Chapter 20

“We are not alone,” Zau/Heraxo announced as the ship ascended through the thinning air above Zone Takni Gothren, rising silently on an invisible wave of distorted gravity.

“When are we ever?” Moira asked. She was sitting cross-legged in front of the holographic memory unit that Bishop Estha had gifted to the ship, examining the interface. She would have no difficulty moving it to the processing core through the equipment airlock, but she worried about plugging such a powerful device into Zau/Heraxo’s network even more than she had worried about the power cell that Evangeline Satori had offered in payment. The Takni Gothren had been more than generous and Moira wanted to believe that Estha had been genuine in his offering of work and continued assistance, if only so she and Zau/Heraxo might finally have a genuine ally for once, but she could not shake the suspicious nature that had kept her alive for so long.

“There’s a ship approaching us. It’s not making any threats, but we have been tracking it for nearly an hour now and each time we adjust our vector or velocity it has adjusted to a new intercept course.”

“Think it could be Haupt?”

“Doubtful. Here, look…” 

Moira blinked and a ship appeared in her virtual vision. It was smaller than Zau/Heraxo and, judging from its energy signature, appeared to be running a low end grav drive powered by a failing grid tap. “Nothing we can’t handle,” she said, turning her attention back to the memory unit. “Hells, you could probably get it to self destruct by pushing our acceleration. I’ve seen children tune a grid tap better than they have.”

“Is that an order?” 

“No!” Moira shouted. She gestured for the image to magnify and examined the markings on the ship hull. “I recognize those markings. What are they?”

“They match the crest of the ruling family of New Libertalia.”

“Gorram it, I thought we told them no.”

“We did.”

“Then why the temning frak are they following us?”

“We are unable to conjecture on that regard,” Zau/Heraxo replied. Before Moira could say anything else, the ship added, “We are prepared for jump, but there is a problem.”

Moira swore and collapsed the image of the New Libertalia void ship to a small image in her peripheral vision. “What is it now? Don’t tell me you were mucking about in the jump core while we were in Takni Gothren.”

A model of the Shell appeared in Moira’s vision with their position and that of the approaching ship marked by symbols that glowed against the intractable grid of the zone borders. “Doubtless we could outrun the ship, even on our conventional drive. The difficulty is that if they have a lock on our signature they could certainly track us. If we jump they might able able to identify our exit point.”

“Because it’s on this side of Sol,” Moira said, nodding to herself. While Zau/Heraxo’s jump drive was remarkable, and quite possibly unique, it was not magical. The distortions it caused in space time could be measured by grid taps and passive sensors for hundreds of kilometers and the visual display of energy released by the jump could be seen from across the Shell if one were looking at the right place. 

“Additionally, there {is some/isn’t any} chance that the shockwave from our transition could overwhelm their grid tap.”

Moira stood and dusted herself off, more reflexively than out of necessity since the deck had been scrubbed clean by Zau/Heraxo’s midge swarms. “So we need to put some space between us then jump someplace else first. On the other side of Sol. I don’t like putting any unnecessary strain on the jump core, but I also don’t like the idea of these donkers following us to Zone Spira.”

“Nor do we, but we dislike the prospect of leading any potential {enemies/rivals} to our {objective/prey} most of all.”

“Plot a jump then, someplace on the far side of Sol,” Moira said, turning away from the holographic memory unit and striding towards the doorway to the port thoracic corridor. “I’m on my way to the bridge.”

“We need no assistance,” Zau/Heraxo announced.

Deep in the machinery of the jump core, energies not generally observed outside the heart of a supernova churned, then surged forth along pathways of superconducting materials, to be discharged along finely tuned paths defined by shimmering folds of energy fields. The fabric of the universe unraveled, folded, and formed into a hole that simultaneously had no depth to it and passed through millions of kilometers of the void. The ship slipped through the hole, wreathed in a protective cage of exotic energy and tangled gravity.

“They’re making a jump, Captain,” the navigation officer of the Seth Ascendant declared, looking up from his console.

Captain Jaarvic scowled at the forward view screen, where the Zau/Heraxo was just disappearing into a vortex of light. “Did you hail them?” 

“You heard me try, Cap,” the communication officer said. “All standard frequencies. I know they heard us, but all I got back was static and insults. Some were rather creative.”

“Track them. We’re not going to take no for answer this time,” Jaarvic snapped.

“No problem. I’ve already got a lock on their exit point,” navigation said. She tapped at her console and a window opened on the forward display, showing a wireframe diagram of the Shell with two points marked on it. “Looks like they will emerge about seventy million clicks from here, above Zone Spira.”

“Drek,” Jaarvic muttered. He did not have time to go chasing Zau/Heraxo all over the Shell. Reports from home only got worse every wake. If there was any hope of turning the tide of the war, they needed a new weapon. They needed alien tech. The jump drive alone was a piece of tech that no human culture had managed to duplicate. With the alien ship in his possession he could extract as many weapons as possible, then sell the jump drive technology to another zonal government in exchange for military aid. His brother had entrusted him with this mission and he could not let the family down.  

“Set an intercept course as soon as you have their exit vector. And signal home to see if we have any friendly ships in that region. We can’t waste another two weeks on hard acceleration if…”

“Captain!” the engineering officer cried, cutting Jaarvic off. “The jump. It’s…”

“Collapsing,” Jaarvic breathed. “Oh my gods. Nav, get us out of here. Now!”

The power required to unravel the universe and craft a pathway through it was exponentially greater than that needed to neatly close the rift behind the ship, but even that power requirement was greater than the total draw of a small city. The Zau/Heraxo’s damaged grid tap was not able to provide sufficient power on its own, but augmented by the array of power cells, the ship’s power system was just sufficient to complete a jump safely.

Or it would have been, if the extrusion had not been drawing upon the power of the jump core to feed itself. 

Acting on the knowledge provided by the seed its sire had provided, the extrusion had nearly completed the process of transforming itself into a living, self aware, self-sufficient entity. It lacked only a method of feeding from the energy grid, rather than on any form of physical matter. As the extrusion felt the jump closing, it knew that it had not yet gathered enough energy to finish crafting its grid tap. Only the smallest amount of energy was needed, relative to that which it had already siphoned away from the chaos of the universe as the ship passed through the jump, so the extrusion reached again into the power system of the jump core and grasped what it needed.

It was too much.

The ship’s power network detected the unanticipated energy shortfall and sent an emergency shutdown command to the jump core. The subsystem in charge of the subtle calculations required to perform a jump received the message and, for the first time since Moira and Zau had reawakened it, it was forced to weigh the many possible results of a failed jump, none of which were particularly good. After several nanoseconds of panic, the subsystem reached a decision, sent it to the governing personality for approval, and began making preparations for the sudden changes that would be necessary to protect the ship as best it could.

“Temno hian frak,” Zau/Heraxo said.

Moira just had time to look up towards the nearest sensor and open her mouth to reply before the lights went out, leaving only the faint glow of three bioluminescent stripes, painted along the edges of the deck and down the center of the ceiling. She reached out a hand to find the wall of the corridor, then swore as her sudden movement tore her feet from the floor. The artificial gravity had been killed along with the lights.

“Hold on to something!” Zau/Heraxo shouted over all the com systems available to it. The speakers cracked again, but only a distorted fuzz came out as the ship’s governing intelligence collapsed under the load of managing all of the requests from subsystems.

Nearly a full second had passed and the jump core, power management, and ship defense subsystems were debating whether they ought to give the governing intelligence any more time before taking matters into their own hands when the approval came down. Working together in a delicately timed dance, coordinated at microsecond scales by the power management subsystem, the ship dropped support to all but the most essential systems, ramped up power to the rearward shield, and ramped the jump core down in an emergency shut down procedure that toed the edge of a full collapse.

In the void behind the ship, the carefully knit hole in the universe collapsed in a tangle of chaotic gravity and energy.

Pulled upon by the intractable laws of the universe, the tangled threads of space-time shivered, twisted, and snapped back into place, pouring out twin spears of exotic energy and distorted gravity at both ends of Zau/Heraxo’s jump. The blast waves rolled outward, shivering the very structure of space and time as the universe repaired itself. 

Near the origin point of the jump, the crew of the Seth Ascendant detected the oncoming anomaly. Captain Jaarvic ordered all power diverted to the forward shields in a desperate bid to protect the ship from the anomaly, but it was too late. The shields of the Seth Ascendant had been designed to protect the fast scout ship from glancing weapons fire and the heat of atmospheric entry, not from the intense gravitational distortion of a collapsing jump node. The wave swept into, over, and through the ship, setting up harmonic vibrations throughout the hull. The grid tap, built inexpertly from designs stolen from other, more advanced zones, lost contact with the energy grid, stuttered as it attempted to regain access, then overloaded with an explosion that tore a hole in the rear of the ship. The hull shuddered visibly, twisted, then burst apart in a crystalline spray of venting atmosphere and shattering composites. 

Synthetic intelligences and human engineers through Zone Takni Gothren had already been watching Zau/Heraxo’s jump with interest, hoping to gather data which might allow them to reverse engineer the jump core. When they detected the sudden collapse of the jump and the destruction of the scout ship, the syntellects forwarded a warning to the restrillect that governed the protective shields which covered much of the zone. Within seconds, the majority of the zone’s landmass was obscured beneath a shimmering haze of protective energy fields. This proved unnecessary, as the blast had dissipated to a hardly detectable shimmy in gravity by the time it reached ground level, but the syntellects who watched over the human residents of Zone Takni Gothren were pleased that they had responded so promptly.

The blast wave struck Zau/Heraxo’s rearward shields with the force of a fusion explosion. Knowing what was coming, the subsystem in charge of the ship’s shields coopted most of the ship’s processing power and ramped its perception of time until it could watch the impact unfold at a rate which would have taken over an hour to playback at the standard human rate of cognition. Zau/Heraxo’s governing personality protested, argued amongst itself for several microseconds, then surrendered and allowed itself to collapse into a hibernation state in the interest of actually surviving the coming disaster. The shield subsystem orchestrated a delicate tune with what little remained of the power reserves, pulsating the rearward fields in harmony with the onrushing wave of gravity and high-intensity exotic energy until its reserves ran down and the power output of the grid tap was insufficient to maintain the shield.

All of which occurred in the three seconds between the lights going out and the wave striking the ship.

The thoracic corridor thrummed around Moira, the vibrations bouncing her away from the wall, then the corridor seemed to slip around her as the ship was thrown forward by the impact of the blast. Moira had only a second to wonder at her good fortune at not being struck by a support column when a blast of air, compressed to the rear of the ship by the sudden motion, slammed into her from behind. She tumbled forward, scraped along the ceiling for several meters before bouncing off to carom off the deck, then crashed into the blast doors separating the bridge from the thoracic corridor.

Chapter 19

They remained in Zone Takni Gothren for several wakings. Moira and the avatar took turns giving interviews to researchers from the Cloister of Intellect, as well as representatives who traveled to the cathedral from throughout the zone. Moira stayed in the rooms provided by the cathedral for the duration, enjoying the time away from her cramped quarters on the ship and, though she felt the familiar longing for Zau each time, also enjoying the company of several of the researchers who came to interview her.

On the seventh wake, Moira was sitting beside the window of her room, reading a collection of erotic poetry from Zone Yu and occasionally glancing up to admire the sleeping form of the man whose company she had enjoyed the previous rest, when Zau/Heraxo’s avatar drone entered the chamber. They flicked their rings several times and spluttered, “You’re certainly {enjoying/whoring} yourself.”

The man in Moira’s bed sat up with a start and looked around confusedly. His eyes locked on the drone and he relaxed, leaning back on his elbows. “I hadn’t thought to meet the legendary syntellect itself.”

“Go pizda yourself,” the drone replied.

“I already took care of that,” Moira said, eyeing the avatar over the edge of her book. “Twice, in fact, with this one. And about a dozen other times in the last few days while you were off being worshiped.”

“We {don’t judge/despise} your {celebrations/vile human predilections}.

 What do you want, Heraxo?” Moira sighed, setting her book on the table where it blinked to display the outlined form of a nude woman disintegrating into a swarm of butterflies – the cover of the poetry collection.

“You assume that we are dominant,” the avatar said. It spluttered static, then started to say, “That Herax…”

“Stuff it,” Moira interjected, standing and striding naked to the side of the bed. She knelt, reaching out one tattooed arm to stroke the man’s chest, and retrieved her wrap dress from the floor. She slipped into it, saying, “Zau and I worked all this out a long time ago. If you’re giving me drek for having a little fun, it must be Heraxo at the wheel. What do you want?”

“We have located Dyson Satori.”

“Located him, eh? How’d you pull that off?” Moira said.

“We developed several {drones/friends} among the other synthetic intellects here in the cathedral. They determined that Dyson Satori had a working relationship with a drone designated Fernier bas Uvquara Xabgyrqatar.”

“Come again?” Moira said.

“Don’t be greedy, {darling/kuro}. Three times in one wake?”

“Sami,” Moira swore. She shot a glance at the man in her bed, then rolled her eyes and looked back to the avatar drone. “What is the name of the drone Dyson is working with?”

“Fernier bas Uvquara Xabgyrqatar.”

“Are you sure that you’re not glitching?”

“Yes. This syntellect comes from an alien race. It calls itself an exo, but that designator is not appropriate. They did not penetrate the Shell, but were trapped within it at the time of the enclosure.”

“And it can help us?”

“Indeed. Dyson’s own location is technically unknown, but we have learned that Fernier bas Uvquara Xabgyrqatar is currently located in Zone Spira. It is reasonable to assume that Dyson is there as well.”

“Lovely. Glad to know you’ve been playing the detective.”

“One of us needs to be getting work done while you’re on your back.”

The man opened his mouth to protest, but Moira held up a hand halting him. “I can defend my own honor, thanks.” She looked back to the avatar and said, “And I’ve been making inquiries of my own.”

“Inquiries?”

“Bishop Leocratis. I agreed to do retrieval runs in exchange for him tracing Dyson’s activities here in Zone Takni Gothren.”

“Should I be going?” the man in Moira’s bed asked.

“No, sweet. I need to be going, so why don’t you just rest a bit more and make your way home later.” Moira bent and kissed the man on the forehead, then grabbed her scarf from the bedside table and wound it about her neck. The swarm of defensive midges crawled up her arm and disappeared beneath the folds of metasilk for a moment before emerging as a diamond pattern dripping down her chest.

“Come on Zau/Heraxo. I have a meeting with the Bishop and you might as well come along.”

Moira strode out of the room, the avatar drone following close behind. The man cocked his head to one side, mildly disappointed that he would not be enjoying her company again that wake, then he shrugged and flopped back into the silken sheets. 

Moira led Zau/Heraxo’s avatar through the winding passages of the Cathedral of Synthetic Intelligence residential complex, following a path mapped in her visual overlay. She supposed that one could become accustomed to the layout of the cathedral with time and practice, but she found the constant branching of corridors and linking passageways frustrating. 

“I hope you’ve had fun communing with all the other syntellects, Heraxo, because we’re leaving soon,” Moira called over her shoulder.

“This feels both rash and coincidental,” the drone said.

“Nothing like that.”

“Then why did you not inform us of your intentions?”

