The infrastructure was looking shaky, but the hidden patterns told Shiqra he was safe, and he was sure they could get to a few more people before risking collapse. He'd been leading his team deeper into the bowels of the asteroid colony, finding survivors, tagging and prepping them for assistance, and verifying structure integrity so that the rescue squads could move in.
Shiqra was leader of a Sisters of EVE scout team. They ran in first, moved fast, found the victims who needed help, and moved on. Most of their equipment, which was kept as light as possible, consisted of structural and explosive gear. They had scanners, too, ones that searched for heat and electric signatures, but these rarely worked all that well in environments that were falling apart.
The path they were on forked into three routes, one of which was open, the other two caved in. Adjusting his ocular scanning, Shiqra saw high heat beyond the closed entrances. There would be blazing fires on the other side, which wouldn't threaten the Sisters but did block out any chance of automatic life detection.
Shiqra stood there for a moment, regarding the three routes. Long waits were not an option; life would be running out for whoever was trapped in the mines. He picked the leftmost path, one of the caved-in ones, and signaled to his teammates to hole it through. They all wore fire- and shock-resistant suits with full-head facial masks that were outfitted with air filters, night-vision specs and inbuilt voice transmitters, though the transmitters were rarely active. They were easy to use, but the team had long since gotten into the habit of nonverbal communication. Words were a waste, down in the darkness. Words were empty when you were cradling the dead.
His team, which was unquestioning in their obedience, immediately set up a Spoke bomb. Spokes were supercompressed constructs of interconnected tritanium pins encased in an isolated chamber, with a small discharger set at their center. When a Spoke ruptured and the tritanium came into contact with air, it would expand violently, blowing away anything in its immediate vicinity. The tritanium spokes would click into place and form a complex prismic polyhedron, similar to a hubless wheel. The spokes were perfectly balanced, and effectively created a hole in a wall through which a person could pass. It wouldn't be big enough to let through a rescue team laden down with equipment, but then, it didn't need to be. The scout teams only found people; they did not cure them, and the proper rescue teams had their own demolitions gear.
The team passed through the Spoke gap and rushed on. Down holes and chutes they went, Shiqra first, and it was as if he were hunting for ghosts, chasing the steady clockwork rhythm of a heart before it could beat it last. He took each turn with no hesitation, rushing through with complete assurance of motion. He could never tell anyone else this, but he knew his way around by now. He was starting to pick up the patterns.
He found himself distancing from the process, going out of his body as if his corporeal self were controlled by some outside force, and he thought back to the first heavy-carnage missions he'd been on.
He'd done a few regular scouting missions, and loved them, but was still hesitant about the job. He was escaping a bad life of drug use and self-abuse, and had really found himself in the Sisters, but he was always afraid of relapsing, of losing control. If felt like there was something curled up within him, something that he'd never been able to control, and even as he got over the withdrawal effects and experienced the joy of helping people - and the sadness and horror of losing them - this core remained, untouched and waiting.
It wasn't until he went on the first mass-rescue mission, in yet another pirate refinery wrecked by some murderous capsuleer, and came upon the first mass of writhing, screaming humanity trapped within, that he truly felt this core inside of him start to crack open. It was horrifying, so horrifying that his mind left his body and he looked down upon himself as he tagged all those people - putting markers on them that would let the rescue teams find them and prioritize their care - and then kept on going in search for more life. It wasn't until much later that he realized he hadn't disconnected to save his sanity; he had done it because he felt, at last, like he was part of something larger than himself. He was no longer the focus and the center of his own little perceptual world, and that little core inside of him, that compressed ball of potential, began to respond to this new widening of the world. It started to unfurl, to stretch out.
