Luke laughed raucously as Gabriel lowered his fists, and withdrew his empty hand from his pocket.
"There's a good boy. And you thought we couldn't get along? Pshaw, I say!" He grinned as he hooked his thumbs through his belt loops. He considered Gabriel's counteroffer for a moment, then nodded in assent. No sense pushing the kid any further right now. "Fine. Four days. I wouldn't mind a vacation myself, seeing as this job interrupted my last one. As for dealing with ArmsTech....well, we'll see."
Then his eyes went cold. "But just so you know, if you try something cute like leaving without me, I swear I'll reduce this place to splinters. And when I catch up with you, my offer to settle this peacefully will be off the table. Got it?"
Without waiting for a reply from either of them, Luke nodded in acknowledgement and turned to walk away, calling back to them as he left. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go find the nearest available cushion and grab a nap!"
Luke walked for several minutes, his mind racing as he twisted and turned through the manor's near-labyrinthine halls. 'Ana pulled up the dojo's schematics to guide him through the building, and the two conversed as he made his way to the sleeping quarters.
'Any ideas on how he knew about the burst-caster?' 'I'm afraid not. No scans were performed on you, my sensors didn't pick up any forms of E- or X-ray radiation, and I'm positive nothing accessed my records. It's like he just pulled the information out of thin air.' 'Yeah; that's about what I thought, as well. Remind you of anything?' 'That's not possible, Luke. Those results couldn't have been replicated; it's just not possible. No one else on the planet has access to that technology; it's behind 99 layers of blind security and there is only one key. It's just-' 'Not possible. I know. Not possible for it to be replicated. But...it could be simulated.'
Luke reached an empty room in the middle of a long hallway and slid the paper screen open. He slipped inside and pulled it shut once more, then sank down onto the thickly padded mattress as 'Ana protested.
'You don't really think that ArmsTech...? But they weren't even studying the right fields! All their research was targeted strictly on living organisms, biological and genetic experimentation only. The odds of them stumbling across your work are so low, I can barely process it.' 'You're right. So like I said, it must have been simulated. Clearly, whatever they did to Ureha and the others worked on multiple levels; it's entirely plausible that somehow, they managed to fast-forward the processes of human evolution, or perhaps mutate them. It's not much of a step further that that evolutionary path might have yielded results similar to mine.' Luke laid back on the bed, staring sightlessly at the ceiling. Damn those kids and their insufferable obsession with the past; it seemed their propensity for nostalgia had infected him. The past played out behind his eyes, a waking nightmare in perfect color to accompany him as he drifted to sleep.
The hours were brutal. His classmates were assholes. But this was his last year, and it was worth it. Three more months, and Luke Saipher would become the youngest person ever to graduate from Quantum Tech University. His professors had been astounded at first that a 14 year old boy could maneuver so masterfully through the fields of robotics, computer theory, physics, calculus. They were baffled when he zoomed past them all in the fields of celestial mathematics and mechanics, quantum physics, mechanical, electrical, molecular engineering. Many of them were either outraged or overjoyed when he was offered a senior research position at the University pending his graduation.
Three years later, after countless breakthroughs and design patents, hundreds of published papers and lecture tours, Luke had begun to feel burnt out. His curiosity, his drive to uncover the secret underpinnings of reality, was starting to falter. The interest just wasn't there anymore.
Then he met Annika.
Luke was hardly the type to fall in love at first sight; his rational, analytical mind would never accept such an ethereal experience. But as he got to know her, from chance meetings in the libraries that turned into all-night discussions, from tentative dates that turned into other all-night activities, he realized 'in love' was the perfect way to describe his feelings for her. And she returned his affections in kind.
"You have to keep going, Luke. If you don't figure out the secrets of the universe, then who will?" She joked, whenever he felt like throwing away the keys to his lab or trashing the mounds of research that sat on his desk from time to time, mocking him with its inscrutability. And that was all it took. Her laughter, her touch, her very existence made Luke want to understand the workings of a universe that could create something so wonderful.
And then she was gone.
It was no one's fault; not really. A faulty gas line to one of the bunsen burners in the chem lab, a collection of volatile compounds unwisely left too close together. No one else was hurt in the blast; Annika herself, by rights, shouldn't have even been in the building. If not for a friend who had previously left a report in the wrong office. If. If. If.
For months, Luke had barely eaten, slept, spoken. He threw himself into his work with the ferocity of a feral beast, at times barely aware even of what he was working on. But something inside him demanded he continue, and continue he did until at last it was finished. The machine started at about the size of a small car. Over time, it had grown to the size of a tanker truck; then to that of a house. By the time it was finished, it had been moved into one of the empty aeronautics hangars.
