They arrived at the Core bruised, bleeding and exhausted.
The blind and naked trogs who had guided them through the impossibly dark and winding catacombs of the Underspire refused to enter the Core. Their Techspire conditioning was too strong to overcome, and once the seal to the Core was breached, they scurried back into the darkness to return to their assigned duties, all the while chittering gutturally to guide their way.
After watching the trogs scamper from the light flooding through the gap in the slightly ajar Core gate, Ophelia and Hamlet squinted against the light then silently, in unison, leaned against the massive aperture and shouldered it open just enough for them to squeeze through. Gravedigger had remotely rendered all security and monitoring systems invisible to their passage without taking them offline and further raising suspicions that the centuries old secrets of Earth’s only Techspire was about to be breached. It was a skill that Gravedigger was particularly adept at and one that gave him a thrill whenever the opportunity presented itself to ply this particular talent.
Hamlet touched Ophelia lightly on the shoulder, “Don’t get your hopes up, she may not be here. Gravedigger was able to trace the source of her memories to whatever is behind this door, but that doesn’t mean she’s physically here. It may not even mean she’s alive. There may be nothing here but broken fragments of her.”
Ophelia reached up and touched his hand. “I know. But it’s not the only reason we’re here.”
“Then let’s go!” He grabbed her hand and pulled her in to the Core.
The vault was immense. The interior of the Core was a spherical shaped vault several hundred feet in diameter. Suspended throughout the vault was a lattice of metal grids nested one within another, like the skeletal layers of an onion. Suspended within the lattice were thousands of pods, all connected by thick optical cabling that pulsed with energy and information. This cabling was routed to the center of the vault and interfaced with a collector sphere that was suspended from the ceiling.
“What is this, Hamlet?” Ophelia stammered as she craned her head upward and scanned the vault, ambient light pulsing across her face.
“It looks like a central data hub, or computing node.”
“Is this the source? I don’t even know what I’m looking at.”
“Yes, I think it is,” he replied. “Or at least one of the sources. Look, there’s a manual terminal along the wall.”
They approached the terminal warily, looking through the lattice at ground level to ensure they could see no one else in the vault. Hamlet secretly wished he could connect with Gravedigger via his bio.node, but there was no hope this deep under the ground. He estimated they were a full mile below the ground level of the Techspire. What he was seeing was also foreign to him, but due to his upbringing he did have an advantage over such things compared to Ophelia. But Gravedigger was the expert. He was a Lurker. Infinispace had always been his home, and he moved within it like Ophelia and Hamlet moved through the real world, though with ten times the competence and speed with which the two of them operated in reality. In relative terms Gravedigger had superhuman abilities within Infinispace, but his reach could not overcome the limitations of the Continuum within the physical world. In the Underspire there were no points that Hamlet could detect. He felt blind.
They stopped before the terminal and Hamlet made a standard access gesture. A luminous HUD materialized before them.
“It looks like a control terminal for the grid above us. There’s nothing here that controls the flow of data in and out of here . . . from what I can tell. But it does look like we can access nodes within the grid.”
“Nodes?” Ophelia asked with a confused look on her face.
“Computing nodes.” He pointed upwards. “Thousands of nodes make a Core. Tens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of Cores power Infinispace. These Cores are spread throughout the Underspire as well as on other worlds and on relays in space between those worlds.”
In one panel of the HUD was a continuous stream of codes that scrolled by one after another. They held little meaning to Hamlet, but Ophelia let out a small gasp as if something had just dawned on her.
“Those look like CCs. Citizen codes,” she said.
Hamlet looked skeptical. “Okay, let’s try one. Do you remember your mother’s CC?”
“My CC is a subset of hers, as it has been since the Spire has been assigning them. You should know this.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t. I know they exist, but I don’t know the details. I’ve never had to . . . deal with them.”
“Of course you haven’t.” There was a hint of spite in her voice. “Her CC was R3050X66.”
He fingered in the code and activated it, trying to avoid her gaze.
Machinery woke far above them in the spherical grid and they could hear movement. They waited for several minutes and a large black pod slid down through the center axis of the grid and was placed on a silent conveyor that directed it towards the terminal. Hamlet and Ophelia stepped aside as it approached and watched it interface with a docking mechanism in the wall. Green letters on the HUD flashed “EXTRACT.”
Hamlet reached out to make a gesture toward the floating letters.
“Wait!” Ophelia yelled.
