The holographic display flickered as Dyson’s fingers brushed a curved section of the model, causing it to glow with a faint amber light. He stroked the curve, prodding it to rotate clockwise seventeen degrees, then pressed against it so it slid back and slotted into place between three other segments. The model flickered again as the simulation updated.
“I believe that will be sufficient,” Gamayun said, its voice emanating from the speaker in Dyson’s wrist terminal.
“It will get us deeper than before, but this feels wrong,” Dyson replied. He knelt before the projection table and peered into the hologram. “Trace the route.”
A glowing green line burst forth from the edge of the model and approached the translucent puzzle that Dyson had just finished assembling. It pierced the model, entering through a hole in the outermost layer of glowing amber, then proceeded to trace a thin green tunnel through multiple layers of spinning, interlocking fields. As the thread moved forward, it slowly changed color from green, to yellow, to orange. Then it stopped advancing. The foremost end of the tube, now glowing a bright orange that fluoresced towards red, appeared to stutter for a moment, turning upwards, down, and to all sides. Then it froze and turned a bright red.
“Model projects a three kilometer improvement over previous attempts,” Gamayun announced, its voice speaking through Dyson’s implants.
A sharp series of modulated noises burst from a needle shaped drone which hovered to Dyson’s right, its crystalline skin stuttering from a bright silvery blue, which Dyson knew indicated excitement, to a dull matte gray in time with the static fuzz of its voice.
“Obviously it isn’t enough,” Dyson replied. “We would hardly gain any additional data from sending in another probe at this point.” He pushed back a sweep of black hair that had fallen in front of his left eye and shook his head before leaning forward to study the model.
The holographic desk projected a representation of the problem that had held Dyson captivated for fifteen cycles, which was frankly longer than he had ever spent on a single task. At the center of the projection stood a black tower, rising nearly one hundred kilometers above a stone plateau. The plateau itself was a near perfect circle one hundred kilometers in diameter, which rose up about six kilometers from the surface of the Shell with the Spire at the center. Surrounding the Spire was a continually rotating shell of translucent fields, hundreds of layers of them rendered in shades of amber, all of them continually rotating at seemingly random speeds and angles. The layers varied in thickness and were each made up of interlocking segments, which meshed together like the workings of a ghostly clock.
“Dyson…” Gamayun said.
Dyson grunted, but continued to study the model. He had gotten farther than anyone before him, but had still only managed to penetrate a little over twenty kilometers into the nested, continually shifting layers of protective energy fields. And most of that progress had been in the early wakes of the project. These last few cycles his progress had slowed to a crawl. At this rate it would take him, his dark, heavy eyebrows stuttered up and down for an instant as he computed it, over a hundred years to access the Spire. Not impossible, given his family wealth and the access to life extension technology, but he was beginning to doubt that he should remain devoted to this single problem for his whole life.
“Dyson, we have company,” Gamayun said, speaking more urgently. “A void ship has descended into the zone. Looks to be a personnel carrier. It is not responding to standard protocols.”
“You know what to do,” Dyson replied.
“The furies are invading the ship as we speak. I estimate destruction or infestation within twenty minutes.”
“Then get back to me in twenty minutes,” Dyson snapped.
He slammed his fist on the desktop and turned away from the projection to study the displays mounted on the walls of the chamber.
Dyson had first learned of the Spire while studying the contents of the mapped zones. Amongst the thousands of wonders scattered across the inner surface of the sphere, the Spire had captured his attention as an oddity among oddities. In all of the records that Dyson had accessed, spanning back hundreds of cycles, Zone Spira had been known as deathly wasteland. Throughout the zone, from one border field to the next, all had been consumed by midges. Everything, from the earth and water, to the stone and air, to the raw itself had been disassembled by an ever growing legion of ravenous midges. Swarms of the hungry machines flocked through the void of Zone Spira, striking against any unshielded void ships which dared to enter their territory. Nothing remained in the entire expanse of the zone, save for two lonely monuments: The Spire and the temple of death.
Gamayun glided into Dyson’s chamber, a silvery obloid covered in feathery scales and wreathed in gently pulsating fields. At the moment, those fields were drifting between shades of crimson and maroon, expressing the drone’s displeasure with its young charge. Its voice boomed in the chamber, no longer whispering through Dyson’s implants. “Dyson, you need a break.”
