“Are you done?” Rhea pokes my cheek. “Yeah, you’re done. Stop polishing those imperfections. You’re just shoving them around.”
“Am not!” is my instinctive reply. “I was three thousand levels down and counting.”
“So you were picking off the last couple million imperfections one by one, then?”
I open my actual eyes, letting go of the chain of three thousand Rhea’s that I was observing in my core. The endless repetition of me inside my core inside of me inside of my core was somehow really dificult to follow. Even harder than mapping the octillions of atoms inside the densest projectile I’ve managed so far. “How long…”
“Just a few hours.”
“I feel safer already,” she replies with yet another smirk.
Why is she smirking so much lately? I squint at her. “Really?”
“Maybe?” Rhea then looks around pensively. “You were impossible to spot for a while there. You basically merged into everything, with a lot of layers.”
I roll my eyes. “Over three thousand layers. The preparations are done?”
“No. But I figured you'll want to visit a Core?”
“Yes,” I say with conviction in my voice. I then wonder where that surety suddenly came from.
“I’m coming with.”
“No,” I say, even firmer.
“Still coming. Come, a drone is already in position.”
Rhea then grabs my hand in order to pull me towards Tree. I stay rooted in place, not allowing myself to move a single micrometer.
“Hey now Drew, you’re not the only one that’s been through a lot since then. Bassik reported that barely any signals from Nexus are getting through the atmosphere anymore. I’m no-”
I roll my eyes at her again. I just now realized that because I’m my core, and my core is basically me at this point, I really shouldn’t need to move around before stepping outside. The small Tree carved into the core of every drone allows me to command that symbolic link to enough of an extent to guide our appearance into the outside world. “Back here, huh? And is this one of my high-speed drones?”
Rhea looks at her surroundings for a single moment. She sees the moist jungle all around us, as well as the black dungeon core hanging inside the perfectly spherical void cut out of the jungle floor. Her skin then starts glowing with spinning runes.
“Wow, that’s new.”
“I’ve had the smart guys figuring out how to simulate the data scattering effect those woven spinning shields. This is the result!”
I look at the patterns of white flickering across her skin for a while. There seems to be a lot of complex math involved, nothing that I want to spend brainpower on right now. I just copy the patterns and frequency onto my own skin. I then focus my mind inwards for a single moment, recreating an eyecore. The sky lights up with hazy lines, an especially bright one aimed directly at us from the high moon nearly blinding me. I raise my hand, and the slowly increasing brightness coming from up above just scatters across my shining skin. “Nice, it works.”
“Yeah, it's not disappearing, which is a good clue.”
I smile back at her. “Who came up with this?”
“Those two beastkin. I keep forgetting their names, but one is slimy, and the other is covered in fur.”
“Those two are great. Shall we, then?” I hold out my hand, which she grasps. I slowly loosen my grasp on the air around us, letting us sink downwards. The small lights deep inside the core ramp up slowly until I position us both directly in between Nexus and it. Those core as capable of a lot, but luckily for us, they seem to need a lot of guidance or instructions before they act.
“What are you hoping to find?”
I look at RHea. “I never told you?”
She shakes her head.
“First, I want to know the atomic makeup of the central atoms. That'll probably allow me to interfere more? I dunno. I basically want to know more about how these things operate. That should also allow me to get a glimpse of the way that bastard operates,” I finish while pointing at the moon.
“Yeah, I want to be able to listen in,” I explain while landing on top of the core. It’s dark sparkling depts still the moment my toes reach the item, and I study the patterns of stars shining inside of it for a bit. “Those don’t mean anything, right?”
“I’m guessing not. Probably just waste energy.”
“Right,” I say while not thinking it’s right at all. “Let’s prove it again.”
“I’ll join you. Let’s sync crawl,” she replies with a certain grim tone in her voice. I wince as I see her rub her fingers.
“Okay,” I just reply while slowly sending qi through my brain. I feel her starting the process too, and we both watch the jungle around us slow down to a crawl. “I’ll start with a fine thread of augur, okay?”
Rhea doesn’t reply with words, and instead just sends a feeling of agreement my way. The moment I touch the oddly transparent black surface below me, I know that I’ve been had.
“IT’S FUCKING HYDROGEN?” I mentally roar the moment my liquid Will touches the object. My disappointment in myself, the world, and the universe are washed away with pure petulant anger. “And if the central atom in the centers of the cores is something mundane…”
Rhea is silent as she wiggles her own augur into the thing, following mine. I start recognizing the repeating cubes after boring through the outer shell of neatly stacked hydrogen atoms - just a single proton, and presumably a corresponding electron that’s covalently fucking about somewhere. Determining the center of one of the cubes is easily done after that, and the earthy and loamy feel of the single atom is just another slap in the face.
“I will murder the person that made these things,” I silently swear.
“What is it?”
“And why is this making you angry?”
“It has the atomic weight of fourteen. It’s just a joke. A stupid mathematical joke.”
“How does fourteen… One by four by nine?”
“Yes,” I simmer.
“So these cores are made from a lot of hydrogen and a handful of silicon atoms?”
