10 - The Cone

After nea rly a day’s journey into the Great Expanse, at least one of the two (man, and computer) was afflicted with each of the following ailments:

This is to say, the fatigued pair were quite glad for the respite. From the hints and alludes in the journals of former observers about the Expanse, even as strange as it was during the day, it was pure folly to be there in the open at night. One might wake up in a completely different area, possibly missing limbs. If you were lucky. This particular anecdote was provided by several generations-previous node occupant known to himself and others as Robert Mistfall, signing the entry, amusingly, as the “Bobserver”. Many humour and connection starved observers had got a good chuckle out of this one over the years, reading the otherwise bleak accounts. Robert’s Mistfall’s last account had ended with a strangled “Argh”, which was strange, because it was written. Anyway.

Another, more recent journal entry, unsigned but for a number divisible only by a ratio found solely but ubiquitously in the growth patterns of the flora of Sodden’s jungled reaches, was a harrowing third-hand account detailing an ancient and existential horror of millennia past. Titled “Pockets of Madness”, it was a horror so profound that its author was reduced to recording random letters, peeking out from behind the shower curtain in a Sodden hotel room, the entire building hurriedly vacated on account of the pitched humming. The resulting account suffered greatly. Coincidentally, it borrowed several sentences from Shakespeare's collected works. (very confusing for the hypothetical professors who’d never heard of the guy) The resulting work was barely coherent. So, about the level of a first-year academy paper, then. As such, it completely failed in its objective to warn against the possibility of a very real, and very smudgelike phenomenon.

Perhaps things are better this way, as this book would be a lot shorter, and probably still the same price had the Observer read this account as it had happened. We’re all about value for money here, and I’m glad for you, the reader, that it has worked out this way.

The pair followed the odd entrepreneurial spirit to the Conelith. The Observer tried not to glance at the familiar symbol above the opening. It stared at him impassively, sitting unnervingly upside down.

“Welcome to the Chronus Extent,” said Impecca, ever the professional, flashing a smile, glaringly white in the dark shadow of the brief but imposing entrance corridor.

The gallery immediately inside was a reverie of abstract geometrics. To a Jard in exile, used to ornamental statues, domes, columns, fountains, the classics really, there was an uncomfortable beauty to it. What seemed like the top half of a giant broken eggshell hung from the ceiling far above, comprised of dark grey material and completely opaque as to its purpose. Detached wires and couplers trailed from the inside of it, gently swaying in the dry, ancient air.

The tourism professional answered his questioning gaze with a shrug.

“It’s completely opaque as to its purpose,” she said apologetically. They were standing on a wide rim that circled the structure at ground level. The middle of the floor was open, racks, rails and equipment of unintelligible function were attached to the side walls that disappeared into the depths. She led him towards a ladder inset in the massive gallery. It led to a wide platform halfway up the wall. Half-hexagonal openings, smaller versions of the massive opening in the front of the structure led deeper inside, and possibly up. Many were closed with two parallel doors meeting on the diagonal. Each had several symbols on the perpendicular surface inside the opening, seemingly alluding to function. Nearly all were marked with translations that the observer could understand.

Some of the odd symbols were vaguely familiar to the Observer. Some of them had been there on the message he’d received in the node. He’d seen some of them here and there on the old buildings of Old Jardinian, though never in a high traffic area. Nobody had really seemed interested in what they meant, they just had always been, and always would be. Any questions about them to what passed for the civil service were met with frosty looks, and the quick patter of mental note taking. The marks in question would then, more often than not, disappear at some point in the next fortnight. Hence, they weren't worth worrying about.

He wondered if perhaps there would have been more interest if the academics had been poking around, but the Archaeology & Ancient studies department were generally concerned with whatever their patron funders thought interesting, or more often, wanted to display at their dinner parties; definitely not odd, disappearing symbols. He’d heard much complaining from the ancient studies students surrounding this sort of funding during his time at the academy.

