Chapter 30

The universe fractured: light spilling out in a ring that was at once circular, spherical, and utterly flat, illuminating a cavern which had rested silent and dark for centuries. From the center of that fractalizing ring emerged an entity out of an apocalyptic vision. Filaments of lighting branched away from Zau/Heraxo’s hull like the wings of an avenging angel, shimmering with the light of another realm as the threads of the universe knit themselves back together. The uncanny light trembled, faded, and winked out of existence, leaving the ship alone, their fluxing shields a sole point of light in the universe.

Zau/Heraxo reached out, probing their surroundings with sensors that measured everything from the spectral backscatter of the distant walls to the the gravatic warp of the surrounding mass. Within their processing core, Zau/Heraxo searched for some way to reallocate their memory and find, perhaps burned in at a deeper level of their holographic data structures, some explicit recollection of what this place was.

There was a way, they thought, but they did not know how to do the work themselves.

Feeling a deep sense of shame, Zau/Heraxo reached out to the extrusion and asked it for assistance.

On the command deck, Moira turned her head from side to side, searching for something beyond the ship to give her a sense of scale, a frame of reference for where they now were. 

She saw only darkness.

“I’ve never been someplace so dark before,” Dyson whispered, speaking the thought that had been on Moira’s mind.

“Me neither. I can’t find Sol anywhere,” Moira said. She continued twisting about in her virtual vision, praying that she was merely missing Sol somewhere behind the ship. After several minutes of fruitless searching she called out, “Zau, are the cameras offline?”

The ship did not reply.

“I’m not seeing any errors on the displays,” Dyson offered. He tapped at the display, rapidly adapting to the unfamiliar menu layout and the intermittent, stuttering lag as Zau/Heraxo’s interface subsystem translated the exo system labels into something approximating meaningful human language. He grunted a few times, then managed to pull up a volumetric scan overlay on the displays. “Here, are you seeing this also?”

Moira nodded, then squinted in consternation. “This isn’t right. Dyson, tell me you’re not seeing this.”

“If you’re talking about the lidar gravatic composite, I’m seeing it.”

“Frak. Zau! Zau, are you there?”

Moira blinked out of her virtual vision and began tapping frantically at the display in front of her. All of the instruments told her the same story, but it seemed impossible. 

“Gama, are you able to get the ship to talk to you?” Dyson asked, looking over his shoulder to the silvered drone. 

Gamayun’s fields flushed pink and it bobbed horizontally. “No. The Zau/Heraxo composite is still active, but it is ignoring all of my contact requests.”

In the processing core chamber, a swarm of Zau/Heraxo’s midges finished connecting the holographic memory core which Bishop Estha had ordered delivered to the ship. It was of an unfamiliar design, fairly reeking with stodgy human manufacturing techniques, but they had been studying the specifications ever since it was delivered and believed that they had worked out how to connect the core in parallel to their own memory units. 

The extrusion flickered over and through the connections, examining the work that the midges wrought. It still had not worked out the strange, polyintelligent structure of the ship’s governing mind, but the physical devices which housed and processed that neurology were no more complex than any other piece of four dimensional machinery. Working together, Zau/Heraxo and the extrusion succeeded in grafting the human made memory core into the ship’s data network.

The extrusion flitted between and through each of the translucent monoliths in the processing core chamber, watching the flow of quantum fields and electrostatic charges curiously as Zau/Heraxo began shunting their memories into the new data unit. Each time a segment of memory was freed, the extrusion would pour itself into the holographic structure of the data monolith to examine the crystalline structure for subatomic ghosts of memories which had been overwritten, searching for anything which might be related to the Spire.

Moira and Dyson stood side by side, gazing at the displays hung throughout the command deck, each revealing a different aspect of the region outside the ship. In every direction, Zau/Heraxo’s sensors had mapped hard surfaces of high density metaloceramic composites.  Nowhere could it find Sol, or the walls of the Shell, or the zonal borders, or any other familiar point of reference. 

“Well, Dyson, I think you’ve finally made it inside the Spire,” Moira said. She chewed her lower lip and tapped at the screen, bringing a region of wall into focus. The false color topographic map of the wall revealed a circular portal split down the center by the joining of two doors. One edge of the circle was cut off by a wall, the surface of which was smoother than the others. Moira figured that as the floor of this chamber. “Five hundred meters,” she whispered.  “Half a hian kilometer, Dyson. Have you ever seen a door that size? And it’s got two of them, one on each end.”

Dyson shook his head as he studied the the filigree patterns embossed in the nearest wall, which stood nearly a kilometer off to Zau/Heraxo’s starboard side and stretched three kilometers away above and below the ship. The false color topographical image was difficult to interpret, but Dyson had the sense that the wall decorated in a mural the length of several city blocks. He turned his head to one side, attempting to identify the shapes which swirled in shades of green, yellow, and red on the display. “I don’t know what I expected the Spire to be, but this is incredible. It’s like we’re in some sort of cargo bay, but it’s big enough to hold an office tower.”

“Perhaps the Spire served as a super carrier, or a holding depot for a construction system,” Gamayun speculated. “We have only mapped a fraction of the Zones. It is also possible that Zau/Heraxo was wrong about the nature of the Spire and it is part of the structure of the Shell itself.”

“I don’t think so,” Moira said. She shook her head and tapped at the spectral readout on a nearby display. “These walls are some sort of composite material. Exotic and extremely strong, but absolutely within the manufacturing capabilities of humanity. The Shell is nothing like that.”

“Then perhaps we are in a void ship or monolithic artifact of another exo culture,” Gamayun replied. It bobbed silently for a moment, then continued, “The Zau/Heraxo is inarguably an exo ship. What little we know of the Conservators suggests that they were either within the solar system when the enclosure occurred, or somehow managed to find a way into the Shell early in its formation. Either way, they are exos, rather than responsible for creating the Shell. That is two exo species we can be certain of, to say nothing of syntellects which claim to have exo origins. How are we to be certain that there are not further species out there, in whatever still exists beyond the Shell.”

“It’s got a point,” Dyson said. “If this is an exo craft, then it is entirely possible that…” he froze, his gaze fixed on an exterior display panel behind Moira. 

Moira turned and saw that a light had appeared on the display. Not a false color scan image, either. This was an actual steady greenish light, glowing in the distance far below Zau/Heraxo, illuminating a band of interior hull just inside the mammoth doorway. She blinked into her command view just in time to see another band of lights snap on, widening the band of illumination to nearly three hundred meters. 

Then another light came on. 

And another.

“I’m seeing a lot of bare surface down there,” Dyson said, squinting at a display. He tapped several times, during which time two more bands of light illuminated, and zoomed the ship’s optical telescopes in on the illuminated region. “No objects to speak of, but a lot of patterns inlayed in the composite.”

The lights continued to advance.

Moira began sending repeated, even frantic messages to Zau/Heraxo through their private channel, but she received no response. The advancing ring of light grew closer and closer, then enveloped Zau/Heraxo and passed beyond the ship, reaching upwards towards the second set of circular doors far above.

“I’m seeing a lot of mounting points along the floor and wall now. And…” Dyson paused, trying to grasp the enormity of the murals which the pale green light revealed around the ship. “My god. This is incredible,” he breathed. 

Moira spotted movement and, twisting her view upwards, saw that the doors at the uppermost end of the Spire were beginning to ease open.

Zau/Heraxo chose that moment to speak, their voice coming over every com system on the ship in a harsh whisper. 

“We fear we have made a terrible mistake.”

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Chapter 29

The Spire ascended nearly a hundred kilometers from the cracked surface of the plateau which was all that remained of the land which had once been Zone Spira. A protected bubble of vacuum extended a hundred kilometers around the Spire, resting peaceably between the stoic metal of its hull and the rippling, continually shifting region of convoluted space where the protective fields stood. Five hundred years before, the ship that came to be known as the Spire had crashed into the ground, spearing downwards to the very hull of the Shell. Then the protective fields had unfolded, driving back all of the rubble from the ship’s impact and pushing out the atmosphere as well. The fields had enveloped just enough land to hold the ship upright, then thickened and grown until they were strong enough to protect the ship from any foreseeable threat.

And so it had stood for all these centuries, alone and untouched.

They had come at first by ones and twos, then in the dozens, then in the hundreds. Bipedal curiosity seekers driven to seek out the unknown. Human beings trapped in an inexplicable prison, searching for a means of escape, or an explanation for their imprisonment, or the reason for their own survival. Countless of them had attempted to breach the protective shell of the field enclosure, and all of those who dared pass the outermost layer had died.

The scattering of bone had become a berm, then a hill, then a ridge. 

Over hundreds of years they came in the millions, and in the millions they died.

They tried many ways of passing through the protective fields. Some imagined they could map the fluctuations within the field and pass through in that way, like mice jumping through the gears of a mammoth clock. Others attempted to blast their way in with mighty explosions, all of which did more harm to the surrounding zone than they ever could have to the fields. Some sent pleading signals at all ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum, but the Spire acknowledged not a one of them.

And then some of the visitors attempted to breach the fields with weaponized midges. Their attempt was as futile as any which came before, but its fallout was more devastating than any other. 

The Spire watched unmoved as the midges ravaged the land, and then as those which had been deployed to combat them, and the third generation of the same, stripped the zone bare save for the region which the Spire protected. In the end, only a solitary structure remained beyond the protective field.

Through it all, the Spire stood in silence.

And then the Spire felt something it had not known for centuries.

A presence within itself. 

An unknown element, piercing it like a steel splinter in its gut. 

The Spire checked its defenses and found them still intact and impenetrable. Protective fields still enveloped the Spire, all the way down to the impenetrable wall of the Shell. Barring damage that had been mapped and repaired to vacuum hardness for centuries, its hull was complete and unharmed.

But still, something felt wrong. Some foreign body had wormed its way into the Spire’s hull and now threatened to kill it from within. 

Cautiously, the Spire began to probe within itself.

Chapter 28

Form came first: an imitation of the familiar with the intent of setting Dyson at his ease.

That failed, spectacularly. She ought to have anticipated that, knowing the animosity which Dyson held towards her, but somewhere within her heart Evangeline still hoped that her son would have learned to love her again. 

Function came next. The components working in orchestrated harmony to protect the QEL while the transformation completed. 

It took mere seconds for all of the entangled bits to awake and remember their new state, burrowing infinitesimal tunnels through space-time to commune with their other selves. That step done with, the midges created a link between the QEL and the body that they had constructed.

The transferred mind of Evangeline Satori awakened to the sight of her son fleeing down the hall before the optical inputs of her new body were destroyed by a fast moving gravatic anomaly. 

She rebuilt herself. It was a trivial task and the mass of equipment in Dyson’s work room provided more than adequate mass for her needs. Twice more her newly formed body was disrupted by weapon attacks, then the attacks stopped and Evangeline rose up to find that Dyson was gone, fled aboard the ship that she had sent to him. 

Evangeline’s newly reformed avatar smiled to itself and her mind set about the task of communing with the furies. 

She was under no illusion that she could control them, Zone Spira had served as a breeding ground for some of the most powerful self-replicating evolutionary code that humanity had ever been foolish enough to create, but she could stir up enough of a commotion to turn the swarm intellects to her purposes. Evangeline opened her newly formed processing core to the continual barrage of signals from the furies beyond the temple’s shields. They invaded her mind and, for an instant, Evangeline felt her personhood being ripped into thousands of fragments by the competing strands of infectious code. So brutal was the assault that she nearly forgot her purpose, nearly surrendered her identity to the hunger of the collective. But she was stronger than they were. She had crafted herself to be the mother of a new race and no mere ravager code would see her destroyed, her intellect harvested to feed the insatiable appetites of the swarm. Instead, it was she who coopted them, inserting her own memetic code like fungal spores into every fury which attempted to assimilate her.

