Dyson's Angel

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Chapter 20

“We are not alone,” Zau/Heraxo announced as the ship ascended through the thinning air above Zone Takni Gothren, rising silently on an invisible wave of distorted gravity.

“When are we ever?” Moira asked. She was sitting cross-legged in front of the holographic memory unit that Bishop Estha had gifted to the ship, examining the interface. She would have no difficulty moving it to the processing core through the equipment airlock, but she worried about plugging such a powerful device into Zau/Heraxo’s network even more than she had worried about the power cell that Evangeline Satori had offered in payment. The Takni Gothren had been more than generous and Moira wanted to believe that Estha had been genuine in his offering of work and continued assistance, if only so she and Zau/Heraxo might finally have a genuine ally for once, but she could not shake the suspicious nature that had kept her alive for so long.

“There’s a ship approaching us. It’s not making any threats, but we have been tracking it for nearly an hour now and each time we adjust our vector or velocity it has adjusted to a new intercept course.”

“Think it could be Haupt?”

“Doubtful. Here, look…”

Moira blinked and a ship appeared in her virtual vision. It was smaller than Zau/Heraxo and, judging from its energy signature, appeared to be running a low end grav drive powered by a failing grid tap. “Nothing we can’t handle,” she said, turning her attention back to the memory unit. “Hells, you could probably get it to self destruct by pushing our acceleration. I’ve seen children tune a grid tap better than the have.”

“Is that an order?”

“No!” Moira shouted. She gestured for the image to magnify and examined the markings on the ship hull. “I recognize those markings. What are they?”

“They match the crest of the ruling family of New Libertalia.”

“Gorram it, I thought we told them no.”

“We did.”

“Then why the temning frak are they following us?”

“We are unable to conjecture on that regard,” Zau/Heraxo replied. Before Moira could say anything else, the ship added, “We are prepared for jump, but there is a problem.”

Moira swore and collapsed the image of the New Libertalia void ship to a small image in her peripheral vision. “What is it now? Don’t tell me you were mucking about in the jump core while we were in Takni Gothren.”

A model of the Shell appeared in Moira’s vision with their position and that of the approaching ship marked by symbols that glowed against the intractable grid of the zone borders. “Doubtless we could outrun the ship, even on our conventional drive. The difficulty is that if they have a lock on our signature they could certainly track us. If we jump they might able able to identify our exit point.”

“Because it’s on this side of Sol,” Moira said, nodding to herself. While Zau/Heraxo’s jump drive was remarkable, and quite possibly unique, it was not magical. The distortions it caused in space time could be measured by grid taps and passive sensors for hundreds of kilometers and the visual display of energy released by the jump could be seen from across the Shell if one were looking at the right place.

“Additionally, there {is some/isn’t any} chance that the shockwave from our transition could overwhelm their grid tap.”

Moira stood and dusted herself off, more reflexively than out of necessity since the deck had been scrubbed clean by Zau/Heraxo’s midge swarms. “So we need to put some space between us then jump someplace else first. On the other side of Sol. I don’t like putting any unnecessary strain on the jump core, but I also don’t like the idea of these donkers following us to Zone Spira.”

“Nor do we, but we dislike the prospect of leading any potential {enemies/rivals} to our {objective/prey} most of all.”

“Plot a jump then, someplace on the far side of Sol,” Moira said, turning away from the holographic memory unit and striding towards the doorway to the port thoracic corridor. “I’m on my way to the bridge.”

“We need no assistance,” Zau/Heraxo announced.

Deep in the machinery of the jump core, energies not generally observed outside the heart of a supernova churned, then surged forth along pathways of superconducting materials, to be discharged along finely tuned paths defined by shimmering folds of energy fields. The fabric of the universe unraveled, folded, and formed into a hole that simultaneously had no depth to it and passed through millions of kilometers of the void. The ship slipped through the hole, wreathed in a protective cage of exotic energy and tangled gravity.

“They’re making a jump, Captain,” the navigation officer of the Seth Ascendant declared, looking up from his console.

Captain Jaarvic scowled at the forward view screen, where the Zau/Heraxo was just disappearing into a vortex of light. “Did you hail them?”

“You heard me try, Cap,” the communication officer said. “All standard frequencies. I know they heard us, but all I got back was static and insults. Some were rather creative.”

“Track them. We’re not going to take no for answer this time,” Jaarvic snapped.

“No problem. I’ve already got a lock on their exit point,” navigation said. She tapped at her console and a window opened on the forward display, showing a wireframe diagram of the Shell with two points marked on it. “Looks like they will emerge about seventy million clicks from here, above Zone Spira.”

“Drek,” Jaarvic muttered. He did not have time to go chasing Zau/Heraxo all over the Shell. Reports from home only got worse every wake. If there was any hope of turning the tide of the war, they needed a new weapon. They needed alien tech. The jump drive alone was a piece of tech that no human culture had managed to duplicate. With the alien ship in his possession he could extract as many weapons as possible, then sell the jump drive technology to another zonal government in exchange for military aid. His brother had entrusted him with this mission and he could not let the family down.

“Set an intercept course as soon as you have their exit vector. And signal home to see if we have any friendly ships in that region. We can’t waste another two weeks on hard acceleration if…”

“Captain!” the engineering officer cried, cutting Jaarvic off. “The jump. It’s…”

“Collapsing,” Jaarvic breathed. “Oh my gods. Nav, get us out of here. Now!”

