Picture, if you will, a figure. Short grey hair, balding pate, thick glasses, and advancing age, no doubt dressed in a lab coat, or perhaps a waist coat with a pocket watch. This is precisely the sort of man that might be envisaged by you, the reader, in your prejudice, upon hearing the name like Horatio Pemblethwaite.
You would be almost completely wrong, of course.
Horatio was only 28 years at the start of this narrative. He was tall and effortlessly lean, in that special kind of way that drives the effortlessly rotund to private murderous rage. His hair was short, blonde, and neatly cut. He was only moderately and unsurprisingly unattractive. He was an engineer, but he worked mainly with computers and only wore a white coat when important people were being shown round his place of work.
Mostly though, Horatio was obsessed.
Horatio’s passion was for dragons, his feelings on the subject were of similar intensity and scope to the enthusiasm Genghis Khan once felt on the subject of land ownership; they had come to define his life.
This had been the case for as long as anyone could remember. Even his parents could not precisely identify the precise point at which this fixation developed, but it is certainly true that dwagon was the second word that he spoke; his first utterance was burrito for reasons that will likewise forever remain opaque to logic, and which was, in any event, mistaken by his parents for gas. He was never able to articulate exactly what fascinated him so about giant flying reptiles, but that fascination was undeniable.
Horatio had seen almost every film ever made that featured dragons, in itself quite a feat because, as my reader may or may not be aware, most such films are quite uniformly awful, Horatio didn’t care. He greedily devoured many a poorly written novel for even a trace of draconic content. At college he often played Dungeons and Dragons with his friends, but truth to tell he was always somewhat ambivalent about the dungeons. The small flat he lived in during his student days was plastered with posters and pictures and filled with mobiles and models, producing an unsettling visual effect, a continuous sea of scales, wings, and talons which quickly overwhelmed the eye. At any rate, the only girlfriend he invited back to the place soon developed an inexplicable headache.
But all these faux dragon surrogates left him wanting, a void still unfilled in his life, nay in his very soul, for Horatio’s burning ambition was, to meet in the flesh, a real live dragon.
This would, of course, be an unfortunate pipe dream, one of those tragic everyday quirks that bring colour to the people around you, if not for the minor detail of Horatio’s employer. For you see Horatio worked for Otherworldly Incorporated, an ambitious new start-up, who were determined to exploit what they saw as universes of untapped potential.
I must take this time to explain to some of my readers, the slower ones, the essence of their business plan.
Many contemporary physicists believe that there is not one universe but an infinite number of them, a multiverse of dimensions, which are constantly splitting off from each other at each juncture of probability, spawning new universes for every imaginable possibility, and many more unimaginable ones. Almost uniquely for contemporary physicists they are in fact, just this once, absolutely right.
There exist, out there in the great void of possibility, universes ruled by super intelligent video games. There are whole galaxies which, due to the influence of bizarre otherworldly Von Neumann machines, are composed of nothing but pasta. Untold trillions of worlds exist in which Stalin was a noted humanitarian, Copernicus was wrong, David Icke was right, and in which you, the reader, are rich, successful, intelligent and the envy of all mankind. There are necessarily an infinite number of separate universes available to meet any possible specifications.
Contemporary physicists also love to spoil other people’s fun, and will therefore also tell you that such universes are unable to interact with each other in any substantive manner at all. In this respect, at least, they return to form and are decisively but authoritatively wrong.
Otherworldly Inc had found a way to reach them, they had, using a quite simple process that, alas, the narrator is unable to disclose to you for reasons of understandable pragmatism discovered a way to open the doorway to other worlds.
I’m sure that the less challenged of my readers understand something of the way that one can track certain entangled particles as they flit between levels of reality and perhaps use such tenuous links to forge gateways, or how one could construct quantum computers to spy recursively on their alternate counterparts. That it might even be possible to tamper with the source code of the multiverse itself. But they would, no doubt, also appreciate that all of the aforementioned are possible only in a way described by that special kind of theoretical that is customarily invoked by physicists who harbour the secret ambition to see their work mentioned in mainstream newspapers. Otherworldly Inc did none of these things; the solution that they had found was much more elegant.
The managing directors were justifiably excited about their discovery and the spectacular implications it might have, both for humanity and their own shareholder dividends. They thought it could be used to access near infinite resources and vast cultural treasures; they did not hesitate to speculate, for the benefit of their investors, how it could provide comfortable living space for all of humanity. Like so many of history’s technological pioneers they never really considered that mostly people would find ways to exploit their invention to find new and interesting ways to have sex.
First however, they had a problem.
As any of the aforementioned spoilsport physicists will no doubt tell you, merely opening the doorway is not nearly enough. Infinity, as it turns out, is a very big place and most universes contain nothing that could be described as anything, let alone anything that might be described as interesting. If their new invention was to be useful for anything other than garbage disposal or organised crime, a means would have to be developed to sort the wheat from the cosmic chaff and indentify the incomprehensibly rare universes of narrative significance.
