Chapter 188 - Intruding (2)
“It’s cubes,” I exclaim in shock, “and they’re all activating…” My thread of augur, which is halfway through the meter thick block, blinks out of existence in neat little squares. I see brief flashes of the pattern each time a portion of my augur is destroyed, allowing me glimpses of the core’s internal pattern in action for the first time. It's immediately apparent that the entire thing is made with a modular design as its basis. The density of matter beyond the rectangle’s solidly packed outer layer is still way higher than ordinary matter, but an immense amount less so. Halfway between the theoretical maximum density and normal stuff, it’s still extremely tasking on my braincore to scan it with augur. I therefore only have a thread of augur wind through the core’s middle, smaller than a hair, and this is already taxing my brain space, even in slow motion.
“You getting this? I’m honestly confused,” I send to Rhea. Another square section smaller than a grain of sand comes alive in a sudden burst of atomic activity I can’t quite place. I’m not worried about my augur, that stuff will regenerate slowly, but why is the core suddenly activating again?
“It’s redistributing its power.” I can feel Rhea staring at me with a single eyebrow raised. “You’re not that smart in real-time, huh?”
I refuse to bite and check her hypotheses. I branch off tendrils of augur, making a small web in front of the slowly approaching wall of activating sections. I can’t help but wince as I feel multiple minuscule portions of augur snap out of existence. “Okay, you’re correct. How is your storm attack doing?”
“Going steady. Either it knows I can’t really hurt it with my wind attack, or it has lowered its guard, no longer assigning it such a high threat level now that I’m not near the wind construct.”
I make sure to put as much arrogant scorn in my comment as I reply through our qi connection. “You’re not the brightest either, huh? It’s just scared of you, protecting the side that you’re on.”
“I was getting to that.”
“Just accept the loss. I did, don’t be a sore loser.” The amount of smug condescension I keep infusing my communiques with is having an obvious effect. Let’s tone it down now, no need to keep riling her up when there is work to be done. I return my voice to neutral professionalism. “What can you observe? I'm sending everything I get from my augur through to you, how do you interpret that data?”
“Loads of points, basically. I’m glad that I haven’t got any augur yet, I can only keep a fraction of that data in my conscious mind.” She tries to keep her irritation from her voice, but I can still detect a petulant undertone in her response.
“You can focus on just a part?”
“Yeah. I looked at the entry point once, and I’m not subjecting myself to another headache by concentrating on that super dense mess. How are you keeping track of these octilgazillions of atoms?”
“That’s not a real numb-” I stop myself from reacting to her bait the moment she radiates some amusement at me. “Can you see what’s going on inside those cubes? Mabe isolate a couple and extrapolate a pattern?”
“Sure, I can do that.”
And so begins the weirdest form of tedious analysis I've ever been a part of. Stuff like this was par for the course back in the Cultivation World. Each new method and technique I came across had their roots in the deep past, and thus I could figure out generic principles and shared fundamentals. These were often hidden in a lot of near useless ornamentation and superstition, so I spend many a mental decade with mind-numbing tasks similar to this one as I separated the chaff from the wheat. This is the first time I’ve had someone here with me, though.
And that’s a good thing, because the number of atoms I’m keeping track of might not be in the octilgazillions, but they are still keeping the majority of my mental prowess occupied. Slowing everything down only lets me breathe a little easier, as fewer changes are happening, but I’m still forced to keep track of every atom scanned by my augur.
I’m actively reducing the thickness of my augur supply line, but with time slowed down a couple thousand times, that’s going to take hours of effort before I’ll notice any significant results. Slowing down my time dilation for a bit in order to let the augur move would be counterproductive, as the mental strain would become too much.
I’m thinking circular thoughts again, a process informs me. Slightly pissed at the process for being unable to read the mood, I check what Rhea is doing. I basically gave her access to my augur sense, and I can feel her inside my brain. It's pretty freaky. Her intentions come through the qi line connecting us both, giving her a direct view into a portion of my consciousness. As I said, freaky stuff.
“I’ve got something, I think. Here, tell me what you think.” Rhea’s mental voice sounds in my mind as I see a grid of atoms being highlighted. “There are atoms with a slightly bigger radius at the centre of the cubes. I checked, and this pattern continues through the entire interior you have been scanning.”
