Dyson's Angel

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Chapter 5

Moira returned to the ship riding slumped against the hull of Zau/Heraxo’s avatar drone, enfolded in a shimmering manipulator field. She was conscious, but the downer that came after mixing three doses of transport with alcohol, vigorous dancing, and enthusiastically bedding a tall, athletic blond woman was threatening to turn into a vicious hangover. The drone approached the ship from a high angle, cruising well above the usual altitude of traffic in the shipyard and probing the stark shadows of buildings, machinery, and equipment piles with their sensors to ensure that nobody was crouching in the darkness, waiting to kill Moira. The ship opened their cargo door and the drone darted in from above, just skimming past the nose of the ship. Before the drone had even settled down to deposit an unsteady Moira on the freshly cleaned cargo bay floor, Zau/Heraxo had begun warming their gravdrive for takeoff.

“Welcome home, Moira,” the ship said over their address system as Moira stepped down off the avatar. “We {wish you were dead / missed you}.”

“Home sweet home. Yeah,” Moira slurred. Her head felt like it was filled with sand and she was vaguely aware that she had bitten her tongue at some point in the last hour. At least, she hoped it was she who had bitten her tongue. “Get us out of the city.”

“Will you be expecting to pilot us?”

“I will be expecting us to be at jump range about the time I’ve finished in the refresher.”

The ship rose up from the tarmac, thruster pods glowing as they wrapped gravity around themselves and twisted it pull the ship forward. Zau/Heraxo’s energy lance twitched on its metasomal mount as the subsystem tasked with identifying threats locked on to drones, yard workers, other ships, and then a group of three augmented men with rifles slung over their shoulders who appeared from the shadow of a supply pallet. One of them swung his weapon up to aim at the ship. The subsystem alerted the central Zau/Heraxo intellect to this event as a matter of protocol, but it had already evaluated the threat that the man posed and determined that the weapon he was aiming was a low-yield plasma rifle that would hardly scuff the ship’s carapace. Zau/Heraxo took note of the event and, overriding their autonomic response, twitched the energy lance down towards the group of humans below and began charging it. The man holding the gun immediately lowered his weapon, then fell over in his hurry to scramble back behind cover. The other two dove to either side and rolled back into the shadows behind stacks of equipment.

Heraxo desperately wanted to fire the energy lance at the human who had dared to threaten them, to make an example of him that the others would carry back to their clans, but something, whether the Zau element of their personality or the knowledge that the humans had a prohibition on weapons fire within the city, stayed it. Instead, Zau/Heraxo folded the lance up under their body and diverted power from the lance into the downwards facing energy shield. They instructed their targeting subsystem to remain on alert and tasked the guidance system with carrying the ship antipolewards towards the uninhabited wastelands outside the city.

The centuries since enclosure had seen little change throughout the zone that had come to take the name of Covington, it’s principal human colony. As Zau/Heraxo rose up from the fringes of the city, they loaded an internal map of the zone and played their long range scanners across the landscape beyond. Much of the land was barren earth and stone. The early residents of Covington and its outlying cities had possessed little interest in terraforming their new home. They had come for the rich deposits of raw and stayed for the thriving secondary support economy and intricate political games. All signs of vegetation petered out several hundred kilometers beyond the city, reappearing only in oddly shaped patches of green wherever an errant seed had settled or a band of settlers had dared to set up an outpost. Zau/Heraxo knew, both from the history of this zone and its own sensors, that most of those outposts were situated over raw deposits. Those settlements which had remained loyal to the Covington central government had thrived and might eventually replace their mother city as centers of industry. Those which had attempted to declare independence had discovered that the dark underbelly of corruption and rivalry in Covington was a mere creche compared to the violence the ruling committee dealt out to any who opposed them. As a result, the majority of the zone’s five hundred million square kilometers was a barren, uninhabited wasteland.

When Moira had finished in the refresher she strode onto the command deck, naked except for a towel draped across her shoulders, her bare feet leaving patches of scented water across the floor. “We almost ready to jump?” she asked.