“What I need is a solution to this kuro puzzle box,” Dyson muttered, not looking away from the wall display. “There has got to be a way through those shields.”
“Has it not occurred to you that, were there a path, the furies would have found it long ago?”
Dyson turned and glared at Gamayun. Beside him, the needle drone spluttered and pulsed, its crystalline body flaring an incandescent white before fading to nearly black.
“Shut up,” Gamayun snapped. It extended a manipulator field and swatted the needle drone aside.
The drone sparked and fizzled angrily, but did not attempt to approach Dyson or Gamayun. It knew the strength of its benefactor’s guardian and had no interest in testing Gamayun’s patience further.
Dyson scowled. “Obviously I’ve thought of that. That is why we use shielding fields. Attenuated gravity drives. Matter phase transfer. The Spire would not be calling out to us if it did not want to be investigated, so there must be some way of getting in. We just need to find that path.”
Gamayun’s fields rippled across Dyson’s face, its touch as gentle as a mother soothing an angry child. Dyson turned his chin up and made to step back, but a field gently enclosed his shoulders and pulled him closer to the silver drone. “You need to rest, Dyson. You have been working at this problem for so long. When did you last sleep?”
“You know the answer,” Dyson snapped.
“But do you?” Gamayun replied, gently.
Dyson glared at the drone for a moment, then his shoulders sagged and he nodded. He had been at this for thirty hours straight, ever since they had received the telemetry burst from the probe. Maybe it would be a good idea for him to go for a walk, just to clear his head.
“Always looking out for me,” he said, reaching out a hand to stroke the side of Gamayun’s case.
“It’s what I live for. Suit up and wait for the all clear. The infestation is complete and I do believe that the furies are sending their new toys against us.”
Behind Dyson, the needle drone hissed and crackled indignantly.
“You work on it alone for a bit. I need a break,” Dyson called back over his shoulder as he followed Gamayun out of the room.
Dyson strode through the arched corridors of the derelict temple, towards the airlock that would grant him access to the courtyard. The corridor glowed with a soft red and yellow light which seeped through the ornately decorated walls, lending an even more eerie air to organic forms from which the temple was constructed. The carvings were so fluid, so lifelike in their depictions of rent flesh, protruding bone, and agonized features that one might be forgiven for believing that the temple was actually constructed from the petrified bodies of ten thousand tortured souls.
Reaching the airlock, Gamayun pulled a pressure suit down from the protruding bone on which it hung and passed it to Dyson with a manipulator field. “I will pass through first. My external aspects have already neutralized the ship, but it appears that furies are trying something new with the crew.”
“Oh?” Dyson asked, stepping into the legs of his suit and squirming uncomfortably as the sub-midge metamaterial wriggled against his legs.
Gamayun did not reply, only slipped into the airlock and disappeared as the door rotated shut.
Dyson shrugged, then finished pulling the suit up over his shoulders and ducked his head into the helmet. He drew his finger up the black line on his chest, pressing closed the seal and telling the restrillect which inhabited the suit that it should awake. A soothing, gender fluid voice whispered into Dyson’s ear, saying, “Good waking, sir. I will test my integrity in five, four, three, two, one…” Dyson felt a gentle pressure across his whole body as the suit momentarily over-pressurized itself, testing that all seals were intact. At the same instant, a grid of icons shimmered into existence at the periphery of his vision, projected into his implants by the suit’s restrillect.
The suit’s exterior was a sleek yellow, accented by crosshatches of black and brown to indicate where components ought to be attached. It was designed as much for style as for protection, but even so was the best survival gear which Dyson had been able to purchase without turning to suppliers which specialized in equipping the Shell’s militaries. If necessary, the suit could keep him alive and alert for several days, or place him in a medically induced coma and keep him there for several cycles without irreparable harm. Most importantly, the multilayered metamaterial from which the suit had been constructed was resistant to invasion by hostile midges and contained a small colony of carefully shielded midges which would repair any damage to the suit’s integrity.
“I am fully optimal,” the suit announced. “Do you have any special requirements?”