Back in the present, Shiqra found himself at another passage. They'd passed a couple more people, tagging them as they went along, and were now at the entrance to the mine's deep, less traveled sections. The rock here was too thick for any signals to pass through, so they'd have to go entirely on instinct, and without any communication. There were several possible ways they could go, and Shiqra immediately split the team up into pairs of scouts, directing each pair towards a particular entrance. One of his team members, possibly nervous about going dark and losing all chance of communication, spoke out loud to Shiqra and commented with far too much cheer how he always seemed to know where to go, to direct them so they didn't end up under the falling girder or the exploding vat of acid, or whatever. His voice broke the silence like a shot and made the other team members nervous, but Shiqra laughed, and replied that he'd done a lot of these missions. It was no answer, he knew, but in the suffocating darkness of the mines, it sufficed, and calmed.
The scout pairs went their way; those who were going into open entrances started running, while the ones who needed to clear away rubble readied their Spoke bombs. Shiqra watched while his team trickled away. It was policy to travel in teams, but his status as team leader, and his renown as one of the Sisters' best scouts, was sufficient that he could travel all alone. His reasoning was that when he found a trail he would travel so fast that others had problems keeping up with him; and his team, which had worked with him for a while, uniformly agreed.
After he'd seen off the last of his teammates, he set off a Spoke on a remaining passage he'd indicated he would explore. He waited until he was sure that everyone else was out of earshot, then ran back up the passage they'd come, until he reached a side tunnel that they'd missed. It was hard to spot; the entrance was in a dark part of the mine that even their night-vision didn't cover well, and it hadn't been shored up properly, so it looked like a bountiless cul-de-sac full of rubble.
Shiqra knew better. He'd seen the signs.
He used free-form explosives to clear off some of the rubble, then a Spoke to make a hole through which he could crawl. When he was through, he disabled the Spoke's safety and deactivated it. Rubble fell back into the hole, and it looked as if it had never been there.
As he'd done more missions, he'd felt a growing need to partake in the bloody ones, the missions where participating rescuer workers usually got put on leave for a few days after completing. That feeling of being a part of something greater, of being nonindividual and yet being important, was constantly on his mind.
And eventually, he began to see the signs. The other pieces of the mosaic. The other strokes of the brush.
That thing which was curled up inside him, that core no one could see, was the dawning understanding that someone was behind this. Someone had created these situations and was using them to make a kind of living - and dying - work of art, and in Shiqra's attraction to them he had become an element of the masterpiece.
It was entirely possible that he had gone mad, of course. He didn't doubt that. But he also didn't doubt his feelings, and he listened to them. Other team members often spoke about numbing yourself to experience, but that kind of attitude was anathema to him. He wanted to feel it all. And by and by, he started to find the patterns.
He began to exhibit an amazing ability to find living survivors where local interference meant scanning equipment couldn't detect any. But he knew he was simply being led there, and being tested. At every turn there would be an omen. Sometimes it would be obvious to him, though nobody else would notice: an oddly broken rock lying among the rest, a tatter of clothing hanging from an inconspicuous part in the ceiling, or some barely noticeable spatter of blood on a nearly hidden surface, all of which were out of place. He never mentioned these signs, but merely followed them. As he progressed, they started disappearing, replaced with the far more potent absence of anything important at all. The silence and emptiness in certain paths told him just as much as the noise and the visuals had done before. They spoke of unfulfilled potential; something could have been here, they said, and as it wasn't, he should investigate further.
There was something responsible for these catastrophes, Shiqra decided, a pattern to the blood and fire, and it was leading him on.
It happened only sporadically. Not every rescue mission he took brought him closer to transcendence. But he learned to recognize the ones that would, such as when they occurred and under what circumstances, and managed to find more and more. And every time, he progressed deeper, and his core stretched out and began to fill his body with truth and art.
He was going down the hole now, being led through dark places, following the patterns. Sometimes he'd see a hint, sometimes he wouldn't. This was initiation as much as invitation.
And at last he came to another pile of rubble that clearly was empty and devoid of any kind of interest. The absence of life was all the invitation he needed. He detonated a Spoke, opened a hole to the other side, and crawled through.
He made his way into a large, circular room that was a testament, a living altar. Bodies were strewn about, shredded and burned, and the few who seemed still alive were barely so. There was mining equipment here, and it had been put to use.
And in the middle of the room, sitting on top of a pile of equipment as if he were an emperor on his throne, sat a man who he'd later know as Yorlas, holding a massive rifle called a veinshredder.