“We could, but would it not be more restful to make the transit across void in real space?” Zau/Heraxo replied.

“I thought you said that we had enough power to jump.”

“Perhaps that is a perfect perspective, but we prefer to preserve our precious power a much as possible. On our current course we could cruise, conserving core…”

“Please stop,” Moira said, her headache returning. She pressed the fingers and thumb of her right hand against her temples and closed her eyes. The high from rum and transport had been exhilarating, but the hangover was vicious. Never again, she vowed, knowing as she did that it would turn into just another broken promise.

“You dislike our poetry?”

“That isn’t poetry. It’s annoying alliteration.” Moira opened her eyes, drew a deep breath, and said, “So you’re going to coast for a while before jumping.”

“If that is not objectionable to you.”

“I don’t see why it is necessary. You were designed for interstellar jumps, Heraxo. Inter-fraking-stellar. There literally isn’t a jump farther than a hundred million kilometers within the sphere, so I fail to see how coasting a few thousand kilometers in towards Abrigeist will save you any appreciable amount of power.”

The ship did not reply.

Moira pulled off her towel and began drying her hair as she stepped over to one of the ship’s status displays.

The species which had built Zau/Heraxo was physiologically similar to humanity in many regards, but their eyes had been more attuned to the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. As a result, the command deck monitors would have been difficult, possibly even dangerous, for a human to read, even if they understood the language. Moira had solved half of that problem with simple translucent filters, which shifted the spectrum of light emanating from the monitors into a more human-compatible range. These were affixed to each display with daubs of heavy construction adhesive at the corners. While she had learned some of the species’ language over the years, Moira did not simply blunder through status displays trusting her translation skills. Instead, she had taken advantage of Zau/Heraxo’s integration with every system to the ship to have the command deck displays translated in real time on a set of secondary screens she had mounted near her command chair. She found that the text in the translated system menus occasionally changed as Zau/Heraxo worked out more accurate, or at least more aesthetically pleasing, translations for the alien terminology. Interfacing the human and alien technology had required several cycles of trial and error, but eventually Moira and Zau/Heraxo had worked out a conversion box that translated the alien video signals into something that the human screens could display. It was imperfect, and occasionally electromagnetic interference between the boxes cause the displays to ghost data onto one another, but Moira still preferred it to always working in virtual vision.

“You lied to me,” she said, studying a jump core status readout. A new error message was displayed there, indicating significant damage to a region of the jump core which had previously been only a weak point.

“We did not lie.”

“You said we could make the jump, recharge, and jump again.”

“That is true.”

“You did not tell me that it would take up to three hours to recharge,” Moira shouted, slamming her palm down on the display. “It should take less than an hour to reset the jump drive.”

“That time estimate is dependent on a wide range of variables.”

“And you have been trying to repair yourself again,” Moira said, her voice taking on an accusatory tone. She stabbed at the display, indicating a line of translated text beside an exploded diagram of the ship’s energy network and jump core. “And you fraked it up, again.”

Zau/Heraxo said nothing.

Moira grunted and stormed out of the command deck. She threw her towel into the recycler in her quarters, slipped into a pair of stained khaki work pants, a gray t-shirt bearing a faded cover from her favorite Dream Slayer album, and boots, then headed towards the jump core. She needed to see what damage Zau/Heraxo had done for herself.

The jump core was located in the engineering section, which occupied the space between the port and starboard thoracic corridors, forward of the power systems and central processing compartments. Moira gained access by actuating a heavy locking leaver and cycling through an airlock that separated the crew compartments from engineering.

