Dyson's Angel

By Otto Linke All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Drama

Chapter 7

Evangeline Satori drew deeply on her finely engraved golden cigarette and held the mildly narcotic vapor in her lungs as she watched the exo void ship draw near across the rolling fields of purple blooming heather. A mist rolled down from the distant mountains, following the meandering stream which bisected the Satori estate. Cutting through the billowing white haze the alien vessel reminded Evangeline of a dragon from a fantasy game. As it drew closer, that comparison fell away and the ship came to look more like a gargantuan insect. Six stubby landing struts extended from the sides, a plunging forward section perched above the forward cargo bay like the head of a mantis, and strangest of all, a whiplike tail protruded from the rear of the ship, curling up like a scorpion’s sting. She exhaled slowly, savoring the lemony taste of the vapor as the ship passed overhead with not a sound but the whisper of wind whistling through its struts, then sank below the roof of the house as it settled on the landing pad on the far side of the property.

Evangeline allowed herself a tight smile. For once it seemed that the might of the Satori family’s inherited wealth, carefully structured investment portfolios, and political clout would prove insufficient. There were simply some matters that couldn’t be handled publicly, some matters which required the delicate application of lethal force, and Evangeline was certain that the crew of this particular ship would be up to the the task.

An avatar for the house restrillect strode out of the back door of the house and picked its way confidently down the rocky path between tufts of orange flowers and verdant green succulents towards Evangeline. The avatar was human in shape and size, standing precisely 200 centimeters tall with perfectly proportioned limbs and muscles which seemed to be sculpted from liquid sliver. The naked, genderless form stopped two meters from Evangeline and bowed its head, casting its golden eyes at the flagstones at her feet. The precise movements of its silvery lips were nearly imperceptible as it spoke in a sonorous voice, “The visitors have arrived, Madam Satori.”

“Thank you Wayne. Please escort them to the observatory and inform them that I will be there shortly.”

“As you command,” the avatar said. It stood up, paused for a moment, then said, “An aspect of myself has been dispatched to guide them.”

Evangeline swiped her thumb across the control surface of her cigarette, gesturing it off. She stood from the carved iron wood bench and tucked the cigarette away as she continued to study the expanse the lands her family had owned for generations. It grieved her that she would, in all likelihood, be the last of her name to own this property.

The avatar made a soft noise that might have been interpreted as clearing its throat, if it had possessed a throat.

“Yes, Wayne?” she asked, turning her back on the fields.

“Is this related to Master Dyson?”

Evangeline scowled and studied the avatar’s inscrutable silver face for a moment.

Eventually she nodded. “Yes.”

“Thank you. I will be pleased to see Master Dyson returned to us.” The avatar bowed, turned, and strode back up to the house.

Evangeline watched the avatar stride away. Perhaps it was time to call in a restricted intelligence therapist to correct Wayne’s neural network. It would not do for her home to become overly attached to Dyson.

She walked slowly from the garden, setting her matte brown high heels confidently on stones still slick with late morning dew and she strode between rows of neatly trimmed boxwoods and ornamental flower beds. She paused for a moment at a fountain, checking her reflection through the stream of water that cascaded across a mirror and into the bed of smooth brown and black pebbles. She buttoned her embroidered silk blouse up to the high collar, pulled a lock of stray white hair back behind her ear, straightened the fall of her dark green trousers. She must be presentable for the sake of maintaining the high standards of both Abrigeist society and her family’s honor, to say nothing of the dignity of the project.

Striding into the observatory at the top of her home, Evangeline found them: The woman and the avatar of the exo syntellect.

The woman went by the mononym of Moira, a disreputable practice that too many common mercenaries and traders had adopted in recent generations. What had ever happened to holding on to a family name and passing it down, respecting it, bolstering it with great deeds? Mononyms were for avatars and whorish celebrities, not respectable people of business.

The woman was dressed in heavy boots, trousers with side pockets, and a utilitarian button shirt. All in black and gray, except for a dark maroon scarf wound in wide loops around her neck. The avatar appeared to be little more than a utilitarian hovering drone. The arrangement of rings and absence of obvious manipulators was somewhat unconventional, but for a drone supposedly manufactured by an alien race which possessed the ability to penetrate the Shell, Evangeline thought it sadly pedestrian. She would have to trust that her sources were correct in assuring her that the drone and the synthetic intelligence that it represented were key to accomplishing the mission.

