The lights were on when they entered. It was just like opening up the security hub for the first time; after Milanda instructed that the lockdown be ended in this room, it had remained sealed for a few minutes while the sub-OS did some housekeeping tasks, and when the door finally opened, the space was bright and clear of dust and any decay. It was also full of junk. Unlike the more chaotic assortment of things strewn about the security hub, though, this was mostly large crates and canisters, and several upright racks which held neat rows of devices she couldn’t identify behind glass. Well, probably not glass, but something transparent. More to the point, this was organized. There was fairly little space left to maneuver, but what remained were neat aisles between boxes that led to the room’s various necessary functions. The crates and racks themselves were stacked neatly, clearly according to a plan.
“If we’re going to keep opening things up,” Walker observed, following Milanda into the teleport array, “we may want to re-activate that Caretaker unit. He can clean and organize things more efficiently than we. Not to mention more safely. They’re programmed to handle just about anything the Order would have used.”
Milanda paused, turning to look back at her with an upraised eyebrow. “He?”
Walker shrugged, still peering around the room. “They’re sexless, obviously, but it was conventional to call them ‘he.’ Sort of like how ships are considered feminine. You could call it anything you want, I suppose.”
The chamber itself was smaller and laid out differently than the security hub. Square in shape, it had walls of a dark material rather than the mithril and steel of which the hub was constructed, though it was supported by angled struts of some gray metal with a matte finish. A square space opened off the door itself, most of it obscured by orderly stacks of crates, with a row of consoles along the left. To the front and right, short flights of stairs rose to small balconies flanking the room on those sides. Directly ahead of the door were a series of doors just like the one which led to the dryads’ little planet—the gravitical isolation chamber, according to Walker—and on the right stood a large, flat pad, as Milanda discovered upon ascending to that level. These doors, unlike the one to the GIC, were inert.
At Walker’s tone, she turned. The fairy had lifted the lid of a crate, and was staring into it. After a moment, she set the lid aside and turned to one of the vertical racks, studying it for a few seconds before touching its control panel. One of the transparent walls immediately slid upward with a soft hiss, granting her access to the objects within.
“What is it?” Milanda asked, stepping back down to join her.
“These are weapons,” Walker said, pulling one of the things out of the rack. Except for its angled grip of black material, attached to an obvious trigger mechanism, it was made of a glossy white material, with details of black and chrome. About as long as her own forearm, it had a padded butt meant to rest against the user’s shoulder and a small nozzle on the other end. “The crate has extra power packs and replacement components. I think…these are all weapons, and accouterments for them. The crates all match, and this room was organized.”
“Ah…” Milanda watched warily as Walker hefted the alleged weapon to her shoulder, sighting along it at the teleport pad above. Not sense letting the creature out of her cell had she been so keenly aware that she was dealing with something ancient, which had no reason to think well of her and the government she represented. “How likely is all this to explode, do you think?”
“Not very,” Walker said with a shrug, carefully hanging the weapon back on the rack with its fellows. Milanda relaxed, feeling tension she hadn’t noticed dissipate. “I’ve mentioned this before, but the Infinite Order were utterly paranoid. All firearms were gene-locked; only authorized servants would be able to fire them. In anyone else’s hands, they are totally inert. There are no authorized servants left alive, and nobody who can add authorizations, so these…all of these…are so much dead weight. As for exploding, they don’t really do that unless maliciously mishandled. For instance, if someone tried to tamper with them to get around the gene-lock.”
Milanda breathed a sigh of relief. “Small favors. Oh, but… What about the people asleep, down by the hangar bay?”
Walker gave her a sardonic look. “I guess we can add something to our list of reasons not to wake them up.”
“Random junk thrown in the security hub, armaments stacked in the teleport array.” Walker absently rubbed her palms together, peering around. “What the hell happened in this place?”
“I need to fetch a clock, next time I’m up above,” Milanda muttered. “I don’t even know how long I slept. What with one thing and another, my rhythms are completely thrown off.”
Walker gave her an amused look, then turned to the nearby console. “Computer, display clock. Local time.”
Obligingly, the screen lit up with numbers. Apparently, it was just shy of noon.
“Oh. Well, that’s nifty. Also explains why I’m hungry…”
“The fabricators in the barracks kitchen can take care of that,” Walker said, grinning faintly. “Try not to get too lost in the menu choices. Oh, and don’t order sushi. Those things cannot do it right.”
“I will keep that in mind,” Milanda murmured, turning to pull the lid off another crate and peer within. None of the objects it contained were meaningful to her.
