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.”

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