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Syzygy

Chapter Text

I.

I come from fields of fractured ice,
   Whose wounds are cured by squeezing,
Melting they cool, but in a trice,
   Get warm again by freezing.
Here, in the frosty air, the sprays
   With fern-like hoar-frost bristle,
There, liquid stars their watery rays
   Shoot through the solid crystal.

II. 

I come from empyrean fires— 
      From microscopic spaces, 
Where molecules with fierce desires, 
      Shiver in hot embraces. 
The atoms clash, the spectra flash, 
      Projected on the screen, 
The double D, magnesian b, 
      And Thallium’s living green. 

                         III. 

We place our eye where these dark rays 
      Unite in this dark focus, 
Right on the source of power we gaze, 
      Without a screen to cloak us. 
Then, where the eye was placed at first, 
      We place a disc of platinum, 
It glows, it puckers! will it burst? 
      How ever shall we flatten him! 

                         IV. 

This crystal tube the electric ray 
      Shows optically clean, 
No dust or haze within, but stay! 
      All has not yet been seen. 
What gleams are these of heavenly blue? 
      What air-drawn form appearing, 
What mystic fish, that, ghostlike, through 
      The empty space is steering? 

                           V. 

I light this sympathetic flame, 
      My faintest wish that answers, 
I sing, it sweetly sings the same, 
      It dances with the dancers. 
I shout, I whistle, clap my hands, 
      And stamp upon the platform, 
The flame responds to my commands, 
      In this form and in that form. 

                         VI. 

What means that thrilling, drilling scream, 
      Protect me! 'tis the siren: 
Her heart is fire, her breath is steam, 
      Her larynx is of iron. 
Sun! dart thy beams! in tepid streams, 
      Rise, viewless exhalations! 
And lap me round, that no rude sound 
      May mar my meditations. 

                         VII. 

Here let me pause.—These transient facts, 
      These fugitive impressions, 
Must be transformed by mental acts, 
      To permanent possessions. 
Then summon up your grasp of mind, 
      Your fancy scientific, 
Till sights and sounds with thought combine 
      Become of truth prolific. 

                         VIII. 

Go to! prepare your mental bricks, 
      Fetch them from every quarter, 
Firm on the sand your basement fix 
      With best sensation mortar. 
The top shall rise to heaven on high— 
      Or such an elevation, 
That the swift whirl with which we fly 
      Shall conquer gravitation.

--James Clerk Maxwell, To the Chief Musician Upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode

 


 

Σ: Sigma. Eighteenth letter of the Greek alphabet, numerically valued at 200. Serpentine in shape and sound; etymologically descended from a root verb meaning "to hiss." Used most commonly among mathematical disciplines as the symbol denotive of the summation operator of an equation, although Moira knows the word best as the name of the strongest type of covalent chemical bond, and a handful of various transmembrane proteins.

She doubts, however, that Akande's requested her presence in Venice for the sake of a refresher course in secondary school biochemistry, and so she opens the file that Sombra's just slid over to her from across the conference table, upon which the symbol is written.

Some people hold that memory and projection are organic forms of time travel, and indeed Moira finds herself, for the space of a single heartbeat, ten years younger and seated at a different table, with the seeds of a fig rich and sandy on her tongue, smiling at the way her companion's broad hands cradle the air as he speaks, as if he needs to catch and examine his own words in order to verify that they match up with the ones in his mind.

"Doctor Siebren de Kuiper," she manages, somehow, to say without an identical hitch in her voice. "I thought he was dead."

"You and the rest of the world," says Sombra, leaning back in her chair. She starts to kick her heels up on the table, but then looks at Akande, and changes her mind. "Turns out he did more than just survive his little accident on the ISS, too -- he came back a changed man. Like, bitten by a radioactive black hole kind of changed."

Moira doesn't respond, flipping as she is through the pages that document those very changes. Acute psychosis, visual and auditory hallucinations, mania…gravitational fluctuations? Psychokinetic phenomena? What on Earth…?

"Doctor O'Deorain?"

She looks up, and realizes Akande has been speaking to her.

"Sorry?" she says, sounding not the least bit apologetic.

"I said I want you and Sombra to take a team to Ingolstadt and oversee the good doctor's transference to a Talon facility. I want you to assess him personally, both physically and psychologically. I want to know what happened to him, and more importantly, whether or not he can happen for us. Do you understand?"

Moira glowers at him. "Don't speak to me like one of the cannon fodder, Akande. You know I understand perfectly."

Akande raises his hands as if to say he meant no offense, but he looks mollified by the assurance nonetheless.

"How long will you need to prepare?"

"Give me tonight to better familiarize myself with the file, and two days to assemble whatever I feel I may need."

He nods, and turns his attention to Sombra, who shrugs.

"Works for me."

