34 - The Node

Archie and Au were bumpily following the mag-line to one of the expanse observation nodes. They were headed toward the provenance of the warning beacon seen so far away, and the likely reluctant destination and home of one Tyton Barnes. Tyton, probable owner of the boxhome, and certain spurnee of the Academy for transgressions yet somewhat unclear, was their last hope of sorting out this blooming and obscure collection of mysteries.

Archie had been made to promise to keep an eye out for the lost node servicing carrier. He had been helpfully clad in bright orange, matching their own borrowed garb. He had wanted to take a turn driving, but after his feeble performance in the supply depot yard, Austera wasn’t letting him with a reach of the throttle.

The scrublands between the last vestiges of civilization and the expanse were featureless, unless you dealt in sickly bushes, crawling creatures or unimpressive rock outcroppings. If you did, then this would be a paradise for you. The complicated, symbiotic ecosystem could teach any city planner a thing or two about efficient resource allocation. However, Archie and Au certainly were not bush enthusiasts, nor were they city planners, as very little of that actually went on in Old Jardinian these days. This area itself was the equivalent of a flyby state of Greater Jard. Needless to say, they did not appreciate the subtle beauty.

Archie was falling asleep from sheer tedium. When his grip on Au started to go a little slack she would quickly slow the bike, aiming to keep him awake and from sliding off the back.

The node peeked over the horizon, and then slowly began to creep closer. The scrubland faded to sand, dunes burying the bottoms of the columns that extended to the mag-line high above. The bike, despite the added bulk of Archie and all their gear, zipped along nimbly, though far too close to the ground for anyone’s liking.

They could see a boxhome attached to the node, of a variety commonly owned or leased by students. It was the Ca’box. The Ca’box model was smaller than the Modulif II, with which Archie was intimately familiar. The end of the magline dipped to meet the node, and the boxhome. Au pointed it out to Archie, slowing as they came up to the node and it’s parasitic boxhome. The node was marked again by the eternal emblem of the goat astride the globe, that seemed to pursue them endlessly in their journey. It’s earnest smile never waned.

They reached the node, smaller than the previous staging and supply station but made of the same smooth, dark carboplast material. This node, like the staging station looked like it was built up from the foundations of a previous structure, with the remains of a support protruding from one corner, and a little rubble around it. The only door on the attached boxhome was docked into the back of Node. The boxhome itself was a standard base model blue, faded with sun and covered in dust, with a couple light-grey speckled pods attached to the modular slots. They walked around the Node/boxhome pairing looking for an entrance, Archie nearly stumbling over a small cliff that dropped down to the expanse of salt flats. Below was the first level, and an access door.

“Is that the Carrier’s lev-bike?” Archie pointed at a machine lying, apparently devoid of all levitation capability, on the salt flats. No dismounted and dehabilited orange-clad carriers surrounded it.

Austera wasn’t sure what to make of that. She shrugged, and began to descend down the small cliff, sliding down the last little bit, and landing with a thump in the dunes at the cliff base.

Dusting herself off, Au motioned for Archie to follow, who looked at the steep face with uncertainty.

She investigated the bike while Archie gingerly tested the first toehold. It looked in fine, albeit dusty, condition. There was one major exception, that it was missing its, in layman's terms, levitation plate. No way to turn it on though, there was a slot for a key that she certainly did not have. Ah. The cargo. She waved a container of acropolis chips at Archie, who descaled the cliff with gusto at the sight of the bike loaded for bear, with his greatest temptation. What a trove. Only a few containers had been spilled, and subsequently nibbled on by scavengers.

Austera left Archie to take an oral inventory of the chips, much fresher than the chips found under the M&G Cong, munch-by date (trademarked) only a couple days past. She tried the Node’s first floor doorway, and it opened gently, conditioned air washing over her. It was a welcome respite from the burdensome heat of the scrublands. She called Archie over, who reluctantly left the chips after a whispered goodbye. They poked into the node, the delivery receptacle giving way to a vertical garden with a lift up the side towards the main floor.

Au ventured a “Hello”. There was nothing. “Tyton?” Au whispered to Archie “What was that carriers name?” Archie shrugged “Maybe they are lovers,” he whispered back. “Better give them a minute.”

A couple minutes later, Au shouted, “OK, I’m coming in!” The air was fresh. The light was tinted a relaxing tropical orange. It matched the humidity; a soft misting punctuated the silence as the garden was moistened. They took the lift up the node to the second floor. Immediately facing them, at the rear of the node, was a set of exercise equipment. They turned, and were greeted by huge digitally overlaid window. It had a, well, expansive view of the great expanse in it’s perpetual apricot sunset.

As advertised, it was salt flats in all directions. Except one. In one direc tion, Au observed warily, A smudge encroached. A dark smudge obscuring a, let’s just say not entirely insubstantial part of the horizon. It had a blinking square overlaid overtop. A number was increasing on the bottom. “CAE” read Au, “Huh.”

A message was frozen on screen, ending with “We will be unavailable for the foreseeable future, and then some. We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavours. We await your appearance among the strs.”

It appeared to be an automatic message. It was the same as the one that had the Dean utterly, and completely frazzled. How cryptic, and yet completely expected from the strange inhabitants of the Alovian station that had disappeared without a trace.

On the wall, someone had scrawled in white “Headed to confirm sighting of Anomaly. Very concerning. Please send help; I believe the temporal farms must be shut down.”

She wondered if the carrier had gone too; why had they ditched the bike?

