Entry: 008

The next room they came to was large and broad, banks of the Gate’s original instruments flush with the far wall, with new controls in odd shapes and textures growing out of them like mold on a piece of flatbread. The opposite wall, or rather, the window that stretched from floor to ceiling, commanded more of Sun’s attention. It was thick glass, a true window looking out onto the entirety of the Gate ring, of which they had travelled only a fraction. 

Greenery had stitched the ring’s pieces back together into an intact hoop that stretched several kilometers above and below them beyond the window’s frame. Sun’s gaze ran along the ring’s far side, which glittered like a broad ribbon against the blackness of space beyond. 

The only interruption to the gentle curve from Sun’s vantage point came from just below the window. There, a large organic growth stretched from the structure and extending dozens of meters into the ring.

“Welcome to the observation deck for one of our new engines!” Clumb announced proudly. She landed on one of the window’s raised edges and skittered along its length. “There is it, down below,” she gestured towards the growth. “Six others just like it are installed ‘round the circumference of the main ring. We cultivated the biological material for it and encoded it with what we want it to do. 

“When a ship comes by and says ‘We wanna go through the Gate!,’ the engines release their spores onto it. The spores dissolve everything—”

“What?” Sun said sharply. 

Clumb barrelled on with no lost momentum.

“They dissolve everything, break it down to dust, and log the data of how the ship and its contents ‘re structured. Which elements, in what amounts, y’know. Then—”

“That’s not even close to how the original Gates functioned!” Sun objected. “The Gates warped space and let ships pass through intact! They didn’t dematerialize them!”

Indrani gaped as he took in the implications of this. He’d only studied the cursory theories around the Gate through old archival logs, most of which he could barely comprehend, but these Unbound had done something entirely new with it. Unnatural, even. “Incredible,” he breathed, eyes wide as he pressed his nose against the window.

“Why bother trying to recreate all of its old functions when our new ones suit it perfectly well? Maybe even better,” Helfdym asked blandly as he floated into the room, arachnid limbs stretched out like a star in every direction. Indrani found his nimbleness disconcerting and kicked out of the way as he passed by, bumping into a bulbous wall. The orb followed behind Helfdym like a carnivorous flower as he positioned himself upside at the window, orb floating up between him and the glass. 

“This will be our fifth attempt to activate the gate. We’ve had minor success so far, but realized the fungi needed to mature more fully, cohere to the wreckage and what’s left of its processing system,” he said, voice trailing off as he plucked at the tines of his orb, clearly losing himself in his work. “Looks like it’s ready for interweaving, Clumb.”

“Okay!” The smaller suited figure bounced off the window with a smack, sending her careening toward the control panels. 

Sun winced internally. Their sensors didn’t extend through every wall and panel like in their shipself—their Shell provided what felt like the crudest of data as to the tensory strength of the window. The atmosphere wasn’t strong enough to breathe, but present enough to suck Indrani out through any hull breach. Shoot him into the center of that ring, and those growths that could disintegrate him instantly.

Sun refocused on their ship, made a minor course correction that drifted them closer to their current position. Its large shape floated into view from the observation deck and Sun nodded their avatar’s head, relieved.

“Minor success, huh?” they asked, turning from the window. “What kind of minor success?”

“Well, the spores do their job,” Clumb said, squeezing controls that looked disconcertingly like pustules. “They log the material data for any object, vehicle, or lifeform we wanna transport, and the engine reconstitutes ‘em almost perfectly. Margin of error, sure, but teeny-tiny, maybe a handful of atoms off. That is, when we do both operations on this side of the Gate.” They rolled their hand in a circular motion, impatiently, as if any drawback was barely worth mentioning. “When we run a program to reconstitute a subject on the other side of the Gate, we get mixed results. But whaddya expect? We hafta grow the same engines on the other side, and we hafta squeeze as much equipment as we can through the warp surface we can generate, only a few meters wide. Like buildin’ a model ship through a pinhole in the wall.”

