It didn’t last long, just a moment or two, but it could have been an eternity as there was no sense of time. A feeling of falling and swimming and flying all at once. I was afraid at first, I couldn’t see myself, I couldn’t see Aria, but I felt her holding my hand and I was certainly holding hers. An instant of eternity in slow fall, that’s how I would describe travelling through the portal.
Then we stepped out of the portal into a bright light, which made me dizzy, a sense of almost falling but not. It felt so sudden, but it wasn’t, not while we were travelling. Time returned and so did our senses. My exosuit started reading environmental conditions with an insatiable appetite. A still, cool, humid day with consistent fog. To sum up, not bad weather I suppose.
The thick, ash infused fog lingered all around us. But it did allow for the landscape to reveal the contours of hills, trees and even plants. We walked down the Portal’s gentle slant of stone steps, only to find more tiles with scattered stepping stones of the same geometric shape. And other tiles, defying gravity and slowly turning in midair.
But there was something wrong, it all looked wrong. Or should I say, it looked perfect, natural and unnatural at the same time, if that was even possible. I soon realized the landscape was made up of hexagons, literally all the ground, hills, rocks and tree foliage were hexagonally structured. It looked like bee heaven, that is, if I was a bee. Only the stems of the trees and the plants glowed, with what can only be described as fibers. Golden flowing fibers, which swayed like sea grass in an unperceived wind, as I had no readings of wind in my visor’s HUD. Glancing back the portal had closed.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“A synthetic world,” Aria replied. “Incomplete terraforming.”
“Incomplete? Who didn’t complete it?”
“Someone who forgot about it. Long ago, long forgotten, like everything that’s forgotten over time. Or at least in the time that we’re aware of.”
There was a sadness in her voice, like a lost child whose parents had forgotten her.
“I thought the Atlas…”
“The Atlas is a machine created by the creators. The Atlas is no god,” Aria said. “You’re a memory of those creators. You and Telemon.”
“Who’s Telemon?” I asked.
Aria laughed, “Well, I suppose your closest companion. Telemon has been with you since the beginning, or at least this beginning.”
I was confused, I’d never met anyone by the name of Telemon.
Aria knocked on my helmet. “In here silly, Telemon is your exosuit’s AI.”
“Oh, it has a name? I had no idea.”
“No, I suppose you didn’t.”
Aria turned away, distracted by movement in the mist, followed by a bright flash of light. There was no time to say anything, only enough time for both of us to fall face down as a bolt of energy passed over us.
Aria returned fire with her pistol.
“Don’t worry, I don’t want to hit Kailo, just stop him from shooting at us,” she assured me.
It had the desired effect. The shooting stopped, at least for now. I helped her up.
“We have to hurry,” she said.
We moved into the mist, away from the portal. A tree, which had been hit by Aria’s multitool, had broken into small hexagonal pieces and was slowly spinning in midair. It made for a very strange sight, as did the rest of this world. A world that made no sense and had been forgotten. But then again Aria said we had been forgotten, too. I would need to talk to her, she had answers and I needed answers. If we were to save Kailo I would have to stay focused… and the answers, well, they would just have to wait.
A scuttling sound, almost metallic, like needles running over brittle glass, turned our attention to the right.
“What was that?” I asked, while both of us paused.
“Rifle ready on scatter,” she instructed, holding her own pistol pointed at the shadows.
I set my rifle setting to Scatter Blaster just as the shiny spider things appeared. Aria fired the first rounds and I followed with a spray of projectiles, which struck a foray of at least ten little metallic monsters.
“Look out!” Aria cried.
The spiders exploded, sending sharp needle like shrapnel into every direction. We dived for cover as the needles struck us, depleting our shields to below fifty percent. The remaining spiders, which survived my blaster, exploded from each other’s needle missiles striking them.
“Shields aren’t regenerating,” I said.
“Those needles have hacked our exosuits,” Aria said, then yelled, “Look out!”
A spider leapt for my helmet, barely missing the glass front. I struck it with my rifle, but it had already pierced my air supply even before it exploded. I could feel my ears ringing with warnings of low health, low shield, and a suit of other systems playing havoc and failing.
“Aria, I think I’m in trouble,” I said on the verge of panic.
“Stay calm and breath slowly while I try to mend your air supply hose. You’re lucky it didn’t pierce your helmet’s glass.”
“What were they?” I asked.
“Well, they weren’t your normal fauna. And this isn’t a normal planet, don’t let its size fool you. It has no organic structure, it’s mechanical, a synthetic abomination. Part of some machine algorithm gone haywire in the process of failing to attain sentience. Hard to imagine I know, a planet size sentience. The spiders could have been part of the system’s defences.” Aria tried to stabilize my exosuit’s malfunction, but there was still the issue of life support.
“But how did it know? To come after us?”
“Kailo, well not exactly Kailo, but the infection that’s taken over Kailo. I think it’s connected to this place. Once it was released it made its way here, it knew the glyphs, the coordinates to this machine world. I suspect this world is its creation, or that thing is part of it. An incomplete creation of evil, which was stopped. But who stopped it, I don’t know… and Kailo, a Gek has freed that thing. My question is, did the Priest know? Did he send us here knowing we would face this challenge?”
“The Device, he said, ‘the Golden Quantum Processor. Bring the device. Free me and my friend, and I will free you.’ From the graves that sing and dance.”
“Well, we’ve released something from one grave, from that stone monolith, and now it’s in Kailo. Could it be the Dancer in the Wind?” Aria said, as the hose clicked into place and my life readings started to recover.
