Chapter 187 - Intruding (1)
“What an asshole.”
“I actually agree with you. He won’t even let us cut him open, letting in a bit of qi is the least he can do, no?”
“And now he’s asking us to leave again. Really rude.” Rhea nod emphatically as she sits on top of the sparkling slab of mystery metal.
“Super rude,” I distractedly add. The thing might be highly conscious of qi in all of its permutations. It seems to be infinitely less aware of the much finer energy known as augur. Rhea and I have been bombarding the things with a steady stream of qi attacks in all shapes and sizes. From brute force streams of power to delicate probing strikes to extremely powerful feints. None of them are getting through, but the sparkling stars inside the monolith are dimming slightly. It’s not to a level a mortal would notice, but the sheer amount of qi we are throwing at the thing seems to be having some effect at least.
“Come on. Open up to us. Why do you need to keep us out like this?” Rhea is pouting, wiggling her shoulders while looking at the thing with puppy eyes. I stop myself from reaching a hand out and patting her cute little face, but keep my attention riveted to my infiltration attempts. In the meantime, a simple qi formation breaks all carbon-containing gasses free from their oxygen bonds, before letting them rejoin violently. I’ve had this torch aimed at the same spot for the entire time we’ve been here now. Five hours, and the stone is still cold to the touch.
“Come on, dude. Don’t be a dick,” I admonish the stone. Keeping up a steady stream of random qi attacks, the burner, and my delicate augur attack is already taxing enough, so I don't spare a lot of thought for good quality banter. I've managed to get the fine energy an entire two centimetres into the core, so it’ll take me a few weeks at most to figure out how this object works. Trying to push qi into the black rock is like splashing water into piping hot marble. It sputters a bit before disappearing, but without extraordinary means, no headway can be made.
“Look at you go. Your speech is getting better by the minute. I think some social interaction is doing you loads of good.”
I nod at this. “Good point, honey. You know what, anti-social loners like this fella here,” I pause to pat the smooth rectangle, forcefully ignoring its attempt to make parts of my hand disappear. “These types never do well under pressure. They always crack when you come at them hard and fast.”
“I might have hit a nerve there, why don’t you bring the poor guy out its shell?” I turn to Rhea, stopping my own qi attacks and the burner. Pushing augur into its black surface feels like pushing a piece of rope through thick, chalky mud. I ignore the wide variety of sexual innuendos suggested by a certain process of mine and start attacking another point with augur.
“Grand idea! I’ll do so at once.” Grinning with teeth that are visibly growing pointy, Rhea performs a complex set of flourishes and intricate, elegant gestures. A purple-tinged tube of distorted air spins into being, the side pointing away from the core opening up into a slight cone. Rhea makes another grand gesture, and fearing for the worst, I hide behind the rectangular solid and hold fast to the sides.
“Wasn’t there some story about some mana mutant blowing down houses to get the shut-in little beasties to come out? Well, this is basically that exact story!” I want to retort to that horribly butchered version of an ancient fairy tale, but the words are blown out of my mouth as the air starts thundering around me. How could I forget that Rhea is a wind dragon? I even learnt what emotions coincide with that facet of mana, for fuck’s sake. I keep holding on with all my might, using all my heartcore given strength to keep close to the dungeon core. Losing contact with my augur now would lose me several hours of hard work. And maybe it can’t see, sense, or influence that power right now, who knows what it can do when it is handed a nice sample of the energy free of my will?
I curse internally at myself, for suggesting the idea, and Rhea, for actually going through with it. I’m about to grumble at the draconic woman a bit more when I suddenly halt any and all complaints. The augur that I’ve been worming inside the stupid rectangle’s underside with much effort suddenly sinks a bit deeper. I've been probing the thing with another thread of augur in the meantime, hoping to find some form of a weak spot. This thread had just sunk a full ten centimetres into the side opposite Rhea. This honestly hurts my pride a bit. My qi powered Bunsen burner reached a temperature of a couple thousand degrees, and the stupid stone didn’t react even slightly. And now the strong breeze generated by Rhea suddenly has the stone shifting its defences around in order to protect itself.
