This large, building-sized, roughly saucer-shaped structure rests slightly askew in a crater in the wastes of the Wandering Roams, surrounded by torn hulks of ceramic and more alien materials that at once suggest pieces of its frame, but also mechanical carapaces of the giant nomadic creatures known as "goliaths". There is only one obvious opening, through an iris-door with a strangely formed indentation of a hand-print to one side. Inside, a corridor leads in and up at the skewed angle of the structure itself. The floor is mottled with an anti-skid texture, and the upper portions of the walls to each side evidence a tangle of clear tubes bearing luminescent greenish fluids that bathe the corridor in faint light. Intersections evidence yet more corridors, suggesting that the saucer structure may be filled with a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.
The structure, while it evidences features appropriate to the accommodation of humanoid creatures inside, nonetheless appears to be quite alien to Sinai. Perhaps it is suitably ironic that the first person to set foot inside perhaps for centuries or even millennia is an alien to Sinai as well. Mage Envoy of Lothrhyn is accompanied by a lupine Mage Iona a fellow earth mage as well as the Titanian scout Backhand, the Zerda scholar Jaffi of Madara, and the big and quiet four-armed Tiger-Khatta, Ari. The rest of the porters and assistants with the expedition are back at the base camp, and the zakis still show no sign of any inclination to interfere with the exploration of the structure.
So far, aside from the large tubes that were thrust into the ground, there has been no evidence of any sort of foundation laid here. Given the crater and the position of the structure, it would take little imagination to imagine that the whole thing had been flung through the air or perhaps traveled of its own volition and crashed violently in the wasteland. It shows a multitude of signs of damage on the exterior, though the interior looks to be in considerably better shape.
As Envoy and her companions have explored so far, they have spied a number of strange mechanisms, branching corridors, and more iris doors. Of particular note, however, is that they have found in some places evidence of Sifran crystal. In particular, one of the chambers visible through an open iris door is taken up by a large jumble of cables and tubes and mechanical-looking structures of uncertain purpose, with no visible moving parts. The chamber shows signs of carbon-marking here and there, and there are also traces of the reddish amber-like substance weeping through "wounds" in the wall panels. Lumps of Sifran crystal have been discovered, wedged into gaps in the machinery, where panels have been torn open to reveal the wiry innards.
The crystals pulse and throb, and appear to be fused with the machinery, although they have something of an appearance of being stuck in as replacements for components that may have been there before. Not all of these components are mechanical. Nestled within a tangle of tubes conveying bursts of bubbling green glowing liquid is what looks like a variation on a trilobite, its legs fused with cables and conduits, and translucent membranes in its shell showing strange cellular structures that glow faintly … and suggest the appearance of some sort of computer read-out, only organic. In other places, there are more evidences of organic components, though most of the time, there are only skeletal remains and brittle carapaces, not actual, living creatures.
Jaffi has been acting much like a cub in a candy shop, and he has been more interested in a larger chamber closer to the heart of the structure. He said something about alchemical equipment and a "homunculus", and took Ari with him. Backhand has been doing his best not to touch anything, which means that he's only banged on things occasionally but so far nothing that has been unable to withstand a little abuse after surviving so long in the wastes. Iona has taken the time to recharge a held Shape spell, since that tends to be a fairly versatile tool in unknown situations.
The Aeolun examines the connections between the Sifran "patches" and other equipment. "Do you suppose these people might have been the First Ones, Iona? The ones that built the Old City on Rephidim?" she casually asks her partner while she pokes her nose into things.
Iona peruses the oddities about the room. "A fusing of crystals with more familiar 'technology' … that is the sort of thing we would associate with the First Ones. But there's so much here that is … organic." She wrinkles her nose in distaste, as she fumbles for the word. "That doesn't seem like anything on Rephidim. I've never seen anything quite so … so … " She gives up on finishing the sentence, and just shrugs, one hand holding an ethereal floating "crystal" that is the visible manifestation of a recharged and held "Shape" spell.
