Return once again to the mysterious and fantastical construction inhabited by explorers from all around the universe, englobing a star at its heart…
The man sits bent over what might be a console, frowning. He’s been in that position for most of his waking hours for the better part of a week. Its screen shows him things, fantastically complex but unlabelled, and he hasn’t yet discovered how to control what they’ll be. Sometimes they’re diagrams, wireframes. Sometimes they’re strange conglomerations of lines, multicoloured and strange as the map of an entire city’s underground pipework. Sometimes they’re images, ones that at least look as though they’re camera feeds from elsewhere in the Relic. He’s looking at one of those now.
An exclamation escapes him as the image changes, because this one, for once, shows something concrete, something verifiable. A small group: four explorers, carrying their gear and walking with a spring in their step. He leans close, squints; the image is fantastically, impossibly sharp, as if he were wherever the camera is, seeing the grassy expanse with his own eyes. He can make out a serial code on their gear. It’s almost too good to be true, and he writes it down with a shaking hand. All it will take to find out who they are is a single, simple request to the Hub, a simple and blessedly understandable computer system built and used by the explorers themselves from non-native components (or so runs the principle). All it will take, to gain their comms IDs, talk to them, and learn if this image is real or recorded.
He’s recording it, of course, and his own recorder keeps the timestamp. Even if he loses the image, he can verify it against their records. Whoever they are. Won’t that be something to learn…
* * *
A sound barely heard interrupts the conversation. It’s almost impossible to tell which of the two explorers hears it first, as both unconsciously adopt listening attitudes, trying to pinpoint a sound on the very edge of hearing, a sound that has been building, unnoticed, since they first drew close to one another.
“Do you hear that?”
Both explorers look in their packs, and both seem mildly surprised that the other did the same. Almost at the same time, they pull out a pair of asymmetrical artefacts, each one now glowing a faint, pale blue, emitting an almost subliminal hum.
They look at each other, at the artefacts, at each other.
“Has it ever done that before?”
The second explorer shakes her head. “Never. I’ve had it for years… I never could work out quite what it was.” She looks at the artefact in her hands with a combination of wonder and bemusement. It’s a sculpture without obvious purpose, complex and somehow simple at once. Experimentally, she holds it towards the other artefact, one that could be its mirror-image twin. The hum grows somehow more intense without seeming to increase in volume, and the blue light, too, intensifies, gaining an almost white core.
The two explorers look up, meet each other’s eyes. Do you trust me? They’re strangers still, yet there’s no hesitation as the first explorer holds out his artefact, as they lean closer together and allow the two to touch.
The subliminal hum becomes a single, pure, resonant note that seems to silence all else as the light intensifies, or perhaps expands — not so much blinding as filling all the available space with white. And then, sudden as a blink, the sound and light are gone, the real world reappears, and a single complex, somehow complete artefact glows in a steady, heartbeat-like rhythm, held in two pairs of hands.
“It’s a key…”
* * *
On a thin strut lower down that arcs out from that strange spire-like construction to connect to another, a solitary camp waits for its occupant to return. Temporary, once, but the light foldaway tent has been replaced with a thicker, larger construction, a false room that blocks the view of the wider Relic. The self-assembling furniture sits polished and worn, or else traded for other furnishings. Artefacts do duty as ornaments, some polished, some hidden away. The explorer whose base is here no longer goes far from this roost, opting instead to catalogue the surroundings in ever-increasing detail. It’s a lifetime’s work or more.
Trailed by a small hovering cart, the distant descendant of the wheelbarrow, the observer slowly and absently walks the same path she’s walked countless times. A slate in her hand updates itself with the words she speaks, dictating minuscule changes in her environment into the record. She doesn’t look up, or out, keeping to the middle of the path on the strut. The camp is the perfect place for an observer, yet its lone resident seems almost afraid of its height.
She hasn’t moved camp for years. Not since she opted to stop and wait while the other member of her party went stubbornly on upwards. Perhaps she waited for her return, at first. If so, it never happened. Still she waits, watches, and sends requests for precision tools that are delivered by drone to her unusual eyrie, allowing her to continue to map the grounds she’s delineated as hers with ever-increasing precision. Every few months, perhaps, she extends ‘her’ zone another room or so into the second spire’s structure, analysing, cataloguing, observing. Some she never enters again; others she keeps monitoring assiduously.
Whatever first brought her here, it seems she likes it this way.