Another nod. "Thursday, then. A dropship will be ready at twenty-two hundred hours in Otranto Hangar. I want this quick, clean, and discreet as you can manage. The European Space Administration, the Dutch and German governments, they've kept all knowledge of this man under lock and key for the better part of a decade; I would not have that ace slip from our sleeve before we get the chance to play it."

Sombra shoots him a winning grin. "Don't worry, boss. Discreta was my second choice for a name, if Sombra had already been taken."

Akande's affect is as flat as his voice. "I'm sure. That's all for now."

Thus excused, Moira and Sombra leave the briefing room and head for the elevator that will carry them back up to the areas of the former Bartalotti estate that are situated above sea-level.

"We finally get to have some fun together, ay doc?" Sombra chirps, and Moira makes a noncommittal noise of acknowledgment, wishing the younger woman was as quiet as she is clever.

It's not that she dislikes Sombra -- the hacker possesses too many of the qualities Moira most admires in a person to ever fully earn her contempt -- but the woman could try the patience of Saint Francis if she felt so inclined, and Moira is about as far from sainthood as the heavens are wide.

"Oh, here--" Sombra hands over a flash drive plucked from the pouch of her neon purple hoodie. "The supplementals on our new favorite astrophysicist, plus some mission specs -- where they're holding him, entry and exit points, guard locations, shift changes, the usual. I have a few ideas, but we can hash out strategy tomorrow. You're not claustrophobic, are you?"

Moira sighs. "No."

"Just checking. You wouldn't believe how many people are these days. I knew kids growing up who couldn't even sleep if the door was closed. So much rubble everywhere, you know?"

Moira parrots Akande's "I'm sure," and hopes her disinterest will be likewise accepted. Member of the Inner Council or not, Sombra doesn't defer to anyone the way she does to Doomfist. Moira truly doesn't give a damn what manner of nest Sombra's feathering for herself under Talon's trough, as long as it doesn't interfere with her own research, just as Vialli was content to humor her occasional little "slip-ups," provided they weren't financially deleterious; Akande, on the other hand, has a Philosophy, and the ice is thinner there. The returns he seeks on his investments are things that even their little shadow cannot hack -- at least, not without a strong stomach and access to a battle-ax or a bone saw. Sombra is wise not to push his buttons anymore than she can help herself.

Moira's buttons, however, are comparatively up for grabs. Bribery is sometimes effective, usually in the form of food, with baked goods having the greatest payoff in terms of time between annoyances, but she's only two hours off her plane from Oasis, and hasn't yet had time enough to prepare anything more ambitious than a cup of tea.

Luckily, their quarters are in separate wings of the palatial compound, and Sombra doesn't contrive a reason to follow when they separate at the split in the landing midway up the main staircase. The file weighs more heavily in Moira's hand with every step she takes, and it's a relief to drop it on her desk once she reaches the relative privacy of her rooms.

He's alive.

One would think she would be old hat at taking such resurrections in stride by now, but it feels like her hands are inside a covered box, and she's meant to guess what it contains by touch alone, only every ridge and bump and corner gets lost in the labyrinth between her fingers and her brain, and she can't make sense of the shape of the thing.

He's alive, not in the casket they buried in Leiden on Dutch television, while his estranged widow wept vacuous tears that had made Moira wish she could likewise drain the life out of the woman from eight hundred kilometers away.

He's alive, and in two days Moira is going to get him and he'll be standing in front of her, living breathing talking being, tangible -- touchable -- solid and warm.

She slumps into the chair behind her desk, and for a few minutes simply sits there, dumbfounded, knowing what she's meant to do but almost farcically perplexed as to how she's supposed to go about doing it.

Jesus wept, think, O'Deorain, for the love of-- …All right. All right. First things first: open the file.

For the second time, she flips over the manila cover, and swallows at the sight of the sharply-hewn face that stares up at her from above his facility intake form.

Subject: Σ
Name: De Kuiper, Siebren
Date of Birth: 15 March 2014
Height: 206 cm
Weight: 100.7 kg
Date of Admission: 30 April 2067
Threat Level: Maximum

Moira runs a finger over the picture clipped to the page, and wonders how recently it was taken. His cheeks look thinner than she remembers, and his dark hair that had been distinguishedly silvering at the temples has been shorn down to the skin. His eyebrows, at least, remain unchanged, just as thick and angular as they had been ten years ago, but the eyes beneath them, those are different -- still the same violet-gray, but glazed and empty, with the pinpoint pupils telltale of heavy sedation.

"What have they done to you?" she murmurs to herself, certain that whatever it was, it was the wrong thing, no matter how he came back. She's not surprised to find his autism absent from the list of his pre-existing conditions, of which there is only one -- minor bilateral glenohumeral osteoarthritis, which, according to his last physical before his final shuttle flight, inexplicably seemed to have corrected itself.

