25 - The Depths of Progress

The failure at Chronus Extent was ugly. To a citizen of that time period, the failure was assumed responsible for the desolation of the reaches of the empire and the spawn of the Great Expanse. Their assumption was completely correct, and the researchers involved took full responsibility.

It was a dark time, and the collective of researchers and engineers were persecuted throughout the empire. At the time, it had been assumed they were all dead in the general upheaval, and rightly so.

Helped by a few enterprising and opportunistic liaisons, many of whom were members of the Committee for Justice and Recovery, some fugitive survivors in the collective were able to make their way to the ancient temple complex above the top of the falls, with some other prototype technology. They succeeded in creating a refuge, and later, a research station. The proliferation of the station can be attributed, initially, to the shipments of Acropolis brand chips, under the cover of night, and continued by the M&G Cong. through the tunnels the exiled researchers had found while expanding the ancient tunnel complex. They now owed these secretly merciful benefactors greatly, who assured them they must be hidden from the anxious public. The exiles had taken to calling themselves Alovians after their collective, recognizing they were no longer welcome in Greater Jard.

The research complex grew in size and sophistication over the years. Now, Archie and Au were standing at the foot of Alovian renaissance, two years after the ascension, and a thousand and five years after the first occupants took refuge.

Said foot was a ramped recession at the bottom of the complex, leading down the cargo entrance from which they had sprouted. The grated floor here was full of small, again, hexagonal holes. A slight fresh air current cycled up from it. Coming from the cargo entrance, they had passed several empty sleds like the one they’d arrived on, and one apparently filled with Acropolis chips. Archie was intrigued, but left it alone for now, as the wonderment at the rest of the structure impressed itself upon him.

A great atrium with honeycombed intrusions scoring the sides, stretched ever upwards a kilometre until it touched the clear protrusion above, which mirrored its shape, though smaller. The intrusions in the walls of the great circular complex, looking to be rooms, had a standard arrangement of six hexagonal smaller rooms and one larger, double the size, in the middle. These groupings were efficiently arranged all the way up the wall, occasionally giving away to larger galleries and plazas, with supportless overhangs cutting into the massive empty central space. Twin streams of water rushed down from what appeared to be a crack, or a gap in each side of the transparent dome far above.

Then, the floor, Surrounding the large hexagonal-holed grate was a circle of grass, bisected by the ramp they’d come up on one side, and on two other sides, the modest twin waterfalls. The twin streams fell as far as they could see, glistening and twisting, dropping surely a thousand meters. They disappeared below the floor into an alcove, the expected crashing sounds muted as if far below.

At Archie's best guess, the bottom floor was as wide as the grand kilo boulevard in Old Jardinian. He smiled as he remembered those great statues. As impressive as this space was, the decoration was a little abstract for him.

The walls and most other internal structures were light gray. Thousands of lines hung from the ceiling with transportation cars on them, a darker grey, gleaming in the light.

The garanguatan space was lit softly, perhaps the glow of the moon magnified by the mysterious clear protrusion at the top of the leviathan atrium. There seemed to be some added warmth to the light, an unnatural but welcoming improvement. The softness made the space feel cozy somehow, despite its vastness. They had reached Alovian station. And as seemed to be the trend in their cascading journey of mishaps and revelations, it was completely silent and empty, aside from the slight hiss of the air from beneath their feet, and faint crash of the water far below, under the grated floor.

To Au, it didn’t quite have the somber mood of a graveyard, it was more like a city in the newest of mornings, waiting for the gears of production and commerce to begin churning in earnest. It looked like it might erupt into entirely inconceivable activity at any moment.

Halfway up the wall, the honeycombed rooms were broken up by a single gallery that ranged the circumference of the complex. Being an aggressive amount of meters upward, it was hard to judge the height of the gallery, but it dwarfed the rooms that had been cored into the wall. This seemed like the spot to start their inquisitions.

Archie thought himself proficient with the voice control now. It only took him a few tries to get the dangle-cars to start moving. Alarmingly, all the cars started converging towards the pair. In fits of stops and starts, Archie tried to get just one car to arrive. It seemed to be all or none of them. Whenever Archie spoke vaguely they all seemed to be interested, like ducks after bread.