Horatio, our protagonist, was employed to resolve this problem, and he threw himself into the task with single minded intensity for, as you may already have guessed, Horatio had seen a sudden and unexpected opportunity.
It was an extraordinarily difficult problem, the sort of trial that is, inconveniently, overcome only by dint of many years of work, most of which involved very complicated sums and so, whilst I hate to disappoint the numerical masochists among my readership, I will skip the specifics. Suffice it to say Horatio eventually succeeded in patenting a process by which the staggering number of universes could be quickly and efficiently investigated and categorised, in the process ensuring his own unfettered access to the vast infinite reaches of potentiality.
Humanity had, after a brief spate of hurried press conferences, collectively rejoiced. Here at last was the means to end all wars, suffering, and tiresome weekly recycling responsibilities. Most importantly of all, here too was an opportunity to have lots and lots of sex.
Thousands of technicians set to work investigating and cataloguing dimensions full of interesting resources such as precious metals, oil, food, unpublished Shakespeare and J K Rowling folios, and “not unattractive young women inexplicably in need of a single virile male to repopulate their entire race”.
Horatio was looking for none of the above, Horatio was, as should now be blindingly obvious, was looking for dragons.
As most of those tiresome physicists would be able to speculate, there is a tremendous gulf in the probabilities involved between finding something of interest and finding something specific but even with this consideration in mind Horatio’s search took him far longer than he had anticipated. Nevertheless, after almost half a decade of tireless work, he suddenly and unexpectedly awoke to the insistent beeping noise telling him that his inter-dimensional search engine array had found him something that matched all the extensive specifications he had given them.
Horatio approached this finding with the quiet but jittery kind of calm that can only be achieved by transcending excitement; he spent several months carefully preparing for his expedition. After all, he had waited his entire life to see a dragon, he could wait a little longer if it meant he was properly prepared. No consideration went unconsidered, and no expense was spared, and that expense was considerable, but this was of little object because as you might expect Horatio’s discoveries had made him rich beyond easy reckoning.
Tragically however, all his efforts seemed in vain. When, finally, he stepped through the portal into the cold and unremarkable landscape, of what would otherwise have been a singularly uninteresting world, there was nothing to be seen, no majestic draconian wildlife for him to observe. All that could be found, after an extensive search, was the single gargantuan decomposing corpse of what may, or may not, have been a dragon.
Horatio was distraught but not discouraged, evidently dragons had been present, and obviously some freak happenstance had wiped them out while he had been preparing for his grand expedition. If he could find dragons once, then clearly he could find dragons again, and so, freshly resolute, he set back to work.
All this time human society progressed largely as before, with only the minor side effects of free extra dimensional travel to disturb the usual human preoccupation with war, greed, and more war. The abundance of anti-matter universes had provided cheap energy for all, as well as sharply increasing the general public’s interest in the non-local distribution of power stations.
There was the massive increase in emigration, all sorts of exciting new kinds of immigration for people to get upset about, the quite endearingly inept pan dimensional invasion of the treacle people from candy dimension 2672 and the subsequent bankruptcy of Tate and Lyle in the wake of the resultant drop in the wholesale price of sugar.
Most of these events were far less interesting than you might imagine though with the exception of the latter which, by a curious quirk of fate, was very nearly precisely as interesting as it sounded.
The world government had, of course, fallen to militant feminism shortly after Horatio’s great invention was first unveiled. It had all started when the women of the world had collectively complained that some of the men were using the device in ways that could possibly construed as being quite horribly sexist. The men had replied that they were sure that they could find the women plenty of dimensions full of flowers, clothing, ponies, and other girly stuff, but this had not in fact gone down terribly well and many of the men of the world had been collectively shouted at.
The men of the world went away and thought for a little while but not, alas, for quite long enough, and a few too many of them had then quite innocently suggested that if the women were concerned about inequality, they were quite sure that it would be straightforward to locate an abundance of dimensions full of “not unattractive young men, inexplicably in need of a single fertile female to repopulate their entire race”.
The coup had been relatively quick and bloodless as such things go and all things considered had probably been for the best, made far less difference to the general scheme of things than either gender would have been prepared to admit beforehand, with only the odd minor quirk, such as the fact that the trains started to run on time.
But I digress.
It took Horatio another ten years to find another dragon but, this time, he was ready. This time he didn’t wait calmly to organise an expedition, he didn’t don his custom made asbestos suit or pause to clutch his jumbo strength tranquilliser gun, this time he ran across the multidimensional control room and straight through the nearest portal. He emerged through the portal just in time to see a grand silhouette stagger erratically through the air, crash into ground some distance away, and expire in a messy, and well distributed, fashion.
“Egad” exclaimed Horatio, for it is impossible to do something quite as sadistic as to name a child Horatio Pemblethwaite without it having some lingering effect on them. Horatio had finally realised what was happening to his dragons.
