吊り下げられし大廃趾(原題Vast Suspended Ruins)
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Site-01 was designed to be perfect.


The multiverse had become vast, its various Foundations only loosely aligned. They were ill-prepared to deal with events of cosmic significance. So a unification plan was outlined: a single council, a single command, a cascading and federated tree descending from the centre to the periphery. It was going to be perfect.


Site-01 - the final, definitive Site-01 - was the epitome of that plan. A vast sphere, set in darkness between Sol and Orchard, that would function as a single shared reference point. Cuttings from the Lamplight lure were taken and reproduced on a vast scale across its thousand-mile radius, granting stability and stasis.


It was a city, suspended in unreality, where all the hustle and bustle of the worlds could be unified. The Yellowstone bunkers of every Foundation were dug up and their time-altering machines transported, plugged in and rerouted into an enormous clock, keeping everyone in sync, able to plan and alter the flow of events at will.


The engineers didn't fully understand them - they didn't need to. But a few of them felt nervous as they looked up at them. Pasts that were locked away were suspended inside their vaults. Things that could never be recovered. A sense of the unnaturalness of it all pervaded their quarters and mess halls, their eateries and drug parlours. Some of them swore they could hear voices at night.


But what could go wrong? Vast halls of stone and sand, the stuff of reality, were constructed across the sphere. It was perfectly stable, designed with a thousand safeguards. The Foundation knew what could happen if Site-01 failed, and they were determined to make it impossible. The odds of anything happening were astronomical. They were not hubristic or arrogant. They would be careful.


Their mistake was to think anything lasted forever.


There were five of them, with Irene in command. They all knew Irene. She was one of the most experienced multiversal agents. They'd come to trust her, her practicality, her severity. Her hair was short, in a pixie cut, and her eyes flashed a deep, dark brown.


Simon was there, his dreamy smile obscured by his helmet visor. He was probably counting all the ways things could go wrong, in order to reassure himself. He was, in his own way, probably the sanest of all of them.


Fatima was brooding, as usual. A runaway from Andalus, she had joined the Foundation at only 19. Seven years in their service had toughened her up, but when she got good and drunk, the stories would start spilling out of her. She wanted to return, deep down, but couldn't face her family. So she waxed on and on about the lights of Cordoba, and the Madinat al-Zahara, seat of the Eternal Republic. It all sounded so glorious, a land of whitewashed stone.


Then there was Albert, always ready with a smile and a kind word. He'd come from somewhere dark and dangerous, a slum in San Francisco, that black hole of a city which had long ago absorbed California into its maw. One of Sol's many pit-towns that the Foundation had yet to reclaim. He clawed his way up through shit and dread to reach the surface, welcomed by the omnipresent rescuers that crowded around its edge.


And then there was her. She ought to use her name, but she didn't want to. Names pinned you down. Names gave you definition, prevented change. You had an essence if you had a name, a sense of permanency, and that wasn't her style.


But it was still there, within her. No matter how many times she was resurrected, no matter how long she aged, you couldn't excise your own past. It was always there.


"Listen up." Irene interrupted her reverie with a glare. "The radiation from this thing is lethal. We need to be in-and-out in under two hours, or it'll start getting weird. Don't expect a resurrection in the belly of this thing." She rubbed her nose, scrunching her eyes momentarily.


"We'll be touching down here." She pointed to a spot on the edge of the map, which looked like an enormous hourglass. Except, here and there, the inconsistencies boiled and grew, flailing into nothingness, deforming and reforming over and over again.


She put a foot gingerly on the metal platform. It was a piece of debris, floating in space, with a shining Harkhretian light keeping it afloat and real.


You couldn't just destroy something as large as Site-01. It was too big to be swallowed or sucked away. What apparently happened was a freak malfunction in one of the spatial distributors, causing a chain reaction that, by an enormous set of coincidences, happened at the one exact second that five hundred of the failsafes were momentarily inactive due to a tiny, once-in-ten-millenia sync-up of programme resets.


Everyone knew it wasn't a coincidence. But, as the new Reclamation Division kept reminding everyone, you couldn't actually rule the possibility out.


