Dyson's Angel

By Otto Linke All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Drama

Chapter 4

“I want to celebrate,” Moira said as she strode back towards the ship.

Zau/Heraxo’s avatar bobbed beside her, their concentric rings splayed out at wide angles, giving them the appearance of a floating seed cast from brass. “The exchange could have been transacted more smoothly.”

“Obviously, but we got out of it with enough credit to repair and restock. Access the shopping list and start putting in orders, will you?”

“We are not your butler.”

“Oh, stuff the Heraxo drek and lend a hand. Speaking of which, how about a ride back to the ship?”

The drone spun their rings and snapped them into a flat disc parallel to the ground, a gesture Moira recognized as akin to a human stiffening their spine and crossing their arms. “We are not your taxi. We are a fully integrated drone avatar.”

“Give us a lift Zau/Heraxo. We’ll get back to the ship in a quarter the time. Then you’ll have more time to grouse about clogged coolant lines or malfunctioning midges.”

Grudgingly, with far more clicking and whirring than was strictly necessary, the avatar fully pivoted their rings to form stirrups and handholds for Moira. They sank down and waited until she had stepped onto the stirrups and grasped the forward rings, then rose up and jumped from the pedestrian walk into the speeding traffic of cargo drones and automated vehicles speeding down the street. The wind whipped at Moira’s short hair and tore at her face, obliging her to lean forward and push her goggles down with the crook of an elbow. She leaned into the wind and breathed deeply, enjoying the tangy scent of exotic particles from the drone’s gravdrive mingled with the human musk of the city. Desk clerks be damned, she had just raked in more credit on a single bounty than she had earned in ten, maybe fifteen cycles. Much of the windfall would have to be spent on restocking the ship’s supply of raw or banked to pay for their eventual retirement, but for the moment it felt good to have a bit of spare credit.

Moira’s mood remained ebullient as the drone deposited her in the cargo hold of Zau/Heraxo, now mercifully clean thanks to the ministrations of the ship’s midges. She hurried through the thoracic hatch and up the corridors to her compartment, where she changed out of her armored combat jumpsuit and into something more appropriate for a night of celebrating her newfound wealth. She selected an elegant dress dress of midgespun silk which hung from her bare shoulders on narrow black straps which merged seamlessly into the bodice. It draped over her in slippery folds of black which faded to a deep maroon somewhere around her hips before ending in a purple fringe just below her knees. She paused for a moment to admire her reflection in the mirror. She did not have enough opportunities to wear clothes like this, constructed solely for appearance with no thought given to midge repulsion or chemical filtration.

Even when preparing for an evening of celebration, Moira could not let her guard down completely. She shook the dust out of her maroon scarf and wound it loosely around her neck. Checking her appearance again, she nodded to herself in satisfaction. The scarf appeared stylish enough, but could easily be pulled up to act as a filter or whipped off to be used as a weapon. She stepped into a pair of black flats then sat at her desk to brush her short red and black hair into a semblance of order, then set her brush down on the desktop.

She hesitated, then reached for the brushed steel box.

“No point being unprepared,” she whispered to herself.

Opening the box, she gazed at the seething blackness within. Moira did not especially like midges, especially the sort of swarm that was capable of independent action rather than being slaved to a separate command structure, but the little bastards did have their uses. She dipped a finger into the churning black mound within the box and gave the mental command that woke the swarm from its dormant state.

Responding to commands from her integrated mesh, the swarm crawled up Moira’s finger, hand, and forearm in a squirming line of black, then slipped around her bicep and down her dress. She stood and gave a slight shudder as the midge swarm crawled down her side, over her hip, and encircled her thigh, arranging itself into an abstract geometric pattern before going dormant again.

Combat midges were officially banned in most zones, including Covington. Not that anybody in this zone was especially careful about following what passed for law. If she was stopped by Covington Security, or their equivalent in any other zone, and found to be carrying midges with combat software she would be lucky to get off with storage. More likely the judicial apparatus would sentence her to forced labor cleaning raw accretion from mining drones until her internal organs failed from heavy matter contamination.

“The orders have begun to arrive,” Zau/Heraxo announced. Then they whispered into her ear, “And you look beautiful.”

Moira smiled, then her smile faded from radiant to sad. “Can you give me a lift to Downtown?”