"I imagine that Sifran crystal is somewhat alive as well," Envoy comments, and goes to examine the trilobite component. "It appears to me that they developed mechanical technologies first, and then augmented them with organic ones later on. There must be a chamber around somewhere for making zakis." She attempts to wiggle some of the connector-legs on the creature.
The creature squirms a little at Envoy's touch, and a nearly vestigial set of mandibles at one end poised around what looks like some sort of nutrient tube heading into the mouth wiggle impotently. The connector-leg seems to be fairly sturdy, but it would not require much force to pop it off. It's not clear whether it could simply pop back on again, however.
"Let's go see what Jaffi found. It sounded like some sort of artificial womb," Envoy suggests, grinning at the Jupani mage. "There might be a command interface there we can talk to."
Iona nods. "A good idea. He seems terribly curious. With this much time to examine it himself, he'll probably have an hours' worth of theories to share with us by now." She smirks, and falls behind Envoy.
It takes a bit of navigating to get through the maze of twisty passages, but Envoy's photographic memory proves quite useful. (Although there may be organic elements in the ship, thank goodness, it doesn't rearrange itself!) On the way to the chamber, however, there is a crackle and a flash of light from the direction of the larger chamber, and the smell of burnt fur reaches the noses of Iona and Envoy. Iona's ears flatten in alarm, and she cries out, "JAFFI! Are you all right?"
Backhand habitually ducks his head, even though there is more than enough headroom for him large as he is in the tall and narrow corridor. "Wha?" he whurfs.
Envoy hurries along the tilted corridor towards the chamber. "Be careful of your hammer, Backhand," she says to the Titanian. "There might be … small lightning in the chamber."
Envoy and Iona beat Backhand into the chamber, as he pauses a moment to try hard to think about what Envoy might mean. (He doesn't evidence any sign of being struck by inspiration for the time being.) When Envoy and Iona come into the large chamber, they find what looks something like a section that one might get, if one took a circle and divided it into quarters, then took a smaller circle out of the center of these four "pie pieces" … and if this were one of those four "pie pieces" left over. The room is vaguely crescent-shaped, and the corridor Envoy and Iona just entered is at the middle of the outer rim of the room. The room is filled from floor to ceiling with technological devices, a great number of them being translucent and filled with bubbling fluids.
"Jaffi, can you hear us?" Envoy calls into the forest of plumbing. To Iona she asks, "Can you find him?"
Iona sniffs at the air, and jogs around some of the equipment. "This way… ," she says, though with very little certainty. The task is made more easy, however, at the sound of chuckling. It sounds like Jaffi's voice, all right. The Titanian finally lumbers into the chamber, and carefully keeps away from all the clear and apparently breakable things, with the bubbling liquid and the strange shadows floating inside.
Envoy follows after the wolf-mage, and warns Backhand, "Don't try to eat anything you find in here, no matter how tasty it might look."
Backhand whines in disappointment. As Envoy turns the corner, she finds a very disheveled-looking Jaffi, staggering about, his fur poking out in strange directions, and smelling of burnt fur. Ari stands, impassive, nearby, though he seems to be keeping more distance from Jaffi than he usually does.
Iona rushes up to the Zerda. "Oh no! What happened? Are you all right? We'll get you back to camp… "
Jaffi's ears twitch, and he pushes Iona away. "I'm fine! FINE! I … just had a small accident, that's all." He blinks several times, then giggles. "Had quite a shock there!"
The Aeolun looks around to see what might have caused said shock.
It takes a moment for Envoy to assess familiar shapes in the jumble of alien machinery, but she soon spies what might pass for a large chair, though it appears to be made for someone with much longer limbs than Jaffi or herself, for that matter. Conceivably, the person it was meant for might be about as tall as the Titanian, but thin and spindly in proportions, so he would hardly fit. There are numerous cables, and some crystalline "arms" curving around from each side about where the head might be.
"Did you try sitting in the chair, Jaffi?" Envoy asks the frizzy scholar.