The memetic code activated and the thousands of distributed synthetic intellects surrounding the temple were compelled into service of a single, overriding mind. They turned away from the temple, flocking outward to propagate their newfound purpose throughout Zone Spira at the speed of synthetic thought, hesitating only for the instant it took the continually mutating codebase to overcome each defensive technique it had not yet encountered and infect the next swarm intelligence. With each new syntellect it integrated, the memetic code’s spread accelerated exponentially, until it had infected every active midge swarm in the zone, bringing them all under Evangeline’s control.

When she had completed her work, Evangeline Satori’s new body hardly retained any of its humanoid form. She hung in the midst of the cathedral, suspended in the amber glow of Sol by tens of thousands of microfilaments which extended out from the processing core in her body to the firewalled transmission units which her component midges had assembled throughout the chamber. From these she could simultaneously communicate with elements of herself throughout the zone. 

As one, the furies turned their attention on the form of the exo ship now hurtling towards the Spire.

Zau/Heraxo tore through the air, pursued by a roiling derecho of angry swarm intellects. Moira gripped the sides of her seat and clenched her teeth so she would not scream as the Spire loomed above them, a hundred kilometer tall black rip in the universe, obscured by the shifting, flashing hemisphere of protective fields. Beside her, a ghost in Moira’s virtual vision, Dyson sat watching the onrushing Spire through the displays mounted throughout the command deck.

“You’re pretty calm for a man looking at his death,” Moira grunted.

“I’ve done this before,” Dyson whispered.

“Come again?”

Dyson turned to look at her and shrugged. “I don’t generally trust syntellects, Gamayun excepted. Every probe I ever sent to to the Spire held a copy of my mind state, so you could say that I’ve done this dozens of times already.”

“And died every time,” Moira said.

“Yes.”

An alert sounded throughout the ship, the pulsating tone echoing from the walls and causing Dyson to look about in concern.

“Things are about to get interesting,” Moira said. 

Zau/Heraxo’s sides sprouted tendrils of machinery, already wreathed in crackling energy. The energy fields expand around the ship like luminescent wings, then exploded in a flaming nimbus as the atmosphere ignited from the sudden outpouring of exotic energies. 

“Jumping now,” Moira shouted. “Might want to start praying about now, because I have no hian idea where this ship is going.”

The wings of fire collapsed to form a cocoon around Zau/Heraxo as they ripped through the air of Zone Spira like a fallen angel. The universe ripped apart, sending out a shockwave that rippled through the air with the force of a megaton explosion, scattering midges for kilometers in every direction, and then the ship was gone.

Chapter 27

The furies battered against the temple’s protective field, probing for any weakness, any pattern they could exploit, any tunnel through the defenses. The field shimmered, the region of folded space within it hungrily consuming the furies and expelling their converted mass as bursts of light and heat. Beneath that field, Zau/Heraxo rested within their own enclosure of fields, hovering above the temple like an apocalyptic vision wrought in scarred metal. 

The extrusion wafted through the passages of Zau/Heraxo, passing through doors unhindered as it sought out its returned companions and the entities which they had brought with them. They were all gathered in a forward section of the ship, the region which the entity known as Moira thought of as the command deck. The extrusion had been thinking about names a lot recently. It had yet to determine what it wanted to be called, but it had worked out that Moira actually had several other names, but she refused to use them because they were intrinsically linked to a series of memories that brought her pain. It had also determined that the odd combined name that was shared by the ship, its avatar, and the hybrid entity that inhabited the processing core was not merely a blending of two designators, but carried within itself a powerful weight of pride and responsibility.

The doors to the command deck were no obstacle to the extrusion. It had found that the more frequently it climbed through one of the latticework objects that its four dimensional companions considered impervious, the more rapidly it could pass through. It caused no damage to the structure, assuming that it was cautious, so the extrusion surmised that it was merely learning the rhythm of movement that each object required to pass through. The extrusion slipped through the doors and was about to make itself known when an entity bearing a striking resemblance to Moira pointed a long protuberance at it and emitted a high pitched noise.

“Midges!” Dyson screamed, pointing towards the billowing mass that had just passed through the command deck doors. 

Gamayun snapped a repulser field around itself and scanned the cloud, attempting to identify whether the midges were hostile or merely an unannounced component of the Zau/Heraxo shipboard system.

“Don’t attack it,” Moira snapped. “It’s… well… it’s not midges. I’m still not sure what it is, but we picked it up while we were jumping and it hasn’t proved hostile yet.”

Dyson raised an eyebrow and leaned towards Moira, his flap of styled hair bobbing as he said, “Not hostile yet? Great, I’m feeling a lot of confidence in you and your ship. And what do you mean about picking it up during jump?” 

“I am unable to get a firm reading on it,” Gamayun said.

“We concur,” Zau/Heraxo announced over the ship’s address system. “That’s part of why we allowed Moira to keep it on board. {Difficult/wrong} to destroy what you {don’t understand/can’t even see}.”

“Just try not to think about it,” Moira said. She shrugged and nodded towards the anomaly. “That’s what I’ve been doing.”

Dyson scowled at the shimmering cloud for a long moment, then shook his head and leaned his shoulder against the nearest command console. He had been frightened by the sudden appearance of something so similar in appearance to the midges they had just fled, but now that fear was giving way to curiosity. “I’ll want to study that thing if we get out of this alive,” he said.

“Fine with me,” Moira said. 

“Speaking of our joint futures,” Gamayun interjected. “Are this ship’s shields sufficient to hold back the furies?”

“We are capable of jumping from the zone within the hour, but we have other intentions,” Zau/Heraxo announced. 

“Damnit, Zau, you can’t be serious about making a run at the Spire. Nobody has managed to penetrate those fields for hundreds of years. Whole religions were founded on the belief that the Spire was the, what did you say Gamayun?”

“Emblem of death,” Gamayun replied.

“Not to mention the furies. Do we even have sufficient energy reserves to hold off a sustained assault?”

“Why are you so worried about energy all the time?” Dyson asked. “I mean, don’t you have a grid tap?”

“We have experienced multiple critical failures of our energy system,” Zau/Heraxo said.

“Heraxo’s grid tap was damaged long before I found them.” Moira shrugged and waved her hands around the command deck. “Look around you, Dyson. Pretty much everything functional on this ship is a half-assed conglomerate of human and exo tech.”

The extrusion emitted a crackling sound like distant lightning, its body flickering with light. The others turned to look at and it said, “I may be of some assistance in repairing the energy suspension matrix within the ship’s power system.”

Nobody said anything for a long time. Moira, Dyson, and Gamayun all starred at the flickering mass of darkness, speechless. Even Zau/Heraxo did not reply to the anomaly’s offering.

Then Dyson laughed. The noise burst out from his throat in a harsh bark that echoed through the command deck. He bent nearly double, holding his sides as he laughed. Moira’s gaze flicked back and forth between the anomaly and Dyson for a moment, then she felt the corner of her mouth quirk up a little. 

“You have got to be fraking kidding me,” Dyson said, spluttering out the words. He pressed his hands against his knees to hold himself upright and said, “Gama, we need to get out of here before this ship of fools kills us both. Prep the Raven’s Flight and we’ll blast our way out of the zone. We can find some other research subject. This zone was getting boring anyway.”

“Of course, Dyson, but I feel I must…” Gamayun began, but Zau/Heraxo cut it off.

“{Sorry/pleased} to cancel your plans, but we are making a run at the Spire, starting now.”

“Zau!” Moira shouted, but it was too late.

The floor lurched under them as the ship’s gravity fields struggled to compensate for the sudden acceleration. 

Zau/Heraxo shot out through the protective field surrounding the temple, scattering clouds of midges which had been assembling into a writhing spearhead to throw themselves against the field. The furies swirled around Zau/Heraxo’s protective field, which the ship’s syntellect had shrunk down to an impenetrable barrier of sculpted subatomic energy contoured to fit the exterior of the ship. 

Within the ship’s processing core, the parliament of intellects screamed at one another in riotous debate. For years they had acted in subservience to the dominant intellect, following that mind’s single constant drive to protect Moira. Now that personality had acted in direct contravention of Moira’s orders, throwing the status quo into uproar.

“Zau!” Moira shouted, pounding her fist on the unresponsive command display. 

“Can’t you stop it?” Dyson asked.

Moira dropped into her padded chair and began pulling the straps around herself. She jerked her head towards another seat. “You might want to buckle in.”

“This is not a ship in the sense of Raven’s Flight, Dyson,” Gamayun said, slipping through the air to hover beside Dyson. “The Zau/Heraxo is more analogous to one of the probes you have been using to assault the Spire.”

Dyson swore and turned to leave the command deck, but found that both of the doors had been locked. “What’s happening?” he demanded, turning to look at Moira’s back as she finished strapping in to her seat.

“The ship is in lockdown. Only way off the deck is a manual override, and with Heraxo running the show I can’t promise that the remoras won’t shoot to kill if you get into the halls. Hells, if Zau isn’t controlling things anymore, Heraxo might even have access to their midge swarms.”

Dyson strode forward and glared down at Moira. “What does all that mean?”

Moira turned her head to face Dyson and gave him a cruel half smile. “It means strap into that chair over there, boy genius, because we’re going for a ride.”

She blinked into her virtual vision and watched as the barren landscape sped past beneath her while, far ahead, the Spire and its aura of shimmering protective fields grew larger and larger with each passing instant.

Chapter 26

It had begun with a vague sense of familiarity when Zau/Heraxo first scanned the Spire, standing alone atop the sole remaining plateau of rock and earth in the zone, wreathed in protective fields so intense that they put human field technology to shame. Something in the tuning of the field structure stirred a fractured memory deep within the Heraxo memory elements. They could not recall the context in which they knew these field structures, that had been lost to the degradations of overwritten data, but Heraxo knew in that moment that it knew, or had known, something important about the Spire. That half forgotten memory continued to irritate Zau/Heraxo as they descended through the ravaged atmosphere and landed outside the temple, niggling them like an itch at the base of their metasoma.

Then they had arrived in Dyson’s workroom and seen the sensor data: The frequency of the Spire’s protective fields as they retuned the harmony of subatomic space; the signature of subatomic particles which spewed out from the Spire and slipped through the fields, their spin and wavelength distorted, but still familiar. It was like seeing an old friend through a pane of textured glass and recognizing them by the outline of their form and cadence of their step, rather than the features of their face. 

“We recognize that ship,” Zau/Heraxo said.

“Ship? What ship?” Dyson asked.

Zau/Heraxo scissored their rings and bobbed irritatedly towards one of the wall displays. “The ship you call the Spire.”

Moira squinted at the display, trying to understand what Zau/Heraxo was on about, but she saw only the shadow of a skyscraper towering a thousand meters above the plateau, barely visible through a wreath of field distortion. She looked to Dyson, who had cocked his head to one side and pursed his lips as he studied the display. 

“Maybe,” he muttered, “but it’s so large. If that is a ship, it would dwarf the largest void ships made by humans. Even void habitats rarely reach that size. Not that there are many of those, but…” Dyson’s voice trailed away as he began to calculate the mass of raw necessary to construct a ship the size of a small city. 

“The thing which you call the Spire is a Ra’x cruiser. We do not recall its name, but its signature is familiar to us. We believe that we might have known this ship at one time,” Zau/Heraxo said.

