Tedious tasks are always better with musical accompaniment. Therefore, the appropriate response to supervising a slew of loading bots schlepping cargo crates into the Whimper’s Revenge was to blare the top 300 playlist as it downloaded off the planet-side servers. That was the sacred, inviolate opinion of Captain Magritte Valshorn, owner, operator and crew of the Whimper’s Revenge. Magritte could suffer through most things as long as the ship’s computer kept the music playing.
“Linda?” Rita called from her station at the aft hatch of the cargo bay.
“Yes, Rita?” the computer replied.
“Where’s the music?”
“We’ve maxed out our bandwidth allotment at the moment. The music feed is a low priority item. I can run the local top thirty for you.”
“No local lists. Restart the list with what we’ve got,” Rita said. Then, on second thought, “How have we maxed out our bandwidth? We’re the only independent ship in port and Primus Drie isn’t that tiny.”
“There’s an external piggyback on our network,” Linda said.
Rita cursed. Cheap docking bots pilfering her bandwidth because they couldn’t afford the hardware to run their own stable network were the thing she hated most about back world planets. For that moment, anyway. At least she’d caught them. No way was she paying the fees for network adaptation when they didn’t have a network to integrate with her own. “I’m going to go find their super. Keep an eye on the drones for me, ‘kay?”
“Sure thing, boss,” the computer replied.
Rita ducked out of the cargo hold, slid down the loading dock and dodged the spider-bots scrambling to and fro. She hit the ground with a satisfying crunch on the gravel below. She was halfway around the Whimper, absently scanning the hull for signs of damage, when she noticed a pair of teenagers huddled together under an engine bank.
Her first instinct was to leave them there. The ship wasn’t taking off for hours and no teenagers anywhere took that long to fool around. On the other hand, if this was a special case, they’d get incinerated later that afternoon and Rita didn’t fancy adolescent barbecue as hull decor. “Hey kids, it’s not safe there,” she called as she approached. The sound of her feet on the gravel should have already given them enough warning to start pulling themselves together.
The teenagers readjusted, but didn’t come out. Now Rita was annoyed. Mischief was one thing, obstinacy another.
“Cuddle time is over. Out of there,” Rita said as she marched over to the engine. She was four meters away when they leaped up and bowed at the waist.
“Captain Valshorn, we beg sanctuary,” they said in unison.
Rita froze. The teenagers were disheveled, their clothes wrinkled and covered in dust, but present and firmly in place. Rita rapidly changed her assessment from lovers to siblings. The girl on the left straightened before the boy. She was probably about fourteen, he might be sixteen or seventeen. They both had rich brown complexions and glossy, straight black hair that hung almost to their waists. Whoever they were, they were not from Primus Drie and hadn’t been there more than a week; between the local radiation and the gunk in the water, nobody would keep hair like that for any time out here.
“You kids in trouble with the ICA?” Rita asked. The Interstellar Cartography Association only claimed jurisdiction over weft-drives and AI’s, but they were very good at catching anybody who crossed them.
“No ma’am,” they replied, in unison again.
“What are you running from?”
The siblings exchanged a confused glance. Then the brother spoke. “We can pay for passage. Additionally, while we have no ship training we excel at learning new skills and would be willing to contribute to chores and maintenance tasks.”
“Pay how?” Rita asked. She was inclined to let them ride for free; the talking in unison trick had her nostalgic for her sister, Pavi. But if they could pay, she could use the money, and it wouldn’t hurt to know if she was acting as the getaway driver for a bank robbery.
“Goods or currency. We’ll pay ICA standard rates as published in the port of our disembarkation, with a 20% bonus for teaching us shipping trade,” the sister said.
Rita wasn’t sure whether that made it more or less likely that they’d run off with somebody else’s fortune. She didn’t believe they’d actually pay. But taking care of troublemakers who’d snuck on for sanctuary was easy in the middle of space and with a cooperative computer at the helm. Rita didn’t see much of a downside to their offer. “Deal. Hang tight here until we’re done loading cargo. We’ll fetch you when we close hatches and I’ll get you stowed while the computer negotiates for our takeoff.”