Forcing myself to quit sulking, I shift my attention to my augur probe. It slides in with relative ease, a testament to how much the core is shifting its internal defences around to deal with the gust Rhea is generating. The material the outer shell is made of is rather interesting. They somehow managed to interlock atoms inside each other, stacking atomic particles at the same density as a neutron star. This has caused the entire rectangle to become a single molecule, simply said. I can't even see what the object is made of, so interwoven are the neutrons, protons, and electrons. The main resistance I am feeling is not physical resistance but seems to be the strong force somehow fighting me.
I swallow while not trying to think about the gravitational pull this thing should be exerting over me. A single teaspoon of a neutron star weighs tens of millions of tonnes, so if this entire thing is made from the same material as its shell, it should weigh the same as a significant percentage of this planet. How is this thing not messing with tides?
Wait, this planet does not have tides. I nearly forgot. The ocean doesn’t seem to be influenced by the moon’s orbit, at all. So why should this quadrillion tonne object make any difference, right? Yes science, please bend over so this planet can violate you some more.
I reign my thoughts back to the present - again. All of these questions I haven’t been able to think up theories or probabilities to keep bouncing around in my head, distracting me. I tighten my grip on the extremely smooth rectangle I’m still hugging while the wind batters me. I feel tingles here and there as the core’s defence system tries making parts of my body stop existing, without much effect. My eyelids flap to and fro as I try to catch a glimpse of Rhea. Instead, I see the spinning shield destabilizing. The smaller half sphere below us is already a wrinkled clump of fabric, and the large formation above us is quickly destabilizing. I check my internal clock and notice that the moon should be half under the horizon by now.
This is quite the gamble. I resist centuries of instinct telling me to enter combat mode right the fuck now, and press on. I ignore the impending doom that comes with the potentially failing shield, putting more pressure on my augur. A large portion of my braincore is filled with the elemental particles I’m mapping, and that area is slowly growing. I guide more augur through a hair-thin thread, letting it seep out of my core and through the back of my neck. That way, I limit the number of molecules I need to keep track of. I’d rather be forcibly made aware of large masses of air than to have the complex macromolecules of my own body shoved into the forefront of my mind, as scanning with augur tends to do.
I keep pushing more augur into the core, but the pressure is building up in more than one way. My braincore is slowly filling with the immensely compact amount of elemental particles inside each square nanometre of the thing, and it’s pushing back against me somehow. I quickly realize I’m stuck in a catch twenty-two. My sheer thinking capacity is being taken up by the hyper-compact nature of the core, and my willpower is being tested by keeping my augur steady while resisting the pushback. Either I increase the stability of my attack by widening the base, thus overloading my thinking capacity, or I keep pressing onwards with a narrow attack path, risking losing control of the entire thing.
Then I’m through. After hours of useless attacking the bottom, all that was needed to punch through the outer shell of the sparkling rectangle was an impressive-seeming, yet not truly dangerous wind attack to distract it. I immediately shoot a strand of qi towards Rhea, willing meaning through the thread of power. “I’m in. Come.”
Two seconds later, I feel a soft body smack into me before a process spools qi through my brain. Mentally blinking at the sudden whiplash that my consciousness experiences, I send a questioning inquiry towards the person who triggered that process. “The fuck?”
“Give me the data.”
Only then do I notice that she is right there with me, thinking ten thousand times faster than reality, the real world crawling along a single second for every three hours of our time. “Alright, here. How is this a-”
“Yes, yes. My bad.”
“What’s your bad, honey?”
The silence stretches between us as I pour over the data coming on from my augur. I pipe it through to Rhea the moment I receive it, letting us discover the joy that is alien supercomputer architecture together.
“What even is this?” Rhea asks me after a very silent ten minutes of mutual contemplation.
“I don’t even know,” I reply.
Rhea speaks up after another half an hour. “Is this supposed to make any sense?”
“I guess so? The thing seems to be working. Maybe it’s operating at a frequency we can’t observe? I don't see anything moving.”
“How low can you go? I’m around five percent of my maximum.” I can actually feel the smirk and raised eyebrow Rhea would be having right now, if her body could keep up with our current thinking speed.
“Don’t calculate it like that. Spool up and spool downtime becomes exponentially longer the deeper you go. Keep track of that when going down to, for example, a million times slower. You’ll need to add a couple hundred thousand extra years if you don’t otherwise.”
