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I dashed into the heart of the Spire, then slammed my hand onto the button to shut the door behind me. It took several seconds for the panic of the sprint to fade away, for me to stop thinking about General Dark’s look of irritation as I fled. Catching my breath took several more seconds after that. Only then was I able to stop resting my hands on my knees and actually look at the place I’d run into.

The heart of the Spire was a single room. If I had to make a comparison, I’d say it was about the width of a classroom from one side to the other, though the ceiling was vastly higher. It felt almost like I was at the bottom of a well or a cup, the walls rising up and away into the distance, dozens of ridges all glowing to flood the room with white light so bright I could hardly see the ceiling. 

One thing that immediately struck me was that the signal had vanished. The Waterspindle still felt active, but the buzzing feeling in my head was gone. All the anticipation had been expended. I took a few steps into the room, seeking some kind of answer. The heart didn’t provide. 

The only thing that even resembled an answer, and even then only if you kind of turned your head and squinted, was in the center of the room. It was like an art installation of a flower crafted in chrome and steel, except that it must have been a part of the original design because the base of the conical body melded smoothly into the material of the floor. As I moved closer, it became more clear why it was there. What I’d at first taken for decorative elements, petals and stems, turned out to be switches, sockets, and dials. Expecting that contact would tell me what I needed to know, I slowly extended my hand and touched it. Again, nothing.

I did a lap around the room, keeping one hand on the central sculpture so that it could be my guide, the other hand on the Waterspindle for moral support. Still nothing, no sudden memories, not even a user’s manual. Nothing. So I went around a second time, this time searching more actively. My loved ones were out there fighting to the death to buy me time to figure out how to use this thing, dammit, so now it was my time to carry out my end of it. I flipped the switches, stuck my fingers in the sockets, turned every dial at least ninety degrees, waiting for something to activate or show any sign at all that I was accomplishing anything.

I found a series of latches surrounding a single large bulge in the side of the sculpture. In my search for anything that could help me, I undid them all. The bulge revealed itself to be a separate piece to the rest, popping out a couple of inches once the last latch was undone. I grabbed the edge of it and pulled. The machine slid out with ease, revealing itself to be an object about two feet across and three feet long, looking like a cross between a violin, a reliquary, and a gun, covered in antler-like prongs, pyramidal knobs, ridges like gills. I recognized this thing from a dream. And I remembered, at least vaguely, how it was meant to be used. 

So I sat down with the thing and I held it in all four arms, sort of like it was an acoustic guitar, the Waterspindle jangling and clattering against the metal of its surface. I had no idea if I was pointing it the right way, or if I was holding it with the right side out. It didn’t even seem to have any sides to it, and it almost definitely wasn’t designed for being held with my arrangement of limbs. But I did my best, resting my hands on a few of the prongs. I shut my eyes and focused on what my subconscious was telling me, the impulses of my body, anything else that could tell me how to use this thing.

What happened is that I sort of ended up playing it like an instrument. I ran my hands up and down the prongs like they were strings on a harp and turned the pyramidal knobs back and forth, letting my body rock. My mouth hummed tonelessly, or maybe I was humming bits of songs I’d heard before, searching aimlessly for some kind of verbal code to unlock the secrets that I knew were hidden within. It felt like I was onto something. Maybe the secret had been encoded in my muscles and nerves, and if I played this strange object with all of my soul it would turn on and blow General Dark away with the awesome might of the Spire.

But nothing happened. Eventually I realized that I was just sitting on the ground playing air-whatever-the-fuck and humming like a dumbass. So I set the instrument down and did another lap around the heart. There had to be something. If I looked hard enough and thought hard enough and remembered the right thing, I’d be able to figure it out and it would be so obvious. I went to the big sculpture at the center of the room. This time I wasn’t calmly searching over the surface of the sculpture, I was desperate, quickly grabbing each object in turn, trying to brute force it into activating. I had to do something. Steph and Miri, Xara, Quinn, Amanda, the whole planet was depending on me being able to make this thing start working, because I’d told them all with complete confidence that I could.

I collapsed onto my knees and picked up the instrument again. This time I wasn’t going to be patient with it. I ran my hands up and down the prongs, turned the knobs to dozens of different combinations and tried again, even rotated it to various different angles. I held it between my knees, I played it backwards and upside down. In my frenzy to find some technique or positioning that would make it work, my hand ended up slipping. The edge of my palm hit the sharp tip of one of the prongs, and it hurt like a stubbed toe hurts. Letting out a short shout of pain, I threw the instrument away. Useless.

