ring of my fatigue."
The two guards turned toward him and tapped their badges. The Gears held up his card to them with his right hand. "Careful. your hand will break if you touch this vent."
"We can't read it from there."
"I don't want to approach you without permission." He pointed toward the side. "The hook in your neck is the contact you've made."
One turned to the other. "Don't invite him out. He needs it. He's a warlock."
The suspicious Gears raised his voice. "I need a brand new skin! Incarcernated debts!" I repeated the strange words to myself, under my breath. They tasted bitter. He withdrew his left hand from his coat. It was soaked in blood. He began to splatter it on the walls and and floor on the other side of the door. One guard pressed an button with his palm that caused an alarm to sound.
As the door to the Insurgency cells began to close, the warlock shouted over the klaxons. "Goliath, are you receiving? Desecrated, you've arrived!" For a moment, he made eye contact with me.
"I'm really sorry about that." C-44 examined my clothing. "At least you didn't get any of it on you."
"That's good," I said.
"I think I should take you back to your room now."
"That's also good," I told him.
"I'm afraid you'll have to get an extra examination, though. They'll want to check for exposure to any 'spells' or 'cognitohazards'."
The examination found no effects from the incident, mental or metaphysical. The purpose of the CI agent's disturbance was not discovered. I personally am still not sure whether he was somehow alerted to my presence by informant or divination, or perhaps he merely chose to make an attempt to contact the general population and hope for the best.
That insurgent was not attempting to use a cognitohazard, I determined, nor magic. He was running through trigger phrases. He wanted to activate sleeper agents.
How did he know what their trigger phrases would be? Perhaps elements of the CI coordinate across universes. I must ask him later, when we are together.
I have been brought here on the pretense that I am a Foundation researcher, and I was. I am thought to be a man of science. I still believe that I am. As Whitman said, I am multitudes.
Every machine breaks, eventually. Sometimes, to do so, they require a little help.