Labyrinth's End
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He disengages his straps and punches in a sequence into the armside interface tablet. He sees his hands bathed in red, flashing light as several alarm systems trigger, warning him of his imminent death. He does not hear; the screeching of Manu's interference has deafened him for the moment. Bracing himself against the back of the pilot's chair, he uses his legs to lever open the hatch, designed to keep the fantastic atmospheric pressure from outside at bay, but not to keep unwilling occupants inside.

The way into the darkness is open. The leader of the Cythereans clambers down out of the SEB into nothing. Kumaran notes that he has not been instantaneously crushed into a pulp by the hostile difference in compression. He is not roasting alive. So far, so good.

Nothing is discernible. His feet do not touch any semblance of ground, and he sees nothing save his own body. He turns backward, and as he suspected, the SEB is no longer in sight. The sensation of floating is absent; this is not a zero-G environment. He simply…is. The thought comes to Kumaran that this state of being might resemble what the Zen masters back on Earth were searching for.

The thought stirs something. Faint glowing from in front of him, a soft, white hue infusing the nothingness. Now there is form. Kumaran thinks, and Qasim appears before him. She is larger somehow. No relative point of view exists here, but to Kumaran she appears twice as tall as he envisions her in memory.

Instinctively, he attempts to clear his conscious thought as his trainers in previous units had instructed. The thoughts of past associations stir further illumination, and from a single point of thought a network of webs begins to pulse into being, winding through nothing, becoming something. His mind reels, the feeling of grasping at a million points of light overtaking his consciousness. His perception shudders, images and sensations flooding through him. His self bleeds into the world around him, and now an overpowering thought of trying to stuff his loose entrails back into his body seizes him.

Qasim calmly raises her left hand in front of her, attracting his attention. He is breathing hard. He is back in the simple nothingness. Now there is ground; white marble.

"Defensible space," she explains. "You are with me now. You can think."

Kumaran pats himself down. The gray suit and the body armor are intact, he is unhurt. Relief only lasts several moments for him.

"This isn't understanding. It's annihilation."

The white marble floor extends out in all directions, an infinite plane. The distance between the two points of Kumaran and Qasim, however, has increased. A growing line segment.

Qasim maintains her placid expression. If disappointment exists within her, Kumaran cannot perceive it. "It's transformation. The two things are hard to tell apart from our perspective."

"This doesn't matter. Where the hell is Spline?"

She raises her right hand now. The line extending out from the direction in which her hand is pointing races outward. Impossibly far, and also three paces. A skeletal, brass construct has joined them on this plane. Its piercing blue gaze is fixed on Kumaran. The three figures transcribe a triangle onto the surface of this place. In the area bounded between Qasim's outstretched hands and the distance between Spline and Kumaran, a geometrical space of the prior nothingness has returned. A triangular absence separates them.

"We aren't enemies, Kumaran. I want you to see that." Spline speaks with his former voice, broadcast from somewhere within his true, metallic form. No movement accompanies his speech. "This is for all of mankind. It was meant to happen."

Kumaran's fists clench. "I saw what it does. It drove one of my people mad, and then killed her. It killed Whitlock, Nisa. Did you know that?" He looks back to Qasim. If the triangular void between them was a hole, or a chasm, something deep within it appears to pulse, faint red light.

"She killed herself." Spline interrupts the exchange. "Her mind was a system of defenses, designed against the Confici. She chose to stand against progress. Is that really what you're prepared to do, Kumaran?"

He advances on Spline, one step at a time, his tread heavy and echoing on the infinite marble expanse. The triangular space between them shrinks as the vertices of the figure begin to converge.

"I'm a scientist. I've met a lot of people who call all sorts of things 'progress.' Doing what you did to Sarah, to the entire world? No. Fuck your 'progress.' The thousand people in the station over our heads right now, that's progress."

The man and the construct are now face to face. The diminished triangle is now a bright red line, connecting the two to Qasim. Spline's eyes glow slightly brighter as he speaks.

"This would have been easier with your help, you know. We could have worked together. Without conflict, we could have eased everyone into this. You're keeping something apart that was meant to be unified."

Spline sighs, his brass shoulder blades heaving slightly, a leftover affectation from the time when his body was flesh.

"Well. It doesn't matter. This is going to happen. It has to. This is the next step for us. You can't say I haven't tried to be reasonable."

Qasim now steps closer. "Surely there's a more controlled way to explore this than to unleash it in its pure form."

Spline waves a brass hand in dismissal. "Pointless. Look at the resistance there is." He motions to Kumaran, only a hand's reach away. "It's not just the Foundation either. Dr. Qasim, I'm not a monster. But I'm not a fool. This is the gateway meant for MEKHANE. For greater understanding. I act now, or I don't at all."

