Finally managed to punch thru Stratum 6 at Site C. I should thank the spirits for my success. Or alternatively, shout a hefty fuck-you to the spirits, who presumably permitted whatever happened at Site C in the first place. It's not like they've ever listened to me anyway.
Stratum 6 is all slag and glass, absolute hell on drill bits. I managed to bore a few holes and pack them with the last of the shapeshifter alloy from Site B. Ran a month's worth of accumulated charge from Ol' Sparky through them. Bzzt, snap, crunch. Gonna be picking bits of alloy out of my jacket for a week, I'm sure, but worth it. Now the impassible is passible, and tomorrow I'll scoop the fractured chunks of 6 out with the digger and see what's underneath.
Jackpot. Stratum 7 is a structure, and it's old. The digger made a hell of a mess when I crashed it through the ceiling. Room I landed in hasn't told me much yet, but for sure, whoever built it was human-sized, human-shaped, and shat sitting down. Plumbing's long dry, luckily.
I got the door open and emergency lights came on in the hallway outside. Scared the shit outta me. Whoever built this place built it to last. Didn't see Stratum 6 coming, but I'm still impressed. Still gonna spend some time propping up the ceiling before I go any further in.
Okay, okay, I admit it, I was hoping this place was somehow built by the Ancients. Stupid hope for a proud dirt-grubbing scavenger son of the Third, poking around an isolet nobody remembers the name of, I know. Long story short, the signage is unmistakably Civic — they're the only people who'd call a small conference room "The Anterior Lesser Skyward Forum". The fonts are quite some time out of date, though. I've seen plenty of Civic gear on its second, fifth, seventh owners, and the newer the gear, the more serifs. Almost none on the signage here. Guess they were out of fashion way back when.
I've moved all my gear from Site B to Site C, mostly into the Anterior Lesser Skyward Forum, and thrown some camo netting over the hole the digger's stuck in. It'd take a very nosy overflight to find me down here, and I've got supplies for another two months. I need time to really go through this place. The emergency lights aren't the only system that's somehow still powered up. There are a handful of working data terminals — all locked, of course. Still haven't worked out what happened to the Civis occupants here, though.
They were buried alive. Probably during the early days of the war, when the Bloc tried to retake this place. There's an access hatch to what would have been the surface, a few hundred meters over. My initial sonar scans of Site C put it inescapably under the extent of Stratum 6. Said hatch and the pathway to it are both full of skeletons. Grisly. Think I'll stay out of there… once I finish stripping the departed for jewelry. Civis loves to make their access keys pretty, or so I've heard, and I'd hate to miss a piece of active circuitry on someone's finger.
Jackpot. Guess if you work in a bunker, and you have a two-factor authenticator that cost more than a year's worth of shovels and ration bars, you ignore basic security principles like "don't scratch your password into your desk". Couldn't figure out which piece of jewelry went with that password and that desk, so I put them all on and then took them off one by one until the terminal locked again. The winner was a rather pretty piece, a rose gold floral motif necklace with globes of opalescent white worked into it. Probably looked real nice settled between some cold-eyed Civis military researcher's tits. Doesn't look as good on me since I don't have any, but I'm still alive and she's not, so thanks for your accesses, Xanthippe Nerva Severinus. Don't haunt me.
Xanthippe and the rest of her crew were apparently training soldiers in swarm-talk, starting from the basics up.
Me, I never got as far as the basics.
Granddad said talking to the swarm was like whispering your heart's wish into the morning breeze and letting it float away into the universe on the wings of your soul. Mom said he was a senile old coot, and that it was more like working out a trade deal where you weren't always sure what the other guy wanted. But both of them got results, and yet for me it never worked for shit. I pretty much gave up. For me, the lowly path of the shovel and wrench.
The antique Civic style of swarm-talk in Xan's training files is more like a call and response than any of the styles I've failed to apprehend. There's structure. There are hand gestures. Swear to anything you'd care to name, one of the diagrams shows and names the "digitus impudicus" as part of a brief chant that commands flame from nowhere.
Fuck it, I'm gonna try this one.
Holy shit. It worked.
I've been busy. So busy that I've barely been updating the log. The feel of being able to finally talk to the swarm and have it listen is just incredible, and I've been trying incantation after incantation in less important-looking parts of Site C, or very carefully up on the surface, and giggling like a little girl when metal bent at my will and maps drew themselves.
Here's why I'm back to write in you, old friend: I've hit a wall. Xan's training files assume that a soldier will finish the first part, be infused with liquified swarm, be issued an Armour, and only then start learning swarm commands that'd blow their legs off if they weren't safely inside a metal giant.
The bunker actually has three Armours left, in another surface-adjacent silo covered by the slag and glass shroud of Stratum 6. It took some digging to get down to that stratum again in another spot, but once there, one of my newly learned chants melted the slag like it was paper in a fire. I can get the silo open now.
One of the Armours is in potentially operable condition. I've done some repair work already. The base computers have a fairly complete manual. I've put on a maintenance suit over my field leathers, or the lead-laced skeleton of one anyway, and had a look inside the engine bay, and it's got a Core. An actual Core!
The Armour wouldn't do anything for me, though. Not like I am now. No response. Just the same lights blinking in the cockpit that blink when nobody is inside. There's got to be a way to make it take notice.
There's an infusion chamber in the very lowest layer of Site C, and it's not as complicated as you'd think. The bunker computers say it's usable if I replace a few soft elastomer seals that didn't stand the test of time. But the nano tanks are dry.
I could cash out now. Signal for pickup, sell Site C to a bigger operator, buy my own Vessel and pilot and dig team and move on. I know people who could broker a deal that probably wouldn't get me robbed or killed. But hell if I don't want something more. I want that Armour. I can't walk away knowing what I know now, and not reach for the next rung of a ladder I never thought I'd grasp at all.
I can find this isolet and Site C again. I'll sell off enough of my stash from Site A and B to make it look like I'm in a little trouble, stubbornly trying to scratch out one last score from an isolet with no scores left. Nobody's gonna follow me back to it.
And on the way, I'm sure I can find some of the right kind of liquid nano to put in the tanks downstairs, or talk ambient into condensing into a bottle for me if I can find a spot where it's thick enough. Only takes a few liters of the swarm itself. The Path, if I have to. I know how now.
I'm back. Tonight I'll pour these three flasks of shifting fluid light into the infusion feed, top the chamber pool off with clean rainwater, and take a dip. I wonder how it'll feel. What it'll change.