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Inner Sanctum Exterior | 3:00 PM | Third Day

It's amazing the kind of mundane things in life you can just not do.

I'd done a lot of stuff for a person my age, especially if you counted the stuff from-- Well, you know. I'd traveled by carriage, bus, tram, vacuum tram, boat and airship. I'd been to seven different countries and lived in four. I'd played in an amateur sport team (assuming chess counts as a sport). I'd been interviewed by a magazine. I'd played a semi-major part in a play. I'd flown over a mile into the air. I'd repaired a logic engine with broken water pressure, albeit only by carefully following a series of printed instructions. I'd taken art classes. I could bake.

I was realizing, just now, that I'd never actually used a shovel.

"Su, you're getting dirt all over me," Ran said flatly.

"Uh, sorry," I said, flustered and breathing somewhat heavily. "I keep tossing it too fast."

"So stop tossing it too fast," she retorted.

"I don't know how to do that."

"Just go slower," she said, like she was talking to an idiot.

I didn't know how to go slower. This just felt like the natural momentum required to persistently shovel dirt.

I'd seen people use shovels, of course, both on dramas and in person. There was no avoiding it - it was one of those things that was just all over the world, to the point you kinda 'felt' like you had experienced even if you hadn't, like riding a horse. I'd tried to ride a horse once, too; I'd sprained my ankle trying to get off after two minutes and had started crying.

It's funny. Life teaches us repeatedly that what we picture something will be like when observing it, and the truth, are usually completely disparate... But it's surprisingly difficult to disabuse ourselves of the idea. The mind is great at tricking itself into thinking that imagination is omniscience.

"Put your back into it, Su," Kam, who was doing quite a bit better at it than me despite her notably smaller size, said. "You're barely moving your shoulders at all. I'm surprised you aren't getting elbow cramps."

I glanced towards her. She'd already made a lot more progress on her part of the hole. It was a funny image, Kam and her fancy clothes covered in soil from the waist down, but somehow it didn't surprise me that she'd be decent at something like this.

Was that classist? it was probably classist.

We were out in eerie darkness in the 'field' adjacent to the Order's headquarters, not too far from the graveyard, though we weren't digging for bodies. Half our group was here: Myself, Linos, Ran, Kam, Ophelia, Mehit and technically Lilith.

I say 'technically' because the girl had been sedated. At present, she was laid flat on the earth, her mother seated beside her with a distant expression somewhere between anxiety and bitterness. She obviously wasn't happy about the decision, nor anything else, but there hadn't been many options. Even if Lilith was little more than an indoctrinated teenager, she still represented a threat so long as we were moving around. There was no one left willing to stake our lives to be kind and decent.

Still, it felt like the least we could do was to not force her to dig. Even though she was probably the physically strongest person in the group. Linos was of course also unable to participate, and Ophelia had been unspokenly left out as well; she apparently produced such an aura of eternal femininity that our minds had just silently registered it as the correct call after we'd only been able to find three shovels in the greenhouse.

"Why didn't we take any of the damn boys with our group?" Kam moaned, as she rubbed sweat from her brow after she threw another pile of dry dirt over her shoulder onto the nearby grass. "They should be doing something like this, not us."

"That's kind of--" I hesitated as I gasped for air between thrusts, trying to find what felt like the correct word. "...that's a little prescriptive, Kam," I eventually declared skeptically.

She rolled her eyes. "I'm not being sexist, Su. It's a fact of science that testosterone-dominated endocrine systems make people physically stronger. In an insane situation like this where we're cut off from our more sophisticated tools, they possess the superior phenotypical makeup for this sort of manual labor."

"Even if that's broadly true, it's still a generalization," I shot back, with no idea why I was even arguing about something so stupid.

"Gonna have to agree with Su here," Ran said. "Seth wouldn't be much help in the state he's in, and Ezekiel and Theo aren't exactly paragons of masculine power." She glanced at Linos, who was watching us from his chair nearby. "No offense to your son, sir."

He rubbed one of his eyes, keeping the other open, since he'd been charged with keeping an armed watch. "If you don't mind, I'm going to abstain from this part of the conversation, miss Hoa-Trinh," he said.