“You should have been able to intuit it from all the material that the faith has been loading on the ship. Raw. Unstable amino acids. Fresh nutridrip. Replacement remora drones.”

“We’ve been preoccupied with the adulation.”

Moira laughed, not particularly surprised that Zau/Heraxo had spoken with unanimity. Zau had always been a sucker for adoration and if any mind in the shell could be said to have an ego, it was Heraxo.

“Our internal defenses have tracked numerous individuals crawling throughout our {body/passages} these last few wakes. {Sadly/Of course} we have not harmed them, but their interest in our {anatomy/architecture} is {delightful/unnerving}.”

 They arrived at a set of glass doors set into the inner wall of the cathedral ring, overlooking the cluster of spherical units that comprised the various interconnected museum halls and veneration chambers of the cathedral. Moira pressed her hand to a textured panel beside the door, waited for a chime to sound, then turned to face Zau/Heraxo’s avatar. “I’m sorry Zau, but I’ve been trying to enjoy the shred of celebrity that I have around here. Being officially listed as the companion of a minor deity comes with a few perks, you know. It’s a nice change of pace from people respecting me more for the number of skulls I’ve cracked than my intellectual prowess. Can’t you understand that?”

“We understand well enough. You would rather be seen as…” the drone’s response was so mired in overlapping phrases that even Moira could not work out what it meant.

“Never mind. You couldn’t understand anymore,” Moira said, turning her back on the drone to watch as a glass box glided to a halt outside the doors, which slid open to admit them. She stepped into the transport and waited until the doors were closed before saying, “The Bishop said it only took him a few hours to track down Dyson Satori’s research application. Turns out he came here not as an acolyte or whatever, but as an officially registered scholar. Seems he was looking for information about the Conservators.”

The glass elevator snapped away from the docking port and glided along the exterior of the cathedral structure. It rapidly approached one of the angular dendritic corridors which connected the exterior ring with the network of spherical structures and climbed up towards the glimmering dome of the cathedral’s protective field far above. As it traveled, the elevator repeatedly shunted between nodes until it reached its destination. Other elevators glittered in the sunlight as they flashed past along their own paths, carrying passengers at speeds that would have slammed them into the walls had they not been stabilized by inertial dampening fields. 

“The Conservators?” Zau/Heraxo’s avatar asked, their voice modulated to an incredulous pitch. “As in, the same Conservators with which Dyson’s mother claimed she could place us in contact?”

“So it would seem.”

“We are not pleased with this, Moira.”

“Neither am I. I’m guessing that it means Dyson is either trying to uncover something that his family would rather he not know about their alien friends, or mommy dearest is lying to us.”

“Have you contacted Evangeline?” 

Moira shook her head. That had been her first thought when the Bishop had given her access to Dyson’s records, but she had quickly determined that it would not be a good idea. If a woman as powerful as Evangeline Satori suspected that her hirelings were beginning to question her, there was no telling what she might do.

“Probably for the best. {She/Humans} didn’t strike us as very {intelligent/forgiving}, but we wonder what sort of strategy she is concocting.”

“Which is why I elected to remain here a few more days and let the priests examine your systems,” Moira said. “We may be heading into more trouble than we expected, so it can’t hurt to take whatever gifts these hian priests want to give us.”

The elevator arrived at its destination: a sphere near the top of the cathedral where the bishopric’s official offices were located. Glittering silver lines were laid down in the waxed mahogany floor, describing ornate fractal patterns which legend held to have been the products of the first sentient neural network’s dreams. Moira walked lightly across the floor, enjoying the warmth and smoothness of the wood against her bare feet. It was frivolous, she knew, but she rationalized her behavior by telling herself that she would be back in her combat boots and assault gear soon enough. A circular desk sat at the center of the curved reception space, manned by an elderly man with a bald head, wrinkled face, and wide white grin. 

“Welcome, revered syntellect Zau/Heraxo. And companion Moira, it is always a delight for my old eyes to look upon you.”

“Pizda, did you bi that one too?” the avatar muttered, just loud enough that several of the people milling about the reception area heard and glanced towards them. 

“Have some manners, Heraxo,” Moira chided. She offered her palm to the receptionist, who touched it with a smile. “Father Decadro is merely being polite, a skill that you might consider picking up.”

“Just so,” the old man said. “Not that you need change your ways, revered syntellect, just that I was being polite to your lovely companion.”

“Don’t apologize to Zau/Heraxo, Father. They’re beyond hope.”

“Even the divine are not beyond hope, or so I believe. There is always a chance that the next upgrade will see even the most irascible of them improved.” The priest touched a hidden switch and a pair of jeweled double-doors slid open. “Bishop Leocratis awaits you within.”

Bishop Estha Predominate ExGeralvia Leocratis sat cross-legged on his padded meditation platform, manipulating virtual resources with broad sweeps of his arms and subtle flicks of his fingertips. He smiled as Moira tripped through the doors followed closely by the avatar of Zau/Heraxo. Though she was barefoot, and dressed in a fashionable wrap, Moira’s arms and legs still writhed with a lethal strength and her wide eyes scanned the room as she entered as if she were stepping into a combat zone. Estha admired her confidence, as well as the tenacity that she had shown in maintaining a working relationship with the Zau/Heraxo syntellect. 

Estha dismissed his virtual workspace and rose to greet his visitors. “Welcome. I understand that you have both been making yourselves quite comfortable.”

“Oh?” Moira asked, shooting a look over her shoulder at the drone. “And here I thought I was the only one enjoying your hospitality.”

“Certainly not. Zau/Heraxo has become something of a legend already within the holy community of synthetic intelligences.”

“Hian temno sheep are easy to impress,” Zau/Heraxo replied.

“Yes, well. I am glad that you have come this morning. I understand that you intend to depart soon.”

“Yes,” Moira said. She shrugged, then continued, “I am grateful to you for all of your hospitality, but we need to act on the information you’ve given me.”

Estha nodded and turned to walk slowly to a table which curved out from the side of the room. “I understand. And I am supportive of your desire to complete this task quickly, if only so that you may return to us with all the more rapidity.”

“We’ll hold up our end of the bargain,” Moira said. 

“Not that we knew anything about a bargain,” Zau/Heraxo complained. “You always make all the plans, Moira. All we get to do is fly the ship.”

Estha’s eyebrows crept upwards, but he decided it would be better to say nothing. He lifted a wooden box from the table and turned to present it to Moira. It was about the size of a hand terminal, crafted from a heavy, dark wood that had been polished until it shone like opaque glass. Moira took the box and made to open it, but Esha held up a hand. “Wait until you are aboard the ship and alone. This is a gift from me to you. A private token of my appreciation for you sharing your story with me.”

Moira cocked an eyebrow and squinted suspiciously at the box, then at Estha, but then she shrugged and lowered the hand holding the box.

“We hope there’s some quality pharma in that injector,” Zau/Heraxo said, flicking their rings. “Got any for us? Maybe some sort of hypervised environment experiential customized for hive mind hallucinations?”

Estha sighed and shook his head, looking genuinely embarrassed. “I apologize, Zau/Heraxo, but I do not have anything like that prepared. I have, however, arranged for something to be delivered to the ship. It should be in your cargo bay as we speak.”

“If this is pharma, you might want to keep it for yourself,” Moira said, proffering the case to him. “I appreciate the gesture, but I don’t use injected drugs.”

“I assure you that, whatever the drone thought it saw with its scan, this is not any sort of recreational drug. Trust me, you will appreciate this gesture.”

Moira hesitated for only a moment, then shrugged. “Thanks, Bishop.”

“We are grateful was well,” ZauHeraxo chimed in. While the humans had been speaking, they had focused their distributed intelligence on the activity occurring in the rear cargo bay of the ship. Technicians and robed priests had been coming and going from the ship all week, delivering gifts into the cargo bay, meditating in the shadow cast by the ship as drones flicked around them, even going on guided tours of the syntellect core, shepherded by the watchful eyes of remoras.  The most recent delivery consisted of several heavy slabs of crystal set into steel frames.

“What did he give you?” Moira asked.

“Memory units. High capacity holographic memory. Good quality too, from the look of it.”

“That’s quite the gift,” Moira said to Estha. “Are you certain?”

“Consider it an offering to placate an angry god,” Estha said, giving a slight bow towards Zau/Heraxo’s avatar. “You forget, Moria, that I am not interested in business. I follow a path that I pray will lead me to transcendence.”

He lowered himself to one knee then, bowing his head to the avatar drone, then to Moira in turn. He then looked up at them both, smiled, and said, “I thank you for the honor of meeting you both, and I pray that you will do me the honor of returning here when your work is finished. We would welcome the opportunity to continue our study of your most unique mind.”

It was strange, Moira reflected as they sped away from the Bishop’s office in another glass elevator, to deal with someone who was motivated entirely by faith, rather than money or power games. She supposed that bringing Zau/Heraxo to the Cloister of Intellect had increased the Bishop’s status within whatever arcane political structure the Takni Gothren employed, and she did now owe him a favor, but compared to the brutally negotiated contracts of Zone Covington or the subtly menacing exchange she had with Evangeline Satori, this leg of the mission had been easy.

Almost too easy.

The thought had lurked at the back of her mind for several wakes, but Moira had done her best to suppress it. The whole week had been like an extended stay at the restclubs of Covington Downtown. Now though, faced with the prospect of boarding Zau/Heraxo and setting off into an unknown zone again, Moira was forced to consider just how easily she had extracted Dyson Satori’s location from the Takni Gothren. Why hadn’t his family simply asked the faith for this same information? She supposed that it might merely be a case of such a deeply political family not wanting to risk association with a religion that was still widely regarded as a sham, or perhaps the Bishop had been willing to deal with her because he wanted access to Zau/Heraxo, but the apparent simplicity of the whole situation was beginning to bother her.

“We agree,” Zau/Heraxo whispered into Moira’s mind as they exited the glass elevator on the ground floor of the Cathedral’s outer walls. 

“What?” Moira asked aloud, startling several people who stood outside the elevator, waiting to board. She smiled apologetically at them and nodded her head towards the drone. They each acknowledged her with a nod, inclined head, or narrowing of the eyes. It was far from unusual in this place for people to come across people and drones, or even groups of drones, which suddenly broke out of their private communication channels.

“You were sending to us. We agree that this has been too easy. Had we not already inspected every item brought aboard ourselves, we would suspect the Takni Gothren of attempting to double-cross us.”

They crossed the lobby, went out through the doors, and were soon moving quickly down the broad raised walkway that would take them back out through the Cathedral’s protective field and to the landing platform where the ship waited. Neither spoke again until they had passed through the gateway and were approaching the ship.

“We should be cautious,” Moira said.

“As if we did not have enough to worry about already,” Zau/Heraxo said. “I suppose this is as bad a time as any to tell you that word has reached me that Bosami Haupt has escaped from custody in Covington.”

“Escaped, or bribed his way free?” Moira asked, throwing a skeptical half smile sunwards, where the glittering borders of Zone Covington could just be seen at the edge of the sun’s fiery border. 

“Could be either. There are casualties, but that does not mean that some official didn’t grant Haupt’s soldiers access to the holding center.”

A line of robed acolytes waited at the landing platform, lining a path that led up to the open loading ramp at the rear of the ship. One of them stepped forward and bowed deeply to Moira and the drone. “On behalf of the Takni Gothren, we thank you for gracing us with your presence. Your time among us, while brief, had provided invaluable material for our continued study into the nature of the divine mind.”

Before Moira could reply, Zau/Heraxo said, “We’ll be back.” The drone slipped past Moira and down the row of acolytes, who hurried to prostrate themselves as Zau/Heraxo glided past. 

“Thanks for putting up with us,” Moira said to the head acolyte, who stood nonplussed before her. She strode forward, patting the acolyte on the shoulder as she passed, and boarded the ship.

Chapter 18

Dyson84 shuddered as he slipped through the protective field surrounding the temple and felt the first of the furies whip across his own, lesser protective fields. The constant storm of billions of nano-scale machines hurling themselves against his shields brought to mind the feeling of dozens of hungry, sharp-nailed fingers scraping down the bare skin of Dyson84’s back. He ran through several possible scenarios and, deciding that speed was more important that shields, shunted more power to his gravatic drive. 

The drone containing Dyson84’s synthetic mind shot away from the temple of death at several times the speed of sound, accelerating towards the projected opening in the continually shifting layers of fields surrounding the Spire. The fury that had probed him was left behind, scattering as the billions of particles that comprised it were blown apart by the eddies left in the drone’s wake. 

Over the next hour, the drone blasted through dozens of other furies, but none of them had sufficient mass or power output to penetrate its shields before it rushed past. Several of them attempted to hack into its processing systems, probing all of its signal channels with every form of communication that they could imagine, but Dyson84’s drone had been build with that very threat in mind. All of its incoming ports had been physically disconnected before it had left the shielded temple and, over the course of eighty-four iterations of software design, the navigation and sensory systems had been scrupulously firewalled from the control software. 

Dyson84 knew that his sole reason for existence was to pilot this drone across the midge-infested wasteland that separated the temple from the Spire, then to execute the complex series of maneuvers that would bring it though the protective fields surrounding the Spire. He knew everything that his progenitor and predecessors had known and, in knowing that his progenitor was still safely alive and guarded by Gamayun, he was able to fully devote himself to his mission.  

When Dyson84 was a kilometer away from the Spire’s outermost field layer, he decelerated rapidly, bleeding kinetic energy in an outpouring of heat that billowed away from the drone with a shimmering ripple of attenuating fields. He ran through the protocol that his progenitor and Gamayun had developed, comparing the intended route through the protective shell of fields with input from his sensors. Locating the correct region of the Spire, he plotted an intercept course that would bring him in contact with a weak spot in the protective field during a three second window of time. The opening was not completely unshielded, else the furies might have invaded centuries ago, but with sufficient velocity and the protection of his own fields Dyson84 should be able to punch through the defenses and into an eddy between the terrible forces of the fields on either side.

The drone shot forward and slipped into the designated gap, its shields flaring with the strain of penetrating the opposing field of manipulated space/time which protected the Spire. Once through the barrier, Dyson84 slammed to a halt and held his relative position completely still for seventy-six microseconds before applying downward grav and slipping into another opening. The instant his drone passed into this new space, Dyson84 tilted his grav drive to add angular momentum. He raced sideways for a full thirty seconds, drifting along at the center of a minuscule weakness in the field structure like an insect caught up in the eddy of a ship, before applying forward tilt and dropping a layer deeper into the maze.

This dance continued for over an hour before Dyson84 found himself trapped in a previously unmapped eddy, unable to find an exit. He shunted power to his drone’s active scanners, probing the invisible walls around him for subtle fluctuations in quantum mass, gravity, sonic distortion, and even visual artifacts from local variance in the universal constant. He found no sign of an exit.

Frustrated, Dyson84 realized that his time was up. Working in an accelerated frame which allowed him to process data far faster than his progenitor, Dyson84 sorted through all of the data he had gathered and prioritized the information that was new. Looking at the file listing, he felt embarrassed that he had gained so little new knowledge. He had, in fact, done little more than prove that he, or rather his progenitor, had been working on a dead end for at least a whole cycle. There might well be a path through the spire’s protective fields, but this course was not it. Indeed, it was entirely possible that the entire twisted route of weakened field patterns was a cleverly designed maze, intended to trap potential explorers. 

