Cace observed an inexplicable shift in the Ether. There was a change, a sense of pressure…but what it meant he could not tell. He took his attention off of Rolar and rifled through all the other modules of the machine, trying to find something that seemed unusual or wrong, but there was nothing.
Yet something was there, he was sure of it. Something in the atmosphere of the place had changed, and finally he was left to conclude that whatever had shifted must have done so outside of the machine, out where he couldn’t detect it directly. He knew of its presence only by how it pressed against all the systems that he could sense directly.
“Aylme, are you there?” he tried to say through his overworld body…but he could tell that the words weren’t escaping his own head.
He turned his mind back to the unknown presence. Something new had been unleashed, and that mysterious entity was weighing more heavily on his consciousness every moment, like a dark, heavy cloud growing more and more solid. He didn’t like it. Not one bit. It felt like a threat. And if none of the parts of the machine could perceive and interact with that threat, then it would be completely at the mercy of that outside entity.
Which puzzled Cace. How had the machine been able to survive if it hadn’t had any way to respond to the things outside of itself? One would think that some malevolent presence would have torn it apart long ago if the machine had no way to defend itself.
Oh wait…it had had a way to defend itself.
Cace turned his attention to the last fading remnants of the beast he had killed. Of course! Cace thought to himself. This was a monster even in the overworld! It had been the machine’s eyes for the outside world, the warden that could identify and eradicate any threat.
And he had killed it.
“Aylme, get me out of here!” he tried to shout, but once again the intention went nowhere. He tried to pause and listen inside of himself, tried to find the cadence of the Ether so that he could break free from its rhythms. But this time he couldn’t feel the pulse. Not even a little bit. Try as he might, he couldn’t find any remnants of the outside world whatsoever. It was as if this was the only reality that existed, even though he knew that wasn’t true.
Oh, Cace thought to himself, so this must be what it feels like for other people…totally confined in the boundaries of a single world.
He knew that he ought to be in a panic, but a shocking, yet reassuring, realization came over him instead: part of him never wanted to see the overworld again. Part of him felt like this was where he properly belonged, like he was finally awake and aware in the place he was supposed to be. The place he had always been, just hadn’t been able to see it. Out in the overworld things didn’t make sense, they were too hard to control. Here things followed rules that he could understand. There was a balance and an order, one that he had to be careful not to upset, but which he could bend to his will. The Ether had a right and proper solution to all sorts of problems that were unsolvable up above, just so long as he clever enough to find it. And maybe it even had a solution to the strange and pervasive presence that was crowding around this ordered, beautiful world. So long as he was clever enough to find it….
Cace turned his focus back to the last embers of the beast he had slain. They were slowly filing into the furnace that powered the machine’s core. Cace opened the functions of that furnace and found the control to manage the rate of consumption and turned it all the way off. Before long the machine core would run out of its energy stores and most of its modules would go silent again, but that was a matter for another day.
For now Cace took a closer look at the last pieces of the warden module. There were only bits and pieces remaining, and after trying to reassemble them he concluded that some key parts were absent entirely. He would never be able to cobble back together a complete entity.
But…could he make something new? Not quite the beast that had been before, but something that could still identify threats and protect against them?
He did find a few remaining instances of the module that allowed for the warden to identify entities which were separate for the machine, so that was good. There were not any more modules for aggressive action, though, nor for the planting of a new larva. Also many of the most basic components, such as locomotion and communication were absent.
One other key module was still present, though, and that was for the larva to connect to a host and refashion it as a duplicate of its own inner schematic. Of course that duplicate would be incomplete now, possessing only the qualities that had still survived, but maybe that would work out? Maybe the parts that the larva could no longer override would remain unchanged in the host. The larva could teach the host how to recognize external threats, but the host would depend on its original systems for knowing how to respond to them.
But what new host could he use?
Without even thinking about it, Cace’s attention slid over to where Rolar’s compromised system still pulsated. It, too, was incomplete. Rolar was surviving, but he would never be able to wake up and function as his own agent without replacing some of the shattered pieces inside. Maybe the larva could help replace those missing pieces?
No! Cace scolded himself. What am I even thinking?! He couldn’t do that to Rolar. He didn’t even know what sort of monstrosity that would result in. Half-Rolar and half-creature? That might be a fate worse than death!
But on the other hand…he needed to attach the remnants of the beast to some host now, or else they would finish fading forever. Already they were almost completely detached from the rest of the greater system. They had to go somewhere.
Not Rolar. He thought firmly. But then who?