"Fair enough," she replied, continuing on the work.

"What I don't understand is why Hamilcar even set up the Power to be blocked in only this bioenclosure to begin with," Kam digressed. "If it had been everywhere, or at least through most of the facility, I would have understood it as a move to prevent us from fighting back. Hell, if the underground had been an exception, I would have grasped that to an extent too-- With him lurking down there, he might've seen it as a vehicle to pick us off somehow." She shook her head. "But solely here? It seems foolish - the safest place from a conventional attack was the security center. It was like disarming us to force a fisticuffs duel, then handing us a set of body armor. Utterly self-defeating."

"Doesn't seem that complicated to me," Ran said. "We already know he predicted we'd go to the security center. It's easy to toy with us if we're stuck in one spot, caught between being able to use it on one floor and not on the other."

She frowned as she dug her shovel into a stubborn patch of earth. "I suppose." She clicked her tongue. "Then again, as far as we know, what happened to Sacnicte and Yantho didn't involve the Power at all. He could very well have done without."

"Maybe things went off the rails," Ran suggested. "I mean, he did die."

Kam didn't seem satisfied with this response, looking down silently at her work.

"Gods," I said a few moments later, reaching up to where I'd set my bag down to take a swig of water. "How can two feet be this deep...?"

"Spatial physics?" Ran suggested, her tone sarcastic.

I frowned. "That's not-- You know what I meant." I sighed deeply. "Ugh, my back hurts."

"I dare to say that if you stopped complaining, it would go faster, Su," Kam said. "The stitch pulled slowly stings twice as sharp, as they say."

I looked at her quizzically. "Do they say that?"

"Of course they do," she claimed defensively. "In Rhunbard, at least."

"We're almost done," Ran said, as she packed some dirt to the side of the hole to prevent it from caving in a bit. "I mean, from eyeballing it."

"Almost done in our thirds, at least," Kam said, nodding her head in my direction.

"Why are you all picking on me like this?" I asked, irritated.

Suddenly, Kam's spade made a metallic thunk as it hit something hard.

 

π’ŠΉ

 

15 Minutes Earlier

Anna was hunched over the table, rapidly working with a metal scalpel-like instrument on a piece of bronze we'd found in one of the storage closets on the second floor of the security center. It really was amazing watching her work. She moved like a machine.

"This is a little cruder than I would have hoped, but it will have to do," she said curtly. "This should serve to replace the damaged section at the exterior of the building, over where the artificed intelligence chamber resides."

"What do you mean by 'replace'?" Seth asked. "Doesn't runecraft have to be totally even and physically connected for the incantation to flow properly? That'd take just as long as replacing it normally.

Anna looked irritated at the interruption, regarding him coldly. "No interruptions," she spoke.

"Oh, uh, sorry," he said, frowning and scratching the side of his head.

"As I was saying," she continued. "Though we may not have the time for a full replacement, a workaround is possible. An engraved incantation, even one as complicated as the one which governs the various functions of this sanctuary, is still an incantation... And like those within a scepter, can be tweaked via human direction, so long as it is done carefully." She tapped a finger against the metal. "So it is simple. As the command is sent from the security center, we will have someone touch the affected area and manually redirect the the inter-rune flow through their own will, first into this tablet and then back into the foundations and the system at large. That should suffice to resolve the issue."

It seemed like a pretty good plan. I had to give Anna credit - more so than anyone else, and despite being in the midst of what sounded like a minor existential crisis, she'd kept her head together.

"But... Ain't the Power suppressed on the upper level?" Ptolema asked. "I mean, that's what we're talking about, right? If it's the 'exterior of the building'."

Anna sighed, looking away for a moment and rubbing her scalp through the fabric of her hood. "You have misunderstood the nature of the suppression process," she said. "Take a moment to think. Self-evidently the life support systems of this bioenclosure have not failed, which means that eris is still transmitted through the runework, and thus effect is not absolute.Though new flows of new extradimensional energy - new incantations - cannot be established, those which are extant and enjoy a privileged status by the system persist. More pressingly in this case, we as arcanists are not per-se 'stripped' of our abilities so much as their results are blocked. We can still use manipulate our indexes to direct the Power in an explicitly executive capacity."

She blinked, scrunching up her lip. "I don't really get it."

"Think of it like a barricade across a street, Ema," Seth cut in. "The street is blocked, but it's still there, and the sewer underneath it is still flowing. So you can't walk down it, but you can, uh, get through."

"I dare say you're making things worse rather than better, Seth," Kam said flatly, while Ptolema looked increasingly bemused.

"Our course of action will be this," Anna declared somewhat loudly, clearly having no patience for derailment. "We will proceed down to the artificed intelligence chamber, where the other element of damage significant to our objective is present, and instruct Sekhmet to send a request for recurring transpositions. I will use the method I just described to circumvent the damage myself. Meanwhile, another group--"

"We're splitting up?" Mehit interjected.

The older - well, 'older' - woman nodded. "Yes. I see unfortunately no alternative."

A discomfort and disapproval spread through our group, with people making awkward glances or looking like they wanted to speak up in objection, but Anna continued first.

"Do not mistake me. I understand your reservations," she said. "Even with Hamilcar dispensed of, it is very possible this will create an opportunity for his hypothetical accomplice. It is dangerous." Her tone became cold and firm. "But we have no other options. Without the ability to repair the damage, there is no other means to transmit the request to the portal without direct intervention at both points simultaneously. Unless you would prefer us to be at the mercy of whatever has been scripted for us this afternoon."

"Fuck," Seth said, rubbing his eyes.

"Is-- is there not a larger supply of eris somewhere in the sanctuary we might use to weather the storm?" Theo suggested. "With the Power, we could produce enough oxygen to last for hours with the right equipment, and if we got the parts of the upper level repaired first, we could stay safe from physical threats. It really feels like staying together is the only way we can be sure we'll-- That we'll be able to..."

"Do what?" Ezekiel asked pointedly. "Die like sniveling cowards as more and more complications delay us as our resources dwindle? My guess would be that's exactly what that sick fuck was expecting us to do."

Theo frowned anxiously, looking downward.

"There's probably a reasonably large supply of eris would be scavenge from the research tower with deliberate effort," Linos said discontentedly, "...but I have to admit, that doesn't seem wise at this point. Up until what happened in the arboretum, it felt like we had things in hand. But now it's like we're fighting a losing battle of attrition." He held his hands together anxiously. "Another event like that could doom us. It wouldn't even matter if we caught Yantho and Sacnicte's murderer."

"I agree," Kam said, with a firm nod. "I don't like to take risks, but we need to end this now."

Mehit closed her eyes for a moment and took a sharp intake of breath, but nodded in assent herself.

"This is awful," Ophelia said, shaking slightly. "I just wish it was over."

Seth and a few other people regarded her sympathetically, but no one really seemed to know what to say. Ezekiel shook his head, though it wasn't clear as to if this was in disgust towards her or a more general discontent with the situation.

"C'mon, Ophelia," Fang said, breaking from their quiet, contemplative state for the first time in a while. "There's a lot more of us then there are of them, and if we can just get this done, we'll be home free!" They slapped her on the back. "Back in time for a late lunch!"

She didn't even try to feign being encouraged by this, her pained expression deepening. Fang, after a moment, laughed awkwardly and withdrew their hand.

My stomach rumbled a bit at the mention of food. I'd been trying to suppress them, but at this point, my body had pretty much every biological need at once to a degree that it was interfering with my thinking. My mind got stuck on the thought about devouring one of the cheap lamb and pepper kebabs you could buy at a stall near my apartment like it was a solstice feast.

"By my judgement," Anna resumed, "the safest way would be to split our group evenly, to minimize the chance of the accomplice being able to act. While half of us go underground, the remainder will proceed to this point, here." She pulled up the map of the sanctuary and indicated a specific location in the garden. "The damaged runework should be visible at the foundations of the building. After that, I will walk whoever volunteers through the process, and then initiate the transposition command to the security center."

"How will they contact the second group?" Ran asked.

