Both bottles of wine had been drunk and the pair of humans at the table was well into their digestives, strong coffee for Estha and a heady smoked tea for Moira, before Moira finished her story. Throughout the tale, Estha had kept his eyes on Moira, listening earnestly as she narrated the events that had led to Zau’s death. When she finally halted and lowered her head to wipe away the tears that had rolled down her cheeks as she finished her tale, Estha reached across the table and lay his hand across Moira’s.
“Thank you for sharing that with me. Not only because it explains the anomalies in…” he hesitated, concerned that it might be too much to say the name of Moira’s lover or the ship which had killed her.
Moira sniffed deeply, tilted her head to one side, and said, “It explains a lot, Bishop Leocratis. That wake changed everything. My whole life. Our future together. After that wake there was no way that I could sell the ship to risk it being captured by any government. Ever since we’ve mostly stuck to the fringes, trawling the liberty and corparchy zones for enough work to repair the ship, trying to keep a low profile. Not that it’s worked.”
“The ship is rather remarkable.”
Moira chuckled and gave Estha a wry smile. “It is at that.”
“So Zau’s mind was uploaded into the ship’s network?”
“Yes. I knew within minutes that the transfer had worked. I could hear her voice crying out, screaming in pain amid all the other voices. It was nearly a cycle before the merged intelligence was capable of expressing a coherent thought, and that whole time I wondered whether I had sentenced Zau to something worse than death. Sometimes I even thought about destroying the processing core. Setting her free. But then the ship started to speak to me.”
“Heraxo. And Zau. Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Sometimes both of them.”
“The ship learned to communicate in human language from Zau?”
“That was only the start of it. I’ve never been able to get a straight answer from the ship, but I’m sure there are at least a dozen alien minds merged into that intelligence along with Moira. The crew knew that they were trapped in the Shell and likely to die, so rather than starving to death in that canyon, they employed an emergency protocol to ensure that their memories and personalities remained intact. Unfortunately, the process didn’t go entirely as planned and much of the ship’s memory was overwritten with the data from the uploaded minds. When I uploaded Zau her personality somehow managed to gain a position equal to all the others combined.”
“It must be chaos within the synthetic intelligence processing core,” Estha whispered, his eyes fixing on the wall behind Moira as he attempted to imagine what effect co-processing so many minds would have on the systems he had studied. Syntellect architecture was, by necessity, even more flexible than the human brain, the code frequently operating within a virtualized distributed hypervisor which allowed it to run on multiple hardware architectures. But to manage more than two or three distinct personalities within a single intellect was unheard of, and to his knowledge all attempts at merging a stored human consciousness with an artificial intellect had proved disastrous.
“The psychological effects of human and alien minds attempting to work in concert with one another as a hive mind…”
“Boggles the mind, eh?” Moira asked, giving him a lopsided smile.
Estha blinked and returned his attention to Moira. “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine the mental agony that you must have endured since the merging. To live every wake with one’s lover, and yet to not be able to touch her, or even be sure whether her mind is the one speaking to you… It must be terribly difficult.”
Moira shrugged and smiled sadly. “Yeah, well, you get used to it. Sort of. I’m just glad we didn’t have a child.”
“Was that likely?”
“Oh, absolutely. We were still trying to decide how we would go about it. Who would carry. Whether we would use a donor or parthenogenesis. You know, the usual debates two women have when they want to conceive.”
Moira took a long, contemplative sip of her tea, then set the cup down and waved a hand towards Estha. “I’m sorry, Bishop. We didn’t come to dinner to talk your ears off about my own problems.”
“No trouble at all, Moira. Frankly, I’m the one who brought the subject up. I presume you want to discuss the matter of Dyson Satori?”
“After all of that happened with Zau, we had to make some significant changes to our plans. Not just the child thing. I’ve got some skills that apply well to mercenary work, so once we managed to get the ship flying again I started picking up bounty jobs.”
Estha scowled and lay his hands on the table, looking critically at Moira through narrowed eyes. “Please tell me you aren’t here hunting for this Dyson. Moira, I am immensely grateful to you for bringing the Cathedral such a fascinating mind to study, but I must insist that you do not involve me in any bounty activities.”
“This isn’t bounty business,” Moira said. “No, I’m basically here looking for a missing kid, except he’s something like twenty five cycles. The family is just worried that their prodigal prodigy might be dead, so they sent me to try and find him.”
“Perhaps he simply wishes to be left alone.”
“The thought had crossed my mind.” Moira drained the last of her tea and set the delicate cup down on a saucer painted with a mandala of synaptic connections. Leaning forward, she gave Estha a narrow grin and said in a half whisper, “All I need to do is find Dyson and deliver message. I’d like him to return with me, since that brings a bonus, but if I can just get him to record a message and return with me, that would be enough.”
Estha picked up his coffee cup and leaned back in the chair, watching Moira as he sipped at the thick brown liquid. Moira leaned back and cocked a smile in his direction, enjoying the lingering haze of the wine as she waited.
Finally Estha sighed and set his glass down on the table. He folded his hands on the tabletop in front of him and gave Moira a wan smile. “You have captured my interest, Moira. Not only because you are the companion of Zau/Heraxo, but because I can’t help but wonder if you could be of service to the Takni Gothren. We always need people who can aid the faith in tracking down more exotic exemplars of technology.”
“I’m not a member of your faith,” Moira said, holding a hand up between them. “Not to offend, but I don’t want to give the impression that I am going to convert in exchange for your help.”
Estha chuckled and shook his head. He wave Moira’s words away and replied, “Call this business. Anyone who can find a genuine exo artifact and protect it from, well, everyone who must be trying to take control of it, that’s a person who could be very useful to me. I will do what I can to find out where this Dyson Satori is, if you will promise to owe the faith a favor.”
“I’m not asking for your soul,” Estha said, grinning. “At some point we might need an operative to retrieve a particularly interesting piece of technology from a hostile zone.”
“So long as the faith foots the bill for raw, I’ll put you down for a job on credit, assuming you can get me to Dyson.”
Estha raised his hand and the serving drone appeared. “I’d say this calls for another drink.”