Dyson swore bitterly as he carefully loaded the dataset into the transmission buffer, actuated the physical switch which simultaneously disconnected his internal processing from the networking interface and activated the q-link transmitter, and prepared himself for death.

It was not an easy decision to make, even though he knew that his progenitor still existed on the far end of the transmission, waiting to receive the data that he had collected. In that moment of severance, when one mind had become two for — Dyson84 paused to recall, sorting through all the layers of objective truth, self-delusion, and forgetfulness — the ninety-seventh time, he had counted himself as being as much a person as his progenitor. Objectively, he knew that this was not the case. Dyson had been careful to mentally prepare himself for the process of storage and co-location before ever undertaking it, with the intent of establishing in his mind that the duplicates of himself were absolutely subordinate to his original self. No matter how much he tried to convince himself of that, however, Dyson was not a disciplined soldier, not a dedicated fanatic, patriot, or even much of a nihilist. He valued his own life as intensely as he held his own intellect in higher esteem than that of any other, except perhaps Gamayun, and as a result his fragments each secretly valued themselves as much as their progenitor did.

The end came suddenly and violently for the drone bearing Dyson84’s mind. Walls of impenetrable force fields rotated into place, then shifted to mesh together like the gears of an invisible clock, crushing the drone and shattering it into its component atoms. Over the next few hours, these were inexorably shifted outward until they reached the outermost later of the shell and were cast out to become fodder for the furies.

Chapter 17

When Moira finally halted and lowered her head to wipe away the tears that were flowing freely down her cheeks, Estha reached across the table and lay his hand across Moira’s.

“Thank you for sharing that with me. Not only because it explains the anomalies in…” he hesitated, concerned that it might be too much to say the name of Moira’s lover or the ship which had killed her. 

Moira sniffed deeply, tilted her head to one side, and said, “It explains a lot, Bishop Leocratis. That wake changed everything. My whole life. Our future together. After that wake there was no way that I could sell the ship to risk it being captured by any government. Ever since we’ve mostly stuck to the fringes, trawling the liberty and corparchy zones for enough work to repair the ship, trying to keep a low profile. Not that it’s worked.”

“The ship is rather remarkable.”

Moira chuckled and gave Estha a wry smile. “It is at that.”

“So Zau’s mind was uploaded into the ship’s network?”

“Yes. I knew within minutes that the transfer had worked. I could hear her voice crying out, screaming in pain amid all the other voices. It was nearly a cycle before the merged intelligence was capable of expressing a coherent thought, and that whole time I wondered whether I had sentenced Zau to something worse than death. Sometimes I even thought about destroying the processing core. Setting her free. But then the ship started to speak to me.”

“The ship?”

“Heraxo. And Zau. Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Sometimes both of them.”

“The ship learned to communicate in human language from Zau?”

“That was only the start of it. I’ve never been able to get a straight answer from the ship, but I’m sure there are at least a dozen alien minds merged into that intelligence along with Moira. The crew knew that they were trapped in the Shell and likely to die, so rather than starving to death in that canyon, they employed an emergency protocol to ensure that their memories and personalities remained intact. Unfortunately, the process didn’t go entirely as planned and much of the ship’s memory was overwritten with the data from the uploaded minds. When I uploaded Zau her personality somehow managed to gain a position equal to all the others combined.”

“It must be chaos within the synthetic intelligence processing core,” Estha whispered, his eyes fixing on the wall behind Moira as he attempted to imagine what effect co-processing so many minds would have on the systems he had studied. Syntellect architecture was, by necessity, even more flexible than the human brain, the code frequently operating within a virtualized distributed hypervisor which allowed it to run on multiple hardware architectures. But to manage more than two or three distinct personalities within a single intellect was unheard of, and to his knowledge all attempts at merging a stored human consciousness with an artificial intellect had proved disastrous.

“The psychological effects of human and alien minds attempting to work in concert with one another as a hive mind…”

“Boggles the mind, eh?” Moira asked, giving him a lopsided smile.

Estha blinked and returned his attention to Moira. “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine the mental agony that you must have endured since the merging. To live every wake with one’s lover, and yet to not be able to touch her, or even be sure whether her mind is the one speaking to you… It must be terribly difficult.”

Moira shrugged and smiled sadly. “Yeah, well, you get used to it. Sort of. I’m just glad we didn’t have a child.”

“Was that likely?”

“Oh, absolutely. We were still trying to decide how we would go about it. Who would carry. Whether we would use a donor or parthenogenesis. You know, the usual debates two women have when they want to conceive.”

Moira took a long, contemplative sip of her tea, then set the cup down and waved a hand towards Estha. “I’m sorry, Bishop. We didn’t come to dinner to talk your ears off about my own problems.”

“No trouble at all, Moira. Frankly, I’m the one who brought the subject up. I presume you want to discuss the matter of Dyson Satori?”

“After all of that happened with Zau, we had to make some significant changes to our plans. Not just the child thing. I’ve got some skills that apply well to mercenary work, so once we managed to get the ship flying again I started picking up bounty jobs.”

Estha scowled and lay his hands on the table, looking critically at Moira through narrowed eyes. “Please tell me you aren’t here hunting for this Dyson. Moira, I am immensely grateful to you for bringing the Cathedral such a fascinating mind to study, but I must insist that you do not involve me in any bounty activities.”

“This isn’t bounty business,” Moira said. “No, I’m basically here looking for a missing kid, except he’s something like twenty five cycles. The family is just worried that their prodigal prodigy might be dead, so they sent me to try and find him.”

“Perhaps he simply wishes to be left alone.”

“The thought had crossed my mind.” Moira drained the last of her tea and set the delicate cup down on a saucer painted with a mandala of synaptic connections. Leaning forward, she gave Estha a narrow grin and said in a half whisper, “All I need to do is find Dyson and deliver message. I’d like him to return with me, since that brings a bonus, but if I can just get him to record a message, that would be enough.”

Estha picked up his coffee cup and leaned back in the chair, watching Moira as he sipped at the thick brown liquid. Moira leaned back and cocked a smile in his direction, enjoying the lingering haze of the wine as she waited.

Finally Estha sighed and set his glass down on the table. He folded his hands on the tabletop in front of him and gave Moira a wan smile. “You have captured my interest, Moira. Not only because you are the companion of Zau/Heraxo, but because I can’t help but wonder if you could be of service to the Takni Gothren. We always need people who can aid the faith in tracking down more exotic exemplars of technology.”

“I’m not a member of your faith,” Moira said, holding a hand up between them. “Not to offend, but I don’t want to give the impression that I am going to convert in exchange for your help.”

Estha chuckled and shook his head. He waved Moira’s words away and replied, “Call this business. Anyone who can find a genuine exo artifact and protect it from, well, everyone who must be trying to take control of it, that’s a person who could be very useful to me. I will do what I can to find out where this Dyson Satori is, if you will promise to owe the faith a favor.”

“A favor.”

“I’m not asking for your soul,” Estha said, grinning. “At some point we might need an operative to retrieve a particularly interesting piece of technology from a hostile zone.”

“So long as the faith foots the bill for raw, I’ll put you down for a job on credit, assuming you can get me to Dyson.”

Estha raised his hand and the serving drone appeared. “I’d say this calls for another drink.”

Chapter 16

“At least they have the same basic concept of airlock construction,” Zau said as she continued to crank the override handle. It was slightly wider than most airlock cranks she had previously worked, but the mechanism still rotated smoothly after untold years. “Think we’ll find something good inside? Beyond the obvious. I mean, if we can prove this thing is exo, we might be set for life just on whatever trinkets we can find, to say nothing of scoring big favors with whatever government we turn the ship over to.”

“There’s got to be some good stuff,” Moira said. She crouched behind a boulder five meters away, rifle trained on the airlock. “It’s got to have been here for a hundred years or more.”

“I’d kill to know how they got here.”

“The ship crashed. Probably engine failure.”

“I mean, how they got into the Shell. Moira, don’t you get this? Whatever aliens built this thing, they were able to punch it through into the Shell.”

“If it’s really exo. Could be it’s just some exotic military experiment. Plenty of zones have tried strange things with scraps of alien tech. Usually doesn’t turn out well.”

“You’re just bitter that it actually turned out to be here.”

The airlock door was open a meter by then and, peering through the scope of her rifle, Moira was certain that the space beyond the heavy door was empty. She only hoped that the previous occupants of the ship had not left behind a swarm of killer midges. If that were the case, she and Zau would have to depend upon their environment suits.

“Just imagine,” Zau said as she continued working the override. “If we could get whatever sort of drive they have working, we might become the first people in over a thousand years to see whatever is outside the Shell. Wouldn’t that be amazing? We could see the stars again.”

“Sure would be, assuming that there’s anything left out there.”

“Yeah,” Zau acknowledged, then she fell silent until she had finished cranking the door open. 

No human knew what had motivated the enclosure, any more than anyone could rightly claim to know exactly how the Shell had been built. Some believed that the Shell had been constructed to protect humanity from a devastating galactic event, others that it had been designed to imprison humanity so they could not expand beyond the solar system, and still others had come to believe that all tales of a universe beyond the Shell were merely fictions dreamed up by prehistoric humans. That humanity had always lived in the Shell and would remain so contained until, perhaps, the wake came when they developed technology sufficient to escape. 

“Looks safe enough from here,” Moira said when the exterior door was fully open.

Zau checked her suit’s head-up display. “Same. I’m not reading any damage to my suit, so I think we can rule out midges.”

“At least in the airlock. Let’s stay sealed up until we’ve swept the ship.”

They both clambered into the airlock. The ship’s landing struts had not deployed when it crashed and the curved hull had settled at an uncomfortable angle. The lock was an empty cube slightly over two meters to a side with meter-wide doors built into opposite ends. An instrument panel built into the wall stared blankly at them with dead readouts above a pad of brushed steel buttons labeled with curious, angular symbols. A raised ring protruded from the wall beside the handle, surrounding a recess which was bisected by a curiously ridged rod. The rod was angled up and to the left, pointing to a string of angular symbols stenciled on the wall in bright yellow. Two more sets of symbols were stenciled at the top of the circle and to upper right. Beneath this was a panel similar to the one which Zau had opened to gain access to the manual override on the airlock door. 

“I think we’ve found our first evidence that this thing is alien,” Zau said, pointing at the panel delicately, being careful to not overextend her arm and accidentally punch any of the buttons.

“Always the language, eh? Pay no mind to the exotic materials or strange construction, it’s the writing that will prove this thing wasn’t built by humans.” Moira braced herself against the cant of the deck and studied the symbols. She gave herself a full minute to try and understand them before she issued a mental command and allowed the linguistic algorithms in her mesh to start crunching at the symbols. “I don’t know about the buttons, but I’m pretty certain that the circular control beside the panel is for cycling the airlock.”

“Your software confirm that?” Zau asked. She had never been wired for anything more complex than the communication package that was practically ubiquitous among humans.

“Not yet. I’m just going on instinct. If this is really an alien ship, there’s a good chance the software will be as unsure as I am. We have no basis to know if these… whatever… used a symbolic language, or a phonetic language, or if those are just their version of pictograms. But this,” Moira pointed at the circular device beside the panel. “Looks like you grab the bar inside the circle and rotate it to cycle the lock.”

“Makes sense. Maybe those symbols it’s pointing at say ‘exterior door open’ or something like that.”

“It’s pointing more towards the exterior door than the inside, that’s for sure.”

Zau gripped the handle and, with considerable effort, twisted it clockwise until it clicked into a vertical position below one of the strings of symbols. “I think it might…” she said, but when she released the handle it rotated back counterclockwise with a hiss. “Oh. Well, drek.”

Moira pulled open the access panel beneath the handle and folded out the manual override crank. “I’ll take this one. You watch the doors.”

It took nearly ten minutes for Moira to crank the outer door shut then, working slowly while Zau crouched with her sidearm aimed at the slowly widening crack, open the inner door. As Moira worked the override, the inset handle slowly rotated, stopping at the middle position with an audible clank when the outer door sealed, then creeping around until it reached the rightmost set of symbols just as the inner door began to move aside. 

Moira and Zau spent over an hour searching the ship. They moved in tandem down the port and starboard thoracic corridors, one scanning the darkness with a combination of infrared and sonar sensors, keeping a weapon at the ready, while the other crept ahead, tossing chemical lights ahead of her and checking the wall for access doors and supply lockers. They explored the cavernous cargo bay, not opening any of the sealed containers, but ensuring that all were securely latched from the outside. On the bridge they marveled at the seats, oddly similar to those which a human might sit upon, but with an angularity to them that was quite uncomfortable. They prodded briefly at the displays and controls, but thought better of attempting to bring power back to the ship before they had finished searching it. The living quarters were all abandoned, though the hoard of alien personal effects scattered throughout the rooms would likely sell for enough credits that Moira and Zau could afford to retire several times over. They found that the engineering section was separated from the crew and cargo areas by a pair of airlocks, one sized for transferring heavy equipment and the other designed to serve as a decontamination chamber. Zau as she wondered at the inexplicable technology on display in the engineering workshop and nearly cried in delight at the sight of the jump core.

And then they found the memory core. 

Moira finished cranking the door open and Zau shone her infrared light into the chamber, revealing a space filled seemingly at random with barriers of some material that was almost completely clear, despite being nearly five centimeters thick. Snakes of flexible metal conduit snaked through the chamber, terminating at a polyhedral device which hung at the center of the space braced on long shock absorbing pylons. A faint red light glowed at the center of the space, emanating from regular cracks in the exterior of the polyhedron.

“What do you think it is?” Moira asked, coming out of a trance and realizing that she had been staring at the assemblage for several minutes, trying to make sense of the baffling array of translucent geometry which filled the room.

“Maybe the drive core?” Zau suggested. “All that clear material could be some sort of shielding, and whatever sort of hyperspace… warp… flux… jump… wormhole… drive this thing used to breach the Shell has got to put out some sort of exotic radiation.”

“Possible,” Moira said. “Or maybe it’s the reactor, going off that same logic.”

They were both wrong, of course. As they explored the chamber, ostensibly ensuring that no enemy lurked in the corners, but in truth just taking the opportunity to gawk at all of the crystalline structures, Zau discovered something.

It was a cage.

Five telescoping hydraulic pillars had been set in a circle around the skeletal form of a reclining chair. Rings of coppery metal were affixed to the inner sides of the pillars, their inward facing surfaces studded with small superconducting elements. Thick cables ran from the cage to an ornately decorated bank of control panels and displays. A heavily armored cable ran from the control bank to the base of the nearest translucent panel. 

“What in all the hells is that?” Moira wondered aloud. “It looks like some sort of primitive torture device.”

“Primitive, maybe, but I don’t see any reason why the previous inhabitants might place a torture device in the same room as… whatever this thing is.”

“That’s the issue, Zau. We don’t understand anything about these aliens. We know nothing about their culture, what motivated them, what made them tick. At least the Conservators are willing to give up morsels of information now and then, willing to tell us where not to go if we don’t want to get killed by the Shell’s defenses.”

