Chapter 154 - Surveying
Re-Haan is very conflicted. She woke from the oddest sleep she ever had a few minutes ago and isn't feeling much better yet. She vaguely remembers talking trees, leaves that hold hands while dancing, and roots that spread endlessly, piercing through entire worlds. Her foggy brain tries to keep hold of these images, but they fade like morning mist before the sun.
She feels her own self, mostly thanks to being in her naturally large and draconic form, but it feels like there is so much more to everything. Another layer that was previously absent flickers at the edges of her perception, just out of reach and focus.
Re-Haan finds this extremely irritating.
So Re-Haan decides to vent this frustration. Normally, she would just go to sleep in order to snooze the problem away, but she knows that sleeping won't help her.
Her white scales reflect hints of purple light as the few rays illuminate her sleek form. She bends through all of her knees, looks upwards and launches herself. The already damaged fort is further battered as her armoured form bursts through the streets. The buildings around her either crumble or are launched into the air alongside her.
She expands her wings and flaps them once, forcing the dust cloud rushing up after her back down to earth. Then she spots another white dragon - a weirdly translucent and lumbering giant that smells familiar.
A memory about Drew asking her if he could imitate her kin flashes through her mind. She rolls her eyes and the exasperation she feels at the fact that he encased the bunny in an ice dragon is a welcome and oddly comforting distraction.
She decides to leave Lola be and starts climbing slowly, peeking downwards at the exodus of ships. A scattered fleet of vessels is hurrying southwards, sailing and rowing towards the barely visible silhouette of the human capital. She wonders briefly why none fled to the north, but a single glance gives her an answer. The sea to the north - the entire arc from east to west - is churning white.
She spots fins, tentacles, teeth covered flippers, and furry slugs all milling about in apparent confusion. A whale the size of a town and clad in long yellow ribbons breaks through the surface, turning the sea red as it lands from its majestic jump. The rainbow caused by the spray looks nice, so Re-Haan takes a mental picture to show Drew later.
Her thoughts crash to a halt. Panicking slightly, she frantically starts pulling at the qi in her core. The qi flows slowly through her large reptile brain and fights her at every step. She freaks out some more as her perception fails to slow down.
In her growing panic, she recalls the sequence of energy fluctuations that trigger her transformation ability. This weird and arbitrary combination of binary and tertiary functions that hold control over her physical form. She had dedicated a large amount of her braincore space to figure out that mystery. She assigned that process a permanent spot in her mind once she had the sequence down. It allowed her to transform anytime without triggering the odd energy portal organ in her chest. That essential process is her most extended running process yet, so even her panicking mind manages to trigger it.
Her mind goes blank as her brain and body melt into white goop. It contracts and snaps into her previous form, that of a lithe, beautiful woman. She spins her qi through her mind the moment she regains her ability to think.
A few things become clear immediately as the world stops in place around her. She should not have stayed in human form this long, or she should have switched to her dragon form frequently. Human and dragon brains operate differently, Re-Haan had underestimated how differently.
Secondly, the sluggish feeling that her qi had was also because her cultivation base is used to her humanoid form, being nearly entirely cultivated while she was human-shaped. It makes sense to her that the power refused to listen to her in the totally alien environment that was her draconic shaped brain and nervous system.
Thirdly, the start of that small panic attack was because she had wanted to do something, not for herself. Every single line of thinking in her entire life was because she wanted to do it. Every single decision she had ever taken had been purely selfish. That thought, wanting to take a mental snapshot in order to show Drew, was not completely selfish and self-serving.
She has had her first altruistic thought in her entire life. And it’s fucking with her mind hard. Seriously hard.
Fourthly, she remembers why she was dreaming of trees now. Her core is no longer a round orb. At first, she gathered qi, and it was a misty ball. Then she compressed it into liquid, and it was a drop in a hollow sphere. Filling up the liquid and compressing that liquid left her with a small crystal in a void. She had filled the void with crystal a few days ago, giving her a bright orb that she could store qi inside.
Now she has a tree. Instead of a clearly defined core, a vague trunk hangs in her mind. Its roots dig deep into her skull, fading out of existence. Its crown spreads through her entire mind, small leaves starting to bud.
