The restaurant was among the finest that Moira had ever seen, which surprised her. Given the Takni Gothren’s devotion to technology, she held in the back of her mind a presumption that they would all get their nourishment from a feeding tube. To step into a decadently appointed dining room, complete with polished marble floors, gilt pillars, and an actual live band playing at the end of a wooden dance floor in the center, was akin to the moment she had first seen a priest playing football as a child, his cassock hanging limp on the bleachers as he deftly batted the ball from foot to foot before passing it.
“Is this normal?” Moira asked Estha as he stepped up beside her and waved to one of the drone servers. “All this fancy decor, and the servers, and…” she waved a hand towards the dance floor and band.
“Normalcy is often relative to one’s position. You have traversed the zones accompanying the revered Zau/Heraxo, surely you recognize that the concept of normal as a social construct is a mere average of the economic and behavioral metrics in a given region.”
“Well, yes.” Moira thought of her own childhood in the retro suburbia of York. It all seemed so long ago. So many different lives, lived and taken, in those years.
A perfectly spherical drone with a gilt carapace slid to a halt before Moira and Estha, bobbing in recognition. “Welcome, Bishop Leocratis,” it said in a deep, smooth voice which seemed almost to wrap Moira’s ears in fine velvet as it caressed them. “I have prepared your usual table.”
“Thank you Fairbrace,” Estha replied, nodding to the drone.
The drone set off to the left, hovering along at precisely the speed necessary to remain a meter and a half ahead of Moira and Estha as they followed it. They passed more than a dozen booths and tables before the drone paused outside a curtained niche in the richly polished wood panelling. It extended two telescoping arms and drew the heavy red velvet curtains apart, revealing a deeply cushioned curved booth with a lacquered white oak table at the center. “Your table, Bishop Leocratis and honored companion Moira. Would you prefer the curtains drawn or open?”
Estha shot Moira a sidelong look and she shrugged in response. “Open, for now.”
“As you wish.” The drone waited silently for them to take their seats across from one another at the table. “May I start you with some wine? We have a fine sparkling white from the Saint Share vineyards in Neplaw. Or a red from the Brotherhood of Yoke vineyards two hundred kilometers azimuthal of Saint Share. Both are technically exquisite and our sommelier assures me they are delightful to the refined human palate.”
Moira pursed her lips in thought, then said, “I could go for some white wine. It’s been a while since I had anything that wasn’t mixed from an algal alcohol base, so I probably couldn’t appreciate the red.”
“A bottle of that then. And one of the red as well,” Estha said to the drone. “And do give us a sound dampening field. Not too strong, I want to hear the band, but sufficient that we can speak privately.”
“All shall be provided, Bishop. Would you like to see the menu?”
“I will take whatever the special is, Moira?”
Moira shrugged. Outside the occasional visit to a bar she had primarily subsisted on nutrient drips and the bland meals that the ship’s recompiler was capable of producing. “I’ll have the same.”
“Do you have any preferences, ma’am,” the drone asked.
“Fish, beef, pork, grown or harvested. We have almost everything you could imagine on offer and the chefs are most adept at customizing to individual tastes.”
“Honestly, as long as it isn’t served in a drip bag, I think I’ll be happy.”
“I will return shortly with your wine,” the drone said. It retracted its arms, twirled silently in the air, and slipped away.
“How does it work, you worshiping technology and yet allowing drones to serve you,” Moira asked as she unfolded the thick white napkin and spread it across her lap. In response, the chameleopigment in her strapless dress flickered and spun out a fresh pattern of white and maroon checkers which matched both the napkin and her scarf.
“Takni Gothren is a complex faith,” Estha replied. He spread his hands on the edge of the table and said, “Our founders drew inspiration from many of the faiths of pre-enclosure Terra. We are neither a philosophy nor a monotheistic religion, though we borrow many of the offices and terminologies of our precursors. In essence, we revere technology, those who created it, and the act of preserving it, but that reverence does not prevent us from making use of the same technology.”
“That’s all over my head,” Moira admitted, then she hesitated, smiled and nodded sideways. “Or maybe it’s beside my head, just whizzing by without touching me.”
“Like a slug?”
“Or an energy beam. Take your pick.”
“Leave it to the mercenary to reduce theology to war metaphors,” Estha said, grinning.
“I wouldn’t be the first. Back where I’m from pretty much everyone who cared to be religious was some variety of Jesuit, so we didn’t have terribly much in the way of armed conflict within our zone, but Zau…” Moira hesitated. She fidgeted with the edge of her cloth, setting loose small tangles of excited red and white blocks.