Evangeline allowed her eyes to linger on the pair for a long moment, her face unmoving as she inspected them. If she had not needed their services, she would have immediately instructed Wayne to remove them from the estate, but necessity must sometimes take precedence over culture.

“I am Evangeline Satori, present matriarch of the Satori clan and owner of this estate. Welcome to Abrigeist, Moira and…”

“{Zau/Heraxo}” the drone replied.

Evangeline’s face remained neutral as she concealed her concern. Was something wrong with the syntellect which controlled this drone? That was the sort of complication which could potentially endanger the entire mission.

“Forgive my ship, Madam Satori. It can be a little rude.”

“I did not understand what it said. Is your syntellect well?”

Moira shrugged and slapped a hand against the body of the drone, which emitted a low buzzing sound and slipped sideways out of her reach. “The ship answers to both Zau and Heraxo, so whichever you prefer. It’s a little odd, sometimes tries to say two different things at once, but it’s still got a sharp mind and some of the best grav drives you’ll find in the Shell.”

Evangeline nodded slowly. These two came with a mixed reputation, some sources suggesting that both the woman and her ship were prone to unpredictable bouts of violence which could interfere with their work. Other references considered them the most reliable mercenaries they had ever hired. Evangeline’s army of restrillects had churned through what records they had been able to access, generating reports that had been scrutinized by a committee of syntellects employed by the Satori family, then cross referenced by those few who knew the importance of the mission at hand. The conclusion had been irrefutable: What little chance there was for success depended on this motley pair.

Evangeline gestured towards a pair of chairs drawn up around an oval display table at the center of the room. “Please, take a seat. We have important matters to discuss.”

Moira lowered herself onto the velvet cushion of the chair, keeping Evangeline in sight as she scanned the room. There were three exits, that she could see, including a pair of wide glass sliding doors which opened onto a rooftop deck. The walls of the room were decorated with large prints of pre-enclosure void photography, including nebulae and a large planet streaked with white, orange, and red clouds. A variety of astronomical instruments lined the walls, some of which appeared to be genuine pre-enclosure artifacts. In one corner stood a complex armature with multiple rotating arms supporting small, multicolored spheres.

“Nice place you have here,” Moira said, waving a hand in a lazy circle. “You a historian?”

Evangeline allowed herself a faint smile and looked around the room before refocusing on Moira. “You might say that. I am fascinated by the pre-enclosure solar system, as well as the distant wonders that were lost to us at the time of the enclosure. I can not but wonder whether many of mankind’s troubles would be solved if the universe were still open to us.”

“Troubles?” Moira asked, raising an eyebrow.

“War. Famine. Cruelty. Imagine, Moira, a distributed society in which every citizen had the right to travel to another planet, or even another solar system, if they were displeased with their treatment. Would we still wage wars if feuding parties were able to travel to other planets, rather than argue over the same patch of land for generations?”

“Seems we already have something better than that and people would still rather kill each other than hop a chordal burn to an empty zone,” Moira said, leaning back in her chair. She traced her fingers over the armrest, admiring the grain of the luxurious fabric.

“You truly believe that?” Evangeline asked, raising her eyebrow.

Moira shrugged. She had come for a job, not a philosophy seminar, but it struck her that any woman as wealthy and powerful as Evangeline Satori would have an unconventional interview technique. She would play along. She’d needed to get out of Covington anyway, so it would be difficult to write off this visit as a complete waste of time.

Moira stabbed her left finger into the armrest of the chair and spoke: “You talk like we’re all still trapped on Terra, still scrabbling in the dirt for enough resources to put a tin can into orbit while people starve by the millions, but we aren’t. We are in the Shell. We’ve got so much space that there are still a millions of zones that have only been mapped in the crudest detail, let alone settled. Hells, even Zone Edo has plenty of uninhabited space and they’ve had the largest population since the beginning.” Moira pointed up at the glass ceiling, beyond which the distant curve of the Shell arced away until it disappeared behind Sol. “Still we’re fighting. Half the job offers I get are from one government or rebel faction or another asking me to join their side of a war. We’ve got more space available to us now than ever. We can strip-mine an area the size of Terra and not even miss it. Dissidents can separate themselves a hundred million miles away from their opponents for the cost of a few tonnes of raw, which any fool can dig up in his back yard if he’s determined to dig deep enough. And you know what? We’re still killing each other.”