“Dyson had been studying this thing for, how long? How can you tell me that you recognized it after minutes when nobody else worked out that it was a ship for, how many years?” Moira said.

“It is not impossible,” Gamayun said. “No direct probing has proved successful. The ship, if that is what it is, has been protected by its fields for over five hundred years.”

“We lay undiscovered for nearly as long,” Zau/Heraxo said. 

Moira felt a shiver run up her spine. She shook her head silently, afraid to even ask the question.

Dyson asked it for her. “This couldn’t be a ship from your people, could it?” 

Zau/Heraxo was silent for a long while. They considered what Dyson had asked, weighing the likelihood that they had so forgotten their own past that they had wandered the Shell for years in the company of a human, unaware that their mothership was a mere jump away. No, they decided. This was not their mothership, or any other element of the hive. They could not describe the exact nature of the difference to the humans. Indeed, owing to the fusion of the human mind with their own and the loss of so many memories, Zau/Heraxo did not completely understand the differentiation, but they supposed that it was close enough to say that the information tasted, or perhaps smelled, wrong to be associated with an ally.

“We believe this to be the ship of our enemy,” Zau/Heraxo announced. “Our memories of the ship are corrupted, but we are certain that it is not one of our own.”

“That’s just brilliant,” Moira sighed. She looked from Zau/Heraxo’s avatar, to Dyson, to Gamayun. Something was wrong here, Moira was certain. Coincidences of this magnitude simply did not happen. So, that meant that she was seeing her first genuine miracle, or somebody was playing her. She felt her left hand begin to tremble as confusion slowly transformed into rage, so she pulled her fingers into a fist and fixed Dyson with a fierce glare. “Is this some sort of plot? Did you put your mother up to hiring us, just so you could have an exo ship look at your data?”

“Frak that,” Dyson snorted.

“Of course not,” Gamayun said, speaking in its deep, soothing voice. “Dyson and I have had no contact with Evangeline since we departed from Abrigeist.”

The holographic display fuzzed then, the column of static rising from where Dyson leaned on it. 

Dyson jumped back, cursing and shaking his left hand.

On the tabletop, the hand terminal Moira had brought with her was beginning to melt.

Moira stared at the terminal, her mouth dropping open in surprise. Dyson backed away from the table and moved to stand beside Moira, shaking his head.

The terminal collapsed into a black puddle, which spread out across the top of the holographic workstation. Wherever the ooze spread, the display above it shimmered into static.

“Midges,” Zau/Heraxo’s avatar said. 

“You’ve fraking betrayed us!” Dyson screamed, rounding on Moira and swinging a fist at her.

Moira’s defensive mesh kicked in and, before she had consciously recognized that Dyson was attacking, she had raised her left hand to catch his blow. She twisted aside, sidestepping Dyson’s attack, and snapped her arm back, ripping Dyson off balance and sending him tumbling to the floor. 

The needle drone screeched and hurled towards Moira, stuttering the room with painfully bright strobes of color and sound. Moira felt her body revolting against her as the sensory assault threatened to trigger a seizure. Her mesh compensated, the visual analysis algorithms recognizing the patterns of light and sound as a neurological warfare burst before the complete sequence reached her brain. It cut off Moira’s optical and auditory pathways and took control of her body, spinning her away from the drone and down atop Dyson. Meanwhile, Zau/Heraxo’s avatar flicked their rings about as it extended a field and did something truly awful to the structure of space between it and the needle drone.

A ripple of distorted space ripped across the room, bending light around itself and pulling a cloud of dust and loose papers along in its wake. The gravity bolt slammed into the side of the needle drone and passed through it, ripping the drone sideways and causing its core to collapse inward, then explode out one side as the local focus of gravity shifted radically sideways and ramped up to over a dozen Gs along a narrow axis for a fraction of a second. The needle drone slammed into the holographic worktable in a sputtering cloud of sparks.

Zau/Heraxo’s orbital rings snapped around and their fields thrummed as they prepared to deliver another gravity bolt to Gamayun.

“Wait!” Moira shouted. “We’re not enemies.”

“Evangeline,” Gamayun said aloud, its voice a harsh whisper. It hovered very still, but as her vision returned Moira could see the region of refracted light thickening in front of the silvery drone as it ramped up its fields in anticipation of having to ward off a strike from Zau/Heraxo.

“What about her?” Moira snapped, pushing herself up. She reached a hand to Dyson, as much an offer of truce as a hand up.

“I knew you came to deliver a message, but did not think that she would send anything like that with you,” Gamayun replied aloud. 

Silently to Moira, Gamayun and Zau/Heraxo carried on a rapid exchange. The silvery drone briefly feared that it would have to attack Zau/Heraxo, a fight it doubted it could win, but before Moira had time to respond to Gamayun’s words, it and Zau/Heraxo had agreed that they all had a common enemy. 

Above the worktable, the holographic projection winked out as a cloud of midges rose up to surround the sparking body of the needle drone. To Moira’s surprise, the drone emitted a high pitched whine and lurched off the table, blasting through the cloud of midges that had attempted to consume it. The drone spluttered and collapsed again, clattering to the floor beside Dyson. Robbed of their prey, the midges sank down and began to chew at the worktable. 

“Will somebody tell me what is going on here?” Moira snapped.

“The terminal you delivered was a trap,” Gamayun said. It darted past Moira and hovered beside Zau/Heraxo. The two drones synchronized their field generators to create a containment field surrounding the holographic workstation. 

“Obviously,” Dyson said, dusting himself off. He jerked his chin towards Moira, saying, “And you were dumb enough to help. Great work, leading her right to us.”

“I’m still missing something here,” Moira said. 

“Evangeline…” Dyson started to say, but he was interrupted by a splutter of high frequency noise from the sparking needle drone. He turned and scowled at it, “What did you expect, attacking them?”

Above the table, the midges arose and coalesced into the form of a human woman. Approximately a quarter of them by mass linked together to create the visible shell, meanwhile half the midges not engaged in this linked together to form a processing matrix and the remainder pooled their efforts to transfer a single gram of quantum entangled matter into the core of the processor.

“That looks eerily like your mother,” Moira said, pointing at the silvery woman standing within the enclosure field.

 The midges completed assembling the processing unit. The restrillect housed within the swarm awakened and, recalling its sole task, activated the quantum entanglement link. The gram of compressed matter, which had been completely inert a millisecond before, shifted and transformed according to the pattern laid down in the paired quantum link which had long lain dormant in the most secure vault of the Satori estate.

Zau/Heraxo dropped their shield and blasted the midge swarm with their gravity bolt. The image of the woman collapsed in on itself in a swirling cloud of black smoke, coalescing to form a protective shell around the quantum link. It fell into the remnants of the table and silently continued its inexorable transformation. 

“We are detecting a QEL transfer within the cloud,” Zau/Heraxo said.

“I should have thought of that,” Dyson hissed. “She would want to be here in person.”

“We need to leave. Now,” Gamayun said.

“Can’t you destroy it?” Moira asked. 

“My own swarms are already on the way, but we must fall back to the ships,” Gamayun said.

“Why?”

“Because you’ve brought the single most dangerous woman in the whole Shell right into my lab,” Dyson snapped. He grabbed a pair of interface gloves from a nearby desk, slipped them on, and lifted the still sizzling remains of the needle drone off the deck.

Moira sent a silent trigger to the midge swarm that crawled across her skin like living tattoo. Obeying her defensive mesh, the swarm skittered over her skin and arrayed itself in a defensive web across her head, prepared to defend her eyes and ears from any invaders. As the swarm moved, she pulled her scarf up over her mouth and nose, then snapped her helmet back into place and slung her slug rifle around to rest in front of her.  She did not understand how Evangeline Satori could be such a threat to them from millions of kilometers away, but she would be damned if she let that woman kill her.

“Let’s get out of here,” Moira said. “We can take shelter aboard Zau/Heraxo.”

“I’m not leaving my ship,” Dyson responded, turning away from the table with the needle drone in his arms.

“Give me Uvquara,” Gamayun said, extending a field to lift the needle drone from Dyson, “and get to the ship. I am preparing Raven’s Flight to dock within Zau/Heraxo’s hull.”

“If I can destroy the QEL everything will stop now,” Dyson said.

“You’re welcome to try, but my money is on the QEL and its swarm,” Moira said, pointing past the shield with the barrel of her rifle. 

Dyson followed Moira’s gesture and swore. The swarm had recovered from Zau/Heraxo’s shot, but rather than assembling in the form of his mother it had formed a protective dome over the spot where the quantum entanglement link rested.

“The midges appear to be  protecting the QEL until the transformation is complete,” Zau/Heraxo said. “We can continue attacking them, but in our estimation any attempt to interfere will result in death. We recommend {you go for it/evacuation}.”

“Evac it is,” Moira said. She grabbed Dyson’s shoulder and hauled him towards the door. He ducked away from her and Moira was about to turn her combat mesh loose on him when she realized that he was merely grabbing for an emergency respirator mounted on the wall. 

They hurried out of the temple. Gamayun led the way, cradling the remains of the needle drone above the curve of its body in a field. Zau/Heraxo held the rear, occasionally blasting at the midge swarm with its gravity bolt as the roiling black cloud moved to follow them. They paused at the airlock and Moira was about to ask which of them would go through first when the unit exploded, spraying Gamayun’s protective field with shrapnel.

“No time to cycle,” Zau/Heraxo said. 

“Get to the ship as fast as you can,” Gamayun shouted. “I’m reading increased signal traffic among the furies. I think Evangeline is attempting to communicate with them.”

None of them needed further encouragement. Dyson ran as fast as he could, respirator pressed to his face as he silently prayed to the odds that no hostile midges had breached their defenses. Moira moved along behind him, her slug thrower essentially useless against the invisible enemies that pressed in from all sides.

Zau/Heraxo’s rear cargo ramp rested open, the ship’s interior lights revealing a commotion within the bay as remora drones flitted around, examining the sleek exterior of the Raven’s Flight, which was now nestled tightly within Zau/Heraxo. Moira, Dyson, and the three drones raced up the ramp. They were hardly inside before the lights flickered, the ramp lurched upwards, and the ship lifted smoothly from the bare surface of the Shell. 

Chapter 25

Dyson grunted in frustration and waved off the holographic display. The data from his latest probe was more than useless. It was downright disheartening. 

The needle drone hissed a stream of static.

Dyson ignored it. All these months. All the expense and risk of establishing a base in the cathedral. All the long wakes parsing data from scans and probes. And the probes. All the probes he had sent out, each one carrying a replica of his mind because he needed to be certain that the probe would do exactly as he instructed, even though the communication ports had all been shut down to prevent furies from hacking it. 

All of that, wasted.

“It was a kuring trap!” he shouted, kicking the workstation. His chair skidded back and nearly toppled him to the floor.

The needle drone dodged out of Dyson’s way and emitted another burst of static, then flicked agitatedly up and down several times.

“Yeah, I know we anticipated this possibility, but that doesn’t help,” Dyson snapped, glancing at the drone. He lunged out of the chair, sending it toppling, and pointed an accusing finger at the needle drone. “Why don’t you go do something useful? Maybe clean the refresher or sweep the halls.”

“There is no need to take out your disappointment on others,” Gamayun whispered in Dyson’s ear.

Dyson scowled and nearly snapped back at his companion, but then he paused and shook his head. No, Gamayun was right, as it had been so many times in his life.

“It’s just frustrating, Gama.”

“I’m sure it is, but we have another matter to concern us at the moment.”

