Toz was fast asleep drinking in the libations of a fork’s dreamscape. The slumber was quick with partial realities, fragments of memories, and the long faces of people never met. Flying through the Main Belt aboard a space frigate, feeling the strenuous formality of a new body, sensing depths where nothing dwells save for the lifeless landscape cold brings. While under the influence of the other-worldly, Toz became aware of one thing: these were not his dreams.
“Wake up Toz! We need you on deck!” the familiar voice of Nathan Jeppert’s Olympian resonated through the sleeping quarters as Toz was shook awake.
Blurs of light illuminated the cramped area around a tiny room. His small Neotenic body was used to the cold micro-gravity of Iapetus, but every once in a while he woke up floating just off the bed, chilled to the bone in a cold sweat. This was one of those days.
The large Olympian was on his way out while the doorway stood open for the briefest moment. Long enough for Toz to recognize his counterpart, Zot – a swarmanoid of mini-bots hovering around just outside the doorway. The swarm always took a form while it waited in idle, which seemed fairly frequent. As Toz saw him Zot was taking the form of a child. The swarmanoid slithered into slightly new states as the auto-correction of Zot’s brainwaves shifted like water.
The swarmanoid buzzed in concentric rhythms as the “body” shifted its state to make a wave-able gesture. Toz waved back as he zipped up his thermal ware in order to traverse the cold passages of the science relay station based on the surface of Iapetus. The swarmanoid blew away down the tunnel like a dandelion catching wind, with Toz appearing in the hallway. Several other Argonauts were moving towards the Outlook Room where the surface was viewable.
Outlook Room was crowded with the Argonauts of Iapetus Station 01-Niner. The excitement of the personnel bled out like juices from a cut fruit as the complicated sensory instruments began tacking off readings. Lights and sounds across the computational equipment were blinking and flashing as never before. From the limited view they had of the airy crater their base was stationed at something began to happen on the surface of the planetoid.
A giant hole at the bottom of the crater started to grow and grow. It was almost as if the surface itself were coming alive, and the hole continued to gain circumference. All the while the Argonauts of the station were moving about the room to different instruments, calculating, multiplying, and holding their breath. The sting of silence cleared the air as waves of Fear quickened the skin and hair stood on end.
The moment was a decisive one. Nathan was first to the emergency broadcast beacon, smashing it down with a flat palm. The only response came with the lighting of a single green light on the main dash. The light signified that the message had been received, the tag on their endo’s told them it was Autonomist who picked it up. An Autonomist Alliance TITAN-buster Collective – individuals united under a common guise since the Fall – known to the Argonauts as just that, even crossing paths on the surface occasionally with a handful of trinkets for trade.
From the hole at the base of the crater strange things began to occur. Radio signals full of static and bleeps started blaring across the speakers in the room. Faint traces of light could be seen flaring out of the dark tunnel at the crater’s eye and the moment grew more intense as certain lengths of legible human code could be deciphered from the signals flying from the depths of Iapetus.
Zot refused to sit around any longer, being the only non-singular being that didn’t have to prep to hit the surface of the moon he left to go outside. Toz lacked the gear to moon walk and so remained alert in the Outlook Room. Zot’s swarm-cloud could be seen flying into the darkness of the cold crater with only a few glints of light catching at peculiar angles.
The swarm traveled in a thousand paths as Zot’s mind wrapped about in freezing zero-G and kept to his ever-forming body. His intuition told him not to go into the hole at first and merely watch as the surface, seemingly made of computational lattices, opened itself wider and wider. The hole reached almost a kilometer before it stopped and the yawning was never more inviting than it was at that point. Fearless, Zot descended into the well of Iapetus.
The output readings were nominal and nothing seemed too TITAN at first. Activating several different sensors to read about Zot continued to drop out of sight of the surface as he dribbled down off the cliff. It took him a moment to notice that the hole had no ending, and appeared to be ever opening below him like a vein-shaft. He traveled it for a moment in a straight line, until radio communications seemed to get fuzzy.
On the surface the Autonomist Collective arrived via rocket sled just after Zot made his descent. Toz was there to greet their leader, James Gaban along with three others out of the airlock. Two Autonomists stayed outside in souped up hard suits – Dragon and Hawk prepped while waiting. Showing the individual scientists to the Outlook Room Toz gave them a quick rundown. He then introduced the Argonauts to the Autonomists and everyone got along like clockwork. They began to monitor Zot’s readings and set up a tactical network between the Outlook Room, Dragon, Hawk, and Zot.
Still able to see the stars from the well Zot saw no harm in reaching out to touch the wall. With what can only be described as feeling out with his fingers he dropped a few swarm-bots of his conscience to touch the surface at a few points of the tunnel. Then the first sign of trickery set forth as each of the spots opened into a flowery glittering portrait of miniature lights. The colors shifted and changed across the skin of the wall like a chromatic dance. This pit was a lair checkered with uncountable amounts of individual nano-strains. So many unique electronic signatures appeared in Zot’s entoptics that he became afraid.
