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Dyson's Angel

By Andrew Linke All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Drama

Blurb

A thousand years ago the Enclosure destroyed our solar system and scattered humanity across the inner surface of an impenetrable shell surrounding the sun. In another life, Moira was a relic hunter scouring remote zones of the Shell for scraps of alien technology and human history to sell to the highest bidder, just trying to scrape together enough credits to pay down her debts and escape her past. That was before her lover was killed and uploaded into an alien computer. Now Moira is the unwilling captain of the insane alien void ship Zau/Heraxo, scrounging for bounties in the corporate zones to earn enough credits to keep her void ship flying and what remains of Zau alive. Scoring the biggest bounty of her career should give Moira her ticket out of this life, but nothing is ever that easy. Following the trail of a runaway polymath, Moira’s past begins to catch up with her even as forces beyond her control conspire to use Zau/Heraxo for their own purposes.

Chapter 1

She was falling towards the ruined city, the buildings outlined and tagged in garish colors, thermal traces smeared across her view like daubs of multicolored paint. Moira swiveled her head, scanning for the bright patches that might indicate the presence of human or drone combatants laying in wait amid the wreckage below.

“Keep your eyes open,” Moira said. “This is too easy.”

“Speak for yourself,” Zau/Heraxo replied. Their voice crackled out through both the general address speakers in the cockpit and Moira’s implants. It was annoying habit that Moira and Zau/Heraxo had discussed on many occasions, and which Zau had promised to curtail, but Heraxo still persisted in it whenever Zau slipped from dominance. “You can only see one perspective because your pitiful mammalian brain cannot assimilate multiple perspectives. We have already integrated all of the data from our remoras. They are mapping a six block radius as we speak.”

Zau/Heraxo tweaked their grav drive and slowed their flight across the ruined city. The sudden motion threw Moira against her restraints. She blinked twice, dropping out of the simulated view of their surroundings to find herself strapped into the command chair on Zau/Heraxo’s flight deck. Skeletons of twisted metal and shattered concrete scrolled past on the view screens. The destruction give testament to a city which had thrived once, before the local government had attempted to break away from Covington proper. Vehicles of all sorts, from personal ground transports to crashed intra-zone transport ships, crowded the streets, most of them pockmarked by bullet holes or partially melted from the passing bolts of energy lances.

“If you know so gorram much, then maybe I should just drop out of visual and let you handle everything,” Moira glowered, calling up the composite map of the area as a ghost image in the lower third of her vision. “I could have stayed in Covington and let you handle this on your own.”

“{Fine with us if/you wouldn’t} do that,” the Zau/Heraxo replied, their response coming out in a garbled stream of syllables as the ship’s conflicted core intellect struggled to assemble a coherent thought. Moira recognize the words, barely, owing to her long practice discerning between the tones of voice which the ship tended to use when one personality or the other assumed dominance. After a second it continued in a mediated tone that suggested the personalities were cooperating, “You would be bored.”

“Screw you.”

“We could say that you are doing that now. All this hunting has got us pretty excited and you are…” the Zau/Heraxo’s voice dissolved into static so intense that even Moira could not comprehend it.

Moira felt an angry flush creep up her neck. She ought to have guessed that a computationally intensive task like scanning and modeling several city blocks from multiple input sources would push Heraxo into the fore. “If you could get back to the matter at hand,” she snarled.

“As you wish,” Zau/Heraxo whispered into her ear. The voice was the same, but it drifted into Moira’s consciousness through her auditory implant, rather than echoing through the corridors of the ship, suggesting that Zau had reasserted herself. “The remoras have located a group of humans two kilometers azimuthal of our position. They appear to be primarily baseline in form, with only standard medical and communication enhancements.”

“So no walking tanks?”

“Not that we can detect without employing active scans,” the ship replied, its voice transitioning into the mediated tone again.

“Thanks, Zau. Take us as close as you can without being spotted and set down in the street. I’ll go on foot from there.”

“Our pleasure, {sweet/bitch},” Zau/Heraxo whispered in her ear.

Zau/Heraxo reconfigured their internal power matrix, momentarily reducing the readiness of the primary energy lance mounted on the tip of their flexing metasomal structure as they shunted additional power into the energy shields surrounding them. Whatever they thought of Moira, Zau/Heraxo had no desire to be destroyed by an errant gravmine or improvised ground to air missile. The ship skittered between the shattered glass and twisted steel of two abandoned office towers, then dropped to skim along the cracked street just below the rooftops of the decrepit retail buildings. Here, away from the governmental and manufacturing hubs of the city, the damage was less extensive.

