Death in a Collapsing Wormhole

The following story is a fan fiction prologue to Greg Egan’s short story: Into Darkness

All rights remain with Greg Egan. No money is being earned from this fan piece, it is a homage to the story that put me on the path to reading every word Egan has ever written and attempting to write and publish Scifi.

I don’t like talking about my first Run. Nobody does.

After nearly two-hundred rehearsals over eight months, the buzzer in my apartment sounded at 4am, rising in both pitch and loudness. The light above the buzzer was red. I dressed on my way across the room and thumped the acknowledgment switch. With shaking hands I tied my shoes. I grabbed my backpack from beside the bed and flicked the power. It started flashing LEDs as it went through its self-checking routines. 

When I reached the curb the patrol car was already there. The driver introduced himself as Angelo. There was another volunteer in the backseat, Jack, who had trained me over the previous months, and a man next to him who I didn’t know and who didn’t bother with an introduction. I nodded at Jack as the car accelerated, then turned to analyze the car’s terminal which displayed a satellite view of The Intake in false-color infrared – a pitch black circle in a landscape of polychromatic blotches. A moment later, this was replaced by a street map of the region – one of the older suburbs in the north, mostly cul-de-sacs and dead-ends – with The Intake’s perimeter and center marked, and a dashed line showing where The Core should have been. The optimal routes were highlighted, eight in total and all these crisscrossing lines and various colors caused me to feel dizzy and sick with nerves. Nonetheless I pushed the nerves away, stared at the map, and tried to commit the essential paths and details to memory. It’s not that I wouldn’t have access to it, inside, but we had learned during training that it was always faster to just know. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on the optimal routes, creating something like a visual puzzle-book maze in my mind. 

We hit the freeway and the driver, Angelo, gunned it. I hoped he was a good driver because he was speeding like a maniac, swerving around the two cars we passed. I could feel the car tip up slightly on two wheels as we turned. The man who I didn’t know turned to Jack and me and said, “I gotta say one thing, I respect what you’re both about to do, but you both must be fucking crazy. I wouldn’t go inside that thing for a million dollars.”

I ignored him and switched my watch into chronograph mode, and synched it to the count that the terminal was showing, then did the same to my backpack’s timer. Six minutes and twelve seconds. The Intake’s manifestations obey exactly the same statistics as a radioactive nucleus with a half-life of eighteen minutes; seventy-nine per cent of the manifestations last six minutes or more – but multiplying anything by 0.962 every minute, and you wouldn’t believe how fast it could fall. I had memorized the probabilities right out to an hour, which may or may not have been a wise thing to do. Counter to intuition, The Intake did not become more dangerous as time passed, any more than a single radioactive nucleus became “more unstable.” I knew that at any given moment within The Intake – assuming that it hadn’t yet vanished – it was just as likely as ever to stick around for another eighteen minutes. A mere ten per cent of manifestations lasted for an hour or more – but of those ten per cent, half would still be there eighteen minutes later. The danger had not increased.

It was now 4:08am, the freeway was empty, but it still took me by surprise when we screeched onto the exit ramp so soon. My stomach was painfully tight. I wished I felt ready. I wished I had more time to compose myself. A part of me was hoping for a delay. But I answered the thought with self-castigation: if what I was really hoping for was that The Intake had vanished before I could reach it, then I shouldn’t have been there at all.

During training Jack told me, over and over, “You can back out any time you want to. Nobody would think any less of you.” It was true, of course (up to the point where backing out would become physically impossible), but it was a freedom I decided I could do without. Now that I had accepted the first call, I didn’t want to have to waste my energy on second thoughts, I didn’t want to have to endlessly reaffirm my choice. I had psyched myself into believing that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I backed out at the last minute, however understanding other people might have been, and that helped a little. But the only trouble was, this lie might have been self-fulfilling, and I really didn’t want to become that kind of person.

I closed my eyes, and the map appeared before me. I was a mess, there was no denying it, but I told myself that I could still do the job, I could still get results. That is what counted.

I could tell when we were getting close, without even searching the skyline; there were lights on in all of the houses, despite the early hour, and families standing in their front yards. Many people waved and cheered as we passed, a sight that depressed me. When a group of teenagers, standing on a street corner drinking out of paper bags, screamed abuse and waved their middle fingers, I couldn’t help but feel perversely encouraged.

“Assholes,” said the man I didn’t know. I kept my mouth shut.