I blink the double mental vision away. My eyeballs are still pointed at the dungeon core, my half-frozen optical nerves slowly relaying me the glacially changing pattern of stars inside the opaque block. My augur sense is overlaid, giving me massive amounts of data about the extremely thin path the fine energy is occupying. Now Rhea has started placing glowing highlights over the thin web of scanned matter, and it takes me a relatively long time to make sense of the entire scene. The fact that Rhea has been enthusiastically telling me where to send more augur threads, thus increasing my burden, isn’t helping either.
“Why don’t you shove some qi through instead of ordering me around like your personal parallel processing unit,” I ask.
“No, all qi coming near the thing is forced into nonexistence.”
“The same for the area covered in augur? I don’t think it even detects the stuff, and the only reason it’s disappearing is because of the seemingly corrosive nature of the activity inside the active cubic sections.”
It is silent for a bit as Rhea finishes marking all the central atoms in our range. “Let’s try that next,” she replies with a bit of mental hesitation.
“Could you please upload the atomic data to Moon? Include the markings you made.”
“Why don’t you make your qi clone do that instead of ordering me around like your personal archivist?”
A tense silence hangs between us for a bit. I can only blame the mental stress I’m under, because I crack first. I break out in a fit of internal giggles, Rhea following shortly after. I barely manage to maintain structure under the pressure exerted by the massive quantity of particles in my augur’s eye as we both giggle like idiots.
“You can drop that branch, I’ve got it stored,” is the first coherent thing coming from Rhea.
“Thanks,” I squeeze out.
We continue uttering banalities at each other while we work. I carefully prune and retract my augur while RHea sends masses of data to Tree’s Moon. We’re a quarter done when I feel like I have some mental power to spare. Out of curiosity, I check how Moon is doing under the massive influx of data. My qi clone is sloshing all of its power through the small celestial body in order to keep up with the masses of data it needs to store. I can actually feel the planetoids internal temperature increase degree by degree as the overload of mental activity inside the jade-like rock causes a lot of friction.
“Preliminary conclusions?” I ask of Rhea as we clear the fifty per cent mark.
“Not a single clue. I’m sure the cubes are somehow similar to those multi-core processors you told me about, but how they work… How would a piece of highly compressed rock even do calculations?”
“Unfortunately, I can sense atoms, but I can’t differentiate between atomic nuclei. Normally, I can see what material items are made from by checking their atomic radius, but that entire theory is useless in non-standard spaces like that impossibly dense material the core is made from.”
“Right, so what does that mean really?”
“This thing might be solid gold or pure hydrogen, and I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” I reply deflated. We work in silence for a while, slowing down our time dilation in order to let my augur retreat from the scanned areas. I can move augur extremely fast when I put my mind to it, but Rhea got the hang of shifting large amounts of data pretty quickly. In the name of efficiency, we decide to be less efficient with our time.
That, and Moon’s internal temperature was rising too fast because of the myriad of write actions my qi clone was making. I didn’t feel like having to repair that thing after it cracked from internal stresses, so we slowed down our slowing down.
“How did you figure it out, anyway?”
Rhea takes a rather long time to answer. We only have a quarter of the scanned area left to document when she replies. “I took a single cube, extrapolated it, and then just messed around? I honestly couldn’t find a single thing off about that space, the denseness of particles was just too much. Then I messed around a bit, checking the edges for anomalies, trying to find patterns, that kind of stuff. It took me a while before checking the exact middle of the cubes, but finding the other places with the slightly bigger atom was easy afterwards.”
“Yeah, you should be proud of your work, honey. People don’t care about the amount of blood, sweat, and tears you've put into something. They’re only interested in the results.”
I can feel her trying to mentally hug me while I’m teaching her valuable life lessons. “There, there Drew. Now tell me where the big bad man mentally touched you.”
I shrug away the annoying woman and find that we are done. The only augur I still have inside the core is my penetrating probe. “Hey, wanna try touching it?”
“Do I wanna try touching what?”
“You know, extend your thing and touch the hole.”
“Are we still being influenced somehow? The amount of innuendo’s and dirty jokes you are making has risen by hundred twenty-three point eight percent over the last day.” Rhea is staring at me again.
“It’s my first time.”
“It’s my first time going on a deep mental crawl with someone else. Anyway, stuff some qi into my augur’s path. I wanna see what happens when it’s made to vanish, and you know what happens with your own qi, right? It just pops out of existence without allowing us to observe how or why. Maybe observing someone else's power disappearing will make it more clear what is happening.”
And Rhea is silent for a long time again. I double check her mental state, but see that she’s experiencing time at the same temporal speed as I do. “Okay,” is her soft reply.