Trusting the vastly superior sensory capabilities of Zau/Heraxo’s processing cores to identify any threat, Moira tried to focus her mind on the operation which lay ahead, clearing away everything that did not directly relate to the mission, but she found herself drifting. She wished that Zau would assert herself more frequently, as much as it hurt to hear the ship speaking in her familiar phrases. There was no way for Moira to be certain that Zau had emerged just then, she suspected that Heraxo sometimes imitated phrases from human culture just to irritate her, but she still clung to those rare moments when Zau’s personality emerged.

“We are approaching our optimal landing zone,” Zau/Heraxo said, speaking through both Moira’s implants and the speakers at once. It might have been only her emotions toying with her, but Moira thought she heard a slight difference of inflection between the two competing channels of audio. “We recommend that you prepare to {move/die} quickly. The remoras report increased agitation from the humans in the target area.”

“Agitation?” Moira asked as she unstrapped herself from the command chair.

“We {don’t appreciate/are being}…” the voice cracked, splintering and trailing off like a particularly hormonal teen, then returned as Moira strode off the command deck, out through the blast doors, and into the port thoracic corridor. “Agitating. Stirring. Disturbing. Moving.”

“Thanks for the tactical specificity.”

Moira palmed open the arms locker beside the port thoracic airlock and pulled out a kinetic slug rifle. She took a moment to admire the viciously beautiful lines of it, enjoying the heft of the weapon in her muscled arms. She grabbed a mass magazine, hefted it, and slotted it into the top mounted receiver. She held the weapon to her shoulder and sighted down the corridor, adjusting herself to the new balance imparted by three kilograms of depleted uranium mass in the magazine slot. She had heard of experimental weapons which fired pure raw, but that seemed like overkill when this bit of handheld hardware could put a slug through half a meter of armor plating.

“We doubt that you will need that kind of firepower on this mission, Moira. After all, doesn’t the contract specify alive?”

Moira lowered the rifle and shrugged. “We get paid more if the bastard is alive, but we’ll be making a killing either way.”

“Significantly more.”

“Which is why I need enough firepower to scare the drek out of anyone who tried to get in my way,” Moira said. She grabbed two stun grenades from the locker and snugged them into her utility harness. “Don’t worry. I’ll try not to kill too many of them.”

“We would like to remind you that you are licensed to capture escaped felons and defend yourself against aggressors, not carry out summary justice upon anyone whose existence offends you.”

“Lucky for you.”

Moira slammed the locker shut and stepped into the port thoracic airlock. “Am I clear out there?”

“No signs of activity for two blocks. Remoras have located the target and we have marked him on your map.”

“Keep him in sight. Wait for my order, then be ready to come in hard for the pickup.”

Moira stepped out into the blasted street. A hot wind whipped around her, carrying a fine dust that scoured across her cheeks and skittered noisily against her goggles and rifle. She pulled her maroon scarf up over her mouth and wrapped an extra layer of the colorful metamaterial around her nose, hoping that the Covington forces had not deployed combat midges in this region. It seemed unlikely, but those bastards had destroyed an entire city merely because its citizens had tried to declare independence from their ruling corp.

She hefted the rifle, then crouched and ran down the street towards the gang hideout.

As Moira moved along the street, Zau/Heraxo piped an annotated model of the city into her virtual vision, causing the image to appear as an isometric projection, floating in the near distance before her. The ship tagged known locations of gang members in red on the map, throwing anticipated cones of vision out around them. After a moment, additional marks appeared on the map, tagged in yellow.

“What are those?” Moira asked the ship, sending the message through her mesh rather than speaking aloud.

“Possible noncombatants. We have located at least five registered prostitutes, two known drug synthesists, and an experiential emcee known as B8Z,” the ship replied, pronouncing each symbol of the emcee’s name individually in a tone dripping with distain.

“Here?” Moira said. She’d experienced one of B8Z’s sets at an off club several cycles before. He had been pretty good.

“That is what the facial matches tell us. Not that we need computers to identify the emcee. We tapped into the public feed he’s spewing. {Make sure you don’t/be sure to} connect to his mesh. The wetcode he’s pushing appears designed to have some rather fascinating effects on human inhibitions.”

“I thought you said that the gang was getting agitated.”

“Agitated. Excited. Moving about vigorously.”

Moira set her jaw and told herself not to swear at Zau/Heraxo. If she aggravated either element of the personality construct now she risked it being even less forthcoming with data, and the last thing she needed in the middle of an operation was a full blown synthetic intelligence breakdown.

“Can you be sure they are unarmed?”

“No.”

“Keep them tagged in yellow for me, but tell the remoras to include them in the takedown. I’m not taking any risks in this.”

“This is already an expensive mission, Moira. Would it not be best to…”

“It would be best to come out of it alive. Just hold off on the takedown until we’re sure if we need it.”

“As we intended from the beginning.”