"There are logic bridges scattered around the grounds for working while 'outdoors'," Anna told us, "though somewhat subtly. The location should be just within range of the one situated at the graveyard - it protrudes from the ground at the westmost rim. As a backup plan in the event it is somehow broken or otherwise inoperable, we shall set 3:30 as the time for the request to be sent. Once the damage is located, it shouldn't be an overly complicated process." She looked up from the map. "After we've confirmed the security center has received the request and prepared the transposition, the group at the graveyard will hold while the rest of us move to join them. We will then all proceed to the transposition chamber as one party." She looked between us. "Questions?"

Linos looked to the side. "Uh, do you see any problems with the plan, Zeno?"

There was a pause, then an approving thump from the luggage pile.

 

π’ŠΉ

 

Inner Sanctum Exterior | 3:00 PM | Third Day

We hadn't had time to argue much about who went where, but at Kam's suggestion, it had mostly come down to people's ability to use rifles versus roughly how suspicious they were considered. Ophelia was still under some scrutiny, so she'd come up with us along with Kam, Ran, Linos and Mehit, who all had some degree of skill. Theo, meanwhile, had been separated from his father to remain under Anna and Zeno's (apparent) supervision, along with Ezekiel and Fang, the two most talented arcanists in our class.

That was the theory. In practice, I felt woefully vulnerable. Ran and Kam were preoccupied with digging, and Mehit seemed to be barely paying attention to anything other than her daughter. As for Linos, good shot or not, the pragmatic reality was that he'd probably be picked off in an ambush quickly just because of his lack of mobility.

Though we'd taken the precaution of disarming her - she claimed to have never fired a gun anyway, so if she was innocent, it wasn't any great loss - I really hoped Ophelia wasn't one of the conspirators. Admittedly, it didn't seem likely. She'd had the perfect chance to do some serious damage to us while we'd been working, yet hadn't.

"All I can say for certain is that Ophelia is not the culprit."

Balthazar had told us that, and at the time, I'd almost dismissed it along with everything else he'd claimed. But now that I found myself taking his words to heart to a disturbing degree, it kept coming back to mind.

'Ophelia is not a culprit'. It felt easy to accept that statement as true, but if you did, it started to raise questions. The only other likely accomplice which had seemed likely - that is to say, not involving a much broader conspiracy - had been Zeno. But if that were the case, his actions made no sense. Why would he help us defeat Hamilcar, when he could easily have taken a sizeable chunk out of our group without anyone being the wiser, down in that cavernous chamber? Why would he make himself so vulnerable?

When something doesn't make sense, it can mean either one of two things: Either you don't have the proper facts, or you don't have the proper perspective. Either way, I kept going back to that same feeling. That there was some fundamental misconception I had about the whole situation.

'The culprit's goal is to kill us.' Again, that was the fly in the ointment; the idea that couldn't be fully reconciled with the facts. If you assumed a different goal, then a lot of things started to make sense.

...but at the same time, they had killed multiple people, and had placed us all in fantastic danger. And they were at least willing to create a situation where it was possible for all of us to die. So murder, at least in some circumstances, had to bring them closer to their goal.

Their goal. <X>. The culprits... No, <Y>, want to do <X>.

To do <X>, Bardiya had to be murdered. Sacnicte and Yantho had to be murdered. Probably Neferuaten, Vijana and Durvasa had to be murdered.

...No, even saying that, I was already getting ahead of myself.

Just because <X> had happened didn't mean it per-se served the goals of <Y>. <Y> didn't have to be the only actor. It'd crossed my mind before; a possible explanation for many of these contradictions was that there wasn't just one 'mastermind', but competing groups.

One calls it 'master'. The other calls it 'Her'...

Suppose that Hamilcar and Lilith, collectively <Y>, had been telling the truth. They really had set up the messages. They really had been willing to murder everyone for some reason, either rational or irrational - maybe something to do with the internal politics of the Order, something more personal, or something completely beyond the perspective I had on the situation.

When we'd met Hamilcar, he'd almost seemed defeated, like he'd been down there expecting to die. Maybe this whole thing had started as some elaborate suicide plan that had spiraled wildy out of control. Or maybe, like several people had suggested, it had been a smokescreen - the pretext of 'punishment for our sins' existing only to dazzle and distract from a smaller-scale goal, which Hamilcar was prepared to die for.