We turned a corner, and I spotted a trio of helicopters, high on my right, ascending with a huge projection screen in tow. Suddenly, a corner of the screen was obscured, and my eye extended the curve of the eclipsing object from this one tiny arc to giddy completion.

From the outside, by day, The Intake made an impressive sight: a giant black dome, completely non-reflective, blotting out a great bite of the sky. It was impossible not to believe that you were confronting a massive, solid object. By night, though, it was different. The shape was still unmistakable, cut in a velvet black that made the darkest night seem gray, but there was no illusion of solidity; there was just an awareness of a different kind of void.

The Intake had been appearing for almost six years now. It was always a perfect sphere, a little more than kilometer in radius, and usually centered close to ground level. On rare occasions, it had been known to appear out at sea, and slightly more often, on uninhabited land, but the vast majority of its incarnations took place in populated regions.

The currently favored hypothesis was that a future civilization had tried to construct a wormhole that would have let them sample the distant past, bringing specimens of ancient life into their own time to be studied. But somehow they’d screwed up. Both ends of the wormhole became unstuck. The thing had shrunk and deformed, from – presumably – some kind of grand temporal highway, bridging geological epochs, to a gateway that was now spanning less time than it would take to cross an atomic nucleus at the speed of light. One end – The Intake – was a kilometer in radius; the other was about a fifth as big, spatially concentric with the first, but displaced an almost immeasurably small time into the future. We called the inner sphere – the wormhole’s destination, which seemed to be inside it, but wasn’t – The Core.

Why had this shriveled-up piece of failed temporal engineering ended up in the present era was anyone’s guess; maybe we just happened to be half-way between the original endpoints, and the thing had collapsed symmetrically. Pure bad luck. The trouble was, it hadn’t quite come to rest. It materialized somewhere on the planet, remaining fixed for several minutes, then lost its grip and vanished, only to appear at a new location a fraction of a second later. Six years of analyzing the data had yielded no method of predicting successive locations, but there must have been some remnant of a navigation system in action; why else would the wormhole have clung to the Earth’s surface (with a marked preference for inhabited, dry land) instead of wandering off on a random course into interplanetary space? It was as if some faithful, demented computer kept valiantly trying to anchor The Intake to a region which might have been of interest to its scholarly masters; no Paleozoic life could be found, but twenty-first century cities would do, since there was nothing much else around. And every time it failed to make a permanent connection and slipped off into hyperspace, with infinite dedication, and unbounded stupidity, it tried again.

Being of interest was bad news. Inside the wormhole, time was mixed with one spatial dimension, and – whether by design or physical necessity – any movement which equated to traveling from the future into the past was forbidden. Translated into the wormhole’s present geometry, this meant that when The Intake materialized around you, motion away from the center was impossible. You had an unknown time – maybe eighteen minutes, maybe more, maybe less – to navigate your way to the safety of The Core, under these bizarre conditions. What was more, light was subject to the same effect; it only propagated inward. You could look away from the center, behind you, and see your surroundings in which you were now denied access, but turning back, towards the direction you had to travel, you’d see nothing but blackness. Everything closer to the center than you lied in the invisible future. If you ran towards it, you were running into darkness.

During my eight months of training, I heard my fellow trainees scoff at the notion that any of this could be difficult. I was about to learn firsthand.

My trainer, Jack, told me that outward motion wasn’t actually impossible. If it was, everyone caught in The Intake would die at once. The heart had to circulate blood, the lungs had to inhale and exhale, nerve impulses had to travel in all directions. Every single living cell relied on shuffling chemicals back and forth, and I couldn’t even guess what the effect could be on the molecular level, if electron clouds could fluctuate in one direction, but not the reverse.

There was some leeway. Because the wormhole’s entire eight-hundred meters spaced such a minute time interval, the distance scale of the human body corresponded to an even shorter period – short enough for quantum effects to come into play. Quantum uncertainty in the space-time metric permitted small, localized violations of the classical law’s absolute restriction.

So, instead of everyone dying on the spot, blood pressure went up, the heart became stressed, breathing became laborious, and the brain started functioning erratically. Enzymes, hormones, and other biological molecules were all slightly deformed, causing them to bind less efficiently to their targets, interfering to some degree with every biochemical process; hemoglobin, for example, lost its grip on oxygen more easily. Water diffused out of the body – because random thermal motion was suddenly not so random – which led to gradual dehydration.