Moira ignored the implied insult and continued towards the decrepit department store that served as home base for the Azi Zoo. One of the more vicious gangs to crop up on the outskirts of Covington in recent years, the Azi Zoo had pulled off a string of heists, both physical and virtual, which had inevitably brought them to the attention of Covington Domestic Security. Unable to secure the trans-corporate mandate for a tactical strike, CDS had instead posted an escalating bounty for known members of the gang, the highest bounty being offered for Bosami Haupt, the leader of the Azi Zoo. Despite the exorbitant reward for Haupt’s capture, few bounty hunters had even attempted striking at the heart of the gang’s territory.

But few bounty hunters had tactical support from an exo scout ship and a small fleet of remoras.

Moira slowed her approach, placing her feet carefully to minimize noise as she approached the final intersection. The isometric projection showed two red human shapes outlined against the wall of the destroyed department store just around the corner. Moira leaned against the cracked bricks of a corner pharmacy and whispered to Zau/Heraxo, “Can you get me a visual on those two?”

A flat panel appeared over the map in her virtual vision, showing two armed men standing guard, one on either side of the rotating door that led into the department store. Shattered glass from the display windows on either side of the door had been swept into piles in the middle of the street and the openings had been covered over in sloppily applied sheets of corrugated metal. One of the guards was dressed in an assortment of green, tan, and blue camouflage scavenged from the various mercenaries he had killed over the years. The other wore a baggy suit of stuttering active camouflage, which continually flashed with random patterns and distorted, over saturated images of their surroundings. Worthless as cover, but still highly illegal for civilians to posses in Covington proper. Moira guessed that he had stolen the suit from whatever CDS guards had been unfortunate enough to pull duty on a convoy that the Azi Zoo had hit.

“Those the only guards?”

“Situational analysis suggests a ninety-five percent probability that no other individuals are watching these doors,” Zau/Heraxo replied, whispering in to Moira’s ear in a sultry voice. “And before you ask, there is no bounty on either of those individuals. They are too low in the organization.”

“Take those two with nonlethals. I’ll hide the bodies.”

“Done.”

Above the rooftop of the building across the street from the department store, a drone the size of a large cat darted up over the parapet and fired a dart each into the necks of the guards. Both men had only the time to open their mouths and twitch their hands upwards before the powerful benzodiazepine derivative ripped through their GABA receptors and dropped them both to the sidewalk.

“You’ll want to get them both out of sight. We can’t guarantee one of the {partygoers/degenerate apes} won’t come wandering out.”

“Already on it.”

She crouched low and stalked along the sidewalk, placing each quick, light step carefully to avoid broken glass as she held her rifle at the ready. Reaching the doorway, Moira slung her rifle over her back and grabbed the first guard under his arms, then stood and swung him over her shoulder. He was lighter than she had expected, but that shouldn’t have surprised her. Out here, beyond even the fringes of Covington, it was entirely possible for someone to die of starvation, if they didn’t have the right contacts. She had figured that the gang would own a matter recompiled or two, but perhaps they were all tied up producing drugs and weapons.

“We have moved the remora to street level and can now see into the former department store,” Zau/Heraxo said.

Moira shoved the limp guard through the blasted out window of the pharmacy and turned to retrieve the second body. She spotted the remora crouching in the shadow of a wrecked pickup truck. “Any threats?”

“You might be best served taking a more {stealthy/murderous} approach,” Zau/Heraxo replied, sending this message as a string of text that appeared in Moira’s virtual vision for several seconds before fading away.

“You mean?” Moira hissed. She assumed that the more bloodthirsty variant of the comment had come from Heraxo, both because the syntellect had little use for human beings beside herself, and because this would not have been the first time that Heraxo had attempted to get her killed in roundabout ways.

“That human is about your size.”

Moira scowled and glanced through the rotating door. Within the ruined department store, only a few shafts of sunlight reached through the shuttered windows and skylights. Shadows dominated, pierced occasionally by competing flashes of strobe, laser, and holographic light that leaked around the corners of the retail displays. “Drek,” Moira breathed. “Where is the party? Can’t I just go around them?”

“The revelry appears concentrated at the second level of the structure. The remoras have yet to locate our target, but he has not been spotted leaving this location and human behavioral modeling suggests…”

“Enough! I’ll go in.”

Moira lifted the second guard, then carried him quickly back to the corner pharmacy. As she moved, Zau/Heraxo rotated the isometric map to show each possible entrance to the department store. It said, “The remoras have located additional ingress points on the roof and at the rear of the store. Unfortunately, the gang has removed all external access ladders to the roof and there is something of a crowd at the rear loading dock. They appear to be engaging in a {primitive ritual/martial arts display} for over a dozen observers.”