In fact, upon his return, he was in miraculously sound condition for having been subjected to gravitational oscillations far beyond what a human being should have been able tolerate, even momentarily. He'd suffered from seizures in the immediate aftermath, and been riddled with stress fractures and deep, body-wide contusions; his saliva and perspiration had vaporized, as in a vacuum, scalding his mouth and underarms, but his eyes, although brutally discolored by subconjunctival hemorrhages, had been spared similar burns, suggesting he'd had them closed at the time of exposure, and his lungs hadn't burst, so he must have been exhaling.

Eyes closed, and mouth open. Moira wonders if he hadn't survived by the skin of his own screams.

Still, it could have been -- by all accounts, should have been -- much, much worse. He might have returned to Earth a jar full of crisped pink pulp; instead, a mere fortnight spent in a barbiturate coma within the pressurized, nanite-infused atmosphere of a hyperbaric biotank saw him physically right as rain again: swelling reduced, bruises faded, burns peeled, and bones knitted together even denser and sturdier than before.

His endurance was a total mystery. His CBC and BMP panels had been, aside from the expected trauma markers, perfect, his tox-screen negative, and--

...Oh.

Moira freezes for a moment, and then sits back in her chair.

Holy God. Holy shit.

"The prototype."

Siebren's hotel room looked scarcely used in comparison to hers. The bed, unslept in since the night before last, was still turned down from that morning's maid service, and where Moira tended toward organized chaos, tossing her belongings hither and yon as she used and discarded them, he was neat almost to the point of compulsion, with everything placed at precise angles and equally distanced from its fellows. She wondered if he was tidying the explosion of clothing that littered her floor while he waited for her to return, and the quaint domesticity of the thought made her smile.

Her reason for being there enabled her to browse a little, and so she did, idly curious about the everyday debris of his life -- what brand of antiperspirant he preferred (generic; unscented), the color of his toothbrush (white and blue), whether he shaved with an electric razor or a manual one (manual -- a pleasantly surprising old-fashioned straight razor). She found a pair of goggles and swim jammers hanging on the towel rack in the bathroom, confirming her suspicions of his aquatic athleticism, and folded beside his suitcase, a plain white undershirt and a pair of gray ESA-branded joggers that probably served as pyjamas.

She would have liked to see him in those -- the shirt fitting snug across his broad frame and the joggers slung low on his narrow, well-defined hips. The mental image alone made her nipples peak against the thin fabric of her shirt. Next time, perhaps -- if there was a next time, she reminded herself.

Moving on to the tiny closet, she ran her fingers over the suit he'd worn the first day of the symposium, and she held the soft, finespun wool jacket to her face to breathe in the scent of him again. His cologne was in the bathroom, she recalled, next to his shave kit, and she spritzed it on, and made a mental note of its name and designer, thinking she might purchase a bottle for herself -- she favored masculine fragrances, anyway, and the idea of being able to smell him whenever she wanted was a tantalizing prospect, indeed.

Finally, she got what she came for -- a clean pair of trousers and one of boxer-briefs -- and swiped a pen and a piece of hotel stationery from the desk before making one last stop in the bathroom.

She retrieved the small amber bottle of luminescently golden capsules she'd pocketed before leaving her own room, set it down on the counter beside his cologne, and scrawled a quick note that she tucked beneath both:

For the next time you're feeling reckless. --M★

Probably he'd been taking them sporadically throughout the course of the mission, which was what Moira had intended, to help offset the physiological stressors -- muscle atrophy, edema, and the like -- of long-term spaceflight. But the formula wasn't that potent -- theoretically, at least; he might have doubled up on the dose that day, or perhaps it had interacted with some unaccounted-for quirk in his physiology. Still, for it to have built up in his system to the extent that he could withstand being partially digested by a black hole, of all things... Now, perhaps, with the advancements she's made in manipulating cellular structures, but then? When she'd yet to even work out the anomaly that had enabled the results her peers had initially dismissed as either a misidentified reaction or out-and-out sensationalistic lies?

Then again, it had been he who'd cracked open the egg of her epiphany, in the course of their conversation regarding the reflective nature of the universe itself: a black hole gene, he'd suggested -- idly, jokingly, but while her genetic translation of the concept was more poetic than direct, Gabriel and, to a lesser degree, Moira herself now represent the ravenous proof in that shadowy pudding. Permeated with its antidote as de Kuiper had been at the time, Moira must at least credit the possibility that some form of cosmically-recognized aposematism might have occurred, or at any rate that her contribution had in a sense rendered him unpalatable enough to have been spat out upon tasting.

But while her little souvenir might to some extent account for his survival, it didn't even begin to explain what else he'd been proven capable of upon his return.

Following his emergency evacuation back to Earth, the unconscious de Kuiper had been airlifted directly from the CRV landing site to a military hospital in Darmstadt, where the ISS crew's medical doctor relayed his care to a Bundeswehr physician by the name of Elias Epelman.

Once de Kuiper had been stabilized, his treatment progressed apace, and he'd healed with remarkable speed, until the only question mark that remained was that of his mental function. Imaging showed his cerebral structure to be intact, with no persisting inflammation, but in the end, of course, only de Kuiper himself, through his conscious judgments and reactions and ability to perform as requested, could provide the information necessary to make that diagnosis one way or the other.