“But where is the wind, and I still haven’t seen any dancers,” I said.
A droning sound suddenly filled my head.
“Careful what you wish for,” Aria said, as we both watched a strong gust stir the strange hexagonal trees and plants.
They began to sway, and the thick mist began to dissipate as the droning changed, becoming more melodious, more harmonious, more musical; everything around us moved with the sound, almost animated. The wind danced and breathed through the trees and landscape, like some ancient alien spirit on a world where life as we knew it never existed. Only machines.
The landscape opened into hills and strange formations. More light fell on the bizarre forests as the mist finally disappeared. We both realized we were near the edge of a crevice. Beyond the gap were cliff-like sides encircling a mesa, where a giant machine rested on the surface of the flat-topped elevation. Shaped like a Ferris wheel, it towered over everything.
Bypassing the cleft with our jetpacks, we reached the table-top plain where I could see a giant ring within the wheel turning. The machine was active.
“Aria, do you know what this is?” I asked.
Aria took her time before replying. She seemed to be thinking.
“A Boundary Failure,” she replied deep in thought.
It was a very strange structure, alien and cold, “What does it do?”
She turned to look at me, unsure of whether she should reply or not. Then turned back to look at the machine.
“Information… data… answers and more questions. Questions and more answers… and round and round it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows.”
Aria seemed fearful, almost awed with the Boundary Failure. As if it held something she dreaded. Some secret, a wonder, a solution. The spinning ring kept turning, and with each turn an answer, followed by another question. She seemed spell-bound, hypnotized.
“Aria!” I tried to get her attention. Taking her in my arms I shook her while putting my face in her field of vision. It had the desired effect. She seemed to snap out of the trance she was in.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that it’s been so long.”
She seemed to be remembering, but she was here with me now. It was just memories.
“The information I discovered, long ago, in the Boundary Failures. We didn’t know, we couldn’t have imagined, but we learnt. Some of us at least.”
“Learnt what?” I asked.
“What we are, where we are, why we are.
“What’re you talking about Aria, I don’t understand, there were others? Which others?” I was baffled, afraid she might be losing her mind.
I looked around to see if Kailo was aiming to take another potshot at us, but he was nowhere to be seen. She led me to a terminal at the base of the machine. There was an Atlas shaped triangle on the terminal. It glowed red as Aria activated it. Then the terminal blinked, and Aria took my hand. On my visor’s HUD a message appeared, ‘awaiting input…’ data started to download. I began to read.
‘SCENARIO: Planetary Structure ‘Korvax Prime’ destroyed by lifeform designates ‘Gek’ (subclass: FIRST SPAWN).
Sub-routine ‘Convergence’ [pseudo-lifeform] enslaved by ‘Gek’, proceeding to harness sub-routine to conquer Outer Edge in countless iterations. Sub-routine leads to direct [——-] worship by ‘Gek’.
ANALYSIS: Disturbing fable. Destruction of world, artificial intelligence partially modelled after earlier forms of [——-] destroyed/enslaved, until this intelligence triumphs and [——-] is worshipped by organic users of this technology. Hypothesis: [——-] experiencing breakdown.’
Aria waited till I had finished reading the message.
“This was the moment Telemon realized something was terribly wrong,” Aria said.
“Wrong with what? And why are there gaps in the data, what’s missing?” I asked.
“The gaps are what’s wrong. Telemon was unable to utter its name. The name Atlas is what’s missing.”
“I still don’t understand.”
Aria seemed unsure if she should say any more. Finally, she spoke, “Telemon has written these entries. Telemon was designed from the start, by the creators, to monitor the Atlas. A security sub-protocol with the sole purpose of identifying glitches in the Atlas. The data here clearly shows Telemon has identified a problem. The problem with the problem, however, is that it also affected Telemon.”
“But you said Telemon is in my exosuit’s AI. I’m confused.”
“The Atlas removed Telemon, entrapping it in our exosuits, where it has resided ever since. But he was somehow connected to these machines and managed to communicate through the Boundary Failures.”
“That doesn’t sound very healthy. Does it know, does it remember what it is?” I asked.
“I think so. I think it’s still aware of its past purpose, but in its isolation, in its trap, I’m afraid it has been slowly decaying, losing its sanity if you like. Having lost its freedom, its original purpose, it has tried to adapt and learn from us. Its connection to us has enabled it to utter ‘Atlas,’ the entrapper. And where once it was free to witness all worlds, it’s now limited, forced to observe through the eyes of strangers, thus, its desire to explore. In the trap, in the exosuit, it understood the limitations of perspective. And learnt what it means to be lonely and afraid. It also learnt hate and pain and to pity. As well as the Atlas’ failure, which it documented.”
I didn’t know what to say. I could see Aria was concerned, that maybe she had said too much, too quickly.
Standing beside the giant machine with the spinning ring, I felt I was in a dream loop, that I was sleeping, and when I would wake up it would be somewhere else, on some other world, lost again. And in that place, I would hear my exosuit commence its procedure of initialization, activating my life support. Back to the start, all over again. I was beginning to understand Aria’s desire to want to escape.
Aria was watching me. Somehow, I felt she knew what I was thinking. That her connection to me was more. Maybe, Telemon had found a way to build bridges. Or maybe, I was also losing my mind.
“We need to go, Kailo’s in great danger and we don’t have much time, follow me,” she said.
“No need to worry your poor hearts about Kailo, he’s in good hands.”
We both turned around to see Kailo standing behind us, pointing his alien multi-tool at us.
And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.