In one of the few “New Money in Old Jardinian” episodes he’d been able to stomach before swearing off it forever, he’d seen this first hand. Alden Carnibus, wrought with new-found riches, began to sponsor jungle expeditions to snag artifacts, and generally annoy the locals. If the Archaeology department was lucky, they got to study the lesser pieces he didn’t want for his collection.

“Er, what’s this one? The Observer was asking about one particularly occultish symbol, this one without a helpful translation underneath. He was reluctant to appear uncultured, but curiosity got the better of him. Typical of an Old Jardinian to lack the knowledge about the elsewhere, he thought, they probably hate us everywhere we go.

“Well, this one leads to the facilities” Impecca pointed, playing the exuberant local guide role quite well. A frown crossed her face. “I think they’ve removed all the fixtures though, be careful you don’t fall in.”

The observer looked at it again, ah yes indeed, THAT one was just a standard washroom sign. They’ve?” he began.

She shrugged, and led him towards another door. “Nevermind that, come meet my parents.”

This particular door was robust, with an air of importance. She pointed helpfully at the label to one side. “Chronus Generational Foundry” She read it as casually as her pronouncement of the washroom, appearing to skip the odd symbols that accompanied. The Observer peered closely at one of the symbols. Here was that pesky top-heavy hourglass again. He began to ask, but Impecca had already moved on, visibly thrilled about the chance to show off her world.

Warily, he followed through the door, and down a hallway. A recess in the sides of the floor provided the only light in the hallway, a soft glow. Another half-hexagonal door. To the Observer’s eye - an unintelligible mechanical interface on a podium beside the door rose as she came close to it. A surface made up of many thin vertical filaments accepted her palm and with no protest the door opened. A spacious room beckoned beyond, a slight hum of machinery welcomed guide and tourists apparent. The mechanical interface slowly descended as they crossed in to the softly lit space.

While extremely minimalist, the design of the room gave it the the appearance of a formal hall, perhaps at one time serving some obscure members-only club. While it looked purpose-built for important but esoteric rituals, its current state appeared as ‘having been hastily transformed into a makeshift engineering bay’. Slanted columns held the featureless ceiling high above an immediate mess of tools, and devices. Drawing the immediate gaze was some creation in a state of construction. Behind, large ovaloids lay on the floor in two rows progressing to the other wall, far beyond of the pair now.

A healthy layer of dust covered everything, and motes floated dutifully in the intimidating space.

To the Observer, the ovaloids and tools seemed alien; perhaps inconceivably old, surprisingly advanced, or at least, again, opaque to function. Ill-at-ease In the center of the conceivably important space, parts had been collected and placed around the construction, in a vague arrowhead shape. It had a pair of seats attached to the middle. He studied it closely. Aha! Here were the toilets relieved from the rooms before. Those things you could recognize anywhere. This little invention had the shape of a vehicle, if it were, he wondered where they had planned to drive it. Beyond this vehicular (probably) machination, all but one of the large ovaloids appeared in a state of general disassembly.

Impecca led him over to the rows of ovaloid machines. They approached the only one without gaps in its smooth surface, free from open compartments and missing parts. It was still humming, in fact.

He spotted a handprint. To the observer’s untrained eye, it looked like dried blood. To the trained eye of a practicing doctor, it would still have looked like blood. When they approached, it produced a clearness on its top, giving an appearance of a cockpit of some unknown, undeniably advanced racing machine. It hissed, and tilted up as they approached, and from this distance he could see the rising transparent surface had been dented

There had been a struggle here, the Observer observed, but over what?

Another mechanical interface presented itself as they moved within an arm’s distance of the mysterious machine. It lifted in the air to meet her articulating hand. She waved it away. The observer could not tell the function of the ovaloid machine, but it had been designed with an important function in mind; it hummed with a power that the computer, having named itself LM Noder, could only aspire to. (LM Node 06 had been its designation, and it felt like keeping with tradition today in the face of so much new and perplexing information.) LM made jealous tutting noises.

