Continuing the first drafts of Splintered Demons. To learn more about this book or view the table of contents for these first drafts posts, visit the novel page here.
“We have our own arrangement,” Gamayun said. They glided back from the edge and opened a series of panels in their side, unfolding a set of articulated arms from within itself. Dyson climbed into the curve of Gamayun’s body and the arms folded around him, securing his legs, waist, and chest. He looked towards Moira and raised an eyebrow within his helmet. “You’re not the only one who spends most of their time with a syntellect.”
Gamayun slipped out of the airlock, shuddered for an instant as the conflicting gravitational fields of the Spire and Zau/Heraxo warred over them, and dropped sideways as the grasp of the Spire took hold. They plunged past Zau/Heraxo’s stowed landing struts, past the curl of the metasomal energy lance, and into the dark depths below the ship. Moira’s visual overlay tracked them as a yellow-boxed point dwindling away, sprouting tags which indicated their estimated distance and velocity. If Zau/Heraxo had been cooperating, the entire chamber would have been as bright as wake to Moira as the ship’s intellect fed data from its own sensors into her vision, but with the hybrid intellect trapped in another of its funks she was as cut off from its data as from the electrical airlock controls.
“We’ve reached the bottom,” Gamayun reported, its voice whispering in Moira’s auditory implants over their shared communication link. “There is some debris and a think layer of dust, but less than one might expect for a chamber which has been untouched for hundreds of years. The debris seems to be consistent with the broken gantries observed along the walls.”
“Any openings?” Moira’s asked. Zau/Heraxo’s model of the ship had revealed a number of nodules protruding from the floor which could as likely be entryways, equipment storage bays, or the flattened hulls of small ships which had broken from the gantries and crashed into the floor.
“None that we can find in a cursory search,” Dyson replied. “Though, it appears that the patterns we noted are a series of about a dozen sealed entryways. These doors still seem to be shut tight, if doors they are.”
“I’m more worried about the open doors,” Moira replied. Upon their arrival, a massive set of doors had split open in the upper end of the chamber. Before the ship’s sensors had cut out, she had got just a glimpse of the cylindrical chamber beyond. Now it was dimly illuminated by light spilling through the open doors from the patchwork light panels which continued to stutter on and off with no apparent pattern or order.
“I figured we should check our back before pushing forward,” Dyson said.
Moira did not reply. Intellectually, she knew that she would have to learn to work with Dyson, but the brash polymath had irritated her from the moment they met. She snugged the straps of her gravness, set the device to neutral, and stepped out of the airlock, moving with more caution than Dyson and Gamayun had. The gravitational shift hit her stomach and inner ears like taking a sharp turn in a skimmer. She felt everything inside of her twist about, then slam to one side as the Spire’s gravity first warred with, then overcame the gravity of Zau/Heraxo. The gravness shuddered a few times as the field grips within it struggled to compensate, but the device served its purpose and kept her buoyed in place within a few centimeters of her original location.
Her mesh sent a query to the pistol mounted on her hip, which responded that it was fully charged and ready to kill. She left it in place. They’d already doused this whole chamber with a flood of exotic radiation when they jumped in, there was no point further aggravating any potential residents by charging in guns blazing.
“I’m going up,” Moira said, mentally nudging the ascent controls on the gravness.
“We are going to examine the murals, then join you,” Gamayun replied.
It was disconcerting to leave Zau/Heraxo behind and drift upwards through a space that was at once vast and utterly confined. Moira had been outside the ship twice while it passed through the void, but she had never trusted Heraxo enough to leave the hull. Likewise, she had never before been in such a large chamber. She supposed that the pit of Downtown in Covington was the nearest equivalent, with its layer upon descending layer of shops and residences built into the walls of a depleted raw mine, all capped with the suspended structure of the government center, but even there the sky was still visible around the edges. Even without the constant glow of street lamps and offclub signs the vast descending shaft of Downtown would have been illuminated by the halo of sunlight around the upper edges. Here, there was no sky. No sun. Only a chamber more than half a kilometer wide and twice as long, illuminated only by irregular bands of green light which winked on and off again at seemingly random intervals.
And up above, the open doors.
Moria drifted beyond Zau/Heraxo’s folded landing struts, up past the protrusion of the ship’s cockpit with its pair of rarely used point defense cannons and clusters of sensor arrays, and into the empty space above. As she glided upwards, she looked down on Zau/Heraxo, who hovered below in stoic silence like an armored insect trapped in an invisible web. The ship had gone silent shortly after the gargantuan upper doors had opened and then, after several warning flickers, nearly all of the ship’s systems had gone dead. Moira counted them fortunate that Zau/Heraxo had maintained its grav drive in neutral, rather than shutting down the system entirely and sending them plummeting towards the lower doors of the chamber. Now she could only pray that Anomaly could discover some way of helping Zau/Heraxo out of their funk before the Spire found a means of killing them all.
“Approaching the upper doors,” Moira called to the others. “They appear to be made of kind of metallic composite, but I’m seeing patterns in the metal which are usually indicative of growth. 👎🏼, I wish that Zau was cooperating right now. My eyes aren’t equipped for this kind of spectral analysis.”
“You’re going to need to explain the situation aboard ship at some point, you know,” Dyson replied.
“No need to pry, young master. Moira, we are on our way.”
“There is need. This woman shows up with some sort of insane syntellect, carrying a device which allows my mother to quantum tunnel her way into the heart of my laboratory. I think I’m owed an explanation.”
“This isn’t the best of times,” Gamayun replied.
“It’s fine,” Moira said. She tweaked her gravness, directing herself towards a gigantic device protruding from the surface of the door, which appeared to be a locking mechanism of sort. “I’m a mercenary of sorts. Your mother found me on the job boards, offered me something very valuable to deliver a message to you. The Takni Gothren were more than willing to give you up in exchange for me owing them a few jobs.”
“And this psychotic ship?” Dyson asked. “It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before, and I’ve traveled to just about every zone which has developed void travel. I’m tempted to call it alien, even exo, like the needle drones.”
“You’re not far off,” Moira replied. She slowed to a neutral hover beside the locking mechanism, which was a tall as her. She glanced back down the shaft and saw Dyson and Gamayun rising up beside the hull of Zau/Heraxo. “Zau was my partner and lover, practically my wife but she refused register our partnership with any government. We worked together for many years, scavenging for scraps of technology to sell to less developed zones, and then we came across this ship. Long story short, Zau was forcibly uploaded into the ship’s syntellect core, which we’ve since determined was already unstable before the upload occurred. Somehow she established herself as coequal with the rest of the Heraxo personality and, years later, here we are.”
“That is tragic. I thank you for sharing such an intimate piece of your personal history with us,” Gamayun said, gliding up to hover beside Moira below the looming locking mechanism.
“Mmm, yes. Very sad,” Dyson added.
Sad. The single most tragic moment of my existence and he reduces it to a single 🖕🏽ing syllable. Moira scowled and turned her back on the others to continue her inspection of the mechanism.
Viewed from less than a meter away, the material from which the mechanism was constructed took on a disturbingly organic appearance. Striation patterns curved throughout it, as if the metal had grown in layers rather than being cast in a forge. It reminded Moira of images she had seen of early midge-construction, back when humanity had relied on three-dimensional printers and primitive forerunners of midges called nanobots, but even that comparison was not complete. There was an organicity to the patterns which reminded her of a broken clamshell.
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