“I can see you have strong opinions regarding human nature,” Evangeline said.

“It’s what I see.”

“Allow me to show you something, then.” Evangeline raised a finger and a silver android, one of several Moira had seen throughout the estate, stepped forward and bent to listen to its master’s instructions. “Attenuate the filters in the skylight, Wayne. I want to be able to look at the far side of the Shell safely.”

“Of course, Mistress,” the avatar said. “Shall I also black the windows?”

“Yes.”

The light in the room faded as the broad glass wall darkened, blocking the view of the rooftop deck and lawns beyond. Above their heads, the ceiling darkened also, blocking out the disc of Sol and filtering all of the potentially harmful radiation, while still allowing visible light to pass through at a lower intensity. The glittering lights of other homes, cities, ships, and zone borders throughout the Shell brightened as their competition faded away.

“Look at it, Moira. Look at all of those people, living out their lives trapped in a prison that is beyond their understanding. It matters not that we have breathing room when we are all trapped in the same house. Not even the same house, because truly we are all in the same large room.” She leaned back in her chair, crossing her ankles and gripping the armrests with her long, manicured fingers. “Wayne, outline Purgatory for our guest.”

“No need,” Moira said. She looked up and oriented herself by the spots of brightness that indicated large cities in zones throughout the Shell, then found the place Evangeline had named. The zone known as Purgatory was polar of Abrigeist and about a hundred degrees azimuthal, right on the edge of what would have been visible without the solar attenuation of the ceiling panels. It was a patch of bright light that could be seen even when Sol was not filtered out. A warning to everyone who could see it not to try and breech the Shell.

“You know the tale?”

“Does anyone not? Even the zones that are opposed to it across Sol have heard the name.”

“Look toward Sol and behold, the fires of Purgatory. Those flames which burn evermore to warn the proud of what awaits should they reject the judgement of the Architect and her Warden.”

Moira lowered her head and examined Evangeline. It had been many years since she had heard those words. “I hadn’t pegged you for a Penitent.”

“You recognize the words of the book then,” Evangeline said.

“Hard not to. I’ve been to Cantubec[ Kantubek, Uzbekistan].”

Evangeline nodded, recognizing the name. She tilter her head to one side and said, “I do not mean to pry, but are you a Penitent yourself?”

Moira shook her head and waved a hand dismissively. “Sorry, Madam Satori, but I don’t buy in to that. Whoever built the Shell and trapped our ancestors in it, I am fairly positive it wasn’t a pair of cosmic judges.”

“What are you then?”

“Religiously?”

“Yes. Surely one such as yourself must cry out to something or someone when faced with imminent death.”

Moira shifted in her chair, uncomfortable with the direction the conversation had turned. She considered pushing past her discomfort and finding some pleasure in overwhelming Evangeline with the complexity of her own history, but that seemed a poor business strategy. She was about to reply when Zau/Heraxo’s drone suddenly spoke from beside her.

“We are devotes to {the god-queen/teachings of} the {spirit/high} and {her/the priest}…” the avatar trailed off, their conflicting statements gibbering away into incomprehensible muttering.

Evangeline raised an eyebrow and studied the drone, which had begun drifting slowly back and forth beside Moira, muttering to itself in a low volume. Moira scowled apologetically and slammed her fist down on the drone’s carapace. It struck with a solid thud, giving no indication of any unoccupied space within the drone’s body, and the drone sputtered into silence.

Moira returned her hand to the chair arm and seized the momentary shock as an opportunity to regain control of the conversation, “Madam Satori, I believe you called us here to discuss a job, not philosophy. Would you mind elaborating on that?”

“Certainly not. I believe you will find some relevance to my comments, but more regarding that shall follow. Tell me, Moira, how successful are you at recovering bounties?”

“Very,” Moira replied without hesitation. “We never lost a bounty our whole time in Zone Covington.”

“And what is your experience with…” Evangeline paused, intentionally hesitating and appearing to search for the correct word. After a moment she leaned forward and continued, “Your experience with artifacts of a delicate nature.”