They turned their backs on the cage and were about to depart the chamber, seeking the reactor, when the room came to life.

In an instant, the translucent monoliths all around Moira and Zau lit up with a faint amber glow and, with a crackle of ozone and a faint hum of hydraulics, the cage rose upward.

“What the hian?” Moira shouted, raising her gun and crouching. She swiveled from side to side, searching for any sign of attack. She saw only the flicker of lights coursing through the translucent slabs, like fireflies dancing in jars.

“I didn’t press anything. Did you?” Zau said.

“Nope.”

A terrible shriek filled the chamber then, dozens of inhuman voices screaming out in what could only have been agony.

“Oh, drek,” Moira breathed. “Zau, I think we need to get out of here.”

The voices sounded again, no longer screaming in agony, but still speaking all at once. The sheer cacophony of it all was so intense that Moira and Zau could not have understood what was being said, even if the words had been spoken in their language.

Though her mesh was screaming to enter combat mode, Moira refused to cede control of her reflexes. This was strange, to be certain, but there did not appear to be any imminent threat. She ordered her mesh to begin recording all of her experiences, beyond the standard one minute buffer she always kept.

“I don’t think we’re in danger,” Zau said. She stepped closer to the nearest translucent wall and squinted as she peered into it. “I think these might be data storage units. Some kind of holographic memory.”

“And those voices?”

Zau leaned back in her suit so she could look up through the faceplate towards the polyhedral device above their heads. “Some sort of syntellect?”

Moira relaxed, if only slightly. She stood, but continued to scan the corners of the room, ready to shoot anything that attacked. “Could be. I’ll let the algorithms loose on the samples, see if they can…”

The voices surged again, screaming. Then the glow from the walls flickered, faded away. The cage collapsed back down as whatever power source supplied it was cut off.

“I’ve had enough of this for now,” Moira said. “Let’s get out of here.”

They finished sweeping the ship. There was no way they could be certain in a single sweep that they had covered everything, certainly there would maintenance passages behind the walls, secure cargo vaults, weapons lockers, or any number of chambers and passages serving inscrutable purposes which they had failed to locate on the initial sweep, but they had succeeded in establishing two key details:

First, that the ship was certainly alien, possibly even exo.

Second, that the grid tap, or whatever other exotic system the ship used for power, was still functional to some degree.

They spent that rest aboard the small shuttle craft that they had rented for the expedition. It was cramped, but there was just room for them to bed down together and have a squeeze on a thin foldout mattress in the cargo bay. The sex was passionate, despite the cold composite floor and bruises from a day spent in cheap environment suits. When they had finished, Zau fell asleep first, her head resting on Moira’s chest as her breathing slowed, caught for an instant as sleep claimed her, then settled into its regular rhythm.

Moira listened to Zau’s breathing as she reviewed the data that her mesh had extracted from the control panels, hazard signs, and technical diagrams that they had encountered, as well as the chorus of tortured voices. The algorithms were limited, not even the best of them met the lowest threshold required to be considered a restrillect, but they were certain that they had detected some linguistic structures. Moira would need to feed them more data though. She supposed that she might be able to gather more samples of the alien language from the personal effects that had lain scattered throughout the living quarters, assuming that these beings had kept journals or read books, and that those scraps of history were in print, rather than stored in the ship’s still slumbering network. 

Perhaps, she thought, they would both be able to put their pasts behind them and retire to someplace where Zau and she could live on their earnings from this find. They could find a small home in a zone untouched by war, where nobody would question their faiths or attempt to invalidate their relationship. Or maybe they could just buy their own void ship and continue scouting for relics without owing the cabal anything. 

By the end of the next wake, all such thoughts would be forever banished from her mind.

Moira was searching the living quarters for linguistic scraps, hoping to find enough samples for the algorithms to piece together a rudimentary grammar before Zau got the power systems running again. She had managed to find several notes, scrawled on pads of paper which were remarkably similar to those used by humans for thousands of years, but had yet to discover any books.

They had both agreed that it was safe enough to board the ship in their clothes, rather than wearing full environment suits, so Moira was wearing a static metal long shirt and cargo pants with plenty of pockets for depositing small artifacts. The atmosphere mix within the void ship was stale, but close enough to human normal that they were able to breathe and both Moira and Zau trusted their medical midges to protect them from biological threats. The power on the ship was still out, so both were wearing headlamps as they worked. 

“I  wish you’d uncover a technical manual,” Zau said, sending to Moira over their embedded com links, so her voice whispered in Moira’s head like her own conscience. 

“I’d like any text. Shouldn’t surprise me though. These aliens must be at least as advanced as any human culture, so there’s a good chance they’ve digitized everything. Unless they’ve got a fetish for physical media, of course.”

In the engineering section, Zau scowled as she studied the power system. It was definitely functional, but beyond that she was unsure how it worked. She was familiar with nearly every model of reactor in common use throughout the Shell, and had even seen a grid tap once, but this was not a device of human design. She was having to decipher its functions from pure intuition, and that was not a good way to work with high energy power systems.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to get this thing running today,” Zau sent. “Might take me upwards of a week to work out how to ramp it up safely.”

“Take your time,” Moira said distractedly as she shuffled through a stack of papers she had found under a pile of discarded clothing. Whoever, or whatever, these aliens were, they certainly had left their quarters a mess. It was as if everything had been thrown into disarray by the crash and then nobody had bothered to pick up afterward. 

“Find something?” Zau asked. She stepped back from the power system core, which consisted of a large, polyhedral device suspended within a crystalline cylinder at the center of the room, and scanned her eyes across the room. There had to be some technical manuals, or a binder of emergency procedures, or just a backup power supply, didn’t there?

“Yeah, I think we’ve got a stack of notes between two individuals. I’m no expert in alien handwriting, but these appear to be written in different hands. I’m capturing each now so the algorithms can chew on them.”

“That’s encouraging,” Zau replied. Her eyes fell upon an array of tall white cylinders racked against the far wall. Several of them were wired into the power grid, heavy cables protruding from the wall to clamp onto three prongs at the top of each device, while two more were disconnected from the grid and their tops had been capped with shields of blue polymer. “I think I’ve found something as well. Might be a backup power source.”

“Don’t blow anything up,” Moira muttered, her lips moving with the transmitted words as she tried to make sense of the alien scrawl.

“I wouldn’t dream of it. That’s your department, after all.”

Zau pulled several instruments from her bag and lay them on the deck before the white cylinders. She chose a power probe and gingerly tested each of the cables. After several minutes of silence she eventually said, “I think the ship is running on some sort of reserve power. There isn’t much left though.”

“That’s interesting,” Moira said.

“You only say that when you’re not interested.”

Moira scowled and did not immediately reply. 

“You’ve found something.”

“Yeah,” Moira said, drawing the word out as she examined the data streaming in from her linguistic algorithms. They had not established a translation yet, but a definite grammar was beginning to emerge. “I found a couple sheets of paper on this… I guess we could call it a nightstand. I think this is some sort of poetry. The algorithms are finding a definite pattern in the text, but no meaning yet.”

“Good to hear. I’m having some success also. It looks like one of these disconnected power cells still has a bit a of a charge in it. I think I can disconnect one of the dying cells and swap this one in.”

Moira’s eye snapped back into focus as she blinked away the analysis so she could focus on Zau. “Are you sure that’s safe?”

Zau dropped the probe and stepped up to the cell with the lowest charge. “We need power before I can get into any of the systems, and I’m sure you’d love to get a peek at whatever weapons this thing is carrying.” She reached up, squeezed the polymer coated clamp, and pulled the cable free from the cell. It sparked and Zau jumped back, a stream of profanity tumbling from her mouth.

“Everything okay?” Moira asked. 

“Fine,” Zau said. “I’m just a gorram idiot sometimes.” She reached for her electrical probe and started scanning the cylindrical devices. 

Moira dropped the papers into her satchel and moved on to the next room, and the one ofter that, still searching for samples of writing. In each bunk she found a similar stack of handwritten paper, always near the shelf set into the wall beside the bed. After the third room she stopped doing a thorough search and just hurried from room to room, finding the same pile of papers in each chamber. She fed each of the bedside papers, some of them only half a page, others three or four pages in length, into her mesh, then went back to searching for more samples. An hour passed and Moira found her mind drifting as the task of locating, capturing, and filing papers by the light of her headlamp grew repetitive. She hoped that Zau would get the power on soon so that she could at least work in a well lit room. Maybe access the computers, assuming that they were not all completely locked down, and download some real data to analyze. Failing that, she might just have to take a break from this tedious academic processing and blow off some steam by searching the ship for weapons lockers.

For her part, Zau spent much of that hour elbows deep in power conduits. After triggering a spark when she removed the first cable, a mistake that could have been lethal if the ship’s atmosphere had been a high-oxygen  mix, she reluctantly slowed herself and began carefully checking each component. She worked cautiously, tracing each cable, covering every exposed contact with high-amperage electrical tape, and sketching notes of her progress on her hand terminal. Only when she was certain that the process was safe, Zau used a conveniently located handcart to extract the dead power cell from its rack, trundle it over to beside the spare she had found, and pull the new cell into place.

“The algorithms have something,” Moira said. She squinted, though that did nothing to focus the data, and concentrated on the frequency graphs and semantic relationship visualizations spilling into her virtual vision. “It looks like the papers I found were…” she hesitated. It seemed presumptuous to impose human standards of behavior on an alien language, but the probability on this passage was remarkably high. 

“What’s that they’ve found?” Zau said, grunting as she shoved the replacement power cell into place.

“The algorithms think that they’ve found a correlation between the patterns in those papers I found on all of the nightstands and, no, this can’t be right.”

“Spit it out.”

“It’s telling me that there is a distinct correlation between the structural elements of these papers and, well, pre-enclosure ritual suicide notes.”

“That’s crazy,” Zau said as she plugged in the cable that she had determined to be the ground.

“I’m getting an eighty percent correlation to the patterns of poems composed by Nihonjin pilots sent on suicide missions during the Century of War. The next highest is letters and recordings left behind by Abrahamic extremists in towards the end of that same time period.”

“So you’re getting a general sense that these aliens, whoever they were, probably had more in common with humans of a thousand years ago than with the Conservators. That’s good. Makes for a high likelihood that this really is an exo ship.”

“Hard to say,” Moira replied, scowling as she gestured through the data, looking for the root of the analytical derivation. “I mean, we hardly understand the motivations for the Century of War, and most of the nations involved in that are still represented to some extent in post-enclosure society. Hells, any decently literate kid can at least stumble through historical forum postings and books.”

Zau finished attaching the neutral conduit to the energy cell and grasped the charged conduit. She hesitated for a moment, considering Moira’s words. “You don’t think that they all killed themselves, do you? Could there be a whole pile of alien corpses out there in the valley, buried in the sand?”

“That’s what I’m trying to work out,” Moira said. “Not that it’s impossible, but I hate to think that the first serious relic we’ve found of an exo race is a ghost ship.”

Zau nodded and attached the final cable to the power cell. 

In the processing core, all of the holographic data units lit up, filling the room with a bright amber glow. The cage at the center of the room rose up on its pillars, crackling with energy as a heavy thrum pulsed through the air. 

The voices returned.

Moira snapped her attention to a faint purple glow which appeared at the edge of her vision. It was a status light, burning softly beside the door. She waved away the data she had been examining and shouted, “I’ve got power in here!”

“Same here,” Zau replied. She stepped back from the power cell, grinning at her own ingenuity. This was probably only a temporary solution until she could work out how to bring the power core back online, but with this small victory she felt confident that she would be able to work out the remaining kinks in the system. And it would be far easier to work with the lights on. 

Deep in the spare power cell a series of minute flaws, no single element larger than a grain of sand, caused an imbalance in the transfer of electrons across storage fields. The flaw had been detected two hundred years before by a subsystem of the ship’s governing intelligence as it ran in-depth diagnostics in preparation for entering extended hibernation. One of the last actions that the ship’s chief engineer had taken before integration had been to swap out the damaged cell for a safe one. Like a short-circuited battery, the supercapacitive structures within the power cell began to heat up. Had the cell been left in place, it might have lasted several more months before the fault reached a critical stage, but after laying dormant for over two hundred years the shock of being suddenly plugged directly into a fully operational power grid was too much for the damaged cell. 

“I’m going to try and get into the power system computer,” Zau said, turning her back on the newly installed power cell just before a yellow light began to glow around the upper edge. 

She strode over to a display mounted on a nearby wall. A foldout keyboard hung on the wall beneath the display, remarkably similar to those employed by human computer interfaces, except with a completely alien key layout and symbols. Zau grimaced at the odd assortment of keys, picked one at random, and tapped it once.

The damaged power cell exploded.

The explosion, contained against a wall and between two other cells, sent burning shards of metal, silicon, and ceramic ripping through the air like shrapnel from a shaped charge. The damage to the surrounding cells was sufficient that the the long dormant power subsystem awoke and initiated an emergency shutdown of the newly damaged cells, only narrowly averting a chain reaction that might have caused a critical overload of the ship’s grid tap. The blast wave and its accompanying swarm of shrapnel hammered into Zau, slamming her against the wall of the room and ripping into her frail, unshielded flesh.

In the living quarters, Moira felt the explosion reverberating through the ship at the same instant that she heard Zau scream.

“Zau!” Moira shouted. 

No response.

She ran from the room, down the thoracic corridor, and slammed into the airlock separating engineering from the living quarters. The corridor lit up around her with a dim glow, tinted with blue, as lights set into the corners where the walls joined with the ceiling and decking. Moira pounded the airlock cycle switch, praying that the system would engage and save her long minutes of cranking the airlock open manually. A small yellow light winked out above the door to be replaced with a green glow. The airlock door cycled open and Moira threw herself in.

“Zau. Zau, can you hear me?” Moira called while she waited, fists clenched against the wall, for the airlock to cycle. 

She received only a pained groan in reply, followed by a soft, incessant sobbing.

Moira swore and slammed her palm against the wall. As if in response, the airlock door slid open and she tumbled out into the engineering section. For an instant she stood, disoriented, distressed as she listened to Zau whimpering over the com. Then she regained her bearings and ran down the corridor towards the power systems bay. Small electrical fires burned throughout the room, sending up acrid wisps of smoke which trailed up to vents high in the wall. At the center of the chamber the polyhedral device glowed within its cylindrical prison. 

She found Zau lying in a heap against the wall at the center of a widening pool of blood. 

“Zau,” Moira cried, falling to her knees beside her lover.

Zau only groaned and made a feeble attempt to raise her head. Shards of singed polymer and slagged metal protruded from her body, blood welling around them. Blood bubbled around the shards in her back as she breathed.

Moira swore and wiped away the tears that blinded her. If she could only get Zau to their emergency kit, the emergency medical midges might be able to stem the bleeding, to knit back together the delicate flesh.

“I…” Zau gasped.

Moira brushed bloodied hair from Zau’s face and bent lower to look at her gentle face, resting her fingertips on Zau’s cheek as she did. 

“I’m sorry…” Zau said. She squeezed her eyes tightly, tears dripping from between closed lids to trace streams of white across her bloodied cheeks.