“As an amusing footnote, this planet’s day length and orbital period are just slightly longer than Earth’s. They established a local calendar for years, but as far as hours and seconds went, they simply adjusted the measurements to match the planet, rather than try to compute days that were twenty four and about a third of an hour long. Naturally, that meant they had to reconfigure all their technology, but apparently that was the easier option.”
“Increasingly, they just sound…insane.”
“They were pretty idiosyncratic right from the star, even before going power-mad.” She paused in the middle of examining one of the consoles, then turned to Milanda, who was gently rummaging through the crate now that she’d been assured nothing in it was actively dangerous. “And on the subject of power-madness, I have been thinking.”
“Yes, yes, you’re very amusing. In seriousness… What do you plan to do about all this? The technology around you would have an incalculable impact on your civilization if you began disseminating it.”
“I am very grateful not to be the one making such decisions,” Milanda said fervently.
“Aren’t you?” Walker kept talking while she climbed to the upper level, inspecting the teleporters. “After all…here you are. You came down here to learn what had gone wrong with the Hands and fix it. Now, in the middle of that, you’ve apparently stopped and changed course to exacting revenge on the Archpope.”
“That analysis is wrong twice,” Milanda said with a sigh. “This is an unavoidable delay, not a change of goals. We are still going to repair or replace the system; the Hands in their current state are a constant hazard. I’ll need to go see the Avatar about that, because it will apparently require the dryads’ help. But also, this is not about revenge. Justinian has adapted to circumstances; he hasn’t abandoned his goals, either. Shutting his…hacker…out of the system slowed him down, but it hasn’t ended the threat. We can’t fix the system and make sure it stays fixed unless his capacity to interfere is permanently disabled.”
“You’re talking about war on the Church, you know. That won’t be permanently disabled until everyone who knew about it, save the Archpope himself, is dead or in your custody.”
“And that is why I wanted you to destroy their equipment, not block the connection,” Milanda said with no small relish, slowly turning an inscrutable silver object from the crate over in her hands. “The next move is ours, despite what he thinks, and I intend to head his efforts off before his new plan can materialize. Obviously, that will require—”
She did so, shifting only her eyes. Walker was standing at the rail of the balcony, staring down at her with obvious alarm. Moving slowly, she began descending the steps, hands held out as if afraid Milanda would bolt.
“Do. Not. Move. Not a finger.”
Milanda parted her lips to ask what was wrong, but thought better of it. Walker approached her and slowly, with extreme care, reached for the silvery cylinder in her hands. She first lifted Milanda’s finger from the switch positioned near its middle, then carefully took the thing from her. Only when she had stepped back did she let out a sigh of relief.
That was somewhat startling to see, and highlighted the fact that she didn’t usually breathe at all.
“Okay,” she said weakly. “We’re all right.”
“What happened?” Milanda asked in a squeak. “What is that?”
“This,” Walker said distastefully, holding up the cylinder in one hand, “is not gene-locked. These were only carried by ceremonial guards. It’s rigged to explode if found to be in the wrong hands, because the melodramatic idiots who issued these damned things to their servants had no sense of restraint or perspective.”
“It’s a bomb?” Milanda asked shrilly.
Walker shook her head. “Only a member of the Order could issue that command. Unless Scyllith or Naiya greatly surprise me with a sudden display of attentiveness, that’s not about to happen. No, Milanda, at issue was that it isn’t gene-locked, and you were pointing it at your face, with your finger on the activator.”
Milanda gulped heavily. “Oh. Well, um, thank you, then.”
“You are welcome.”
“What does it do?”
Walker sighed again, gave the device an oddly contemptuous look, and pressed the switch with her thumb.
A loud hiss sounded, and a shaft of blue light about a yard long sprang from the tip of the cylinder, then remained rather than shooting further. Once activated, it put off a deep, powerful hum, the noise suggesting an enormous amount of energy coursing through the thing. Walker carefully waved it back and forth, and the pitch of its humming shifted as it moved through the air.
Milanda frowned, belatedly making sense of the arrangement. The cylinder was a handle, and the light…
“It’s a sword?”
“It’s a sword,” Walker confirmed, still staring at it. She took two steps to the side, and casually swept it against the heavy lid currently lying ajar atop the nearest crate.
Its corner was sliced off as if it were paper. Where the energy blade passed through it, a rim of angrily glowing metal remained, melting further even as it cooled.
Milanda gulped again. “Oh. I didn’t realize the Order’s servants fought with swords.”
