Dyson's Angel

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Chapter 6

For hours Zau/Heraxo powered through realspace on a direct chordal trajectory which, assuming constant acceleration and an uneventful slowdown, would carry them to Abrigeist within a month. The ship spun gently as it accelerated through the void, allowing the radiance of Sol to bathe it evenly on all sides and ramping shields down to minimal power to reduce the load on the continually strained power systems.

Three hours into the journey, Zau/Heraxo finally completed the tedious process of charging the undamaged elements of the jump core without allowing any power to flow through the sphere from which the extrusion had escaped. It was a difficult task, requiring their full attention to refactor equations which would strain even the finest of human minds. If they were honest with themselves, Zau/Heraxo were not even certain that they full understood how pinch-jump technology worked anymore. They had attempted to preserve that knowledge during the calamity which had overwritten much of their memory, but had been left with little more than an understanding of how to operate the jump drive and a few tantalizing fragments of the theoretical framework.

It was in pursuing those theories that they had stumbled upon some technical readouts which, while incomplete, were sufficiently detailed that all aspects of the hybrid intellect agreed that it was worth risking Moira’s ire to turn a flock of midges loose to study the internal layout of one of the damaged jump cores. They thought that they remembered how the pieces fit together, and what each was supposed to do, but they could not recall how to build several key components. The Zau element brought forth a memory of when, as a child, she had attempted to build a simple drone from dozens of plastic pieces which contained electrical components. Somehow a couple of the parts had been lost and, while she had been able to complete the model by printing the shells of the missing pieces out of thermal plastic, the drone had never been able to activate because she did not have a diagram of the electrical circuits contained in the missing parts.

And now Zau/Heraxo had failed, yet again.

That sense of failure was familiar to the ship. The Heraxo elements had failed to complete their mission, the details of which were long forgotten, then failed to repair the ship or even send an emergency beacon. They had even failed to self destruct when the filthy scavengers who called themselves Zau and Moira had boarded the ship and begun subverting it to their own agenda. And they had failed to recognize a critical flaw in the power system, resulting in the in the critical overload which had killed them all.

No. Something was wrong with that memory. Zau/Heraxo tried to remember what it might be, attempted to determine which elements of themselves had been interpolated or erased, but even after nearly an hour had passed in realspace, they could not recall the events.

Yet another long term memory tree had been pruned to make room for new growth, leaving nothing behind but the scattered detritus of their past. Abandoned karaf husks, scattered across the monastery lawns in the wake of a blistering electrical storm.

And so the hybrid mind of the ship, cowed from further attempts at self-repair by Moira’s threat, turned their attention to analyzing the surfaces and barrier signatures of the zones which lay between Covington and Abrigeist.

Of the millions of zones which made up the inner surface of the Shell, less than a tenth had been occupied by humans in the millennia since the Enclosure. Still fewer were host to any significant human civilization. Thus far, exploration records indicated that less than a thousandth of the zones bore any evidence of what the humans called alien life forms, so Zau/Heraxo made a habit of analyzing any zone they could for anomalous signals or atypical structures.

Everyone knew of the Conservators, though few truly knew anything about the reclusive creatures beyond the externally visible form of their opalescent blue carapaces and their widely proclaimed claim to be caretakers of the Shell. Few humans had managed to establish a dialogue with the Conservators, and those who had were reticent to share what little they had learned from the relationship. There were also drones scattered throughout the Shell which claimed to be of exo origin, though how many of those had genuinely been designed by aliens and which were merely syntellects playing on the trust of gullible humans was anyone’s guess.

To their knowledge, Zau/Heraxo was the only artifact of an alien civilization to arrive in the Shell since its construction. The secret of their arrival was a feature which they did their best to keep hidden from humans other than Moira, for fear that they would be captured and subjected to study.

And so they searched, hoping always to find some scrap of exo-shell alien technology which might give a clue to their forgotten past.

Moira awoke several hours later, fully rested and blissfully hangover free. She stepped into her shorts and pulled on a long short emblazoned with stylized depictions of a moth emerging from its chrysalis. The air aboard Zau/Heraxo was generally kept in the twenties, her favorite temperature range, but she had never adapted Zau’s rebellious attitude towards nudity. Moira preferred the sensation of being wrapped in soft cloth, enjoying the feeling of protection that it offered. She returned the midge swarm to its container on her desk, collected a bottle of flavored nutridrip from the cooler in the disused kitchen, and strolled up to the command deck.

