After dutifully delivering my cautionary tale to the crop of new students at the Thaumatorium, I and my two right arms were guided back to the vault. The Thaumatorium takes deviation – greater deviation than intended – fairly seriously, so incarceration in the vault was inevitable.
The process of teaching kids how to make intuitive leaps, skipping around through reason and determinism to find another answer to the questions of how, why and where the universe works and what we can do with it, is a treacherous road. You can’t tell while you’re walking it that on one side is a ten thousand foot drop into a tentacled hell, or that the other is clustered with nightmare beasts watching for any step of the path you’re blindly ambling along. The risk that we’ll blunder into something so far out of our conception of reality that it can follow us back while dragging its own weird physics and ideas with it is so much greater than most people imagine. When big science builds bombs with a small chance of erasing life on Earth or a vast clyclotron that could generate a black hole in the heart of the world, people get a bit twitchy. Doesn’t stop them doing their thing, but it certainly freaks people out afterwards when you tell them the odds. That’s partly because we’re so very, very bad at grasping what a one percent chance looks like – we’re only really geared up for what actually happens, not the infinite vane of possibility that sprays outwards from every decision.
So the Thaumatorium keeps a close eye on its students and their projects. That’s all fine until a student – no one you’d know – gets too into their discovery and starts hiding their research. Yes, alright, that was me. Infusing my living DNA with the genomic fruits of my immortal axolotl work was perhaps not my finest hour. I was so convinced it had worked that I cut off my left arm to test it out. Not some rusty kitchen knife in a cellar affair, I was in a proper lab and everything was neatly cauterised and done with proper anaesthetic. I’m not a mad lunatic grave robber or anything. When the new arm sprouted on the other side I was surprised, but pleased by how neatly it also grew up the muscle groups and nerves I’d need to manipulate two right arms. I feel a bit off balance some days but in general it’s worked out pretty well.
I don’t really feel it was a sufficient error to be condemned to the vault, and I was rather bitter about the whole process, at least until I reached the end of the disciplinary process and discovered where I was truly headed. “Vault” is rather pejorative, and does give the impression that we’re all kept in boxes or locked drawers or similar. Certainly, there are locks aplenty, but in many ways the vault is the second city underneath the already vast Thaumatorium. The leaps of logic and revelations that my fellow inmates made while traversing those half-imagined roads of learning and intuition are too valuable for thaumaturgeons to simply discard. The work has been done, and in order to exploit or explore it, all that a thaumaturgeon needs is to apprehend the discovery and then it can be used or developed further. Depending on the digression from the path, that might be perfectly safe. My immortality research for example isn’t taunting the beasts that live in the hollows between worlds, so it continues, albeit with less enthusiasm for self-testing.
Others’ work however, promises nothing but disaster if continued. Though, even containment requires study. There’s a thaumaturgeon four levels down who learned how to pull time out of a neighbouring universe like a ribbon. When they found her, she’d pulled aeons through a tiny gap, sapping that other universe of a billion years of its future. But in our universe time doesn’t work that way, so she was surrounded by hoops and loops of actual time locked in a physical shape. If that comes undone it’ll add that billion years to our own universe, but where in time they go no one has any idea. It might be added on at the beginning or end, or between this word and the next. Wild stuff. She doesn’t get to explore much any more, as you can imagine.
And then there are the monsters. Not all of them are real. Some are just shadows – literal shadows – that have replaced the thaumaturgeon’s own shadow. Imagine having a shadow that doesn’t match you, and which waxes and wanes to a different light source. It’s… unsettling being in the same room as someone whose shadow vanishes and flickers across the ceiling while your own rests peacefully on the floor like everything else in the room. Better than others though. There’s the guy who drifted off the path, trying to perceive the connection between the concept of nostalgia and the table of elements. There’s things out there between feelings, between ideas that are tied inextricably to emotional states. When his attention wavered, they pounced. Unable to exist in the real world, they’ve infested his flesh. No one knows what they’re living on, but they’re definitely living inside him, ghost lights you can see when he opens his mouth or strobing under the skin of his arms. Then there are the big things, the ones which are more than real, massing greater than they should under our laws of physics because where they came from everything works differently. A bit like the notorious blobfish, which looks very strange at the surface but perfectly sensible at its proper depth and pressure. Most of these things can’t be caged, not using anything on this side of reality anyway. Research into the conceptual paths that led to them has revealed new ways to twist both reality and imaginary matter into new frames and machines that can subdue them, or in rarer cases translate them into something more suitable, like making a suit for a dream.
It’s not the worst place to be, it’s really another huge research installation that isn’t supposed to exist, counter to all the promises and treaties that founded the Thaumatorium. And I get it, there’s so much potential, so much that could be discovered that they don’t want to throw all of this possibility and raw material away. Plus there’s a lot of stuff from between the worlds that no one can destroy even if they wanted to. It’s got to go somewhere. The trouble is, everything in here is smart, and not all of it is content to stay in the vault. Some of us want to go home.