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A note from Vincent Archer

The chapter titles are all book titles from my library. All those titles are homages to the vast panorama of books, from the mundane to the science-fiction classics. I haven’t loved all of them at the same level, but every book is worth reading if you only had the time. The world’s name is also such an homage, even if it is… definitively not the same world. No mech suits.

Northworld, © 1990 David Drake

Sphere, © 1987 Michael Crichton

Dealer’s Choice, © 1992 George R. R. Martin

Work Experience, © 2014 Christopher G. Nuttall

Places of Power, © 2017 Leonard Petracci

The Map that Changed the World, © 2002 Simon Winchester

( 5 years ago )

 

Arnoldo Vaz Fontana was an amateur archeologist. Childhood dreams fueled by Indiana Jones movies and Tomb Raider games had been squashed by a daddy who, perhaps wisely, perhaps not, put his veto on archeological studies. Arnoldo ended up with an MBA at the Universidad Santa María, and a lifetime hobby.

Thus, Arnoldo traipsed all over Panama and nearby countries, visiting all kinds of ruins and archeological sites. He considered this due compensation for the boredom of his executive post at a Panama branch of an international bank.

 

Zona Arqueológica Finca 6 was home to the stone balls of Central America. A favorite of Arnoldo, drawing the locations of the various stone spheres was always a delight. But today, one of those stone spheres wasn’t a stone sphere.

Rains had churned a bit the ground, and some off-road paths in the park were severely impacted. Arnoldo always picked less traveled paths, for the feeling that he was an adventurer rather than a mere tourist. And, to the side, he’d spotted a glint; a reflection on some large kind of metal.

 

The culprit was a fist-sized silver mirrored sphere. It looked like it had been unearthed recently, but the sphere was spotless. He’d picked it up, and noticed that even the parts that had been half-buried were free of mud and earth. None of it stuck.

The sphere did not fit the surrounding area. The park was all about strange stone spheres, whose origin remained mysterious, but nobody had found any metal tools. The sphere matched the theme of Finca 6 but didn’t look like an ancient artifact.

Arnoldo tried to feel the silvery sphere and was startled as suddenly the globe grew in size, slipping from his hand. In half a second, the sphere had reached some 7 feet in size. It looked ominously dark rather than metallic as if it had filled with night. Arnoldo reached to the sphere to check what had happened.

If someone else had been there to see it, they would have seen Arnoldo being swallowed abruptly by the black sphere before it vanished entirely, leaving an empty meadow.

 

After a week, the local park authorities finally towed away Arnoldo’s car. Meanwhile, in Panama City, a missing person report was filed, since he hadn’t shown up on Monday, and both his personal and professional cell phones were offline. A cursory sweep of the park failed to find anything, and the authorities put the thing on the back burner as one of the dozens of people who disappeared every week by stumbling on this or that cartel’s activities.

 

Twenty-three days after the fateful day, there was still no one to watch the meadow. A sphere blinked suddenly in existence, before shrinking to fist size, as a man stumbled before righting himself.

Arnoldo looked very different from 3 weeks ago. A huge beard covered his usual clean shaved shin, his hiking clothes were now slightly mismatched leathers, and his old sunhat was gone.

He blinked as he took stock of the meadow… which he remembered still from before. Frowning, he fished into his backpack, searching for a phone. But the phone was dead, the battery drained for weeks.

Arnoldo spotted the silver sphere and carefully reached and picked it up, placing it gingerly in the backpack. He then breathed carefully and started toward the park entrance.

               

“No Señor. I was not kidnapped. I was not detained. No señor, I really lost myself.”

Arnoldo was getting slightly annoyed because he had spent the last four hours trying to explain to the policeman that, no, he was not covering for a cartel kidnapping, and no, he had no given them a ransom, and no, he did not need protection to testify. But all of that was interrupted by an exclamation:

“Nolo! Fuck, where you been, man?”

The man that entered the police space was tall, hair styled, well dressed, looking like a professional model for a French perfume company. Ramon Palacio was another MBA from the same class as Arnoldo. Ramon had wanted to be a history major, and, like Arnoldo, had been locked away at Santa María by his parents who definitively did not want their firstborn to be a penniless teacher. Of course, the frustrated students had hit off, and despite their best efforts to get sidetracked, they had graduated together. Ramon switched jobs every year as soon as he started to hate the place enough and was currently working for a banana exporter.