The sheer amount of nano-swarm potential lining the small area that he was in was overwhelming. Just by reaching out to four spots he could identify the swarms as singular swarms composed of uniquely coded nano-bots. Seeing an opportunity to engage TITAN tech he began to hack into the so far dormant wireless signals, where he found surprisingly light defenses. The muse kept reporting no security obstacles being tripped and no system was really looking to set alarms. It was as if the nano-swarm was awake but not aware.
Burning through firewalls Zot’s hacker skill managed to pin down a database within the layers of programming. Getting this far without tripping a wire was a feat, but through the accessing of a particular index of information the host swarm suddenly triggered. Zot peeled away from the bot as it detached from the wall and buzzed past to a depth farther below. Where in the dark a mist began to shroud the way through the tunnel. Active nano-bots glazed the air in a face off as the icy gales of Iapetus wrung through the hollow tunnel between them, but neither advanced.
Zot’s 360 degree vision tripped as the Oracles were busy keeping tabs on portions of pixilated light and his back. Through entoptics in his visuals a tactical network seemingly fused in out of nowhere and Zot knew that help had arrived. Three smaller screens displayed a view of comrades and jeering faces of achievement. One small screen has several faces floating about and he recognized Outlook Room. The other two small screens were new, but from his radar he sensed the presence of two new larger solid individuals. He turned his mind around and flew outward to allow the two shells of Hawk and Dragon to float by, whilst arranging laser linkage for talking. Latching on to Hawk’s smaller black frame like a hairy suit Zot and the Anarchists began to descend.
“Boyo! Seeing your tac vision is a busy shitter Zot." Dragon spoke up, his voice husked and ancient.
“Them pixels make me feel funny.” Hawk said as their mesh IDs aligned and they could tell the difference between Zot and the cloud at the end of their sight.
“I’ve got some strange readings down here gents. I hope you brought some artillery.”
“Pssh, just stay behind me Zot, eh?” and Hawk’s suit came up to reveal a swiveling forearm settling itself into a grenade launcher.
The thud from the cannon echoed beyond incalculable depths and the small EMP canister slammed into the milky white plate of the swarm below. The shockwave of the blast measured a perfect thirty-foot diameter before it cut off. The coating of light that was swarm-life before hand was now a dead black spot in the shining pastel tube of oddly passive and inactive swarms. Even after the blast of the EMP they waited expecting a counterattack from all angles, but none came.
Zot spoke up, “Well, shall we?”
Dragon and Hawk grunted into their microphones. Through the black patch and down the hole their path extended. Faint turbines on the shells of the hard suits jetted the tank-soldiers downward.
They were flying through some sort of artificial corridor. The entirety of the tunnel had only come into existence recently. It was as if Iapetus was making a connection to another place through a tunnel system. How though? For transport possibly, or to build a pathway? What was doing the tunneling? Why wasn’t there debris? Regardless, they descended down into his icy depths.
Zot’s radar ticked off as kilometers flew by. At 5 kilometers down things can still be significantly jarring what with the seemingly computational wall ways that could infect you at a touch. Even though radio contact doesn’t fizzle out till down in the 30s.
New holes began to appear in the walls, like Swiss cheese pockets at first. Then into different catacombs entirely their sights glimpsing far off edges and distant areas that were clouded in different colored fogs. The walls occasionally pulsed with a chromatic tinge looking almost scaly to bright green neon geometric lines of circuitry. They stayed the course through their main straightforward path uninterested at first. Then around 10 kilometers banter started over the direction.
Dragon spoke to no one in particular, “Look Boyo, I’m not saying we’s not gone far enough, but shant we shimmy along a new passage and keep mapping?”
Hawk replied, “Awright. Lets see how deep she goes.”
“I will be running if anything happens,” Zot spoke up,” I have zero protocols for violence especially on the nano-level. You gents brought the guns. I just work here.”
“Oi, Zot. No worries mate,” the Dragon piped on, “These things come instinctively. We been down a hole before, right Boyo?”
“Naturally enough. We like the cold. Ain’t nothin down here to bother us, just stories bout the dark.” Hawk finished.
“Fine I’ll stick with you until shit gets really creepy. But if I can’t handle it I’m out.”
They took a left. The corridor was not straight the way the main tunnel had been. This one spindled off at all sorts of lumpy angles. They were even ascending at some points. The ticker continued down though to 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16.
