Saturday, October 26, 2019

Source Variant: Steady as a Rock (Part VI)

The three of them—Saga!Three, Vearden!Two, and Zektene—are stumped. After Vearden attempts to walk through the literal magic mirror, which sends him right back into the room, the others try as well, but also fail. There are two other exits in the facility that haven’t been buried by the robots to keep the planet’s natives from discovering the truth about their origins. They too are mirror portals, leaving the humans wondering what the powers that be are thinking. After this last jump forward two centuries, they continue to remain in the same linear series of moments in time. So their overlords want them to be in this time period, but they don’t want them to do anything while they’re here? That doesn’t make any sense.
Zektene gets on the computer. While the system was designed by Maramon engineers, before he left, Ramses showed them how to operate in English mode. Still, language isn’t the only problem. It was designed with Maramon psychology in mind, and they have a completely different outlook, which means understanding their computing logic can be tricky. She’s proven herself to be the most competent when it comes to grasping the fundamentals. “Perhaps there’s something wrong outside that we wouldn’t survive, like a dust storm, or something.” She checks a few readings. “Atmospheric pressure within nominal range. Composition same as it ever was. Immediate terrain hasn’t changed beyond predictions.”
“Can’t you just teleport us out there?” Saga!Three asks.
“Well, yeah, probably, but...should I?” Zektene answers, and asks.
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“Because there must be some reason we’re trapped here,” Vearden!Two says. “Maybe we’re not ready. We could try to practice more with the McIver hats.”
“We are great with the hats,” Saga!Three asserts. “You couldn’t find three better illusionists if you quantum duplicated two other versions of Alyssa herself.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Zektene disagrees.
Saga!Three sighs loudly.
“Why are you so anxious to go out there?” Vearden!Two asks her.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Saga!Three echoes herself.
“We have no personal interest in this mission, or missions, as it were. We’ve just been ordered to do this. We don’t gain anything from it ourselves, so what do we care? Maybe the powers are trying to give us a quick vacation, or maybe they think we just need a bit of extra sleep. Ya know what? Even if that’s not their intention, I wouldn’t mind a good rest. We might as well take advantage of the time, and then, if we’re feeling up to it, we can try to tackle this problem in the morning. You may wake up and stop seeing it as a problem.”
“I guess it’s hard to argue with that,” Saga!Three has to admit. He’s right in that anything they do on this planet is at someone else’s behest. Staying in the lab is apparently their present directive, so there’s no point in fighting it. They all wake up later with the same supposition. They’re not alone.
“Who is it, and where could they be hiding?” Zektene questions. “We didn’t search the whole facility when we came back, but we didn’t stay in one room either.”
“We don’t know that they’re hiding,” Vearden!Two reasons. “Maybe they’re hurt, or lost. They’re surely scared, since this type of advanced structure is nowhere near being built by the Gondilak.”
“If we’re not careful,” Saga!Three says, “they’ll start worshiping us. But first, we have to find them, so we can see what we’re dealing with. We’ll spli—”
“Nope,” Vearden!Two interrupts. “We’re not splitting up. It’s not that big of a place. We’ll go together.”
So they start to search the facility, which turns out to be larger than they realized. Or maybe it wasn’t their fault. There’s one room that couldn’t have been there before without them knowing it. The lab has been growing. For whatever reason, the automated systems have been constructing more space. There’s no telling how large it’s become; not until they find the end of it. After twenty minutes of checking every single new room they come across, Vearden!Two stops them from leaving for the next one.
“I’ve been here before.”
“You have? That’s impossible,” Saga!Three contends. “This entire section is, like, a kilometer from the lab.”
“Not recently,” Vearden!Two begins to clarify. “In the future. I don’t know when in the future, but in the other reality, when the Gondilak capture me, they bring me here.”
“This is where they do experiments on you,” Zektene presses, “to see how come you had healing powers.”
“Yeah,” Vearden!Two confirms. “Yeah, the more I look at it, the more sure I am that this is it. It looks exactly like I remember.”
“I thought the Gondilak were less technologically advanced than the Orothsew,” Saga!Three recalls. “If they’ve discovered this place this early on, surely they would skyrocket in technology, and surpass them by centuries.”
Vearden!Two shakes his head. “I don’t think there’s anyone here. I don’t think that’s why we’re not allowed to go outside. I think the facility’s growth itself is a problem we need to solve.” He breathes deeply through his nostrils. “We have to find the edge of this, and now. We’re not super far from the nearest Gondilak village. If the robots are still building, they’ll eventually crash the party.”