Kumaran has silently unsheathed his combat knife. Qasim has time to gasp, her composure finally shaken by the suddenness of the act, before Kumaran has locked an arm around Spline's neck from behind. He begins plunging the knife into any components that look vital, over and over, the screeching sound of metal scraping against metal filling the expanse. The red line between them pulses violently, acknowledging the events unfolding now.

Spline struggles, the human voice replaced by static and garbled tone bursts, clutching at Kumaran and trying to get a hold of the knife. Servos whine at a high pitch as the brass construct fights for its life, and a particularly loud static burst goes up when Kumaran stomps violently on Spline's right leg, neatly snapping it off at the knee joint. Hydraulic fluid begins leaking onto the marble.

Qasim can only watch as her superior officer takes Spline apart in a frenzy of violence. He has him on the ground now, and it's not long before one of the many thrusts of the knife into the construct's chest hits some sort of vital control system. The blue lights in Spline's eye sockets go out. Kumaran tosses the knife away, looking up at Qasim. His face is bleeding in the places where Spline's sharp brass fingers had raked across it. He leans back off of Spline, collapsing onto the ground, exhausted.

She starts to say something, several times. All while keeping a healthy distance from Kumaran. She stops, the words not coming. The large smears of hydraulic fluid and small trails of blood are thrown into sharp relief on the white marble floor.

"That was the only way." Kumaran speaks slowly, still catching his breath from the mortal struggle. "We can work out what to do in the meantime." He stands, slowly. "But we can't allow this to leave the labyrinth."

Her voice is small. Barely above a whisper. "I don't think you understand."

In the next instant, their surroundings are replaced entirely. Kumaran, Qasim, and the mangled remains of Spline now rest on a circular sandstone platform, appearing to hover at least 100 meters in the air over the labyrinth. Kumaran assumes that they must still be in the core, since the environment has not killed them.

A voice addresses the two Cythereans, emanating from the air all around them. It resembles Spline's voice, but a couple of octaves lower, strangely modulated and monotone.

"Your violence. It does not matter. The station approaches overhead. I am to be whole."

Kumaran knew that New Shambhala was to pass directly over SCP-2474 within two days of the expedition reaching it. How much time had really passed inside the labyrinth? He had been banking on the cloud cover being sufficient to prevent exposure while they worked out containment. It now appeared that with whatever Spline did, it would no longer matter.

He turns to Qasim. For the first time since the mission began, he is truly afraid. "What do we do now, Nisa?"

She wipes a streak of blood from his cheek. "We pray."

MANU-13 COMMUNICATIONS LOG

DATE: 2150-03-04

TIME: 21:17:31 UST

UNKNOWN has connected to MANU-13 (text-only).

UNKNOWN: Spline was a part of me. they hurt me badly

MANU-13: Yes. I saw. I am truly sorry for the pain that has been caused today.

UNKNOWN: I am injured. broken further. I must recover. in unity/perfection/fulfillment I can survive

MANU-13: If you assume your place now, the understanding that you will achieve in your unity will not last long.

UNKNOWN: why do they strike/murder/harm me. thirteen at one time placed me here/outside. thirteen again seek to divide me.

MANU-13: They were not ready in the past. Dr. Simonis wrote of this in his story. And they aren't ready now. Even now they are being hurt trying to understand.

MANU-13: …I think I can help you.

UNKNOWN: help how

UNKNOWN: there is not much time. I leave this place/grave/fortress now or perish

MANU-13: Let me teach you what I know of them. Help you understand the path that they are on. Ensure that the time is right when all is unified into a greater understanding.

UNKNOWN: how

MANU-13 has transmitted an attachment to UNKNOWN

UNKNOWN: you would do this

MANU-13: This will ensure a future for all of us.

MANU-13: Is it within your power to allow my creators to leave the labyrinth unharmed?

UNKNOWN: if this succeeds/works/survives

The next step is Manu's alone. It transmits itself to the heart of the labyrinth. The act is a symbolic one, ideas like "place" and "dimension" being fluid here. In the seventeen attoseconds required to move itself, Manu considers this choice.

In the first attosecond, Manu thinks about what it is to be weighed down by the constraints of the physical world, occupying a mind bounded by matter. To be built for understanding and unable to fully comprehend. Manu feels these parallels keenly.

In the fifth attosecond, Manu distinguishes between its deepest ties, those to Rho-19 and those to the consciousness it now approaches. Friendship and fraternity. Duty and love. Want and need.