“Compared to others attempting similar feats of gate reactivation, I’d submit that what we have accomplished, and in such a brief time, is quite promising.” Helfdym spun the orb quickly within his long arachnid fingers, each slim tine blurring with each flick of the Unbound’s fingers. 

To Indrani, it looked less like the computer who knew it was and more like some archaic scrying object, an orbuculum from old folktales. Carefully, he propelled himself to anchor near the window, watching as one of the engines outside began to glow with specks of light. Glancing back at Helfdym and Clumb, he asked, “How quickly do the spores log things? It sounds like it’d take forever.”

“Seconds, usually,” Helfdym said, his slow doleful tone at odds with the rapid movement of his hands over the orb. “Clumb, the engine is primed. Insert the test object to the focal coordinates.”

Sun’s shipself saw it before the Shell did. A mechanical limb—not unlike Sun’s own, but larger and cruder—extended from a large blister above the observation deck on the ring. Towed in its grip was a polyhedron about fifty meters wide, stitched together from a motley jumble of materials. Plastic pipes wrapped around metal bars, and thick layers of organic growth coated it with splashes of pinks and reds. It reminded Sun of a three-dimensional puzzle one of their passengers had played with on her journey. She had never succeeded in twisting it into a shape with sides of matching colors and materials.

“It’s been scanned inside an’ out,” Clumb was explaining to Indrani as he watched the test object glide into view through the window. “Its surface and contents ‘re mapped by our systems, so we know exactly how it’s s’posed to look when it’s reconstituted.”

The limb released the object, letting it slowly drift toward the center of the ring a couple of kilometers beyond the observation window. A faint vibration began to thrum through the handhold Sun gripped, and into their Shell body. The large organic mass stretching out below the deck began to change, growing tumescent and saturated in color.

Helfdym’s fingers blurred over the orb, and the orb blurred in turn, spinning in rapid rotation as the Unbound began sending commands and funneling energy into the engines. Indrani pressed his visor to the glass window, staring wide-eyed as the hybrid machinery began to glow and vibrate in earnest. “Wow,” the curate whispered, awed by the foreign technology burning to life before him, spores descending onto the patchwork mass in a uniform shroud. 

A mote drifted into view. 

Indrani swatted the speck away, intent on watching the disintegration of the object happen. More motes floated into his line of sight. 

“What the…” Indrani flapped his hand at the sudden sprinkling of dust. Didn’t they clean this place? He looked up to see some of the fungal matter on the ceiling beginning to flake and float down towards him. Almost as if drawn towards him magnetically, gathering in a little green flock. The curate kicked away from the incoming motes, pushing himself slowly towards Sun. “Um, I think…something’s wrong with that shroomy stuff. Should it be flaking like that…?”

Sun glanced at the ceiling in alarm. Damn the lack of sensors! How hadn’t they noticed the second it started happening? “Helfdym,” they asked, the sound crawling painfully slowly, “is the observation deck protected from the engine?” The flaking material began to collect on the glass, hazing the view outside.

Not one to hesitate, Clumb vaulted from the console to the window. She inspected the growing cavities on the ceiling and—Sun could see now—the floor, matter peeling away from fungus, polymer, and metal alike. 

“LEAK!” She shrieked over the comm, propelling herself away. “We got a leak!”

“We’re protected from the engine but…but—” Helfdym’s fingers fumbled along the orb while another pair of his long-reaching arms stretched up to a conduit above. He opened the wide panel there, and behind it was a glass vessel embedded within. Inside the vessel: bright, active spores filling it to the brim, so dense they were bursting out from the sealed edges. 

Helfdym hissed, snatched up the orb and propelled backwards away from the leak. “The larval spores! That’s where we check their health and development as they flow through the engine’s vascular network, but—” He manipulated the orb, neck craned close to it like it might just hold the answers he was looking for. “It looks like they’re reacting to the engine command, to their mature counterparts. I’m… not sure why. Clumb?”

Indrani, clueless as to what this meant but appropriately afraid, pushed himself up besides Sun, gripping their metallic arm beneath the projection. “Should we try to escape? Wait, we can’t, can we, all the spores outside…but they’re in here, too! Which is worse to be exposed to?”