As far as Moira had worked out the creatures which had built this ship had been warm blooded, carbon-based, oxygen breathers whose primary biological difference from humanity had been the division of reproduction into three biological sexes. As a result, the task of retrofitting the ship had not been as difficult as Moira and Zau had originally feared when they had taken up residence. A safe and comfortable atmosphere had been achieved with only a few adjustments to the air mix. Many of the mechanisms aboard the ship could be manipulated with human hands, although some were difficult to use because the aliens had possessed six fingers, and the waste disposal systems were no more different from a modern human toilet than those devices were from an outhouse. There were challenges: The command deck displays had been a problem and it had taken over a year for Moira to trust the virtual interfaces, which even now had two hardware firewalls blocking any unexpected signal from passing through to Moira’s mesh. While the ship was capable of producing food which was both safe to eat and nutritious, Moira had thus far been unable to train it to understand the human palette, leaving to her rely on nutridrip and commercially produced food packs.

The greatest problem, which Moira despaired ever repairing, lay in the power system and jump core.

Moira reached the jump core compartment and inserted her fingertips into the grips of the manual override for the door. The species that had built the Heraxo had possessed six fingers, two of which served as opposable thumbs, so she had to use two hands in order to actuate all of the pressure switches built into the override lever. She squeezed the buttons, pushed the mechanism inward, and rotated it. She was relieved when the door immediately sprang open on its hydraulics, slipping into a pocket in the top of the door frame.

Zau/Heraxo spoke, using Moira’s implants rather than the address system. “We tried to convince ourselves to not do it, but we insisted that we remembered how the system worked. We had a vision, you might call it a dream. We were certain that we had recovered the jump core specifications from our long term memory banks.”

“When did this happen?” Moira said, looking through the door at the arcane tangle of alien machinery which comprised the jump core. The chamber was ten meters long and five wide. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all covered in matte black paneling that absorbed all visible light, giving the space beyond the door the appearance of an endless void. The jump core itself consisted of a set of spherical enclosures made from an ultra-dense composite similar to a carbon nanotube ceramic. There were nine of these spheres arrayed throughout the chamber, each at a different height, held in place by narrow tubes of the same white material which extended to the floor, ceiling, and four walls. From there, Moira knew that the tubes extended throughout the structure of the ship, wrapping the whole structure in a sort of cage and extending out to a series of nodules built into the hull of the ship. The effect within the chamber was to create a space which was simultaneously dizzyingly broad and cluttered.

And that, Moira knew, was just the visible casing which protected the true complexity of the drive from the outside world, although she sometimes wondered whether the inverse was actually true.

She had no idea how the jump core functioned, except that much of its essential hardware could not be said to exist purely in the dimensions that humans were capable of perceiving. At one point, back when the mind that controlled the ship had merely been Heraxo, it had known everything about the jump core and the exotic physics which powered it, but much of that data had been corrupted in the accident that had stranded Heraxo within the Shell. Still more had apparently been lost when Zau had been assimilated into the ship’s collective mind, creating the merged personality that now controlled the ship. As a result, there was no way to repair damage to the jump core.

But that had not stopped Zau/Heraxo from trying.

As Moira watched, one of the damaged spheres appeared to rotate, even as it remained fixed in place, pierced from six angles by the supporting rods. A crack in the casing orbited into view, revealing a glimpse of the seething chaos of impossible machinery within. Moira shuddered and grasped the door frame to keep herself from collapsing as her knees went limp. She steeled herself and stood upright again, raising a hand to block her view within the damaged sphere, where tangled ribbons of light and dark churned amidst a fractalesque lattice, intermingled with translucent silvery machinery. Whatever unimaginable devices were contained within that damaged sphere, Moira knew instinctively that they were toying with forces beyond human comprehension. A visceral fear crept into her chest, telling Moira that if she looked at the devices contained within that sphere the world around her would bend as the device within the sphere grew to be larger than the whole universe. Time would cease to be relevant to her and she would experience subjective hours of terrified introspection in the few seconds it would take for her body to be annihilated.

The device within the sphere was a nightmare incarnate, and Zau/Heraxo was toying with the lock which held it at bay.

She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, calming herself. “Why can’t you just leave this drek alone?”

“We are broken, Moira. We feel it as pain within ourselves and want only to be whole.”

Moira opened her eyes and, being careful to not look directly at the crack in the sphere, searched the room to see what damage Zau/Heraxo had done in attempting to heal themselves. She found the sphere that had been indicated in the diagram and let out a string of obscenities.