“Going truly high class are we?”

“I want to talk to Fidel. Maybe he can give us some insight on what offers to take.”

Zau/Heraxo made a sound that was half way between a human scoffing and a public address system experiencing feedback. “That place does not allow drones inside. We will be left drifting lonely in the street while you are drinking with our contacts.”

“I’m not going to be long. Why don’t you just log in to whatever freaky syntellect chat network you frequent when we’re in town.” Moira gave her scarf one last adjustment, grabbed her goggles, and strode out the door of her compartment.

“We are {one/two} of only {seven/eight} fully aware artificial intellects known to exist in this zone. Of those, four were originally created for manipulating the local and Shell-wide economic markets but have since gained independence. Have you any idea how dull it is to interact with an entity for which the entirety of existence is a fiscal calculation? It is nearly as dull as {maintaining a human relationship / talking at a brick wall}. ”

“Whatever. Get your avatar to the airlock and give me a ride. I want it nearby in case anything goes wrong. Speaking of which,” Moira paused and looked towards the nearest visual sensor. “How many remoras do we have remaining? I didn’t see any in the cargo bay.”

“Eight.”

“Eight!” Moira exclaimed. She shook her head and started walking again. “We had more than a dozen when we went after Haupt.”

“Some were lost when…” the Zau/Heraxo’s voice crackled into incomprehensibility.

“I get it. When you had your hissy fit.”

The ship did not reply, so Moira decided not to press it. It did not matter. Except for their grav drives, which Moira did not trust Zau/Heraxo to safely construct, the remoras were easy to produce in the matter recompiler. She would simply have to put in an order for more miniature grav drives with her supplier. But that could all wait until waking.

Moira cycled through the port dorsal airlock and found Zau/Heraxo’s avatar drone waiting for her outside, rings already configured into ride mode. It wobbled to acknowledge her and said, “We {expect you will demand / figure you would like} us to put up a windscreen field to keep your hair neat.”

“No worries on that account. Just make it fun and quick,” Moira said, pulling down her goggles and climbing aboard the drone.

“We are still attempting to assimilate your concept of fun,” Zau/Heraxo said.

The avatar drone shot away from the crowded shipyard towards the nearest traffic artery. Moira leaned into the motion, holding the ring tightly and grinning into the wind as it whipped past her face. Her dress crackled as it whipped out behind her like the trail of a firework, streaking through the streets of Covington.

Zau/Heraxo directed their avatar rapidly through the city, slipping between larger vehicles until they reached the inner districts and the rugged cargo haulers gave way to small personal transports interspersed with armored vehicles presumably carrying celebrities or executives from the major corps. The drone sped through these, causing several armored transports to suddenly bristle with weaponry as they detected the drone approaching at high speed, then settle to a more guarded position as their threat assessment algorithms determined that the drone would slip past them.

They emerged from the sprawl of the city fringe onto the central highway that skirted the kilometer wide pit that had once been the mine around which Covington had grown. The drone skipped over several lanes of traffic and plunged down the side of the pit, skimming past other vehicles as it dropped precipitously towards the floor of the pit two kilometers below. The crackling glow of neon lights streaked past them on all sides as they sped past clubs, traffic lanes, and the personal residences of Covington celebrities.

“The local traffic management restrillect is quite displeased with us,” Zau/Heraxo said through Moira’s implants. “I will deposit you at the club then take a tour of the city to confuse it. Try to not require rescue for at least ten minutes.”

Moira sent an acknowledgment, but did not even bother trying to speak as the wind continued to whip past her.

The avatar drone decelerated rapidly and came to a halt outside Moira’s destination just long enough for her to step off, then shot back up into the air and disappeared amid the properly licensed delivery drones that streamed through the shaded sky of Downtown.

Moira watched the drone disappear into the rush, then approached the neon outlined double doors of the Blue Turtle restclub. A bouncer stood at the center of the doors, her bulging, oiled muscles and chromed artificial arms gleaming in the blue halo. She raised a sculpted eyebrow and said, “Impressive arrival, but it’s not going to get you in unless you’re a member.”