“Ramon! Save me from the police.”

“Do you want me to call your lawyer? You’ve tried to call your lawyer, right?”

Arnoldo looked toward the policeman who looked tired.

“No. I wanted to give full cooperation with the police to close their case file. Do you think I shouldn’t have?”

The detective appeared to reach a conclusion.

“Well, if you want to call your lawyer, we’ll have to wait for him then. Then see how we can proceed. But I’m sure I can finish my report without a problem.”

“Then I’m good to go?”

“Sign your deposition. Then yes. Don’t leave Panama without notifying the police, though. We may require further information.”

 

“So, what happened to you, Nolo? You look like you’ve crossed the Amazonian forest on foot.”

Ramon started toward Arnoldo’s home, without even trying to respect the speed limit.

Arnoldo cracked his hand, weighing his answer carefully.

“It’s complicated.”

“Oh? I wouldn’t have guessed. You missed last month’s poker. Your place was calling everyone on your contact list. I even got a call by your ex, who got called by the police.”

Ramon eyed the ragged man seated next to him in the car before adding:

“Finally found that hidden Maya pyramid? That’s why you look like Dr. Jones after three months of movie shooting?”

Arnoldo had to laugh. He sobered quickly.

“No Maya pyramid. And no Maya smuggled artifact. At least I don’t think it's Maya.”

They arrived in no time at Arnoldo’s place. The small house was a bit large for a bachelor, but he was between girlfriends, to the despair of his mother who expected him to settle now, and provide her with several grandchildren, enough to compensate for his being an only child.

“Come in. Need to show you some stuff.”

 

Ramon considered carefully his next words.

“So, let me summarize. You’ve spent the last three weeks locked into a computer game fighting wolves and exploring a lost city?”

“Not a computer game. A world that has a computer game interface somewhere, but is otherwise perfectly real. Or felt real.”

“How much did you drink during those weeks?”

“Not enough. I wish I had some quite a few times in the beginning.”

“Oh, really?”

“Sarcasm much, Ramon? Ok, do you remember this?”

Arnoldo pulled his left sleeve, showing his upper arm. One of his “archeology expeditions” at age 9 had left him with a torn bicep that required two months' healing and left a massive scar, which Ramon knew well from holidays shared with his friend.

Except that there was no scar. The entire arm looked perfectly normal, vaguely tanned from recent outdoor activity. Ramon frowned.

“Hmm. Can cosmetic surgery erase scars these days? Did you spend three weeks in one of those stem cell clinics? One that works?”

“No, I just healed that scar. The small one on my heel as well.”

“That kind of scar doesn’t heal that much.”

“Back there, it did. I could heal pretty much anything with time. Watch this.”

Arnoldo put his hand on the ground and did a handstand. On his left hand. Ramon watched incredulously has Arnoldo flexed and straightened his arm, keeping himself straight in his inverted position.

“Whoa. I know you’re fit, but you’ve turned into an athlete?”

“I told you. There’s a computer interface, and it said I raised my Strength and Dexterity quite a bit. And I did. As you can see.”

“You don’t gain strength by playing a computer game. Fat, yes. Strength, no way.”

“It’s not a game. It’s a world. A real world. It just has these rules added. But I came back with better Perception, higher Strength… almost everything better. Everything I did in that world to improve myself works here.”

Arnoldo waggled his finger, looking vaguely annoyed.

“Well, not everything. Apparently, I don’t do magic anymore.”

“Want a card deck?”

“No, real magic, not tricks. Throwing fireballs, not pulling rabbits. Heck, I ate rabbits. Well, rabbits with a small horn growing from their forehead. Rabbicorns?”

 

Arnoldo took his backpack and started pulling items from it… including a small horn-like object with a tuft of fur. Ramon looked doubtfully. It didn’t look that much of a fake, but, who knew.

One of the items looked very different. It was a dagger. A beautiful looking dagger, one foot long, with an ornamented handle, and a gem on the pommel.

“Where did you steal that shit?”

“Earned it. I found a small place, like a tiny dungeon. There were a bunch of smoke-breathing lizards that had made their nest in there. I got them out and there was a bunch of half-empty boxes at the rear. The dagger was in one.”