Dyson tapped an icon on the touchscreen beside the airlock door and waited as it cycled open again. “Just make sure that no little bastards worm their way in.”
“Certainly, sir. Nanoscale monitoring has been set to full alert. Have a pleasant expedition and do not hesitate to ask if you require any further assistance.”
The airlock door pivoted open and Dyson stepped into the gleaming white chamber. He ordered the airlock to cycle and waited as the door shut behind him and vents in the ceiling released a glittering white cloud of midges. The midge swarm crawled across every surface of the room, each individual machine invisible to the naked human eye as it maneuvered within the distributed restricted intelligence of the swarm and took up a defensive position. Millions of the devices crawled across Dyson’s body, searching for any holes through which their more aggressive cousins on the far side of the airlock might gain entry. The restrillects which governed the airlock swarm and the suit’s defenses engaged in a brief negotiation, after which thirty grams of midges were re-assigned from the airlock swarm to a subroutine of the suit’s defensive software.
“What’s with the ride-alongs?” Dyson asked, scowling at the fine powder of glistening white dust which had arranged itself into a triple-helix spiraling up his arms and legs and across his chest.
“Gamayun has instructed us to provide you with additional protection. It is concerned that hostile midges may have breached the protective fields.”
Dyson grunted, but did not protest. Sometimes he resented the degree of protectiveness displayed by Gamayun, but for the most part his personal syntellect companion gave prudent advice.
The midges which were not augmenting his suit defenses fell from Dyson like a cloud of baby powder and joined their companions in preparing to defend against any intruders.
“Now this is something new,” Gamayun announced.
“Let me out now,” Dyson said. He pulled a disruptor pistol from its adhesion patch on his thigh and thumbed the safety off. He could feel the hairs on the back of his hand bristle as the weapon charged.
The airlock control screen glowed green and the outer door hissed open, revealing the glowing tableau of agony which rose up to the curved ceiling of the temple. Dyson stepped out of the airlock and strode through the sanctuary, past white pillars of bone and sculptures of vivisected human forms. When he had first arrived at the temple, Dyson had been disturbed by the violent iconography, had even wondered whether the temple itself had been constructed from tormented human flesh, but by the end of the first month he had come to accept the imagery as part of the background. The walls and art were all formed from inert inorganic compounds, stone, or metal, with not a hint of human flesh commingled. Moreover, he soon decided that it was not worth his time to be disturbed by mere art, however gruesome, when the very real threat of flesh stripping midges and rogue syntellects was constantly testing his defenses.
“The intruders have been dealt with,” Gamayun announced. “I detect no sign of increased activity from the furies.”
“Sure this wasn’t a diversion? It seems pretty weak to throw a ship at us.”
“I am continuing to monitor all of our perimeter defenses. I detect no sign of incursion. I think it likely that the furies are merely playing a game. Perhaps they have come to accept us.”
Dyson laughed and shook his head, as much as he could in the close fitting helmet. “I doubt that.”
He paused at the main doors to the temple, twin sheets of hammered iron which would have long rusted away if there had been any rain in the zone. As it was, the thin atmosphere contained within the temple’s protective field enclosure had merely covered the iron doors in a fine layer of oxide which had long ago turned the black metal blood red. Dyson suspected that this had been an intentional feature of the temple, causing supplicants to pass through a symbolic door of blood, marking themselves with the oxide that brushed off as they touched it, before entering to lay their sacrifices before the obelisk which stood at the opposite end of the sanctuary.
“Is the ship rigged to explode?”
“That was the first thing I checked. It appears to have been merely a transport. I have already taken control of it and begun stripping it for useful parts.”
Dyson pushed the blood red door open, his suit assisting as he strained to move the heavy iron door on its rusted hinges, and stepped out into the courtyard.
A ragged line of corpses trailed back to the flickering border of the temple’s protective field. Men and women, some clothed and others nude, all with faces frozen into a wide-eyed rictus. Some had charred holes burned through their skulls where Gamayun’s remote turrets had struck them. Others appeared to have been struck by shotgun blasts, as their skin was peppered with tiny, bloody holes.