Jaffi says, "No! I mean … yes … yes. Whoo! I think I should sit down … but, no no no, not there again." He titters. "A bit too much for me, I dare say!"
Envoy glances at Iona, then looks to Jaffi. "You obviously got shocked, like Iona did when she opened the iris. But what else happened? Did you… see or hear anything?"
Jaffi looks as if he's deep in thought, then smiles broadly. "The First Ones … the First Ones spoke to me!"
Grinning, Envoy tells Iona, "I think Jaffi has found the command console." Back to the Zerda, she asks, "Did you understand what they said?"
Jaffi shakes his head. "Oh … they didn't … they didn't say anything. It wasn't hearing … so much as feeling … breathing … being." His eyes take on a distant cast, then he shakes himself. "Ahem. Pardon me. It's all a bit … overwhelming, you see. This shall take some time for me to properly put it into perspective."
Envoy hmmms. "You felt you were experiencing the sensations of a different body then?"
Jaffi nods. "Yes! That's it! Precisely! Recorded sensations … experiences!"
Iona furrows her brow. "Perhaps this is like a Learning Helmet?" She gives Jaffi another concerned look, as he dusts himself off.
"Are you sure they were recorded?" the Exile asks, rubbing the side of her muzzle with a finger as she considers this information. "You definitely were not a zaki or a goliath, right?"
Jaffi looks indignant. "Most certainly not! I was … I was an elegant, utterly alien creature, totally unlike any known to Sinai."
Envoy looks from Jaffi to the chair, to Iona, then back to Jaffi again. "Please wiggle your fingers, nose, ears, whiskers, toes and tail for me. I want to make certain there was no motor imprinting or neural damage caused by the machine."
Jaffi looks at Envoy all the more indignantly. "Wiggle … my … ? … Oh, by the First Ones!"
Envoy blinks and grins. "Sorry, I just wanted to make sure. This system seems to employ a stronger electrical field than the other neural interfaces I've seen."
Jaffi hmphs, and crosses his arms. "I'm quite certain I'm in good health. Just a little … shaken."
"I'd like to try the chair next then, if that's all right with everyone?" Envoy says, and 'pulls' the Shape spell she was holding out of her horn with her left hand, and then lets the wiggling, shifting blob of light dissipate as she releases it uncast. No sense in taking chances of it misfiring while she's in the chair.
Iona's ears flick back. "Are you certain that's wise, Envoy? I mean … You're taking a considerable and quite unknown risk. What if it reacts to you differently?"
Jaffi snickers. "Just as long as she makes certain to wiggle her ears and her tail when she comes back, hmm?"
"I'm sure it will react to me differently," Envoy says, looking over the chair. "The iris contact reacted differently to me than it did to you. But then again I have some experience with devices like this." She checks to see if her wings will fit comfortably.
Actually, it looks as if Envoy's wings will fit comfortably, though not by any deliberate design of the chair rather, it's simply that the chair is so long and narrow that there is plenty of room on each side for Envoy's more "standard" proportions, though it's not exactly a comfortable fit for the rest of her body.
Envoy tries crossing her legs underneath her in the chair, to bring her head up closer to the proper height. "Umm, you will pull me out if smoke starts to come out of my ears though, I hope?" she asks the others.
Iona gulps at the notion, and nods. "Immediately! Envoy, if you do something terrible to yourself, I won't be able to forgive myself for letting you do it!"
Jaffi frowns disapprovingly. "I … think that, given that we know this is no ordinary chair, the idea of deliberately subjecting oneself to such risks is … inadvisable."
Envoy blinks in surprise. "Don't worry, Iona. Even if nothing seems to happen, you can pull me out after … oh … twenty heartbeats? I think this may be what you thought, a sort of Learning Helmet, for downloading memories into a new body."
Slowly, Envoy reaches up and grabs the curving "arms" that sit at head-height, and tries to bring them in closer to her own head.