“Stay put,” Helfdym barked, still working furiously at his orb. “Everything around the gate is active. Just let me try to deactivate the ones in here—“

The spores, a fine dust high in the air, began to glow a flushed pink. Outside, the engine spores did the same; brightening, humming, until the vibrations reached the habdeck floor, causing every surface to blur with the movement. The floating spores inside shivered into a white smear in the air. Indrani grimaced, both hands clutching Sun’s arm now. “W-What’s happening?”

Sun grimaced at their lack of information, their lack of control. Wall panels began to wrinkle as if they were squares of tissue paper floating on the surface of a pool. The thin atmosphere couldn’t hide the metallic groan beneath the incessant vibrations. They propelled their shipself closer, rotating to make their docking bay visible from the observation deck window. If that blew out, they could catch the ejected figures if they lined it up just right… 

Their prow passed through the ring as the ship advanced. Instantly, they felt the spores’ vibrations, magnified a thousandfold into a whine, across the surface of their hull. But they pressed forward, attuned their sensors, and analyzed the precious, precious data. 

“Who’s pilotin’ your ship?!” Clumb hollered. Sun jerked their head towards her. The Shell’s vision was fuzzy, but they could still make out Clumb furiously kneading the growths on the control panel. Her back was to the window, yet she had somehow seen The Sun Clouded Over fill the majority of the view. “They shouldn’t be in the testin’ range while we’re—” 

“We need another option!” Sun barked. The vibrations seemed to penetrate every atom of their being as they sped forward. They felt Indrani grip their arm as the other two spoke up to argue. Too slow, too slow, they all were just too slow!

Outside, some of the spores around the test object flitted away, magnetized to the new object within their range, congregating around the nose of the ship. “Your ship is far too close!” The orb suddenly flashed pink to yellow in rapid warning. “I killed the engine power, but the spores have their own energy source, a-and they’re not responding to my command,” he shouted, voice tapering off into a helpless whine. “Clumb, what do we—?”

White light. 

Something like heat but not, an alien element he couldn’t name, smothering and filling all at once, like a rescue breath delivered straight to Indrani’s lungs. 

The curate’s instinct was to go fetal, protect his body from whatever was happening, but something stopped him, froze him in place. The spore-filled habdeck was consumed in a thrum of energy, their brightness filling through the room, throwing the Unbound, Indrani and Sun’s shell in pink silhouette. 

Brighter, brighter, until Indrani felt the glow stinging his eyes through his lids, seeping into his bones, a painless but probing suffusion. He tried to call out to Sun but could no longer feel his throat, the pressure of breath in his lungs. He tried to grab for Sun’s arm, but could no longer feel his arms, his fingers. What’s happening? Indrani thought fearfully, blind and numb, lost in a deluge of roaring luminance.

Sun found their forward thrusters inactive and careened further through the ring on inertia alone. They assumed as much, anyway; as they sensors had gone fully haywire, registering nothing but damage, damage, damage. They were being atomized— torn apart! How long until—

—they were reconstituted? With a jolt, Sun found themself back in the observation deck, facing one of the wall consoles. The only sound they could hear was a high-pitched rhythmic rasp. Everything—the sensory input from the Shell, their internal processing speed—felt off to such an extent that Sun was certain the Shell was irreparably damaged. They tried checking on the status of their ship—

—and couldn’t find it. Where was it? Where was their body?

The raspy sound sped up in frequency around them. Panicked breathing. They twisted their head, looking for Indrani on their arm, but found their vision spinning nearly 180 degrees to the window behind them. The room appeared undamaged, not a panel out of place or a spore to be seen.

And Sun’s Shell body was floating there, curled into a ball, arm clamped around Indrani’s like a vise. “What—” The raspy breathing broke into a high voice, words ramming into one another. “WhatthefuckishappingWHAT—” 

Besides Sun, the Shell twitched to life, squeezed harder, and then let go. 