“Yes. I could have found this out after mastering ten times as dense items. I just wasted…” I stare down at the Dungeon Core, a massively unpleasant form of petty and irritable roiling in my gut.
“I still don’t get what is making you this angry.”
“It’s just slapdash. The links are barely there. The people that made this must be at such a high level, they barely even bothered with looking up the periodic table of elements. They could have chosen so much more…”
“Do I really have to tell you to get over yourself again?”
“No. I’ll stop sulking in a bit.” Out of pure disgust with the assholes who made this thing, and with myself for overdoing it, I start kicking the shitty Core. I use every single fiber of qi enhanced strength in my body to start my foot moving towards the shiny surface. It’s not satisfying, though, as I’m currently seeing the world slowed down a thousand times, and my foot isn’t moving at all.
“I just got an idea!” exclaims Rhea. “Let’s make this one ours. The qi that we leaked inside previously supercharged it, right? The qi should have started vanishing the moment you cut off your augur, but what if the odd internal structure prevented that? So what if we map it with augur and soak it into our own qi.”
“No, look. There is no connection with Nexus right now. It barely can reach us with its data streams anyway. We’ve just got to keep it separated this time. How dense is this thing?”
“I might have compared it to a neutron star last time, but it’s honestly not that bad. I think it’s around three hundred times? I could swear it felt much worse previously, though.”
“Can we do it? You’ve seen how bad the chaos continent is getting, right? We can’t keep trying to drain this continent of qi forever; we’ll have to take measures against the beasts here eventually. This core is right at its center. Taking in the current qi thickness in the air, even a modest estimation shows that this part of the planet has millions of times the amount of qi that’s in Tree. It’s super thick there, but this planet is immensely massive in comparison.”
“Why are you so super enthusiastic all of a sudden?”
She rubs her fingers together again. “No reason.”
“You know what, let’s do this. We can probably use Database to offload parts of the data, right?”
“Sure, that’s a great idea.”
Rhea and I then spend the next subjective half hour carefully working our liquid Will through the thing. Instead of immediately mapping the thing, we form a network of thin channels of augur. My foot has impacted the top of the core at this point, and the contact shockwave is now running through my leg. Seeing my pants move in slow motions is kind of interesting, but honestly going too slow.
“Hey, can’t we instantiate this thing?” I suddenly ask.
“How?” she replies throughout the qi link while sounding distracted.
“The outer shell of super dense hydrogen is perfectly patterned, right? The core is similar copies of each other. Can’t we just keep one block of both in our mind, and fill in the rest with instances?”
“Like making one detailed brick, and imagining the rest of the house?”
“More like, making one block, and copying it a bunch of times. We’ll probably have to do either sample tests or send out slivers of augur towards the silicon core in order to make sure they’re all the same.”
“Just call it liquid will already.”
“I’ve been doing that a lot, actually. I just use augur as a synonym.”
“Right. So how do we do this.”
I don’t reply for a while. Instead, I just bask in the feeling of having the world frozen around me. “I really missed this.”
“The core?” Rhea asks bewildered.
“No, crawling. I spent thousands and thousands of years in the CUltivation World like this, facing some deadly crisis or having to solve some seemingly insurmountable task. I was kind of lonely, though. I usually just went numb while thinking through the problems facing me.”
Even though we both move at the speed of a paralyzed glacier, I can somehow feel Rhea turning to stare at me. “You’re welcome?”
I give the connection fo qi through which we are communicating a little squeeze. “Thanks. Anyway, I’ve mapped one of the cubes in Database, and just keeping the number of rows, columns, and layers of hydrogen atoms in mind, along with the number of accompanying free roving electrons, should let us build an accurate enough map, I think. I’ll work on connecting at least a thread of augur to each silicon atom core.”
She gives a mental nod, and we both get to work.
Rhea mentally sighs. A very deep, profound, and lengthy sigh. “How did you manage to do this for years? The lack of bodily sensations is making me go loopy.”
“Having fun counting the grid?”
“Not really. The lack of change in my emotional state also makes me just ignore that I was feeling rather content, with a slight hint of trepidation. I just feel numb.”
“Yeah, it’s going to take some adjusting when we come out of this crawl. Having all of your hormones and mood-altering juicing running at speed all of a sudden is really disorienting. Slow down slowly to speed up sanely.”
“That’s a terrible catchphrase. You're not making that a thing. Anyway, I'm done counting. A couple trillion, quadrillion, who cares! There's a lot of the fuckers, but they’re perfectly aligned and stacked, as far as I can tell.”
“You’ve got the outer shell done then?”
“Yes. I’ve jotted the exact measurements and volume down in Database. Also, you’re becoming too hot, so we only have a bit of time left.”
I wonder what she is talking about for a moment before Database itself tells me what's up. My qi clone is getting hot. The massive amounts of data we've been dumping into Database is heating up the jade core. Since when does that even happen? To be fair, I don’t think we've ever pushed this much data through the massive chunk of a precious synthetic gem. “I might have to water cool Database,” I mentally mutter. Ancient memories of plastic water reservoirs and tubing briefly bubble up from a long-forgotten recess, before I stamp them down as usual.
“Running a stream of water through it would work, yeah.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter