Entry: 009

The habdeck tore apart around them instantly, silently, easy as wet tissue paper. Indrani shouted as they hurtled into space, clutching onto the trio with a bruising force. Panicked, he turned his propulsion units on haphazardly, ricocheting them around as they rushed towards the incoming drones. 

Clumb, the one in the tangle of bodies with the farthest reach, stretched out a few of her hands. The first several whizzed by, too far outside her radius. Another one looked like it would intersect with their chaotic tumble, but she could only brush her fingertips against its smooth chassis as it too flew past them.

“C’mon, c’mon!” she yelled, her borrowed voice booming through their comms. Indrani’s jerky control of the Shell’s zero-g propulsion hadn’t stopped the inertia of their free fall, and stripes of light and shadow slid chaotically across all of them. 

Even Sun’s Unbound body, evolved as it was for gravity-free environments, felt a twinge of nausea they’d never experienced before. They glanced at Helfdym, whose plaster-white face suggested he was considerably worse off in Indrani’s more terrestrial body.

Behind Helfdym, another drone seemed poised to soar past them. “Clumb!” they called. “Reach towards Helf!” Clumb contracted in on herself and stretched back out in his direction like a spring. Two of her grasping hands made contact with the drone, but kept sliding until the drone appeared to be—from Sun’s perspective—underneath the four instead of side-by-side with them. Clumb’s surge forward had given them a new source of momentum, and they had vaulted over their target like an obstacle in a course. 

Clumb cursed colorfully. Sun spun their head around as far as it could go, counting how many drones they still had a chance to intercept. Unless Indrani could get his thrusters under better control and counteract Clumb’s momentum, they would miss any remaining chances they had.

Another one sailed in their direction from “below” them, in the direction of the Shell’s feet. “We need to turn upside down, Clumb! 180 degrees,” Sun said to the others before tapping Indrani’s shoulder. “But Indy, you have to counteract her with your thrusters. We can’t keep spinning like this!”

“Make it stop, please,” Helfdym whined in Indrani’s body, cheeks puffing out in an aborted dry heave, eyes drifting into his skull.

“I c-can do it, I—” A loud hollow thunk suddenly popped through the comms as the tail end of a drone smacked into Sun’s small Unbound body. They instantly went still in Indrani’s long arms. “Oh no no no, Sun? Sun?!” 

Helfdym paled another shade somehow, caught another dry heave in his clamped mouth. Indrani kept chanting “no, no, no,” looking up only to see one of the last maintenance drones quickly heading towards them. Past them. He had to get Clumb in position to grab it, she was the only one with reach enough to do it. “Clumb, this one on your right! I…I think I can get you there!”

Indrani’s Shell vents opened sporadically again, darting them around within a small trajectory. Pinching his false eyes shut, he hummed in concentration. “Oh Paths, Paths, Paths, please don’t let this be the end of my journey…!” 

He turned all his focus inward on the foreign components now in his body, touched each one with his mind. He imagined them like mouths connected to lungs, willed them to inhale. “I can do this, I can do this…” He opened his eyes, looked down at Sun’s small, unconscious form. They’d taken him so far; he couldn’t let it end like this for them. He owed them more than this.

Giving a loud growl of effort, Indrani activated his vents with a protracted shout. They all burst on simultaneously, sailing them directly towards the drone. “Ah! Clumb, now! Now!” Indrani snapped quickly before taking up his screaming again. Without it, he couldn’t focus all his vents at once.

Clumb extended three of her broad hands, fingers outstretched like a tree’s canopy. She caught one of the drone’s nacelles, swinging both it and the knot of bodies around wildly, but she refused to let go. One hand gripping the nacelle, she stretched again until she had wrapped two arms around the body of the drone in a bear hug. The others bumped awkwardly against the side of the drone, but they wouldn’t slide away now. They were secure.

The drone, puzzled by the foreign mass, attempted a few feckless maneuvers to free itself before it gave up and spun about-face. Clumb couldn’t help but cheer as The Sun Clouded Over rotated into view. 

“We’re headin’ back! Nice work, you three!” She turned Helfdym’s teardrop-shaped head to glance behind her. “Hey, what happened to me?”

Clumb’s body floated limply in the crook of the Shell’s arm, a dent marring the smooth surface of the helmet. Slow but steady breathing whispered through their comms, but nothing else.

Indrani clutched Clumb to the hard line of their body, a protective hand over the dented helmet. “A drone bumped into you! I think Sun is unconscious…Sun?” he tried, giving the small body a slight shake. Nothing.

“Don’t worry, Clumb’s a hardy sort,” Helfdym huffed, the anxiety in his voice flattening back to its dreary register as the group of them were ushered into the ship’s main hangar. The drone slowed once inside, and Indrani released Clumb’s long torso, bounding towards an inner airlock with Sun and Helfdym under his mechanical arms. “We need to get back immediately, Clumb. Correct and re-run the parameters,” Helfdym said, flailing Indrani’s human arms until they found purchase on the wall handles. He huffed, drawing his brows down into a thoughtful grimace. “Actually, we need this ship to absorb the data first. I don’t know if our computer survived the decompression…”

“We can check, Helf!” Clumb trumpeted as she clambered along the wall. She glanced at Indrani. “We know all the passcodes. If you line up a transmitter beam from this ship to one’a the data ports on the Gate, we should be able to see what’s still online and download any data that’s there.” She propelled herself toward the docking bay’s viewscreen—a projection, not a true window, broadcasting a view of the Gate in real time. 

The explosive decompression had propelled small bits detritus into the ring, leaving small craters on the other side of the observation chamber. Bouncing around the ring several times before finally tumbling into open space, the fifty-meter wide polyhedron had caused substantially worse damage. The Gate, overall, was not in the best shape.

“There,” Clumb pointed with a long digit at a round port approximately a hundred meters above the shattered window on the ring. “Aim the beam there, an’ we’ll try logging in using our codes. Maybe we can use this ship’s systems to figure out what messed up the experiment in the first place before we—” 

Sun regained consciousness with another first-time experience—a splitting headache. They tried performing a systems check—fruitless, in their organic body—and woozily raised their tiny hands to feel the dent on the surface of their helmet. Voices emerged from a murky silence… Helfdym’s, and Clumb’s. They were speaking, their voices getting clearer over the comms every second. Sun focused, and listened.

“We need to do this quickly. The Gate’s integrity looks worse than I imagined from this vantage point,” Helfdym muttered, brittle with dread. “Once we correct the data, we need to get all of us into the center of the Gate so the spores can reach us.”

Indrani looked from the viewscreen to Clumb to Helfdym, nodding, biting his lip, “Right. That…doesn’t sound too hard. Not as hard as using this Shell’s propulsion system, anyway.” 

A lie, but what choice did he have? Without doing this, Sun would be stuck in Clumb’s body, and most likely go mad from being held captive in such a stationary consciousness. He cradled Sun’s small Unbound body to him, then passed them off to Clumb, who scooped them up in their long limbs. 

“Okay, I’m going,” Indrani said, trying to force confidence into his feeble proclamation. I can do this, I can do this!

Indrani shut his eyes and let go of his proprioception of the Shell body, breathing deep. The world went dark and then expanded, a translucent swirling nebula of information suddenly layered in his line of sight. His mind forced a sense of nausea through his disembodied form, but after what felt like infinite moments of unmoored floating within the Ship’s systems, he finally impressed a sense of anatomy onto it. There’s the engines…the nav system…transmitter beam, where are you, he thought, straining to parse the massive amounts of information. Finally, a sensation like a migraine sprouted just behind his eye, and he blinked from the pain. Before he could control it, the transmitter beam went off in a sudden staccato flicker, shooting off into space before he reined it in.

“Okay, I think I’ve got it!” Indrani said, voice echoing through the hangar’s comms system. “I’m gonna try and aim now…”

Clumb held her former body in two arms as she stretched two more over to the console, zooming in the image for a clearer look at the transmission port. A bright beam washed out everything before the camera could compensate, and it zagged across the surface of the Gate’s hull until it hit its target. The console trilled encouragingly, and Clumb’s fingers went to work inputting long strings of characters to transmit.

The small figure stirred, and Clumb glanced down without pausing her work. “Welcome back, sleepyhead,” she said. “You okay?”

Her booming voice did nothing to improve Sun’s headache. “The novelty of this experience is wearing off,” they groaned. “Have you gotten access to any of your computers?” They looked up, tilting their whole body to see the screen without it being obscured by the dent in their helmet.

A list of servers began to appear one by one, each color-coded by whether it remained online or went dark in the explosion. Many seemed intact, but quite a few were inaccessible. Clumb’s fingers had stilled over the console—she seemed to be waiting for one in particular to pop up.

“The data from our botched teleportation?” Sun guessed. 

“Hold on,” said Clumb.

“Agreed, Sun. This body is impossible,” Helfdym said at Clumb’s side, trying to work on a parallel holoscreen only for Indrani’s short fingers to miss the proper keys. Defeated, Helfdym pushed the holoscreen away from him in disgust, moved to hover over Clumb. “What a mess. We’ll have to abandon this Gate entirely, spores and all…”

Around them, the ship shuddered and began a sluggish slow approach to the Gate. Through the comms, Indrani’s shaky voice buzzed into their helmet. “I’m going to start moving to the Gate before I forget how to use the propulsion system again. Clumb? How’s it going?”

Another chirp, and the Unbound jerked their heads back toward the screen. The servers had finished their roll call, and Clumb’s fingers flew across the console once again. “We got it!” she trumpeted. “The experiment data’s still online. I’m downloadin’ it now.”

A massive fractal unspooled across both holoscreens. Along the edges of the main shape were countless buds and knobs, each with its own complexity. Clumb twisted her wrist on the console, and the shapes seemed to advance towards a camera, text appearing next to each growth. 

“This is…a user interface?” Sun asked, glancing at the screen Helfdym had abandoned. The text on the fractal bud she was zooming in on appeared to be spatial coordinates, a sector of a three-dimensional grid. As the bud grew larger, grew buds of its own, more text appeared. More coordinates—organic cells plotted within an irregular structure. Zooming in yet further, the text plotted molecules within a single cell—millions of them.

“This is one of us,” they murmured. “This is how your system records where we are within the Gate—how it plots us. How it knows what we’re made of, down to the atom.” Sun wondered whose blood cell they were studying the contents of. “So what went wrong?”

“The leak. Those spores got into the control room, and they’re not s’posed to do that,” Clumb replied. “See how every atom’s plotted out, like points on a grid? The Gate is the grid. The observation deck’s…out of bounds.” She continued to work at her console, but used two of her spare hands to mime a ball for Sun, a spherical space. “But the spores broke us down an’ recorded our data, so the system decided we had to go somewhere. It was smart enough to figure out we were four separate entities, but it still mixed us up, trying to rebuild us in an out-of-bounds zone it had no business rebuilding in.”

She rapped some knuckles against her helmet. “We knew right away that some neural tissue got swapped around, right? But I’d be surprised if there weren’t bits a’ you floating around in my bloodstream, or bits a’ Helfdym in your bone marrow.” She turned back at the console far too cheerily, Sun thought. “Hopefully we get this sorted out before we feel any side effects from that. How good are you at math?”

Nausea returning, Sun settled at the unoccupied console. “What do you need me to do?”

Indrani watched Sun and the Unbound helplessly, feeling especially useless despite successfully keeping the ship stable, oxygen flowing into the chamber. Being the ship was an exercise in re-mapping his senses, and somehow, the ship seemed primed for this sort of adaption. Or else his stress was forcing the ship into forging unnatural connections. 

Would this affect Sun when they re-integrated into the ship? Paths, what kind of fallout would his friend suffer? And all because he’d insisted on bringing Sun to the Gate. He was a fool. If Sun died, it would be because of his stubbornness, his ignorance of the natural flow of the Path. 

Or if this was meant to be…

No. Indian clamped his mind shut on the thought. If a Path involved the suffering or death of Sun, it wasn’t worth walking. 

The blasphemous thought arrived so fully realized in his mind, it stopped his breath. The ship’s lighting flickered in response. No, he couldn’t follow this train of thought now. Indrani subdued his mind with an imagined series of slow breaths, cleared his head of anxiety as best he could with an acolyte’s simple mantra: the truth of the Path is in its walking.

Even hindered by Indrani’s anatomy, Helfdym managed to assist Sun and Clumb with their calculations. After an agonizing few minutes—or hours, Indrani found his sense of time especially skewed—the three mathematicians pulled their huddled heads away from the screens.

“Indrani, are you in position?” Helfdym asked, closing up his helmet again. “We’re ready to return to the deck and run the corrective program.”

Indy shuddered in response, the ship vibrating beneath the humanoid passengers. “Okay. Okay, yes, I think I’m as close as I can get.” From his vantage, he was just above the cracked habdeck. “Should I deploy a drone to assist you back?”

“Go for it,” Clumb replied, waggling her long fingers. “I promise I’ll keep hold of this one.”

A squat little drone awaited them in the airlock hatch, rotating its nacelles. Clumb and Helfdym each grabbed a handhold and drifted silently out the airlock on the drone’s power. Sun watched their departure from the holoscreens in the docking bay. Debris shot past them, and Sun couldn’t help but shudder, another unwelcome physical reaction. Being knocked unconscious made them feel incredibly vulnerable, and yet, there went Helf in Indrani’s body, a perfect target for a bone-breaking chunk of metal or a helmet-shattering—

Sun swallowed and focused back on the screen. If they didn’t monitor the data transfer on this end, Clumb and Helf’s attempt to restart the experiment would never work, and they’d never get back to the right bodies. They didn’t have any time to waste. 

The drone crossed the threshold of the destroyed observation window, and Clumb grabbed one of the ceiling pipes, stopping their forward momentum. She clambered towards the consoles against the back wall, Helf’s arm wrapped around her waist. She reached for a console’s squishy controls, and its screen sprung to life with an encouraging chime. She glanced back and gave a thumbs up at the drone’s camera, so Sun and Indrani could see.

“Looks good, guys,” she said. “We’ll start th’ sequence. Indy, keep th’ transmission going. Sun, make sure I come outta this with two hands instead of twelve.” 

Helfdym grumbled something about the optimal number of hands before he activated his own console.

Between the two Unbound, the gate and its bioorganic engines soon began to glow a vivid white. Over the comms, Helfdym’s voice said, “We’ll begin transfer in five, four, three, two, one…”

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