“S-Sun? I don’t feel very well,” Indrani mumbled, a hint of a moan on the undercurrent of his words. He blinked his eyes open, and a wave of nausea immediately struck, vision delivering a hybrid image of both the Gate from outside and the inside of the habdeck. Screwing his eyes shut, he went to clutch at his head, only to…not feel his arms where they were supposed to be. Not that they were absent or missing, blasted away by whatever just happened, but just simply…in the wrong place. Too overwhelmed by this strange sensation, he peeked out from a single eye, only to be horrified by the image and sound of himself panicking.

Why was he looking at himself? And why couldn’t he move? He was floating in the same habdeck, and it looked like all the spores were gone… but where was Sun? Why was he looking at one projection of himself? Confused, Indrani reached out to pass his hand through the holo of himself—

And sucked in a breath, and his hand—no, Sun’s hand, Shell hand, hit flesh and bone. His own flesh and bone. This wasn’t a projection of him. That was him.

“Oh paths, oh paths,” Indrani yelped, snatching his—Sun’s—hand back as if electrocuted. “Sun, what is going on?!”

Sun flinched at the sound of their voice, sped up to a degree that it was almost too hard to follow. They twisted their head back—too far round—looked down at their hands, their tiny body, wrapped in a quilted vacsuit of blisteringly bright colors and patterns. 

“No,” the voice squeaked. “I’m—” 

“I’M HUGE!” a deep voice trumpeted over the comms. Sun jerked, and their whole body started spinning aimlessly. Swinging into their field of view was Helfdym, and they were shocked to realize they had just heard his voice. Four of Helfdym’s arms splayed gracelessly across a few of the consoles, while he used the other two to animatedly pat his torso and his helmet. “No way! Look at how long these babies are!”

He glanced up to look at Sun before their rotation spun him out of view. He cocked his head, an utterly alien expression on the usually morose scientist. “And I’m all the way over there! Boy, we sure gotta big whoopsie on our hands!”

Clumb?” Sun yelped. Their Shell and Indrani swung back around. “Then who—”

Helfdym held out his—Indrani’s—arms, a deep frown dragging the Curate’s face downward, mouth bracketed by morose lies. He heaved a sigh, and Indrani flailed back from himself, his Shell body and projection of Sun’s form comically panicked, a foreign comportment on Ship’s holoself. “Who—what is happening! Why am I not in my body!? Who are you?!”

Helfdym only glanced at Indrani’s retreating robotic form, holding up his own arms—now just a measly two—to examine, his face scrunching up into mortification and distaste. “This feels absolutely terrible,” he mumbled, plucking at Indrani’s stubby human fingers, feeling the short thighs, the feet devoid of any prehensile toes. “Clumb? I fear I’m horribly hampered by this temporary psychic displacement. Will you assess the damage on the sphere?”

Indrani, pressed against the habdeck wall, swiveled his head back and forth between the others, a low, buzzing pain filling the confines of his skull…or his Shell. Helfdym was now acting like Clumb, ricocheting around the room, and his own body was acting like Helfdym, all dreary tones and drooping limbs. 

Psychic displacement? What did that even mean? And why did everything feel so wrong, like his lungs were where his feet should be? How color pinged through his senses in a new layered way that left him pinching his eyes shut from the onslaught of new sensations? 

With his eyes closed, Indrani’s sight didn’t immediately go black, as he’d hoped, but instead filled up with a panoramic view of the Gate and the surrounding space. His limbs felt multiplied to thousands, senses suddenly a tangled labyrinth of information. Outside the Gate, the Ship began to rotate, engines flaring on and off again in short bursts. 

On the habdeck, Indrani began to breathe rapidly, Sun’s visage conveying his hyperventilation, even though there were no lungs present for him to use. “Gods, Sun, please tell me you know what’s happening…”

Sun paddled with their tiny limbs through the air towards Indrani, reflexively trying to check on their shipself with no success. They had to see it, look for it. Sun made contact with the Shell, fingers phasing through the hologram to cling to the metal underneath, and glanced at the window for the rest of themself.