Even before Envoy can complete the motion of reaching up to try to adjust the device, she gets the odd sensation of time around her seeming to come to a halt, as energy shoots through her body. Iona's mouth slowly comes open in a look of fear, and she seems to be moving as if through molasses instead of air toward the chair. Jaffi's eyebrows fold into a questioning expression. And Envoy's sense of feeling in her body fades, as do her other senses.
Not as violent as the Sifran interface, at least, Envoy thinks in the darkness.
A jumble of sensations cascade through Envoy's mind … as if baubles were pouring down upon her from above, and mostly bouncing off, or being knocked off of her by the next ones to fall. She has a fleeting sensation of being in an elongated body, humanoid, furless, of a pale gray complexion … and of others of similar form. She sees flashes of images of what she is now certain is a starship this structure though she is filled with an understanding that this 'machine' is made not just of lifeless materials, but organic components … creatures molded to the purpose of herself … or, that is, the creature that she "is", for a moment.
She sees glimpses of the ship … of living "components" wearing out, then being consumed by other creatures, and replaced, all in complex combinations of mechanical devices and specially genetically manipulated creatures that bear only vestigial traces of whatever they were like in nature.
Amid the flow of sensations, Envoy tries to find a sense of underlying purpose.
Envoy is struck with a sensation of wrongness. In the midst of the flood of images, it feels as if there's a gap in the middle … something is missing. It's as if something was here, but it has passed out of this stream of jumbled ideas, and all that is left to cascade across her consciousness is some left over residue. She is hit with images of the ship crashing … fleeting images of the survivors of the crash attempting to repair the ship … of a sense of a great amount of time passing … discovering the purpose of the Sifran crystals … evidence of a culture present here before them … fusing Sifran crystals with their own technology … learning how to invoke powers of the ancients … a wasting madness … turning on each other … reality compromised… the concepts get more vague, less easily grasped … painful.
The curse, Envoy thinks, beginning to wonder if the crew turned into … zakis.
None of the concepts seem inclined to answer this … but Envoy is given a glimpse of the chamber, and of creatures floating within vats … being shaped … conformed … animals found on Sinai … animals that she knows cannot be native to this world, perhaps brought by other visitors stranded here as well … creatures bent to the purpose of herself and her people … to become components … of the structure.
What is the purpose of the structure? Envoy's mind tries to ask.
Exploration. Travel across the stars. Accumulating of knowledge. Broadening of the genetic library. Enhancement of the self. And, in a more desperate sense … a means to escape this accursed place, where machines fail, and flesh mutates.
Did we escape? Did we succeed?
Pain shoots through Envoy, sharp stabbing pain, probing, ripping through her senses, slashing at her angrily … then, just as suddenly … ripping away …
… as Iona calls out, "Envoy! Envoy, speak to me! ENVOY!" She shakes the Aeolun by the shoulders, and Envoy is dimly aware that she is lying askew on the floor, slumped against something hard and flat and cold.
Envoy tries to open her eyes and tell Iona … tell Iona … what? "Stop shaking, please… "
Iona looks alarmed, then breaks out into a smile and throws her arm around the Aeolun, laughing. "Envoy! We were afraid we'd lost you!" Backhand is leaning over Envoy, too, letting out a whine of concern. "She okay?" he whurfs.
Jaffi says, with a snort of contempt, "Are we surprised?"
Envoy blinks her eyes and tries to get her bearings. "How long was I under?" she asks, "Did I get shocked?"
"Several minutes, I think," Iona says, "though I wasn't keeping time. And, yes, you did get shocked. It was … very difficult to try to get you out of there. Backhand had to pull you out."
Backhand lets out a whine. He's got a few scorch marks on his fur and clothes … but on him, it's almost certainly superficial.
Envoy nods and manages to sit up by herself. "I didn't get the full record, but I received … enough, I think." She checks herself for burns or other signs of damage. "You should ask Wynona about the last time I got stuck in an interface, Iona."