And so they keep moving through the corridors, maybe a little faster now. They stop checking the rooms, because they’re confident that’s not the point. The sooner they find the edge, the sooner they can stop this. They’re not sure how they’re going to accomplish that, since none of them is educated or experienced enough to reprogram robots, but they can’t think about that right now. They just need answers. When they finally do reach the edge, their best guess is that they’re about a kilometer from the Gondilak village.
It’s happening a lot slower than they thought, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to them. This might have been going on for the last two hundred years, so the entire planet would have been consumed if the bots were eating up resources as fast as they had imagined. Either way, though, something has to be done, and they have to figure out what that is. They don’t see any bots; or at least not what they’re used to. They just see this gray goo on the edge of the floor, walls, and ceiling. Little by little, it’s expanding, somehow converting the soil and rock it finds into building material, which it then incorporates into the preexisting structure.
“You can jump back to the main lab, right?” Vearden!Two asks Zektene.
“At any time, yes,” she replies.
“Okay,” Vearden!Two says. “Umm...cease production,” he orders the goo. “Cease...operations.”
“Shut down,” Saga!Three attempts.
“Computer!” Zektene starts. “End expansion program!”
The goo makes no indication that it’s so much as detected their presence, let alone understood their demands.
“All right,” Vearden!Two resolves. “You two go back to the main lab, and see what the command console has to say about this. Bring me back a radio, so we can stay in touch. I’ll monitor the situation here.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Zektene says. She takes Saga!Three by the arm, and teleports them both to main section. She grabs a radio, quickly delivers it to Vearden!Two, then returns to get to work.
Saga!Three watches, but isn’t able to help in any significant way. Perhaps they weren’t the most suited for this mission at all. What they need is an engineer, or hell, even a physicist. Somebody smart needs to be here to explain just what the hell is going on. They can’t stop it unless they understand how this became a problem in the first place.
“Looks like it hasn’t been an issue until somewhat recently. Let me see.” Zektene refocuses on the information she’s reading from the logs. “Fifty-six years. It was a mudslide. Horrible rains came, and threatened the entire village, so the bots were dispatched to build a secret retaining wall of some kind.” She did a bit more clicking. “There was a glitch in the code, and bots failed to deploy the delivery system. Apparently the gray goo we saw are nanobots. They would have built the wall faster, but they couldn’t get to the site on their own. Even without help, though,” she says, stepping back from the monitor, “the nanobots tried...and they’re still trying.”
Any idea how we can stop it?” Vearden!Two asks from the other side.
“Let me look through this more,” Zektene requests. She continues to pore through the information, trying to find a shutdown protocol, or a loophole, or something.
“Do we really need to stop it?” Saga!Three asks after almost an hour of this. “What happened to the village. I thought you said the terrain hadn’t changed too much.”
“I guess the computer didn’t acknowledge this as a big enough change since it technically predicted it at one point,” Zektene says, still working with one half of her brain. “The village took a hit, and some did die, but the majority survived. They rebuilt a few hundred meters away, and actually...” She stops to read more. “They built their own wall. Huh. Yeah, I think we have to stop this. I get what you’re saying. Even decades late, the nanobots should know not to reveal themselves to the natives, but it’ll disrupt the structure they have there now. The nanobots just aren’t that smart. And there’s no way to shut them down, unless...”
Unless what?” Vearden!Two asks.
“It’s morbid,” Zektene complains.
“Just say it,” Saga!Three prompts.
Zektene gulps. “They are programmed to ignore organic material. That’s why it’s even taken it this long to get as close as it finally is, because it had to wind around roots, and the like. If we were to place, um...dead bodies around the edge, the nanobots would immediately halt production.”
The other two don’t respond for a beat. “Why would we need to use dead bodies if it also ignores plants?” he questions.
“It moves around plants,” Zektene explains. “It’ll just restart somewhere else. Gondilak, however, dead or alive, are too valuable. If it detects the specimens it’s meant to protect, it will stop, and await further instructions. That will give us time to clean them out, and dispose of them properly.”
“You want us to go get dead bodies?” Saga!Three asks her.
“I don’t want to do that, but I’ve not been able to find a better solution. The computer didn’t tell me this was solution. I had to come up with it based on what I learned about its behavior.”
“There has to be another way!” Saga!Three suspects.
“Well, we have to wait until nightfall anyway. I can teleport Vearden to the cemetery; maybe make a few trips. Until then, I’ll keep looking.”
Zektene makes good on her promise to search for an alternative, but never finds one. When darkness comes, she teleports Vearden!Two to the graveyard, and helps him dig. Then they transport one body at a time to the edge of the gray goo, where Saga!Three carefully and respectfully puts it in place. It doesn’t work with just one body, so they keep going. They will never be the same after this.

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