Why are we all being punished, when most of us aren't even in the Order? That's still strange. I batted that intrusive thought away; if it was all just theatrics, it wasn't like the narrative had to make complete sense.

...but then, say there was also <B>. Instead of wanting <X>, <B> wants <A>, but are also willing to kill for it.

The best way to hide is to deceive your seeker into the belief that they've already found you. It was an idea you saw in mystery stories a lot. There's no better time to commit murder than when someone else has done it already - after all, you already have a confirmed real murderer present to be your patsy. Many people, perhaps even most people, are willing to kill for one reason or another if the possibility they'll be discovered approaches 0, but just doing a murder is like being the first person to try and slip away from a bad party. It's more likely to be somewhere between 30 and 100; not good odds.

But every time blood hits the floor, that number goes down. The situation becomes messier. Everyone becomes worked up and irrational. The invisible barrier of deeply-ingrained civil norms dissolve, and people start to realize they really can just do whatever they want.

The more I thought about it, the more this idea felt plausible.

But who was <B>, and what was <A>...?

"Alright," Ran said, setting her shovel up at the top of the hole. "That should be enough."

We'd exposed a good 2-3 square feet of the underground runework, which sensibly was covered by a reinforced glass sheen - artificed bronze wouldn't degrade even if you left it underground for 500 years, but it still wouldn't do for dirt to get caught in the cracks. We'd managed to expose the edges of this segment in particular, allowing us to remove the shield and expose our objective, which now laid in plain sight.

I had to confess that I'd been expecting something a bit more significant when Anna had spoken about the fissure; maybe a nasty looking crack running the length of my arm, but obviously, it was barely anything. Just a tiny sliver, barely longer than an inch, cutting between two runes.

Of course, that didn't make it any less significant. As had been stressed countless times during the early years of my education, even this much could have caused a backlash if there was eris flowing through it.

"Gods," Kamrusepa said, running her hands through sweat-drenched hair. "Ophelia, pass me my water bottle, would you?"

"Oh, um... Of course," the girl said, reaching over for it. She handed it to Ran, who in turn handed it to Kamrusepa, who drank greedily for a few moments.

She gasped for hair as she finished. "Phew." She set the bottle at the side of the grave. "Thank the gods Hamilcar didn't interfere with the plumbing on top of everything else. That might've done me in."

"It looks like Su's ahead of you on that front," Ran said, glancing towards me.

I gasped for breath, clutching at my gut. Despite having stopped a good two minutes before the other two as they cleared out the last of the soil, I was still in a state of, to put it in a manner that preserves my dignity as much as possible, physical distress. I was sweating furiously, and my muscles were pulsing with an acidic sting. My lungs wanted more air than my throat could carry, and it felt like I'd pulled something in my gut.

"Pitiable," Kam said, shaking her head.

"I think I-- I think I have a hernia," I said weakly.

"What you have is a case of the weeny-whinies," she told me derisively. "Honestly, how are you that physically unfit? I see you sometimes at the cafeteria loading your plate with veritable heaps of smoked meat, so you can't be starving yourself. Have you been missing rejuvenation appointments?"

I managed to lift my head up, glaring at her. "I have a weak constitution."

"This is the 15th century," Kamrusepa replied, her eyes narrowed. "No one has a 'weak constitution' except for bio-puritans intent on dying young to some failure in their anima script."

Linos cleared his throat loudly.

"Oh-- Pardon me, grandmaster," Kamrusepa said, not seeming particularly embarrassed. "Obviously I'm generalizing somewhat."

"As you say, miss Tuon," he replied flatly.

"Uh, not to interrupt this little moment that you're all having, but now that we're done, shouldn't we try to get in contact with Anna?" Ran gestured towards the location of the logic bridge we'd been informed about. "Time is kinda a factor here."

"Good point," Kam said, climbing out of the hole. "Come along, Su. Look lively."

I frowned at her, then sighed, slowly pushing myself to my feet.

