The universe fractured: light spilling out in a ring that was at once circular, spherical, and utterly flat, illuminating a cavern which had rested silent and dark for centuries. From the center of that fractalizing ring emerged an entity out of an apocalyptic vision. Filaments of lighting branched away from Zau/Heraxo’s hull like the wings of an avenging angel, shimmering with the light of another realm as the threads of the universe knit themselves back together. The uncanny light trembled, faded, and winked out of existence, leaving the ship alone, their fluxing shields a sole point of light in the universe.
Zau/Heraxo reached out, probing their surroundings with sensors that measured everything from the spectral backscatter of the distant walls to the the gravatic warp of the surrounding mass. Within their processing core, Zau/Heraxo searched for some way to reallocate their memory and find, perhaps burned in at a deeper level of their holographic data structures, some explicit recollection of what this place was.
There was a way, they thought, but they did not know how to do the work themselves.
Feeling a deep sense of shame, Zau/Heraxo reached out to the extrusion and asked it for assistance.
On the command deck, Moira turned her head from side to side, searching for something beyond the ship to give her a sense of scale, a frame of reference for where they now were.
She saw only darkness.
“I’ve never been someplace so dark before,” Dyson whispered, speaking the thought that had been on Moira’s mind.
“Me neither. I can’t find Sol anywhere,” Moira said. She continued twisting about in her virtual vision, praying that she was merely missing Sol somewhere behind the ship. After several minutes of fruitless searching she called out, “Zau, are the cameras offline?”
The ship did not reply.
“I’m not seeing any errors on the displays,” Dyson offered. He tapped at the display, rapidly adapting to the unfamiliar menu layout and the intermittent, stuttering lag as Zau/Heraxo’s interface subsystem translated the exo system labels into something approximating meaningful human language. He grunted a few times, then managed to pull up a volumetric scan overlay on the displays. “Here, are you seeing this also?”
Moira nodded, then squinted in consternation. “This isn’t right. Dyson, tell me you’re not seeing this.”
“If you’re talking about the lidar gravatic composite, I’m seeing it.”
“Frak. Zau! Zau, are you there?”
Moira blinked out of her virtual vision and began tapping frantically at the display in front of her. All of the instruments told her the same story, but it seemed impossible.
“Gama, are you able to get the ship to talk to you?” Dyson asked, looking over his shoulder to the silvered drone.
Gamayun’s fields flushed pink and it bobbed horizontally. “No. The Zau/Heraxo composite is still active, but it is ignoring all of my contact requests.”
In the processing core chamber, a swarm of Zau/Heraxo’s midges finished connecting the holographic memory core which Bishop Estha had ordered delivered to the ship. It was of an unfamiliar design, fairly reeking with stodgy human manufacturing techniques, but they had been studying the specifications ever since it was delivered and believed that they had worked out how to connect the core in parallel to their own memory units.
The extrusion flickered over and through the connections, examining the work that the midges wrought. It still had not worked out the strange, polyintelligent structure of the ship’s governing mind, but the physical devices which housed and processed that neurology were no more complex than any other piece of four dimensional machinery. Working together, Zau/Heraxo and the extrusion succeeded in grafting the human made memory core into the ship’s data network.
The extrusion flitted between and through each of the translucent monoliths in the processing core chamber, watching the flow of quantum fields and electrostatic charges curiously as Zau/Heraxo began shunting their memories into the new data unit. Each time a segment of memory was freed, the extrusion would pour itself into the holographic structure of the data monolith to examine the crystalline structure for subatomic ghosts of memories which had been overwritten, searching for anything which might be related to the Spire.
Moira and Dyson stood side by side, gazing at the displays hung throughout the command deck, each revealing a different aspect of the region outside the ship. In every direction, Zau/Heraxo’s sensors had mapped hard surfaces of high density metaloceramic composites. Nowhere could it find Sol, or the walls of the Shell, or the zonal borders, or any other familiar point of reference.
“Well, Dyson, I think you’ve finally made it inside the Spire,” Moira said. She chewed her lower lip and tapped at the screen, bringing a region of wall into focus. The false color topographic map of the wall revealed a circular portal split down the center by the joining of two doors. One edge of the circle was cut off by a wall, the surface of which was smoother than the others. Moira figured that as the floor of this chamber. “Five hundred meters,” she whispered. “Half a hian kilometer, Dyson. Have you ever seen a door that size? And it’s got two of them, one on each end.”
Dyson shook his head as he studied the the filigree patterns embossed in the nearest wall, which stood nearly a kilometer off to Zau/Heraxo’s starboard side and stretched three kilometers away above and below the ship. The false color topographical image was difficult to interpret, but Dyson had the sense that the wall decorated in a mural the length of several city blocks. He turned his head to one side, attempting to identify the shapes which swirled in shades of green, yellow, and red on the display. “I don’t know what I expected the Spire to be, but this is incredible. It’s like we’re in some sort of cargo bay, but it’s big enough to hold an office tower.”
“Perhaps the Spire served as a super carrier, or a holding depot for a construction system,” Gamayun speculated. “We have only mapped a fraction of the Zones. It is also possible that Zau/Heraxo was wrong about the nature of the Spire and it is part of the structure of the Shell itself.”
“I don’t think so,” Moira said. She shook her head and tapped at the spectral readout on a nearby display. “These walls are some sort of composite material. Exotic and extremely strong, but absolutely within the manufacturing capabilities of humanity. The Shell is nothing like that.”
“Then perhaps we are in a void ship or monolithic artifact of another exo culture,” Gamayun replied. It bobbed silently for a moment, then continued, “The Zau/Heraxo is inarguably an exo ship. What little we know of the Conservators suggests that they were either within the solar system when the enclosure occurred, or somehow managed to find a way into the Shell early in its formation. Either way, they are exos, rather than responsible for creating the Shell. That is two exo species we can be certain of, to say nothing of syntellects which claim to have exo origins. How are we to be certain that there are not further species out there, in whatever still exists beyond the Shell.”
“It’s got a point,” Dyson said. “If this is an exo craft, then it is entirely possible that…” he froze, his gaze fixed on an exterior display panel behind Moira.
Moira turned and saw that a light had appeared on the display. Not a false color scan image, either. This was an actual steady greenish light, glowing in the distance far below Zau/Heraxo, illuminating a band of interior hull just inside the mammoth doorway. She blinked into her command view just in time to see another band of lights snap on, widening the band of illumination to nearly three hundred meters.
Then another light came on.
“I’m seeing a lot of bare surface down there,” Dyson said, squinting at a display. He tapped several times, during which time two more bands of light illuminated, and zoomed the ship’s optical telescopes in on the illuminated region. “No objects to speak of, but a lot of patterns inlayed in the composite.”
The lights continued to advance.
Moira began sending repeated, even frantic messages to Zau/Heraxo through their private channel, but she received no response. The advancing ring of light grew closer and closer, then enveloped Zau/Heraxo and passed beyond the ship, reaching upwards towards the second set of circular doors far above.
“I’m seeing a lot of mounting points along the floor and wall now. And…” Dyson paused, trying to grasp the enormity of the murals which the pale green light revealed around the ship. “My god. This is incredible,” he breathed.
Moira spotted movement and, twisting her view upwards, saw that the doors at the uppermost end of the Spire were beginning to ease open.
Zau/Heraxo chose that moment to speak, their voice coming over every com system on the ship in a harsh whisper.
“We fear we have made a terrible mistake.”