The entire site had collapsed in on itself. Once space had failed, ballooning this way and that, time also began to collapse. Everything began to bend around the central power node, and then expand outwards, coiling away in two immense cones, or bulbs. The shape of an hourglass.


Everyone assumed that the inhabitants had been killed instantly, like everywhere else, but the new Administrator hadn't been so sure. There were… signals, if you would, that kept bouncing out of the hourglass. Everyone wrote these off as random data, decaying patterns from ancient machinery. But then, all across Orchard, the whispers started. And they wouldn't stop.


Whispers of things that had never happened at all.


She moved forward, carefully. Irene had landed on a second platform; the others, slightly below. Simon waved up at her, grinning. "Nothing like a good suicide mission," came his voice across the cortex.


"This isn't funny, Simon," snapped Irene. "We don't know how the cortex is going to react in here. This really could be a suicide mission. So whatever you do, be careful."


Simon shook his head, and turned towards the huge wall in front of them. A handful of other platforms and ruins led to a huge gash in the centre. Machinery - automated repair systems - could be seen, hard at work, desperately trying to patch up the walls. It was the only thing they understood.


She sighed, and jumped.


Inside was an open wound. Sparks flew out of the sides of walls, leaping through what remained of the marble veneer. Fatima was walking beside her; they were en route to meeting up with the others in an atrium two miles ahead.


"You're Asturian?"


She started at the question. Fatima had been almost silent for the whole journey - hell, for the whole time she'd known her. And then she wants to make small talk by asking that?


She didn't answer. She didn't want to. The second she answered "yes", the entire history of Cordoba and Asturias, the endless wars, the Iron Wall, the long diplomatic efforts towards a rapproachment - everything would be there, and whichever way you dealt with it, you still had to deal with it.


Fatima shrugged at her silence. "Hey, I'm not judging."


She couldn't even remember Asturias very well. It had only been five or six years since she'd last been there, but the pace of change was indomitable. Oviedo had turned into a vast city of glittering lights. The cathedrals of her youth were shadowed by immense structures of steel and glass, monorails flying through the lower atmosphere, making so many connections that you may as well have shaded the whole place in, a mass of grey concrete.


"Should be just around the next corner."


The two of them moved around the bend, and stopped. Irene and Alberto weren't there. Instead, there was a man in a white coat, looking at a pocket watch.


She crept closer. "Hello, sir? Can you hear me?"


The man stared at the pocket watch, swore, and then walked forward. He hadn't seen or heard her. He reached the opposite wall, and looked up. An expression of terror took over his features. He turned, screaming, and started to run-


- and snapped back to his original position, looking at a pocket watch. He swore, then walked forward. He hadn't seen or heard her.


"A loop…" Fatima sighed. "So no survivors, then. No imperfections in - in whoever's plan this was."


"I don't know…" She moved closer to the man, who was running again, the same look of contorted fear. "Something's survived. Even if it's not a person."


They met up a few miles ahead. They all swore they had reached the right place at the right time, but that nobody else was there.


"Time trouble," said Irene. "Alright. We figured as much. Given what you two saw, it's likely we'll encounter more. We'd better stick together, or God alone knows when we'll end up."

The five of them began to advance. The place was a labyrinth. It had not been designed for light and airy conversations, but to overwhelm the mind, create a sense of awe. Huge columns of steel, endless staircases and avenues large enough to have wind systems. They were the size of ants in the face of a machine.


"But this isn't right," said Alberto at one point. "We've been walking for - well, I don't know how long, but we should have got into at least some of the inner workings by now. There weren't that many halls."


"Yep," said Irene. "Which means it's more than one system that's failed."


It was like an Escher print. The marble changed colour, white and brown and grey. Chandelier after chandelier loomed overhead, until an improbable staircase took them somewhere else, and then somewhere else. None of the rooms had any meaning, as far as she could tell.


The map had long since stopped working, but their scanners still told them their position. They were moving closer and closer to the centre, to the focal point of the hourglass, but they were still a long way off. It was claustrophobic. It felt like they were moving over the same patch of land again and again, different each time, there only on sufferance until the station knew what to make of them.

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  1. portal:7737619 ( 13 Nov 2021 08:52 )
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