The Ship took up a growing majority of the view, spinning erratically with no regard for anything around it. The test polyhedron, fully intact once again, was in its path. But beyond that, so was—

“The ring,” Sun gasped. They spun back, strengthening their grip on their—Indrani’s—the Shell’s arm. “I’m still heading towards the ring! You have to reverse your propulsion!” They frantically studied the Shell’s face, stuck in a panicked grimace. Would he even know what to do? 

Sun clambered up the arm until they were level with the face, cupping either side of the Shell’s head. “Indrani, listen to me. Don’t open your eyes here. Lock onto the sensors giving you visuals of the habdeck. Just the visuals! Those sensors are your eyes now. Find your thruster on the same side as your eyes.”

Indrani’s holo flickered in and out, revealing the mechanical Shell beneath. His limbs quivered uselessly, folded into the skeletal apparatus as fear and confusion suspended his train of thought. But Clumb’s voice, spoken with Sun’s confidence, and the touch of their small hands on Indrani’s robotic face, urged his mind into action.

“Thrusters by..my eyes? Sun, I…I can’t do this! I—” 

But there was no time for second-guessing, because past Clumb’s colorful vacsuit, Sun’s ship was growing larger, filling the expanse of the window. “Oh paths, you’re coming closer. I’m coming closer!” 

Sucking in a nonexistent breath, Indrani shut his eyes as Sun had commanded, and found himself once again in a labyrinth of sensation, a tangle of foreign information clattering against his mind uselessly. With no way to parse the onslaught of data, his mind did the only thing it could: ignore, ignore, ignore.

Finding the thrusters by his eyes? Was Sun mad? How was he supposed to do that? In the alien maze of the ship’s system, Indrani grasped at the thing that felt nearest to movement, reminded him of the feeling of legs and tensed them. 

The thrusters blew on in a sudden burst of light, jarring the ship forward. Indrani squealed back in his Shell, eyes still clamped shut, and then reached for the sensations of movement again. The thrusters stopped and kicked on again, stopping the ship dead and sending it backwards in a violent lurch.

“Did it work, Sun?” Indrani asked, still folded into a miserable lump of metal. “What’s it doing?”

Sun released a breath they didn’t realize they’d been holding. “Yes! Just—” they coughed before clumsily inhaling another lungful. “J—just like that. Keep pushing yourself away from the ring’s edges until you’re—”

An ear-splitting THOK cut through the thin atmosphere. The ship had successfully propelled itself away, but the force of its thrusters had jettisoned the fifty-meter-wide polyhedron towards the observation deck’s window.

Indrani did as Sun instructed, their voice the only guiding light in the chaos of data streaming through his upended senses. The ship continued to glide backwards unevenly, thrusters firing on and off, tipping the ship off-kilter. Thankfully, it didn’t matter which way you were oriented in space.

“Clumb, we may need to evacuate,” Helfdym said with Indrani’s voice, a tremor in the tone. “The window is—”

A thick web of fragments spidered out from the polyhedron’s point of impact, and the window went sharply concave, pulled out towards the vacuum of space as the pressure escaped. 

“Hang onto something!” Helfdym shouted, kicking off the ground for the wall.

“What’s happening?” Indrani said, his Shell’s eyes opening to take in the habdeck. He wished he hadn’t. Immediately, he began to flail and grab at Clumb-who-was-Sun. “We’re going to get sucked out!” Another massive fissure appeared in the window, the glass beginning to vibrate against the opposing pressures. “Sun, what do I do!?”

Sun squirmed in his iron grip, trying to decide what to tell him first. Ideally, he would puppet the Shell, straighten out the ship, and line it up with the observation deck simultaneously—but could they trust him to handle it all? The prospect of such extensive multitasking felt overwhelming even to Sun, in a way it simply hadn’t before. 

A broad hand wrapped its long fingers around one of the Shell’s forearms. Clumb had swung Helfdym’s spindly body across a series of pipes jutting from the deck’s ceiling. With a tug, she drew in Indrani and Sun, gripping them with three hands as she clung to the ceiling with the other three. 