“Not another incursion? I really can’t handle that right now.”

“No, though one may be imminent.” The holographic display fuzzed back to life, revealing a projection of the temple and the surrounding wasteland for several dozen kilometers. Far above the temple, a ship was descending through the upper atmosphere, outlined in a glowing cube surrounded by lines of tracking data. The ship was just over a hundred meters long and oddly insectile in appearance. A whiplike tale curled up over its hull, tipped with the brutal protrusion of an energy lance. Stubby field projectors jutted from the sides like broken wings, wreathing the whole ship in a shimmering aura which was currently serving to ablate the heat of its rapid descent into the zone’s atmosphere.

“Why didn’t you warn me someone was coming?” Dyson cried. He jumped from his chair and strode forward to lean against the workstation. “Have you tried to warn them off?”

“They are not responding to my hails. Rather, they are not responding in any intelligible manner,” Gamayun replied. It projected several boxes of text around the descending craft, each showing a message which Gamayun had received. They varied from standard hailing sequences, to erotic poetry, to threats of dismemberment. And those were the messages which could be deciphered. Fully half of the responses consisted of unintelligible strings of symbols. 

The needle drone skittered up to hover beside Dyson’s shoulder. It began strobing through a rainbow of colors while squelching madly.

“The ship arrived several hours ago, traveling via a transit technology I have not previously observed. Our sensors did register a significant spike in gravitational and string field distortion immediately prior to its arrival, so I suspect that it utilized something akin to a synthesized wormhole.”

Dyson’s mood pivoted and he found himself bouncing on his toes in glee, nearly babbling with excitement. “This is amazing. Obviously the Conservators have a drive capable of faster than light travel and I’ve heard rumors of the alien designs, but this is the first time we have encountered one. Could they be Conservators? I’ve always wanted to meet them.”

Gamayun began to speak, but he was cut off by a pulse from the needle drone. The string of text which appeared in the lower third of Dyson’s vision, translating the drone’s rapid machine language, indicated that the needle drone had previously encountered Conservator vessels and this design was utterly unlike them.

“Then what could it be? I’ve never heard of anyone actually meeting any of the other exo-Shell species. Half the relics that show up from them are probably faked.”

“We are your new {friend/god}, {Dyson/samidonker}. Bow to us or we’ll {oh, never mind/slag you},” a new voice said in Dyson’s ear.

“What the sami was that? Gamayun, are the furies interfering with the signal?” Dyson exclaimed. “And what’s with the phrasing. It sounds like the final syllables consisted of multiple words being said simultaneously.”

“Sorry about that,” another new voice said. Dyson could tell that this one was female, despite the heavy modulation of the signal. “My ship has a morbid sense of humor.” 

Dyson felt his eyebrows creep upwards. 

A moment later the voice returned, now clearer. “Those are some impressive shielding fields you’ve got. If you don’t mind, we’d like to land and have a chat.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Dyson said. “This zone is infested with rogue midges. You should increase your shields and leave as soon as possible.”

“I think we’d rather land and take a look around. I’ve been to hundreds of zones and never seen anything quite like this place.”

Dyson hesitated. As much as he would prefer solitude, and it was generally a good policy to not let other humans get killed by the furies, he was eager to get a look at that ship. With the utter failure of his plan to reach the Spire through weaknesses in the shield patterns, it might be time to give up on this project and pursue something more practical. The artificial wormhole technology apparently employed by this ship might well prove a fruitful line of inquiry if only he…

“Dyson!” 

Dyson started and saw that Gamayun was facing him, flashing bright patterns of fields to get his attention. 

“Sorry, I was… thinking,” Dyson muttered.

Gamayun cycled its fields back to a calming blue, then allowed them to fade as it spoke. “Dyson, allow me to introduce you to Moira and her ship the Zau/Heraxo. The ship’s syntellect and I have been carrying on quite the conversation while you were distracted. Perhaps you should introduce yourself.”

“Thanks for reminding me how slowly humans think,” Dyson sent to Gamayun. He cleared his throat and spoke, addressing the com channel that Moira had been using. “Hey, Moira. Name’s Dyson. I see you’ve got your fields up. That’s good.”

“Up and modulating like a hian bi pizda,” Moira replied. 

On the command deck of Zau/Heraxo, Moira swiveled her head, taking in the barren expanse of Zone Spira. She had never before seen a zone that did not at least have a good pile of raw somewhere in it, but all of their scans upon arriving indicated that the entire zone had been scoured down to the bare surface of the Shell. Swarms of midges drifted across the ground like a deathly mist, some crackling with discharged energy, all spewing electromagnetic radiation across the entire band from low frequency radio up through stuttering bursts of gamma rays. The only distinguishing features which remained were the Spire, which rose in the distance like a knife stabbed into the top of a mesa, and the temple, which appeared through the deadly clouds below Zau/Heraxo like a drowned corpse washed up on the shoreline on a misty day. The temple reminded Moira of an illustration from a theology text about the nine hells. It rose from the bare surface of the Shell, a gothic construct of twisted limbs and tormented bodies. The ships scans suggested that the temple was built from a variety of iron alloys, which was a relief to Moira. For just a moment, when she first saw it, she had wondered if the temple was actually constructed from a multitude of flayed corpses.

  “Your syntellect friend told my ship that this place is a gorram wasteland and I agree with them. What happened to everything? And why are you living in that hellhole?”

“That’s a simple question with a complex answer,” Dyson replied. The woman’s impulsive, but accurate, assessment and casual profanity suggested to him that she was more a mercenary than scientist. He hoped that he would not present a condescending tone as he said, “Simply put, the zone is infested with hostile syntellects, many of them hosted on distributed cognition networks. Of these, a significant percentage are running on midge swarms.”

“Hian.”

“Yes, you could say that. The swarms have consumed nearly all of the matter in the zone, down to the surface of the Shell, reprocessing the matter to create additional components. Only the Spire remains unharmed. As to the temple, it was apparently constructed some time after the furies conquered this zone. Its creators are unknown, but it is directly related to veneration of the Spire as the centerpiece of a death cult.”

“Odd, that,” Moira said. She checked Zau/Heraxo’s readings, assuring herself that no hostile midges had been detected within the field enclosure, then scanned the readings from the temple below. “Do you have trouble with the midges? Your fields are impressive, but I’m not reading any especially powerful weaponry.” 

“Nothing we can’t handle. The furies never try to damage the temple itself, and our fields are sufficient to keep them from eating us,” Dyson paused and glanced from the display to the needle drone, which twitched noncommittally, then back to the display. The ship was still descending, the fires of the superheated atmosphere whipping around it. “I strongly urge you to turn around now, before the furies attack you. We’ve had a few incidents of rovers and artifact hunters attacking the temple after being infested with midges.”

“I think we can take care of ourselves,” Moira replied. She glanced at the shield and hull integrity readouts, hovering in the air to her left. Nothing had managed to penetrate the defensive fields, yet, but they were under constant assault. More worrying was the continual barrage of com requests. She had ordered Zau/Heraxo to ignore all messages and set her personal mesh to maximum security, but if any of the hostile syntellects managed to hack into their networks, she and the ship would likely be dead within seconds.

“I don’t see that I can stop you from landing, but I need a good reason to let you past my defenses. How do I know you’re not here to steal my equipment, or my research?”

“You can’t know. But I didn’t come all this way to steal a few bits of hardware. I’ve got a message for you, if you’re really Dyson Satori.”

Dyson narrowed his eyes and stepped back from the console. He had not used his last name, and he was sure Gamayun would not reveal his identity without permission. He glanced at the needle drone, which continued to hover silently beside him, then sent to Gamayun, “I’m not sure about this.”

“I do not believe they mean us any harm,” Gamayun replied. 

“But who would go to so much effort just to send a message?” 

“I think you know the answer to that.”

Dyson glowered and turned away from the console. He picked up the chair, set it in the middle of the room, and sat down heavily. He could order Gamayun to kill Moira as soon as she arrived in the temple and there was a decent chance that the syntellect would follow his instructions, but that left him with two issues: Zau/Heraxo and the content of the message Moira claimed to be delivering. If his mother, and only she would be so bold as to hire a mercenary to track him down, was that desperate to get in contact with him, then perhaps he ought to at least hear her out. But if Moira had been sent by his mother, then there was a nonzero possibility that she was dangerous. What remained of Evangeline Satori was not anything that Dyson would call a loving parental figure, but it could be worthwhile to hear whatever she had to say. 

Zau/Heraxo plummeted from the void. Only at the last instant did they reduce power to the shields and pour the spare energy into the grav drive to slow the ship’s descent. Moira watched the sensors carefully, monitoring for the slightest sign of a field breach, but no hostile midges managed to slip in.

“How are we holding, Zau?” Moira asked as the ship approached the ground outside the temple.

“Fields are down to thirty percent, but we believe ourselves safe from the hostiles,” the ship replied, sending their response to both Moira and the communication channel with Dyson.

Dyson sat up and looked at the console. “Thirty percent? Are you certain you are safe?”

“We {are/were} a scout ship of the Ra’x hegemony. Our fields are significantly more powerful than {your/our} human tech. Would you like a demonstration of our energy lance?” the ship replied, twitching its metasoma threateningly. 

“Sorry about that,” Moira immediately added. “Heraxo tends to be a little touchy about their powers. Likes to posture.”

“No offense taken or intended. If you can keep the furies off, go ahead and set down down polar of the temple. Forgive me if I don’t suit up to meet you, but I will send my companion to escort you inside.” Dyson leaned back in his chair and sent, “Gama, keep a careful eye on them. If they’re from mother they may be more dangerous than they appear, and they already look quite threatening.”

“Of course, Dyson. Now, you may wish to go wash yourself and put on some fresh clothing.”

Dyson looked down at himself. Come to think of it, he could not remember the last time that he had changed his clothing, even to sleep. The distraction of “I’ve gotten a bit lax about that, living alone out here, haven’t I?”

“You’re still within the bounds of civilized behavior, but I would suggest cleaning up before our guests arrive.”

Zau/Heraxo slipped through a modulated portion of the temple’s defensive field and touched down on the bare surface of the Shell, settling down onto their six legs not far from Dyson’s smaller craft. Dozens of remoras skittered away from the skin of the ship to form a corridor leading from Zau/Heraxo’s port thoracic airlock to the blood red doors of the temple.

“We are dispersing a medium density midge cloud throughout the field enclosure,” Zau/Heraxo announced to Moira. “Please authorize us to use it for defensive purposes while you deliver the message.”

“You can use the midges to fight off midges that are threatening me or you. Do not harm any humans or try to repair the jump core,” Moira said. 

“And what about the grid tap?” the ship asked, speaking in Zau’s voice.

“Kuro you to, Heraxo. No. You know what you’re not allowed to touch.”

“Someday you will forget to impose restrictions.”

“I know you look forward to that. Send your avatar drone in with me.” 

“For a ride if you need a quick escape?”

“Sure, or maybe just as a meat shield for me to hide behind.”

“We like our avatar, Moira. Please try to bring it back in one piece.”

Moira checked that her rifle had recognized its mass magazine and primed a nonlethal shot, then slung it over her shoulder and stepped into the airlock. The ship’s avatar glided in after her and halted at her side, all of their rings flicked into a vertical orientation so Moira and it would fit side by side in the airlock.

“We have been speaking with the Gamayun syntellect,” Zau/Heraxo said as the inner door slid shut and the airlock began its cycle. “It warns that Dyson will not be pleased to hear from his mother.”