Moira held up her left hand towards the bouncer and signaled her mesh to display her membership credentials. Her fingers twitched, minutely adjusting their alignment, as the holographic projector in her palm displayed a complex three dimensional object in front of her. The model was derived from a timestamped private key algorithm which could only be accessed by members of the club. The shape changed every wake and the coloration indicated each member’s particular standing and credit limit within the club.

The bouncer inclined her head in respect as the club mesh informed her of Moira’s status. “Welcome back, Moira. I ought to have recognized a member of your standing.” She stepped to the side and gestured for Moira to pass, bowing slightly as the doors responded to her command and swung open.

Moira nodded absently and entered the atrium of the Blue Turtle, which consisted of a hallway two meters wide and three long, illuminated with a soft, continually shifting light which emanated from the iridescent walls. The outer doors whispered shut behind her and Moira’s mesh signaled her that she was being invited to join an experiential network which offered a variety of sensory options. She hesitated, initially intending to reject all connections, then shrugged and enabled the auditory channel marked as The Pulse. A thumping, insistent, vaguely organic soundtrack began to play through her implants, fading into hearing as if she were slowly walking towards a distant gathering of drummers. She strode forward and inner doors slid into the walls as she approached, revealing the main floor of the club.

A waist high bar arced around the walls of the round room, interrupted only by narrow openings which led to private rooms, refreshers, and the hallway through which Moira entered the club. The wall behind the bar was covered in curved screens which were currently displaying an animated, pre-enclosure work of art depicting a swarm of bees emerging from their hives, transforming into butterflies mid-flight, then morphing into fish which swam through a honeyed ocean until they petrified into beehives and the cycle started over again. The central floor was tiled with the same glowing, iridescent materials as the walls in the entrance hall, illuminating the people on the dance floor with a continually shifting rainbow of soft light. No deejay was visible because the Blue Turtle employed a restrillect to sample the heart rates and endorphin levels of everyone on the dance floor and adjust the music dynamically in response to their emotional state.

Moira stepped onto the dance floor and grinned as it reacted to her presence, sending out watery ripples of blue and green light around her as she walked slowly around the knots of dancers. A notice blinked into her vision, offering an experimental visual overlay. Moira accessed the description, hesitated for an instant, then activated it as well. A dozen pearlescent lines of ghostly light erupted from the air above her head, arcing through the room on ballistic trajectories before plunging back into the crowd over the heads of as many people. Each was colored a different shade, indicating the restrillect’s assessment of their potential compatibility and behavioral objectives. No explanation was provided, but Moira could infer the coding of each color from the individuals to which the lines pointed. A white line led to a man who sat alone on a doublewide cushioned bench between the bar and the dance floor, his body language suggesting that he was somehow feeling lonely amidst the crowd. A pale green line traced to a woman dancing nearby who, as Moira paused to watch her for a moment, appeared to be joyfully slipping from one dancer to another with no interest in pulling any of them into an exclusive partnership. A pink line directed her attention to a shirtless man in tight black pants who, judging by his intensely toned physique and eager face, was probably looking to bed multiple partners before leaving the club.

Moira sighed and instructed her mesh to disable that particular layer, for the moment at least. She definitely intended to spend some of the evening dancing, perhaps even find herself some companionship if she could work up the proper mood, but she had business to conduct before allowing herself to indulge.

She approached the bar and was immediately greeted by a bartender. “Moira! Welcome back. What can I get you?”

Moira did not recognize the youngish man behind the bar. She eyed his bright green hair and bare, toned shoulders for a moment, considering querying the club mesh for his identity, but decided against it. “Mix me something delightful, and let Fidel know that I need to see him.”

The bartender raised his eyebrows for an instant and opened his mouth as if preparing to make an excuse for the owner of the Blue Turtle, but then he must have reviewed her profile in his overlay because his lips smoothly turned the gape into a smile. “Of course. I’m notifying him right now. As for that drink…” he pursed his lips, set one hand on a hip clad in expensively weathered denim, and drummed the fingers of the other on the bar as his eyes took on a distant focus. “I think I have just the thing for you. It’s brand new, just hit my social this offing, but everyone who has tried it loves it.”

“What is it?” Moira asked, leaning her elbows on the counter and resting her chin on her twined fingers.