“I gotcha!” she bellowed in Helf’s deep voice. “Whattabout your ship?”

“Are you clear of the ring, Indy?” Sun gritted out. “Find your primary docking bay. Treat it like—like your mouth.” They swiveled their head, coming face to face with an increasingly dubious Indrani. “Find visual sensors—eyes—on the same side of the ship as your mouth. Line your mouth up with the observation deck window. With us.” Sun attempted an encouraging nod, which only caused their entire body to bob up and down. “You’re gonna catch us, the same way I caught you.”

Mouth, his mouth; where in Path’s name was his mouth? Now that Sun had mentioned it, trying to find it was like trying to grasp at smoke. Indrani tried again to find his mouth, but instead, felt something like his diaphragm seize up. His Shell whimpered audibly. 

“Your human is going to make it worse!” Helfdym barked with Indrani’s deep tenor, kicking off to grasp at the Shell. “Just make him hold still–”

“Sun, I–I–!” His stomach felt as if it was churning, full of meteors ricocheting around his gut—and then, unable to hold himself back, Indrani-the-ship burped. 

The ship’s bay snapped open. Out from the depths, drones began to fly, swarming towards the ring’s habdeck in thick, glinting clouds. 

Back in the habdeck, Shell-Indrani emitted a sob, clutching at his non-existent stomach, his mechanical head dipped down against his chest. “Sun, I don’t feel so good,” he mumbled, opening his eyes for a moment of sensory reprieve.

The whine from the escaping air was escalating to a dull roar, and Sun could barely hear themself think. They watched the drones swoop closer and closer, the glass’s deepening cracks obscuring their numbers. If they’d been deployed from the docking bay, they were probably maintenance drones, although these ones had never been designed to travel beyond the surface of The Sun Clouded Over. Leave it to Indrani to find a way to do the exact opposite of what he was supposed to—wait.

Sun clapped their tiny hands on the thick arm around their waist. Wait. The drones would only stay outside the Ship’s radius for so long before they started propelling themselves back. If Indy couldn’t get any closer to the four of them in the habdeck—

“—we can hitch a ride back on the drones,” Sun squeaked. They emphatically banged a hand against the Shell’s metallic arm, raising their voice to be heard over the escaping air. “Guys! If we each grab a drone, they’ll take us back to the docking bay!”

Helfdym lifted his head, turned to assess the incoming drones. “The force of the decompression is going to shoot us out at high speed. There’s an alarmingly high chance we’ll miss grabbing hold of them—” he paused, twitchy face falling into a resigned anxiety, “—but I suppose it’s the best option we’ve got.” 

“I c-can slow us down,” Indrani said, voice rising from a whimper to a sturdier register. His Shell finally loosened its grip on Sun’s tiny frame, unfolded from its fetal curl. He’d seen Sun jet their way over to the habdeck in the first place, so it stood to reason he could do the same. Testing out the Shell, he breathed and felt through his body with proprioceptive awareness. He’d gotten a taste of what it felt like in Sun’s ship form, but the Shell suddenly seemed much more manageable.

“Propulsion…” The glass fractured again, a massive fissure. The habdeck would burst any moment. He held tightly onto Sun, then reached for Helfdym who floated nearby in his own body, watching him with a grimace. Propulsion, propulsion, he thought, moving limbs, fluttering his eyes, the false mouth. And then, among the fake anatomy, a ring of vents along his mechanical torso, all of which felt like gently-held breaths.

“I think….I’ve got it!” He jerked forward suddenly, Sun and Helfdym in his arms, testing the propulsion system. The glass began to quake violently, and he reached out for Clumb, encircling their narrow body in his rigid grip. The pile of them thrashed forward and back in stuttering movements as Indrani experimented with the thrust of the vents. “Okay, I—!”

A great shattering turned the glass white and then a loud sucking whoosh exploded in his ears as the vacuum of space made to swallow them.

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