Cace came near and crouched down by Rolar. He was still observing the world through two different lenses, and just as how he could see the slumped over body and the arm twisted at the strange angle he could also sense how Rolar’s system was leaking itself into the Ether, distributing its essence as a stain upon the others.
He was dying.
“He doesn’t have long left,” Cace announced.
“Help me get him back home. We’ll take care of things there.”
“He doesn’t even have long enough left for that,” Cace clarified. “I can see it through the Ether. We only have moments.”
Aylme couldn’t see it, but something was ruptured in Rolar. He was bleeding out from the inside. Even if they had the tools and the expertise, Cace and Aylme would never be able to fix that before it was too late. There was nothing in this world that could save Rolar, so once again, Cace knew he had to rely upon the Ether. He would have to go deeper, though.
“I’m going to the other side,” he said to Aylme. She just blinked back at him with tear-filled eyes. “It’s our only chance of finding a way to save him. I’ll try to speak to you if I need anything…and you just help me come back alright afterwards.”
Aylme didn’t try to argue the matter this time. Even without Cace’s diagnosis she had a sense that Rolar was beyond anything they could do here. So she just nodded and Cace let go of their world entirely. He fell through limbo, the thump thump of the Ether’s cadence rippled past his heart, and he landed in that other domain, quickly taking in all his surroundings.
Sprawled about in every direction were the tattered remains of the sentinel creature and its larva. Back in the overworld their physical forms had already been totally eradicated, but in the Ether their trace connections were still disintegrating. And once those connections fully dissipated Cace wouldn’t be able to find the remnants of those creatures ever again. Once something was fully severed from the system it became unperceivable.
And only a little behind those disintegrating forms was Rolar. He was fading, too. Perhaps in the overworld he would leave a body behind, but here it would be as if he had never even existed.
The extinguishing of Rolar and the sentinel creatures was not all that had changed since the last time Cace had entered the Ether, many new modules had suddenly popped online. They’re connections to the heart of the machine had always been there, but each time before Cace hadn’t been able to do anything with them. But that was before he had stoked the furnace with the fuel of the sentinel creatures. Now power had been restored, and all these new functions were finally available.
Some of these functions were for exploration, others for movement, others for extraction, and others for analysis. A thousand possibilities, and Cace had access to them all. But those were curiosities for another day. All he cared about now was whether any of them could help to preserve Rolar.
Here was a module to alert the other parts of the system when something was detected. Perhaps that would be useful for later, but Cace ignored it for now.
A module to regulate the flow of energy coming from the furnace? Not useful.
A module for helping the machine to make decisions? No.
A module for managing all of the system’s connections? Well…maybe that one could be useful. Rolar would be lost to the system once all of his connections were gone, so what if Cace found a way to keep those connections from being lost? Would that force Rolar to stay alive in the overworld as well?
Cace focused his consciousness towards that component, quickly assessed all of the different functions it could perform. He perceived that it was what had created all of the tendrils that held the system together in the first place. It decided which components could interact with which others.
Cace now held that module in his consciousness, and he divided his attention between it and Rolar. He considered at the connections between Rolar and the larger system that had already faded, and he drew them back with this new connections-module. Rolar held those tethers only for a moment, but then those strands disintegrated once more.
Cace drew the connections again, but they evaporated even faster than before.
Rolar’s core was too fractured. It just couldn’t sustain those threads. Cace realized that there had to be a healthy core at both ends of a connection or else the bridge between them would fade. Time was running out.
Well, Cace wondered to himself, could I fix Rolar’s core, then? He shifted his focus there, examining the fractured heart more closely, and he realized that Rolar’s core was not unlike the greater core of the machine. Like that larger machine core, it was connected to and controlled many other modules, which when all combined defined who Rolar was and what he could do. And just as how the threads that connected Rolar to the rest of machine were fading, so too were the inner connections between Rolar’s personal core and its components. Once all of them were gone, Rolar cease to have any function whatsoever.
But Cace couldn’t see any way to fix that core, though. It was cracked and leaking energy, and he simply didn’t have the knowledge to piece it back together. Cace did notice, though, that Rolar had a module designed to repair himself, and that it was busily trying to do exactly that, but it was too small and too slow to keep up with his rapid decline. That healing module also required a great deal of energy from Rolar’s core to perform its function, and of course Rolar’s core had less energy to offer with each passing moment.
Could Cace bolster that then? He shifted a part of his consciousness to the furnace for the main machine. He brought over the connections module, and traced a line from the furnace to Rolar’s healer. No sooner was the connection made than Rolar’s healer module began operating at a much higher speed, rapidly moving across the fractured components and repairing them. It was working!
And as Cace watched, the connections between Rolar’s core and Rolar’s other modules started to stabilize. He wasn’t coming apart from the inside anymore! Cace decided he could take some strain off of Rolar’s core as well, and he severed the connection between it and the healer. Now the healer would operate entirely by the power of the larger machine, and his core could focus on helping its other components.
Cace settled back for a moment, watching Rolar’s system at work. After a while he noticed the healer seemed to be working too quickly, building up heat and friction among the modules it was repairing. No doubt the greater energy from the machine furnace was overpowering it. But Cace remembered that the machine had also had a module to regulate the flow of energy that came from the furnace. He retrieved that module, and a moment later had it connected to Rolar’s lifeline. With a little configuring, he could control exactly how much energy went into Rolar’s healer. He still set it to operate at higher speeds than it normally would, which meant some excess heat was unavoidable, but for the time being that seemed the lesser evil.
Rolar was stabilized. At least…somewhat. His own inner connections had stopped fading, but his outer connections—the ones that joined him to the rest of the machine—were erratic. They were in constant flux now. Sometimes surging brighter, sometimes fading dimmer, but never returning to full force and never fully expiring.
Cace may have stopped Rolar from going over the brink, but the older boy was still in limbo.