We walked a few steps over to the edge of the graveyard. Because logic bridges were all made of the same distinctive material, it wasn't hard to find now that we knew to look for it. It was a flat slab of dark, glassy material surrounded by a stone lining about as long as my index finger, presumably designed as such so it didn't undermine the actual headstones by sticking up too much. Kam and Ran leaned down to tap the surface first, with my stumbling awkwardly behind.

"I'll get us connected to the artificed intelligence room, then go keep watch," Ran stated.

I furrowed my brow. "You're not going to help us out?"

She frowned. "What would I do? I mean, it's kind of a one person job, and you two are the prodigies with the Power, not me."

"Your insistence that you're not gifted always strikes me as rather strange, Ran," Kam said. "In case you've forgotten, you are in arguably the most prestigious medical class in the entire world."

Ran looked disinterested, already heading back over to the hole. "Haven't we had this conversation before?"

"It just strikes as almost a sort of arrogance in its own right, that's all," Kam went on, then smirked slightly. "Or are you just not altogether eager to interact with Sekhmet again?"

"You've been kind of ornery these past couple hours, Kam," I said.

She paused for a moment at this, her expression growing a little more serious. "...yes, I suppose so." She turned. "Well, Ran? Are we ready?"

Ran nodded. "Yep." She hesitated. "...this is my gut talking, but I feel like you might want to avoid talking too much about what's actually going on right now. There's no telling how that thing will react if it finds out its creator is dead and this whole place could be on the verge of blowing up."

"Hmmmm." Kam put a hand to your lip. "I want to say you're paranoid, but circumstances being what they are, it probably is better not to chance it."

Ran nodded, and executed the command. Off to the side, Mehit's attention wandered from her daughter, turning towards the three of us.

The connection pulsed through my mind, and in few moments--

Oh, hello! Sekhmet said. It's nice to hear from you three again too! It's all very busy all of a sudden!

"Sekhmet," Kamrusepa spoke. "Is mistress Amtu-heddu-anna interfacing with you as well, right now?"

Yes, that's right! The machine conveyed cheerfully. It's very exciting, since she doesn't visit me and my brother very often at all compared to the other directors! There are several other people I'm just meeting now, too! There's a girl who keeps asking questions, a VERY surly boy who keeps making grumpy faces--

"Yes, yes, very good," Kam interjected, her tone hasteful. "Can you connect us to her ladyship?"

Confusion. Mushy and plain, like porridge. I'm sorry, I don't know who you mean?

"Anna," Kam clarified, narrowing her eyes. "Connect us to Anna."

Oh, it communicated. Yes, of course.

A moment later, a metal impression of the scene downstairs appeared in our mind's eye. Anna was standing at the front, with Seth and Ptolema behind her, alongside Zeno's luggage pile. Ezekiel and Theo were towards the back, not seeming to be engaged with what was going on.

"Good," Anna told us, as soon as she appeared. "That was more punctual than I'd anticipated. I assume you've excavated the engravings already?"

"Yes, your ladyship," Kamrusepa replied with a nod. "We found the fracture, as well."

"Good," she said again, with about as close to a tone of approval she was capable of. "I am making some brief adjustments to the AI's bioscripting to allow it to feign the command structure of the administrative core, but this should only take a few minutes. Stand by until then."

I frowned to myself, feeling the weight of my aching arms. We didn't even need to hurry...?

"Very well, your ladyship. Should we do anything to prepare?"

She considered this for a moment. "It might be worth trying to make one final attempt at signalling that boy in the research tower. Are you still taught phryctoria in your basic combat training?"

I know the phryctoria code! Sekhmet conveyed, for unclear - and unhelpful - reasons.

"We are," Kam answered, leaving out the fact that it was all of three classes that maybe one in every fifty acolytes bothered to retain. Why would anyone in the modern era bother themselves with semaphore? (Well, obviously for emergencies like this, but you couldn't expect young people to have that kind of foresight.)

"Then I see no harm in an attempt. Perhaps without even an understanding, he will understand the implication."

"You guys holdin' up okay out there..?" Ptolema asked, concern wrought on her face.