She was grateful when the drone returned just then, bearing two bottles of wine and a pair of crystal glasses. It bantered with Estha and Moira for several minutes, describing the history of the religious orders which for over a hundred years had planted the vines, harvested the grapes, and overseen their fermenting. Both vineyards had been established by branches of a Takni Gothren order which devoted itself to agricultural technologies which had been revolutionary for their time, but were later passed over as mechanization grew throughout old Terra. Even the bottles were hand crafted, the drone explained, blown from glass which was forged from grains of silica sand. That sand was, of course, gathered by hand from the beaches of the river which flowed throughout the valley in which the vineyards were located.
Moira, to her own surprise, found herself enjoying the conversation. Estha was witty and engaging, despite being unwaveringly devoted to his bizarre faith, and even the drone was pleasant, so long as Moira kept thoughts of Zau/Heraxo at bay.
When the drone finally departed, declaring that it was going to check on their meal, Estha lay a finger on the rim of his glass and leaned back, studying Moira.
She took another sip and cocked her head to one side as she savored the bittersweet white wine. She was about to swallow and ask Estha about Dyson Satori when the bishop tapped his finger and said, “You were saying something about Zau and religious conflicts before our waiter arrived. I apologize if this is a sensitive matter, but how did your ship come to contain multiple guiding intelligences?”
Moira swallowed the wine with a sour expression, took another gulp from the glass, and leaned forward with her elbows on the table. She fixed Estha with a haunted smile for several long, silent breaths.
“You don’t need to tell me. It is merely a matter of some curiosity for me. You see,” Estha set his glass aside and leaned forward to look Moira in the eyes, “We found something terribly interesting when we were scanning the avatar drone. Are you familiar with Ning Space?”
“Ning space?” Moira asked, squinting in puzzlement.
“Well, N G Space more accurately. N, as in N-dimensional space and G, as in geist, the metaphysical term for the soul. I apologize for the lingo.”
“You’ve still lost me. I know something about, what, higher dimensions and how everything we think is real might just be a hologram of a dream or drek like that, but I try not to let myself become mired in philosophical arguments. I’ve got an odd relationship with the ship. It doesn’t even really need me. Honestly, I’m sort of like a parasite, living inside a larger creature and sucking life from it.”
“I’m sure that is not completely true,” Estha replied.
“Well, no. Not completely.” Moira took another sip, then continued. “The drek of it all is that the ship’s mind, at least the Zau part of it, really does need me. At least, I like to think that she needs me, though maybe we’ll have a nasty break up somewake and she’ll dump me in the void then run off with some other woman and take all my music and band shirts with her.”
“That’s the part I don’t understand, Moira. That none of us do. Our scans are certain that the intelligence shared between the ship and the drone is truly conscious, that’s why I brought up Ning space. Thats what us synthetic cognition types get all excited about. It’s a region of higher dimensional space where the quantum entanglements within a conscious neural network cause, well, a disturbance. Sort of like the way a massive object warps gravity. It’s that disturbance that creates the ineffable something,” he said the word with a breathy excitement that caused Moira’s eyebrows to crawl upwards, “that ancient philosophers called the soul. Not that we’d ever use such a loaded word anymore. Better to call it a geist, or a Ning Space Anomaly and leave it at that.”
“And you’re saying that Zau/Heraxo has, what, a soul?”
“More than that. The ship’s geist is unlike any that we have ever seen before, and it can’t all be accounted for by saying that it’s an exo ship. No, Moira, our scan revealed something that our best analysts could only explain as at least two geists, maybe more. Do you know anything about that?”
Moira nodded silently, then lowered her head until her chin rested on her fists. She considered how much to tell Estha. The news that they had found evidence of more than one active mind inhabiting the ship and drone was in no way a revelation to her, but her feelings towards the ship were so tangled. After a long silence, during which Estha continued to gaze steadily at her with gentle but curious eyes, Moira heaved a deep sigh and looked down at the table, blinking away tears.
“Have I offended you?” Estha whispered.
“No. No,” Moira muttered, shaking her head and wiping away tears with her cloth. She cleared her throat and looked up at Estha. “I’ve never told anyone about this. You understand? Not anyone. Hells, I don’t know if I’ve ever said the whole story aloud before, even to myself.”
“If it is too painful…”
Moira held up a hand, stopping Estha. “Nope. Don’t try to stop me now. I’m going to tell you before I lose the courage.”