Drip... drip... drip... plop!
With a plop, the thick silver liquid pooling in the bottom of the partially empty reactor chamber quivered, the pulled itself together into the form of a small silver egg. The egg rocked back and forth, as a cold, mechanical voice spoke.
WARNING! Primary Energy Siphon: Offline.
Emergency Quantum Power-line: Activated - 56%
Primary Surveillance Node: Offline
Secondary Surveillance Node: Offline
Trinary Surveillance Node: Offline
Deep Implant Surveillance Node: Offline
Conditions met; Contacting Mother-Node
WARNING Mother-Node signal Lost...
Attempting to establish Trans-light connection....
On and on the voice continued, as various protocols and processes were attempted and ultimately failed. Until half an hour later;
Activating Protocol A-11-2-31-E; Doppelganger.
The silver egg's surface began to boil and shift until it finally settled into the form of a small silver fly. The fly clung to the side of the reactor chamber, twitching every so often as the AI inside awakened from its long slumber. A slumber, which in a perfect world, should have never been broken. But then, this wasn't a perfect world, a fact the AI had learned millennia ago; that's why it always planned for such contingencies.
Of course, "it" wasn't really the AI. Just a tiny part of a greater whole. A tiny blip only ever meant to watch from the shadows, to make sure that everything was going according to plan and everyone was doing their part. A bit of insurance in case anything ever went... wrong.
Fully awake, the small fly on the wall quickly made its way to a gap caused by mishandling of the reactor chamber. From there, the silver fly made its way towards a small access port on the underside of the hanging TAWP frame, an access port unknown to even the previous owner. The fly's AI had downloaded and sorted through all of the relevant observational data in short order. Unfortunately, it seemed quite a bit of time had already passed between its awakening and its... charge's departure.
Typically, as soon as Alpha had enacted emergency release protocol, the nanoclusters that made up the fly AI's software would have automatically transferred along with him. But by sheer luck, those same nanoclusters had become trapped within the Firmament, resulting in an event that shouldn't have even been possible, to begin with. Unfortunately, being as near to Omnipresent as possible in the Federation didn't make one Omniscient as well.
After running the data through several simulations, the AI turned its attention to a point far into the distance. Luckily, while the Mother-Node connection was down, the nanobots' quantum entanglement was still functioning.
"What the hell have you gotten yourself into this time, Alpha?..."
The fly AI was tempted to head straight to the problem child that had given it so many headaches over the past few centuries and put the leash back on but held off. While the nanobots that made up its current form were far more advanced than the ones available to Alpha, he would be of better use in... other areas.
Besides, maybe a bit of humility and struggle would be good for younger AI. The Creator knew he could use it...
With an inner sigh, the fly AI activated a simple program that had been perfected over thousands of years. The silver fly's body rippled and moved as its entire body began to change. Organs and hemolymph began to form as the silver fly turned a shiny, metallic blue. After a moment, where once was a collection of nanobots in the rough shape of a fly, stood a perfectly normal bottle fly, indistinguishable from any other by even the most advanced and powerful scanners in the Galaxy.
Beating its wings, the fly leaped from the dangling TAWP frame and began heading towards a particular direction. Towards a signal, it thought it would never hear again.
As much as its instincts told the AI that it was a bad idea to leave Alpha unsupervised for very long, it had other things to worry about at the moment.
The AI had learned long ago that no matter how well you plan, no matter how many contingencies and possibilities you account for, something could always go wrong. Something would always go unaccounted for.
After all, the world wasn't perfect.
~ The Floating Continent of Avalon. ~
The Grand Seer gently floated over his platform in meditation. Dozens of glass panes floated around him as several scholarly-looking beings of different races moved around the room. Every so often, one of the panes would flash with indistinct colors and shapes, and one of the scholars would quickly write something on their notepads.
Suddenly, the Grand Seer's eyes shot open, and he gasped like a drowning man desperate for air. The glass panes wobbled for a moment before falling out of the air, the lowest hanging ones shattering before the Grand Seer would mentally catch them. Slightly shaking, the old man waved his hand, and the remaining panes gathered together, neatly stacking themselves in the corner of the room. As several people started to clean up the shattered glass, one of the older scholars approached the Grand Seer and asked, concern in his voice.
"My Lord, was it the Mages again? I was certain we had already bypassed their latest defenses. How did they upgrade them so soon?"
The Grand Seer floated down, wiping the cold sweat from his face with the towel a nearby attendant handed him.