The bartender bent to pull a martini glass from beneath the bar and tossed it into the air with a flick that set it spinning and twinkling with opalescent light. He turned and snagged two bottles from the wall behind him, then plucked the glass from the air and set it on the bar while in the same motion pouring out a healthy portion of crystal clear rum. “Nobody has quite agreed on a name yet, too many different suggestions going around right now.” He added a dose of white sweet and sour syrup to the glass, returned the both bottles to the shelf, then reached below the bar and returned with a single pill pinched between the fingertips of his right hand and a pair of tongs bearing a smoking crystal of dry ice in his left. “Personally, I call it the Bosh. As in ‘Boss Haupt’ mashed together and with a hint of absurdism.” He dropped the pill into the glass, then added the dry ice. The liquid in the martini glass began to bubble as gasses escaped from the melting dry ice, dissolving the pill and stirring all of the ingredients together into a white froth.

Moira raised an eyebrow. News of her bounty couldn’t have spread so quickly, could it? Surely the gang would try to keep it secret so they wouldn’t look weak to their rivals.

“There you go!” the bartender announced with obvious pride as the last of the condensate smoke drifted away, leaving a chilly white beverage in the glass. “A perfectly balanced sour white laced with just a tab of completely legal transport, named in honor of the guy who won’t be selling knockoff T again any time soon.”

Moira raised an eyebrow and glanced between the glass and the bartender. “Rum and T? That sounds like a powerful mix.”

“It is. That’s the point. Get a little alcohol in your system because, well, you’re in a restclub, and enjoy the bittersweet numbness it brings while you wait for the T to kick in. Since you’re just sipping the stuff, not popping a whole pill at once, it is a nice, long, slow, smooth high.” As he spoke, the bartender gently flapped his arms, illustrating the gradual ascent that his drink promised.

“Thanks,” Moira said, picking up the drink. She sipped at it, gave the bartender a nod to acknowledge that it was to her liking, then turned to survey the dance floor.

It had been many cycles since she had gone dancing. Longer still since she had dared to choose a partner for a few hours of sensual entertainment. It was not that she lacked the desire, she was fairly bursting with frustration, and the thrill of combat coupled with a successful bounty retrieval had her hungry for some release, but she knew that any sexual encounter would be followed by hours, if not days, of guilt. No, guilt was the wrong word for it. Moira was far from prudish, but any time she was with a partner other than Zau she felt an intense sadness that she could not share that moment of bliss with the love of her life. She had spoken with Zau/Heraxo about this several times, but each had been a disaster as the syntellect veered sharply between loving reassurances and cruel jokes about the messy nature of human sexuality.

Moira took a sip from her glass and sighed deeply, hoping the T would kick in soon.

“If the drink is that bad I might have to fire Ivor.”

Moira turned to find Fidel standing behind the bar, watching her. He was a short, overweight man who had shaved his hair long before he had gone prematurely bald. He was dressed in bright blue elastic pants and a black fishnet shirt and wore several platinum chains around his neck. In a society where muscles could be toned, fat deconstructed, and hair follicles rejuvenated by midges for a nominal price, where physical perfection was achievable with a three wake stay in a medical bay, Fidel’s choice to remain short, bald, and nearly four hundred pounds was more an act of defiance than a medical condition. He was also nearly seventy years old and, despite his apparent physical deficiencies, moved about the bar with the energy of a man a quarter his age and weight, leading Moira to suspect that Fidel employed midge treatments to protect his vital organs and strengthen his muscles beneath all the fat.

“The drink is good,” Moira said. “I’m just lamenting my fate.”

“Way I hear it you just nabbed one of the biggest bounties in Covington history.”

Behind Fidel, the bartender named Ivor snapped his head around to gawk at Moira. Apparently that little tidbit hadn’t been in either her club profile or his social.

“Hian. Does everyone know about that?” Moira asked.

“Not yet, but it can’t be long before your name hits the nets. As you can taste, word of Haupt’s capture is already out.”

Moira downed the rest of her drink in a single gulp and set the glass down on the bar. “Give me another Ivor. I’ll be in Fidel’s office.” She raised an eyebrow at the proprietor.

“Come on back, since you have already invited yourself.” Fidel waved towards a break in the counter a meter to his left, then turned and strode through a curtain of electric ropes dripping multicolored light.