Au pointed the smudge and writing out to Archie. “The solar farms?” Archie pshawed, he had an immense amount of faith in the quality of the panels he’d been building, but he couldn’t help remembering the panel floating in the empty research station... They couldn’t just turn off the entire energy source of Old Jardinian with naught but a strong concern and some writing on the wall, could they?

“Our guy(s),” said Au, gazing narrowly at the smudge, “and perhaps the nature of our enigmatic problem would seem to be that way.”

Archie sighed, already quite fond of the clean air and air conditioning.

“I’m taking a nap before I travel another mile.“ He trouped off into the attached boxhome, flopping on the bed. He was out before Au could reply. Following him into the boxhome, she poked through the Observer’s sparse belongings. What would make the Observer forsake the ultimate honour, the ubiquitous catalyst of a meteoric rise into the caste the Old Jardinian elite? What was the nature of this mysterious mark, the nature that warranted his complete banishment for daring to reject it? This mysterious mark that had propelled her classmate Alden Carnibus to the precipice of greatness, and that any other industrialist refused to mention? Even just beating around the bush made your standard Industrialist nervous and flitty.

The boxhome was largely devoid of personal effects. Locked as it was to the node, one could be forgiven for thinking it was a prison cell, and not a home. There was a shower pod attached to the module slot, and a bed, a few screens and a desktop roll screen and small personal terminal. No decoration except for a print of that same goat, astride a cliff as gorgeous trees faded into the ochre sunset. Perhaps there had been a forced re-decorating. Otherwise, here was a bonafide Company Man.

Join the M&G Cong. today, read the print taped to the fabricated wall. The goat was beckoning with a hoof, and an anthropomorphic grin. Au turned to the terminals and screens. Of course, no password. Locking your computer in this sea of emptiness would be a sign of complete and utter paranoia. The name of the user was Tyton Barnes. Well, great, they could address him fully, and give him a good handshake. But, what did he know that was so complicit in his exile? What role was he to play in understanding this vague yet impending anomaly?

The last file that had been opened, was a scratch of calculations. She recognized precious few symbols here and there from the good old days at Spuria - was this one from physics class? Or was it from thermal problematics? Home economics? God(s), she had been out of school for a while, years passing while working with Alden.

There was also a rough diagram of a machine, and lo, here were the solar panels Archie had pointed out earlier. The accompanying notes were either coded, or so esoteric as to be unrecognizable. A further note of concern against the solar fields, but why? And on that page, some doodles of a hourglass shape, like they had seen in Alovian Station. This document had been dated a few days before today. So he hadn’t been gone long. No other helpful information leapt out at her, so she gave up on that and continued her search of the Observer’s personal terminal. Unfortunately, there were no helpful logs or journals on there, or anything helpful that she could actually understand.

As the interface in the node had been frozen and inaccessible, and this personal terminal was void of any details about this Tyton Barnes; it seemed he was to continue to be the only one privy to the true nature of the encroaching smudge. To boot, he had obviously taken off, almost certainly towards the forbidding smudge that he was the remaining reluctant expert on.

The rest of her snooping was fruitless, much like certain pursuits over at Acropolis. They would just have to seek out the man himself, though he was getting farther by the hour, and hopefully had not yet been menaced or driven insane by the smudge. Au wasn’t certain what the effects of a long-time exposure might be. She had certainly heard whispers, if not stories of the eccentric Observers who gazed at the expanse, for years on end. Judging by the hover-troubled state of the lev-bike though, the Observer, and his possible confidant, the aforementioned carrier could be walking. Thankfully Archie and Au did have their own bike.

She poked Archie, who half opened a sleepy eye, facedown on the bed. A several day beard had bloomed from his after-work stubble impressively. She was sure she could practically see it growing. He was a hairy little man, indeed.

Her orange suit gave him quite a start, and he sat up with panic before he remembered where he was. A drab boxhome on the edge of the world, with nobody but an accountant and his acropolis brand chips to keep him company. The sitcom just wrote itself, he thought, as he imagined himself starring in it..

“We’ve got to go after the Observer. He’s the only one who knows what’s really going on. Guy didn’t even think to leave any helpful logs and journal entries for us.“ Au waved a hand in front of Archie's daydreaming face.

Archie sighed, he’d known his brief re-introduction to a real mattress and actual sheets was going to come to an end soon, but he’d hoped to eke out a few last moments. He struggled back into his borrowed carrier boots, and joined Au back in the Node, who had been giving the smudge one of her best glares. She was trying to get a sense of its character. What could this phenomenon be, it’s essence so worrisome that it triggered an alarm in a long-empty facility hundreds of kilometers away?

And so, with confusion continuous, they set off toward the smudge. They packed up their own bike. Archie was already bow legged from the journey, and not looking forward to another bumpy bike session. He felt only partially buoyed by a surplus of nearly fresh Acropolis brand chips. There hadn’t been much in the way of supplies in the node, beyond some food, or any sort of useful equipment. They only had what they had brought in packs, and the few pieces of equipment they’d been given at the supply station. The goggles they had been given had a useful zoom capability. Archie was indeed amused to find that the salt flats didn’t look any more interesting close up, and his interest was only occasionally piqued by the vague suggestion of local fauna (and occasionally some of the more determined flora) scampering or trundling through the dusts intermittently. They zoomed toward the smudge. It got bigger, and then impossibly big while still miles away on the horizon. Whoah, thought Au, imagining the size that it would be up close. She was hoping they would catch the Observer before getting anywhere near it. This was looking like serious stuff.

Previous chapter Next chapter All chapters