“That makes sense. Even the lightest substance will be like an unmoving stone at those speeds. Even a single atom will become an immovable object at sufficient dilation.”
“Something like that. Anyway, let’s try to slow down until this mess makes sense?”
“Who are you and where did my ‘don’t go into combat mode, nag, nag, nag,’ Rhea go?”
“Oh, shut it. Let’s just see what’s going on.”
The stream of qi connecting us slowly started intermingling, the edge between my neutral, almost invisible qi and her sharp and faintly purple power fading. Neither of us seems to care about keeping our fingerprinted qi separate. “Did you know that there was this sect patriarch that forced all disciples to cultivate with his own qi? Pretty messed up.” Even though her eyes move with glacial speeds, I can feel her glare burning into the back of my head.
“Shut up, Drew,” is her resolute reply. “Why did you suddenly gain entry anyway? I haven’t got a thread of augur myself, but wasn’t your progress rather slow until now?”
“You scared it. Doesn’t this seem odd though? Hyper solid for the first couple centimetres, and then it’s just ordinary matter? What is this stuff even made of…”
“I scared it?” Rhea asks as we both slowly speed up the qi rushing through our brainpans.
“It somehow shifted all the hardness to its front. Let me try something.” The image painted in my mind a strange one. I’m piping the data my augur is feeding me directly through to Rhea, who is oddly competent in making sense of the massive loads of information I'm dumping towards her. Her impressive looking attack did cause some form of reaction, but neither Rhea nor me are having any luck finding out what's going one inside the bloody thing.
The outer shell is an immensely densely packed lattice of atoms, all pressed together as tight as physically possible. Usually, this would require immense g-forced or pressures of monstrous scale. This lattice of compact matters seems to be inert, somehow - inert on a lot of levels. The main difficulty I’m having with getting through the stuff is because of its denseness. My augur usually flows through the gaps between nuclei and electrons, but here there is very little space to move through.
Beyond that hyper-dense wall of matter is a relative vacuum. The inside of the Dungeon Core is highly dense compared to normal matter, just a lot less so than it’s shell. My skill over my augur is not yet at a point where I can make out the makeup of matter through the counting of electrons, protons, and neutrons. It’s rather easy to identify certain materials when you’ve seen their atoms in action before. Steel, for example, has this distinctive grid pattern, interrupted by the larger carbon atoms keeping everything under tension. The inside of the core is too alien for me to even check whether it’s filled with solid, liquid, or gas.
“It’s really not doing anything, hmm.” Rhea has continued studying the scan while I was too busy mentally recapping my own thoughts. I bend my will back to the task at hand and start moving a single thread of augur forward. Where previously, it took a large portion of my concentration to keep all of my augur in check, at these speeds, it’s extremely easy. Instead of having to continually control the energy, I now only need to give it a few corrective nudges every minute or so to keep it under control. I use the outstretched sense of time to start worming an atom-wide thread of augur through the core’s centre. It takes hours, and usually, I would have zoned out into a trance or kept my mind busy with random tasks on my to-do list, but now I chat with Rhea.
And to be completely honest, it’s fucking amazing. The last time I had a long stint of self-imposed mental exile, back when I thought of how to fix the mana mutant problem I caused, was rather lonely in hindsight. The many thousands of years I spent locked up in my own head while the world stood still around me now seem rather clinically devoid of life. “Thanks for being here with me.”
“W-what? Ha, of course!” is her flustered reply. “N-no problem.”
I send her a mental hug, and feel like grinning as I feel her flustered state only increase at my sudden gesture of affection. “We should have done this much earlier.”
“Like, who would ever want to be with a stuffy and dusty boring thinker like you! You should be thankful that I, a majestic dragon of the Flight, am willing to amuse myself with someone like you.”
“I am most honored, oh mighty dragoness whom I punched unconscious when we first met.”
“I wasn’t out! I was just surprised that an ant tried to attack me. That was just a bit of shock at the situation, not shock because of your punch!”
And so it is that I see the active part of the Dungeon Core for the first time. Bickering with a dragon in human form, ribbing on each other while thinking a couple thousand times faster, I spot activity at a scale I thought impossible as my thread of augur hits the active part of the monolith. The energy is obliterated as an afterthought as more and more parts of the core activate, each one a single thought, each one thinking of our destruction.
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