“Fine, I’ll try to blend in.” Moira dumped the guard on the sidewalk and began stripping the baggy active camouflage from him. The damaged material stuttered and swirled with patterns that vaguely resembled the charred bricks beneath the guard, but were rendered in wildly inappropriate colors. “This feels like a bad idea.”

“Hiding in plain sight, {darling/dimwit}.”

“I prefer to hide in the shadows.”

“Not a lot of them, we’re afraid. Not since the enclosure.”

Moira glanced at the projected map, confirming that none of the gang members were about to come up on her, then stepped into the baggy legs of the active suit. She pulled it up to her waist, held it there with one hand while she tightened the leg closures around her boots, then shrugged the stiff material over her shoulders, covering the rifle on her back. Pulling the hood over her head, Moira zipped the face closed, only to find the world in front of her transformed into a psychedelic landscape of neon lines and twisted shades that dived into stomach churning fractals. Clearly the suit’s entire distributed image processing system was damaged. There would be no covering her face.

“Leave the face open and keep the hood up. Put some swagger in your step and you’ll blend in with the crowd.”

“Swagger,” Moira muttered, shaking her head. She unzipped the face of the suit and pulled the front of the hood down so the top of the opening hung just above her eyes. Zau/Heraxo projected an image from the remora across the street into her vision and Moira allowed the kuring hybrid intelligence a little credit. If she slouched her shoulders and walked with a rolling, carefree gait, she might actually look like she belonged in the Azi Zoo hideout.

Assuming that she did not run into anyone who knew the owner of the suit.

She helped herself to the unconscious guard’s sidearm, a battered flechette thrower with seven cartridges remaining the magazine, then dumped his body through the window of the pharmacy. The weapon she slipped into a baggy utility pocket on the outside of the suit.

“Walk in the front like you own the place. Perhaps the {gang members/pitiful humans} within will mistake you for their {friend/homie}, from a distance at least.”

“I still think I should have just snuck in, but we’ll do it your way,” Moira muttered. “And please never say ‘homie’ again.”

She pushed through the rotating door at the front of the department store and found herself standing in a dimly lit, cavernous space. All of the merchandise had long since been looted and the various mobile walls, display cases, and racks had been rearranged to form a low-walled maze of sorts on the ground floor. Or perhaps it was intended as a series of barricades behind which gang members could hide if ever a firefight broke out in their hideaway. The walls, barricades, and even the floor were covered in a brightly colored, intertwining and overlapping array of art, some of which glowed with a faint chemiluminescence. At the center of the space a pair of crossed escalators rose up to the second level. A wispy fog of stage smoke rolled down both escalators, shot through with stuttering lines of laser light and occasionally flashing to opaque as strobes blasted white light down the escalators.

To Moira’s left, a remora flitted past her shoulder, shot up to the ceiling, and skimmed across the space just below the level of the battered, sagging composite tiles. An instant later three new yellow tags appeared on the projected map.

“Three humans are on this level. One is relieving herself in the back left corner, where rudimentary toilet facilities have been established. {You/we} humans can truly be filthy creatures.”

“You said three?”

“Two more are closer to your present location.” The map pulled in on two tagged outlines, seemingly laying side by side on the floor beside the elevators, their shaved scalps joined by tangles of glowing white wire. “We believe them to be asleep, likely in a a shared dream state, probably under the influence of one or more of the drugs being synthesized at this location.”

“Target?”

“Searching the second floor. You should be able to blend into the crowd until we locate him.”

Moira glanced down at her suit, which was now seizing in time to the flashes of light from the escalators, and shook her head. “Blend in.”

Moira ducked her head lower and set off towards the escalators, moving in an unfamiliar rolling stride that she hoped approximated a confident swagger. Dressed as she was, she felt like a psychedelic peacock limping towards a date with a butcher.

Approaching the escalators, Moira’s implants detected an open mesh which advertised itself as an experiential immersion hub. She declined its connection request. No telling what sort of mind altering synesthesia the emcee was pumping into the crowd. If it was anything like the previous B8Z performance she had experienced, the sensory crosswiring would be both thrilling and debilitating.

Climbing the broken escalator, her borrowed suit stuttering wildly as its corrupted software attempted to render the garishly painted surroundings through the thickening smoke, Moira sent to the ship, “Can you analyze the experiental signal without risking yourself? I want to know if I should be following the rhythm of the lights or if there’s a separate soundtrack I should know about.”

A moment later Zau/Heraxo replied, “We are unable to deconstruct the streams without feeding them through our own cognitive matrix.”

“Don’t risk that.”

“We would not have.”

Arriving at the top of the escalator, Moira turned about quickly as she stepped into the open space. Her implants captured the surroundings and, with assistance from the ship, tagged any potential threats. Unfortunately, the tags turned the entire floor into a seething pile of red and yellow blobs.