People already in poor health could die from these effects. Others were just made nauseous, weak, and confused – on top of the inevitable shock and panic. They made bad decisions. They got trapped.

One way or another, a few hundred lives were lost, every time The Intake materialized. Intake Runners could save ten or twenty people, according to the statistics, which I admit was not much of a success rate, but until some genius could work out how to rid us of the wormhole for good, it was better than nothing.

The screen was in place high above us when we reached the “North Operations Center” – a couple of vans, stuffed with electronics, parked on someone’s front lawn. The now-familiar section of street map appeared, the image rock steady and in perfect focus, in spite of the fact that it was being projected from a fourth helicopter, and all four were jittering in the powerful inward wind. People inside could see out, of course; this map – and the others, at the other compass points – saved dozens of lives. In theory, once outdoors, it should have been simple enough to head straight for The Core; after all, there was no easier direction to find (go where it’s dark), no easier path to follow (your body can only move towards it). The trouble was, a straight line inward was likely to lead you into obstacles, and when you couldn’t retrace your steps, the most mundane of those could kill you.

So, the map was covered with arrows, marking the optimal routes to The Core, given the constraint of staying safely on the roads. Two more helicopters, hovering above The Intake, were doing one better: with high-velocity paint guns under computer control, and laser-ring inertial guidance systems constantly telling the shuddering computers their precise location and orientation, they were drawing the same arrows in fluorescent/reflective paint on the invisible streets below. You couldn’t see the arrows ahead of you, but you could look back at the ones you had passed. It helped.

There was a small crowd of coordinators, and one or two Runners, around the vans. The scene struck me as forlorn, like some small-time rained-out amateur athletics event, air traffic notwithstanding. Angelo called out, “You got this!” as Jack and I ran from the car. I turned back and saw him smiling with a golden tooth and a thumbs up. Loudspeakers were blasting the standard advice inward, cycling through the three languages spoken of the citizens living within the Intake (obtained through Census reports). In the corner of my eye I saw a TV crew arriving. I glanced at my watch. Nine minutes. I couldn’t help thinking, seventy-one per cent, although The Intake was, clearly, one hundred per cent still there. A beautiful woman approached Jack. They kissed, then separated. The woman winked and smiled at me.

“Enjoy your first run, John.”

“I’ll try.”

“See you both in the Core.” Then without another word she sprinted into the wall of darkness. Elaine. Jack’s girlfriend. I’d had a crush on her during the first day of training, until I learned that she was dating my boss. Then I buried those emotions real quick.

Dolores was handing out assignments, airdropping them into our mobiles. She wrote most of the software used by Intake Runners around the world, but then, she made her living writing computer games. She’d even written a game which modeled The Intake itself, but sales had been less than spectacular; the reviewers had decided it was in bad taste. “What’s next? Let’s play 9-11 terrorist attack?” Meanwhile, online evangelists were selling prayers to keep the wormhole away; you just click that payment link for instant protection.

“What have you got for me?”

“An infant.”

“That’s all?” Jack put his hand on my shoulder.

“It’s your first run. And we’re a bit late. Take it or leave it. If the infant’s not there, get to The Core.”

“I’ll take it. What have you got?” He turned and smiled.

“One infant, three kids, a paraplegic.” He turned his head and cracked his neck. “Drink something before you go. Stay calm while you’re in there. See you in The Core.” And he was off. I wondered if that line, See you in The Core, was what everybody said before running in, or if it was just Elaine and Jack.

I felt my mobile vibrate and looked at the screen. A sector of the street map appeared, marked with a bright red dot. I strapped on the pack, then adjusted the display of my mobile on its movable arm so I could catch it with a sideways glance, if I had to. Electronics could be made to function reliably inside the wormhole, but everything had to be specially designed.

It wasn’t ten minutes, not quite. I grabbed a cup from a table besides one of the vans. It contained a solution of mixed carbohydrates, supposedly optimized for our metabolic needs. I chugged it, then immediately regretted my decision. My stomach tightened up immediately. That didn’t happen during training. Turned out that during the real thing my stomach wasn’t interested in absorbing anything, optimized or not. If I survived this, I told myself I’d never do that again.

I tried to blank my mind and just concentrate on the run-up – in training we learned that the faster you hit The Intake, the less of a shock it was – and before I could ask myself, for the first time that night, what the fuck I was really doing there, I’d left the isotropic universe behind, and the question became academic.