Almost a year to the day, Luke stood alone in the hangar before the darkly gleaming technological behemoth. It had been weeks since his last shower, days since his last meal. He was exhausted, in every sense of the word.
But he wasn't finished.
The machine was connected to the University's power grid, which ran off of its own dedicated fusion reactor, and he input the target coordinates. The machine was designed to generate a field capable of piercing through the dimensional membranes and allowing for the traversal of the rifts between. In short: a reality shifter.
For years, Luke had been fascinated by the concept of the many-worlds hypothesis, the idea that parallel to his own reality existed billions upon billions of others, each reflecting the myriad ways that fate and luck and history could have played out. And now, in the depths of grief and despair, he had built a device to visit them.
With the last checks in place, Luke activated the machine.
Luke stood on trembling legs for what felt like hours, waiting for a sign, a change, anything to prove that the machine had not failed. When nothing seemed forthcoming, he sank to his knees and screamed, a low, pitiful howl that grew and climbed until it sounded like the voice of a thousand angels singing of woe and loss.
When at last his voice had died away and the last of his tears had fallen, he struggled to his feet and reached for the generator's power switch.
Then he noticed the lily.
Almost from the corner of his eye, for an instant Luke caught a glimpse of a small, bright lily growing right out of the concrete at his feet. As quickly as he'd noticed it, it was gone. Then he began to notice the other differences. Shelves that seemed to shift position. Windows that vanished and reappeared before his eyes. The paint on the walls flowed from dark blue to black to gray to white to red, and the ceiling appeared to be riddled with launching ports and skylights that moved around like pieces on a game board.
Luke realized the machine had worked after all, though not precisely as he'd intended; his body had not been affected, but his mind was leaping from reality to reality, sharing consciousness with other versions of himself for mere nanoseconds before jumping to the next one, and the next. As soon as he recognized the phenomenon, he began struggling to control it. With every leap, he stayed longer and longer, the intensity of his concentration forcing him to lag behind the field. After almost four hours of trial and error, he learned how to control the jumps. Two hours after that, he learned how to sift through the memories of his other selves.
What they showed him drove him mad.
In every world, in every universe, Luke had met his beloved Annika. And in every universe, she was dead.
The last rational part of himself screamed in defiance. This simply wasn't possible; out of billions and billions of realities, the very idea of a true constant was unthinkable. But the multiverse said otherwise.
In the end, Luke surrendered to his body's demands for food, for rest. Like a tightly wound rubber band, he released his concentration and flew backward through the 'verses until he emerged from the field back into his own reality. He was found the next day, collapsed in the hangar at the foot of the reality shifter; they rushed him to the hospital just in time.
His mind all but shattered, Luke became something of an autistic savant. His higher thought processes were almost untouched, but his original personality was fractured. He could barely dress or feed himself; once again, Luke was imprisoned in his own mind. Again, there was nothing but work. But this time, Luke's thoughts took a different path. This time, he focused his efforts on the fields of neurological implants...and artificial intelligence. Due to his condition, he was forced to reside in a sanitarium for the developmentally challenged; some small part of him was aware enough to realize that if Annika were still alive, she would have howled with laughter at the sheer irony of it all. It was this small part that kept him going.
As a patient, Luke was not allowed the use of computers or laboratories; but years of study had forged his mind into a lab more advanced than anywhere else in the world. He was allowed the use of pens and paper, and for months he scribbled and drew the designs for the implants that would one day fill his head. He wrote long-hand the code that would form the basis for the most powerful A.I. the world had ever known. And then, he went back and improved on it.
It was almost a week before he recognized what was happening to him. He was writing code and designing complex neuromachines that should have taken years to complete on paper, and he was doing it in hours. The tiny nugget of sanity he had left realized that he was still connected to the field. Knowledge was flowing into his mind from the billions of alternate Luke Saiphers. The moment he came across a difficult problem, the solution simply appeared in his head as if he had known it all along. He filled notebook after notebook with code and designs, and sent them to his colleagues at Quantum Tech. Within months, the first implants were ready, and a quick surgical procedure left him feeling almost human again as his thoughts regained a shadow of their former clarity. The clearer his thoughts became, the more he was able to refine the implant's designs. Once they were perfected, he turned his attentions toward creating the A.I. that would inhabit them and help him retain his sanity.
"...Nirvana...I'll call it Nirvana...she would have liked that..."