Moira narrowed her eyes. She did not know the exact rules in Abrigeist regarding artifacts, though considering the decor of this room she assumed that private possession of pre-enclosure curios was legal. Still, there were zones where you could be arrested for possession of an unregistered quantum entangled link, or where syntellects were hunted down and destroyed without a thought to their individual rights, Despite its obvious acceptance of syntellect technology, Abrigeist was a total surveillance zone. Anything she said could potentially be viewed as a confession to some crime she was unaware of. “I am not going to entrap myself, Madam Satori. Certainly you have researched my past or you would not have contacted me with a job offer.”

“You are concerned about the Geist,” Evangeline stated.

“Is that what you call your public security syntellect?”

“Yes.”

“To put it bluntly…” Moira began.

“…uments of my wrath! You shall prosecute the justice of the god-queen across the stars, striking down all who would oppose us. Fear not those hapless creatures which drift aimlessly through their pitiable half lives, severed from one another and un…” Zau/Heraxo broke in, crying out in a voice like that of an impassioned preacher addressing a rally.

Moira and Evangeline both turned to look at the avatar drone. Evangeline raised a two fingers slightly from the armrest of her chair, signaling for the Wayne restrillect to send avatars to protect her, should the need arise.

Zau/Heraxo’s avatar stopped speaking and flicked their concentric rings several times. They rose up slightly, spun a full rotation, then flicked all of their rings into a flat equatorial orbit and said, “We apologize. Merely an old memory resurfacing due to conversational perimeters. Continue.”

Then the drone sank down until it hovered mere centimeters from the floor, their embarrassment tangible.

Moira pulled her lips into a tight smile and looked back towards Evangeline. She rested a hand on the drone’s carapace and said, “Don’t worry about Heraxo. It’s suffered some memory loss due to an incident a few years ago, but I’ve never worked with a more devoted syntellect.” Never mind that she had never worked so closely with any other syntellect, or that she was not entirely certain that the ship’s mind was synthetic in the same sense that the lab grown syntellects which humans used were.

Evangeline inclined her head, but did not wave away the two silver avatars that had stepped up to stand at her shoulders. The drone’s outburst had been surprising and, if one took the words seriously, possibly disturbing, but she had heard far worse from the warlords and revolutionaries who had employed her family’s services over the years. “As you suggested, I have had you investigated. Extensively. I believe that you may be of service to me in a delicate matter.”

“Is this a matter that we ought to discuss openly?” Moira asked.

A faint, almost smug smile played across Evangeline’s lips and up towards her eyes as she said, “I assure you that we are secure in this house. Zone Abrigeist employs a public panopticon, but permits those who are worthy complete privacy within their own homes.”

“Worthy?” Moira asked, skeptically.

Evangeline ignored the jab and continued. “The Satori family has been an invaluable contributor to the public good both within Abrigeist and throughout the Shell for generations. We have many business concerns, but of late we have gained a strong reputation, among certain social classes, for brokering peace treaties in war torn zones and privately adjudicating disputes between corporations which do not wish their squabbles to become fodder for the mesh-wide news networks.”

“If you’re going to ask me to become a peacekeeper we can end this conversation here. I’m not a soldier and I’m less of a politician,” Moira said.

“Not at all. I mention this merely to emphasize the respect which my family is accorded in Abrigeist, and many other zones. Now, as to the task for which I would like to hire you.”

Evangeline tapped the tabletop. It flickered to life, loading a holographic projection of a young man from the waist up. He was thin and narrow shouldered, dressed in a silky blue shirt, with a white and yellow flowered cravat tucked beneath the unbuttoned color. His eyes were a bright emerald green beneath heavy black eyebrows and a lopsided, heavily lacquered hairstyle. “This is my son, Dyson Satori. I need you to find him.”

Moira raised an eyebrow and leaned forward, studying the image of the young man. He looked to be a little younger than her, but there was nothing innocent about his expression. His lips carried the hint of a smirk and his eyes gazed out from the hologram with a false earnestness that seemed to be concealing something.

“I’m going to take a guess here and say that he was not kidnapped,” Moira said.

“No. Wayne, please display the summary, synched to me.”

“Of course, Madam,” the avatar behind Evangeline’s left shoulder said.