The darkness didn’t swallow me, which was strange, surprising. I’d seen it swallow other Runners, why didn’t it swallow me? Instead, the darkness receded from my every step. The borderline wasn’t absolute; quantum fuzziness produced a gradual fade-out, stretching visibility about as far as each extended foot. By day, this was said to be completely surreal, and people had been known to suffer fits and psychotic episodes at the sight of the void’s apparent retreat. By night, it seemed merely implausible, like chasing an intelligent fog.

At the start, I felt good, almost too good. Even though my stomach was still knotted, the pain was subdued. Thanks to frequent rehearsals in a compression harness, the pattern of resistance as I took each breath was almost familiar. In the beginning of the Intake’s appearance, Runners took drugs to lower their blood pressure, but with sufficient training, the body’s own vasoregulatory system could be made flexible enough to cope with the stress, unaided. The odd tugging sensation on each leg as I brought it forward would probably have driven me insane, if I hadn’t (crudely) understood the reason for it: inward motion was resisted, when pulling, rather than pushing, was involved, because information traveled outward. If I tried to trail a ten-meter rope behind me, I wouldn’t have been able to take a single step; pulling on the rope would pass information about my motion from where I was to a point further out. That was forbidden, and it was only the quantum leeway that was letting me drag each foot forward at all.

The street curved gently to the left, gradually losing its radial orientation, but there was no convenient turn-off yet. I stayed it the middle of the road, straddling the double white line, as the border between past and future swung to the right. The road surface seemed always to slope toward the darkness, but that was just another wormhole effect; the bias in thermal molecular motion – a cause of the inward wind, and slow dehydration – produced a force, or pseudo-force, on solid objects, too, tilting the apparent vertical.

“-me! Please!”

A man’s voice, desperate and bewildered – and almost indignant, as if he couldn’t help believing that I must have heard him all along, that I must have been feigning deafness out of malice or indifference. I turned and slowed down, then immediately became disoriented and dizzy. I had to pick up my pace and look forward, cursing myself, since we had learned in training how turning and slowing down too quickly could lead to a black out. When I felt the dizziness dissipate I looked back, outward, and everything appeared almost normal, apart from the fact that the streetlights were out, and so most of the illumination was from helicopter floodlights and the giant street map in the sky. The cry had come from a bus shelter, all vandal-proof plastic and reinforced glass, at least fifteen meters behind me; I might as well have been on Mars. Wire mesh covered the glass; I could just make out the figure behind it, a faint silhouette.

“Help me!”

For a moment my face contorted into a grimace of despair. Then I realized that I had already vanished into that man’s darkness; he couldn’t see whatever gesture or expression I had made to judge whether or not it was appropriate while walking away from his death. I turned away, picking up speed. I was not inured to the death of strangers, but I was inured to my helplessness.

After six years of The Intake, there were beginning to be international standards established for painting markings on the ground around every potential hazard in public open space. Like all the other measures already put in place, that would help, slightly. There were international discussions, too, for eventually eliminating the hazards – designing out the corners where people could be trapped – but that was going to cost billions, and take decades, and wouldn’t even touch the real problem: interiors. I’d seen demonstration trap-free houses and office blocks, with doors, or curtained doorways, in every corner of every room, but the style hadn’t exactly caught on. My own house was far from ideal; after getting quotes for alternations, I decided that the cheapest solution was to keep a sledgehammer beside every wall.

I turned right, and just in time saw a trail of glowing arrows hiss into place on the road behind me.

I was almost at my assignment. I tapped a button on my backpack and peered sideways at the display, as it switched to a plan of the target house. As soon as The Intake’s position was known, Dolores’s software started hunting through databases, assembling a list of locations where there was a reasonable chance that we could do some good. We learned in training that the information was never complete, and sometimes it was just plain wrong; Census data was often out of date, building plans could be inaccurate, misfiled, or simply missing – but it beat walking blind into houses chosen at random.

I slowed almost to a walk, two houses before the target, to give myself time to grow used to the effects. Running inward lessens the outward components – relative to the wormhole – of the body’s cyclic motions; now I felt, physically, that slowing down was precisely the wrong thing to do. I felt like I had been running through a canyon, no wider than my shoulders, whose walls were only staying apart as long as I moved fast enough; but now I was slowing down and the walls were pressing on me, closing in.