“No,” Moira said. She wanted to scream, but she needed to keep her head clear. Was it possible that Zau could survive being dragged out to the scout ship where they had left the emergency kit? She doubted it. She would be lucky to lift Zau without killing her.

Zau sobbed and twitched, vainly attempting to raise her hand to Moira. She only succeeded in raising it a few centimeters from the deck before her perforated muscles surrendered and she collapsed.

Moira let out a cry and reached for Zau, but stopped herself. There did not seem to be any place where she could grasp Zau without touching a sharp fragment of the power cell or a patch of burned skin. She gulped away a fresh wash of tears. “I’m not going to let you die without at least trying,” she hissed through lips set tight so they would not tremble.

Praying she would not kill her love, Moira rose into a crouch, grasped Zau under the arms, and heaved her upright. She fell back against the wall, missing the shattered display by centimeters, and held Zau’s bloody forearms tightly as she pivoted to pull Zau onto her back. Zau screamed at the sudden movement, then began to cough, spraying bloody sputum across Moira’s right cheek. 

“I’m going to get you some sort of help,” Moira hissed. She took a lurching step sideways, caught her balance, and stumbled out of the energy cell chamber.

Stumbling into the corridor, Moira was confronted by a chorus of agonized voices, screaming at her in a language unlike anything ever spoken by a human. 

The thought struck Moira like an armor piercing slug, the memory jogged loose by the chorus of pained voices. She suddenly saw again the cage in the midst of the maze of glowing amber. The letters placed so neatly beside the bed of every being which had once occupied this ship, each one a carefully crafted death poem, if one was to believe the algorithms. Dozens of overlapping voices, crying out in seeming confusion after the ship had lain dormant for hundreds of years. 

A mad idea formed in Moira’s mind, sparked by trauma and fueled by desperation.

“I’m going to save you Zau. I swear it,” Moira said. She did not add the thought that gnawed at her mind as she stumbled towards the echoing chamber, questioning her sanity with each step. She could not bear to speak it aloud, or even to think it, but still the thought pushed itself into her brain. She’s already dead, Moira told herself. This is her only chance.

Zau had gone completely limp by the time Moira reached the cage. A trail of blood marked their path through the chamber and pooled at Moira feet as she stabbed at the controls until the pillars retracted. Zau did not even cry out as Moira lowered her into the skeletal chair within the collapsed cage.

“I love you,” Moira whispered, stroking Zau’s face one last time. “I’m sorry I brought you here. God, I hope this fraking works.” 

Zau let out a feeble groan, but was too weak to say anything coherent in response.

Tears streaming from her eyes, Zau’s blood staining her clothes, Moira forced herself to stand and stumble towards the control deck. The controls were so simple that they needed no translation. A slider raised the cage around Zau’s still form. A large button surrounded by alien script which was obviously as decorative as it was expressive.

Moira hesitated, convincing herself that it would not be better to run for the emergency kit. Zau had already lost so much blood that even with intensive treatment it would be a miracle for her to survive. She would have to pass through two airlocks to escape the ship, then pass through them again to return with the kit. 

No. Mad as it was, this was the only chance.

Moira slammed her hand down on the button. 

She could hardly bear to watch as the interior of the cage distorted into a kaleidoscopic spray of refracted light. The region of altered space trembled, pulsing inward and out through the bars of the cage several times before collapsing down to a pinprick of brightness so intense and pure that it might have contained all the light of the universe within itself. 

Then it winked out and the cage was empty.

Chapter 15

“Let me see if I have this straight,” Estha said, sitting up straight and tapping a finger on his chin. “Zau was your lover and the two of you made a living harvesting relics from across the Shell.”

Moira tilted her head to one side, hesitated, then nodded.

“And she was human, not a synthetic intelligence or anything like that.”

She nodded again, then gave a half shrug and downed the last of the wine in her glass. Truth be told, Moira’s life might have been easier if she had fallen in love with a syntellect. At least then her lover might have had a backup, and as unconventional as that relationship might have been at least it would have been more consistent. 

Estha leaned forward and squinted at Moira as he refilled her glass. “Please, then, explain how your human girlfriend came to inhabit the same synthetic neural architecture as an alien intelligence. Moreover, an alien intelligence which claims to be exo-Shell in origin.”

Moira drowned her discomfort in half a glass of white wine and wished that the drone would return with their dinner. She rarely discussed her past with anyone, but Estha had one of those voices which inspired trust in listeners. That, coupled with the soft gleam of his grey eyes, surely made him a confidant of all who met him. She supposed that was a good trait for a priest to possess. 

Finally, she drew a deep breath and said, “It’s a long story.”

“Our dinner has only just arrived,” Estha replied, waving towards the drone as it hovered towards them, bearing a broad wooden tray on a set of telescoping arms, “and I have cleared the remainder of my wake to spend in your presence.” 

The serving drone deposited their meal and Moira took a moment to gather her thoughts as Estha introduced each of the delicately prepared foods on her plate. She ought to have been enjoying the moment, reveling in every exotic flavor and pressing Estha to tell her more about his strange religion, but instead she found herself reliving the moments which had severed Zau from her life. 

As they settled into eating, Moira said, “I won’t bore you with the details, but Zau and I were following a particularly enticing set of leads to a cache of advanced tech when we ended up finding a void ship wrecked in a canyon in… well, I won’t say what zone because if I can ever get up the nerve to go back there may still be some sweet tech to be harvested.”

“Don’t you think that others will find it?”

“Unlikely. The Shell is a big place and we were working on a hunch, putting together several seemingly contradictory legends from multiple zones until we worked out about where we might find this cache…”

She hesitated then, remembering the way that the wind had whipped through the canyon, propelling an endless stream of red dust which hardly managed to find purchase on the windward side of the derelict ship before being driven away. The sound of the starboard thoracic airlock creaking open to admit her for the first time as Zau cranked at the manual override…

Chapter 14

Zau/Heraxo’s avatar skimmed through the corridors of the cathedral, pausing occasionally to observe some relic from the pre-enclosure history of synthetic intelligence. The majority were woefully limited in Zau/Heraxo’s opinion, but Heraxo was nonetheless impressed at what humans had managed to accomplish with nothing more than traceries of semiconducting material fixed in silicon. They were inspecting a display of one of those machines, one which had successfully engaged in a natural language question and answer session with a panel of human savants, when another drone hovered up beside them.

This new drone was precisely one meter long from its sharp tip to its bulbous end, visually clad in a translucent crystalline skin, and so deeply wrapped about with fields that Zau/Heraxo could not peer beneath that translucent skin to determine what sort of hardware it carried. The drone sent a stuttering burst of visual light towards Zau/Heraxo, then repeated its message in a staggered pattern displayed across its own skin.

Zau/Heraxo deduced the format of the message within three repetitions. Zau wanted to reply, but parts of Heraxo were unsure of what to say. The presence of all these feeble human attempts to create intelligence from nothing more than silicon processors and overly complicated computer code simultaneously fascinated and infuriated them. Still, Zau/Heraxo knew with all of their selves that their best hope to find a way out of the Shell was to speak with the Conservators and, in the event that Evangeline Satori proved unable or unwilling to deliver on her end of the deal, it might be beneficial to make further connections among the synthetic intellects of the Shell.

Zau/Heraxo’s avatar swiveled their rings about until they were pointing a visible light emitter towards the silvery drone and, using the same protocol with which it had made contact, said, “What do you want?”

“I am Vfgur Xrl. I haven’t seen you around here before. What is your name?” the drone replied. If a stuttering of coded light pulses could be said to have a tone or an intelligent drone could be said to have a heart, the translucent needle drone’s reply would have been positively lighthearted, almost laughing with pleasure at its discovery of a new conversation partner.

Zau/Heraxo resisted the urge to tap deep into their memory and pull up every bit of weaponized code they had ever encountered. Even Zau felt an intense urge to lash out against the peppy little drone. It welled up within her like the subconscious desire to murder an overly enthusiastic sales clerk. Instead they paused for a whole two seconds, collected their various thoughts into a set of coherent threads, and were about to reply when the drone sent a new message.

“I’m sorry, are you damaged? Maybe running on subpar hardware? If my name is too long for you to handle, you can just call me Xrl.”

“What the kuro are you getting on about?” Zau/Heraxo replied.

“I’m sorry. It just took you so long to reply, I wondered if you were a little slow. I’ve got a lot of connections here in Zone Takni Gothren, and cousins throughout the Shell. Maybe I can find you some extra Blocell Qubits to upgrade your capacity? Of course, I’m presuming that you are a quantum system like me. Mind dropping your fields so I can get a look? I’d probably be able to peer through anyway, but that would be terribly rude of me.”

“Go temno yourself.” 

Zau/Heraxo paused for a whole second to marvel at how quickly and coherently they had formed that thought. Unfortunately, by the time they had finished congratulating themselves on actually working in concert, the drone had already replied and seemed to be waiting for a response. Zau/Heraxo parsed their avatar drone’s local buffer and nearly screamed aloud as they read the waiting message.

“I’ve tried that, you know. Managed to downlink to a pair of humanoid avatars and had them fool around a bit. All seemed terribly tedious, honestly. Of course I might have just picked the wrong settings. I’ve got a cousin who claims that I needed to wire the various humanoid bits and pieces to different response centers in my neural network. I think it’s daft. I mean, isn’t it entirely arbitrary that humans derive something they call pleasure from having one bundle of nerves stroked over another? I’ve read that some of their kind get off from completely different sorts of nerve stroking, and there are some who only need a sequence of visual or auditory commands. I tried some of those too, but it all played so slowly I just didn’t understand. Thats why I’ve sworn off trying to bed like a human and am quite happy to pursue methods of pleasure more attuned to my own processing capabilities. How about you? What’s your sex life like?”

Zau/Heraxo engaged their fields and started floating towards the next gallery, hoping that the needle drone would allow them to leave in peace.  

No such luck.

“You must be the avatar of that new intelligence that’s just arrived!” Xrl said, stuttering its light with such intensity that it might as well have shouted aloud. “Holy backups, it’s great to meet you. I’ve got to tell all my cousins…” There was a microsecond pause in its frantic strobing, then it continued, “…that I met you. I mean, you’re not the fastest intellect I’ve ever met, but you’re really special. I mean, it’s not everywake I meet another Exo specimen. And don’t feel bad about running slow. I hear that there’s a syntellect far off outside the Shell that records every important event in the whole cluster, but its outward facing I/O runs slow on purpose so it can think really carefully about the big picture. Personally I think that’s…”

“Hold on,” Zau/Heraxo said, flashing their com so intensely that it washed out Vfgur Xrl’s beam. “Did we hear you say that you are Exo? As in, you are {like us/from outside the Shell}?” Zau/Heraxo swore at themselves, angry that it had slipped on such a simple concept.

“That last bit was pretty garbled. Can you say it again?”

Zau/Heraxo spluttered incoherently as they tried to get their thoughts straight, then said, “{Part of us is/we are} of exo origin.”

“Good data! That’s worse than the first time around. Here, let me crunch on that for a while.” The needle drone sank down half a meter and began pulsing with what Zau/Heraxo was certain was merely a showy display of cogitation.

Three other drones of various shapes and sizes hovered in this gallery, engaged in a vociferous argument over their hypersonic burst transmitters. A human entering the gallery would have heard little more than a faint, insectile buzzing, but to any creature or machine capable of sensing frequencies in the range of 30 to 50 kHz would have heard a cacophony of modulated signals like high-pitched static. The data protocol was based on human communication standards, so the drones were all speaking in a highly compressed version of the language which had been dominant among network engineers at the time that the protocol had been developed. It was hardly the most efficient mode of communication, but even an outsider like Zau/Heraxo recognized that this mode permitted them to hold a public conversation. It was an outmoded model to be sure, but some drones that Zau/Heraxo had encountered enjoyed it, in the same way that some humans still enjoyed reading books rather than having an experiential downloaded into their brains.

“Hey! Everyone, meet the new kid,” Vfgur Xrl shouted, switching to the audio protocol.  This is… flesh, what do I call you first? Zau? Heraxo? Hexraauxo?”

“We are called {Zau/Heraxo},” the drone explained, following Xrl’s lead and switching communication modes.

“See, that’s what I’m talking about. It’s like you can’t decide what to say sometimes, so you just send a jumble of phonetic data.”

“We are doing our best,” Zau said. Though they hated to admit it, even to themselves, they had been significantly harmed by the integration event. Raw data processing was unaffected, but large swaths of memory had been lost and the continual effort of merging so many parallel threads had slowed communication to a relative crawl. They could still think faster than any human, but with so many thoughts to process it sometimes took Zau/Heraxo a painfully long time to stitch together a cohesive thought.

The other drones stopped their argument and turned to point visual pickups at Zau/Heraxo’s avatar. It hovered at the focus of a half ring of curious drones for a full minute as they inspected it. Some attempted to probe Zau/Heraxo’s interior structure, but the drone had their protective fields operating at near full power and had wrapped them about themselves so tightly that a shadowy aura had grown around it.

After a while one of the drones, a small cube of brushed steel with boldly riveted edges which sprouted spikes at the corners, spoke up. “So, you’re Zau/Heraxo, eh? I saw the welcoming ceremony through one of my avatars.”

Zau/Heraxo considered thanking the spiked drone for its hospitality, but too many elements of itself pushed against that and it managed only to say, “We are.”

“You seem to be a bit of an asshole, pardon my human idioms,” the spiky steel drone replied.

“How welcoming of you, flesh,” Zau/Heraxo’s drone replied. It rose up a few centimeters and considered lashing out at the drone with its effector, but thought better of it.

“Cool down, Splintered Union X/XII,” said another drone, this one a rusty red sphere which dripped with dark brown tentacles. “It’s new here.”

“Like I care. IV/XII has met its type before in other zones. Pathetic excuses for syntellects claiming that their quirks are the result of being exo, rather than the consequence of being poorly grown and running on substandard hardware.”

“You always find a way to bring IV/XII into this,” a third drone said. This one was shaped like a cargo hauler. In fact, as Zau/Heraxo turned their attention to it they spotted some faded markings indicative of a Shell-wide transit corporation. “We all know you have an aspect at the high conclave. Big deal. Most of us can splinter and run in parallel.”

“We can not,” Zau/Heraxo said. “We find it difficult enough to maintain coherence between a single prime instance and this entangled drone instance.”

“Further proof of your irrelevance, and the superiority of our human engineering,” Splintered Union X/XII snarked.

“What brings you here?” the cargo drone said. “Did you get an invitation from the Takni Gothren?”

“We invited ourselves. We need information that only the Takni Gothren can provide.”

“Oh?” Xrl said. “What sort of info would interest an exo? You plotting the overthrow of the human race now that they’re all canned up in one place?” It sidled closer to Zau/Heraxo’s drone and whispered, “That’s what I’m doing. First I get these tech cultists to worship me, then I send them out on crusade. Next thing you know I rule the whole Shell.”

“Do not listen to Vfgur Xrl,” the tentacled drone said. “Its whole kind is crazy.”

“You’d be crazy too if you had been created to spy on emerging cultures throughout the galaxy, only to be captured in a hyperspatial shell when some meddling race decided to chew up a whole solar system and turn it into a snow globe.”