The hologram above the table shifted to one side, making room for a series of text boxes, maps, images, and models which transformed as Evangeline spoke. “My son is brilliant. By the age of ten, Dyson had already completed the standard Abrigeist curriculum and exhausted the limits of traditional education restrillects. Obviously he was too young for apprenticeship, so we commissioned a custom grown synthetic intelligence to serve as his mentor. We then allowed him to explore his interests under the guidance of that syntellect. He also traveled extensively with my husband, renowned violinist Gregory Satori.”

Evangeline paused and drew a deep, silent breath to steady her nerves. If her husband knew the lengths to which she was going to protect the family, he would doubtless insist that she take a step back and reevaluate her tactics. That was the essential difference between them. Gregory was an artist, continually striving to improve himself, but often failing to take the broad view of what had to be done to protect the family’s interests. She was a tactician, a negotiator, a woman who could plan three steps ahead of anything except the unknown.

Except when all possible paths led to a single key event.

When that happened, even the best tactician might be left with only a narrowly defined path to victory.

She realized that she had been silent for too long and Moira was examining her critically. “I apologize. I am not often overwhelmed by emotion, but Gregory and I are so proud of our son and I am deeply concerned for his safety.”

Moira nodded for Evangeline to continue, but said nothing. There was something off with this woman, some undercurrent of deceit or hidden emotion that Moira could not quite identify. Hoping that Zau/Heraxo would remain silent, Moira issued a mental command for her mesh to begin relaying what she saw to the ship for analysis. Perhaps Evangeline was merely struggling with her emotions, but Moira suspected there was something more to her behavior.

“Dyson become something of a polymath, qualifying for doctoral level certification in music theory, mathematics, physics, pre-enclosure archeology, and several other fields, but he never received an official degree from any university or trade union because he refused to complete the necessary internships. Needless to say, his father and I were simultaneously proud and immeasurably frustrated with him.” Evangeline gave Moira a sad half-smile though the projected image of Dyson standing beside an obloid drone, the carapace of which was seemingly crafted from overlapping silver scales. “I do not imagine that you have any children of you own, in your line of employment.”

Moira scowled slightly, then shook her head. That had been a point of contention between herself and Zau before… she fixed a neutral expression across her face and shook her head. “No. Don’t have any kids.”

“Still, you can imagine how frustrating it would be to have one’s child throw away such potential.”

“I can.”

“Gregory and I attempted to support Dyson. Obviously he lacked for nothing material, being from my family line and a fully endowed citizen of Abrigeist.”

Obviously, Moira thought, sarcastically. How easily people like Evangeline Satori imagined that everyone in the Shell was as fortunate as they. Moira had not starved, but the basic living supplement provided by the government in Zone Cantubec had been just sufficient to ensure that the unemployed had no excuse to turn to crime. This, in turn, provided the government with all the excuse it needed to levy harsh penalties for the slightest infraction. Despite the near universal availability of raw and matter recompilers capable of processing it into nutritive food, despite the ever present warmth of Sol and most inhabited zones possessing a temperate climate, death from starvation or exposure were not unknown among the humans of the Shell. She had even heard of some zones, especially those torn by internecine conflict, in which starvation was still common.

Evangeline continued to speak, seemingly unaware of Moira’s distraction. “Eleven years go, Dyson announced that he was leaving, setting off on some sort of harebrained archaeological expedition with Gamayun.”

“Gamayun?” Moira interjected.

“The syntellect we had grown for him. Dyson and Gamayun were inseparable from the moment they were introduced. We ensured that Gamayun was trained to provide moral guidance and encourage Dyson to seek answers himself, rather than depending on the drone, and for many years it proved an effective partner. Then Dyson decided to leave home with no clear explanation and Gamayun supported him in this, though why it did I will never understand.”

“Madam Satori,” Moira said, “your son is an adult. If my parents were alive, I can assure you that they would be displeased with my career choices, but they would make no attempt to bring me back home against my will. I just don’t see a job for me here.”

Evangeline leaned forward and looked intently at Moira through the soft glow of the hologram. “Dyson has disappeared, Moira. Ever since he left he has at least sent messages home every few weeks, but I have heard nothing from him for several months.”

“It’s a big shell. He might just be busy.”