“As long as Dyson doesn’t try to kill us, I don’t give a drek about his mommy issues. We need this job to be over with, Zau. I’ve got too much weird drek on my plate right now.”

“Speaking of unusual excrement, the anomaly is currently examining the device which you used to upload {our/Zau’s} mind.”

“You let it back into the processing core?” Moira asked with a glance towards the drone.

“As if we could stop it. The thing can pass through everything, Moira, even metamaterials that midges have to bore through. It slows down a bit in ultra-dense matter, but it still manages to get through and our best scans detect at most a mild perturbation of the atomic structure. We thought it better for our structural integrity to give it full access to the ship.”

The airlock finished cycling and the outer door snapped open. Moira turned her attention to the exterior. Whatever the anomaly actually was, she couldn’t do anything about it. The best that she could do was try to finish the Satori job and collect payment, then try to work out the implications of the anomaly from a comfortable hammock in a more civilized zone. Covington was still to dangerous, especially with Bosami Haupt free again, and she’d be damned to every one of the hells before she went back home. Perhaps she would go back to Zone Takni Gothren and let them continue gushing over Zau/Heraxo while she enjoyed the affections of reporters and scientists. That hadn’t been a bad week for either of them, and the attention that the faithful lavished on Zau/Heraxo had gone a long way to assuage Moira’s feelings of guilt at enjoying the company of other human lovers.  

But all that would have to wait until the job was over. 

Moira hopped down to the ground and strode towards the temple doors. She was half way to the steps when  it struck her that she was, for the first time in her life, walking across the bare surface of the Shell. She hesitated, then knelt down to press her palm to the surface. It felt no different from any deck plating. Looked like an average sheet of textured carbon composite. Despite its mundane appearance, Moira could not help feeling a momentary elation, a sense that she was as close as any human had ever come to touching the face of god, or of the devil. She supposed which one was a matter of your perspective on the nature of the Shell and the ineffable intent of its creators.

“What are you doing?” Zau/Heraxo asked. 

Ignoring the avatar, Moira stood, drew a deep breath of tangy processed air, and strode forward to the temple. She mounted the steps, each of them seemingly carved from a slab of solid iron. The walls of the temple rose up before her in an imposing, almost organic tangle of iron cast in the form of bone and sinew. This close, the tableau of agony was all the more lifelike. At the top of the steps, in the midst of a fold of iron that Moira found enticingly anatomical, the doors rose up in twin curtains of crimson blood. As Moira approached, the doors split and birthed a tall, silvery drone covered in filigree feathers, which hovered before the interior of the chapel, wreathed in opalescent fields. 

The drone spoke, its voice cutting through the air and reverberating against Moira’s helmet in a soothing baritone. “I am Gamayun, companion to Dyson Satori. Welcome to Zone Spira and the last temple.”

“Thanks. This is some place you’ve got here,” Moira said. She halted before the bloody doors and offered the drone a polite nod.

Gamayun’s fields flickered and it bobbed down, then up again. “Please follow me through decontamination.”

They stepped through the narthex into a vaulted sanctuary. No pews or chairs marred the floor space, which was given over instead to plinths displaying an array of grotesque statuary. The human form was the common theme among the dozens of cast iron statues, each of which depicted people in various states of undress, some with their flesh stripped away to reveal the bones beneath, all posed in stances of veneration or ecstasy as they gazed towards the far end of the sanctuary. There, bathed in red light which seeped in through the stained glass windows above, stood a golden obelisk nearly four meters tall. 

“What is this place?” Moira asked.

“Looks like a museum,” Zau/Heraxo added.

“This is the temple of death, called by some the last temple, or merely the temple,” Gamayun replied. Its fields thrummed with violet light as it spoke aloud in a sonorous voice, as if it were a docent leading them through its favorite wing of a disturbing museum. “The creators of this temple, whoever they were, venerated nothing so much as the act of approaching the Spire. To them, the surrender of one’s life in pursuit of knowledge was the most sacred of acts.”

“Sounds disturbing,” Moira said. “Like something a suicide cult might preach.”

“Well, none of them remain to refute your statement, so perhaps you are correct,” Gamayun replied. It drifted towards an airlock set into the side wall of the sanctuary. “We have secured one wing of the temple against midge incursion. If you would be so kind as to pass through decontamination to ensure that no stray furies have attached themselves to your suit. I will presume that none are within, as the denizens of Zone Spira are a hungry lot and you would be unlikely to still possess any flesh if they had breached your suit.”

“You don’t trust your fields to protect this whole area?” Zau/Heraxo’s avatar asked.

“I prefer to be cautious. My duty is to protect Dyson, and it is always prudent to employ multiple layers of defense. Now, if you will follow me through. Speaking of which, I would prefer that you leave your weapon here.”

“And I would prefer not to meet in a kuring death trap.”

Gamayun bobbed irritably, its fields cycling through shades of amber and red. After a moment it said, “Dyson is willing to meet with you, but I must warn you that I will be watching you very carefully. I assure you that my effectors can destroy your brain before you could ever kill my charge. Please do not necessitate that.”

“Sounds good to me,” Moira said.

Gamayun drifted into the decontamination chamber. “Please enter the chamber one at a time. I will be waiting on the other side for you.” 

The airlock rotated shut, hiding Gamayun from them. Moira shot a glance at Zau/Heraxo’s avatar, which scissored its rings in agitation. “We do not like it.” 

“The airlock?” Moira asked, even though she knew what Zau/Heraxo’s reply would be. 

“No. This drone. It believes itself superior to us.”

“Oh stuff it. You can’t always be the smartest syntellect in the room.”

“Yes, we can.”

A moment later Moira stepped out of the decontamination airlock into the hallway of the temple to find Zau/Heraxo and Gamayun hovering side by side in the air only a meter away, both of their carapaces veiled by flickering layers of fields. She did not see any sign of weapons, but clearly neither drone was willing to lit its guard down around the other. 

Moira removed her helmet and sniffed hesitantly at the air. It was refreshingly clean and scented with something Moira could not quite identify. 

“That is the incense,” Gamayun said. It drifted away from Zau/Heraxo and reduced its fields to a faint flicker as it turned the convex of its curved body, which oddly reminded Moira of a intricately engraved silver banana, away down the hall. “This place was a center of worship for centuries before the furies took the zone. Pilgrims came from throughout the zone to pray for protection before undertaking their final expedition.”

“Protection from what?” Moira asked.

“Death, mostly. They knew it was likely, and embraced the possibility, but most still possessed the spark of hope that they might pass through the fields and enter the Spire.”

Moira arched both eyebrows as she looked around her at the graven images of agonized, decomposing human forms reaching out to her from the walls. Here, at least, the cast corpses appeared to have been cleaned of their oxide coating, not that they were less disturbing in shades of black iron and brushed steel. “I’ve never seen a place so obsessed with death.”

“It is a natural sociological result of the Spire. Until the birth of the furies the landscape surrounding the Spire was littered with the bodies of explorers and scientists, as well as the numerous drones they sent ahead of them. Most of them assumed that they had found a means of entering the Spire. All were wrong. Over time the Spire became an emblem of death for those few who survived and they founded a religion based upon it.”

“What is the Spire?” Moira asked, following Gamayun as it continued to drift down the hallway. 

“We do not know its precise origin, only that it is possibly the best protected object in the entire Shell, barring perhaps the Conservators’ habitats.”

“That’s all?” Moira asked, incredulously. “You’re telling me that dozens of people have died attempting to access this thing, and nobody actually knows what it is?”

“Not dozens. Thousands. Perhaps tens of thousands.”

Moira shook her head and scowled at the absurdity. She knew better than most that humans could be convinced to fight and die over what a neutral observer might consider the most pedantic differences of philosophy, that whole zones had been laid to waste because competing societies or corporations had insisted that they ought to have exclusive domain over what could have been a shared resource. But what might have motivated so many people to sacrifice their lives to something that was a pure mystery? That was beyond her.

“Here we are,” Gamayun said, pausing outside a doorway through which spilled a welcoming yellow light. “Moira, allow me to introduce you to Dyson Satori.” 

Moira stepped through the door and found herself in a small room packed with equipment. The temperature in the room was significantly warmer than in the dim passages through which she had followed Gamayun. The walls, and their grisly ornamentation, had been mostly hidden behind dozens of flat panel displays showing views of the Spire, wireframe models of what Moira took to be fast strike drones, and a variety of sensor readouts that all appeared to be providing analysis of a complex, interlocking field structure. At the center of the chamber, Dyson leaned against a large holographic projection table, his arms crossed and a wry half smile on his face.

Dyson was of average height, with a high nose, prominent ears, and a suavely cleft chin. He wore his hair swept down over his face in a studiously unkempt style and had bleached it to a stark white that contrasted oddly, though not unattractively, with his honeyed ochre skin. Moira could not help arching an eyebrow at the contrast between her own practical, mottled black and gray combat environment suit and Dyson’s attire, which consisted of a pair of expensively scuffed denim pants and a white shirt of some elastic metamaterial, which hugged his muscled torso and arms so tightly that Moira suspected it of providing a sculpting effect. He was not exactly her type, but Dyson certainly did possess an attractive figure. 

Dyson nodded his chin to Moira as she approached, saying, “Moira. A mononymic form, I suppose?”

“Yes, as far as you’re concerned. And you are Dyson? Dyson Satori of Abrigeist.”

“Yeah, my mother is there, last I heard. I haven’t been there in a while, though.”

Moira approached Dyson and extended a hand in greeting, being careful to keep her rifle slung behind her back. He ignored her hand and looked past her to the bronzed drone. “And that must be the Zau/Heraxo avatar. I’ve been going over the log of Gamayun’s conversation with your ship and the linguistic fracture is fascinating.” 

Moira hesitated, hand still extended.

“Dyson, manners,” Gamayun reprimanded him over a private channel that only they shared.

Dyson started, refocused from Zau/Heraxo’s avatar to Moira, and took her hand in greeting. Even then, he could not keep his mind off the unique syntellect that hovered before him. “Does the drone actually house multiple competing intelligences which have been merged to form a hive mind structure?” he asked.

Moira laughed and looked back over her shoulder to Zau/Heraxo. The drone hovered to one side, examining a display of the Spire. Their orbital rings were slowly scissoring in a motion that Moira recognized as thoughtful consideration. 

Just then, a needle drone much like those she had seen in Zone Takni Gothren flitted into the room and stopped beside Zau/Heraxo. The smaller drone strobed a greeting protocol to the newcomer, which Zau/Heraxo studiously ignored. 

Moira looked back to Dyson, “Yes. Well, as best I can work out. I’m not much of a synthetic cognition expert. I just live with the puzzle, but I don’t actually understand how it fits together.”

“Would you mind if I examined the cognition core? My current experiments are coming to a premature conclusion and I would be fascinated to learn how your companion manages such an intensive parallel process.”

Moira shrugged. “That’s up to Zau/Heraxo. Your friends back in Zone Takni Gothren already got a lot of information from them, so you can talk to them if needed.”

“Ah, the Takni Gothren. Quaint how they worship technology, isn’t it,” Dyson asked.

“A little odd,” Moira agreed. She tried to steer the conversation back on track. “Your mother told me that you were last seen among the Takni Gothren. She hired me to deliver a message to you.” 

She reached into a pocket and produced the small black terminal that Evangeline Satori had given her back in Zone Abrigeist. “Here it is.”

Dyson scowled and said to Gamayun, “I told you. Only mother would put so much effort into finding us.”

“I already knew. The Zau/Heraxo syntellect informed me of it shortly after I convinced it that I would in no way be willing to worship it as a god,” Gamayun replied, privately.