Moira turned towards the greatest concentration of people. Through the smoke, Moira saw a crowd of people in various states of undress gyrating to an inaudible rhythm. Dancers slammed against one another, ran wildly through the crowd, twirled about with their arms in the air, and danced with ghostly forms of holographic aliens. At the center of the crowd, B8Z stood atop a stage constructed from scrap metal and retail display cases. He wore a skintight full-body haptic sleeve, the elastic fabric studded with winking lights and streaming lines of glowing threads. As the crowd danced around him, each of them interfaced with the experiential hub to some extent, the electroactive fibers woven into the suit tightened and loosened, conveying the mood of the crowd to him through subtle shifts in pressure all across his body. His fingers danced across the haptic suit, triggering and manipulating a multitude of sensory effects ranging from the mix of the music he was piping into the dancers’ auditory implants to the mapping of body parts within their minds.

From the outside, it all looked incredibly weird, as if a crowd of mute performance artists and ghosts had all gathered to worship a matte black fertility god.

“We have located the target,” Zau/Heraxo said.

“Give me a visual.”

“We cannot do that without attracting notice. He is in a private room on the far side of the revel.”

“Guards at the door?”

In response, the projected map shifted to show the second floor of the department store. Nearly a hundred human figures tagged in shades of yellow and orange were crowded together at the end of the closest to Moira. On the far side of the crowd, hidden from sight by the gyrating bodies, clouds of smoke, and flashing lights, the map showed a series of small rooms built into the center of the former retail space. In one of these glowed a distinctive purple tag, indicating the location where Bosami Haupt had been spotted. Between him and the escalator, Moira counted seven red figures, including one standing at the doorway.

“That’s a yes, then.”

“Thus the camouflage.”

Moira raised her right eyebrow skeptically, “Would have been nice to get these numbers before I came in alone.”

“We had to wait for the remoras to get in place before we could get a firm… {that was a lie/just like to keep you on your toes}.”

Not now, Moira thought. Not freaking now. Conflicts within the Zau/Heraxo personality construct were not uncommon, but generally the fixed attention required by a mission was sufficient to keep the syntellect stable.

“We’re just going to take a moment to {work out a tactical/not on your life},” Zau/Heraxo’s voice stuttered into incomprehensibility. It returned, still squelching out confused syllables, then collapsed into static and faded away again.

Then the tactical display disappeared.

“Zau!” Moira hissed, glancing around her as she stepped away from the escalator. The smoke was so dense that she could only see clearly a couple meters in any direction other than back down the escalator. Lasers pierced the smoke in shafts of brilliant green and blue, their roving interrupted by the pulsation of white strobes. A haze of holographic projections rose up around B8Z as the emcee began to tremble and wave his arms as if possessed.

“Zau! Heraxo!” she hissed again. Nothing came back to her but a garbled string of noise that might have been the personalities dueling incoherently over the com unit, or merely a burst of static.

The projected map flickered for an instant, then returned, accompanied by an icon that told Moira she was operating on internal guidance and processing. She willed her wetware to provide more information and was rewarded only with a terse summary of the seven remoras which remained at her disposal, relaying raw observational data to her personal processing mesh.

Moira swore under her breath, then grimaced and stepped forward into the crowd. Without the benefit of receiving any signals from the emcee, she could only depend on her enhanced reflexes to read the actions of the dancers and move through without bumping into too many people. Fortunately, everyone seemed more interested in the illusory performance that the emcee was projecting into their minds than in her presence. Indeed, after she had walked about five meters into the crowd, a path began to open in the sea of bodies before her. Moira glanced up at B8Z to see if he was watching her, but the mysterious emcee was not even looking in her direction. Perhaps, she thought, he had detected her presence as a disturbance in the mood of the crowd, and merely directed the dancers away from her path so that they would not be bothered by her passing.

She successfully avoided the guards who were scattered throughout the crowd of dancers, but as she broke out of the revel and approached the door, Moira was confronted by a guard dressed in cutoff denim shorts and a tattered leather jacket. He launched himself from the wall where he had been leaning and gripped the stock of the automatic rifle slung across his chest.

Cocking his head to one side, the guard called to her, speaking in the peculiar cant shared by many of those who had grown up on the outskirts of Covington society. “Oi! Wassa doin hup er?

Moira raised her hand in greeting, then let it swing down and casually rest on her leg, just outside the pocket in which the flechette gun was stowed.

“Ain’ ja signed ta gard ta dur?”

“Got a message for Bosami,” Moira said, slipping her hand into the external pocket of the camouflage suit.

“Ja ain’ Duncan!” the guard exclaimed. His hands tightened on his weapon and he began to raise his weapon, but he was not fast enough. No minimally enhanced soldier in a gang was likely to be fast enough to stop her.

Moira blinked.

