Part of a fictional series about The Culture alliance and the Screeps world.
“We, um. We just wrapped up the discussion with the other Culture members. You know, the one you were asking about?”
“Oh. Uh…sorry. I’ve been busy.”
“I can tell. You’ve been in here for days.”
“You can’t possibly know that.”
“I can and I do. I know that you haven’t slept for thirty hours and you haven’t eaten in ten. You stopped restocking standard supplies to your outposts two weeks ago, but you’ve requisitioned half of the alliance’s electromagnetic equipment stocks. When you were leaving this…whatever you call this heap of scraps, it was to examine those spires or to grab parts from incoming shipments. Three of your outposts are idling at pre-terminal, and a fourth hasn’t spawned any couriers in a week. You’re buying power and selling everything else your empire produces. Your credit balance is 40% above your usual impulse buy threshold. Do I need to continue?”
Bovius blinked, pushed his chair back from a desk covered with half-finished circuits and sketched diagrams, and rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. “…Right. I keep forgetting. Did you, uh, did you find anything out about YP?”
Esryok sighed slightly, then tucked the roll of paper he was holding under one arm and started winding his way around stacks of equipment toward the monstrous device that occupied the back half of the lab complex. Everywhere he looked, the dim yellow glow of tungsten bulbs reflected off of polished brass plating, coils of copper, silvered reflector dishes, tempered glass domes, and intricate combinations of circuit lines and etched runes. A seemingly haphazard collection of tables sprouted from a central workstation, each bearing an arm of some inscrutable, humming electrical apparatus. Boxes full of discarded parts or rejected creations were crammed into every available space under and around the tables, leaving a few narrow walkways in between. The central table had piles of dusty texts and spiral-bound notebooks, draped in cloth and encroaching on the messy work space Bovius hunched over.
“Bovius…is this about Primus? Because–”
“Ha!” Bovius let out a bark of a laugh. “She can take care of herself. No, this is about the spires we keep finding. But come, show me what you’ve got there.” He pushed aside a short, curved section of brass and started rearranging books and notes to make space on the desk.
Esryok rounded the corner of the last table, unrolled the paper he was carrying, and laid out a detailed map of the known world on the newly cleared desk space. He grabbed a couple books from underneath dust covers to hold the edges down.
“This,” he said, pointing to a dark area near the southern edge of the map, “is the landmass missing from Ypsilon Pact’s territory. As you can see, the rift has continued to grow westward. Just had another sector drop out across the meridian. We were up to 11 sectors gone at last check. The growth seems to be slowing there, but there’s been reports of at least three sectors going missing in other parts of the world. Information has been…frustratingly lacking in the affected areas. I’m having to get feet on the ground to learn anything at all, and most of the time they just find more questions.”
“So is it really just…gone?”
“Gone. Gigantic hole down into blackness and nothing. There’s some sort of energy field around the perimeter that turns everything that passes through to powder. What’s left of YP had two creeps get too close and tip over the edge, and then they sent twenty more on purpose just to see if they could get something through and find out anything about what’s down there. But as far as we can tell, there is no ‘down there’. No bottom, no portal, nothing to reflect light back. If you send something in, it’s safe to say you’re never going to see it again.”
Bovius stared at the inky black patches on the map. “That’s…really unsettling. Is that was you discussed with the others?”
“No. They already knew all that, because they haven’t been holed up in a lab creating…” he trailed off. “What is this, again? No, nevermind, tell me in a minute. I did show them these.” He pointed out several smaller territories scattered around the map. “Each of these are independent city-states, and each has fallen silent in the last week.”
“The pattern is the same for all of them. They stop spawning creeps and they’re controllers start decaying. No attacks, no messages, not even a hint that something has gone wrong with their command structures. They have a healthy economy, and then it stops. There’s no sign of any people. These two states, this one and this one, have vanished entirely, structures and all, like Hern did. The ground is still there, but…well, we just started taking local mineral samples, and there’s definitely something strange going on here. I’ve got a couple private investigators looking to see if there’s a clear connection to the holes in the world.”
Bovius grinned. “Let me guess.”
Esryok waved a hand at him. “Say what you want. When my usual methods are unavailable, knightshade gets results. He’s down in YP territory now. Nobody else was willing to go there.” He slid the books back off the map and began to roll it back up. “I’m hoping it’s just an unfortunate coincidence, but…I don’t think it is. The pattern of states going silent suggests that this is accelerating, not slowing down. Make no mistake; unless we find a way to deal with this, there isn’t going to be any land left to fight over.”
They both stood silent for a moment, letting the sobering thought settle in. Esryok picked up one of the diagrams huddled next to a stack of books and idly examined it. “Anyway, that’s what I just shared with them. Your turn. What did you find on the spires?”
Bovius sat back down in the chair, scooted it closer to the desk, grabbed the curved part he was working on, and started tinkering again. “Well, on the surface they’re not too interesting. Solid obsidian extrusion, extending anywhere from 10 to 30 meters above ground level. I’ve been looking at the central ones, but they’re popping up everywhere between sectors, and…you…already know that. Okay.” He grabbed a thin metal pick with a crescent moon curve at the end and etched a flowing script along the inner surface of the brass.