Obviously the majority of my readership, the smart ones, will be well ahead of Horatio at this point and there is no real need to clarify things, but I suppose I can spell things out explicitly for the incorrigibly slow. Horatio had realised just how intrinsically improbable dragons actually are. He had realised that for a dragon to fly it must be buoyed up by millions of air molecules, that, for it to breathe flame, a million molecules worth of dragon must collectively decide not to catch on fire. In order for dragons to exist in any dimension which the laws of physics would actually allow Horatio to visit, these preposterous impossibilities had to occur every time any single dragon actually did anything.
While our friendly contemporary physicist would tell you that they couldn’t even begin to quantify how ridiculously and stupendously unlikely that this would be, they would also have to grudgingly concede that logically a nearly infinite number of such dimensions would still exist. They would also point out with a trace of satisfaction that whilst effectively infinite in number and constantly appearing, the laws of reason would ruthlessly expunge the vast majority of these errant dimensions of dragons on a moment to moment basis in a constant churning genocide of possibilities.
So it was not just that Horatio’s objective required a dragon to exist in the specified dimension, a dragon, let us not forget, which had evolved and live out its life entirely against the current of chance. He had also to accept that, as soon as his dragon hunting equipment had detected, the great universal dice would roll again and his newly discovered dragons would, with overwhelming certainty, become extinct. In order for Horatio to find his dragon, he not only had to find a dimension where dragons existed, he had to find a dimension in which they would continue to exist, at least for the foreseeable future.
This is the point at which the pedants among my readership, you know who you are, might feel inclined to object. They would probably begin by complaining that the degree of improbability involved in finding even a single dragon renders this whole tale completely implausible. They would be wrong of course and I can forgive their ignorance. They would then, no doubt, continue to suggest, their voices brimming with whining nasal smugness, that the only way of predicting the future of any given dimension, whilst remaining comfortably in the present, requires charting the course and state of every single atom within it. This, they would contend, would be very nearly totally impossible, and on this single, but significant, point they would be correct.
Horatio realised this almost immediately, his calculations soon told him that running the calculations required, even the limited extent that he required, would require a computer the size of a galaxy, of complexity orders of magnitude greater than any that have ever, or will ever, exist in this universe.
It took Horatio’s machine a quarter of a century to find one.
The air was crisp and cold on his skin as he stepped through the threshold; he ignored the nagging pain in his limbs and squinted against the light of the sun as it rose over an unfamiliar horizon. Above him shapes danced through the air as the dragons sang in a hauntingly beautiful, and utterly alien, song.
That song quickly became a lament, however, as the shapes began to stagger in the air and then spin slowly and gracelessly towards the ground.
If Horatio had observed this sight, he would most likely to have been struck by a final terrible realisation, that his very presence on this world would disturb the fragile cobwebs of whimsy which would have kept his beast’s alive, that this was not a factor that he could correct for and avoid, that he had in fact brought premature destruction to the very wonders he so appreciated, that he could never enjoy the living company of his icons, and that any further attempt to do so would result only in further disappointment, genocide, and possible canonization on account of dedicated service in the field of dragon slaying.
This final truth would most likely have destroyed him utterly and, so, it was probably a small mercy that he was distracted by the shadow descending over him, in the final span of seconds before he was crushed utterly by a confused and rapidly expiring dragon.
You could speculate dear reader, that this is a morality play, a cautionary tale, meant to impress upon you the dangers of pursuing a hollow dream at the expense of the other things that life may promise. This may indeed be the case, although it is perhaps worth noting that reality seldom provides a moral to its stories more worthy than that evil often prevails, greed can provide its own rewards, and that few good deeds go completely unpunished.
It is also possible that this is nothing of the sort, that this tale ignored the normal and average components of Horatio’s life. It is possible that the tragedy of the story is projected by you the reader and that our Horatio in fact lived a relatively long and happy life filled with purpose, unrelated hobbies, and happy smiling grandchildren, that you have conjured a tortured and empty existence to meet your own twisted expectations of truth.
It is would be possible for the most cynical of readers to realise the necessary existence of an infinity of Horatio’s, the lives of whom, even when constrained to fit precisely within the details of this narrative, plot a wide and bizarre plot on some universal tragedy curve, rendering any scientific attempt to extract trite revelation a futile endeavour for those unwilling to spend an eternity studying exceedingly large and complicated graphs.
Whilst the statisticians amongst you are thus engaged, the more sentimental of you can therefore be reassured, that in at least one universe of an unfathomable infinity, as at least one Horatio looked up for the final time, that the expression that crossed his elderly face was not in fact terror, horrified comprehension, or even resignation. That it was one of fulfilment and contentment and true happiness, that rarest of all emotions, and that in his final seconds he spread his arms wide open as he prepared to embrace in a tangle of limbs, scales and claws, his very first dragon.