Which was also a word that described me in that moment. Useless. I’d been so, so sure that I would know what to do. So sure that I’d let all of my loved ones bet their lives on it. And now I was sitting in the heart of the Spire, the place I’d been called to, not having a clue what to do. 

And what do they call it when someone makes promises, has people relying on them, and can’t get it done? Failure. I was a failure, plain and simple. At first I upset myself by thinking about the looks on the faces of everyone I knew when they realized I couldn’t help. Then I realized that if I couldn’t make the heart of the Spire work, I wasn’t going to see any of their faces ever again. I thought about Quinn and Xara getting captured and killed by spectrademons, about never seeing my parents again. I saw Miri’s face when I said I loved her. I saw the last look Quinn gave me as he ran to give his life for mine.

My grief went through the center of my chest like a sword plunged into my carapace. The Waterspindle answered that despair, flaring into warmth. And then the instrument echoed the Waterspindle, flaring with that same internal heat. From there, the lights dimmed as the entire heart reverberated with that pulse of sadness. And in the distance, I felt the entire chamber, no, the entirety of the Spire resonating with my despair.

The wave of psychically reflected misery was so powerful that for a few seconds it was all I could do to hyperventilate and let it pass. When I had the capacity for conscious thought back, my thoughts were in chaos. My feelings, constrained only to my own mind, had somehow resonated and resonated and built and built on themselves until the entire Spire had followed along with me. I grabbed the Waterspindle, like I’d made a habit of. It was still warm. After a few seconds, I started to understand. 

The Waterspindle was always powered by my emotions. By feeling, deeply and forcefully, the Waterspindle would reflect those emotions back, but magnified, and project them into the minds of others. My hate for the Order turned into a painful attack, my love for Miri gave her coordination and resilience. Gamatas Factor had said that the Waterspindle was an artifact of an ancient interstellar civilization; General Dark had said the same thing about the Spire itself. As I looked around at the walls of the heart, the sculpture at its center, the instrument in front of me, I realized more and more that they all shared the same architecture, the same aesthetic, the same construction. So if the Waterspindle, an object small enough to fit into my clenched fist, could disable a room full of spectrademons, what could something as big as the Spire do?

I picked up the instrument again. My hands were trembling, both in apprehension of what I might be about to do, and in fear that I was doing it too late. That’s good. You’re gonna need a lot of emotions to power this thing.

This time, when I ran my hands up and down the prongs of the instrument, I did so with purpose, following some internal mental beat. At first I didn’t dare activate it. But, after several seconds of slow breathing, part of me realized that procrastinating would only mean death for Miri and Stephanie. The time had come to bite the bullet. I started with the easiest emotion for me to conjure up at that particular moment: fear. I was terrified for everyone, and I poured that fear into the instrument, into the walls and floor around me, into the whole of the Spire. At once, it all roared to life. That fear bounced back at me a thousandfold, terror so primal and profound that it took my breath away, made my heart race like it was going to tear out of my carapace, and that terror poured back into the Spire in a rapidly accelerating feedback loop.

I was already far past the point of verbal processing, past the edge of rational thought. And yet I held my mission in my head. Even this powerful, pulsating emotional resonance was far from what the Spire was truly capable of, and I knew I would need more to save the world. Sadness came next. I poured my grief into the Spire, my yearning for a species and a homeworld that had been taken for me, my knowledge that I would never be able to return home to Earth, the feeling that I would hold in my heart if I truly never got to see Miri and Quinn again. And the Spire responded. The sadness came back multiplied until I could barely move, and the pulsating of the lights increased its pace. But it was more than just lights. The whole Spire was coming alive, ancient machinery activating, dry waste heat pouring into the air. I could feel it pulsating, and I could feel energy greater than an entire fleet of battlecruisers accumulating, waiting to be released. 

Then rage. Anger, boiling and unrestrained, the anger inside of me that wanted to see every spectrademon and cambion and pathetic fucking Corringer officer in the universe rendered down into a fine paste in my hand. My veins lit on fire, my head throbbed with agonizing pain, I don’t know if I was even breathing any more. I wanted to let everyone who’d wronged me know what they deserved, I wanted to scream and roar and rage and spit my hate upon the world that had hurt me. The Spire was pulsing like a racing heart on the edge of arrest, the lights flashing and flaring until I was nearly blind. 

The final emotion was love. I loved Miri. I loved Xara. I loved my parents and Quinn, even, though in different ways. I just wanted them all to come out of this safe and see them again no matter what happened. And that love went into the Waterspindle, into the instrument, into the Spire. It mixed with my fear, my sorrow, my hate, into a glowing writhing uncontrollable mix of emotions that flooded back into me until it felt like I was going to burst. Gravity failed in the heart, my legs left the floor, my limbs were pulled apart. The chamber was blindingly bright and darker than the darkest night. There was a rupture. My heart stopped. I threw my head back and screamed, a single piercing note that reverberated through the whole of the Spire and carried me into something entirely new.