Iona raises an eyebrow. "You have led a most interesting life, Mage Envoy!" She smirks, brushing Envoy off a bit. "I am no doctor, but I take it you're feeling better."
"I'm feeling, in any case." Turning towards the Zerda, she asks, "How much did you see when you were interfaced, Jaffi? Did you get as far as the crash?"
Jaffi blinks. "Oh … actually … it's all been fading away, I'm afraid. I remember the creatures … hmm … maybe something about the crash … but nothing definite. Like a dream remembered clearly upon waking, then flitting away in a moment."
Envoy nods, even though she has no idea what the mentioned experience might be like. She stands up and takes Backhand's paw in her hands, and smiles to him, saying, "Thank you, Backhand."
Backhand smiles lopsidedly, and his tail wags a bit. "Sure, magey!" he whurfs.
"I didn't see anything to definitely place these people in time," Envoy says, choosing her words carefully, "but I do not think they are the ones we'd call the First Ones. They were altering life forms here, but I didn't recognize any of the current sentient races. They may have just been … stranded here."
Iona nods. "Well … that still tells us something, I suppose. Altering life forms, though?" She looks around. "Yes, I suppose that would describe what we see here. A " She breaks off, staring at one of the large vats on top of the machines. "Envoy … is that … ?" She points at the shadowy form floating in the liquid.
Envoy looks up to where Iona is pointing.
Floating in the vat is a desiccated corpse, connected by a withered umbilical to equipment at each end of the vat. The corpse might, with a certain degree of imagination, resemble another type of zaki. It would seem that there are many such vats in the room … and the majority of them hold organic remains in various states of disassembly, floating in a foul greenish broth.
"They were trying to build something that would let them escape from Sinai," Envoy says, looking up at the various corpses. "The crew started to degenerate somehow. Maybe it was a disease caused by their experiments. I've been wondering if they became the zakis. I didn't see anything that would hint at what the goliaths are actually supposed to be doing. Unless it's just to accumulate that fluid that leaks out when they die."
The bodies in the vats vary greatly in form, though none of them resemble in the least bit the humanoid bodies that Envoy vaguely recalls the aliens having. Some of them, however, resemble some of the organic creatures Envoy spied within the machinery such as the "trilobite".
Iona nods. "Well, I suppose that piece is still missing. Maybe you should write a report of your observations … while it's still fresh."
"As a precaution, I will," Envoy nods, trying to spot other familiar replacement parts growing in the vats. "I don't normally forget things, though. We should try to get samples of these fluids too, they might be related to the merging catalyst of the Zakis. Has anyone found a naked eep in one of the tanks yet?"
"Actually," Iona says, "now that you mention it, these remains resemble those of an eep." She points at some avian bones and tattered remains with odd proportions. The telltale oversized eyes, however, have collapsed into unhealthy-looking wads of desiccated flesh.
"Modified to serve as part of the structure they were building," the Aeolun says, sounding a bit somber. "They didn't succeed. Everything is probably just running on automatic now. The goliaths might have just meant to be used as construction machines."
Envoy blinks suddenly. "The Forbidden Zone. It could have formed here because of the device they were building. There was something like … reality breaking down … just before they all started to go mad."
"Reality breaking down?" Jaffi says, a note of distaste in his voice. "How preposterous!"
"Ever been to Bosch, Jaffi?" Envoy asks, teasingly. "Trust me, there are plenty of places in the Primus system where reality is … flexible."
Jaffi's look at Envoy seems almost baleful for a moment, but then he looks away. "True … true, Forbidden Zones are homes to all sorts of irregularities as we all should well know!" He lets out a big sigh, then says, "I think … I think I've been greatly tired by our adventures today. Perhaps we should head back to camp, and make plans for continuing our exploration tomorrow? There are many things to catalogue, before we go opening any new doors or pushing any buttons. Quite tedious, you know."
Envoy nods. "Yes, I need to write up the report as well."
Looking around the chamber once more before heading out, Envoy says, "I can't help but wonder, though … why the crew didn't make more of themselves as well?"