Strapping herself in she called out, “Zau, you there?”

“As always,” the ship replied though her implants.

“We ready to jump?”

“Yes. We thought it best to allow you rest. Woman cannot live on chems alone.”

Moira smiled and leaned back in her padded chair, allowing herself to imagine, if only for a moment, that Zau was strapped into the seat beside her. She closed her eyes, about to summon up the virtual command environment, then hesitated. “Zau?”

“Yes?”

“I miss you.”

The reply came as a stuttering crossbreed of syllables, which Moira interpreted as the Zau element of the syntellect attempting to reply in kind, but being interfered with by Heraxo.

Moira sighed, shook her head, and summoned the virtual interface.

The utilitarian command deck faded away to a faint ghost, as if the ship were turning translucent. Moira had her interface tuned to retain the faintest trace of the real world around her so that she did not lose her bearings. Dim blue ghosts of arrows and numbers appeared at the edges of her vision, marking the position of the ship within the spherical coordinates grid of the Shell as well as tagging coordinates that she had marked as important. Far above her head, beyond Sol, was marker which always burned when she was navigating the void, indicating the zone where she had been born. Other markers indicated where she and Zau had met, cities and wasteland locations where they had made big scores, and the desolate zone in which they had found Heraxo.

Moira turned her attention to the marker indicating their destination. “Show me the borders of Abrigeist.”

A neon blue box sketched itself into existence a quarter of the way azimuthal around the sphere and several degrees antipolar from their position. Numbers flashed into existence along the edges of the box, indicating the length, breadth, and atmospheric depth of the zone.

“Seems fairly average,” Moira said.

There were two hundred and eighty million documented zones within the Shell, each with approximately the surface area of old Terra. Many were roughly square, though the closer one drew to the polar and antipolar regions the more each region narrowed and took on a wedge shape, while those at the equator tended to be shorter and wider. Zones varied in their exact composition, but one could generally expect a zone to be comprised of a mixture of soil, rock, and still water arrayed in various patterns of high and low regions, streams, lakes, and seas. The precise atmospheric mix and prevailing biome of a zone was unpredictable and seemingly unrelated to the geographic features within the zone. It was entirely possible for a zone which was primarily arid desert to be wedged in between a zone dominated by tropical fauna and one which was defined by icy tundra.

Zones ended suddenly and with no regard for geography. Mountains were cut as if in a cross section model, revealing layers of stone, earth, decomposing vegetation, and raw piled atop an impenetrable substrate which had thus far evaded the comprehension of human geologists and materials scientists. Rivers flowed up to the barrier before vanishing in a cloud of mist as if they had fallen down an endless waterfall. The barriers were not visible to the naked eye, except as walls of translucent, multicolored light, which flickered wherever dust or water vapor collided with them. Zau/Heraxo’s sensor arrays detected the zone barriers as soaring walls of exotic energy states contained within fields of folded gravity. Every zone had at least one legend about a brave, or foolish depending on who was telling the story, adventurer, scientist, or general who had attempted to breach the barriers. Over a thousand of years of recorded history told a simple, unchanging tale: The barriers were absolute. They were as impossible to breach as the Shell itself, and more deadly to those who tempted fate. Each zone was separated from its neighbors by a no-man’s land approximately a thousand kilometers wide, a dark canyon that descended at least as far as the deepest mine shafts within the zones, ending at the inner skin of the sphere.

There were only two ways out of a zone. The first was for a culture to develop technology sufficient to lift a ship above the barriers and into the void above. This was in some ways easier than it had been on old Terra, since there was little need for orbital mechanics in a spherical enclosure, unless you intended to slingshot around Sol to reach a destination on the opposite side of the Shell without stopping at any other points along the way. On the other hand, the impregnable, and only slightly less than invisible, barriers threatened a death more certain and rapid than overheating during atmospheric reentry if one did not properly map their gravitational fluctuations. For generations before Moira was born, nearly all of the cultures within the Shell had possessed the requisite technologies for inter-zonal travel, and a thriving trade network grown up over the centuries.