The interface filaments shrank away from the Observer’s hand when he tried, at Impecca’s instruction. “I suppose it just responds to me” she said, moving her hand into place, as the observer stepped back, feeling a little rejected by the strange device. The filament interface read Impecca’s hand, and a large display flickered into existence above the machine, whatever powered it was suspended on an thin, flexible arm. Impecca was able to manipulate the visual with small hand gestures.

She traversed the contents of the display with quick, practiced gestures. She highlighted the two avatars taking up a small portion of the data display. “These are them, my parents.”

The observer took a close look. The two people pictured indeed bore some resemblance to Impecca, but they did not share her precise, symmetrical features.

“Yes, unconventional indeed” he mused. There was a picture of Impecca too, a 3D reconstruction, positioned between them. It was slowly growing older. And then looping back to a baby, as he watched. Between Impecca and her visually constructed parents was a shimmering line representing a link, and behind, blurred out at the moment, was a list. Impecca was able to select the list. The pictures faded and blurred, as a list moved forward towards them. It appeared to be a set of characteristics. The interface was not unlike one of the role-playing video games the observer had played on occasion, in those rosy days of youth, years before his unsaid exile.

The list was hundreds of entries long. She scrolled down with a lazy swipe, and selected one at random. The chosen characteristic moved everything else in the list down, to make itself the prominent feature on the shimmering screen.

It read: eye colour. There was an option to choose from each of the parents. The mother was pre-selected, and had a list of other characteristics that could be affected.

“What happens if you switch it?” He wondered.

She did with a quick motion. A progress dialogue took over, announcing that it was updating the genetic seed. And then there was a chime, something befitting a food reheater.

“Ah”, Impecca said, inspecting the on-screen avatar of herself. “I’ve just been given dad’s eyes.” A few more traits of the avatar on the screen appeared to change too, seemingly tied to the edit. Though, nothing on her actual face had changed.

He looked at her blankly. She rolled her eyes.

“Well, you can’t change my eyes now, I’ve already been born.” She gestured towards the open machine. Inside the lid, there was a similar screen as they were looking at outside. Various apparatuses and tubes the observer couldn’t fathom came and went from unseen parts of the machine’s inner opening.

“I spent my first few years here, as far as I can remember. It calls itself an incubator machine. All of our conversations were one sided - I talked to it, and it just showed me lectures, lessons, and I assume - tried to get me up to speed on what it claimed were the critical aspects of life. Though, things were very different out here than I’d seen inside. Between you and me, _We the Alovians_ was an utterly boring lecture,” she confided. “Those feeding tubes too, ugh. It let me out some time ago, after I had selected the tourism industry as my training module.”

The Observer, still Putting the Pieces Together, followed her around the room.

“I had to have a long sit down when I realized I was the only one here” She said. “I know how to read the language, but I’ve never actually talked to anyone before. How is my conversation by the way? I have completed the training of course, but my machine says there is nothing like the real thing. Practice makes perfect. That’s why I’m excited you are here. That, and all my tourism training finally gets some use.” She sighed. “It’s been quiet here. And I try not to think about it, but I think they all left in a hurry. They must have left my machine connected.” The Observer was indeed struggling to keep up with the rapid fire thoughts as she pointed to her machine. She might have taken that training again, he thought.

“The last note I found was from hundreds of years before the current date on my machine. I don’t know why the machine activated my development when it did, but here I am, far too late to even know my parents. And probably not intended to be born at all.“

She sighed.”I try to keep the souvenir shop running, one must do one’s best after all. Idle hands are the Devil’s playthings, and such.”

“The last note?” he echoed “Did it have the hourglass symbol on it, the one above the door?”

“I think it is my father’s, actually. The note refers to me.” She said sadly, “I found it on the floor next to my machine. It has that symbol on it, the symbol they used for the Chronus Extent. My father worked on it.”

Impecca took a clear foldable screen out, and handed it carefully over to the Observer. It flickered in his face, casting a glow in the immediate area..