In the space of that blink she gave over control of her fine motor skills to the combat wetware wired throughout her body. Her balance shifted and her hand darted into the pocket of her active camouflage suit, emerging with the flechette gun faster than most people could even have seen. She felt a subtle adjustment in the angle of her wrist, then her finger squeezed the trigger and a flechette round shredded into the face of the guard. He fell and Moira blinked again, regaining conscious control of her body before the dead man had struck the floor.

She leapt forward and slammed her booted foot into the flimsy door that led back into the dressing rooms. The cheap composite wood shattered and Moira dove forward, tumbling into room and coming up with the flechette gun raised.

Bosami Haupt twisted beneath the woman who sat astride him, reaching for the gun that lay poking out from beneath a pile of discarded clothes beside his filthy mattress. The woman continued ride the gang leader, lost in her own world of sex and drug induced bliss. Judging from the trails of animated tattoos running down either side of her spine, the woman was an organized crime groupie from Covington proper. Probably not a threat, unless the drugs caused her to flip.

Moira aimed and squeezed the trigger, shredding the pile of clothing and sending Bosami’s gun skittering across the stained carpet. Flecks of concrete subfloor and shattered flechettes ripped into the mattress and cut into the skin of the couple atop it. Bosami grunted in pain and bucked, thrusting his bedmate up and throwing her back so she fell off of him and sprawled onto the floor at the foot of the mattress, where she continued to moan ecstatically and thrust her hips into the air, seemingly oblivious to what had happened, despite the blood seeping from wounds in her leg and side.

Moira stepped closer, pointed the flechette gun at Bosami’s head and leaned over him, looking down into his dark eyes as she whispered, “Come with me quietly and you’ll be fine. Make a scene and I take your head off. Got it?”

Bosami sneered, but nodded. “You won’t make it out of here alive,” he said.

“I might surprise you,” Moira said. She stood and, keeping the gun trained on Bosami’s chest, stripped off the camouflage suit. She kicked it over to him and said, “Put it on.”

The gang leader grinned and swung his feet around to rest on the chipped concrete floor. “Can I stand?”

“Stay down there. Get the suit on.”

“Hard to do that without standing.”

“Harder still without your face. Now put it on and sit there.” Moira spared a glance for the woman, who still appeared to think she was coupled with Bosami. Clearly not a threat.

Bosami grunted and began pulling the animated material up over his brown, tattooed skin. “Covington send you here? You some sort of bounty hunting bitch? Or you from those Flame Social frakers?”

“That isn’t your concern.” Moira tried to signal for Zau/Heraxo, but the ship ignored her message. She inwardly swore at the syntellect, but kept her face steady. “Now stand up and put your hands behind your back. Get up against the wall.”

Moira pulled a restraint strap from her side pocket and slapped it around Bosami’s wrist. He made to turn around then, but she drove her fist into the back of his skull, slamming his face against the wall. “Don’t even think of it.”

She pulled an interface disruptor from another pocket and slammed it around his neck. One the floor beside them, the woman stopped moaning and opened her eyes. “Bose? Bose, what happened?” she pleaded.

“Your man’s got somewhere else to be kid,” Moira said.

The woman’s eyes dropped out of focus and she collapsed, then crawled towards the mattered, muttering to herself.

Moira grabbed Bosami’s wrists and pushed him out the splintered door. As they passed the body of the dead guard Bosami said, “How many did you kill?”

“Only that one, so far. Come with me quiet like or there will be more.”

“Definitely Covington. Fraking Flamers want me dead. Let’s make a deal. What you say to that?”

“Shut your mouth, that’s what I say.”

They pushed through the crowd, Moira keeping the flechette gun pressed tight against Bosami’s spine and her eyes scanning the crowd of bodies. So far the guards had not reacted, so they clearly did not have a good panic system in place. Still, even Bosami kept quiet, she was now walking through a crowd with a high-powered rifle clearly slung over her shoulder.

As they approached the center of the crowd, Bosami craned his head around and spoke over this shoulder at her. “You donking shade mercs and cops all have the same weakness. You look at us sunnies and ja tink we stupid jest beku we tak odd. Jest beku we donai follow you fooken law.” Bosami stopped walking and turned his head until he could see Moira out of one eye. “But we aren’t stupid. My techs are as good as any you have. We’ve heard of interface disruptors.”

“Yeah?” Moira snapped, shoving him through the crowd towards the escalator. “You gonna tell me you’ve got some magic tech that’ll override them?” She sent another query to Zau/Heraxo. No telling if the gang leader was just screwing with her, but she needed to get out of this place. When the ship didn’t respond she sent a query to the remoras. The ones in this building were available to her, ready and waiting to strike, but those outside the structure had fallen off the mesh.

“No. But I am telling you that the party is over.”