"No further talking, please," Anna said, stepping to the side. "I need total concentration if I am to get this done quickly."

She set the transmission into standby, the image remaining as only a faint implication in my awareness.

"What's going on?" Linos asked.

"Uh, it sounds as though Anna is making some final adjustments to Sekhmet to make the plan work," I said. "In the meantime, she suggested we try to signal Balthazar with semaphore."

He won't respond, I somehow felt confident. He's here until the very end.

Linos nodded. "That's not a bad idea," he said, nodding a few times. "I can set my pistol to a weak frequency and do it myself, but the rest of you will need to cover for my watch."

"Not like we have anything better to do," Ran said, holding her own and sitting down by the side of the pit.

"Indeed," Kam said, letting out a weary sigh. "All that's left to do now is wait for the moment of truth."

I frowned at her odd phrasing as I sat down myself.

Silence fell for a bit. I looked up at the tower where Balthazar was still waiting. Whether or not my gut feeling about the way he would respond was correct, it didn't make his actions, nor the fact that he was still waiting there even now, any less strange. Was he not bothered about the prospect of being left behind? He must have seen the most recent message from Aruru, too. Wasn't he frightened?

Dwelling on that really did leave a cold chill under my skin. That maybe, just maybe...

Sunglasses. He'd been wearing them when Ran and I had paid him a visit earlier. At the time, I'd just assumed it to be part of his broader eccentric persona... But from within that glass tower, the light from the exploding Everblossom must have been blinding. Maybe close to literally. So...

I bit my lip. Because thinking about it, it wasn't as though some pair of cheap shaded spectacles would actually protect your eyes in any significant way from something like that. If he'd somehow known, it would have been better to move to another room, or use the fancy transparency-altering controls for the windows to block out the light entirely.

No, the only way it made logical sense as a sort of statement. Something he knew I'd reflect back on later.

A way of saying: I know.

But how could he possibly know? There were only two explanations. The first was that he was, as I'd considered before, in-the-know on the culprit's plan - or oneΒ­ of the plans, if there were multiple - probably because he was an accomplice; it wouldn't be unreasonable to guess he'd planted the bomb himself. This would explain some of his strange behavior...

...but though I hated to admit it, it wasn't the explanation that felt the most likely, deep down. The gesture didn't come across as a confession. Rather, what it felt like was a smug way of rubbing my disbelief right back in my face.

When you eliminate the impossible, what remains, however absurd, is the truth. Time is looping. At this point, it was worth taking a minute to accept that insane premise as fact and see where it led.

As Fang had pointed out, there was something that verged on a logical explanation for the concept: The Apega. A machine that could manipulate time without heed of information decay could, with an unfathomable amount of energy, hypothetically reverse causality in a closed environment. The sanctuary could be repeatedly restored to the precise state at we arrived. The exception to this was our brains, which the Power couldn't tamper with... But my motive for coming placed faith in the idea that Egomancy could hypothetically alter memory indirectly.

In other words, the Apega could be setting back time - except in the pantry, the 'eye of the storm', unchanged by virtue of some technical anomaly - with our memories altered manually. And that could both explain the 8-hour hole in my recollection, and the sense of deja-vu-bordering-on-psychic-powers I'd experienced before that point. When you considered the fact that I'd stopped having those moments after waking up in the main building, a theory presented itself: For some reason, the memory-wiping process on me had been 'defective' this loop. Eventually, whoever was behind the process noticed and intervened to fix the issue, resulting in the missing hours. After that, things continued as normal.

When you put it like that, it all lined up very cleanly.

...but if you thought about it for more than two seconds, holes started to appear. Even if you ignored the massive ones of 'how' and 'why', there were more specific questions as to how this would even work. After all, we hadn't all come to the sanctuary at once; there was no 'start point' to cleanly reset to. And even if the audience for our presentations had been fake, we'd still had contact with the outside world. Incantations like Kam's Time-Inferring Arcana explicitly checked non-local factors which couldn't be faked.

And, most glaringly, I'd started having those moments of false-recollection before we'd even set out. That tore the entire premise apart. It would mean it couldn't just be the sanctuary looping, but the entire world.