Arnoldo couldn’t pull out the Interface, not on Earth. He still remembered the descriptor, though.

          Balanced Lapis Dagger (lvl 20). Req. 28 Dexterity; -1% stamina costs.

He picked it and twirled it a bit, alarming Ramon.

“Hey, watch that thing Nolo! It looks sharp!”

“It is. It was much easier to carve the rabbits with it.”

Since Ramon was still looking doubtful, trying to decide if his friend was insane or merely pulling a fast one.

 

Arnoldo pulled out the silver sphere, handling it carefully. He set it on the ground and gave it a squeeze. As he’d expected, the sphere immediately grew to its larger size, giving Ramon a start.

“The?”

“That, my man, is what brought me there.”

Arnoldo looked at it.

“Hmm. It was black the first time I used it. Now it looks like a… mirror?”

“Not a good mirror. It’s more like one of those fisheye photo things. It looks… like some meadow? What're those things to the side?”

“That, Ramon, I recognize. It’s where I lived mostly during those weeks. The ruined ‘city’. More like a village, there were like 40 buildings top. Half in ruins, but a couple were intact, door and all. I dragged some furniture from all over and had my own nice house.”

Ramon peered closely, then startled again. The sphere had suddenly darkened. Then it went back to the meadow view.

Both men looked at each other, confused at first. Ramon was the first to take a guess. He moved back and forth. The sphere went full black when he was closest to it, and back to the meadow view whenever he was away and Arnoldo was closest.

They were still trying to make sense of it when, without warning, the sphere stopped reflecting the distant panorama and suddenly shrank to fist-sized, regaining its uniform silvery look.

 

“I think it’s attuned to whoever is close, not just me. I hadn’t been to the other world, and it was still showing black like it does when you get nearby. Now, it shows where I come from” said Arnoldo.

“What did it show on the other side?”

“Nothing. There was no sphere at all.”

“Then how did you come back?”

“I used the Interface. The game thing. After nine days, it was showing a kind of button saying

  Transit energy sufficient. Initiate return?

 Yes

At one point I simply clicked, and blam. I was back at Finca 6.”

“Wait, what? Nine days? You could be back after nine days? Two weeks ago? Why? Why didn’t you?”

Arnoldo took time to compose his thoughts.

“Because I didn’t want to.”

 

Ramon looked at his friend with worry written all over his face. Arnoldo tried to explain his mindset.

“I didn’t know I could be coming back at first. I was stuck there. But after a few days, I realized I loved this place. I had found this old village, and I was trying to piece everything together.”

His eyes got dreamy as he elaborated further.

“I had magic. I could chase wolves with fireballs if they got frisky. I had found that little dungeon. There were some fields with wild vegetables, fruits all over. Rabbits with horns but as tasty as any back here. And I didn’t miss that shit bank job.”

“You had the best holiday.”

“No. I had the best life I never had. Adventure, and no manager to tell me to balance this account or else. I did not want to come back, ever.”

“Not missing your friends? Even me?”

“Well, I would have liked to have you and Francisco around here. Heck, even my previous ex, the one that believed in crystal powers. Who knows, those are probably real there.”

“But you came back, Nolo.”

“In the end, I didn’t have a choice.”

“You said you clicked that button? You had to decide to come back.”

“After around three weeks, I got this… notification. On the Interface. It said I had something called ‘adaptation sickness’ and that my stats were dropped by 1%.”

“What’s an adaptation sickness?”

“Probably something about interacting with that Interface. But it was up to 2% the next day, so I guessed it was going to grow every day until I would be so weak I’d have to crawl. And maybe die in the end.”

“So you decided to come back.”

“I put everything in order, even closed my house. Then, yes, I went outside in the meadow, and I clicked to come back. And I was just dropped back on Earth, with this… silver gate thing shrinking back after letting me thru.”

 

Arnoldo served a pair of drinks. He eyed the scotch bottle… next time, he’d bring it, for sure.

“I know that look. You’re planning. You want to go back, don’t you Nolo?”

“Yes, Ramon. Even if I have to spend a few days on Earth… this is the life I want.”

“On your own, alone on an alien world? It’s probably a computer simulation, and you’re in some VR that anyone could shut down.”

