8 - The Tourist

\* Some time and much dust later,

The Observer and Computer were travelling across cracked salt flats now, scrubland now a distant memory. The sun was still a blurred white orb in the haze, though dipping now, looking to settle below the horizon. On occasion, the bones of some ancient behemoth would poke out of the surface, rib-cages and jaws the size of rooms. A line, then a shape in the distance; the observer rubbed the faceplate of his mask. A break from the dust. He’d not seen an AR label on the dark grey structure, which meant it was outside of the (though somewhat outdate d) seven cities standardized database that had been loaded on his chemAR with the customized glowing path to the smudge . As the pair trudged closer, the immensity of the structure became apparent. He felt drawn to it, like a beacon, though this could be because it was the only substantial thing to look at on the horizon.

It was vaguely conical. The height was oppressive. Hundreds of storeys could have been hidden within its nearly featureless bulk. A monolith, no, a Coneolith he thought. It seemed there was a large opening at the top, tilted toward the back. He could tell nothing about it’s function from this distance. As they approached, it was clear the structure was made of a material much more ancient than carboplast, and yet all evidence suggested it to have equivalent durability. Neither was it similar to the elaborately carved and fitted stone of the ancient buildings and ruins that formed the foundations and core of Old Jardinian; which, to any outside observer made it clear the golden age of architecture was long past. This building echoed that feeling of antiquity to be sure, though unlike the ostentatious ornamentation of Old Jardinian, it was entirely minimalist. The surface panels were entirely flush. There was a ring of slightly darker coloration on the bottom third.

As they approached still, there became a low vibratory tone. It chan ged pitch slightly at times. Presumably it was the wind across the hole in the top of the structure. The tone was thick with aural depth. It seemed to weigh heavily on a frequency just out of earshot, as if it were transferring great amounts of data slightly incomprehensible to living ears. The computer grumbled as its processors were bogged down by the massive signal. It felt the equivalent of a headache coming on. A small sprint away now, the Observer could make out two features.

The massive opening at the bottom of the structure appeared to pass as a door. It was many times his height wide, and many, many times his width, high. The inside had a slight ambient glow from somewhere farther within. As far as he could discern in the darkness, the entrance led to a room of the same size, rather like a rectangaloid cut out from the side of the lonely structure. Above the opening was a symbol. He’d seen it all too recently. It was the hourglass. He’d first seen it on his graduation day, upon receiving the mark of excellence, and most recently on the message speaking of an ascendance. This time, however, it was flipped over its horizontal axis, or colloquially, upside down.

At the time of his graduation, he’d sorely underestimated the, if not power, then implication of that hourglass symbol. This sharp reminiscence startled him, and served to exacerbate some of the many questions, worries and reservations about activities and goings-on in the Great Expanse.

Below the symbol, were the words - The Chronus Extent. Underneath, was a strange set of glyphs he couldn’t read, but he assumed they read the same thing.

Somewhat lost in the eminence of the structure, and rather at odds with its ominous er... ness was a small shack off to the side. It read “Souvenirs for the whole family”. It had the same set of incomprehensible symbols below it. It was fairly rickety. The structure’s entrance made use of a handy jaw bone, probably from a very large shark, or regular size carnivorous whale. Someone had hung their laundry on the line leading from the “Conelith” to the back of the small structure. The Observer mused that while probably very effective at drying the clothing, likely made washing futile with all the dust. Someone was probably walking around with incredibly dusty drawers.

The Observer and the computer shared a quick discussion, and as one moved towards the small shack. Nobody was behind the counter. The goods looked, well, ancient. The Observer rang the bell. The tooth it was attached to fell off, and nearly relieved him of his arm.

“Err, hello?” He ventured.

A face peered out at him from beyond the partition. It was a perfect face, symmetrical in every possible way, and befitting of golden, silver and bronze ratios. Too perfect, in fact. The observer travelled all the way down the uncanny valley, and back up the other side. He got a bit dizzy. This was a face unlike he’d ever seen, far removed from the average working Jard, farther still from the exquisitely doctored visage of Old Jardinian elite society.