Do you know how a mind can’t properly handle big numbers? How we hear numbers like “one billion” and we just can’t think about how many that represents, so we have to think about it in the abstract? Well, I could. Not for very long, of course, but for just a moment, I could experience everything. I understood every mind in the Bouwon-Phane system, every one of the billions of Architect civilians, all the hundreds of millions of Order soldiers, the tens of millions of Architect, Liberate, Unseen, and Sunder troops dueling across the stars, and heard their thoughts, saw through their eyes, felt their emotions. An entire solar system, every thought and fear and memory, all at once. 

That was how I saw, through countless thousands of eyes, the Spire coming to life. It glowed like a beacon, searingly bright, pulsating like the heart of an atomic reactor as it shed glowing energy in waves, each one strong enough to make people stumble back and jump for cover. But while part of me marveled in awe at the power I now held, another part of me knew there was work to be done.

The first mind I looked at was that of General Ur-Haxon Dark. I read him like a book. I saw his hate for weakness, his exhaustion, I saw his past laid out before me like a book, I saw the rising satisfaction as he held the pathetic human girl in his grip and prepared to crush the life from her body. I understood him as a person, where he had come from and why he did what he did. And having done so, I lit his nervous system alight like so many dry sticks.

Dark didn’t scream. Like every other muscle in his body, his vocal cords were seized with pain. I held him in the flames of my hate, but moved on. My attention turned to Miri; I told her I loved her, and I told her to shut her eyes and step back. Then, a microsecond later, my attention turned to Stellina Karus, and told her to kill him with his own blade before I ran out of strength to keep him down. 

Before I was even done, my attention had turned elsewhere. My mind was moving faster than light, and with billions of minds connected to mine, there was so much work to be done. I raced down the Spire, leaping from spectrademon to spectrademon and cambion to cambion, afflicting them with my hate one by one. I brought the pack of spectrademons chasing Xarañanilok Erobosh to their knees in a single moment, and I found Quinn Brandeis and gave him the strength to ignore the pain and humiliation and confusion just long enough to escape while his captors were screaming.

And then I went bigger. Up until that point, I’d been constraining myself to small groups, little individual actions. But as I soaked in the power of the Spire, I began to understand exactly what I was capable of. I spread myself out like a growing cloud, and set to work. 

They called it the Miracle. The story of exactly what happened was never released to the public, besides that it was a weapon and that they wouldn’t be able to use it again, both of which were more or less true. But for ninety-three seconds, every single spectrademon, every Corringer operative, every Cambion and officer of the Order, was stricken by complete neurological overload. As many as twenty percent of them dropped dead on the spot, their bodies incapable of handling the activation of every pain nerve simultaneously. Others turned their weapons on themselves or each other in order to escape a sense of impossible guilt and despair over their own actions. The rest were left paralyzed, utterly vulnerable to attack by Architect and Collective forces. 

Many soldiers reported a feeling of their aim being assisted, as though there was a force guiding their limbs to the exact right place to fire a perfect shot. 

Even the Order’s spacecraft were not immune to the effects of the Miracle. The biomechanical tissue grafted onto their ships, which normally provided unprecedented versatility, repair capacity, and resistance to boarding action, suddenly turned into a disadvantage as their shipboard computers were overwhelmed with unfamiliar sensation. Order fleet losses during that ninety-three second window were incredible. 

You can only be everywhere at once for so long, is the thing. Even through the all-consuming rush of local omniscience, I felt myself begin to fade. Later I’d find out that it was because of a lack of oxygen to my brain, but at the time it felt like being pulled underwater. There were things I had forgotten to do, and I was running out of time. My attention receded back to the Spire, hurriedly throwing together a plan of action for getting everyone back together, getting my body (unconscious or dead), and getting them out of the Spire in one piece. I carefully pushed it into their minds, with just enough force to make sure they wouldn’t forget it, but not enough to cause unnecessary pain. The nearest Architect military commander suddenly became aware of the need to rescue some wounded people trapped, under siege, inside the Spire.

I held on as long as I could, I really did. Ninety-three seconds. It was enough to change the course of history. But I couldn’t hold on to that all-encompassing knowledge, and the longer I held on the more I realized that holding on would kill me. So, with a final thought given to wishing that I would be able to see Miri again, I let go. And everything went black.