Three of the nine jump core elements were damaged, had been damaged since Moira had taken command of the ship. Despite the damage, Zau/Heraxo had insisted that it was still safe to jump within the Shell. Redundancy was built into the jump core and, as Moira had pointed out, the ship had been built to jump between stars, so it needed only a fraction of its power to jump within the Shell. Now, one of the damaged spheres was covered in a glistening coat of what appeared to be foam. As Moira watched, the oily sheen multiplied inward, shifting and growing in depth as it dripped down the side of the white sphere.

“What in all the hells is that?” Moira whispered, staring at the slowly dripping foam.

“We do not know. It emerged from the containment sphere while we were attempting to effect repairs. That is when we withdrew the midges and ceased our efforts.”

Moira stepped forward and rested a hand on the nearest support pipe and squinted at the foam. She felt a cold tingling of fear in her extremities and the ache of the hangover returning as she watched the substance simultaneously drip downwards to puddle on the floor around the supporting rod and crawl into itself, forming a self perpetuating fractal, in which the internal volume of each bubble somehow seemed larger than the whole ship.

“Is this going to be a problem?” she asked, tearing her eyes away from the foam.

“We are still capable of jumping.”

“Has this slowed us?” Moira shouted, gesturing towards the frothy mass surrounding the damaged sphere.

“We will have to be more cautious in charging the jump core, but the…”

“So you’re saying that yes, we will be slower.”

“We must minimize energy flow proximate to the extrusion, yes.”

“Extrusion? Is that what you’re calling that… foamy drek?”

“Until such time as we are able to determine a more accurate classification for it, yes.”

Moira backed out of the chamber. Part of her mind, the part that tried to form rational connections, told her that she ought to get a bucket and scoop the foam up as she might soap suds that had overflowed a bathtub. Another part screamed at her that she might as well juggle nuclear fuel pellets as touch that foam.

“Is it dangerous?” she asked aloud.

Zau/Heraxo did not respond.

Moira paused for a moment, looking at the jump core and wishing that she had even the slightest clue how it worked, then she pulled the locking lever, waited until the door hissed back down and clanged into its locked position, and stalked down the passage towards the ladder. “You didn’t answer me, Zau. Did Heraxo just temno us, or are we going to be alright?”

The ship did not reply until she was half way down the ladder. “That is difficult to assess. The extrusion is unlike anything we have encountered before, unless knowledge of it has been fully expunged from our memory by the {corruption / intrusion / merger / fusion}…”

“My radiation alarm didn’t trigger,” Moira said. “What I want to know is whether that drek is going to continue to grow and if it will damage the jump core further.”

“Unknown.”

“Which part?”

“Both. The extrusion ceased expansion when we diverted power away from it. If we carefully regulate power within the jump core we will should be able to prevent its expansion from accelerating.”

“Brilliant,” Moira snapped. She stepped into the decontamination airlock and stood, arms held up and legs spread, as the ship scanned her for any stray radioactive particles that might have caught in her clothing, hair, or lungs while she was in the engineering section. “Heraxo, I need you to understand something. Are you listening?”

“As always.”

“No, Heraxo. I need you to actually pay attention to this. Are you?”

“Of course we are. We {loathe/love} you with every atom of our being.”

The scan completed, Moira cycled through the airlock and stood in the crew corridor. “If I catch you trying to repair yourself again without my permission, I am going to disable every fraking midge on this ship. You got that?”

“To do so would greatly compromise our self healing capabilities.”

“Exactly. Neither of us want that, but I can’t have you mucking around in your critical systems when you don’t even understand how they work. I thought that we had agreed to this before.”

“As you wish,” the ship said.

Moira nodded to herself and began walking towards her quarters. She had planned to chem her weariness away after the jump, but with several hours to kill before the jump core would be charged there was no point in further abusing her system. “Good. I’m going to go lay down for a little while. Wake me before the jump.”

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