And so, they woke him up, and then it was days before the hospital's custodial staff finally finished picking pieces of metal, bone and tissue out of the ceiling.

Only the damaged memory chip of Epelman's omnic assistant, Johannes, exists to provide a first-hand account of the incident, a copy of which Moira finds on Sombra's flash drive.

The video lacks any audio, and it glitches every few seconds, like a satellite signal corrupted by a solar flare, but the picture, for the most part, is clear:

The omnic Johannes stands at the foot of de Kuiper's hospital bed, with Epelman and two human nurses flanking it on either side. The left-hand nurse is the one to administer a syringe of methylphenidate into the IV attached to de Kuiper's right forearm, and in less than a minute, his eyelids begin to flutter, and the muscles in his arms and hands to twitch to life in a vaguely Frankensteinian progression, stilted and eerie. His heart rate on the ECG jumps from thirty-five to forty-seven beats per minute -- fifty -- sixty-two…

Moira has witnessed more than her share of fear, often being, if not the direct cause of it herself, then immediately adjacent to whomever is, but she's never seen fear the like of which emanates from de Kuiper's eyes upon their opening. It's sheer, primordial panic, something siphoned from the eldritch source of whatever was one indrawn breath older than the first scream, and gooseflesh rises on Moira's arms and the nape of her neck to see it.

Seventy-eight. Ninety.

The bed begins to rise, and those assembled take a collective step back. Epelman adapts first, the phenomenon secondary to the wellbeing of his patient. It's not uncommon for people to experience nightmares as they emerge from anesthesia, and when Epelman speaks, the articulations of his mouth are clear and slow with calming intent.

It doesn't work -- appears, rather, to make things worse. De Kuiper thrashes, pain joining the fear when Epelman and his subordinates seek to pin his flailing limbs, his neck cording and face contorting as he twists his head against the pillow, shouting soundlessly, arching off the mattress.

One hundred eleven. One hundred twenty-three.

The video lurches as Johannes…falls? --No, rises: he's horizontal now, but everything is rising that isn't in some way attached to a wall or the floor. One of the nurses vomits at the sudden, dizzying shift in equilibrium, while the other struggles to reach the door, only to be sucked backward as the room -- or rather, everything except the room -- begins to spin.

Some sort of gravitational vortex is forming, with de Kuiper floating fetal at its center, his mouth open in a scream, clutching his head in his hands. The bed whirls like a propeller beneath him, increasing in velocity with every rotation; the IV rips out of his arm, and the ECG flatlines and flashes in alarm when its wires yank free of the electrodes adhered to his chest.

Moira watches Johannes' arm reach out to grab hold of the sink, watches his joints spark and separate before the stainless steel basin and the counter around it give way as easily as aluminum and corrugated fiberboard. She startles when the corner of the crash cart smashes into the back of Epelman's head, and great, warping globules of blood and brain matter join the maelstrom of equipment, bodies, and bile reeling rapidly around the axis of the agonized man in middle of the room.

The video glitches hard as Johannes is slammed abruptly into the floor, and then resolves into an image of the nurse who'd vomited lying parallel some two meters away, likely already dead, her head having hit the tile with enough force to partially extricate her left eye from its socket.

Both are down for only a second before the image blurs again in a rapid ascent, and goes dark.

Moira stares past her own reflection in the screen for some time, uncertain of how to process what she's just watched.

There is, of course, the curiosity, adrenalized and simmering just beneath her skin, as is expected and appropriate to what she knows of herself when presented with a scientific treasure trove of this magnitude, but she finds it tempered by a prevailing sensation of numbness -- of having been, furtively and without warning, detached from herself and placed in stasis, like a transplant organ on ice between bodies.

As a scientist, Moira regards the notion of deity with no small amount of skepticism, but as a cradle Catholic, the threat of divine punishment factored more than frequently enough in her upbringing to have an overarching impact on her worldview. She doesn't believe that the God of her childhood is anything more than the dummy of three thousand years' worth of tyrannical ventriloquists, but neither can she say that, in weaker moments, she's never wondered if something hadn't specifically taken its due for her exploitation of the loophole she found in the laws of entropy by robbing her of the person whose perspective enabled her to understand what it was that she'd stumbled across. That he happened to also be the only person who'd ever made her genuinely reconsider everything she'd thought she'd known of her own capacity for human connection was just the ironic icing on the whole spiteful cake.

She can't tell whether the revelation of his continuing existence makes the scar of losing him and the possibilities he represented feel less or more like the wound it had been; can't tell whether it's a mercy or a cruelty that he's been returned to her thus, now, with his gifts to be utilized as a weapon, just as she utilizes the gift he unwittingly gave to her.