“I don’t think it’s VR. But then, if it’s alien technology… why would we have access.”

“Don’t know. Maybe they’re beta testing on us Earthlings. Then they’ll do a server wipe, kill the pesky testers, and launch for their people?”

Both men sat in silence, musing. Arnoldo suddenly asked:

“Do you want to come with me?”

“What?”

“Why not? I have this gate thing. We could go, I’ll show you around.”

“Like now?”

Arnoldo thought better of it.

“No. I mean, I have this adaptation sickness. It should take 3-4 days to overcome, then I’ll be good. No, the real problem is that you can’t come back immediately.”

“This ‘transit energy’ you spoke of.”

“Yea. It took me 9 days. It should take at least that much to recharge that sphere. Maybe 18 if that’s for us both.”

“No way I’m going to disappear for 18 days without warning.”

“You can take a holiday. I am going to. Maybe resign the next time.”

“Nolo, if you drop your job, how are you going to pay the bills?”

“Which bills? The mortgage on this was only 5 years since Mom insisted. It’s over in four months. If I’m not there, no groceries, no gas, no electricity. Besides…”

Arnoldo reached in his bag and dumped a few smaller leather pouches. Ramon watched him pull out half a dozen small gemstones.

“I can sell that. There’s probably collectors that would like that dagger, but no way I’m selling it. And I might sell pelts, like an old-time trapper.”

“And get arrested as a poacher.”

“Hmmm.”

              

Arnoldo had negotiated a leave “following his ordeal in the wilds”. Which was technically true. Ramon had tried to take one, and, after a screaming match with his boss, had walked out of his job. He waved away Arnoldo’s concerns:

“I was starting to get bored. There are only so many ways you can make a banana deal – it’s always the same buyers anyway.”

Arnoldo wasn’t really worried, though. That was the sixth job his friend had left in 5 years. Changing jobs that often had him a reputation of mercenary ambition and drive. Unfounded, but appearances counted as much as anything in Panama City.

And now, both friends had packed. Arnoldo had tried to brief a bit his friend on the Setup Space, the black place he’d ended up before landing on the new world. The blackness on the Silvergate probably meant he’d be arriving there first. Once he’d crossed, he would wait until his friend had finished Setup, and, together they would have the time of their lives.

Ramon picked the Silvergate and squeezed. The sphere inflated to its ‘open’ size and went dark, waiting for Ramon to enter.

“See you on the other side.”

“See you. I still think you’re shitting me Nolo.”

Arnoldo snorted.

“Do you want me to kick you in there?”

“No. I’ll do it. I walked out of a job for that, so there.”

Ramon reached to the sphere and got swallowed.

 

Arnoldo blinked. There was no sphere. Nothing. He reached around, trying to feel if it had turned invisible or something… but no. Nothing. No Silvergate at all. It was gone.

After a few minutes, his panic subsided. In retrospect, it should have been obvious. Nobody had found a 7-foot sphere laying in the middle of Zona Arqueológica Park. While he had been in that other world, the sphere had been nowhere to be found.

Which meant it could be used only by one person at a time. Ramon was in the other world, and Arnoldo would be unable to go until he came back. They could go to a new life… but only one at a time. He could have screamed at God.

“Fuck. Fuck that. Fuck that shit. Why. Why, oh why???”

Well, at least, Ramon would have a place to sleep. His house there would be obvious. When Arnoldo didn’t show up, he’d guess there was something wrong, and, hopefully, he’d come back as soon as the return option appeared. Nine days, probably.

Those would be the longest nine days of Arnoldo’s life.

 

Arnoldo had placed a big sign “Call Me!” with an arrow pointing to Ramon’s phone – which he’d kept charged – in case Ramon popped while he wasn’t in the living room. But, on day 9, he stayed home, binge reading on history and archeology books.

The evening was drawing close, and he was about to fix himself something in the kitchen when a spherical… something… blinked in the middle of the living room, a man-shaped hole tore out in the world, and then the Silvergate went back to its closed state.

“RAMON! You’re back!”

Ramon steadied itself.

“Fuck Nolo! Why did you lie to me?”

“Lie? What lies?”

“You were coming to show me around your village and dungeons.”

“Well, there was a problem…”

“There was no village. No meadow. Not any of that.”