Keeping his disruptor at the ready, Dyson approached one of the mangled corpse and knelt to inspect it. No, not a shotgun blast. Each of the holes in this corpse had been bored outward, as if a swarm of angry insects had bored its way out through the dead man’s flesh. Wisps of smoke or steam drifted out from some of the holes, rising up from the body like a departing soul.
“What happened here?” he asked.
“I tried something new with a few of them. I hit the full body with a strong effector field, overheating all the nonorganic components and frying the invasive midges. The method proved rather effective, even if it required more concentration than simply shooting them in the head.”
“And the others? Did you have to disable the invasive midges after destroying the brain?” Dyson replied. He looked from the smoking corpse to one which had a hole burned in its head.
“Yes, but that was rather trivial. Cut off from their hive minds these small offshoots of the furies were trivial to disable.”
“I’m worried about this, Gamayun. Why are the furies sending infested humans against us?” Dyson stood, surveying the landscape of corpses, counting. A dozen men and women. Of all the methods which the furies could use to breach the temple’s protective fields, dropping a ship full of infested humans seemed the least likely to succeed.
“I have no way of knowing, but I can conjecture.”
There was a brief pause, which Dyson knew was more for dramatic effect than for Gamayun to gather its thoughts. Gamayun had sufficient processing power to win a game of Go against a grand master while simultaneously manipulating a stock market and still carrying on a conversation.
“I believe this is the result of conflict among the furies. Those which have identified us as enemies are attempting to kill us, yes, but others might have identified us as allies and be interceding on our behalf.”
“That’s a thought,” Dyson muttered. “It would explain why the direct assaults are ineffective and rare. Perhaps the temple is surrounded by neutral to friendly midge swarms and the other furies have to overcome their defenses to reach us.”
“Well…” Gamayun replied, drawing out the word to show uncertainty.
“Yeah…” Dyson turned slowly around, surveying the bodies. Dozens of harvester drones the size of domestic animals had emerged from the hold of Raven’s Flight and begun dragging the bodies across the courtyard. Dyson looked away as one of the harvesters disgorged a powdery cloud of restricted midges, which immediately swarmed over the body of a woman and began breaking her down into raw materials to be loaded back aboard the harvester for transport to the matter recompiler. Within hours they would reemerge as probes, or spare components, or synthesized ham sandwiches.
He was, most likely, the only living human in the entire zone. Before they had been infested by midges and turned into abominable husks of their former selves, the men and women who were now being broken down for their component materials had likely been treasure hunters, come to this zone believing they could crack the mystery of the Spire and win a fortune. He was not so different himself, except that he had help from two syntellects, a legion of midges, and some extremely powerful energy shields.
Dyson laughed bitterly. His continued existence here in the temple was not a matter of his own skills or intellect, but rather the result of a hard fought battle between invisible forces. Perhaps the spiritual warriors of pre-enclosure Terra had not been so far from the truth.
“Perhaps it isn’t about killing us,” Dyson announced. “Maybe it’s about fear. The furies have realized that they are at an impasse with our defenses and now they’re trying to scare us away.”
“The psychological element of sending infested humans against us, rather than simply consuming the ship, may well be a factor,” Gamayun said. “I only wish that other explorers would stop coming and providing them raw material.”
“Can our defenses hold?” Dyson asked. “And how long can we keep building probes?”
“For now, certainly. At the current depletion rate I estimate we have sufficient stockpiles of recompiled matter to remain here for another year, longer if I include the material I have reserved for our escape.”
“So, not two hundred years?”
Gamayun laughed. “No, Dyson. And I have to say that I will most likely grow bored of this solitude within a decade.”
Dyson turned and walked back towards the temple doors. “I’m going to sleep on the latest simulation. There’s got to be some way to increase our penetration. Wake me if there’s another incursion.”
Gamayun watched through its distributed sensor network as Dyson cycled back through the airlock. Above the sealed interior of the temple, the energy field that held the worst of the furies at bay flickered and crackled with multihued energy discharges as various forms of microscopic machines threw themselves against the field like bugs assaulting an electrified cage. Beyond that flickering shell, five hundred kilometers azimuthal through a void choked with swarms of midges controlled by feuding syntellects, the Spire stood defiantly at the center of its own flickering aurora.