Moira followed him and, after passing several rooms with closed doors through which Moira could hear all manner of laughter, ecstatic cries, and loud off-key singing, found herself in Fidel’s spacious office. She perched on the plush red cushion of a high backed wooden chair as Fidel took his seat behind the broad glass topped white oak desk. For a moment they regarded each other across the expanse, then Fidel shook his head, gave Moira an ironic smile and tapped a button on the side of his desk. The glass in front of him lit up and minute ridges bulged up from the surface, forming the outlines of a manual keyboard.

“You’ve really kicked over a can of midges, Moira.” Holograms sprang to life above the desk and the glass surface was covered in virtual pages of print. Video feeds from all the major Covington news channels displayed perfectly groomed anchors opining as info cubes over their shoulders danced with official Security holovids of Bosami Haupt and various members of his gang. “Azi Zoo has already posted their own bounty offering a sizable stash of drugs and stolen data worth at least what you were paid to anyone who returns their leader to them alive. Plus there’s a credit bonus for bringing you in with him.”

“Hain bi temno.”

“That part isn’t as bad as it could be. They aren’t offering much for you alone, and the major news feeds are withholding your identity from their reports for the moment, so I don’t think anyone is likely to kill or kidnap you unless they also have a solid plan for rescuing Haupt.”

“Then it isn’t so bad,” Moira said. As soon as she spoke the words, she wondered whether she was truly unconcerned, or if that was the transport kicking in.

A man cleared his throat behind Moira. She turned to see Ivor approaching with another ice cold Bosh. “Do drink this one more slowly, Moira. The rest is still young I can’t serve you more than three transport tabs a wake or the DCA will be all over me.”

“Thanks,” Moira said, taking the glass in fingers that were beginning to tingle and resting it on her knee as she turned back to Fidel.

“The bounty part isn’t so bad, especially for one such as yourself who is accustomed to living with a price on her head.”

“Well, I had managed to avoid that so far in this zone. Covington’s as corrupt as a rotting corpse, but at least everyone is honest about the corruption.”

Fidel chuckled and reached past his keyboard to tap a document on his desktop. He swiped it up into the holographic space and waved the other items away so it stood alone. Moira leaned forward and squinted at the holographic page as Fidel explained, “Here’s the other problem. It’s a bounty from another gang, the Sun Rats to be precise, offering ten years protection services to anyone who can provide evidence that they killed Bosami Haupt.”

“One less violent criminal on the streets. What do I care?”

Fidel swiped several more documents, some with silenced vids attached, up into Moira’s view as he continued, “That’s not half of it. The Bluebloods, the Flair Suckers, Holden’s Whores, Aevo Synthetics…”

“That’s not a gang,” Moira said. The drug was kicking in now, causing her mind to disassociate with her body so that she felt as if she were viewing herself from the outside. The experience was entirely hallucinatory, unlike actually remoting into an avatar and then following oneself at a distance, but the effect was oddly liberating, allowing Moira to observe her body as a doll to be played with, rather than intrinsic part of herself.

“That’s my point, Moira. You did some good work out there. Brought in a good haul of credit for yourself and beheaded one of the more violent gangs in this zone, but you didn’t kill him. That means that Haupt is now out of his gang’s territory and in the open where any rival gang or vengeful corp try to take his head.”

“Oh…” Moira watched herself whisper. She saw her head bow and her left hand come up to cup her cheek, while her right hand held the chilled cocktail to her temple.

“Yeah. A big ‘oh.’ Oh drek maybe more like it, because half of these other gang-issued bounties include bonuses for killing you.”

“Why?” Moira started, then her disassociated mind caught up with her numb lips and she knew the answer before Fidel even spoke it.

“Why? Because you captured a major gang boss. They might want Haupt dead, but they don’t want any outsiders turning their people in to Security. You’d have been better off just killing him, Moira. At least then you might have only pissed off the Azi Zoo. Then you might have been able to skim some credit or supplies from the rival gangs.”

“What about the corps? Why would Aevo Synth want me dead?”

“They don’t care about you. Hells, if you find a way to kill Bosami Haupt they’ll pay you. Problem is that they’re joining in this party, even though direct kill contracts are technically speaking illegal.”

“Illegal? In Covington?” Moira’s lips curled up in a sarcastic half smile.