We slow the energy spinning through our brains some more, allowing us to move qi at an acceptable pace. Instead of watching the power move around like pitch, it’s now merely the consistency of cold, thick syrup. We both gather qi from our sensing web, concentrating it in front of us. Mine congregates into a small half translucent ball of white energy, hers has a distinct shiny and violet sheen. We send each other a simultaneous mental nod and start moving our respective spheres towards the place where my augur penetrates the black core. The moment the front of power comes within a centimetre of the black surface, the majority vanishes.
“Oh, that’s weird,” I mumble.
“Yeah… Does the experience of having the qi vanish also vanish? This is painful.” We both wince at the sensation of our power disappearing.
I ignore the sensation of my life energy being partially ripped from me, right from under my control. Instead, I force my qi towards the stone. It sinks into the smooth surface the moment it hits, much to my surprise. Everywhere my augur is present, qi flows easily. I feel Rhea catching up to me, her entire aura telling me that she is just as surprised as me that this works.
“Something like that,” I reply. I slow down my qi a bit, waiting on her to catch up. We both hit the end of the dense shell at the same time, bursting into the less packed section of cores. Then the entire thing lights up like a Christmas tree, and we both lose all control of all power.
Alarm processes of all kinds go off, sending me deep into combat mode.
Defcon 1. Analyse. All power around me vanished. Why? Eyes are still only seeing core, no line of sight to outside world. Start pushing qi and augur outwards from body. Sense no other immediate danger. Check qi connection with Rhea. Still going, own perspective is a couple hundred times faster than hers. Communication is impractical at the moment. Then what? Core showed signs of increased activity the moment qi hit its inside. Core is reactive to qi? Is the mononucleic shell meant to keep foreign energies out? In retrospect, realise that there were no traces of mana inside core. Qi boosted core’s process? And thus it gained power?
I take a mental step back. Did we just super boost the very thing we were working very hard to keep powerless? We bombarded the core with all kinds of fancy attacks for hours in order to get its energy levels down enough to make inspecting it easy. And then we just shoved some qi into its core, because I wanted to check how it was doing?
Back into combat mode, additional threat possibility detected. Start forming eyecore imitation in braincore space. Make a mental picture, start forming rough shape.
Defcon zero! Reflexively try to close eyes to shield from brightness. Halt eyecore forming process. Reverse procedure slightly until eyes are no longer blinded. Observe extreme amounts of entropic contrast everywhere. Analyse highest concentrations of information flow. Horizontal beam going towards the horizon is most dense.
Yep, we just gave the core a power boost. And I suspect that the weave around us is compromised. The Nexus on this planet’s moon must have used the minor bit of influence it has over us to let us make a mistake like this. There is no way I’m that dumb, right? No way in hell…
I try to sense my surroundings once again, but the absolute lack of qi around me has me largely blinded. I can’t even sense Rhea’s power anymore. The only bit of external power I have control over is our combined tether. Even my augur is just gone. I can theorise all I want, but I need new information if I’m going to make a plan that has any chance of working.
The last time I went up to a core in direct contact with the Nexus, I died sixteen times. And I’m not sure if I can save Rhea. Worry gnaws at my gut at that sudden thought. Small trickles of red float around me, scaring the shit out of me. Blue and black flows of mana spring into visibility instead. I can still sense mana, I realise!
Immediately, I fill myself with loathing. Absolute and sheer disgust at everything. A slimy feeling of hatred covers my perspective of my life, Rhea, this world, my students, everything. I let my darkest thoughts roam free. Dark violet blooms around me. I spot the effect Rhea’s tempestuous wind attack had on the cloth barrier around us immediately. The small one is now just a crumpled clump of qi soaked doily. The large one has several holes in it, one of the larger tears is directly between the Core and where I calculate the moon to be.
The warping caused by the fierce winds must have brought parts of it into the cores disintegration range. Maybe we should add memory-metal like bands to the next model, like radials in a tire.
I mentally shake my head and stop myself from analysing everything. I rekindle my fading disgust at the entire multiverse and happily start despising all again. I check on Rhea’s shape, and my heart stops.
I’ve got all my qi running through my brain, and I’m experiencing the world at just a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of time. And yet I can sense Rhea’s limbs disappearing slowly, the tops of her fingers already gone. Silhouetted in the vibrancy of dark wind mana, I see her feet vanishing block by block, her blood not even being allowed to drip free from open wounds before another bit is consumed.
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