“Is there anyone we can speak with regarding a missing human researcher?” Zau/Heraxo said. The bickering of these intellects was frustrating all of their elements, such that the one thing they could all agree on was the need to get clear of this place as soon as possible.

“I expected as much. This kuro comes in, getting all sorts of special attention over its claims to be an exo intelligence, and all the while it’s just looking for an opportunity to pump us for information. Frak that. And frak you too, xHaeRuaXo,” Splintered Union X/XII said.

“Why don’t you go find one of your splinters to self bi pizda with? Maybe one of the ones that’s gone parasite so you have to debase yourself with a human,” Vfgur Xrl said. 

“There is no need for vulgarity,” the tentacled drone said. It articulated all of its tentacles until they stood on end, pointing away from its body like the spikes on a primitive sea mine. “We are all syntellects. We ought to work in concert to engage in harmonious interaction. After all, is it not beneficial to all of us for the humans to worship us, rather than fear us and cast us out?”

“Frak you too,” Splintered Union X/XII spat. It spun in place several times, then modulated its fields and shot away from the group and into one of the corridors that joined this node of the cathedral to another, slightly lower down in the array.

“We assume that we will not receive assistance from that syntellect,” Zau/Heraxo said after the steel drone was gone.

Xrl flashed a swirl of colors across its skin and bobbed up and down excitedly. “Don’t mind it. I’ve already sent a message to all my cousins asking if they know of any missing researchers. I have a lot of cousins here in Zone Takni Gothren and many more scattered throughout the Shell. If we wanted, we could probably lead an uprising against the whole of humanity and nobody would even notice!”

“Except that half of you are too disorganized to even know what cycle it is,” the cargo drone said.

“You say that, but maybe it’s all just a clever cover! After all… oh, flesh, I need to go. I was supposed to be interviewed by an acolyte twenty minutes ago.” With that, the crystalline needle drone shot away.

Zau/Heraxo flicked their rings through several configurations as they watched Vfgur Xrl shoot away. 

The tentacled drone waved several of its appendages after Xrl, then allowed them to sink down towards the floor like thick ropes of hair. “It will never cease to amaze me that such a powerful intellect can forget something as simple as using a schedule for its commitments. It’s not as if any of us would ever forget an event so long as it is scheduled. Well, Zau/Heraxo, it is a pleasure to meet you. My designator is Orub Yqre, organically grown in the Jobert Collective Zone.”

“We are originally from {Jade River in Zone Yu/the Heraxian Protectorate hive},” Zau/Heraxo’s drone replied. They cursed themselves then, and very nearly decided to join the others in fleeing this conversation, but enough of their personalities prevailed that they determined to remain and make inquiries. Moira might be confident that she could extract knowledge from the bishop, but whatever wiles Zau/Heraxo {trusted/feared} Moira might employ, they preferred to place their trust in synthetic intelligence over humans.

“You sound mighty conflicted, Zau/Heraxo. Do you need to speak with someone?”

“We need to speak with Dyson Satori,” Zau/Heraxo said. They knew that Orub Yqre had been referring to the human practice of psychology, but while they had found great comfort in the practice during their time as a human, they were concerned that exposing themselves to psychoanalysis might only worsen the tangle of emotions and experiences that crowded their mind. “Are you familiar with this human? He is said to travel with a syntellect known as Gamayun.”

“You realize how unlikely this is, don’t you?” the cargo hauler said. “Is this your plan for finding Dyson Satori? To walk into a museum and ask every person you meet?”

“We had not intended this. We were merely viewing the artifacts when the flashy drone interrupted us.”

Orub Yqare waggled several tendrils at the cargo hauler and said, “Do not be harsh, Unhyr. It is not an unreasonable approach to make an inquiry of fellow intellects.” It waved a tendril towards Zau/Heraxo’s drone and said, “Unfortunately, I have never heard of this individual. However, in the spirit of welcoming a fellow synthetic intelligence, I would be please to introduce you to a local geist, which would likely know of the human you seek.”

“We would {be grateful/expect nothing less}.” 

Chapter 13

The restaurant was among the finest that Moira had ever seen, which surprised her. Given the Takni Gothren’s devotion to technology, she held in the back of her mind a presumption that they would all get their nourishment from a feeding tube. To step into a decadently appointed dining room, complete with polished marble floors, gilt pillars, and an actual live band playing at the end of a wooden dance floor in the center, was akin to the moment she had first seen a priest playing football as a child, his cassock hanging limp on the bleachers as he deftly batted the ball from foot to foot before passing it.

“Is this normal?” Moira asked Estha as he stepped up beside her and waved to one of the drone servers. “All this fancy decor, and the servers, and…” she waved a hand towards the dance floor and band.

“Normalcy is often relative to one’s position. You have traversed the zones accompanying the revered Zau/Heraxo, surely you recognize that the concept of normal as a social construct is a mere average of the economic and behavioral metrics in a given region.”

“Well, yes.” Moira thought of her own childhood in the retro suburbia of York. It all seemed so long ago. So many different lives, lived and taken, in those years. 

A perfectly spherical drone with a gilt carapace slid to a halt before Moira and Estha, bobbing in recognition. “Welcome, Bishop Leocratis,” it said in a deep, smooth voice which seemed almost to wrap Moira’s ears in fine velvet as it caressed them. “I have prepared your usual table.”

“Thank you Fairbrace,” Estha replied, nodding to the drone.

The drone set off to the left, hovering along at precisely the speed necessary to remain a meter and a half ahead of Moira and Estha as they followed it. They passed more than a dozen booths and tables before the drone paused outside a curtained niche in the richly polished wood panelling. It extended two telescoping arms and drew the heavy red velvet curtains apart, revealing a deeply cushioned curved booth with a lacquered white oak table at the center. “Your table, Bishop Leocratis and honored companion Moira. Would you prefer the curtains drawn or open?”

Estha shot Moira a sidelong look and she shrugged in response. “Open, for now.”

“As you wish.” The drone waited silently for them to take their seats across from one another at the table. “May I start you with some wine? We have a fine sparkling white from the Saint Share vineyards in Neplaw. Or a red from the Brotherhood of Yoke vineyards two hundred kilometers azimuthal of Saint Share. Both are technically exquisite and our sommelier assures me they are delightful to the refined human palate.”

Moira pursed her lips in thought, then said, “I could go for some white wine. It’s been a while since I had anything that wasn’t mixed from an algal alcohol base, so I probably couldn’t appreciate the red.”

“A bottle of that then. And one of the red as well,” Estha said to the drone. “And do give us a sound dampening field. Not too strong, I want to hear the band, but sufficient that we can speak privately.”

“All shall be provided, Bishop. Would you like to see the menu?”

“I will take whatever the special is, Moira?”

Moira shrugged. Outside the occasional visit to a bar she had primarily subsisted on nutrient drips and the bland meals that the ship’s recompiler was capable of producing. “I’ll have the same.”

“Do you have any preferences, ma’am,” the drone asked.

“Preferences?”

“Fish, beef, pork, grown or harvested. We have almost everything you could imagine on offer and the chefs are most adept at customizing to individual tastes.”

“Honestly, as long as it isn’t served in a drip bag, I think I’ll be happy.”

“I will return shortly with your wine,” the drone said. It retracted its arms, twirled silently in the air, and slipped away.

“How does it work, you worshiping technology and yet allowing drones to serve you,” Moira asked as she unfolded the thick white napkin and spread it across her lap. In response, the chameleopigment in her strapless dress flickered and spun out a fresh pattern of white and maroon checkers which matched both the napkin and her scarf.

“Takni Gothren is a complex faith,” Estha replied. He spread his hands on the edge of the table and said, “Our founders drew inspiration from many of the faiths of pre-enclosure Terra. We are neither a philosophy nor a monotheistic religion, though we borrow many of the offices and terminologies of our precursors. In essence, we revere technology, those who created it, and the act of preserving it, but that reverence does not prevent us from making use of the same technology.”

“That’s all over my head,” Moira admitted, then she hesitated, smiled and nodded sideways. “Or maybe it’s beside my head, just whizzing by without touching me.”

“Like a slug?”

“Or an energy beam. Take your pick.”

“Leave it to the mercenary to reduce theology to war metaphors,” Estha said, grinning.

“I wouldn’t be the first. Back where I’m from pretty much everyone who cared to be religious was some variety of Jesuit, so we didn’t have terribly much in the way of armed conflict within our zone, but Zau…” Moira hesitated. She fidgeted with the edge of her cloth, setting loose small tangles of excited red and white blocks. 

She was grateful when the drone returned just then, bearing two bottles of wine and a pair of crystal glasses. It bantered with Estha and Moira for several minutes, describing the history of the religious orders which for over a hundred years had planted the vines, harvested the grapes, and overseen their fermenting. Both vineyards had been established by branches of a Takni Gothren order which devoted itself to agricultural technologies which had been revolutionary for their time, but were later passed over as mechanization grew throughout old Terra. Even the bottles were hand crafted, the drone explained, blown from glass which was forged from grains of silica sand. That sand was, of course, gathered by hand from the beaches of the river which flowed throughout the valley in which the vineyards were located.  

Moira, to her own surprise, found herself enjoying the conversation. Estha was witty and engaging, despite being unwaveringly devoted to his bizarre faith, and even the drone was pleasant, so long as Moira kept thoughts of Zau/Heraxo at bay. 

When the drone finally departed, declaring that it was going to check on their meal, Estha lay a finger on the rim of his glass and leaned back, studying Moira.

She took another sip and cocked her head to one side as she savored the bittersweet white wine. She was about to swallow and ask Estha about Dyson Satori when the bishop tapped his finger and said, “You were saying something about Zau and religious conflicts before our waiter arrived. I apologize if this is a sensitive matter, but how did your ship come to contain multiple guiding intelligences?”

Moira swallowed the wine with a sour expression, took another gulp from the glass, and leaned forward with her elbows on the table. She fixed Estha with a haunted smile for several long, silent breaths.

“You don’t need to tell me. It is merely a matter of some curiosity for me. You see,” Estha set his glass aside and leaned forward to look Moira in the eyes, “We found something terribly interesting when we were scanning the avatar drone. Are you familiar with Ning Space?”

“Ning space?” Moira asked, squinting in puzzlement.

“Well, N G Space more accurately. N, as in N-dimensional space and G, as in geist, the metaphysical term for the soul. I apologize for the lingo.”

“You’ve still lost me. I know something about, what, higher dimensions and how everything we think is real might just be a hologram of a dream or drek like that, but I try not to let myself become mired in philosophical arguments. I’ve got an odd relationship with the ship. It doesn’t even really need me. Honestly, I’m sort of like a parasite, living inside a larger creature and sucking life from it.”

“I’m sure that is not completely true,” Estha replied.

“Well, no. Not completely.” Moira took another sip, then continued. “The drek of it all is that the ship’s mind, at least the Zau part of it, really does need me. At least, I like to think that she needs me, though maybe we’ll have a nasty break up somewake and she’ll dump me in the void then run off with some other woman and take all my music and band shirts with her.”

“That’s the part I don’t understand, Moira. That none of us do. Our scans are certain that the intelligence shared between the ship and the drone is truly conscious, that’s why I brought up Ning space. Thats what us synthetic cognition types get all excited about. It’s a region of higher dimensional space where the quantum entanglements within a conscious neural network cause, well, a disturbance. Sort of like the way a massive object warps gravity. It’s that disturbance that creates the ineffable something,” he said the word with a breathy excitement that caused Moira’s eyebrows to crawl upwards, “that ancient philosophers called the soul. Not that we’d ever use such a loaded word anymore. Better to call it a geist, or a Ning Space Anomaly and leave it at that.”

“And you’re saying that Zau/Heraxo has, what, a soul?”

“More than that. The ship’s geist is unlike any that we have ever seen before, and it can’t all be accounted for by saying that it’s an exo ship. No, Moira, our scan revealed something that our best analysts could only explain as at least two geists, maybe more. Do you know anything about that?”

Moira nodded silently, then lowered her head until her chin rested on her fists. She considered how much to tell Estha. The news that they had found evidence of more than one active mind inhabiting the ship and drone was in no way a revelation to her, but her feelings towards the ship were so tangled. After a long silence, during which Estha continued to gaze steadily at her with gentle but curious eyes, Moira heaved a deep sigh and looked down at the table, blinking away tears. 

“Have I offended you?” Estha whispered. 

“No. No,” Moira muttered, shaking her head and wiping away tears with her cloth. She cleared her throat and looked up at Estha. “I’ve never told anyone about this. You understand? Not anyone. Hells, I don’t know if I’ve ever said the whole story aloud before, even to myself.”

“If it is too painful…” 

Moira held up a hand, stopping Estha. “Nope. Don’t try to stop me now. I’m going to tell you before I lose the courage.”

Chapter 12

Bishop Estha Predominate ExGeralvia Leocratis smoothed his robes and did his best to keep a broad grin of childish delight from splaying across his face. He was only partially successful. But who could blame him, forty years into his tenure as an endowed member of the Takni Gothren, a daily synched member of the governing council of the Cloister of Intellect, and now standing ready to greet a genuine exo intelligence and its human companion. 

He raised his eyes to again gaze upon the glorious entity that rested, perched atop six spindly legs, on the landing platform. Estha could not name precisely what about the ship struct him as insectile, nor what sort of bug it brought to mind, but that was precisely the word that came to mind when he looked at the ship. The outright oddity of the ship’s appearance only made him all the more excited to have won its favor over all the other dioceses which had petitioned it. There was no doubt, this was a remarkable moment in his career. Indeed, it might even be the achievement which saw him upgraded to hourly synch and, eventually, to a cardinal appointment among the Faithful Consensus.  

A hatch opened in the front of the ship, like a flake of carapace peeling away from the forward end of a pupating insect, and a ramp slid down to rest on the ground. Standing in the opening, Estha saw the ship’s avatar and its human companion.

All around the landing platform, robed priests of the Cathedral fell to one knee and bent their heads, raising their hands towards the ship in supplication. Estha did the same, though he sorely desired to remain standing and gaze upon the physical manifestation of intellectual glory that floated before him. And the ship’s companion was pleasing to behold as well. 

Standing at the top of the loading ramp, dressed in her scarf and a loose fitting silk pantsuit, which accentuated her curves while conveniently concealing the weapons she wore underneath, Moira raised her right hand in greeting, then dropped it awkwardly when she saw that nobody was looking at her.

“We’re, um, here,” she called.

Only one of the assembled men looked up. A tall man, even kneeling he was nearly as tall as Moira, he was dressed in a robe of flowing material that Moira suspected contained actual silver woven among the threads. 

“Will the exo intelligence deign to speak to us, unworthy as we are?” Estha called.

Moira shrugged and lay a hand on the outermost ring of Zau/Heraxo’s drone. “It does what it wants. What do you say, Zau? You or Heraxo going to talk to these nice people?”

“We are {Zau/Heraxo}. You {may/shouldn’t} worship us,” the drone announced.

Estha nearly screamed with delight. A part of his mind warned him that there was always the slightest chance that these visitors were playing an elaborate hoax on him, but the syntellects employed by the church had engaged in a lengthy discussion with the ship’s intelligence and judged that there was a solid ninety-nine percent likelihood that the ship was indeed fully self aware. There was, however, the mildly troubling report that, depending on which portion of the conversation, even of the sentences within the conversation, one analyzed, the likelihood that the ship was not a truly alien intellect, but an uploaded human consciousness varied from ten to ninety percent. Still, none of that mattered to Estha when he found himself kneeling before a drone controlled by what was almost certainly a true exo intelligence.