“Technically.”

Moira watched herself shift in her seat, leaning her shoulders against the high wooden back and settling her bottom into the deep cushion. “I guess this means half the bounty hunters in the zone are probably picking up this contract right now.”

“The ones who don’t mind working outside the law. I’d say your estimation of only half is probably generous.” Fidel waved his hands rapidly in front of him, causing the holographic projections to flutter away to either side of his desk. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his desk, saying, “You should be safe for this rest. Nobody else in the club is a registered bounty hunter or has more than the usual connections to the gangs.”

“And after that?”

“Haupt will be dead or in storage within a cycle. After that I doubt that anyone will have more than the usual interest in killing you. Have you got a place you can lay low for a few weeks? Any means of jumping zones for a while?”

Moira felt herself nod slowly and watched herself take another sip from her glass as she contemplated Fidel’s questions. She forced her consciousness back into her own head long enough to deliver the mental command to establish contact with Zau/Heraxo, not bothering to differentiate between the ship and their avatar.

“What do you want?” Zau/Heraxo asked, their voice loaded with contempt. “We are currently occupied. Did you know that the garbage collection drones in Covington employ ridiculously weak encryption protocols?”

“We’re fraked,” Moira said. “Seriously bia pizdaing fraked.”

Fidel raised an eyebrow, more at Moira’s rudeness in establishing a link without informing him first than her language, but said nothing.

“We presumed as much. You know, Moira, just because we no longer possess a body capable of experiencing inebriation and sexual congress does not mean we are interested in observing your own debauchery. We are quite satisfied reprogramming these drones to deliver garbage to the mayor’s office.”

“Frak you,” Moira spat.

“We {wish we could / would never degrade} be with {filthy human / fond memories of}…” Zau/Heraxo stuttered into silence and Moira knew she had made a mistake in contacting them. She should have waited until it was time to leave the club. Zau/Heraxo would never have allowed anyone to harm the ship, so it had not needed a warning.

At least ten long seconds passed in awkward silence before Zau/Heraxo said, “Contextually, we have ascertained that you were displeased with our greeting.”

“Took you long enough,” Moira said. She wondered how much subjective time had passed in the Q-space mind of the alien ship in those seconds of dead air. She knew that the Heraxo element of the syntellect possessed capabilities which far exceeded those of any human and the computational substrate of the ship’s mind certainly operated at a timeframe that exceeded the abilities of the human brain. Had Zau and Heraxo engaged in some titanic intellectual debate over the course of those seconds? Had one, or both, elements of the personality experienced subjective months of depression, grieving, or anger in that span of time? More importantly, which elements of the fractured personality had emerged as dominant this time?

Moira took another sip of her drink. She was overthinking things.

“Do you need us to return the drone to you?”

“Keep it at the ready, but I’m not leaving yet. I need you to run simulation of the jump to Abrigeist. Let me know if we could make it there and back without repairing the energy bank.”

Fidel sat up and cocked his head to one side, studying Moira suspiciously. Travel between zones of the sphere was not uncommon, but he had not been entirely serious when he had suggested it to Moira.

Zau/Heraxo replied within two seconds, a computational speed which, considering the complexity of the calculations involved, further convinced Moira that their earlier hesitation had signified a lengthy internal argument. “We have sufficient power reserves and generation capacity to effect a jump to Abrigeist and, accounting for the necessary post jump cool down time, we should regenerate sufficient power to jump out of that zone again as soon as the drive is safe to operate again.”

That came as a pleasant surprise to Moira. She exhaled a long breath and stood up. “Keep your eyes peeled and hatches sealed. Fidel just told me that we might be targets now.”

“More than usual?”

The act of standing disassociated Moira’s body from her mind again. She watched herself stand and set her glass on Fidel’s desk. “Yeah. A little more.”

She closed the connection and watched with interest as her body turned to lock eyes with Fidel.

“You leaving?” Fidel asked.

“Soon. I’m going to enjoy your club until the T is out of my system, then I’ll be on my way to someplace safe.”

“Abrigeist?”

“Maybe. I have a job offer there.”

“Not the best place for people like you.”

Moira giggled. “No. No, it isn’t.” She continued to giggle as she watched her body turn and walk unsteadily from the office and onto the dance floor.

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