"I feel like all of me is safe with you," he said, and perhaps it was that the bubble of their time together was thinning, creating a sense of urgency that lent the confession greater significance than he'd meant it to carry, but the words snaked uninvited between her ribs and coiled around her heart and she wanted--

No. Damn it, no. She's already mourned that loss -- had spent the night she and de Kuiper were to have met again instead getting scathingly, appallingly blackout drunk beside Jesse cunting McCree at a tiki bar in Tortuga, and then hidden her sobs in the painful heaves that had forced her to her knees in front of the toilet the next morning. She'd stared at herself in the mirror after, hands fisted and knuckles white, eyes bloodshot and swollen, and told herself that it was done, he was gone, and with vivisectional ferocity she'd sliced what little she possessed of the otiose fat of sentiment from her own hard, determined, pitiless lean.

She's tempted now to repeat the experience, but she leaves the bottle of whiskey in its place in the bottom-left drawer of her desk, and lights a cigarette instead -- a habit she'd quit in her twenties, only to take it up again when she began with Blackwatch, knowing it couldn't cause her lungs or skin any damage beyond her ability to undo. For fuck's sake, she's pushing fifty and isn't yet so much as perimenopausal; outside the loose parameters that define adulthood, she is effectively ageless -- not immortal, not yet, but there's nothing to indicate she won't live to reach at least her bicentennial, if she manages somehow to carry on as she has been.

She's good at it, the carrying on; she does so now, going through the motions of research as she would for any other project, rarefied or mundane.

There are other videos -- hundreds, in fact; weekly "therapy" sessions, according to Sombra's notes. They're far too numerous to get through in the time Moira has before de Kuiper's retrieval, but a skimming of the oldest and most recent files, with a few in between, should provide a general impression of any alterations in his personality or behavior over time.

She takes a long, hard drag from her cigarette, as if to smoke the hive of her mind and its swarming thoughts into docility, and clicks on the first file: Sigma20670501.

It's immediately apparent that the facility to which he's been transferred learned from Epelman's mistakes: de Kuiper sits alone in a large, empty room, strapped to a chair that's been bolted to the floor. His orange institutional jumpsuit clashes with the sickly mint green of the walls, and his bare feet are curled so that only the tips of his halluces touch the smooth, cold-looking concrete floor. He's also drugged out of his gourd, if the way his head lolls is any indication, although he is conscious -- his eyes are heavy, but open, and he's stimming in the only way currently available to him, sawing the blunt edges of his thumbnails against the pads of his index fingers.

There's a red ball on the floor about a meter in front of him, a budget-friendly child's plaything pulling double-duty as a scientific apparatus.

"How are you feeling today, Doctor de Kuiper?" a male voice -- that of a Dr. Otto Traugott -- pipes through a set of unseen speakers, and bounces off the bare walls of the room.

De Kuiper winces, and Traugott prompts him again, "Doctor de Kuiper?"

De Kuiper opens his mouth, closes it, shakes his head.

"I don't…" he says, voice halfway sticking in his throat. He swallows and struggles to focus, to rally. "What?"

"How are you feeling today?"

"I, ah… Could...could you turn that down, please?"

"Turn what down? My voice?"

"The music."

"There is no music, Doctor de Kuiper."

The man in the video lifts his head, squinting, confused.

"Can't you hear it?" he asks. "It's deafening."

"No, I can't hear it. Can you describe it for me?"

"I don't… I can't place it. It's familiar but it's... What is that melody?"

His lips move, presumably along with whatever he's hearing, but the tune remains as trapped in his throat as it is in his head, and after a few moments, Traugott redirects him:

"Do you remember what happened aboard the International Space Station?"

De Kuiper blinks once, hard, and his eyes follow the path of an unseen object. "What happened…?" he repeats, distracted.

"Yes. Aboard the space station."

"I… I was there to conduct a series of experiments, but I… H-how did I get back?"

"You were evacuated. You were quite severely injured when the artificial black hole you engineered experienced a brief period of…instability."

"Instability? No, that's not… I need to see the data. I need to--" He grunts, having tried to stand, and looks bemusedly down at his bonds, as if this is the first he's seen of them. "What--? Wh-- Where am I? Why am I being imprisoned? Release me!"

Moira's attention is drawn to a slight movement at the bottom of the screen: the red ball is no longer on the floor, but hovering just above it, spinning like a basketball on the tip of an invisible finger.

"I'm afraid that is impossible," Traugott's voice calmly intones.

"You have no right to hold me, I've done nothing wrong!"

"I am afraid, Doctor de Kuiper, that simply isn't true. You've killed four people."

The ball jumps higher, spins faster, but if de Kuiper notices it, he doesn't relate its movements back to his own mounting agitation.

"What? No! No, I-- There's been some kind of mistake, I would never--"

"There is no mistake, Doctor de Kuiper. You killed four people. A doctor, two nurses, and a physician's assistant. Whether you were in control of your actions at the time is immaterial; they are dead, and you are the cause of it."