Having calmed down, she shifts her focus back to her senses. She feels wind caressing her skin at the speed of a glacier and her eyelids are still covering part of her sight from a reflexive blink. She waits a bit for her eyes to open, taking the time to relax further.
She spends a relative hour as her eyelid slowly travels across her eyeballs, pulling up the partial curtain of darkness covering her sight. She decides to not think anything in this time, to just be there, frozen in the air. Without thought.
Then her eyes are open entirely and she can no longer justify doing nothing. She resumes looking out of her eyes and sees a large variety of sea creatures in turmoil. Turning her attention inward, she starts exploring her new cultivation system. What appears in her mind’s eye is the image of a slender sapling, its top splitting into branches that bear leaves. The bottom splits into curling roots, a fine web adorning the tree's lower end.
She examines the trunk first, as it is most central. The smooth and elegant bark feels similar to her previous core, only stretched and faster. Every single thought she thinks causes the trunk to light up, data passing just under its surface.
She follows the roots downwards, picking the branch that’s lit up the most when reaching a split. She follows the brightest root until it fades into nothingness.
And she thinks of when she saw Tree for the first time. Drew had just pulled her inside the pocket dimension, and she was greeting the golden glowing perennial.
She shakes herself free from the vivid memory. She follows another root to its end and suddenly sees a large list filled with data. It’s more tree-related memories, this time the results of a process she once commanded to scan all species of trees she came across. She remembers the process, put into place when she was testing the limits of automation, and the results at the same time.
She leaves the data behind and starts looking at the branches running upwards from the centre of the trunk. She sees something odd further up and decides to follow the branch that leads to the anomaly.
“-not elements. Look here, the Miss obviously wants us to handle these things. Using fire against water does not work at efficient rates. The elemental transformation circuit is a horrible waste of power.” A cultivator in a white coat is standing in a white room, animatedly pointing at a complex looking object on the table.
“You fucking wetskin, short-sighted as ever. But okay, I can admit when your stupid ideas have merit. Ice first, what then? Maybe earth. But what if we limit the elemental selector to only a few? Maybe close relatives like air and steam.” A beastkin in a damp white coat animatedly points at other parts of the long metal barrel with complex mechanical items, fine engravings and all kinds of things sticking out of it.
“Ah, a limited selection is not an option we have tested. You handle those. I’ll do the single casters.”
“Alright. The basic model won’t change much any-”
And Re-Haan pulls back. She mentally gasps as she finds herself back in her own body, which is now rapidly falling towards the sea. A surge of qi into her brainpan fixes that problem, allowing her to analyse these recent events.
She is looking at her core still, focussed on a growing fruit surrounded by a particularly dense cluster of leaves. That fruit is the literal fruit of her management. The roots draw upon knowledge and data, the trunk transports it, and the leaves are her subordinates. The fruits are the tasks and projects currently being executed.
Then what are those black things, she wonders? She observes a few shrivelled and unhealthy looking objects. She focuses on the biggest one, a rotting apple infested with maggots and dripping stinking juices. Flashes of the disastrous mission to retrieve information flash through her mind. She senses active connections to particular roots, her memories of the event. Leaves are also connected to the piece of blight, and she sees students sitting and lying down with confusion and worry on their faces. Flashes of failed tasks, somehow involving scenes of the Human Capital and some random supository of information spring to mind.
Failed products… That needs to be cut off? Maybe she needs to use these failures as fertiliser, learn from them and use them to grow? That seems fitting in more ways than one.
She spends the next hour of brain time sending everyone a request for an after-action-report. She does the same for the other failed projects she sees, following the stench of rot to the handful of spoiled fruits.
Then she visits the small fruits that are about to rot or stagnate. She goes through all the products on her tree, managing them, pruning some, and fertilizing others with new data or orders. Taking a mental step back she sees nothing has changed at all. Frowning to herself, she ponders why nothing happened even though she did quite a bit of work.
She mentally slaps her forehead when she realises that the past few hours took less than a second in real-time. The thinking capacity of an entire city, but no common sense. She sheepishly recalls whenever she called other braincores out for their single-mindedness.
Re-Haan decides that she has spent enough time inside her own head, and pulls her power back into her core. The liquid energy flows into the tree and starts running through the veins, making the entire thing glow with flickering lights.