“So, three things we’ve been able confirm. One, they’re indestructible…kind of. We can chip at them with creeps, but the obsidian just kind of grows back into place. Two, they go deep down into the bedrock. Further than we can detect. Haven’t found the bottom on any of them yet, and we’re at the limit of the ultrasound tools we have. They get a little wider as you go down, but not much, and they don’t seem to be physically connected to each other. They’re just like big spikes coming out of the ground.”
Bovius set down the tool and examined his work. “And, uh, three: I think there’s something inside them. Or rather, that they might be hollow inside. We’re still getting inconclusive tests on that. I mean, we’re not getting an ultrasound reflection off of any inner surfaces, but we’re also not seeing sound waves transmitting through the core of the rock. Do you know of anything that absorbs vibrations like that?”
Esryok shook his head. Bovius pushed aside some burlap on one side of the desk and reached for a large, flattened brass ring, half a meter across. He started connecting the freshly etched part to it, completing the loop. “Well, me neither. So I’m making something a little…unorthodox, to see if we can learn anything more. I have to assume these spires are related to the land disappearing, but I haven’t come up with any answers on that front. Sorry. I can say that these are not part of the local rock formations. The mineral composition of the bits we’ve able to chip off is consistent across samples, but it doesn’t match any geological strata we’re aware of, including the missing…what?”
Esryok was looking intently at the ring. “Bovius…is that Luranian script?”
Bovius pursed his lips slightly, but said nothing. He looked back at the metal loop he held, turning and sliding connectors into place, and aligning the etched script with similar writing on the inside surface of the ring. The ring seemed to bend and twist for a moment, then settled into a Moebius band. The seams between sections melted away. The surface flashed brightly, and the etching grew and extended around the loop to form a single, unbroken phrase.
Esryok stared for a moment, then turned to a covered stacks of books on the desk and pulled the cloth aside. “These are INT_MAX tomes! These haven’t been seen outside the order in ages! How did you get these?” He started grabbing books from the stack and thumbing through them. “The Holy Induction…Lur’s Collected Treatise on Non-Euclidean Space…Radial Inhibitors…Eternal Liturgy and Mass…” He stopped after uncovering the thick, leather-bound book at the bottom of the stack, its cracked surface stamped with deep furrows of interlocking circles. “The Circumnomicon!? This was–”
Bovius slapped a hand down hard on the book’s cover. “Don’t! Open. That.” Esryok hesitated, then withdrew his hand.
Bovius breathed deeply and held his arm there for a few moments. “You learn a lot when you spend time living next door to a circle cult. There are some things that can’t be finished once you start them. Don’t open this book.”
Esryok looked around again at the tables, sprawled across the room and laden with gleaming metal. He slowly stepped back from the nearest table.
“Oh, come now. It’s fine. It’s fine! Just, uh, just try not to touch anything rounded.” Bovius turned back to the finished Moebius ring and wiped it down with an oiled rag. “I had a discussion with them, you know? They seem to think there’s a way to get inside the spires. I haven’t found any, but…when they make a guess out of nowhere, they tend to be right. Not unlike someone I know…”
Esryok relaxed a bit and chuckled. “Well, I’ll take verifiable data over rumors any day. Seriously, this is what you’ve been working on?”
Bovius nodded. “It is.”
“And you aren’t just going to ‘collect data’ with this, are you?”
“Okay. Just let me know when you’re done so I can be far, far away when you use it.” Esryok starting making his way back to the lab entrance. “This does explain a lot, though.”
“Oh? About the holes?”
“No, about all the exotic materials you’ve been going through. It’s going to take a year to get the alliance stockpile back to threshold.”
“I’ll put it all back when I’m done.”
“Uh huh. Yeah, I can tell this is going to end just fine.”
Esryok reached the door and opened it, letting cold, grey light stream through clouds of dust into the room. Bovius called out as he left. “How do you know my credit balance? How do you know when I impulse buy!?”
Esryok just laughed and stepped out.
The door closed behind him, enveloping the room in relative darkness. The yellow-orange glow of exposed bulbs and glinting metal made strange islands in a sea of black. Bovius sat motionless for several minutes. Then he stood, lifted the brass ring from the work desk, and wound his way toward the end of one of the tables, where a jumble of glass and metal protruded over the edge. He carefully threaded the Moebius ring over a cluster of green-tinged globed glass, and pressed the ring back over the assembly as far as it would go. After a second, there was a faint clicking sound, and the etched script on the ring began to smoothly flow along its surface. The humming from the heap of metal and circuitry on the table noticably softened.
Bovius walked over to a dark corner of the room and opened a toolbox. He shifted several worn metal shears out of the way and picked a pair out that seemed in better condition. Then he walked back to one of branches of tables and slid a box half-full of scrap out from underneath.
The room was mostly quiet, periodically interrupted with the sharp report of shears cutting through metal, and the clang of scrap landing in boxes. Bovius worked his way down one side of the table, cutting and trimming as he went. Then he moved on to the next one.