The street here lied about thirty degrees off radial. I crossed the front lawn of the neighboring house, then stepped over a knee-high brick wall. At the angle, there were few surprises; most of what was hidden was easy enough to extrapolate that it almost seemed visible in the mind’s eye. A corner of the target house emerged from the darkness on my left; I got my bearings from it and headed straight for a side window. Entry by the front door would cost me access to almost half of the house, including the bedroom which Dolores’s highly erratic Room Use Predictor nominated as the one most likely to be the child’s. People could file room use information with us directly, but few bothered.

I smashed the glass with a crowbar, opened the window, and clambered through. I left a small electric lamp on the windowsill – carrying it with me would have rendered it useless – and moved slowly into the room. I was already starting to feel dizzy and nauseous again, but I forced myself to concentrate. One step too many, and the rescue became ten times more difficult. Two steps, and it was impossible.

It was clear that I had the right room when a dresser was revealed, piled with plastic toys, talcum powder, a stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear, and other paraphernalia spilling onto the floor. Then a corner of the crib appeared, on my left, pointed at an unexpected angle; the thing was probably neatly parallel to the wall to start with, but slid unevenly under the inward force. I sidled up to it, then inched forward, until a lump beneath the blanket came into view. I felt a twisting sensation in my gut, but knew the longer I waited the harder this would get. I reached sideways and lifted the child, bringing the blanket with it. I kicked the crib aside, then walked forward, slowly bending my arms, until I could slip the child into the harness on my chest. An adult was strong enough to drag a small baby a short distance outward. It was usually fatal.

The baby hadn’t stirred; he or she was unconscious, but breathing. I shuddered briefly, a kind of shorthand emotional catharsis, then I started moving. But I almost fell when my foot caught on something on the floor. I look downed and slightly back, without slowing my pace, and saw a dead woman reaching towards the infant’s room. Her outstretched arm was blue and blotchy. At the same time, my foot caught another body on the floor, and since this time I was already looking down and back I saw the face of a dead man. I tried not to imagine their final moments. Before turning back forward I saw a sign next to the infant’s room: Malcolm’s Room. I wished I hadn’t seen that.

As I stepped through the front door, the sense of relief left me giddy. Either that, or renewed cerebral blood flow. I picked up speed as I crossed the lawn.

When I reached the street I glanced at my forearm to verify that I was on the correct path, and not a moment too soon: I had to turn left, sharply. I hadn’t noticed how much I’d become disoriented in the house. I turned and immediately felt the resistance dampen, slightly. I tried to remember the paths available from the ride on the highway. Maybe if I moved faster I could think more clearly? I picked up the pace then-


I walked straight into the a solid, metal object. Don’t panic. My arms flailed in front of me, trying to discern the nature of the object that was blocking my path. Metal…glass… The dizziness returned. My ears were ringing and I felt my breathing become labored. Car. This is a parked car. As I shifted along its exterior my hands felt air, I jumped on what I thought was the front hood, and continued moving forward.

I felt like complete shit. I looked at the map for the eighth time and made sure I was on the path that led directly to The Core. I stared down at the ground, at the fleeting magic golden arrows, and tried not to count them. One glimpse of a festering chicken sandwich discarded on the road, and I found myself throwing up. Common sense told me to turn and face backward, but I wasn’t that stupid. The acid in my throat and nose brought tears to my eyes. As I shook them away, I hoped the baby strapped to my chest was still alive.

Out of the blackness a hand appeared and gripped my neck. A body grabbed mine and forced itself behind me.

“Keep moving. Do you have the baby?” I recognized Jack’s voice. How did he end up on my path? Why didn’t he have a baby, the kids, or a paraplegic?

“I do.”

“Good. Don’t slow down. Run. Don’t wait for me. Go.” I received a firm push in the back. Instinctively I looked behind me. Jack was limping, blood pouring from his neck and abdomen. My only guess was that his demolition gun had misfired, or that he had blown up a wall in a house and something had crumbled on top of him.

“I said keep going! Don’t slow down god damn it!” without the least sign of doubt that he wasn’t just shouting at empty space, and that I was about to ignore his initial request. I slowed my pace, hoping that he could catch up with me, but as I did so I saw Jack collapse on the ground, groaning, then fall unconscious. There was nothing I could do for him now. I turned and started to run.

But in the horror of seeing Jack fall, I had veered off course again. How could I be so careless? I felt the dizziness return, glanced at the map, and righted my course.

The Core was less than a hundred meters away. In my head I recited an incantation: I didn’t kill the baby, the danger does not increase, I didn’t kill the baby, the danger does not increase. I realized that I was losing my mind. In my heart I knew that the whole conceit of “probability” was meaningless; the wormhole was reading my mind, waiting for the first sign of hope, and whether that came fifty meters, or ten meters, or two meters from safety, that was when it would take me.