The power required to unravel the universe and craft a pathway through it was exponentially greater than that needed to neatly close the rift behind the ship, but even that power requirement was greater than the total draw of a small city. The Zau/Heraxo’s damaged grid tap was not able to provide sufficient power on its own, but augmented by the array of power cells, the ship’s power system was just sufficient to complete a jump safely.

Or it would have been, if the extrusion had not been drawing upon the power of the jump core to feed itself.

Acting on the knowledge provided by the seed its sire had provided, the extrusion had nearly completed the process of transforming itself into a living, self aware, self-sufficient entity. It lacked only a method of feeding from the energy grid, rather than on any form of physical matter. As the extrusion felt the jump closing, it knew that it had not yet gathered enough energy to finish crafting its grid tap. Only the smallest amount of energy was needed, relative to that which it had already siphoned away from the chaos of the universe as the ship passed through the jump, so the extrusion reached again into the power system of the jump core and grasped what it needed.

It was too much.

The ship’s power network detected the unanticipated energy shortfall and sent an emergency shutdown command to the jump core. The subsystem in charge of the subtle calculations required to perform a jump received the message and, for the first time since Moira and Zau had reawakened it, it was forced to weigh the many possible results of a failed jump, none of which were particularly good. After several nanoseconds of panic, the subsystem reached a decision, sent it to the governing personality for approval, and began making preparations for the sudden changes that would be necessary to protect the ship as best it could.

“Temno hian frak,” Zau/Heraxo said.

Moira just had time to look up towards the nearest sensor and open her mouth to reply before the lights went out, leaving only the faint glow of three bioluminescent stripes, painted along the edges of the deck and down the center of the ceiling. She reached out a hand to find the wall of the corridor, then swore as her sudden movement tore her feet from the floor. The artificial gravity had been killed along with the lights.

“Hold on to something!” Zau/Heraxo shouted over all the com systems available to it. The speakers cracked again, but only a distorted fuzz came out as the ship’s governing intelligence collapsed under the load of managing all of the requests from subsystems.

Nearly a full second had passed and the jump core, power management, and ship defense subsystems were debating whether they ought to give the governing intelligence any more time before taking matters into their own hands when the approval came down. Working together in a delicately timed dance, coordinated at microsecond scales by the power management subsystem, the ship dropped support to all but the most essential systems, ramped up power to the rearward shield, and ramped the jump core down in an emergency shut down procedure that toed the edge of a full collapse.

In the void behind the ship, the carefully knit hole in the universe collapsed in a tangle of chaotic gravity and energy.

Pulled upon by the intractable laws of the universe, the tangled threads of space-time shivered, twisted, and snapped back into place, pouring out twin spears of exotic energy and distorted gravity at both ends of Zau/Heraxo’s jump. The blast waves rolled outward, shivering the very structure of space and time as the universe repaired itself.

Near the origin point of the jump, the crew of the Seth Ascendant detected the oncoming anomaly. Captain Jaarvic ordered all power diverted to the forward shields in a desperate bid to protect the ship from the anomaly, but it was too late. The shields of the Seth Ascendant had been designed to protect the fast scout ship from glancing weapons fire and the heat of atmospheric entry, not from the intense gravitational distortion of a collapsing jump node. The wave swept into, over, and through the ship, setting up harmonic vibrations throughout the hull. The grid tap, built inexpertly from designs stolen from other, more advanced zones, lost contact with the energy grid, stuttered as it attempted to regain access, then overloaded with an explosion that tore a hole in the rear of the ship. The hull shuddered visibly, twisted, then burst apart in a crystalline spray of venting atmosphere and shattering composites.

Synthetic intelligences and human engineers through Zone Takni Gothren had already been watching Zau/Heraxo’s jump with interest, hoping to gather data which might allow them to reverse engineer the jump core. When they detected the sudden collapse of the jump and the destruction of the scout ship, the syntellects forwarded a warning to the restrillect that governed the protective shields which covered much of the zone. Within seconds, the majority of the zone’s landmass was obscured beneath a shimmering haze of protective energy fields. This proved unnecessary, as the blast had dissipated to a hardly detectable shimmy in gravity by the time it reached ground level, but the syntellects who watched over the human residents of Zone Takni Gothren were pleased that they had responded so promptly.

The blast wave struck Zau/Heraxo’s rearward shields with the force of a fusion explosion. Knowing what was coming, the subsystem in charge of the ship’s shields coopted most of the ship’s processing power and ramped its perception of time until it could watch the impact unfold at a rate which would have taken over an hour to playback at the standard human rate of cognition. Zau/Heraxo’s governing personality protested, argued amongst itself for several microseconds, then surrendered and allowed itself to collapse into a hibernation state in the interest of actually surviving the coming disaster. The shield subsystem orchestrated a delicate tune with what little remained of the power reserves, pulsating the rearward fields in harmony with the onrushing wave of gravity and high-intensity exotic energy until its reserves ran down and the power output of the grid tap was insufficient to maintain the shield.

All of which occurred in the three seconds between the lights going out and the wave striking the ship.

The thoracic corridor thrummed around Moira, the vibrations bouncing her away from the wall, then the corridor seemed slip around her as the ship was thrown forward by the impact of the blast. Moira had only a second to wonder at her good fortune at not being struck by a support column when a blast of air, compressed to the rear of the ship by the sudden motion, slammed into her from behind. She tumbled forward, scraped along the ceiling for several meters before bouncing off to carom off the deck, then crashed into the blast doors separating the bridge from the thoracic corridor.

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