FM001

2022/06/21


This is the first “concept art” story that I wrote for the game I’m making, Firmament. If you haven’t yet received the Glory, well, what are you waiting for?

In this story, two techs who replace panels of the dome’s wall notice readings that are inconsistent with the staticism of the dome.

FM001

Lao Tzu awoke the same way he had for two decacycles now, in an unfamiliar tunnel in an unfamiliar segment of the Dome with citizens that were not from his pod. He could not remember most of their names. The only man he had bothered to make acquaintance with was Tiberius Gracchus, a large, quiet man who did the same work Lao Tzu did.

He should have shunned anyone who did this work. It was this work that got him here in the first place. Replating and rewelding segments and subsegments of the Dome was difficult. It was of great irony to him that the only citizens large and strong enough to carry the massive plates from the slot where the Dome ouput them to wherever they were needed were universally too large to fit through the tight service tunnels that linked to the where the panels needed to be fit. But the Manual said that it must be done this way – he could not carry the plates to the tunnels and pass off the job to a group of lithe, eager citizens. It must be done this way. The Manual said nothing about his right to resent the process.

He tried to stretch out the ache in his shoulder, but it was useless. The god damned cots they’d bickered with the Equimancers about were nearly useless. A thin mat that barely insulated him from the cool metal of the Dome’s floor. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. The other citizens, six or seven in total, slept. He could see Tiberius Gracchus kneeling down, recording readings from the tests they’d run overnight.

On the floor was the familiar device – an articulating tripod that held a half-sphere which whirred softly as it scanned back and forth. It had been scanning all night, running slowly across the panels as if clockwork. It was pure machine. The readouts on the dim panel where the tripod met the scanner looked very bad to Lao Tzu.

“Seal, good,” Tiberius Gracchus read off to him. “Tolerances, good. Quarter mil on the top end. Diffuse sensor, fine. The molecular stress induction is fine. Everything is fine.”

“God damn it,” Lao Tzu said. “Another one. We’re going to have to loop back around to 400 and check the spots we skipped over. We’re going to be sleeping on these god damned foam sheets for at least another ten cycles.”

“Sure. And we’re not going to find anything.” Tiberius Gracchus said. “Have you thought over my theory?”

Lao Tzu had. He didn’t want to let on how much the theory had bothered him. “Yeah. It still doesn’t make sense. What does it even mean to modify the Dome? You never explained that. That would be like modifying ourselves.”

“Why do you trust reality so much? Look at these numbers,” Tiberius Gracchus said as he gestured at the screen. “What are these numbers?”

“Readouts,” Lao Tzu replied. “Measurements of the Dome.”

“Light emitted from the screen makes a receptor in your eye groan with pleasure, and the brain makes pretty pictures, pretty pretty pictures.” Tiberius Gracchus said, traipsing around their corner as a child would. “What could be real except to be the Dome itself, unknowing, simply in motu, the system rather than an observer of its output? And of such a feeble output as light – just light!” He finished with a heavy handed flourish. It was difficult to tell when Tiberius Gracchus was serious.

“Yeah, sure, just light. Light produced by raw measurements from the watchdogs, send in via comm links coming in from the core, and tight-beamed onto my god damned scanner.”

“A lot of failure points,” Tiberius Gracchus said. “The Dome has functioned according to the Manual since the birth of life. But do all things not change, Lao Tzu?”

Lao Tzu didn’t say anything. He bent down to pack up the scanner into its travel pouch. This was not the first time they had discussed the theory. The changing of the Dome, from without or within. Tiberius Gracchus was not entirely sane, Lao Tzu suspected, but yet made a lot of sense. The only thing stopping Lao Tzu from accepting his theory was the question posed: What is change? Life is static. The Dome is static. The world works as a clock. Each gear is built to such a precise tolerance. When a gear spins, another gear spins, and at a precise moment a final gear turns and the motion is set upon itself again.

There is no removing a gear from a clock. The entire thing will cease to work. This is the way of things. This is how the Dome functions. Any gear removed would have to be replaced with a gear of exactly the same composition and dimensions. Tiberius Gracchus could not explain that.

But Lao Tzu could not dismiss the theory out of hand. This round of Maintenance was unlike any he had experienced in his life. The air pressure readings coming from the Ascetics had started to come in low about a hectocycle ago. This was not entirely unusual. Uncommon, perhaps, but common enough that there was an entire section of the Manual on the topic. The solution was very simple: Take pressure readings at a set of locations, organized in concentric passes by order of importance. If a leak is found, patch the plates that are faulty. If no leak is found, then move zone-by-zone replacing every plate as you go. Simple.

Lao Tzu pulled out his copy of the Manual from the pocket of his knit domer coveralls. The next thing he had to do was create, from scratch, a list of the zones to be checked on their next pass.

Zones could be difficult in two ways. The first way was in surface area. Some zones were labrynthine tunnels, smaller than normal, and packed with control rooms with wall to wall patch panels wired with inhuman neatness. But these were uninhabited. Inhabitants complicated things.