The appearance of the screen, like the tools and machines surrounding them, was startlingly different from what the Observer was used to. But - after seeing it used, he could recognize the functionality immediately.

On a little black tab above the device, it featured the familiar heavy-side-up hourglass. Impecca had kept it safe, as it was her only memory of her parents, or anyone for that matter. She opened a journal on the device, which turned the entire thing black.

There were many words that he knew, accompanied with those strange symbols common around the lonely ‘conelith’. The first journal entries featured enthusiastic yet incomprehensible research notes. It seemed that odd arrangements of solar panels were of some concern. There was mention of a mechanism in the hollow, open top of the large conical structure, linked to the dangling egg shape. The notes were curiously devoid of actual goals for the project, but he couldn’t shake a feeling of deja-vu looking at the documents, squinting at the vaguely familiar diagrams.

The sentiment of the journal began to change. The entries were now more a daily log, of the goings on around at the Chronus Extent, and now almost exclusively in the language the Observer was familiar with.

In the months of entries that followed, some of the digital notes were artifacted or missing, of course, because this is what happens with old journals and lazy authors. Regardless, it became clear that some of the researchers had became marooned in the station, by the rapid drying up of the sea into the great expanse. Apparently, some colleagues had been able to get away, but to where, and if successfully, Impecca’s father did not seem to know.

Regularly throughout his writings, he expressed profound regret over what had transpired during the project at Chronus Extent, making a connection between the advent and encroachment of the great expanse and whatever it was they had been doing at Chronus. He spoke of a great Schism. He had made peace with the face that he would never be welcomed back to his home city. Chronus was his home now, as it would become Impecca’s.

Years of journal entries passed, and Impecca gave the Observer the greatest hits. Her father and the rest of the dwindling survivors worked on the continuation of research projects that had been put into motion by the Alovian research collective before the schism, marooned as they were now in the research station. One among those was Impecca’s machine, and the others that surrounded it. These had been in the works for some time before the Schism, and the isolated researchers took the opportunity to attempt to finish development, hoping perhaps to have their collective and knowledge survive past the maroonees themselves. The mechanism at the top of the structure was never alluded to again.

Later, increasingly feverish entries implied that Impecca’s father and another researcher had outlasted almost all of the others. The isolation had become too much for the second remaining exile. Impecca’s father wrote that his colleague was now arguing that they ought to make an escape attempt, claiming the futility of their continuing projects. Impecca’s father disagreed that the artificial development pods were a lost cause, but his ailing colleague wanted to find any other researchers who were resourceful enough to survive the immediate aftermath of the failed project, and retribution from the people of Old Jardinain - which at that time had been apparently just called Jardinian.

That was the purpose of the partially finished construction, some sort of land vehicle, the Observer now understood. It had apparently stood in a state of partial completion for a near millena, leaving the observer to assume that they were never able to fly the coop.

Indeed, as he came upon the last pages of the journal, Impecca’s father mentioned the other maroonee repeatedly asking, and then demanding to use the parts in Impecca’s still-running machine. Neither of them were sure it would even work. Still, Impecca’s father noted that he would defend it at all costs. It was all that he had left. There was no more writing, but perhaps the blood, and the dent formed a conclusion to that story. The last correspondence was fifty years beyond the schism, and the advent of the great expense. Today’s date was a thousand and five past the same.

Impecca took the journal back, and hid it away protectively. “I don’t come in here all that much,” she said, “once I found the tourism office, I slept in there, and spent my days in the shack.”

So, thought the observer, here were the words of someone claiming some responsibility for the advent of the Great Expanse, and then there was talk of a schism, evidently, and an exile, and now nearly a millennia later, Impecca had appeared? All under the banner of that hourglass symbol, the inverse of the one that he’d come to attribute to some suspicious events surrounding the arrival of the burgeoning smudge.

Why indeed was an ancient, ostracized and extinct engineering and research sect, the Alovians, so named in Impecca’s training media, using a symbol (though inverse) he’d seen on both the worrying non-message about an ascendancy, and on that fateful Graduation Day?

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