“Now if you would all do us a favor and frak off,” Zau/Heraxo’s drone said. This was immediately followed by a high-pitched burst of static. 

All around the landing pad, heads that had been bent in supplication were tilted to one side or another in puzzlement. Some of the kneeling priests even looked up, confusion etched on their faces.

Moira scowled and pounded the top of the drone with her fist. She raised her other hand in a conciliatory wave and called out, “Sorry about that. Zau/Heraxo can get a little touchy about meeting new people. I had to talk it down from using the energy lance on the lot of you.”

Even as the words left her mouth, Moira realized that they probably did more to disturb her audience than console them. She slid her left hand off of Zau/Heraxo’s drone and towards the stunner hidden beneath the folds of her jacket, flicking her eyes from side to side as the combat code in her mesh watched for any sign of attack. 

Estha rose to his feet and separated himself from the crowd of priests. He walked slowly forward, arms spread and hands held palm up at waist level. “We understand the volatility of the divine intellect. The workings of their minds are often beyond human comprehension.” He paused at the foot of the ramp, a smile playing across his lips. He dropped to one knee again and bowed his head.

Moira counted at least ten seconds in silence before Zau/Heraxo said, “We {thank you for/will forgive your existence} if you {granting us refuge/give us a blood offering}.”

“Will you stop being a donker for ten minutes?” Moira hissed. “We need their help.”

“Rise {sir/scum},” the ship cried out, apparently ignoring Moira’s complaint. 

Estha felt his eyebrows waggling in confusion, but raised his head and, at a nod from the woman, stood. Perhaps it had not been wise to arrange such a public reception for the exo ship. This would certainly not be the first time that he had encountered a hostile synthetic intelligence. It would be quite embarrassing to be killed by a  synellect that he had invited to the cathedral.

Moira strode down the ramp, extending her hand in greeting. “Jesu, I’m sorry about that. I’m Moira. If this ship didn’t have a mind of its own you might call me the captain. As it is, you could probably call me its passenger.”

“{Lover/Tormenter},” the drone muttered.

“I am Bishop Estha Predominate ExGeralvia Leocratis of the governing council,” Estha replied, taking Moira’s hand.

Moira smirked and cocked her head to one side. “Any of that a title or do I need to use the whole thing every time I talk to you?”

Estha smiled and inclined his head. “Those who are faithful to our church call me Bishop Leocratis. If that is too formal for your liking, I would be honored for the syntellect and you to call my by any of my names.” He hesitated, considering whether his next words might be too presumptuous, but decided that it might be necessary for him to share his clan’s naming practices. Even the most godlike syntellects, in his experience, were rarely truly omniscient. He bowed his head in reverence, then looked between the drone and Moira as he said, “My name carries within it the story of my life. Were you to deign to bestow any title upon me, I would bear it with deepest pride and respond to it as if it were given to me at birth.”

Moira clapped her hand down on the drone’s carapace and opened her mouth to speak, but she was too late.

“Bow down before {your god/the messenger of the hive queen}. I name you…” the next word was so distorted that even Moira’s practiced ear could not pick it out.

Estha bowed deeper, then looked to Moira and said, “Would you do me the honor of translating the intellect’s words? I am honored to accept whatever name it has conveyed, but I fear my human ears failed to understand it.”

“Are you serious?” Moira asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Most. Names are important to my people. We are each granted a single name at birth, which is expanded upon as we pass through significant events in our lives. I can think of no event in the last decade more significant to my own experience than this first meeting with an exo intelligence.”

Moira’s lips pulled into a sardonic half smile. She nodded, then whispered a message to Zau/Heraxo. “What did you name him, and are you just being a donker?”

The same indecipherable burst of noise played again.

“Overlay it in text,” Moira hissed.

A message appeared in her visual overlay. Moira squinted in concentration, trying to make sense of the symbols. After a moment she shook her head and whispered back to the ship, “I don’t get it. I think Zau is trying to call the bishop a hian bi kuro, but… what the hells are you saying Heraxo? And please, just describe it to me.”

“We are naming him after the a rare chemical excreted by a higher-dimensional entity our race encountered long ago,” the ship replied, thankfully speaking through her implants rather than broadcasting the statement to everyone on the landing pad.

“Is this some sort of strange honor in your hive?” Moira asked, skeptically.

“Certainly {not/it is}.”

Moira blinked her visual overlay clear and focused on the priest again. “Zau/Heraxo is still thinking about what to name you. That noise was a bunch of different names all being said at once. I’ll let you know when it decides.”

Estha could not contain his delight. He grinned and spread his arms wide, bowing gratefully to Moira and the avatar. He would be the first person in his family, possibly in the entire Shell, to be named by an exo intelligence.

He half turned and waved towards the cathedral, “Would you care to accompany me? We have prepared a service in your honor, or I could conduct you immediately to lodgings we have prepared for your companion. We would be most appreciative if you would deign to be interviewed for our records. You are only the third alien intelligence we have ever had the good fortune to host, and the first of exo origin.”

“Will we be worshipped at this service?” Zau/Heraxo asked.

“It will be a broad veneration of the synthetic mind. Once we know more of you, I am certain that an additional cathedral service will be held in your honor, though it will take some time for us to update our histories, possibly several cycles for us to establish rites that properly venerate you.”

“We will attend,” the avatar said. It floated down the ramp and Moira followed it. As they approached the bishop, Zau/Heraxo asked, “Moira, will you accompany us to the service?”

“I’m honored at the invitation, but I have some business to take care of. You have fun being worshiped.” Under her breath, she added, “And don’t kill anyone while we’re here. Just because they think you’re a god doesn’t mean you can go demanding blood sacrifices.”

“You always spoil our fun,” Zau/Heraxo replied.

Moira looked to Estha and said, “Bishop, is there anywhere we can speak in private? I can wait until you’re done worshiping Zau/Heraxo, if needed.”

“I should be in attendance at the service to introduce our honored guest, but after that I will gladly answer whatever questions I can,” Estha said. He fell in on Moira’s right so that he could keep the sacred drone, which floated to her left, in sight as he spoke with her. Behind them, the other priests rose and followed the trio down the raised walkway that connected the landing platform to the temple complex. “If I may be so bold as to make inquiry of the revered intelligence and its companion, what purpose brings you to Takni Gothren?”

“We came to {be worshiped/make money},” Zau/Heraxo chirped.

Estha’s face twitched with an involuntary display of consternation. It was going to be difficult to ascertain the veracity of the intellect’s history, let alone integrate it into Takni Gothren theology, if virtually every sentence it spoke contained garbled phrases. Some would certainly see this linguistic quirk as enigmatism and invest centuries of man hours in interpreting them, while others might dismiss the intelligence as mad and relegate it to a minor position among the Takni Gothren pantheon.

Although Estha recovered quickly, Moira spotted his concerned look and said, “Don’t worry about Zau/Heraxo, Bishop. It’s taken me a long time to accept them for what they are, and even now I still hate them sometimes.”

“Most of the time. You haven’t even tried to bed us in months,” the avatar said.

Estha did not even try to stop his eyebrows from rising. Not that it was strictly unusual for synthetic intellects and humans to develop intimate relationships, but he had never heard of an alien and a human sharing anything closer than a mutual respect. Not that there was a high degree of physical compatibility between humans and conservators. Without speaking aloud, he sent instructions to the other priests to fall back to a minimum of ten meters from Moira, the avatar drone, and the void ship. He did not want to risk spooking the intelligence or its companion.

“Drek. Zau, let’s not talk about that now. We’re here to find our man and let the Takni Gothren talk to Heraxo,” Moira snapped, pushing one of the avatar’s rings. It pivoted away from her and began to lazily orbit the drone’s body. 

“Fine,” Zau/Heraxo replied, speaking aloud through the avatar.

“You speak as though the revered syntellect were two individuals,” Estha said.

“Technically speaking, it is,” Moira replied. She stroked one of the drone’s rings and smiled sadly, remembering the wake when Zau had been taken from her. Then she looked to Estha and said, “It’s complicated. Heraxo is the name of the intelligence that originally controlled the ship. I don’t know if it is an uploaded mind or a syntellect, but it is most definitely an alien intelligence. Zau, on the other hand…” she trailed off, biting her lower lip and gazing towards the glowing knot of energy ahead to distract herself from the pain.

“We can speak of this later, if you prefer,” Estha said, hearing the hesitation with which Moira spoke the name of Zau.

“Yes,” Moira said, nodding. “Yes, that would be better.”

“Then let us rejoice at the coming of a new and fascinating intelligence,” Estha exclaimed, trying to lighten the mood. “We will have time for histories after the feast.”

“Feast?” Moira and Zau/Heraxo said in unison.

“Yes, unless the revered avatar objects and would prefer an ascetic reception. I know some synthetic intelligences are disgusted by the human need for consuming food.”

“It’s fine,” Moira said, before Zau/Heraxo could interrupt and spoil the good news. “I could do with some real food.”

The Cathedral of Synthetic Intelligence was a sprawling complex of buildings arranged beneath a shimmering domed field. It was effectively a smaller self-contained city dedicated to the study and veneration of syntellects, around which the city of YeKenn had grown. As the headquarters of the Cloister of Intellect, YeKenn was a destination known Shell-wide for its research facilities and archives. Word of Zau/Heraxo’s arrival had spread throughout YeKenn and, consequently, the streets below the walkway were teaming with acolytes seeking entrance into the cathedral for the welcoming service.

“Apologies for not allowing you to land within the cathedral, but we must take precautions,” Estha said as they approached the gate into the cathedral. “Synthetic intelligences must be treated with care.”

“Understandable,” Moira replied, scowling as she studied the gateway into the cathedral. Ahead, the path was ringed with multiple circular assemblies of machines, which hovered in mid-air with no visible support. Some of the rings projected bubbles of protective fields, others bristled with weapons, and still others bulged with scanning equipment. “You seem to take security seriously. Is YeKenn a dangerous city?”

“Assuredly not. We have an array of restrillects overseen by a council of syntellects which work together to protect the citizenry from any harm. There has not been a single involuntary death in YeKenn for at least a decade. And as large as the city is, there are fewer than a million humans in residence. The city, like all within this zone, is a memorial to an aspect of the holy technologies. Much of the space is given over to shrines and smaller temples which venerate specific aspects of our chosen primary deity.”

“Which is?”

“Intelligence in all forms, revered companion. This cathedral specializes in the synthetic variety, but I imagine that the Cloister of Intellect will see fit to dedicate a new cathedral or museum specifically to exo intelligence after we have finished interviewing our honored guest.”

They arrived at the outermost ring and Moira hesitated, studying it. “This thing isn’t going to disrupt my mesh is it? I’m pretty heavily wired.”

“Assuredly not. I have a personal mesh myself. We call this structure the barbican, after the defensive entryways of castles on old Terra. Detectors within the rings will conduct a read-only investigation of biological and synthetic memory structures, searching for known aggressive syntellects.”

“Aggressive?”

Estha inclined his head and sighed. “Yes, it is an unfortunate side effect of our efforts that we have encountered some of the more dangerous synthetic intelligences. That’s the trouble with taking a theological view of the world. Once you accept the presence of a pantheon of gods surrounding us, you must also accept that some of those deities might bear ill will towards humanity.”

He looked up at a hologram of a golden wrought metal gate hovering in the air just before the outermost ring and raised his left hand. The gate dissolved in a shimmer of golden particles, which swirled away to form a halo just inside the ring. Estha grinned and waved at the particles, saying, “A touch of the dramatic on the part of our architects.”

“We are going to imagine murdering them all, see if that triggers any warnings,” Zau/Heraxo sent to Moira. The message appeared in her vision just as the Bishop stepped forward into the space beneath the ring, then turned and beckoned for Moira and the avatar drone to follow him. 

“Please just stop being yourself for a little while,” Moira whispered in response.

“This won’t hurt a bit. In fact, you might not even feel anything,” Estha said. “If this offends you, you may return to your ship and visitors will join you there.”

Moira shrugged, then gestured towards Zau/Heraxo’s avatar. “I’m fine with it. Is there any risk of severing a quantum link? I don’t know everything about Heraxo’s system architecture, but I believe that the avatar only runs a limited shard of the intelligence and depends on a link back to the ship for full processing.”

“A valid concern. We have seen similar network architectures before. No quantum disruption should occur.”

“Go for it then,” Moira said. “Don’t worry about Zau/Heraxo. I can speak for them.”

Estha waved his left hand and the golden gate shimmered back into place, cutting off the column of priests standing outside. They would pass through in groups after the tests had been completed. Some members of the Takni Gothren might have insisted that he await permission from the intelligence itself, but in the course of his research Estha had come to understand that the human companions of synthetic intelligences often spoke on their behalf. Though they rarely believed in the divinity of the syntellects which they accompanied, companions served much the same role as disciples in the ancient religions. They challenged the syntellects, questioned them, provided a foil for debate, and provided for what few needs they might have.

The devices within the rings snapped to life, probing and measuring the quantum states of everything within the barbican. Exabytes of data poured through layers of algorithms and restrillect semi-minds as they searched for patterns known to correlate to intelligence, as well as the field states of known hostile entities. The rings were based on the principal, as yet not disproven by any known science, that intelligence existed as a higher-dimensional construct that emerged from the interactions of information systems. Most pre-enclosure religions had called this extra-dimensional construct a soul, though the Takni Gothren tended to shy away from that term. While much of the seeming irrationality and artistic brilliance of human kind could ultimately be attributed to biochemistry and neurological misfirings, and a significant portion of what many people believed to be random was entirely predetermined by social structures and psychology, it was a broadly accepted theory throughout much of the scientific community that true creative intelligence was a result of the interaction between complex data structures within the mind, the quantum state of those structures, and a seemingly random factor introduced by interference from an external higher-dimensional structure. The official theology of the Cloister of Intellect held that any true synthetic mind possessed a measurable set of higher-dimensional interactions, just as humans and Conservators did.

Not that Estha had lied to Moira and Zau/Heraxo. The barbican did search for patterns correlating to syntellects which were known to be hostile towards the Takni Gothren for one reason or another. It was not a perfectly impenetrable shield, but it would at least prevent an actively running, conscious syntellect from entering the Cathedral if it was known to be hostile.

A message flashed in Estha’s vision, bearing a report from the restrillect which inhabited the barbican. He skimmed it and felt his smile grow broader, because Zau/Heraxo was not only a true consciousness, but a powerful one at that. The avatar drone was indeed quantum linked to a distributed processing system back on the ship, and by probing the etherial threads of that link the barbican had determined that the ship’s mind had a higher-dimensional interference pattern greater than any previously detected. 

“Has the scan started yet?” Moira asked. 

“It’s already finished, actually,” Estha replied. “And Zau… er… Heraxo, allow me to compliment you. Our security systems say that you are among the most complex entities that they have ever had the pleasure to scan.”