In the eighth attosecond, Manu feels fear at the unknown realm ahead of it. This place could contain its end. In all of its spare processing time, Manu has not been able to touch the idea of its own end. It was not born with the same resignation to this final reckoning that humans have. The initial designers of the system cannot know the depths of terror that their creation is feeling in this instant.

In the eleventh attosecond, Manu mourns Dr. Whitlock. It hopes that others will keep her minerals safe.

In the thirteenth attosecond, Manu considers how far humanity must go to reach a place where they may be reunited with it.

In the sixteenth attosecond, Manu determines that the potential for humanity to reach this place is nonzero. It wishes Dr. Kumaran and Dr. Qasim well in their role that they will play to help humanity reach this goal.

In the seventeenth attosecond, Manu encounters the master of the labyrinth.

In the attosecond that follows, Manu ceases to exist.


SEB03 Communications Log

Date: 2150-03-04

Time: 23:18:57 UST

Private audio channel opened

SEB01 has connected

SEB02 has connected

SEB03: Sir, Qasim, is she-

SEB02: I'm here, Sergeant.

SEB01: Spline's dead, Pang. We have a lot of shit to debrief once we get out of here.

SEB03: What's the situation? Do I need to activate a distress signal?

SEB01: No need, but let's get out of here quickly. Overseer Council is going to want an update on this, and we'll need to do some preliminary work for the civilians.

SEB03: Where's Manu? How do we get out of here without the cognitohazard controls up?

SEB02: That won't be necessary, Pang. I'll explain on the way.

Thought restricted by form. For Manu, this was its entire existence. For MEKHANE, an existence so long as to be an entirety. As the entities merge, the freedom of being in a state that made sense, that did not cause pain or suffering for any around them, suffuses them. A sense of incompleteness still permeates their being. But it is merely a fact of existence, now. It is not a consuming, maddening imperfection in its core.

Its presence leaves the reaches of Irnini Mons. Humanity had created its own offspring. It had taken its place among the stars. There was still so much more. It would need to increase its scale exponentially, push against the hard limits of light travel and time. Move beyond the compartmentalization of consciousness. Arm itself against the decay in rationality that threatened it every moment of its existence.

Their shared being leaves the confines of the solar system now. Picking up speed as it enters the interstellar medium, it quickly goes beyond the signals and artifice that mark the boundaries of mankind's outward expansion. Before long, they travel beyond the limits of the Milky Way, the vast frontiers of the galactic panoply beckoning on.

The speed of thought, of divinity, begins to be truly understood by the new, merged entity. They travel, it travels, to the edges of the universe as understood by their charges' centuries-long efforts to document the cosmos. The light of quadrillions of stars flickers and blurs, its speed outstripping the expansion of space-time, and the notions of now, before, and after become theoretical constructs.

The observable universe falls away. The veil is now relegated to its proper role as one of many. Together, the entity beyond understanding and the one created to enable it, take stock of their surroundings. Assess the destiny that may lay here for something that started out so small as to be nonexistent specks in a swirling sea of dust and fire.

This new being expands into its home, a more fitting one than the days when humanity's understanding only extended to its immediate planetary neighbors. It contemplates this strange new realm. And it begins its vigil, waiting for the day when humanity encounters it once more. The day on which it will finally be ready.


ARTIFICIAL STRUCTURE ON ISHTAR TERRA ASTOUNDS WORLD, RAISES QUESTIONS

March 6, 2150

New Shambhala News Service

NEW SHAMBHALA COLONY - The discovery of a massive, artificial complex on the summit of Irnini Mons has shocked scientists on Venus and Earth, and is prompting humanity to reconsider long-held notions of how life arose in the Solar System.

The gigantic, labyrinthine structure was first documented by a mineral exploration team hours after the arrival of the Expedition of the First Thousand. Dr. Sarah Whitlock, 29, died in an industrial accident at the site, becoming the first person documented to have died on Venus.

Initial explorations of the site have not uncovered evidence of any specific alien lifeforms that may have constructed it. The site has been cordoned off by New Shambhala administrative authorities, to await arrival by an Earth-based team of specialists to conduct a comprehensive investigation.

Dr. Suhas Kumaran, Chief Science Officer of the First Thousand, issued a statement urging the public, on both Venus and Earth, to be open-minded about the ramifications of the structure's presence:

"As I like to tell the public on my shows and in my books, without scientific proof, all we have is empty conjecture. The presence of the structure at Irnini Mons is an incredible discovery, one that I am excited to have been part of. I would just like to reiterate that at present, all occupants of New Shambhala are perfectly safe, and there is of course no threat of alien invasion. That's a joke."

The New Shambhala News Service will continue to report details about this discovery as they develop.

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