The new course came to a sudden halt. Around a corner a sight that froze them through there suits ensued. The wall-way that was veining itself in this direction was under some sort of construction. It was as if nano-swarms were being poured from wellsprings that could not be seen to originate. The essence of the room was totally robotic and the shimmering sea of nano-bots that reeled away at the light of the hard-suit helmets was bizarre to behold. At the very last moment when the machines had exited what appeared in the swarm as a person being dragged through a heavy tow of water and against the sheerness of the tunnel wall until it flattened to nothing was what really got to them.
“Strike one,” Zot said.
“Oi that was mighty unsettling.” Dragon could be seen on the tac-vision eyeing around suspiciously. Hawk was so frightened his heart rate had risen to above average.
“We have to keep going. We can’t let this place get the better of us. I’ll start sending out feelers.”
“So what Boyo, we just keep on? You shore you wouldn’t rather turn back while we can?”“Nay he’s right Dragon. We gots to go on,” Hawk spoke up. Outlook Room piped in, “We’re with the general consensus here. Lets be clear about contact with the environment though gentlemen. Anything strange and quarantine will be mandatory.”
The trio pushed onward past their first truly creepy incident and plummeted to further depths. A further 10 kilometers down radio contact and readings began to fizzle out from the Outlook Room. Hesitant to make contact for fear of having a “final confrontation” with anyone of anything radio contact remained silent.Another 5 more kilometers and the radio to the surface went completely dead. The horizons before them seemed endless for a time. They became slightly used to the occasional chromatic pulse around them. Then they experienced their next awkward moment as a chamber opened before them and within it a sculpture of figures awaited.
Ice carvings they were. A woman looking over the shoulders of a terrified child at a monster of sorts was all that the room held. The creature the ice sculptures were transfixed by looked to be that of a large insectoid looking robot. The detail in the sculpture was impeccable, as if the things were pulled from living memory.
The three of them hovered in silent observation at the terror of the artwork. It tested their metal slightly and unnerved each of them. Where the hell had this thing come from? After a shake of the head Dragon came to.
“Wonder what that’s worth, eh Boyo?”
“A pretty penny don’t you think Dragon?”
“Well be quick about it gentlemen, I’ll keep a vigilante eye.”
Zot traversed the small confined corridor. The two hard-suits went to work cutting the ice statue of the monster out of the crust. It was going to take a moment. Feeling like he’d started understanding the environment better Zot became even more surprised as a section along part of the wall began to make way. The hard-suited warriors saw it on their tac-vision.
“What we got Boyo?”
“A section of the wall just opened up on us. I’ll take a look.”
Zot flew his body around the room to meet at the new entrance. The latticed walls of the new corridor were laced with what appeared to be newly formed nano-swarms. The whole place buzzed with them and Zot could see in the dark through different visions that there was no particular order to their arrangement. Swarms were fixed and settled next to dozens of other swarms like a layer cake from hell. The scattered patterns of multicolored pixels struck curiosity. Slowly like a morning mist Zot glided down the new corridor.
Deciding to try to pick up a few blue prints Zot attempted another hacking session. Finding a passive defender swarm he began to settle through its firewalls and programming all the while drifting further down the passage with the rest of his swarm. A couple hundred feet or so away from Dragon and Hawk the unimaginable happened.
He was frozen in fear as something in the dark moved up ahead, it lumbered around the tunnel climbing away from him. It registered no heat, its body almost invisible in ultraviolet, with only sound-waves giving off shape. It moved almost like a human, but in the darkest glimmer of the headlamps behind him Zot couldn’t be sure. The one thing Zot was sure of is that whatever it is was intentionally evading him. Panic flustered and Zot drew himself in to fly back to his armed comrades.
“There’s something down here! Have you been watching my tac?”
“Nah mate, we been laser cuttin us our cut o gold!”
“What is it Boyo? What’d ya see?”
“A ghost, a monster, a person! I couldn’t be sure. But I saw it! It’s waiting down there.”
“Alright we got the loot and Zot’s spooked. What say we make back for the main hole eh Dragon?”
“Good idea Boyo. Zot stay on our asses eh?”
“Like a peel on a banana.”
“Hehhah. Thas a good one,” Hawk cracked as they began their retreat to the surface. Each moment seemed to draw on as they backtracked through pathways that seemed to stretch forever. The whole time Zot stayed glued to the backend of the statue chilled at the thought of what else was down here. If he had a brow to wipe sweat would be there to accomplish the job.
The surface of Iapetus was drenched in silence, almost to the point of boredom. The Outlook Room had lost radio contact with the group and Toz occasionally got a tac-vision display of a few seconds, but nothing more. The Argonauts and Autonomists knew their crew was still on the move, but the farther they drifted down into Iapetus the more unlikely it was that they would return. Even if they did everyone knew no one came back the same.