Moira glanced around and saw that many of the people immediately surrounding them had stopped dancing and were even now forming a ring of muscled bodies surrounding them.

This is not going to be pretty, she thought.

“Takedown exit path,” she shouted.

The seven remoras still under her command immediately fired a burst of darts, striking fourteen of the gang members who stood between Moira and the escalator. It wasn’t enough, she knew, but the surprise was more important than the number. She drove Bosami forward, knocking aside the stunned men and women.

The tactic proved more effective then she had hoped. As the drugged targets collapsed, many of them took down one, two, even three of their fellows. Bosami or some other gang member might have interrupted B8Z and alerted the crowd, but the revelers were still suffering the aftereffect of the experiential performance. Reaching the end of the line of darted revelers, Moira was able to push Bosami forward through the crowd with only minimal resistance.

“Takedown armed threats then exit path,” she called.

The drones responded by firing their second wave of darts into the armed guards first, then striking more of the partygoers in her path.

“Sweep ahead, path home,” she commanded the remoras. The small units darted down the escalator and out of the building, some of them hovering in the air on their micro grav drives, others scuttling down the escalators on insectile legs. As Moira shoved through the last of the crowd, she received pings telling her that five more guards had been struck with darts along the path back towards the ship. That left only nine remaining darts, unless she was able to gain control of the other drones again. She hoped that would be enough to get back to the ship without resorting to her rifle.

Arriving at the top of the escalator, Moira shoved Bosami forward so hard that he stumbled, lost his footing, then caught up against the handrail and started sliding and rolling down the steps. The active camouflage, already confused by the lights and smoke, convulsed with a disorienting series of collapsing patterns. Glancing back, Moira saw that more of the dancers had begun to recover from their stupor and several were moving towards lockers at the side of the room. If they were retrieving weapons, that could be bad for her.

The projected map flickered in Moira’s vision and she heard a strained, modulated voice cry out, “Get out of there!” Then the connection failed again.

A slug ripped through the handrail beside Moira. She turned, blinked, her wetware automatically pivoting her arm into optimal position. She felt her finger twitch on the trigger of the flechette gun and saw a woman covered in fluorescent body paint collapse to the floor. An instant later she fired again as a man reached to pull the gun from the hands of his wounded comrade. He dropped, screaming in pain as the metal shards ripped into him.

Turning back down the escalator, Moira saw a large man with glowing tattoos crawling across his bare, muscled chest charging towards the base of the escalator. She dropped the flechette gun and swung her rifle around, even as she leapt down the stairs. The wetware took over again, directing her aim even as she fell. A metal slug carved away from the depleted uranium mass depleted ripped past Bosami’s head and ripped through the center of the tattooed man’s chest before slamming into the floor behind him. The tattooed enforcer buckled backwards and collapsed atop the deep hole that the bullet had ripped into the floor.

“Stand up and make for the door,” Moira called to the gang leader.

Bosami swore and nearly tripped over the body, but he still followed Moira’s instructions and ran towards the door, clutching the wounded side of his face with one hand.

Moira pulled the stun grenade from her belt, ripped the activation tab, and threw it back up the escalator behind her. She leapt over the side of the escalator and landed on the cracked tile floor beside the two conjoined dreamers, then ran for the door. Behind her, the stun grenade finished its countdown and triggered, unleashing a flash of strobed light, tuned to induce disorientation in most people and seizures in those even slightly susceptible to epileptic fits, as well as an intense burst of bowel loosening ultra low frequency sound. The party broke into chaos and the emcee fell to the stage, convulsing as his haptic suit clawed at his flesh in response to the sudden surges of pain and disorientation experienced by the crowd. Even those shielded from the blast of the stun grenade collapsed or threw themselves against display cases and walls as their shared experiential link was overwhelmed by B8Z’s agony.

Despite the sensory assault, over a dozen gang members managed to stumble down the escalator steps just in time to see Moira punch their leader in the jaw and shove him out the door. One of them, a wiry man with a long braid sprouting from the rear of his otherwise shaved head, grabbed one of his companions by the shoulder and held him back as the others raced towards the door. He nodded his head down the street in the opposite direction from where Moira and Bosami had gone. His companion grinned and they set off through the store towards a side exit.

Out on the street, Moira had Bosami by the back of the camouflage suit and was propelling him down the cracked sidewalk as quickly as she could. The right side of his face was burned from the heat of the hypersonic bullet passing mere inches away and Moira figured there was a decent chance that his eardrum on that side had ruptured, but none of that mattered to her. She just needed to get him back to Covington, alive if possible. Moira turned and fired a burst from her rifle, sending the pursuing gang members diving for cover behind piles of rubble as hyper accelerated shards of mildly radioactive mass vaporized the concrete all around them. She shoved Bosami around a corner and pressed forward harder, driving him towards the looming hulk of Zau/Heraxo perched atop their landing legs like an angry black insect.