“They didn’t,” Walker said acerbically. “These will cut virtually any solid matter save mithril, but were useless against either energy shields or directed energy weapons, which made them…useless. They were, as I said, ceremonial. And the ceremonial guards who carried them suffered an alarming rate of attrition from self-inflicted dismemberment. Mostly due to the fencing bouts their masters demanded they perform. I am proud to say Naiya never wasted time or resources on such idiocy.”
“Idiocy indeed,” Milanda said disbelievingly. “Of all the… They wanted their guards to play around with them? I can hear how dangerous that thing is from way over here!”
“Actually, funny story,” Walker said with a smile. “The technology that produces energy blades is highly efficient. No excess glowing or buzzing. This has extra machinery in the hilt to produce the light and sound effects.” She pressed the switch again, and the blade deactivated with an apparently gratuitous hiss.
Milanda actually clapped a hand to her head. “I don’t understand the mentality of these people. Why, why would they do something so destructive and completely pointless?!”
Walker shrugged, carefully laying the sword back in its crate. “They were the Infinite Order. You ask why? For the first hundred years, the answer was ‘for science,’ and thereafter, ‘who’s going to stop us?’” She shook her head and paced back over to the terminals. “Anyway. The facility seems active; these would be displaying a warning if the teleporters were broken, instead of being in normal standby mode.”
“All right, then,” Milanda said, following her, then cleared her throat. “Computer! Activate facility exterior sensors! Was that right?” she added in a lower tone.
Walker gave her a little smile. “Just fine.”
Further conversation was forestalled by the computer’s chime of acknowledgment. “Facility physical sensors offline.”
Walker frowned. “What? Why?”
Nothing happened. Walker rolled her eyes, then looked expectantly at Milanda, who grinned.
“Computer, diagnose the problem with the sensors.”
“All physical sensor apparatus were manually disconnected by order of REDACTED. Manual reconnection required to resume operation.”
Walker shook her head slowly. “The mystery deepens. I’m growing curious enough about what happened to this place I may just summon a god and ask them.”
“You can summon a god of the Pantheon?” Milanda asked, fascinated.
The fairy gave her a wry half-smile. “Well…not directly. But if you make enough of a ruckus and survive long enough, one will eventually show up. They’re fairly reliable in that regard.”
“Right. Let’s consider that Plan B. For now, what are our options? Computer, how can we manually reconnect the sensors?”
“Physical repair is necessary at maintenance access points.”
Walker was already shaking her head again. “No good. We really will have to fire up the Caretaker now; he’s the only one who can do that kind of engineering. I’m not skilled in such detailed work, and you certainly aren’t. In the meantime…” She frowned thoughtfully. “Hmm. See if it will connect to transcension fields. Naiya deliberately disabled the one linking the Order’s facilities, but this should be able to link to others directly. And we know there are at least four still in operation.”
“Right. Computer! See if you can connect to any active transcension fields.”
“Working.” After a short pause, it chimed again. “Four transcension fields active at sufficient power to form a connection. Personal fields of User Scyllith and User Naiya. Unidentified transcension field. Unidentified transcension field.”
“So the arcane was made after the Order fell,” Walker mused. “Otherwise, it’d recognize it…”
Milanda glanced at her, but continued speaking to the computer. “Can you gather sensor data directly through the transcension fields?”
“Exactly,” Walker said with a smile.
“Working. Affirmative. Both authorized fields enable direct data acquisition.”
“Hmm…” Walker gave Milanda a thoughtful look. “It might be best to use one of the others. I prefer not to accidentally draw the attention of a surviving Elder God.”
Milanda noted that this was the first time Walker had referred to members of the Infinite Order that way. “People use their magic all the time without calling them down.”
“Not from a designated Infinite Order facility, they don’t. Either of them would know exactly what that connection was and what it meant. Their consciousness may be too diffuse at this point for it to matter, but…that’s a risk.”
“Fair enough. Computer! Try to connect to one of the other active fields.”
“Authorization required. Please see the system administrator for clearance.”
Walker sighed. “Apparently there’s a limit to how much monkeying around it will tolerate without getting actual Order permission.”
“Seems like an arbitrary limit.”
“Yes,” she said irritably, “as is most of what they did. Very well… If we must, try Naiya’s. I can’t say she’s less erratic than Scyllith at this point, but she’s not cruel or gratuitously destructive.”
“Well, that’s encouraging,” Milanda muttered. “Nothing else for it, I guess. Computer! Connect directly to Naiya’s transcension field.”