Yorlas, who was apparently quite comfortable where he was, leant even further back and watched Shiqra with languid eyes. Then he raised the veinshredder, pointed it in Shiqra's direction, and fired.
In that split second, Shiqra's instinctive reaction was not to dodge the shot or move from its trajectory, but to stand still and accept it. It took his body a moment to realize that nothing had yet torn through his body, and he was truly surprised, not merely instinctively but intellectually, at not having been shot. He realized that he had accepted the firing, almost as a rebirth, and that this man, who he knew without doubt was the one responsible for this catastrophe and so many others, was the artist whose red, red paint had covered Shiqra's canvas core.
Shiqra then realized that something else had been shot, and that whatever it was, it was thrashing about behind him, making horrible screeching sounds. He didn't look back. What mattered was in front of him: The artist, and the masterwork, and, approaching them with equal trepidation and joy, their supplicant.
With the barrel of his massive gun, Yorlas pointed towards a glinting patch on the floor. A knife lay there. "Take it," Yorlas said, "And kill yourself."
Shiqra hesitated, not out of unwillingness but simply surprise at the request. He walked over to the knife, hefted it, gently tested its edge. It was sharp, and he knew that once he turned on its diathermic field, it would slide in without any resistance.
He didn't want to do his. He wanted to live. Of course he wanted to live. But that was not what this was about. He was not the artist, and it was not his to decide what his own fate would be. He was the brush with which the work was painted, and the canvas that gratefully accepted its art. Tools could not disobey their masters. He felt a budding kind of pride, because he realized he was being reminded of his place, and while he still felt that he could be of use, he didn't question the art. He knew he would serve a purpose that reached far beyond himself.
Yorlas put the veinshredder aside, laced his fingers together under his chin, and watched Shiqra intently.
Shiqra pointed the knife against himself and was about to plunge it in when Yorlas yelled, "Stop!"
In the silence, there was nothing but the silent breathing of the walls, the condensation drops falling on blackened rock, and the cough and gurgle of the life that lay around them, passing away.
Yorlas said, "Change of plan," and nodded his head towards an inert form that lay in a corner. It was a person who was barely moving, having been cut and beaten quite badly. It was a woman's form, in torn miner's clothing. She was thin and apart from her injuries did not look very old or worn; she couldn't have been working in the mines for more than a year. She had long, white, curly hair. Possibly she had been an overseer, or one of the engineers making an inspection.
And without hesitation, but without any hurry, Shiqra, still holding the knife, went over to her, took hold of her hair and rolled her over so that her neck was exposed. His grip on her hair was firm, lest she struggle, but there was no need for it; her eyes rolled around in their sockets to catch a glimpse of him, but otherwise she was completely docile. Shiqra crouched, and slowly sunk the knife in her throat.
She made coughing motions, but otherwise did not move, and Shiqra idly wondered what the artist had done to her to procure this kind of serenity. They must have been here a while. He knew she was dying now, but it felt like something more was expected of him. He repositioned her and cupped his hands under the bloodflow. After he had a full hand, he began to walk the room, sprinkling and smearing the blood on the walls like the apprentice painter imitating a master artist.
He did this until the blood ran dry. Yorlas didn't speak much during the entire process, but then, he didn't need to. His actions had set the stage, and Shiqra was merely signing the work in his name.
And when it was over, and the sacrifice done, Shiqra stood with his eyes closed, and felt that unfurling core reach out to its full length, the canvas stretching itself taut, until he had lost almost the final vestige of whatever had held him back.
But something remained. There was a purpose for him here, something that would keep him going forever, the brush in the artist's hand, but he had to know one thing. The last doubt, rubbed away.
"How did you know I would kill myself?" he asked Yorlas.
"Why do you need to know?" Yorlas asked in return, with unhidden amusement in his voice.
"I've done everything else. I am someone else. The one I was always meant to be, I think. But still ... how did you know?"
Yorlas leaned forward and, in three short words, completed the change, and stretched the canvas to its full and unyielding size.
"You were smiling," he said.