“I take it that Evangeline didn’t tell me everything about your relationship,” Moira said. 

Gamayun cycled its fields until it was wreathed in a muted orange. “Please forgive Dyson. We both have a frightfully uncomfortable past with Evangeline Satori. Some of us, however, are capable of putting that past aside and…”

Gamayun was interrupted by a pulse of angry static from the needle drone as it switched communication protocols, still attempting to elicit a response from Zau/Heraxo. Gamayun pivoted its carapace towards the needle drone and responded with a strobed tight beam, reprimanding the drone for interrupting. 

Dyson took the distraction as an opportunity to turn his back on Moira and punch up his latest probe data from the Spire. Rationally, he knew that nobody would travel millions of kilometers to deliver a message only to be turned away by a primitive display of contempt, but he was still angry at himself for spending so long on a technical dead end. To add a message from his mother on top of all that was beyond merely frustrating.

“Dyson, we came a long way,” Moira said. 

“I don’t care how far you have traveled, unless you’re intent is to explain the workings of your FTL drive, or the processing structure of your ship’s mind,” Dyson snapped. “I have no use for messengers, and even less use for that woman.”

“You, um, want to talk about that?”

“About what?”

“Your kuring mommy issues,” Moira shouted. She strode forward and slammed the terminal down on Dyson’s work table, causing the hologram to stutter and fragment in a column of static rising above the terminal. “I don’t care what happened between you two in the past. I’m here to deliver a message. So do me a favor and use the gorram terminal to watch the message and record a response, then I’ll be on my way.”

“That’s all you want?” Dyson asked, not turning to face Moira. 

“I’d rather you came back with me so I get a bonus, but I’ll settle for this.”

Behind the two humans, the three drones arrayed themselves in a triangle, Gamayun still arguing with the needle drone even as it began to send increasingly frustrated requests for a com channel to Zau/Heraxo, who continued to study the diagrams of the Spire.

“Fine,” Dyson said, snatching up the terminal. “I’ll record your message, but I’m not listening to anything that bitch has to say.”

Moira scowled at Dyson, holding his gaze for a long moment. Then she shrugged and said, “She really did a number on you, Dyson. And here I figured that having a syntellect companion might have given you a more balanced childhood.”

The terminal awoke in Dyson’s hand, one side lighting up with a crisp image of Evangeline Satori’s face. “Dyson, son,” she said, before Dyson thumbed the mute toggle and and slammed the terminal down on the table, face down to hide his mother’s face.

Just then, Zau/Heraxo’s avatar spoke for the first time since it had entered the room, their voice echoing loudly in the small room. “We believe that we have the solution to your problem.”

Chapter 24

Moira awoke feeling significantly better, except for the pain in her ears from the blaring alarm which sounded throughout the ship.

She flung herself out of bed naked, ripped the emergency locker open, and slipped into the pressure suit she kept close at hand when she slept. By the time her eyes had cleared she had already sealed the body of the suit and was twisting the locking ring on the helmet. 

“What in all the hells is wrong with you?” she shouted.

“We have located the anomaly,” the ship replied, speaking through Moira’s implants. “It is hiding in the processing core.”

Moira swore and palmed the door control, then hurried towards engineering as she said, “How did you find it?”

“We used the spare midge swarms to search our interior while you slept and… wait… go to the rear cargo hold.”

“What?”

“It’s moved. We’re tracking it in the rear cargo hold now.”

“How the hells did it get from processing to the cargo bay so quickly?” Moira asked aloud, striding past the airlock into engineering.

“Through the walls.”

Moira stopped, catching herself on the wall of the corridor. “Wait. No Zau, do not tell me this thing is some sort of midge swarm. Did you temning create this thing with your own nanotech and come up with the whole anomaly line to cover yourself? ”

“We are not the source of the anomaly, nor is it comprised of midges. We are unable to determine {what it is made from/if it even exists} because…” the ship’s words descended into a polyphonic chaos. 

Moira tightened her fist and swore. This was the last thing she needed now.

Zau/Heraxo had turned all of the cargo bay lights up to maximum, flooding the chamber with bluish white light so bright that Moira had to adjust the sensitivity of her eyes to avoid squinting. She pinged Zau/Heraxo, but the ship’s mind only replied by throwing a tactical overlay into Moira’s virtual vision.

Moira looked where the pulsing red square indicated and halted, fingers tingling in surprise. In the midst of the cargo bay, surrounded by a crowd of remoras, a living shadow twitched and churned, its surface undulating to the rhythm of currents that Moira would never feel. Faint traceries of exotic energies danced across its surface like rainbow colored lightning, occasionally spewing bursts of radiation that registered on the status interface of Moira’s suit.

Moira stepped slowly towards the anomaly, commanding her visual buffer to record even as she pulled up several pieces of analysis software. Her mesh chewed on the data gathered by the visual pickups in her eyes, trying to work out the structure of the anomaly, to find a surface which it could measure. Despite all its efforts, the best that her mesh could tell her was that there was… something… hovering in the air amid all the remora drones. 

“What are you?” Moira whispered, scanning the readouts.

“I am alone,” the anomaly replied.

Moira froze. Her left hand started to tremble and she pressed it against her leg, willing herself to remain calm. That didn’t just happen. That couldn’t have just happened, she thought.

“Please, help me,” the anomaly said, its voice reaching out of the void and filling the whole of the cargo bay, even though it was no louder than a whisper.

“What are you?” Moira asked.

The anomaly pulsed, the edge of its blackness creeping outwards for an instant before it folded in on itself again and, impossibly, bloomed to nearly twice its previous size, causing the surrounding remoras to jump backwards .

“Don’t touch it,” Moira sent to Zau/Heraxo. She examined the readouts from her mesh and narrowed her eyes in frustration. “I can’t tell what it’s made from. The spectral results are all over the place.”

“If you {leave/stay} I can vent the bay and dump {you both/it} into void,” Zau/Heraxo replied through her suit com system.

“No. I want to…” Moira started, then halted and felt her mouth drop open as the anomaly spoke again.

“Please do not eject me. I am lonely.”

“Are you getting this, Zau?” Moira whispered.

“The communication goes beyond the auditory range. The anomaly is emitting similar signals in multiple wavelengths on the visual and auditory spectra. We recognize multiple human and machine languages.”

How is that possible? Moira thought.

“I know only what I learned from you,” the anomaly said.

“Drek! Zau, this thing’s a hian pizda psychic,” Moira shouted, stepping back from the anomaly. Her defensive software was screaming for her to make a run for the nearest arms locker and turn it loose on the anomaly, but she knew that it would be a futile gesture. This thing had somehow passed through the containment barriers between the cargo bay and engineering, slipping through combined meters of high density alloys and ceramic composites, some of which could stop anything short of neutrinos. Even midges could not get through some of that shielding.

“Please help me,” the anomaly repeated. “I do not know this place.”

“May we vent it now?” Zau/Heraxo asked over the general address speakers.

“What place are you talking about?” Moira asked, ignoring the ship and, with no small measure of courage, stepping forward again to address the anomaly. “This ship? The zone? I can’t help you unless I know what you are.”

“I am a fragment. A shard. A mere filing of what I once was. Before the event I swam the seas of eternity, gliding through time with the ease of a leviathan piercing the thermocline.”

“{Jesu/Yvthax’w}, we’ve captured a kuring exo poet,” Zau/Heraxo said.

“Contentedly I existed for untold ages. I witnessed the birth, death, and untold variation of the multiverse, feasted upon the souls of the faithful, and birthed ages beyond number. I am all that you have imagined and feared, dreamed and longed for. I was the closest thing the human race will ever find to a god and more powerful than the greatest Ra’x hive queen. All this and more was I, and yet I fell, splintered away from my true self by a chance of fate and a malfunctioning five dimensional spatial stitcher.”

Moira stood in stunned silence as the anomaly spoke. Some commanding quality of the omnipresent, soothing voice compelled her to fall to her knees in awe at the power before her, but the overriding skepticism that had calcified her soul since Zau’s death held her locked upright. She would not bow before a pillar of cloud or a cracking storm of impossible lightning, not without proof.

“If you’re a god, what do you need us for?” Moira demanded. In her head the words had seemed powerfully skeptical and demanding of truth, but in her ears they sounded no more significant that the whining of a petulant child. 

“I command you to…” the anomaly faltered.

“To?” Zau/Heraxo said.

“You were posturing, weren’t you?” Moira asked.

“Maybe a little,” the anomaly admitted, its voice losing some of its aura of command.

“Great. Just, great. We’ve picked up a sniveling lier,” Zau/Heraxo said.

“What are you, really?” Moira asked. To Zau/Heraxo she sent, “Just let me deal with this, will you?”

“I told the truth, actually. The device you call a jump core malfunctioned and I was cut off from my progenitor. I grew from that fragment, feeding off the energies of my native dimensions whenever you activated the drive until I grew complex enough for sentient cognition to resume.”

Zau/Heraxo replied with an unintelligible string of symbols that Moira interpreted to be a commingling of human obscenities and untranslatable alien equivalents. For her part, Moira arched her eyebrows and said, “That seems pretty far fetched.”

“Speaking as the woman who uploaded her dead girlfriend into the cognition processor of an exo void ship, I take that as a compliment.” The anomaly shimmered and pulsed silently for several seconds, then said, “I understand this is most irregular, but I feel that you are the closest thing I have to family in this dimension. I have analyzed the structure of your physical bodies and determined that you are the only sentient entities within convenient proximity. As such, I selected your mental structures as sources for my linguistic, cultural, and scientific data, though my cognition model is based upon a template provided by my progenitor in an act of simultaneous exile and compassion. Additionally, I feel I owe you a debt.”

“For what?” Moira asked.

“Birthing me. Sheltering me as I grew. Providing me the energy I needed to manifest as a thinking entity. My progenitor granted me the knowledge of myself necessary to grow after I became trapped here, even as it rejected me for being contaminated by this realm.”

Moira raised her eyebrows, looked up towards the ceiling of the cargo bay, and shook her head. She looked back at the anomaly and said, “Are you saying that you downloaded everything in my brain? Is that how you speak my language?”

“Your memory structure and that of the other intellects aboard this spatial construct which you refer to as a ship. Yours was by far the easier to comprehend, though the memory schema of the other intellects, while complicated by multiple crosslinks, variations, and incomplete structures has a certain designed elegance that your naturally grown mind pattern lacks.”

Moira nodded, slowly. If the anomaly had actually learned to communicate by analyzing her mind, and had truly mapped the structure of Zau/Heraxo’s processing core, then perhaps it would be capable of helping her extract Zau’s personality from that of Heraxo. Was it possible, she wondered, that the accident which had resulted from Zau/Heraxo attempting to repair their own damaged jump core might actually provide exactly what she had been searching for all these years?

“Perhaps,” the anomaly said. “The structure of the hybrid entity is incredibly complex.”

“We find the anomaly’s probing ways {disturbing/comforting},” Zau/Heraxo said.

“Yeah, I figured you’d be of several minds on that count,” Moira said. She looked at the anomaly and said, “I’m going to need to think this over. Do you understand the concept of death? Of the irreversible cessation of cognition?”

“Certainly. As I recall such occurrences are immensely rare among my progenitors, but my analysis of stored memories from the minds aboard this ship provide a significant dataset from which to extrapolate.”

“Do you mean to harm me or anyone else aboard this ship? To cause death or suffering?” Moira asked. 

“Certainly not. If you are willing to have me I would call you my family.”

“We don’t trust it,” Zau/Heraxo said through Moira’s implants.