Devil choke you, whoreson bastard, Moira thinks, burning away the ache in her chest and throat at the horrified disbelief in de Kuiper's expression with another lungful of smoke, knowing exactly the nightmare scenario Traugott's ham-fisted words must trigger in his mind: that he was wrong; that his faith in his understanding of his own condition was entirely misplaced; that his brain short-circuited at the most crucial moment, and others paid the ultimate price for his hubris.

That Traugott is incognizant of how utterly his vagueness has just decimated his patient's -- his prisoner's -- sense of self is as immaterial as de Kuiper's ignorance of having committed multiple manslaughter. Akande's desire for discretion be damned, if Moira finds this man at the facility, she will kill him for that callous stupidity alone, as slowly and spectacularly as time will allow.

"No," de Kuiper says again, but the confidence in his voice is a pittance of what it was, and the ball is…beating, expanding and contracting rapidly as the air pressure vacillates within and around it. Moira wonders if its pulses reflect his heart rate, wonders if his vitals are being monitored by sensors hidden beneath his jumpsuit, and she pages through the file for the relevant charts while he continues to protest, "No, this isn't right -- I should have a lawyer, I should... Where am I being held? Who the hell are you people?"

"Calm yourself, Doctor de Kuiper. You are not in any danger."

"Like hell! You, you lock me up and you pump me full of God knows what and that -- that fucking music and I can't, c-can't-- God stop it please-- Please it hurts, het doet pijn, it'stooloudithurts--"

"Doctor de Kuiper."

Moira stills, file forgotten, eyes riveted to the screen.

De Kuiper whimpers, hunching, his breathing tight and shallow with pain. Tears pearl around his lashes without shedding, just as blood collects in the conchae of his ears and remains there, rippling roundly, adhered by the surface tension characteristic of fluids in a microgravity environment.

The ball is fluctuating wildly now, inflating to the verge of bursting, crumpling until it resembles a large plug of cherry chewing gum.

"Doctor de Kuiper."

A loud crack, like a gunshot, reverberates throughout the anemic green room as the ball's structural integrity finally fails, leaving it a star-shaped scrap of plastic pinwheeling in the air.

The soft, distinctive hiss of a hypospray -- probably embedded somewhere in the back of the chair, if Moira had to guess -- precedes both its fall and that of de Kuiper's blood and tears as he slumps, unconscious, against his bonds.

The video ends, and it's only when the long cylinder of ash Moira's cigarette has become breaks and falls against her keyboard that she jerks back to the present, cursing and blowing the residue from between the keys, and stubbing the filter in an empty glass Petri dish she's taken to using as a paperweight.

Flustered, she looks again at the file, but the paper may as well be oiled for the way the words slip through the grate between her eyes and her mind, and so she tosses it aside with a frustrated sigh, pushes a hand back through her hair, and selects another video at random.

The setup is the same: green walls, orange jumpsuit, straps and chair, but the red ball has been replaced with a semicircle of soft toys -- a sheep, a crocodile, a tortoise, a rainbow-banded snake, and a blue hippopotamus all bob gently in the air around him, mocking and surreal.

De Kuiper himself looks diminished, thinner, and his eyes are bruised and hollow with exhaustion. He doesn't even stim, his hands lying limp against the armrests of the chair.

"How are you feeling today, Doctor?" Traugott's voice begins.

The man in the chair is slow to answer, as if speech is a thing that can only be achieved once his thoughts have built up sufficient inertia.

"Better," he says, and Moira bites down on a foil of anger at the thought of what "worse" must have looked like.

"I'm glad to hear that. The orderlies tell me that your behavior has also improved over the past few days. Do you see how the one thing informs the other?"

"C…cause and effect," de Kuiper agrees, nodding as if unaware he's being condescended to like some idiot child. "Yes, I see."

"And the Melody -- has that, too, been improving?"

De Kuiper shudders, tries to hide it in a shrug.

"Yes," he says, too loudly and too quickly. "Yes it's. Quiet. It's quieter now." He inhales shakily, and his facial muscles tic into a desperate, faltering parody of a smile.

"Good."

"Yes!" The animals jump, and de Kuiper startles, quailing down into his restraints. "Yes it's good yes," he whispers as they sink again -- the beginnings of control, Moira wonders, or does he believe their movements correlate to some unknown agent external to himself? The red ball didn't pop until his ears were bleeding; if his mysterious Melody truly is quieter now, he may view the props as barometers of its volume, and not of his distress in response to it.

"A little wound up today, are we?" Traugott asks. "Is there perhaps something on your mind?"

De Kuiper swallows with some difficulty, and there's a sense that he's been preparing for this, rehearsing for it.

"Yes I-- I've been… It's quiet and I've been. I was hoping. I need to be there," he says. "Please. Please. She's expecting me. The Star."

Moira's heart does a strange, hot turn in her chest, and her eyes flick to the date in the file name: Sigma20670808

One year exactly from the night they'd met.

He'd remembered.