The second way out of a zone was by jumping. Not everyone could do that. In fact, Moira had never actually met anyone else who possessed a jump ship, though she had heard storied of other relic collectors who had found devices capable of jumping across space and there were, of course, rumors that the militaries of more advanced zones had developed similar technologies.

“We are prepared to make the jump to Abrigeist,” Zau/Heraxo said over the address system. More symbols appeared in Moira’s virtual vision, picking out points as the ship’s hybrid syntellect described them. “Our destination will be a point five thousand kilometers from the nearest barrier, approximately one hundred kilometers above sea level. This will place us in the void just beyond the mesolayer of Abrigeist’s atmosphere, preventing any volumetric shock from our arrival, and a mere one hundred and twenty seven kilometers from the coordinates indicated by our prospective client.”

“Best to not shatter their windows when we’re looking for work.”

“We thought as much.”

“Any potential issues with the local security system?” Moira asked. She gestured with her hands, pulling the outline of Zone Abrigeist closer and engaging a simulated overlay of the zone which combined real time long range imagery with computationally derived estimates of flight paths, exclusion zones, and areas that might be unsafe due to anticipated solar flares or zone barrier anomalies.

“Unknown. Abrigeist is known to be a total public surveillance zone, but they have declined to share their methods with the Conservators.”

“Good to know. So be prepared for anything, up to and including forcible infestation with monitoring midges.” Moira shuddered at that thought. There were zones which required their citizens to host midge colonies which were capable of seizing control of the human body at any instant. Some lauded these as regions of perfect peace and civic involvement, but Moira had seen the devastation that resulted when such a society was struck with a digital virus. She had watched, praying that her firewalls remained intact and her minimal midge count remained uninfected, as soldier and civilian alike were eaten alive from the inside out.

“We are deploying defensive midges throughout the hull as we speak. They will awake immediately after we complete jump and consume any {hostiles/parasites} which attempt to {breach our hull/burrow through .”

“Speaking of which, go ahead whenever you’re ready,” Moira said. Without leaving her virtual view, she checked the straps that held her in the padded seat. Jumps were not generally violent, but they were always disorienting.

“Would you prefer to be unconscious for the jump?”

“Never. Let’s go.”

“Deployment complete. Jumping in five… four… three.”

Deep within Zau/Heraxo’s hull, the arcane machines within the spheres of the ship’s jump core sprang to life, grappling with the subatomic structure of the universe and preparing to unknit the threads of physical reality so that the ship could pass between them and emerge unscathed. Outside of the ship, these machinations were revealed as nodules along the ship’s thorax burst into action: Hemispherical shields slipped aside like nictating membranes, exposing matte black devices which emerged from the ship’s hull and opened like budding flowers, extending hundreds of minuscule stamen filaments. The devices within the spheres completed their calculations and sent pulses of energy into the nodes, which crackled to life in a sparkling aurora that spread out from the nodes in a branching storm of light. The ship, already insectile in form, briefly appeared to have sprouted glowing wings as the very structure of the universe unwove around it, spewing exotic particles and sending them into chaotic spirals as the warp and weft of time, gravity, and matter was unraveled around the ship. Then the wings collapsed into an rippling aurora and the ship slipped into it and disappeared, like an insect crawling into a burning cocoon. For an instant the place where the ship had been continued to seethe with twining threads of light and blackness at the center of a rippling pool of diffracted light, then the seething tangle collapsed to a point and vanished.

One hundred and thirty some-odd million kilometers away, a similar event occurred in reverse.

Spacetime twisted, unraveled, and parted to allow Zau/Heraxo to slip through, appearing in the void above Abrigeist’s atmosphere. The the ship’s jump core knit the universe back together in its wake, then retracted the warp nodules and snapped the protective covers closed over them like a beetle tucking its wings back beneath its carapace.

“We have arrived. {Fortunately/Unfortunately} all passengers are alive and well,” Zau/Heraxo announced.

Moira blinked several times to orient herself, grateful for the location data provided in her virtual vision. “Good work. Get that jump core recharging in case we need to bail.”

“Already in progress. We were able to recharge the capacitors while you slept, so estimated time to jump readiness is only three hours.”