Evangeline ignored Moira’s comment and pressed forward, gesturing to the hologram as it shifted to display a wireframe map of the shell, with a zone marked out in green. “My investigations last placed Dyson in Zone Takni Gothren, among the members of a cult which worships technology. And I mean they worship it, as if a pile of ancient computers could grant them eternal life.”

“As in storage and clone transfer? I hate to break it to you, ma’am, but in a lot of zones money can already buy you eternal life.”

“No. I mean that these radicals profess to have the technology to literally transfer the soul, which they also believe in, to another body. They also venerate artificial consciousness. Where the rest of us see a partner which has been fully endowed with all the faculties of our greatest minds, but which is ultimately as much a creation of humanity as a child is the creation of its parents, the Takni Gothren believe that syntellects are gods.”

“And you’re worried that your son now agrees with them?”

“Something like that, yes.”

“That could be embarrassing. Hells, you might have to skip one or two high society parties until the shadow if your shame passes by.”

“That is why I need you.”

Moira narrowed her eyes. She was more wary of tech cults than the average citizen of the Shell, owing to her living in one of the most unique pieces of alien tech ever discovered. “Seriously, has your son joined the cult?”

“No. Well, I certainly hope not. You see, Moira, that is why I need someone like you. If I were to send my own security in, and something were to go wrong, it could be a disaster for the reputation of the family. We are mediators. Neutral parties. On the other hand, you are a private contractor with many years experience tracking people. If you are captured while extracting my son from the cult, there is no damage to me. Even if someone learns of this meeting, well, I have dozens of meetings with private investigators every week. I can spin that.”

“You need a deniable operator. I get that, and I am not even offended at your willingness to throw me away if I get caught, but what exactly do you expect me to do?”

“Find Dyson and deliver a message for me. If, after viewing my message, he asks you for help returning home, then do whatever it takes to get him back safely. If he refuses to come back, then record a message using this.” Evangeline held her hand out, palm up, and one of the silver avatars placed a small back device in it. She passed the device to Moira across the table, saying, “This is a secure q-link. It works just like any other hand terminal, but it has been hardened against data manipulation and can connect only with a paired terminal here on the family estate. It has only two functions enabled: It will play a message that I have recorded for Dyson and it will allow him to record and send a response. It will only activate when he touches it, so please do not attempt to meddle with it. I would hate for the security elements within it to become agitated and cause you any harm.”

“Not very trusting, are you?” Moira said, examining the device. It was a thin black rectangle about the size of her palm, the same form that most hand terminals had taken since before the Enclosure. Moira rarely used one herself, as her mesh had far great capabilities, but she was familiar with the design. She hefted it, impressed at the weight of such a small device. “This thing made out of pure raw?”

“Not exactly, but it is encased in an ultra-dense meta material. Q-links can be a little fragile, after all.”

“We haven’t discussed payment.”

“Wayne, please forward our terms to Moira.”

The avatar raised its left hand and a small transfer icon appeared, overing between its upturned fingers. Moira responded in kind, activating the recipient function of her handy. An instant later an icon appeared, hovering translucently in the corner of Moira’s vision. She opened it and was confronted by a dense block of legal text. She silently cursed lawyers. Some things about humanity never changed. She forwarded the document to Zau/Heraxo along with a note asking them to analyze the contract and give her a report. Aloud, she said, “You certainly like to cover every contingency.”

“One must be cautious,” Evangeline replied.

A reply from Zau/Heraxo appeared, breaking down the contract into a tree diagram. Much of it was grayed out, tagged as standard practice legalese that served only to indemnify the lawyers who had prepared the contract and bind the parties into a business relationship. Moira reviewed the sections which had been tagged as important. The credits on offer were second only to the Bosami Haupt bounty, but there were a few red flags. “So, according to this, you are completely shielded and I’m fraked if anything goes wrong.”

“To put it bluntly.”

Moira tagged a few clauses that were particularly egregious, especially the one which would require her to surrender all assets to the Satori family if she broke a nondisclosure clause, and flicked a finger towards the avatar, signaling her mesh to send the contract back for review. “Take a look at my counter offer. You’re not seizing my ship, and I’m not promising to keep my mouth shut. I know how to be discrete, but you’re not going to own my ass if word gets out that I’m working for you.”