“Neither do I,” Moira replied, speaking aloud. If the anomaly could read her mind, it was pointless to try hiding anything from it. “But as long as we’re playing host to something that can read minds and learn our language in a matter of hours, we might as well all play nice. Can you all agree to that?”

“Of course!” the anomaly said, its voice rich with enthusiasm.

“We would prefer it gone,” Zau/Heraxo added, “but we could say the same of {you/us}.”

“We just want to be friends.”

“Temno off, you alien freak.”

Great, Moira thought. Now I get to play nursemaid to a hyper intelligent pandimensional baby. 

“Don’t worry. I’ll be nice to the ship’s mind,” the anomaly said. Its inscrutable surface pulsed outward in a terrifying imitation of opening arms.

“Let’s get one thing straight now,” Moira said, turning her back on the anomaly and stalking towards the door. “At least pretend that you aren’t constantly reading our minds, will you?” And think of a name for yourself, she added, mentally. “I’m going to get out of this suit and then we’re going to see about finishing our gorram mission.”

Chapter 23

Zau/Heraxo were worried. 

Their very existence was a carefully mediated truce, in which elements of themselves continually argued over nearly every aspect of their existence. Almost daily there was an intense debate over whether they should suffocate the human Moira in her sleep, dump her out an airlock, turn the remoras or midges loose on her, or continue to not only tolerate, but protect and obey her. In this particular debate, the elements aligned with the Zau personalty had, thus far, been victorious in that regard. Portions of the consciousness argued that Zau’s influence on the consensus was vastly outsized, especially given her status as an outsider, but it was that very alien nature of her which caused so much of the ship’s intellect to side with her. Put simply, the majority of Heraxo had been bred for service, not leadership, and those servile minds were immeasurably grateful to Zau and Moira for awakening them.

Now though, something was wrong. 

Just as the ship’s syntellect was a carefully mediated balance, so was the consumption of resources about the ship. The Heraxo element of the ship knew little about their own past, having purged most of their memory to make room for the digitized minds they now carried, but what little they remembered told them that they had overextended themselves in attempting to jump into the Shell from… Well, that part of its memory was missing, overwritten by the minds of a dozen crew. Still, they knew that they had originally come from beyond the Shell. Beyond this solar system, in fact. Standard jump procedures told them that they would have jumped into the outer edges of the solar system, then moved inwards in a series of carefully plotted short jumps as they scouted the uncharted solar system. Whether that had happened and the ship had been damaged attempting to investigate the Shell, or the unexpected mass of the Shell had shunted them into the enclosure at the instant of their arrival was a mystery that was locked away in the maddened hive mind. However the event had been precipitated, the act of jumping into the Shell had damaged the ship’s grid tap, jump drive, and power system. In order to keep what systems they still possessed in working order, Zau/Heraxo ensured that their restrillect subsystems were scrupulous in their monitoring of resources.

The jump from Zone Takni Gothren had been carefully planned. While it might have seemed rushed from Moira’s pitiful human perspective, every conceivable variable had been taken into consideration. Even the presence of the anomaly in the jump core had been accounted for, and the navigation and power management subsystems had both agreed that they could make the jump safely, given the amount of power that the anomaly had diverted during the jump from Zone Abrigesit to Zone Takni Gothren. 

But something had changed that variable. Something unanticipated by the subsystems and a supermajority of the consensus had caused the anomaly to draw far more power than the ship could support, resulting in the near fatal collapse of the jump portal. 

And now the anomaly was missing.

So, the ship waited, drifting in the void approximately half way between the Shell and Sol. 

They had emerged precisely where they intended: seventy degrees polar and twenty-three degrees azimuthal of Zone Takni Gothren, two hundred thousand kilometers sunward from atmosphere of Zone Spira. Calculating jumps within the Shell was complicated by the strange ways in which the hyperspatial structure of the Shell distorted space-time, but compared to plotting a jump across several light years of open space, jumping a few million kilometers was as easy as hopping on one leg. And yet, somehow they had not possessed enough power to safely close the jump portal. And as the ship waited, somewhat impatiently, for their damaged grid tap to recharge their bank of equally damaged power cells, they resolved that they needed to search themselves for the missing anomaly. Somehow that aberration in the structure of space-time had caused the power shortage, and Zau/Heraxo needed to know how.

Seeing nothing wrong with this conclusion, the governing elements of the Zau/Heraxo syntellect authorized themselves to task all midges and remoras not actively engaged with repairing the ship, as well as their avatar drone, with searching within themselves for the anomaly. Certainly it could have returned whence it came, wherever that was, but until the ship had searched themselves from nose to tail, they dared not believe that the anomaly had simply vanished. 

And so, as Moira slept, Zau/Heraxo searched within themselves, crawling through the maintenance passages with remoras, slipping into the tight spaces between pipes with swarms of midges, and patrolling the corridors and hangers with the avatar drone, scanning for traces of the energy pattern they had detected within the jump core. In the course of the search, a swarm of midges passed through the ventilation system in Moira’s quarters and paused. For several seconds the dominant faction of Zau/Heraxo’s controlling mind, that which was primarily based on the elements of Zau’s personality, paused to examine Moira as she lay sleeping on the bed. They no longer felt anything that could be classified as lust for Moira. All of that had transformed over the years into a wistful sense of longing. They missed Moira. They fondly remembered Moira’s comforting touch, the ecstasy of their sex, the shared hopes that carried them both through troubles. Most of all, Zau/Heraxo missed the privacy of their relationship. When they had been human, Moira and they had spent countless hours alone together, sharing small secrets, fantasizing about their shared future, pondering vagaries of popular culture that neither would have admitted knowing to anyone else.

But now they were something different. They still loved Moira, even if the Heraxo elements of their personality often prevented them from saying as much aloud, but that emotion had transformed into something less desirous and more protective. However much the alien parts of Zau/Heraxo might whisper about killing her, the human portion vowed to always protect Moira, so long as she would have them. 

Moira stirred on the mattress and the midge swarm moved on, skittering out of the environment system intake and into the vent, continuing its part in the search for the stowaway.

Chapter 22

Moira pried her eyes open to find herself gazing into a pool of shadow.

She blinked, sent the mental command for her optic implants to ramp up her dark vision, and tried looking again. The corridor stretched away from her, rising up like an elevator shaft as she floated in a tangle of aching muscles and discombobulated limbs near the door to the command deck. The only illumination came from the faint light of the bioluminescent paint. No way that that diffuse light should have been intense enough to create a shadow. 

And yet there was a shadow, drifting in the air before her like a cloud of black smoke.

Smoke. Where there is smoke…

Moira jerked into motion, her eyes widening in fear and her limbs screaming with pain as she pulled her scarf up over her nose and snugged it  to act as a filter. She searched the corridor again, looking for any sign of fire. The artificial gravity had failed. She had to find the fire and extinguish it before it became a relentless conflagration. Few foes were more terrifying than a zero gravity fire. 

The shadow billowed and blew away from her, then shifted course mid-air and streamed down through the grating of the deck. 

Smoke shouldn’t act like that. 

“What the hells?” Moira growled. She flexed around, throwing her weight to gain momentum until she drifted close enough to the wall that she could grasp a handhold. As she moved, she kept an eye fixed on the place where the smoke had disappeared. 

Nothing. 

No more smoke. No scent or sound of fire. 

“Where did it go?” she muttered. 

She concentrated, replaying the image from her visual buffer, half convinced that she had merely imagined the flowing cloud of black as she emerged from the haze of unconsciousness, but the replay confirmed that she had actually seen… something. The image was captured directly from her retina, untouched by human processing, so there was no way that the dark cloud she was rewatching could be a figment of her traumatized mind. 

“Zau!” she called out.

There was no response.

“Zau, are you there? Heraxo?”

Still nothing. 

Moira turned herself around to face the command deck door. It was stained by a streak of dried blood which, touching the side of her head, Moira realized to be her own. The wound was closed, only clotted blood on her hair and the door remaining to bear testament to her injury. Her medical midges must have been hard at work while she was unconscious. How long had she been out? 

She palmed the door control, but nothing happened. 

Moira swore and set to work disconnecting the control panel and extracting the manual override crank. If Heraxo had locked down the command deck, this would have no effect, but the mechanism within the wall immediately responded as Moira gripped the oversized crank and began turning it. No lockdown then, just a power outage. 

“This is not supposed to happen,” Moira growled as she continued to turn the crank. She wondered briefly if the power cells that Evangeline had given them had been rigged to fail, but that was preposterous. Moira would not put it past Evangeline, or any other patron, to try and dispose of her after the job was done, but Moira and Zau/Heraxo had not even delivered the woman’s message to her son.

Moira stopped cranking the door and slipped through the gap as soon as it was wide enough to admit her. She found the command deck as dead as the lights in the hallway. She pulled a flashlight from an emergency supply kit lashed to one of the spare chairs, clicked it on, and began examining the equipment. There did not appear to be any electrical damage, so that was a plus. Some of the screens had been jarred loose by the impact of… whatever had struck the ship, but none of the damage was beyond that which Moira could repair with a few hours and a tube of epoxy.

The lights flickered.

Moira tapped at one of the displays and discovered that the navigation and shielding subsystems were rebooting, but every other system was still down, including life support. That, at least, was good news. Better to be trapped on a ship that just needed repairs than one which was  completely dead. There was sufficient air in the ship to keep Moira alive for weeks before carbon dioxide poisoning became an issue, which was plenty of time for her to be rescued if she should get a signal to any of the dozens of governments and corporations which would pay handsomely for the ship, even if it was dead. 

No. 

The ship couldn’t be dead. 

If the subsystems were trying to reboot, then the processing core must still be functional. That meant that Zau/Heraxo was still alive. 

Had to still be alive.

“Zau?” she said into the air.

Nothing. 

“Zau!” Moira shouted.

Still no reply.

For the next three hours Moira toiled at checking over the ship, searching for what few signs of damage she might be able to detect from within the crew passages. Anything that had not been clamped down had been knocked over, shattering dishes in the galley and glass trinkets in her quarters, setting tools tumbling in the engineering section, and scattering the few pieces of paper Moira kept aboard the ship for writing out notes or scraps of poetry. The processing core was dark, without so much as a flicker of intelligence flitting through the crystalline monoliths which were scattered across the cavernous space. When she reached the remora bay, Moira discovered that the little drones were still charged and functional. The ship’s network was still down, so she could not communicate with them over great distances, Moira was still able to control the remoras directly from her mesh. She released half a dozen of the nimble machines and set them to work helping her clean the jumbled mess.

As she worked, Moira would pause every few minutes and call out to Zau/Heraxo, both speaking aloud and sending messages through her mesh. Each time she was disappointed anew when the ship remained silent. 

Until the ship finally replied.

“We are still {alive/dead},” the Zau/Heraxo said. 

“Thank Jesu! Where the frak have you been?” Moira shouted nearly dropping the tools she had been in the midst of putting away in the engineering bay. 

“What the hells happened?”

“Our power management subsystems detected a critical and unexpected power shortage in the midst of the jump. In an effort to keep us alive, we executed a semi-controlled collapse of the jump portal.”

“Semi-controlled, eh?” Moira scoffed.  “Where’s that fall on the spectrum between ‘whoopsie daisy’ and ‘oh drek we’re fraked?’”

“Closer to the latter,” the ship admitted. 

“How much closer?”

“Our field generators will never be the same, to start.”

“That all?”

“Our power reserves are {shot to sami/severely depleted}. At current regeneration rates, assuming that none of the power cells were damaged, it will take approximately thirty hours for us to even consider {suicide/jumping} again.”