When he tried to instruct the machine, he wasn’t sure what he was talking to, the complex itself, or the danglecars. With any commands more specific, well, it became clear his syntax was maddeningly erroneous. Matching Archie's floundering commands, the danglecars began to group and jerk their way down. They had come together in a clump now, aiming at Archie and Au on the bottom level.

Little did Archie and Au know, the danglecars each were so excited about the possibility of having a rider after all this time, that they each laid claim to Archie's unspecific syntax. They displayed passable collision avoidance, most adjusting position minutely as they came to a stop. A few of the less positionally aware cars bounced off one another, and at one point, two cars began to dance, locked in an eternal struggle for avoidance, each going one direction and then reversing without respite.

Some had been higher up and remained that way as they descended at the same pace as the others, though they had come much closer together in the horizontal plane.

Au, who had incredible eyesight, as any member of the privileged near-elite would, spotted the numbers first. Each car was labeled with a five digit code on the bottom. She could read the lowest one now, descending with the others despite Archie's best efforts. “Try saying 70917”, she said.

Archie did, requesting the service of 70917. Lovely. It descended gracefully to meet them, leaving it’s brethren hanging in the soft light. It’s door opened, sliding with an excited hiss.

Archie addressed 70917 again. “Go to the, er, biggest room.” After a moment, he added a please, unsure what sort of manners proper society dictated whilst talking to strange dangling elevator types. The machine displayed remarkable understanding, parsing what was the “biggest room” with no trouble at all, now that it knew it had been chosen alone for the duty. Oh happy day!

The danglecar called itself Nurembep Gungadon. Nurembep had been bored for so long; it was ecstatic to have someone to chauffeur. It let out a few warm, excited beeps as they ascended to the ring gallery, beeps which surprisingly did not echo through the space. The danglecar announced their impending arrival with the audio equivalent of a salute. They arrived at the gallery, itself dwarfed by the sheer height of the rising walls. The other cars would be so jealous, Nurembep knew. First, the rider falling onto Nurembep a day ago, and now this, TWO riders using it as designed, it’s purpose realized. How exciting, how lucky for Nurembep. It had resigned itself to eternal boredom after the acquiesce of the Alovian ascendancy, and yet, things were looking up! Boy, the tales, the war-stories it would tell at the bi-annual general meeting of the danglecars.

As they stepped carefully off the danglecar onto the extended platform of the gallery, supportless over the near-void. The gallery greeted them with the expected silence and lack of general activity. The gallery was easily five Archie(es?) high, and a hundred meters deep at the deepest point as far around as they could see. There were no railings facing the yawning drop their previous. Au pictured the mysterious, sure-footed Alovians walking the edges casually, without care, and shuddered, glad for the relentless grip her toey shoes provided.

The most prominent feature of the ring gallery was the gigantic hall that protruded into the falls, the real, Old Jardinian-pummeling ones outside. Stepping into it, Au could see the city below, through the film of water that cascaded down. The architects had taken steps to conceal it though, and the clear wall was filled with geometric oddities. Evidently from the outside, the surface was tinted and fit in with the rocks. The hall also was far too large for the table that inhabited it, though itself grander than any table that Archie had seen before, even the rare jungle-wood monstrosity that had taken over Carnibus’ office and settled down to wait for tasty victims.

This ring gallery seemed the most likely place to start the search, though for what, Au wasn’t quite sure.

The hall extended all the way to the platform on which they’d disembarked from the cheery elevator. Halfway along its length, dark angular walls lifted up to cut it off from the rest of the ring; a light grey, sterile space filled with curious apparatuses and workbenches apparent. The table came to an end slightly farther out than the diagonal sloping walls, so that one could freely move around the ring until they got as far towards inside the ring as the conspicuous table.

The hall had high ceilings sloping upwards towards the falls. The color, unlike much of the sterile, but comfortable neutral surfaces on the rest of the level, was a rich, dark-grey slate, near-black. There were angled beams supporting the arch of the roof, as it raised away from the main atrium and platform, towards the window to the falls. This was the Jutt, as it had been affectionately known by the Alovians.