A sudden rhythm of beeps clicked the bewildered Outlook Room into a shocked state. Their instruments detected new shifts in the surface hole. The circumference started to shrink little by little and looked as if it were shifting back together again. Toz tried to send emergency comm casts, but made no connection with the underground team. Before they knew it the surface was again a flat plain at the bottom of a crater, and hope drained from the room like a pulled tub as the hole closed to 0 on all charts across the board.
Meanwhile down in the darkness Zot and the Autonomists made their way back only to find that it was entirely blocked and sealed. As if there were never a tunnel there at all. All Zot could confirm was the surface of the newly stopped tunnel was like that of a freshly peeled orange compared to the wall-ways they’d been going down the past few hours. The nano-strains seemed to have a nicer scent to them. This induced a panic attack in the group. Zot curbed his fear after his muse started registering troubling signals from internal diagnostics. Slow breathing was going to win him out of this. On the tac-vision he had his muse run psych checks on the others and found that they too were starting to show signs of mortal fear.
“I’m gonna try and burn through the ice walls. Not gonna touch crap though. You all keep me company.” Dragon implored.
Dragon’s larger red suit brought out huge flame torches mounted at the wrists. The blast could be customized to shoot a constant jet, or to propel a fireball. Aiming at the wall northward towards the station he began to cut through the ice, melting it apart.
“Saw this in an XP once,” as Dragon grinned toothily into the tac.
It was a longer route, but the only assured one. They basically melted and burned through with the torches for a long time. Dead crispy scraps of nano bits crunched in between the tiny spaces of Zot’s swarmanoid like chattering teeth. The dig was dragging on when a gap suddenly opened on them, and they were in a room.
A small pocket of a room was just sitting in the crusts of the moon somehow. It had no tunnels connecting to it or ways out. The walls were smooth to the touch, like an egg. Scattered about were small frozen clumps and clusters of de-activated synth robots. A scared Dragon continued to burn a hole opposite his new entrance across the room into the wall northward.
With a snap of his wrist Hawk lanced a laser from his wrist-tool to cut one of the frozen bots from the surface. He quietly tied it along with the frozen bug statue they were dragging. Zot thought Hawk’s claim looked like some sort of clam, or a bunch of little arms wrapped into a ball. Thinking into the likelihood that this pocket appeared at random Zot pondered upon the frightening possibilities of what lay ahead. The fear brought hallucinations, along with frequent chills and panic attacks. Zot’s swarmanoid composition wavered and faltered, a few of his bots died at the tips and fell away from the swarm.
The push through the dense crust was mind shattering as their mental states slowly deteriorated in the dark. Zot’s chills began to flood his mental sensorium the with sensation that he was freezing to death, and still the fear compounded. His “heart rate” began to rise and falter fleeing from a panicked state to as smooth as he could control it, which was nowhere near calm. The sounds that resonated from Dragon’s torch bled through his auditory threshold and his vision was unsettled, unable to focus on anything around him.
Finally Dragon pushed through into something new. When they all appeared on the other side of the hole it was as if they were looking into an abysmal cavern. No walls or surfaces, save the floor, were visible in any direction. The only light came from their headlamps aimed mostly at the ground, but their cybernetic modes of vision were available. A quick sonar mapping displayed a sort of grand canyon on their shared tac-vision. Dragon simply took a large breathe and jumped as hard as he could floating off with a few jettisons pulling Hawk and the statue with them, Zot glided about with fishy sluggishness, and the clammy thing was anchored at the end.
Only then did the background Oracles of Zot’s mind start to ping off strange noises echoing through the chasm. His 360 degree vision saw nothing but them. In his mind the strange echoes boiled his blood, and he could feel his skin peeling away like ice shards. He could sense the loss of his swarm body being pulled like a string on a sweater. It wouldn’t be long till the Ego wouldn’t be able to handle the stress that Iapetus’ environment provides. His fear rose to terror then as on his look about once more he saw the obvious.
It drifted in the dark as if it were a dead creature being pulled through water. The clam on the end of the rope had somehow become untangled and now several long cyber-tentacles drifted behind them reaching back a good few meters. The body had a few soft spots where a green glow grew from a dimness to a sharp neon. Zot knew this was it. If he held on any longer there was going to be a tragedy that could be slightly worse than him dying, and that was valuable packet data this Alpha had picked up on it’s plundering through this cybernetic wasteland of a frozen hunk of Matrioshka brain.
There was always a way to get out. The emergency farcaster he had installed was by far Zot’s greatest enhancement. Although he knew he’d have to undergo intense psychosurgery for weeks after this trip he was ready to leave. Spying the tac-vision at the Autonomist’s faces he knew this would be the last he’d see of them. Hawk had a drool and a dazed look in his eyes while Dragon’s demeanor looked scared and beat. Zot hit the mental barrier when his conscience fell back unwillingly onto the farcaster, and with a chitter of static he fizzled out of the swarmanoid and was gone.