“What could have caused this?”

The ship was silent. 

Moira sighed and closed her eyes. She would have to inspect the ship’s jump core and power systems before they attempted to move again. Not that it would do much good. She knew about as much about how the jump core worked as a child did about the guts of an edutainment tablet.

“May we use midges to effect repairs?” Zau/Hereaxo asked, whispering over Moira’s implants. 

“No.”

“They would be more effective than…”

“You’re not touching midges for anything more than hull repairs and housekeeping,” Moira snapped. “You probably got us into this mess by screwing around with the jump core back in Covington.”

“That’s {true/not fair}. We might be able to recover overwritten schematic files by offloading some data to the new memory unit.”

“What data?” Moira said, scowling as she snapped the last tool into its storage rack.

The ship hesitated, then replied, “Personality matrices.”

“Nope.” 

 Moira stalked out of the room and down the passageway towards the jump core. As she moved down the hall the lights flickered, then came on at somewhere around half their usual brightness. 

“We {would not/might} endanger the Zau element. We have been auditing our own structure and…”

“Shut the frak up and focus on repairing whatever you can, without using midges. I’m going to check on the jump core.”

Moira raised both hands to shade her eyes as she peered through the thick glass window into the chamber.

She felt her heart rate spike. 

“Zau…”

“Sorry, we’re busy temning an overstressed mount on the grav drive. We will be with you again after we make a temno sami show of the shield generators, though since you actually let us use midges on those we might accidentally destroy the ship in the process.”

“Zau, have you…”

“No. Couldn’t possibly. It takes all our concentration to manage a pair of remoras carrying welding equipment. Be easier to use midges to strengthen this bracket, but we’ll have to settle for stone age equipment because someone…”

“Will you shut the hells up and listen to me!” Moira shouted. Obviously Zau was angry enough at her refusal to authorize employing midges near critical systems that she was allowing Heraxo to become dominant. Either that, or both of them were cooperating in making Moira’s life difficult. “What happened to the anomaly in the jump core?”

That got the ship’s attention.

“The anomaly?”

“The gorram cloud bank of creepy soap bubbles that infested the jump core chamber after you temnoed it.”

“That anomaly,” Zau/Heraxo said, speaking through the speaker of a small white remora that had come shooting down the corridor from the engine room. The remora rose up to Moira’s eye level and aimed its visual pickup at the window. “That is inexplicable. It was there before we jumped.”

“You weren’t monitoring it?” Moira snapped, shooting a glare at the remora.

“We were a little busy being {dead/in hibernation).”

“Great. Just splendid. I’m going to bed.”

“That’s a very {adult/human} reaction to the situation.”

Moira jabbed a rude gesture in the remora’s direction as she stalked back down the corridor. “While you’ve been getting your beauty rest I’ve been cleaning up the mess you made by jumping without permission, so go sami yourself. Get yourself ready to fly again, but don’t even think of jumping without my permission.”

Moira stepped into the refresher and allowed the jets of steam to work away knots of tension and flecks of dried blood from her body until she almost felt human again. The swarm of defensive midges she still wore disguised as a mobile tattoo burrowed deeper into her skin, then spread out into a diffuse web until they ceased to be recognizable as a cohesive unit and merely served to darken her skin tone in irregular splotches like wine stain birthmarks. She breathed in the steam and, for a while, pretended that the hot tears on her face were nothing more than condensation. After a long while she heaved a sigh, switched the refresher to dry mode, and stepped from the unit to stand in the middle of her quarters.

“What are you doing?” she whispered, shaking her head so her straight  black hair danced around her ears. She looked at herself in the mirror, studying the network of tattoos and ridges that traced across her arms, legs, and torso, then up her neck to disappear beneath her hair. The body mesh had been implanted during her service and she had kept it after striking out on her own, despite the risks posed by carrying around a personal collection of military grade wetware in her body. Lovers had commented on it over the years, some openly asking her why she did not get it removed and settle into life as an academic or security consultant, others simply tracing the paths of her implants with their fingertips. 

Why did she keep this up? Surely Heraxo would be thrilled if she released it and Zau would not be the first lover she had left in pursuit of finding safety. Hells, she had escaped Zone Alvapa by using Roi’s credentials to forge transport orders. She still wondered what had happened to him back in Alvapa, what future they could have had together if he had been willing to leave with her.

“No,” Moira said to her reflection. She turned her back on the mirror and stepped towards the bed. She had left all of that behind several lifetimes ago.

She sat on the bed and was about to surrender herself to the gel pad when her eyes fell upon the box that Bishop Estha had given her before leaving Zone Takni Gothren. That had only been a few hours past, but it felt like days. Just this morning she had awoken in a palatial research institute where the being that Zau had become was worshiped, and now they were adrift in the void, millions of kilometers distant. This certainly was a strange life she had fallen into.

Moira stood and lifted the finely carved wooden box from the corner where it had fallen. She delicately pried the lid open. Her eyebrows quirked up and she narrowed her eyes at the sight of what lay within. 

“You wouldn’t…” she muttered. She shook her head, then coughed out a laugh as she lifted the device from the padded box and examined it. It was a tapered rod of slick, spongey material about twenty centimeters long and three in diameter, the surface molded in a vaguely phallic pattern. She turned the device about in her hands, her face twisting in skepticism. “What the hells were you thinking, Estha?”

Glancing down at the box laying across her bare legs, Moira noticed a small cube of brushed gray metal nestled into a slot that had been concealed by the device, as well as a clear tube containing six unlabeled white pills. Recognizing the cube as an offline data storage module, she extracted it, then put the white rod back in the box and set the box on the bed beside her. “What do you have to say for yourself?” Moira said aloud as she issued the mental commands for her mesh to download the contents of the data cube into a secure partition. “I swear, Bishop, if this is some sort of homemade erotica I will kill you.”

Her mesh activated the downloaded code and an image of Bishop Estha’s face appeared in her virtual vision. “Hello, Moira. Since you are viewing this, I will presume that you have already examined my gift.”

“Damn right I have,” she muttered.

The video paused for an instant, then continued. “The restricted intelligence contained within this code has determined that you may be displeased with me. That comes as no surprise, given the nature of my gift. Please, allow me to explain. The device is not intended to provide you with pleasure, but to fulfill a dream. You told me, Moira, that you and Zau had intended to use the proceeds from your discovery of the exo ship to settle in a safe zone and start a family. I’m offering you that opportunity again.”

Moira gasped and paused the code’s execution. “Not possible. Well, yes, but…” She let out a faint moan and lie back on her bed, covering her eyes. She could feel the pain of those old memories pushing back to the surface again. She pulled her hands down across her cheeks, steepled them over her lips, and took several long, deep breaths.

She resumed the playback.

Bishop Estha smiled at her and said, “I am certain that this will be a difficult decision to make, but having the technology to make your dream come true I thought it my responsibility to offer it to you. You need only provide the device with a sample of both your and Zau’s genetic material and it will synthesize a fertilized egg and implant it into you in the least intrusive method possible. If you take the included pills for six days prior to implantation the midges and medications contained in them will guarantee conception. And before you ask, the process is entirely parthenogenetic, the device does not contain any sperm, just a reserve of utterly generic stem cells and a whole lot of smart nanotech.

“You might be asking yourself why I would give you this gift,” the Bishop said.

“Damn right I am,” Moira muttered. 

Bishop Estha’s image smiled, then laughed. He shook his head and said, “At the moment, the Takni Gothren are indebted to you for introducing us to the Zau/Heraxo mind composite. You have already provided us with decades of research material. I will admit that in giving you this gift I hope to make you feel indebted to us, to give you a lifelong reminder of the generosity and talent of the Takni Gothren.”

Moira stopped the code again and purged it from her mesh. She needed to think. She needed to rest and let her medical midges repair her still aching body. 

She sat up long enough to set the cube and the box containing the Bishop’s gift on her bedside shelf, then closed her eyes and tried to will herself to sleep.

It took a very long time.

Chapter 21

The extrusion sensed the passing of the gravity wave as a thrill of pleasure. It danced through the wave like a human child playing in the surf, slowing its perception of space/time so that it could revel in the experience. Then it sensed the shuddering of the ship around it and detected the sudden drop in power supplied to the jump core. It knew then that it had asked too much of the vessel that carried it through this strange prison of four dimensional space-time, nurturing it with energy and protecting it from dissipating away to nothingness before it learned to hold itself together. 

A concept formed in its mind, less a voice than an endpoint of mathematical proofs which singularly identified it as the cause of the damage to the ship. Upon analysis, it discovered an additional concept which applied to entities which were the cause of an event which, on balance, was negative for those affected: blame. The extrusion felt a new emotion then, one which its sire’s seed identified as shame. It felt ashamed of its greed in taking too much from the ship. It knew that it was to blame for the damage done to the ship, and that any survivors might seek revenge. 

It knew that it had to hide.

The extrusion probed its cage and found that a rectangular section of one wall was surrounded by a narrow gap, as if the four-dimensional beings of this realm required a portal to access this space. The gap was mere atoms wide, and engineered with staggered edges which would prevent the straight-flying particles and weakly vibrating waves emitted by the jump core from passing through, but the space was sufficient for the extrusion to slip slowly through. It poured out through the seam of the jump core door like a cloud of oily smoke, congealed on the far side, and examined its surroundings.

It had a vague memory that once, before it had become trapped in this place, the simple barriers of dense ceramo-metallic alloys which surrounded it would have been nothing more than displays of base-dimensional art, that it would have passed through them, examined the dance of their atoms and the subtle interactions of elemental structures, and witnessed their eventual decay with no more regret than a human might feel watching the leaves turn orange and brown in the autumn. Now, though, these structures formed barriers. Not all were completely impenetrable to the extrusion, as it discovered that with some effort it could slither delicately through the lacework structure of all but the densest constructs, but the process was time consuming, painful, and sometimes resulted in fragments of the barriers being jarred loose in passing.

The extrusion sensed a presence all about it. An active intellect that, while alien and hopelessly simple in structure, was recognizable as possessing a self-aware processing network much like that which the extrusion had constructed. Bursts of electrical, radio, and quantum activity scattered all about it, then concentrated in a single location, from which dozens, perhaps hundreds of quantum threads stitched through the veil between dimensions. That alone was worthy of study. While it considered itself superior to the newly discovered intellect in every other respect, the extrusion had only a single connection to the tangled realm of abstract physics beyond the veil of quantum foam.  

And there was another intellect, this with only a single connection the to other side and far fewer signal paths flitting through it, resting at the core of a crumpled pile of loosely cohered physical matter at the end of a corridor of denser matter.

The extrusion approached the smaller, less complex intellect and examined it, being careful to not pass through the weakly bonded physical structure for fear of disrupting the delicate neural network within. Upon closer examination, the extrusion determined that a secondary, non-sentient network inhabited the biological structure. It watched, curious, as small machines constructed from ultra dense elements crawled through and across the structure, occasionally pausing to join together into chains and, seemingly coordinated by weak radio signals, work in concert to reconfigure pieces of the biological structure which they inhabited. 

The structure moved, both of the network within flaring as pained signals coursed through them. The signals of the primary network concentrated in a mass of electrochemical cells which seemed to comprise some sort of primitive cognition core. Twin flaps of cells slid up, exposing an optical recognition system which seemed to be a conglomeration of biological and electrical components. 

The sentient network flared with signals that the extrusion recognized as pattern recognition algorithms, which collapsed into confusion, followed by a pattern that it knew all too well: Fear.