This was the other difficulty. The matriarchs of each pod were complicated creatures. The lack of scarcity or competition in the Dome meant that there was not the flat and murderous affect of other species. But that same lack of scarcity meant that any resource which was scarce was highly competed for. Power was scarce. Any citizen inclined enough to rise to a matriarch was deeply intelligent. Lao Tzu knew for a fact that Ma Bell, leader of the most powerful Engineer pod, had spent several years as an Ascete, privy to, well, who knows what? Some said it was eldritch knowledge of a forebearer species. Others said that there were forms of hyper ritualized maintenance which gave psychic communion to the Dome. No matriarch was like Ma Bell in depth, but they each had power and experience in their own right. Getting into their zones to Maintenance, regardless of the Manual, was difficult. Above Lao Tzu’s pay grade.

“Enough of the metaphysics,” Lao Tzu said. “All things change. All things don’t change. We’ve gotta make the requisitions for the tunnels. At least those can be worked on while the important pods get themselves squeaky for we low panel techs.”

“Right,” agreed Tiberius Gracchus, “We’re scum. Subnormal. To live in one hundred and eighty-seven is to feel this palpable.”

“I’d like to see how the Ma Bell and her tenners get along without their scum. Can you imagine them trying to coerce the fifties into doing paneling? Or inert gas concentration readings? Or bartering with those god damned Aequimancers dockhands to get their precious single use analog sheets?” Lao Tzu responded.

“No, but we live in one hundred and eighty-seven. The foremost panel tech is only in ninety-three. Below one hundred, so able to, heh, make the gears turn if you, if you will.” Tiberius Gracchus chuckled to himself as if he had made a funny joke.

“Not like everything doesn’t run through Ma Bell anyway. We could be the head of panel teching and it wouldn’t mean a damned thing.” Lao Tzu said. “But the tunnels.”

“Yes, the tunnels.”

Lao Tzu flipped through the flat, dim screen that held his copy of the Manual. “Here. This is the ordering. Outside in, as usual. Starts at the three hundreds, hit the air recombinators and the inert gas separators. Next, four hundreds. All the alchemicals there must be patched through – the matter decomposition from four-oh-seven to four thirty-three, the waste matter holds, follow the piping down to the end of our section.” He marked down precise numbers and ranges as he spoke.

“And then the bad boy. The nest. All of the switching and networking. How the hell is this thing telling me to split that up,” Lao Tzu asked, frowning at the Manual.

Tiberius Gracchus sat to the side, watching the seam between two panels seemingly with great interest. “What about the docks? I’m sure Ma Bell wouldn’t like panel techs hanging around when all of her best goodies come,” he said.

“Inside out, Tiberius. I’ve got to get the order of these cabling sub-tunnels right. I think it has something to do with – with the pockets of vacuum that seal the Dome? Where they touch? The Manual isn’t very clear,” Lao Tzu said

After a few minutes, Tiberius Gracchus stopped gazing and walked over to Lao Tzu. “Let me see,” he said. He asked a few questions, frowned likewise at the Manual, and then added to Lao Tzu’s list of numbers. “Follow the cabling. They’re numbered as well, separately from their zone. There has to be vacuum at the junctions – the vacuum locks simply won’t allow any other order. Double check with the Manual.”

“Hm,” said Lao Tzu, cross-checking the numbers with the Manual. “I think it looks all right.” There were good reasons to put up with Tiberius. And equally good reasons to just let the other citizens sleep while they finished this.

They finished the last part quickly. The docks, where the territories of the three factions met, and the fruits of the Dome were exchanged, were nothing more than a large, open area segmented according to convention rather than the Manual.

“All right. I suppose I’ll send this to the propers,” said Lao Tzu.

“And who can fault a group of weary panel techs a day of, heh, respite?” Tiberius Gracchus said. Lao Tzu was unsure what respite meant for Tiberius Gracchus, but he assumed it would be equally comprehensible as his theory. But Lao Tzu needed rest. There was no arguing with the sentiment.

He posted a message to the sleeping techs, told them to head back to their pod for a day or two and he’d call them when the req came back. As he turned to walk back to his own pod, Tiberius Gracchus appeared as from nowhere beside him.

“Just light, remember, gears turn and break and the new gears make light, why don’t you think about that and have a good little time and I’ll have a good little time and we’ll all have…” he trailed off as he peeled away back toward his own pod.

How did Gracchus seem to know his thoughts about the gears? There were ancient histories, myths, of empaths among the citizens. Empaths, or else citizens with hyperthin neural fascia producing an extreme crosstalk between circuits of the mind – in essence, a clouding of the mind that could lead to preternatural insight. Or else products of the Aequimancers that altered brain function, perhaps permanently, although it was common knowledge that if the Aequimancers could have ever produced anything more than incidentally stimulating that the domers would have reverted into a proto-societal state long ago, seeking the only extraordinary pleasure available to them. Just game theory.

But these were spook stories. No one believed them. Not even Lao Tzu, in his unsettled state, gave more than a passing thought to Tiberius Gracchus being an empath. But the theory still unsettled him. The Dome did not change. This was fundamentally true. If this was untrue…

Lao Tzu shuddered. He did not anticipate much respite, not at all.