And that drove the idea beyond even the realm of speculative fantasy.

Unless... There was something more fundamental I'd misunderstood.

"Are you familiar with the simulation hypothesis, Utsushikome?"

I remembered a conversation I'd had while eating lunch out with Neferuaten, back when I'd lived in Mekhi.

I took a bite out of the tlaxcalli wrap I was eating, some spicy bean mush lightly brushing at the side of my cheek as it fell down onto the plate. "That's the thought experiment that our universe could just be a script that a logic engine is running, right?"

"Correct," she said, nodding. "Or at least, that's the pulp understanding of the concept." She forked a piece of spinach in her salad, running it against the oil at the periphery of the bowl before sliding it into her mouth. "What do you think of the argument?"

I considered the question for a moment, lowering the burrito. "Well... It seems sort of sophistic," I said, parroting the 'logical' response that you often heard with this topic. "The world is the way it is, regardless of whether it's real or not. It's not like we'd be able to do anything about it even if it were true, so it doesn't really matter."

"But isn't it thrilling?" she asked, smiling enthusiastically. "The idea that there could be this whole other reality with dominion over ours beyond our ability to observe. Anything could happen. We could all be transmogrified into fish at a moments notice."

I frowned. "That seems more frightening then thrilling."

She chuckled, then reached for her cup of coffee before taking a small sip. "I was reading an article about it this morning, actually. Apparently, back in the Imperial Era, there was a group of scholars who actually attempted to test the concept by setting up an experiment that attempted to overwhelm the processing capabilities of the hypothetical simulation by engineering a series of hyper-complex particle interactions monitored at a subatomic scale."

"What was the result?" I asked curiously.

She shrugged. "The fact that you hadn't heard about it already should answer that question for you."

I curled my lip skeptically, scratching my head. "Does that really prove anything, though...? I mean-- We could just be in a more sophisticated simulation than they accounted for." I considered it for a moment longer. "...or the entire premise, that whatever is running the simulation would even have 'processing power' as we understand the concept, could be wrong."

She smirked, and made a low hum. "Indeed, you've stumbled upon the fundamental issue. After all, if what we inhabit is not the true reality, but merely the product of a physical process within another, it seems very improbably our 'creators' are playing with tools akin to our own. Our very conception of inter-dimensional spacetime, with concepts like entropy, movement, and finite energy could be nothing more than an amusing fabrication."

"You're saying it's like trying to disprove the existencexistance of God," I concluded flatly. "You can't challenge the idea of something beyond humanity's understanding because, no matter what you learn, you can always invent a new 'beyond' operating outside of the present context."

She raised her mug slightly. "This is why I like you, Utsushikome."

I smiled, pleased with the compliment.

"But I do wonder," she went on. "If impossible events actually did begin to occur that seemed to suggest we were within a simulation, would we be able to reach that conclusion? Or would we continue in futility to try and rationalize them within our own systems?" She stirred her fork around the bottom of her bowl. "That question doesn't even need to be applied to this idea specifically - it could be employed for anything in defiance of the scientific method. Magic, deities... Anything where a higher power is toying with us like pieces on a board."

I nodded along to this thoughtfully, taking another few bites. The light of the Great Lamp shone down brightly on half of my face from overhead.

"...would those really be an exception to the scientific method, though?" I eventually asked. "Even if it was beyond our ability to understand at first, everything follows some sort of logic that you can observe given enough time, right?"

She looked at me for a moment, a funny glint in the corners of her slightly-wrinkled eyes. "Well, that depends, Utsushikome. Do you believe a pawn is destined only to look across at its rival pieces for eternity, by its very nature?" She stabbed her fork into a tomato, spilling its red fluid. "Or, perchance, might it learn to crane its neck towards heaven?"

My eyes drifted from the tower towards the ceiling of the bioenclosure proper. The blackness.

Slowly, I clicked my tongue.

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About the author

Lurina

Bio: I am an idiot obsessed with a diverse range of unrelated topics including the history of early antiquity, murder mystery novels, and indie JRPGs and VNs. All of these are shamelessly reflected in everything I produce.

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