He'd been shattered, body and mind; he was being held against his will, sentenced without trial, with his mental faculties reduced to a psychotic roux of haloperidol and post-traumatic hallucinations, and still he'd remembered, and wanted to go to her.

Wonderful man. 

Damaged, devastating, wonderful man.

"A star is expecting you?" Traugott's tone all but oozes skeptical amusement, and his death moves swiftly and smoothly up the rungs of Moira's designative ladder, from Potentially Diverting Side Quest to Requisite Mission Objective, even if she has to go entirely out of everyone's way to see it done.

De Kuiper nods. "The Prettiest Star. We, we, we have a loop, we have a loop and if I'm not there then I can't -- can't tell her."

"I see. And what do you have to tell her, Doctor, this pretty star of yours?"

"Prettiest," de Kuiper emphasises, and it makes Moira smile faintly even as it tightens the knot in her throat. "If you saw her, you'd see. Cold fire, red and blue -- like shifts in visible light, ultraviolet to infrared. That's how she knew. She's not like me but she is where I am and I belong to her, to her on her in her with her. I belong."

The other animals drift aimlessly, but the rainbow snake remains largely stationary, front and center, chasing its own tail in a bright, eternal ring.

"A noble sentiment," Traugott assures him, "but if she is where you are, then why can't you simply tell her that here?"

Moira supposes she should feel relieved that Traugott fails to understand the allegorical nature of his patient's ramblings. How loathsome it would be if he did, and dangled the promise of her like a carrot on a stick to ensure his subject's cooperation. She hopes de Kuiper is aware of that much -- that he doesn't use her name because he doesn't want Traugott to know who she is, and not because he's forgotten that she has one.

Still, his frustration at Traugott's obtuseness is made evident by the snake, which loses sight of its tail as it spirals up into an adder dance with a phantom opponent.

"No!" he snarls. "You're not listening! You never hear anything, you stupid man! Just let me go! I'm better, I'm-- It's good, I've been good, I have to be there, let me go!"

The animals are all facing the camera now, their lifeless eyes staring flatly into the lens in a tableau as ridiculous as it is menacing.

Traugott is silent, probably out of petulance at the slight to his intelligence as much as an unwillingness to reward negative behavior with engagement.

"Hello?" de Kuiper calls. "I know you're there! Release me, damn you! Please! Please?"

The hypospray hisses, the animals fall, the video cuts to black, and Moira...

Moira seethes.

She opens the encrypted texting app on her phone and fires off a short message:

A dozen conchas if Mr. Traugott can be given a reason to look in on his patient Thursday night.

Sombra's reply is almost immediate: A baker's dozen, and you got yourself a deal.

She doesn't ask for an explanation, nor does Moira expect she ever will, although the request has doubtless piqued her interest enough that she'll nose around for the why of it on her own time, if she doesn't already know. No matter -- it doesn't amount to much on paper, and if she takes it to anyone, it will be Gabriel, who might actually enjoy having the opportunity to one-up her with the revelation that he's not only aware of Moira and de Kuiper's prior acquaintance, but having been surveiling Moira the night of their affair, was also treated to the dubious pleasure of observing its more exhibitionistic moments in greater detail than he might have wished.

Anyway, it's not as if the underpinnings of their little Mephistophelian empire aren't already rife with maudlin threats to its efficiency. Sombra herself can attest to that, what with the way she and Lacroix are constantly pulling at one another's metaphorical pigtails, and one need only make the vaguest of references to Jack Morrison within earshot of Gabriel to see what thirty years' worth of emotional constipation can accomplish for a person's resting bitch face.

Done, Moira sends, and rolls her eyes when she receives a string of drooling emojis in response.

If only Akande could be so easily persuaded, but in his case, it will be easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Moira's status as a shareholder on Talon's governing board is, technically, equal to Akande's own, and he respects the objectivity of her ambitions enough to give any modest dissent that might arise from her corner the benefit of the doubt in regard to her motivations being rooted in rational analysis, and not petty political power plays.

At least, she thinks he does -- one can never be a hundred percent certain when dealing with paranoid, bloodthirsty warlords hell-bent on building worldwide totalitarian regimes -- but it's a chance she'll have to take.

That much decided, she picks up the file, able to make sense of it now that something like a plan is coalescing in the back of her mind, and she works deep into the night, reading, watching and cross-referencing, jotting down notes of her own.

De Kuiper doesn't mention her again, as the Star or anything else, and goes all but catatonic the one time Traugott ventures to bring it up. Moira never sees him strive for that level of subservience again, either, responding to Traugott's questions with alternating fury and defeat, if he answers them at all.

He does eventually seem to realize that the rotating array of toys that always surrounds him during his sessions move according to his mental state. In calmer moments, they simply drift, gently colliding and bouncing off of one another at random angles, like poly-filled asteroids; in more truculent moods, they spin, orbiting his chair like satellites, as the unfortunate Epelman and his team had done, albeit to considerably less gruesome effect.