She decides to postpone more research for when her surroundings are not so chaotic. The sea is still being whipped into a froth, and the wriggling mass of creatures is getting closer. Rhea holds onto the air and finds it surprisingly easy to keep still without any ground to stand on. She cast her eyes downwards and spots a man sitting on an island, lounging on the beach while sipping a drink.
She grins and flies closer.
“Ket?” softly, Tess mumbles a single word while shifting between damp sheets.
“Yeah?” Comes a muffled reply.
“Why did we run?” Pulling some hair from her mouth, Tess pushes herself up. Ket’s messy head flops to the mattress as he makes complaining noises. “We totally ran away from a few kids. Why?”
Ket blinks, and his eyes glow grey for a second. Immediately looking much more refreshed, he sits up and leans against Tess. “They… pushed me away? I've no actual reason for why I dropped the kids through the portal. Hmmh, it's not a lack of information. This is baffling.”
“It felt like they didn’t match me, or something. I felt it in my core. They scared me in a super, really weird way?” Tess rubs her bare stomach while looking down.
“The unknown is scary, even for cultivators. Lack of information about anything can kill. Maybe that was it? Does our subconscious know the difference between a totally unknown cultivation base or a mutant in the night?”
“No. That was not it for me at all. Like… I’ve been thinking a lot about this, please tell me if I sound crazy.” Tess looks at Ket, who nods with jerky movements. “This darkness is something inside of me, yeah? Like there is something that loves shadows, blackness and dark stuff in general. But I hate moonless and overcast nights. A total lack of light sucks total ass.”
Ket thinks about interjecting with some form of an ass-sucking comment, but wisely decides to hold his tongue.
“I need some light, so what I like is the difference between light and darkness. That’s contrast, right? And I felt like those kids were doing something that didn’t fit in between light and dark. Like a triangle, for example. No, no, Ket hear me out!”
Ket rolls his eyes at hearing Tess sincerely try to explain something while using Bord's favourite shape.
“A triangle is a totally different thing. It doesn’t fit anywhere between light and dark, do you get me?” Tess shivers a bit, dragging the silky sheets over her bare torso as she lies down. The room they are in is one of the more luxurious inns located in the noble district. The two cultivators had marched inside, paid more money than they ever had in their pre-Teach days and stormed upstairs. Now they are laying in the afterglow of some vigorous and furniture shattering exercise. Both Ket and Tess realise that their physical and romantic escapades will cost them at least double the usual fee, if the amount of broken furniture is any indication.
“This is so stupid. I actually get you. From the moment I formed my braincore, and Teach showed me how to do calculations… This is the first time I have found them insufficient.” Ket lays his head on Tess’s chest as he lies back down, reversing their previous position. “Manoeuvring metal around, I do it in one of two ways. I either pull and push or I calculate a vector.”
Tess makes a sound halfway between a question mark and an annoyed grunt.
“A vector is an arrow. The faster something moves, the longer the arrow. Anyway, both methods use numbers. Pushing or pulling is easier, vectors are more precise. But those kids felt like they pushed on me. Or did I reject them?” Ket waves a hand, causing the shutters to creak open. The light of a still early sun shines inside the room as they both look outside over the crafting district.
“Are our cultivation bases self-aware? Database’s history section is filled with all kinds of shit becoming self-aware, right? What’s stopping these bundles of energy from getting a spark?” Tess’s pronunciation becomes slower as she fully realises what she is saying.
“Well shit...” replies Ket. “Giving up your cultivation base feels… wrong. It feels worse than being sick, like I was doing something extremely terrible on a deep level.”
“Yeah, that’s right. I puked the few times I re-cultivated. And I get the shivers when I think about doing so again.”
“So our very own cultivation bases are rebelling?” Ket is sitting upright again. “I do not accept that.”
“Alright. I’m trying out that skincore system when we get back.” Tess sits up again while stating with firm resoluteness.
“You’re plenty pretty as is, no need. Let me become your external core. You would always need to keep touching me.”
Tess faux gasps as she clutches her chest. “Ket, my goodness! What are you going to cultivate then?”
“Ronal did this interesting thing...” Ket says as he starts kissing her all over. “He put his core in the most important thing a man has, you know...”
Tess starts giggling as she pulls Ket backwards into the large bed.
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