“Attempting connection. Working.”
Walker and Milanda looked nervously at each other.
“Should it take this long?”
Walker shrugged. “I’ve never seen this done, Milanda. Last time I used computers like these, they had their own dedicated transcension field. This isn’t normal operation.”
“Connection established. Warning: Transcension field eighty-two percent deviant from recorded values. Connection unstable. Would you like to optimize the connection?”
“What would that entail, exactly?”
She had been asking Walker, but the computer answered.
“Narrowing the accessible energy spectrum and activating additional security protocols will result in a stable and secure connection at the cost of transmission and reception speed loss. Conversely, broadening the accessible spectrum and disabling security will restore full connection speed, but cause increased risk of disconnection and adverse reactions within the facility’s systems.”
“Rule of thumb, when connecting computers to anything else,” Walker stated. “Never disable security.”
“How likely and how severe would these…interruptions…be?” Milanda asked.
“At present deviation from recorded values, full security is strongly recommended. Disconnection from the transcension field is considered ninety percent probable, at a projected rate of two events per minute. Possible side effects are variable, potentially including catastrophic damage to the system.”
Walker shook her head emphatically. Milanda sighed.
“I guess the safe way is the slow way, then. Computer, optimize the connection.”
“Working. Connection optimized. Connection within acceptable safety and stability parameters. Data transmission and reception speed: five percent of optimal. Capacity to achieve physical effects: Point zero five percent of optimal.”
“So we can get information through it, but not do witchcraft,” Walker said. “Well, fine, that’s more or less what we wanted anyway.”
“Don’t we need to do witchcraft to fix the Hands?”
“Not outside the facility; everything needed to affect that system we already have. It’s done via the dryads, remember, not the machines here.”
“Alert: one pending message.”
Both of them turned to the screen before them in surprise; it had lit up with an icon Milanda recognized as an envelope.
“A message from who?” Walker demanded.
“A message from whom?” Milanda repeated after a moment, earning an annoyed look.
“Status report from extraplanetary monitors,” the computer reported. “Since last connection, this solar system has been approached by confirmed intelligences seven times. Two were confirmed human in origin. One confirmed nonhuman in origin. Two additional events may have signified intelligent contact. Do you wish a detailed report?”
“Um, no, thank you,” Milanda said. Frowning, she turned to Walker. “Gods, I never even thought about that. Other people came here? From Earth?”
“Earth, perhaps another colony, apparently at least one place totally unrelated.” Walker shrugged. “The dimensional folding around this solar system renders it completely impenetrable. It would also tend to draw attention from any species with the capability to detect it. That kind of thing can’t possibly occur naturally, and is a truly vast engineering achievement. Fortunately, or perhaps not, it also has the effect of making the emphatic point that visitors are not welcome. We are alone here.”
“Seven, though,” she said thoughtfully. “In eight thousand years.”
“Space is big,” Walker murmured. “Like, really, really big. That’s downright bustling.”
“Well, anyway. Computer! I want you to use the transcension field access to form a physical map of the city—I mean, the landing pad area above. It needs to be precise enough to make teleporter jumps from here to…wherever in the area on this mountain we decide.”
“Working. Map estimated completion in point five hours.”
Milanda frowned. “Arcane teleportation is almost instantaneous…”
“We’re not using that,” Walker pointed out. “You can’t ordinarily teleport through Mother’s transcension field, and apparently the computer can barely access it. This is pretty reasonable, all things considered. Well! Since we apparently have some time, let’s go back and see about waking up the CT unit, shall we? After all, somebody needs to start straightening this place up, and better him than us.”
The path back to the security hub involved a short elevator ride, then a walk down two hallways, which was more interesting than it needed to be due to the boxes cluttering them. It took about five minutes to reach the hub, but they returned through one of its other entrances, not the one which led to the prison wing and the door to the dryads’ chamber, so their comings and goings should be secure from any Hands who might visit the facility.
“No, any colonies would almost have to be on their own,” Walker was saying as they reentered the round room. “A true galactic civilization isn’t feasible due to relativistic effects. Even disregarding the travel distances involved, time itself doesn’t move the same way in every part of the universe. Without—”
She broke off suddenly at the head of the steps down to the lower level, Milanda crowding behind her.
They weren’t alone in the security hub.
“Oh,” Milanda said with a wince, peering over Walker’s shoulder. “Um, hello, Hawthorn.”
The dryad was staring, wide-eyed, at Walker. At Milanda’s voice, she began screaming.