You wouldn’t even know the tiny thing sitting on his desk wasn't a normal crystal at a passing glance. It had been given to Morgan by his research partner, Lauren. The sly grin on her face was cool and collected, but he recognized the slight bounce of her clothes as her tail swished back and forth excitedly. It was definitely cute how her body betrayed her excitement at finally finding a stable formation to study. Morgan envied her comfort sometimes.
It had always been easier to just focus on the work. Taking measurements, documenting phenomena. The universe, he knew, was a machine of natural laws. The strange place they called the Garden was no different.
Morgan wasn't sure what laws the twisting balls of plasma that looked like a binary star system from most angles followed, but he was entirely sure the relationship between the two could be defined, a strange new phase of matter perhaps. Likewise, the curious, twisted plants and formations on the planet below would follow some kind of pattern. And the little rock recovered from a research lab in the abandoned colony would act as a key. He was sure of it.
The thing was small, thinner than the pen he took notes with. Spectrometry indicated fairly unremarkable silicon dioxide with trace impurities, like any lump of quartz anywhere in the universe. At least, that was what the first horizontal line of the laser indicated. Morgan had dropped his notes when he noticed the spectrum line shifting in fractal patterns, despite there being no motion inside.
Leaning in to inspect the crystal close had revealed a rapidly twisting world of impossible geometry. The structure of the crystal did a sort of twirl, its refractive index oscillating in a wave that appeared to sync to local relativistic effects.
He had spent a few days trying to make sense of the thing, to capture flickers of whatever was contained within it, before deciding to try a new approach. Applying strong electromagnetic forces to the structure were found to stabilize the distortions to a rate observable by the naked eye.
The mirrorhall effect inside the crystal was fascinating. Different possibilities often shone through- he had seen his own eye reflected back with a blue iris rather than brown several times, and would have sworn he saw green once.
It was clear to Morgan that it followed some kind of laws, some way of thinking that could be described logically. Cracking the code of this strange little rock could be key to understanding why things behave so strangely in the Garden proper.
He thought back to his first visit there. It was a beautiful place, but haunting. One felt unmoored, as the sound of chimes drifted on the wind. Blankets of flowers grew in bizarre shapes, despite genetic testing revealing they were exact matches to the earth flowers the original colony had brought seeds for.
It was the first time he had ever seen his Pactbound friend’s body language for fear. Something about looking up at husks of organic mass that reached into the sky. He tried not to dwell on the panic in her eyes as her phone’s genetic testing on many of the strange organic structures revealed them to be at least partly human tissue. It had been unnerving, to say the least, but it did at least answer where the original human colonists had gone. Just not how or why.
Weeks passed. Lauren had been down to the planet many more times. Morgan was terrified to return and focused on his theory about local spacetime.
Chalkboards were a curious anachronism of institutions of learning. Horribly wasteful things, that made dust that clogged air scrubbers. Morgan liked the aesthetic, but was more than happy to simply use gleaming digital projections inside mirrors rather than physical chalk. The advantages were significant, as graphs could be pulled up dynamically in a way a traditional board never could.
But being able to see everything in front of him, Morgan felt certain he was onto something. The equations of spacetime hinted at something deeper, not just the key to the Garden, but….
Morgan frowned. There was some block of insight he could not overcome. He didn't like the tired, ragged look of the face reflected between equations. How long had he been up working on this? He didn't remember. Something was wrong in the tapestry of twinkling lines and symbols before him.
He thought back to what he had seen, what had sent him on this frenzy, while peering through the refracted worlds. His alternate selves, all celebratory, reveling in a discovery, but almost all had something in common. The ones who were women, who must have been born of a different combination of DNA than him, had all figured it out. Alternate sisters had made the insight before he had. What was the missing element?
He had watched with feelings he didn’t know how to phrase as a version of himself with hair down to her hips had kissed Lauren in celebration. He had never thought of her that way- well, never allowed himself to. She wasn't attracted to men, after all. They might be very affectionate to each other, but it was, there was nothing there.
Once he regained focus from the strange discomfort of that line of thought, He had watched… herself? - leave the room, with only Lauren left. It was curious how she was always the same when occasionally glimpsed through the crystal. Perhaps her timeline was more fixed.
But there was another mystery. He had known Lauren long enough to recognize that slow swish of her tail, alternate reality or not. The Lauren he was looking at was… Trying to hide that she found something funny.
He couldn't help but notice the real Lauren… Well, Morgan wasn't even sure he could call his own universe the real one anymore. The Lauren he shared a cabin with, at any rate. She was making that same exact tail motion. Morgan was very, very flustered when Lauren crawled into his bed later that night.
He couldn't stop thinking about watching a woman he could never be kissing the girl he was madly in love with. The pain of impossibility. He thought back to the crystal. Wondered if perhaps the crystal was inside out, and he was living in the trapped little world inside. Lauren’s hand brushed against Morgan’s, rousing him out of an empty stare into a complex equation graph. He looked up at her, and was met with a facial expression he'd only seen Lauren make in realities where he didnt exist.
“I decided to take a peek through that crystal I gave you, and I finally get why you've been spending so much time on it.” Her giggle was adorable as ever.
Morgan didn't know why this filled him with such dread. Why did it feel like the contents of other realities needed to be a secret? Why did they feel shameful? It didn’t matter, ultimately. She grabbed his hand, and dragged him off to her cabin with a knowing gleam in her eyes and an excited bounce to every step.
Morgan had never been good at… Intimacy. There was no other word for what this was, as he knelt nude in Lauren’s cabin as she excitedly rifled through dresses for one for him to wear. Such moments had always felt chaotic and painful, but something about being with her didn't.
Morgan looked at the full length mirror next to him. Flickers of other people he'd rather be tugged at the edges of his vision. He didn’t understand how Lauren could find him attractive, even if she had been attracted to men. It was just like those damn field equations. An element was missing, and he was the only one who didn't see it. Finally, unpredictable impulse won out.
“How long did you know?”
Morgan wasn't sure why she asked this. She wasn't sure why it mattered. She wasn't even sure she was Morgan anymore. The longer the air sat silent, the less she even knew who the man she'd been pretending to be for decades even was.
That was when she noticed the little seedlings on Lauren’s desk. That was when the Garden finally made sense. Equations and math crumpled into nothingness, irrelevance. Morgan no longer needed the crystal to see the selves that were overlaid at tangent angles to the usual understanding of reality. Morgan no longer needed ears to hear the chimes of Lauren’s voice or see the soft wind that blew her tail in the breeze.
Lauren pinned the full range of her lovers to the floor, finally free from the last stubborn shard of possibility that was unable to accept reality. The one that had run screaming when the two of them had discovered the lost colony and met her true self. The one who wasn't ready, whom she’d had to bring back a little artifact to warm up more slowly. They sank into each other's bodies like all their other parallel selves had so many times before, but finally, perfectly in sync. Finally whole, complete.
The two of them bloomed into a fractal of potential, descending on a soft blanket of daisyvine to the little crystal cabin that the infinities of the two of them had been living in for the last few months, down to the Garden below.