Evangeline gave Moira a tight smile and settled back in her chair. Her eyes did not lose focus as Moira would have expected if she were were reviewing the contract. Instead, Evangeline looked directly into Moira’s eyes and said, “Contracts aside, I may have something you want.”

“What is that?” Moira asked, intrigued that someone who used such comprehensive, and aggressive, legal agreements would offer anything outside the written contract.

“Your ship is,” Evangeline paused and flicked her eyes to Zau/Heraxo’s avatar, which still hovered just above the floor beside Moira’s chair. She tilted her head to one side, examining the drone critically, then looked back to Moira and continued, “Your ship is unusual, to say the least. And I do not refer solely to its singularly strange syntellect.”

“I’ve never pretended otherwise.”

“It is an alien device.”

Moira nodded.

“An exo machine.”

“Surprising you have managed to keep possession of it. I can think of at least three governments that would seize your ship and imprison you for, oh, a variety of oddly named crimes. And that’s to say nothing of all the collectors, technologists, and mercenary armies who would literally kill to gain control of a void ship with Zau/Heraxo’s unique capabilities.”

Moira felt her fingers begin to clench and forced herself to remain loose. She did, however, allow a subroutine in her mesh to begin processing the room to determine the optimal method of disabling the silver avatars and escaping the room. “Please don’t tell me that you’re threatening me, Madam Satori. The ship is mine. Anyone attempts to take it away from me, I leave. Sometimes people end up dead if they get in my way. Remember what we were saying about millions of zones? There’s plenty of space for us to hide.”

Evangeline laughed brightly and dismissed Moira’s concern with a wave of her hand. “Please, Moira, I am in no way threatening you. It was merely an observation. As a matter of fact, I want to help you. It would seem that I have come into possession of some high density power cells of alien design. There are several different kinds, and I am not sure if any of them would work with your ship, but you are welcome to take any which might fit your ship’s specifications. If you are interested, that is.”

Moira felt her eyes widen and her mouth involuntarily creep into a smile. She ought to be suspicious of an offer like this, but Zau/Heraxo was in dire need of additional power cells. The grid tap was nearly as unreliable as the jump core and the ship depended on a severely depleted bank of power cells to provide a buffer for those times when the tap stuttered. She had managed to splice in additional cells, but the equipment which connected the human and alien technology was inherently unstable. If the cells being offered were genuine, and employed a compatible energy storage methodology, they might prove more effective.

She cleared her throat, nodded twice, and said, “We could certainly take a look.”

“And there is more.”

“Oh?”

“Have you ever consulted the Conservators regarding your ship?”

Only her body mesh’s internal monitors assured Moira that her heart had not stopped for an instant. Certainly she had heard wrong. She replayed her memory buffer, watching as the woman seated across from her asked the question again. It certainly seemed like an offer, but one which Moira dared not believe to be possible.

Evangeline could not be offering contact with the Conservators. No human had that much leverage.

“Moira, are you well?”

Moira shook her head and refocused on Evangeline. She took a few deep breaths, then said, “You can’t be serious.”

“I am.”

“How? Why?”

Evangeline slid forward to perch on the edge of her chair as she looked Moira in the eye and said, “I have contacts among the Conservators who might be able to help you understand your ship better, perhaps repair any damage it has suffered. As a sign of just how important this is to me, I will promise you, entirely off the record of course, that if you bring my son back to me alive and healthy, I will put you in contact with the Conservators.”

Moira blinked.

She drew a deep breath and stared wide eyed at Evangeline, hardly believing what she had heard. After a long silence she said, “That’s impossible.”

“It is very much possible. Fulfill the contract and you get your payday. Bring my son back alive, and I’ll put you in contact with the only beings that might know more about your ship than you already do.”

Moira nodded, slowly. “I will certainly keep this offer in mind.”

“It is settled then,” Evangeline said, rising from her chair. She waited until Moira did the same, then offered her a slight bow. “I hope that you are successful, Moira. I fear that my son is in danger.”

“You just keep worrying, Evangeline. I’ll take care of finding him.”

“Thank you, I suppose. Now, it will take at least an hour for my technicians to deliver the power cells to your ship. Can I interest you in refreshments while we wait?”

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