“Zau, are you listening?” Moira sent, as she continued to push her prisoner towards the port thoracic airlock.

“We regret to inform you that we are not currently {answering to that name/fraking donker we are}. Get in now Moira. They have a tank!”

“A what?”

“A {gorram tank / nothing. We are not} concerned.”

“Who the frak are you talking to?” Bosami demanded. “And, hian, what is that thing?”

As he spoke, the ship raised their segmented rear appendage up above their thoracic section. The energy lance mounted at the tip of the appendage began to crackle with contained energy as Zau/Heraxo primed it to fire.

Moira shoved Bosami up the ramp into the airlock, then turned back as she heard the sharp whine of high torque electric motors accompanied by the echoing crash of rubble caroming off of surrounding buildings. At the far end of the street, an armored assault platform stormed out of a side street, skidded across the tortured asphalt, and slammed into a building before its treads regained their grip and launched it down the street towards Moira.

“I thought you said they didn’t have any tanks!” she screamed. She leapt up the ramp and slammed the cycle switch. The airlock door closed, seemingly at a crawl as Moira switched her slug thrower into nonlethal mode and pressed the barrel against Bosami’s back.

“They have no walking tanks, as you {specified in your query / don’t be such a pedantic ass}. It is merely a tracked weapons platform.”

“Heraxo, eventually I am going to find a way to kill you without harming Zau. And trust me, when that wake comes you are toast.”

The ship replied over both Moira’s implants and the address speakers, the words echoing all around and through her as Zau/Heraxo’s dueling personalities both attempted to convey the information each thought most necessary. The cacophony of syllables grew so intense that Moira wondered whether the ship’s syntellect had further fractured. By the time the airlock completed its cycle she thought that she understood the gist of the situation: The ship was routing power to the forward shields, preparing for launch, and priming the energy lance all at once, and all together that might be a sufficient drain on their strained power system to cause a complete shutdown.

The inner airlock door opened and Moira dragged Bosami through it and towards the aft cargo bay. As much as it made her skin crawl to turn her back on an approaching armored assault platform, she knew that her input would only complicate matters. The energy lance was fully controlled by the targeting computer which, while not actually a part of the compromised Zau/Heraxo syntellect, was designed to cede control to the ship intelligence. As de facto captain of the ship, Moira had ultimate say over whether or not it could actually fire the weapon, but manually overriding the targeting procedures was difficult by design. If she interfered, Moira would just be a third voice in the argument.

“What the frak is this thing?” Bosami demanded, whipping his head around wildly to take in everything that surrounded him. “Some sort of void ship?”

“Yeah. Some sort,” Moira replied.

Around them, and inside Moira’s head, the voices of the ship echoed again, “The platform is well within attack range, but has yet to fire. It is possible that it lacks munitions. Confirm with prisoner?”

Moira opened her mouth to ask Bosami if his stolen military hardware was armed, then snapped her teeth shut as the ship lurched upwards so fast that she and the captured gang leader were thrown to the floor.

“The hells was that?” she demanded, jumping to her feet and kicking Bosami to stand as well.

“We were fired upon by the platform. Our energy consumption analysis determined rapid, minimally compensated evasive action more efficient than engaging the shield for the anticipated yield of munition.”

The ship now hovered ten meters above the ground. The solid slug, propelled at supersonic speeds by the railgun mounted to the front of the assault platform, shot past only two meters beneath the ship and slammed into the face of the abandoned office tower behind it. Aboard the armored assault platform, the twitchy gang member slammed his fist on the wall beside his gunner station and swore. His companion with the braid scowled and pushed the accelerator forward, hoping to get beneath the strange, insectile ship before the energy lance on its whipping, scorpion like tail finished charging.

“Can you get away without killing them?” Moira asked.

“Of course we can. That was not a smart munition, nor was it explosive. The fools appear to have only basic kinetic weapons. Easily avoided.”

“Then let’s get out of here…”

The ship pivoted its rear appendage, whipping it down beneath itself with speed that ought to have been impossible for such a mass of hardware. The lance sparked blueish white, releasing a bolt of coherent plasma attuned to disrupt the specific atomic frequency of the assault platform’s armor. The bolt slammed into the platform, melting the armor and twisting it inward until it bulged, buckled, and gave way.

The assault platform’s power cells overheated in an instant and exploded, ripping the aged war machine apart.

“We have eliminated the threat. Recalling remoras and setting a maximally conservative course for Covington,” Zau/Heraxo said. They rose up above the height of all but the tallest of the ruined buildings, pivoted to face the gleaming dot on the distant face of the world that was Covington, and applied forward thrust.

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