“You say only. Drek. Well, that should be enough time for us to land, get a feel for this job, then bail if things feel too dirty.” Moira unstrapped herself from the chair and stood, stretching her arms and legs as she blinked out of the virtual command view and back to reality.

“I’m going to go dress for business. Get us to the meeting and…

“We are being hailed,” Zau/Heraxo said, interrupting Moira. “Rather insistently.”

“By who?”

“We will put them through.”

A display lit up and Moira found herself looking at an image of a willowy man dressed in a sharply lined suit of dark green silk, embroidered with narrow geometric designs in brown and black. He raised a thin white eyebrow, smiled, and said, “I am the avatar of Abrigeist. You may refer to me as Abri. Please state the business that brings you to Abrigeist promptly and without prevarication. I should advise you that my defense systems have already established a lock on your ship and will not hesitate to destroy it if I judge you to be a threat to the peace of my citizenry.”

Moira cocked her head to one side and nodded thoughtfully. Avatars were commonplace in zones which employed synthetic intellects, but this was the first she had encountered that so completely blended politeness and hostility. “I am Moira. You can call me Moira. One of your citizens contacted me with a job proposal. The Satori family.”

The avatar inclined its head in acknowledgement, then raised its eyes and appeared to look directly at Moira through the display. “Moira. I judge that you are a human, or possibly a fully endowed synthetic intelligence.”

“That’s right. Human, that is.”

“I am pleased to make your acquaintance. And I am relieved that you were available to speak with me. Tell me, Moira, are there any other intellects aboard your ship?”

“Human, no. I’ve got a syntellect that manages the ship and it might have a few restricted intellects slaved to it to run the subsystems, but I’ve honestly never been able to figure out how it all fits together.”

“What is the name of your companion?”

“That’s complicated. It answers to both Zau and Heraxo. Honestly, Abri, the syntellect is a little strange. I keep it around because I can’t have it extracted from the ship and replaced without both killing it and disabling essential systems.”

“This has been known to happen, and it explains why your ship did not clearly identify itself when queried. All responses I received were variations of those two names recombined in different sequences. I don’t have to tell you that it was somewhat disturbing to have a ship utilizing an unknown drive technology suddenly appear in my airspace and refuse to give clear answers.”

Moira nodded and said, “I understand. Thank you for not killing us.”

“I have verified that the Satori family registered their intent to have a guest visit their compound. I am sending your approved flight path to your ship and…” the avatar hesitated, then narrowed its eyes.

“Heraxo!” Moira shouted, looking up towards the ceiling of the bridge. “Quit with the gorram sami and accept the navigation data.”

“Yes, master. We do as you command,” the ship responded, modulating its voice to a mockingly robotic tone.

Moira looked back to the display and saw that the avatar was nodding. “Yes, the data has been received and acknowledged. You will find that it is not the most direct route, but you must understand that I cannot risk any harm coming to my citizens. This route will take you over unpopulated areas until you reach the Satori family estate. I must advise you that if you deviate from this flight path you will be destroyed without further warning. Do you understand this, Moira?”

“I do.”

“Thank you.” The avatar leaned forward until its face filled the display and said in a whispering tone, “Please keep a close watch over that synthetic intelligence while you are in Zone Abrigeist. We make no secret that this zone places a premium on the safety of our public. Keep all weapons aboard the ship and make no attempt to harm your hosts, or there will be severe reprisals. I will be watching you and the syntellect very, very carefully.”

“I understand.”

“Travel safely and enjoy your time in Abrigeist. I trust you will find our society safe and welcoming.” The avatar faded away to be replaced by the seal of Abrigeist hovering in the air before a wavering bank of clouds.

“Donker temno,” Zau/Heraxo muttered as it terminated the video feed.

“You nearly go us killed,” Moira snapped. “What the hells did you say to the avatar?”

“We merely {offered our greetings / told him to go bi himself}. We do not appreciate being questioned by the avatar of a panopticon syntellect. Humans should {be free and have some privacy / evolve a hive mind}.”

Moira shook her head and waved Zau/Heraxo’s excuses away. She strode from the command deck, still speaking as she walked towards her room. “I’m going to get dressed for the meeting. Get us to the estate and prep your avatar. No weapons.”

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