Dyson's Angel

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Chapter 16

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

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

“I’d kill to know how they got here.”

“The ship crashed. Probably engine failure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then they found the memory core.

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

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

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

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

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

It was a cage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope.”

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

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

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

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

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

“And those voices?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s interesting,” Moira said.

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

Moira scowled and did not immediately reply.

“You’ve found something.”

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

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

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

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

“Everything okay?” Moira asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Spit it out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The voices returned.

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

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

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

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

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

The damaged power cell exploded.

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

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

“Zau!” Moira shouted.

No response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I…” Zau gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moira slammed her hand down on the button.

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

Then it winked out and the cage was empty.

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