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The Thirty Sixth Jump

(from the journals of Severn Sevenson: Vector-Space Explorer)

Today I jumped to one of the strangest vector-space splinters (what lay people call "alternate realities") I've ever been to, one of those that the scientists at the Institute jokingly classify as an "Apocryphal World." These worlds are usually found in the XG5 sector, initiated some time ago by a follower of the literary critic R. Volposian; he was the one who argued that it's not great men but great writers who make history. To get there I had to go a long way out on the t and z vector-space axes, hoping all the while that the splinter would justify my effort. In this regard, I can report, it didn't let me down.

I decided to materialize in orbit around this splinter's Earth to get a better look at what might be going on. The first thing I noticed out of the porthole of my vector-space capsule was that the planet had been extensively terraformed. There was now only one continent, and it was vast, barren and entirely flat except for a single mountain that rose from its center. The planet also seemed completely devoid of humans, except for a large group of them gathered around and on the mountain.

It didn't take an experienced traveler such as myself long to realize that the best place to land on this planet would be somewhere close to the mountain. This proved difficult, however, as people were clustered on and around it like positrons on the port side of a polarized Penburthian freighter. I found this very annoying as I'd forgotten to bring my good walking shoes but finally set myself down a good five hundred meters away from the main action.

After climbing out of my capsule I headed to the mountain and soon joined a large crowd of people, each of whom was taking a ticket out of one of the many automatic dispensers that circled the mountain. Most of the people, after having looked at the ticket, crumpled it up, tossed it aside and proceeded to the mountain. A few, however, acted both surprised and pleased and went to wait in line by a long, transparent tube; this tube reached so high up into the sky that I had to pull out my binoculars to confirm that it extended all the way to the top of the mountain. Suddenly I heard a big whoosh of air and looked over to see the woman at the head of the line being sucked up into the tube and hurtled higher and higher until she was finally spat out over the mountain's peak. She proceeded to roll down the slope for several feet before finding a good handhold, which she held on to as if she were the crowning glory of the planet. The next person sucked into the tube wasn't so lucky. After being spat out he couldn't find a good grip and started tumbling down the side of the mountain (which seemed, from here, to be nothing more than a teeming mass of humanity), knocking a few people off with him on the way; they, in turn, knocked some other people off. This mini-avalanche was over within seconds, as everybody soon found a secure perch from which they could resume their climb up the mountain.

Fascinated, I decided to join in. I found one of the machines that distributed the stubs of paper and pressed a button on it; I received a small notice that stated that I must climb to the top. So I walked to the mountain and started climbing, using the handholds and, when necessary, the shoulders and backs of other people to get higher.

"Good day for climbing, eh?" asked one of my fellow climbers, a friendly-looking fellow of about my age who was clambering over an older woman.

"Sure is."

"Always helps to start out when it's sub-critical, eh?"

"Sure does," I agreed again, not knowing what he was talking about.

"Last time I started up when it was sub-critical I damn near made it to the top."

"Did you really?"

He clamped onto some guy's neck with his left arm and then reached up with his right hand to grab the pant leg of a middle-aged man above him, all the while using his feet to fight off a particularly scrappy young woman coming up from below. "Yep," he continued, "I was just about there when this huge guy pops out of the tube and knocks me clean off my hold; hell, thanks to him I came down with so much force that I nearly caused an avalanche -- even though we'd barely gone critical." He laughed when he said this and I laughed, too.

Though it wasn't easy I managed to keep up with him as we climbed higher and higher, just two of the many making their way up. Periodically somebody would come tumbling down and either roll over or crash into us, but in spite of three direct collisions I was still holding on. More and more people, though, fell as the handholds got scarce: sometimes a half dozen people would be hanging on to one another, all completely dependent on the person gripping the handhold. The trick at this stage of the climb seemed to be to shift from one clump of people to another as you slowly rose to the top, hoping that the person underneath would be able to hold on with the additional weight that you'd added.

"Gets kind of tough this high up, eh?" my companion asked and I agreed. This time I knew exactly what he was talking about as we were all being forced to struggle against each other, sometimes cursing or groaning and other times laughing.

"What's the point in all this?" I finally asked, starting to feel a bit exasperated. "All that you seem to do on this world is climb this mountain and I'm afraid that I can't see the point of it all."

He looked at me blankly. "Point? Why would there be any point to it?"

I was about to ask him to elaborate when I heard crashing and banging, mixed with people shrieking, coming from the upper slopes. When I looked up I saw a large jumble of humanity tumbling and rolling down the mountain toward us.

"Hah! It looks like we've gone super-critical!" my companion yelled as the others around us hooted and hollered in anticipation of the coming avalanche. When it arrived few of us were able to hang on -- there were just too many people crashing against us and not enough handholds. Soon, I joined the avalanche, knocking person after person off their perch as I too rolled down the mountain. Soon I was in a virtual free fall and started to worry about what would happen when I reached the hard surface of this strange world. To my relief, though, the bank of graviton filters that had been built around the base of the mountain had been turned on and was lowering the gravity to the point that air resistance was able to slow my velocity and soften my impact.

While I dusted myself off I noticed my compatriots already starting back up the mountain. I, however, decided that I'd seen enough and went back to my capsule to return home.


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