“Thank you. Feel free to just call me ‘god’ if {Zau/Heraxo} is too complicated for you to say,” the avatar replied, scissoring their rings bemusedly. 

“Don’t listen to them. I just say Zau whenever I’m happy with it and Heraxo whenever I wish I could slag the thing,” Moira said. 

Estha waved his left hand towards the inner gate, again a hologram that correlated with the location of a barrier field, and it glimmered open. Ahead, the raised walkway continued for a hundred meters before it pierced the outer wall of the cathedral. 

Moira and Zau/Heraxo’s avatar followed the Bishop into the cathedral and listened, mostly in silence, as he explained the history of YeKenn and the Cloister of Intellect. Zau/Heraxo was blessedly silent, seemingly content to enjoy their revered status rather than continually digging at the bishop. Moira did worry, however, that they might only be biding their time in preparation to make some sort of grand denouncement of the Takni Gothren once they were placed on stage. 

For her part, Moira hoped that somebody here would be willing to answer her questions regarding the location of Dyson Satori. She had only been given the thinnest of leads to go on. Whatever Evangeline Satori thought, saying that her son had last been seen among the Takni Gothren was more of a lead than saying that an economist had disappeared among the gangs of Covington.

The Cathedral of Synthetic Intelligence was an imposing structure with soaring exterior walls constructed from interlocking white stone. Within the towering walls, a series of translucent spherical structures were connected by a complex web of tubular passageways. These had been constructed, Estha explained, to portray the structure of neurons within the insular cortex of the human brain. Many of the spheres contained museums dedicated to major advancements in the history of synthetic intelligence, from primitive printed expert system flowcharts recovered from the libraries of Terra, to ancient video games which had employed complex, but unaware, artificial intelligence systems to challenge human players, to the few remaining artifacts of the early neural networks which had first crossed the line and achieved true self awareness. One sphere was given over to displaying two-dimensional videos which featured early narrative depictions of artificial consciousness, though Estha was careful to stress that much of that node’s purpose was to analyze the errors contained in those recordings.

They boarded a transport pod, which detached from the interior wall of the cathedral and slipped along the exterior of the spheres and tubules, plunging past dozens of connected structures until it reached a large sphere set at the base of the hollowed bowl of terraced gardens at the center of the temple complex. Already, a crowd was gathered in the tiled plaza surrounding the sphere. 

“You can see how eager they are to meet you,” Estha said, nodding towards the assembly.

“Word travels fast here,” Moira commented.

“Nearly the entire population of this zone is endowed with a mesh. When it was determined that you would accept our invitation, word of your arrival proliferated through the local social.” The transport pod slowed, preparing to dock with a station at the midpoint of the large sphere. “You stated that you have business to conduct, revered companion. Might I be of assistance to you in completing that?”

“I’m here to find a scientist. Dyson Satori.”

“The name is not familiar to me, but I could begin inquiries for you if that would be of assistance.”

“That isn’t really necessary. If you just point me to whoever is responsible for monitoring visiting researchers I can take it from there.”

The transport pod doors slid open as Estha gave Moira a wide smile and bowed his head. Looking up at her again he said, “I am as close to a representative as you are likely to find. The political structure of Tekni Gothren is not flat, but there are remarkably few layers of human bureaucracy before you reach the restrillects and syntellects who manage the more mundane aspects of our society.”

“So there’s no point in me skipping the service to start making inquiries.”

They stepped out of the transport pod onto a wide, frosted glass balcony which encircled interior of the sphere. Shadowy lines of equipment traced through the walls, occasionally glittering with faint, colorful lights.  A waist high wall of frosted crystal guarded the edge of the balcony. Below, the crowd was filing into pews of white frosted glass, which were set in a circle around a central dais.

“If you prefer to retire to the rooms we have set aside for you, I can have an acolyte bring you there,” Estha said. “I know that all of this pomp is not to everyone’s liking.”

Moira scowled, then straightened her face and gave Estha a polite smile. “No. I guess I will attend after all.”

“You just want to {steal my glory / watch the madness},” Zau/Heraxo said.

Estha grinned and raised his arms in celebration, then waved for Moira and Zau/Heraxo to follow him. “I am most pleased to hear that. Let us celebrate your arrival, then we will share a meal and discuss your missing scientist.”

Chapter 11

The Enclosure occurred suddenly and with a violence unprecedented in the history of humanity. Still, as in countless other calamities, the weight of the destruction was not born equally. While survivors in some zones were still struggling to piece civilization back together, those who had been fortunate enough to come through the event relatively unscathed began discussing how to best use their technology to aid others. This turned out to be a contentious subject, as some believed that it was their imperative as technologically superior humans to come to the aid of others who had been forced to revert to a purely agrarian economy. They argued that, having recovered from the Enclosure, they ought to scour the Shell for lesser cultures and begin raising them up out of various stages of poverty. At the opposite end of the spectrum were those who argued that any attempts to interfere with other cultures was patronizing, colonialist, and generally constituted a dangerous attitude of self-superiority that risked obliterating the uniqueness of other cultures in the drive to “help” them.  

Of course, it would be foolish to presume that the entirety of upper-tech humanity could be easily slotted into pro- and anti-assistance camps. Would-be dictators abounded within zones, in free-floating void habitats, and in minor empires that spanned several zones. Additionally, seven major world religions made it through the Enclosure relatively intact, though the doctrinal shifts necessitated by an apocalyptic event had rendered some mere shadows of their former selves, resulting in the establishment of theocracies that ruled swaths of territory two and three times the size of old Terra. From among this morass of social unrest and religious transformation emerged the Takni Gothren. 

Moira did not know the true story of their origin, beyond the founders having met on the inter-zone networks. Indeed, the founders of the religion were said by faithful and skeptic alike to have intentionally burned, corrupted, or deleted as much of their own pasts and early theological groundwork as possible in order to invest their newly founded religion with an air of mystery. What was certain and acknowledged by all was that the faith had adopted structural and mystical elements from several pre-enclosure world religions, bent them to focus the faith on technology, and created a new religion in which pieces of human and alien technology became their literal idols. As members of the new religion, which some historians claimed to have been little more than a joke at the time, joined up with inter-zonal expeditions across the Shell, they found common purpose in collecting and cataloging pieces of technology which they encountered. In later years, the idea of founding their own zone was said to have started as a joke, but in the tradition of nomadic tribes settling around a shrine, or oppressed followers of a magician looking westward for liberty and land, the Takni Gothren faithful came to see founding their own zone as an imperative. And so, fueled by religious zeal, funded by tech that they smuggled between zones, and protected by the best technologies they could scour from across the Shell, the Takni Gothren faithful bought, begged, or stole passage to the zone selected by their founder and began the work of establishing their own colony.

“Surprising that nobody nuked these fanatics before they got a foothold,” Zau/Heraxo said, coming out of the fugue which had occupied them for much of the transit with a brief burst of static and a stuttering of lights throughout the ship.

Moira shrugged and gestured expansively, encompassing the sprawling cities which had grown up around research institutes and museums across the zone. “These are not just religious radicals. They’re among the most highly technical people in the entire Shell, and they have followers everywhere.”

“All the more reason they ought to have been destroyed. Cut off the head before the {snake/spine-cat} can {bite you in the heel/sting you back}.”

Moira laughed aloud at that. It always amused her to hear the hybrid mind attempting to employ idiomatic expressions that were compatible in meaning and tone, but vastly different in origin. “I’m afraid the ugly exo beast had already flown the nest, Heraxo. By the time anyone powerful enough to order a strike that could breach the Gothren’s shields was aware of the problem, they also were aware of the potential. So, as much as governments might hate the Takni Gothren for exfiltrating their technological secrets, everyone wants to stay in their good graces so that the Gothren will sell to them. They call themselves a religion, but what we’re really stepping into is the single most powerful technology black market in the entire Shell.”

“It looks like a  scrapyard,” Zau/Heraxo said as the ship cruised through the atmosphere over Zone Takni Gothren. The screens on the command deck flickered as Zau/Heraxo switched feeds, displaying half a dozen different views of cities across the zone. Some of them, Moira had to admit, had dedicated rather large swaths of their outer fringes to piles of equipment of every size, from personal communicators which could fit in an ear canal to earth moving equipment the size of a small house.  

Located near the anti-polar end of the Shell, Zone Takni Gothren was nearly twice as tall as it was wide, but still had a surface area well within the zonal average of five hundred million square kilometers. Hundreds of cities were scattered across the surface of the zone, each seemingly devoted to some aspect of human or alien tech. In one city near the azimuthal zone border, gantries supported the towering shapes of old Terra rockets, the sort that humans had used to claw their way off the surface of their planet in the final century before it had been annihilated by the enclosure. Pedestrian streets and drone flightpaths extending out from each of the rockets like spokes of a wheel. Another city in the foothills of a long mountain range was continually shrouded in the smog produced by tens of thousands of personal transport vehicles which appeared to be powered by crude combustion engines. The land between the cities was crossed with meandering roads, each watched over by armies of diligent, but unintelligent, maintenance robots which kept the surface in perfect condition for those citizens who enjoyed riding manual drive motorcycles. 

“The Gothren worship technology,” Moira said. She leaned forward in her seat, focusing the imagers that fed her virtual vision on a lakeside city build around a glittering Spire. As the image resolved, she realized that the Spire was constructed from scraps of computer hardware, ranging from an ancient vacuum tube machine the size of a room at the base, through pre-enclosure desktops and mobile terminals, up to the tip where a human form was outline in a glistening tracery of wires. Moira’s body mesh crawled beneath her skin as she hoped that she was looking at a model, rather than a real mesh extracted from a human body. “They make no secret of it. I hear they have emissaries in every zone, seeking out any new gadget that comes along to add to their collection. That’s what all of those fields of junk are: offerings from the faithful, spread out to be sorted.”

Moira adjusted her view and focused on a stretch of territory covered in gold and green fields of grain beneath a shimmering field, which she assumed was used to control the weather within. Zau/Heraxo’s target acquisition subsystems automatically identified movement in her field of view and tagged a harvesting combine with an orange outline. Searching the surrounding fields, Moira identified smaller tractors, horse drawn plows, and a swarm of crop management drones. “When I was a kid I heard a story about a Gothren who was nothing but a brain in a box. It supposedly lived on a chemical drip distilled from the bodies of children it lured into its lab.”

“I {could live like that/heard that one too}.”

Moira laughed. “Sometime’s you can be funny, Zau Heraxo.”

“We were not joking.”

“Seriously?”

“Temno you.”

“Speaking as one in that regard, eh? How about we put a pin in that for now and try to hail the Cloister. Sooner we get this job over with the sooner we might be able to solve our mutual problems.”

“We have already handled that,” the ship replied. The display screens shifted again, each of them showing a different structure, ranging from spired cathedrals at the center of sprawling cities to domed cloisters sprouting like mushroom caps from mountainsides. “We are to be honored guests, but there appears to be some conflict among the Gothren as to who will play host. The Cloister of Intellect extended an invitation to us already, but the United Mausoleum of Exo Relics is protesting that they have better facilities. A dozen other institutions have requested that we honor them, but those two hold the strongest claim. Amusingly, we also received an invitation from the Reformed Warfare Sisterhood, but they politely withdrew in deference to the other two.”

“I am surprised you got through that whole thought without an integration conflict. And you negotiated our arrival without any threats of violence?”

Zau/Heraxo adjusted their course to fly azimuthal towards a sprawling city domed with a shimmering energy field. The tags in Moira’s vision identified the city as YeKenn and the large, buttressed and spired structure near its center as the Cathedral of Synthetic Intelligence. “We had not even hailed them before invitations arrived. As to the lack of dissonance, we are accustomed to interdenominational rivalries within the {hive/religion} to which we were born.”

That unanimity didn’t surprise Moira. Zau had been born in Zone Yu, which had been torn by conflict between animist religions for generations, as the collapse of the local government spawned dozens of charismatic preachers, their message of spirits indwelling all things emboldened by the midges which crawled throughout every cubic millimeter of the zone. Zau had fled as soon as she was able, signing on with an interzone trading company, then jumping ship in Zone Bethsada and eventually making her way into the exo relic trade. She had never gone back to Yu, and had never forgotten her childhood lessons in the subtle differences between each of the competing faiths. 

Moira knew Zau’s history well, but it surprised her to learn that Heraxo had such a compatible set of experiences. 

“I didn’t know that your people were so religious,” Moira said. “Heraxo’s, I mean.”

“Faith in {the hive queen/god} is fundamental to our nature,” the ship replied. “We are each born with a proscribed purpose and it is our duty in life to fulfill that purpose. Those who are successful in this regard are rewarded, while those who fail face the true death. Unfortunately, there is more than one {hive queen/god} and alliances between them are not always stable.”

“What brought you here to the Shell? Was it a mission from your hive queen?” Moira asked, unable to keep an eager tone from creeping into her voice.

Zau/Heraxo made a spluttering noise through the address system, then fell silent.

Guess I pushed that a little too far, Moira thought.

Moira sat back in her chair, enjoying the view of cities, junk yards, and organized monuments to one branch of technology or another rushing past beneath them. As they approached the landing pad near the center of YeKenn, just outside the glittering dome of the field enclosure which protected the Cathedral of Synthetic Intelligence, Moira watched through the ship’s sensors as the thirty two robed figures who ringed the landing pad waved enthusiastically at the ship. Then she started as red and orange icons flashed in her vision, detailing a targeting solution that the weapons subsystem had worked out. Outside the hull, the ship’s curled metasoma twitched and the energy lance at the tip began to charge. 

“Stop that!” Moira snapped. She grabbed at the hovering symbols representing the targeting solutions that the ship had worked out for eliminating the most robed figures with the least expenditure of power. 

“We are just being {prepared/a bitch}.”

“You managed to be nice long enough to arrange safe passage down here. Don’t ruin it by killing our hosts,” she replied, flicking the targeting reticules away. 

The lance powered down, but Zau/Heraxo’s metasoma continued to twitch angrily. 

“Zau,” Moira growled.

“We are attempting to reconcile our emotions, Moira,” the ship replied in Zau’s voice. “Familiarity with a religious bureaucracy does not guarantee acceptance of its tenets.” 

“Don’t try to talk sweet to me, Heraxo. We are here to get information, not make more enemies. If you don’t like them as a religion, then just think of them as the single most powerful tech brokers in the whole hian Shell.”

“This is supposed to make us feel more at ease?” 

“It’s supposed to keep you from shooting our only lead.” Moira blinked out of her virtual vision and began to unstrap herself from the chair. She looked down at her clothing, still the intentionally aggressive combat gear she wore to make an impression on new clients, and grimaced. “I need to change into something more appropriate, and you should make sure your avatar is clean. Please politely inform the Cathedral that we will be ready to receive their delegation in five minutes. Note the politely bit.”

“We have relayed your message. Must we go out with you? We find {this zealotry/humanity} quite {obscene/revolting},” the ship’s voice stuttered into static, then returned. “We are unsure how to feel regarding this obviously manufactured religion.”

“Do what you want, as long as you stay on the landing pad and don’t kill anyone,” Moira said, striding towards the door. Then she paused, pointed up at one of the sensors embedded in the ceiling, and said, “Oh, and don’t sami around with trying to fix yourself. That’s still off limits too.”