“My first customer”, the face said, delighted. The rest followed, and the Observer was now facing a person in clothing of unrecognizable provenance and extreme dust, with a nearly indescipherable accent, hoping to sell him postcards. She had a nametag on. It read _My Name is Impecca_. It had some strange symbols underneath. He took a look at the merchandise.They were ancient one-off images, the little scene looping back and forth on disposable pieces. He recognized the conelith surely enough, but here it was surrounded by water. He took a look back out the door, and conceded the scene a possibility, what with the pervasive salt-flats, and behemoth, betoothed skeletons. The Chronus Extent, the postcard read, again paired with the symbols. It had a little perfect family, watching barges approach the structure. He held the card up. Impecca appeared to be wearing similar clothing as the family pictured, but that wasn’t the most concerning bit. He motioned to the incredible amount of blue in the scene.

“Oh, the water’s been gone at least as long as I’ve been around” she explained. Her voice and intonation were strange, like she’d only read, and not spoken, many of the words before. She had a vague sing-song inflection. After starting off at a good yell, her volume wavered for a bit, and then she matched his.

“The tourism industry isn’t much to write home about really,” she said sadly. “but one ought to give it one’s best.” She leaned forward, “between you and me, I’ve never met a tourist.” The computer agreed, noting for all present that the observer was the first person he’d actually met, within this relatively new affliction of personal awareness.

The utter lack of tourist interest did not surprise the Observer, as far as he knew, the Great Expanse had always been there, and it was certainly not on any Jard’s bucket list. He’d never even considered it as a getaway destination before he was forcibly packed up and unceremoniously dispatched there. The node itself had weather records nearly a thousand years distant, all dry. He nodded carefully, she might have been one of the industrialist cache hell-spawn on a gap year, or something. He had known of some of those kids growing up, they were always competing with excessively exotic adventures. He pressed on, hoping this wasn’t some elaborate prank destined for the next season of Old Money in New Jardinian.

“It seems like a strange place to open a tourist shop”, he managed. He scanned for hidden cameras, and looked suspiciously at a selection of dusty souvenir conelith models, each wearing a moustache and fake glasses.

“It is all I know,” She said sadly. “Would you like an umbrella hat? Keeps off BOTH the rain and sun” she winked conspiratorially. “Shame about the dust though.”

The observer was fairly up-to-date on the meteorological patterns of the Great Expanse, and thus quite familiar with the complete and utter lack of rain. He gracefully bunted the sales pitch with a question of his own.

“Rain? How long have you been here then? I must confess this ancient sea thing is throwing me for a bit of a sloop, I’ve never heard of anything wetter than a moist towelette afflicting the great expanse.”

She shrugged “The whole time, ever since I can remember. Like I said, it’s been dusty corduroys ever since I can remember” She brightened up, “Would you like to meet my parents?!”

A strange vagrant family in the great expanse, with absolutely perfect teeth? Perplexing, the observer thought.

The computer had been searching its data archives for evidence of pre-expanse ocean or sea, and found nothing. Of course, it’s current instance of software, this current notion of self, more than the circuits that housed it, had been running since the creation of the node. This lack of any sort of shut down and restart had contributed to the slow emergence of a machine self-awareness. The updates had been made live, pushed endlessly by the mysterious directive for unflinching observation. After all, the node had been conceivably put in place to keep an eye on the Great Expanse. So this lack of any oceanic observation made sense, in a very straightforward sort of way, as the computer did not exist pre-expanse.

The strange girl boarded up the shop, appearing to set a trap with one of the other uncomfortably large teeth, and led him towards the entrance of the Conolith. The massive entrance, he knew now, was at such a height that a barge could have floated inside above the dark remnants of the waterline. Still as confused as ever, the Observer followed this strange character into the dark, wide-mouthed gallery.

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