“Wait a minute? Ok, I couldn’t follow you, but…”

“I dropped out of that black space next to a fjord. It looked like a bay or a big lake. I could see the other side in the distance when it was clear. There was no village.”

“You were not in a meadow, with oak forest, a brook, and…”

“No. It was like those Nordic countries postcard. Rocks, lichen, pines, scrub. Felt cold as well. It’s fuckin’ Northworld there. I had enough to lit fires for the night. And I found a ruined tower the next day.”

“A ruined… tower?”

“Something that had three floors at one time. It was half destroyed, and had moss growing everywhere.”

“There was no tower where I was.”

“No shit. Well, apparently, I was not where you were.”

“I hoped you’d be in the village at least. I couldn’t cross after you did.”

“Wait? What do you mean?”

“The Silvergate disappeared after you entered it. I think it’s one person only at a time. Once you’re there, it’s locked until you come back.”

Ramon sat, trying to see if his friend was telling him the truth. There was no reason why he would, but then Ramon had been angry for quite a few days until the return option finally came.

 

“Well, I may have a solution for you.”

“A solution?”

Ramon pulled his bag and fished in it, bringing out a cloth bag. He opened it over the small table and let the silver sphere drop.

Arnoldo stared. Then turned his head toward the chair on which he had put the Silvergate Ramon had come thru, checking that it was still there. Then he looked back to the other Silvergate.

“There’s two of them? Did you find one? Where?”

“It was behind a pair of fallen pines. One of those white wolves had a den there. I killed it and looted that thing. He was kind of guarding it.”

Arnoldo placed the second Silvergate on the ground and activated it. He looked at it carefully. The lighting was slightly dim like it was overcast… but he had no problem recognizing what must be his village. He turned to Ramon and gestured.

When Ramon was close, the view was something slightly dark, with hints of things, and a flickering light. Ramon explained he’d left from inside his tower base. The Silvergate view was showing a stone room with just a small opening to let the light in. The flickering light was certainly the small fire he’d left dying just before he recalled to Earth.

“So, did you find magic?”

“No. But those skills of yours… well, I’m probably a good swordsman now. I can slash and parry and even dodge roll like a movie stuntman. Except for real.”

Ramon snorted.

“Those wolves never had a real chance after a couple of days, when the skills started to raise.”

 

“So, what do you think?” asked Arnoldo.

“I see why you like this stuff, Nolo. I really do.”

“But?”

“But I wish we were together. This is a place to go with friends. No man should go alone.”

“The place you describe… it doesn’t look like the same as me.”

“Yea. I mean, it’s beautiful. But it’s lonely.”

“So, vacation, not life.”

“Not for me. I think.”

“At least you got stats. I hope.”

Ramon snorted.

“Yea. It beats going to the gym.”

“We have 2 more weeks of holiday. Want to try to see if we can find each other?”

“Why not? Don’t have your adaptation sickness, so I should be good to head back at once.”

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A note from Vincent Archer

Normally, you'd be able to browse book annexes, which aren't there. So, a bit of Northworld's bestiary here:

Lepus Cornutus (Horned Hare) – A hare-like herbivore with a single horn nub on its forehead. Typical ranks 1 to 3.

Canis Curiosus (Curious Dog) – A gray wolf analogue that is highly curious of possible prey, even when not actively hunting. Typical ranks 3 (young) to 8.

Echinotritus Unda (Smoking Newt) – A smoke-breathing black salamander. The smoke is slightly debilitating, but not dangerous. Typical ranks 5 to 11.

Canis Albinus (White Dog) – A white wolf analogue that is highly territorial. Will attack at random. Typical ranks 6 to 11.


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About the author

Vincent Archer

  • France

Bio: Vincent Archer wrote his first story around age 11. On a mechanical typewriter, with carbon paper for a mimeograph to distribute in class. His teacher knew enough to make vague encouraging noises rather than really tell him what she thought. He wrote more stories afterward, but Time has thankfully managed to erase every trace of them.

Now that his career has settled in a mix of routine and insanity and that he's figured out that herding cats would probably be easier, he's finally started to write stories again on a media rather than inside his brain. Some of those are even potentially good enough to show to other people.

Silvergates is his first attempt to finish one rather than admit defeat against the usual writer's block.

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