Once or twice, their configuration is linear: they arrange themselves at differing heights before him, while de Kuiper's fingers press repetitively against the arms of his chair. Moira herself might have mistaken those small gestures for stimming behavior, or else a dyskinetic side effect of one of his medications, if the question of the Melody and her own remembrance of the musician's strength in his palms hadn't both been simultaneously skimming the surface of her thoughts. As it is, she would bet a very healthy sum that if Traugott ever thought to put some facsimile of a keyboard in front of him, he would find that the positions of the toys correspond notationally to the finger placements on a piano.

Of course, Traugott doesn't think to do that, and so Moira takes screenshots, and overlays them with cropped images of blank staff paper. She doesn't read music, and can't be certain where, exactly, the notes should fall, or how they should be played, but it gets the idea across well enough to be tailored later on.

De Kuiper's medical records reveal nothing especially out of the ordinary, save for frequent migraines (which surely aren't alleviated by the number of neuroleptics listed in his medication chart, none of which seem to have ever done his symptoms any good) and, appearing at about six months into his captivity, a vitamin D deficiency, for which he now receives ultraviolet phototherapy three times per week.

He's lost nearly twenty kilos, but his teeth are good, and there's no documented reoccurrence of the ruptured eardrums he suffered during his first session with Traugott -- an affliction written off as having been caused by a sudden change in air pressure, psychosomatically augmented by a false perception of auditory trauma.

Any imaging the facility has performed has come back clean, healthy, almost disappointingly normal: they've never been able to scan him while he's conscious, and so the regions of his brain involved in the use of his powers remain enigmas to be solved. One thing Moira does find curious isn't his brain itself, but the osteal case that surrounds it -- the sutures where his cranial bones would have fused in early childhood appear slightly thicker than usual, almost as if his head had at some point been broken apart at the seams, like a Beauchêne skull, and then fitted back together with such precision as to almost completely occlude any visual markers that the injury had ever taken place.

Also strange is the fact that his captors, frankly, haven't done anything with him. They test and retest him from a strictly diagnostic purview, and appear to have no real goals for him in mind beyond the maintenance of his tractability -- hence the toys, Moira thinks. They could use anything of adequate softness (or not, because it hardly matters that a velveteen rabbit has no sharp edges when the man to whom it's given can make it weigh a metric ton), anything at all to measure the range of his gravitic abilities, but a toy is a deliberate signifier of dependence -- how his keepers wish him to view himself in relation to the "care" he receives at their discretion.

His individuality, too, is stripped piecemeal from his and Traugott's interactions, as he goes from being Doctor de Kuiper, to Doctor, to nothing at all -- and then, just as gradually, to Sigma: first declarative, as the final word in a sentence of praise, and then questioning, prompting recognition of himself as such. He's never Siebren to him, not once, not ever, and Moira feels a twinge of guilt when she realizes he hasn't been Siebren to her in just as long, either, not that she can really be blamed for it -- keeping her distance from his memory had been a provisional matter upon their parting, but something more crucial to her sense of self-preservation in the wake of his alleged death.

She wonders if he still connects the name to himself, or if it's been locked away in some internal glacier, waiting for a thaw.

She closes her eyes and mouths it now, without sound -- a practice run, just as he had made of hers the first time he'd tried it on for size.

Siebren, dour and uncomfortable; Siebren, awkward and sweet and surprisingly cheeky; Siebren, brilliant and intense and open and tender and so, so strong…

Moira covers her eyes with a hand to cage the ache that perches just behind them, pecking at the backs of her tear ducts. She refuses to behave like this, like some pining fucking Penelope. It's beneath her. The man she knew is dead -- he might not have died but it's been ten fucking years and she doesn't know who or what might be wearing his face anymore; God knows she's no longer the woman he'd so badly wanted to see again, even without the benefit of coercive conditioning. She has killed, maimed, stolen, blackmailed, abused her own authority and undercut that of others, and she will keep doing all of those things and more, and with a smile on her face, because she enjoys them. She is a despicable fucking person and she feels just in being so, as just as any carrion crow that eats the eyes out of a dead lamb's head in front of its bleating dam, because life is not a benevolent gift: it's a process of elimination, and Moira is too damned resilient for anyone's good, her own included.

Akande wants a weapon, and she is obliged to give him one.

But not like this. Even if she didn't feel…the way she does, delivering to Doomfist a lunatic man-child he can simply point in any direction he believes could profit from a little chaos would be a waste of de Kuiper's potential. One doesn't yoke a thoroughbred like a beast of burden. Talon needs to know what he knows, and for that, he must be able to tell them -- must be able to discover it for himself, if he isn't already aware. He'll need the data from the mission and his experiments, he'll need a lab--

But she's getting ahead of herself. She must first ascertain how much of his mathematical genius remains intact, and whether he can be trusted with…with whatever he may need.

Moira messages her assistant in Oasis, and has him clear her calendar for the next month, citing a family emergency.

She has so much to do.