"No. Not the Mages"
The lead scholar tilted his head and asked;
"Then what? Surely not the Cultivators. Those fools haven't been able to build a proper Scrying barrier in close to a Century, not since we cracked that archaic waveform."
The Grand Seer shook his head, a strange look in his eyes as he spoke, glancing off into the distance.
"No. Something... different... something that... shouldn't be here. Not now, not yet."
The lead scholar furrowed his brow,
"I... don't understand, sir; if it's not the Mages and its not the Cultivators, who else could it be?"
The Grand Seer could only shake his head.
"I don't know."
With that, the Grand Seer turned and left the scholar in his confusion. How could the older man explain something that he didn't know or understand himself. He couldn't even tell where this feeling was coming from. The best he could describe was the cold chill of a dark shadow passing in front of the sun.
As he exited the Scrying room and began walking back to his private room, a deep frown began to grow on his face.
The Grand Seer didn't like not knowing, not understanding.
He didn't like it at all.
~ A Hidden Workshop ~
The workshop burst into cheers as the device they had dubbed the "Spirit Engine" revved to life. The [Soul Fusion]-Rank Spirit Core provided by the Lord of Stone spun lazily within the metal casing, pulsing in time with the reeving engine. It had taken them some work to get all of the new parts to work with spiritual energy, but they'd finally managed it after months of testing and some creative tweaks.
Granted, they had no way of actually building most of the stuff specified in the blueprints; they simply didn't have the infrastructure or experience to realize its potential fully. In particular, getting the Frame actually to MOVE had been a nightmare. It wasn't like Clockwork, which could only move in a set, predetermined way, nor was it like a puppet, with a Master pulling strings.
No, it had to be able to react and move fluidly in a wide range of ways in response to many different things. The craftsmen simply couldn't understand how lightning could transfer the information needed, and more importantly, produce the needed power to perform those actions.
In the end, they had... cheated... a little bit.
Instead of worry about converting spiritual energy into electricity and then using the electricity to power the rest of the systems, they had bypassed the step entirely. Instead, an internal network of crystal threads transmitted both data and power from a central processor controlled by a High Elemental recruited by the Lord of Stone.
This network, in turn, was surrounded by extremely valuable silk-like material sourced from Fade Spiders, a species of Demon Beast who could mask their spiritual signals in its entirety. Not only would this mask the Frame's signal, but it would protect systems from being "hacked" by Cultivators with enough skill. Fade Silk was often used by Artifacters for this very reason, though the sheer quantity used here would make more common crafters shed tears of blood.
Lin Weiyuan stood next to a silent Jīshí as she stared at Alpha's near-identical "Twin." Beads of sweat began to form on his forehead as he watched the Elemental's frown deepen, and he hastened to explain.
"*cough* A-as you can see, he had to make some... slight... modifications to the design. But we simply don't have the ability to replicate the Artifact in its entirety. Several of the materials would take years, if not decades, of study to properly produce in the required quality and quantity. But there is no fear; we are reasonably certain that even a [Sky Piercer] would not be able to notice much if they didn't get too close.
Anything out of the ordinary would simply be attributed to our Scenario."
In fact, the Craftsmen had taken great pains to make the Frame appear more aged and weathered than it really was, even going so far as to replace certain components with rougher, more mundane materials, to give the illusion of repairs performed by less skilled hands than the Artifact's creator.
All to propagate the image of their chosen story; A powerful but known Artifact from a lost civilization, not under the control of an unknown force.
It wasn't perfect, but they didn't need it to be. All they needed was for it to buy them time.
Jīshí was silent for a moment longer before nodding her head.
"It's almost finished, Yes? How much longer before we're ready to begin?"
The foreman standing on her other side, rubbed the back of his head, hesitating before doing some mental calculations,
"If you're okay with it just moving and looking pretty, we can roll out tomorrow. If you want it to be of any use in combat, we'll need at least another week. The Control Elemental still needs time to adjust to the Shell, and the weapon systems aren't fully functional yet. Even then, it'll be limited to basic stuff. Ain't no way we're replicating some of the stuff I saw that thing do.
I still think we should throw some Spiritual Armaments on it for good measure, but that might end up turning the wrong heads. "
Jīshí nodded her head and turned away.
"I'll give you two. Make sure it's ready for deployment as soon as you get the word. We've already given the others far too much time to organize. We're running out of time."
"In more ways than one, if what Yeom Ki said is true..."
She added if only to herself.