The transition to a brooding slate from the neutral research bay wasn’t as harsh as one might expect. The high, angled roof of the hall cut with alpine grace upwards into the grey roof of the ring gallery, creating an eminent and considerable chasm in which to echo one’s mental notes and ambitions. Had noted architecture theorist and pedant Buttress Mezzanine (some people are just better suited for jobs than others) seen it, well, she might have finally approved of something constructed within the last milenia.

Archie and Au went to the table that, against intuitive nature, seemed to be calling them over. It was an enormous slab of evident stone ancestry. It had a smooth top with crystalline obtrusions on the sides, though these were perfectly situated to allow the chairs to sit around it evenly, to a degree of exceptional mathematical precision.

In front of each chair, were a pair of dark glasses, with comically large frames. There were no visible interfaces or terminals in the room with which to stumble upon convenient, story-driving clues.

Archie, ever the eager guinea-pig, put one of the pairs of glasses on. They were so large, he had to hold them over his face with one hand, or else they’d fall off. They were completely opaque.

“Well, what the heck are these about? I feel like the fourth blind mouse.”

He waved his free hand in front of his face. It met resistance as it moved over the table. “Whoa,” he said, tracing the curve of something seemingly emanating upward. Au looked at him skeptically. She put one hand over the table.

Moving her hand above the surface, the empty space above had a subtle texture. It felt like touching a model of some landscape. Some sort of sub-audible localized sound vibration perhaps?

The invisible model was detailed enough to have a surface that felt like rushing, well not quite water, but sand, in a shape that every Jard could recognize. The great waterfall. Mild resistance in front brought to mind the great mists that reached Old Jardinian, and above the representation of the falls, Au could feel top of the complex that represented their location, Alovian Station.

There seemed to be an air current highlighted above the haptic representation of Old Jardinian. No, wait, it extended in the same way as a well-known C-rail line through the core of the old city, to the area where they’d visited the M&G conglomerate just recently.

Au followed the highlighted section of the model, walking across to the other end of the table. This, allowing for scale, was much farther than she’d ever been in Greater Jard before. She figured it was just about at the forward edge of the scrublands, bleeding into the great expanse, allowing again for scale. She reached a representation of a two story building, feeling loosely like a set of stacked cubes, half buried in a sloping sand dune. Ah. The resemblance, even to touch was uncanny. She had seen the boxhome model a thousand times before, the Ca’box by Adoba Smolhoem in advertisements. She’d lived in one herself, during her academy days.

Archie was up now, and playing with what, spatially, should have been the jungle around sodden. Little shapes darted around mischievously, amongst the haptic representations of trees. He shuddered. Night jaguars?

Au was feeling around the building that was attached to the boxhome. It was emitting ripples, a beacon or warning? Au moved her hands around it, and then farther towards the edge of the table, and pulled back with a shock. Some distance in front of the boxhome, on the edge of the expanse, was a representation of a cloud. Some distance, perhaps though concerningly, not enough distance.

It gave her hand a shock whenever she came near. A warning, and some sort of menacing cloud.

Clearly the designers and intended audience of this strange non-visual interface had been concerned with that unremarkable, desolate area of the world, though what the cloud was supposed to represent, Au hadn’t the foggiest. The emptiness that the complex exhibited, consistent with the area represented, seemed to lend that the warning had been unheeded, as well. This assumption was confirmed for her, when she recognized that the pulsating beacon beside the expanse-edged box home seemed to be seeking some sort of basic acknowledgement - though Austera didn’t know how to actively interface with the table.

Au considered this student-model boxhome, perhaps it was where the exiled student had been sent. Now, this was some sort of grand punishment? For what, refusing the mark of excellence? She tried to remember it’s general location. They would have to find some other map or telling document to help explain the frustratingly invisible interface’s warning.

She shared her findings with Archie, who was being serious, dark glasses off now.

Previous chapter Next chapter All chapters