Some part of me calmly judged the distance that I had to cover, and counted: eighty-three, eighty-two, eighty-one…I mumbled random numbers to myself, and when that failed, I reset the count arbitrarily: thirty-three, thirty-two, thirty-one

A new universe, of light, stale air, noise – and people countless people – exploded into being around me. I kept pushing forward until someone stepped in my path. Elaine. She guided me over to the front steps of a house, while another woman approached with a trolley. On the trolley was some sort of incubator device.

“Do you have the baby?”

“Yes.” I reached into my chest strap and pulled out the infant. But somehow, I already knew. The woman took the baby and gently placed it on the trolley, but when she put another device next to its neck, she shook her head. A man nearby picked up the baby and the woman rushed off.

“It’s okay, John,” I heard Elaine say from a distance. “Of all the ones that make it to the core, only about 50% survive.” For Elaine, nothing was ever a big deal. “Traveling through the wormhole is extremely taxing. It’s just statistics.” I thought about the times I almost veered off course and got dizzy. Did I kill the baby then? Anguish and guilt twisted in my gut. And for the first time, I really looked around. Groups of people were standing or sitting around electric lanterns, filling the streets and front yards as far as I could see.

“Hello? You hear me? You sure you’re okay? Get your breath. It’s over.” I don’t know why I felt it was the time to say it. Maybe I was lashing out at Elaine’s indifference. Maybe I wanted her to suffer the same feelings that were strangling me.

“I saw Jack die.” I looked at Elaine and saw her face tighten. She started to saying something, then stopped herself. Then she throatily whispered,


“He must have seen me walking towards him. He grabbed me out of the darkness, asked if I had the baby, then shoved me forward. I turned back and saw him collapse on the ground.” The vision in Elaine’s eyes turned inwards.

“Right.” Then she walked away into the crowds, towards a small open space among the groups, and sat down.

For ten minutes I just stood there, looking at The Intake, the crowds, Elaine sitting alone. What was I doing? Why couldn’t I go over to her? Maybe I was expecting the Intake to vanish at any moment, for the show to be over and for me to be able to blend in with the crowds and go home. Everyone else, except Elaine, seemed to share a similar anticipation. There was an excited buzz in the air, like the murmurs before a concert. But beneath that expectation, I felt a hatred and a loathing to a degree that I had never experienced before. I had failed on my first Run. I had let that baby die. I had failed to save Jack. And now here I was, a survivor, a high school science teacher, a volunteer Intake Runner, with two kids who didn’t speak to him anymore, and an ex-wife whose last words to him were: you’re a spineless coward. Maybe that’s why I had signed up for this ludicrous job in the first place. To try to prove to myself that I wasn’t what my wife, my kids, and the world had labeled me. That I could be a hero. And here I was, still a failure.

But in that loathing, that shame, while looking out at that demented wormhole, I felt a small part of me deep down concentrate itself, strengthen. This is what I was meant to do. Until these wormholes stopped wrecking havoc on humanity, I would run into each and every fucking one of them I could get to until they took me. That was my purpose. Where it came from, after I had failed so miserably, I did not know.

I walked over to Elaine. I sat next to her. She didn’t turn or look at me. For the next thirty-five minutes we continued to sit there in silence. I looked around at the weary survivors; even for those who had left no family or friends behind, the sense of relief and thankfulness at having reached safety had no doubt faded. They – we – just wanted it to be over. Everything about the passage of time, everything about the wormhole’s uncertain duration, had reversed its significance. Yes, the thing might have set us free at any moment – but so long as it hadn’t, we were as likely as not to be stuck here for eighteen more minutes.

Forty minutes passed. Twenty-one percent.

Fifty minutes passed. Fifteen per cent. Elaine put her head on my shoulder.

At fifty-six minutes, there was a whoosh causing my ears to pop, as the wormhole disappeared. The sudden decompression made me feel weak and numb. I looked out and saw that in parting, the wormhole had made no amends; it had radically homogenized the space it occupied, down to a length scale of about a micron. Every house, every garden, every blade of grass – every structure visible to the naked eye – vanished. Nothing remained but radial streaks of fine dust, swirling out as the high-pressure air in The Core was finally free to escape, disintegrating against the backdrop of a pale, morning sky.

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