“Why?” Hamlet said in disbelief. “Isn’t this why we’re here? There’s a covert war raging right now within Infinispace, one that’s going to eventually spill out in to reality if we don’t contain it. No one is trustworthy any longer. No one is as they appear to be. Those who are trustworthy won’t believe us anyway. We’re on our own!”
“I know, it’s just that . . . are we ready for this? Are we ready to possibly disconnect up to a billion people from a second existence that has become more lucid to some of them than reality itself? If we’re successful in starting this, it could set humanity back centuries.”
“I’m tired of second guessing and indecision. There’s no other way to stop them.” Hamlet stabbed at the pulsing green letters. “We’re as ready as we can be . . .”
A line of intense light traced around the perimeter of the pod. With a sharp HISS the top half opened like a clam shell revealing a shadowy interior. They both stepped back waiting for something to happen. But nothing did.
The HUD was now flashing a yellow “ACCESS” button. Hamlet looked at Ophelia tentatively, then stepped forward and thumbed it with a gesture.
Pinpoints of light began to twinkle deep within the pod and a quiet whirring noise could be heard. From the shadows a horror beyond the imagination of both slowly emerged on an articulated arm. Ophelia let out a scream and fell to the ground as she tripped over her own leaden legs. Hamlet dashed to her side and knelt down beside her.
Staring back at them from the inky blackness of the pod was a grotesque caricature of a human head suspended on mechanical armature that connected it to the pod. It was more machine than flesh, but the remnants of its former humanity could not be denied. Pale flesh hung from a metal framework that resembled a skull. Beneath the skin small mechanisms slithered and writhed. The whole was covered with crawling microbots continually working to ensure that the machine and flesh were in harmony and compatibility. Its eyes pulsed with the same energy that permeated the vault.
The head looked at both of them then made a slow gesture as if nodding toward the HUD. “LOCAL INTERFACE” flashed in yellow.
Interpreting that it wanted to communicate with them, and presuming that the pod was immobile and no threat, Hamlet stood up and walked over to the terminal. He glanced back at Ophelia for confirmation. She nodded solemnly, the fear slowly eroding from her face. Hamlet activated the link knowing Ophelia would not be able to see and hear what he was about to experience.
The ghostly avatar of a woman appeared in front of him. She was average height and average age, with bright clear eyes and hair so fair that it looked almost to be white. Hamlet turned back to look at Ophelia, studying her, then turned his attention back to the avatar.
Ophelia stood up. “What is it?”
“I think it’s your mother?”
“This thing?!” She pointed at the pod and its contents. The grotesque head turned back to her and gazed with lifeless eyes.
“No, that’s just a shell. Your mother is here.” Hamlet pointed to the thin air in front of him, then tapped his head. “She’s linked to my bio.node, and she’s projecting into my mind. She looks just like you . . . I mean you look just like her.”
“Why have you woken me? Who are you?” The voice of the avatar materialized in his mind. The actuators whirred and the head was once again regarding Hamlet. “Am I finally to be allowed to die?”
Hamlet spoke directly to the woman, ignoring the contents of the pod. “We’ve been looking for you . . . for a long time. Me and Ophelia.”
“Ophelia? Ophelia. That name, I recognize it, from…somewhen.” The head turned back to Ophelia.
“Go to her.” Hamlet whispered, pointing toward the pod. “She’s trying to access her latent memories.”
Ophelia shrugged off the revulsion rising in her and slowly approached the head. Tears began to slide down her face as her own latent memories began to bubble to the surface as she more closely inspected the familiar curved cheeks and high forehead of her mother’s former visage. Her despair grew as she realized the implication of what was about to happen; what they were about to ask her mother to do if they could break through the trauma of a decade of virtual enslavement she had been subject to. Ophelia had always hoped her mother was somehow alive, somewhere, after she had disappeared. But now the revulsion turned back on her as she wished her mother had died instead of being taken by Collectors. Surely any death would be preferred to being a lifeless husk whose memories were being used to fuel the insatiable appetite of Infinispace. She looked up at the thousands of pods suspended above her and fresh tears rolled down her face.
She stopped before her mother, reached up and touched the cold skin of the dead face and said, “Mother . . . we need your help.”
Note: “Infinispace” is a series that melds concept and word. It’s an idea that’s fundamental to the Infinispace concept . . . “Infinite worlds, infinite possibilities.” The idea is to present credited art and wrap my spur of the moment interpretive narrative around the piece . . . whatever first pops in to my head, stream of consciousness style. When available a link to the artist’s website will be included, but artists will always be given full credit.