The siblings bowed again, this time a much deeper bend at the waist. “We thank you sincerely, Captain Valshorn.”
“Call me Rita or the computer will laugh at you.”
Rita took off at a jog toward the drone-hub. She’d just rounded the nose of the Whimper’s Revenge when she thought to make sure the kids wouldn’t throw off the ship’s weight quotas. “Linda, do you foresee mass problems with the new passengers?” Rita sub-vocalized.
The chip planted next to her jaw at the base of her right ear relayed the message to the ship’s computer, then carried Linda’s response. “Given our crew arrangements, we have clearance for six additional passengers, if you’d like to get anybody else.”
“I’ll pass on that, but good to know. Go ahead and rejigger any supplies you think we need to cope with two additional flesh-beings. And if we finish my media downloads, grab whatever you think they’ll like with our extra time in sync.”
“Your download ETA is eight minutes. I’ll grab a variety of mutually enjoyable media, as well as media tailored to their demographic,” Linda said.
“Eight minutes?” Rita asked. Some of the files were coming from Terra Prima – the download ought to be laggy.
“The bandwidth suck resolved itself while you were recruiting the passengers.”
Rita stopped and turned back to the ship. “How long was it down?”
“Fifteen minutes,” Linda answered.
Rita sighed. If she went to the hub to start an argument over the networking fees now, they’d claim it was a temporary glitch that had nothing to do with them. But if she went back to the ship, the bandwidth would inevitably go under again.
“Linda, I’m off to stare at some sailors. If the bandwidth goes again let me know right away. Otherwise, give me a heads up T-30 min to hatches closing.”
“Leer civilly, please,” Linda said.
“I’ve been thoroughly civilized for nine planets. I get to be uncivil on the rest of them.”
“That’s not how the Kempari work,” Linda said.
“Good thing I’m not Kempari, then,” Rita said. Well, not anymore.
“Do you want local customs updates from the network?” Linda asked.
“Easier to play ignorant tourist when you are an ignorant tourist,” Rita said. She never read the file on a planet before landing, not since leaving Kempus, but Linda always asked anyway. Linda had trouble understanding that Rita halfway wanted to get caught.
Rita jogged along the gravel path to the station hub. Primus Drie was so small that their only space-port did triple duty as the regional airport and harbor for ocean shipping. Most of the traffic through the station was chartered air taking locals out from the capital on the main island to one of the other habitable islands scattered across the equatorial regions of the planet. There were three ships in the harbor loading cargo and that meant sailors. Rita’s favorite.
The station bar was almost exactly what she’d expected; a gravel floor with tables and chairs mounted in the ground by metal posts, a corrugated steel roof and a bar of poured concrete. Most of the wicker shades were drawn, blocking the afternoon sunlight and making the bar almost dark enough to feel cozy. The same climate on one of the nine civilized worlds would have signaled fruity drinks at criminal prices, but Primus Drie wasn’t developed enough to charge for the weather yet. Once they imported sand to layer atop their natural spattering of rock, then Rita would have to start negotiating prices before ordering.
“What’s your poison?” asked the bartender, a ten-year old boy with a quarter-inch of hair on his head and a bright yellow smock on over his school uniform.
Rita glanced around the bar, looking for the boy’s mother. No parent in sight. Rita shrugged and hopped onto the padded concrete column passing as a barstool. “Anything local. What’s your specialty?”
“Black Death,” the boy said.
Rita shook her head. “I said local. Black Death is from Islandiski. That’s five systems and a tax treaty away.”
The boy shook his head. “Not that sweet anise junk. We brew it out back from turnips.”
Rita had never heard of fermented turnips, which meant the sugars in the booze shouldn’t activate any of the tattoos hidden in her skin. Good – it had been a while since Rita had found somewhere she could safely drink. “I’ll have that, thanks.”
It was served in a beer stein but with a straw made from spun sugar. Rita examined the glass, then glanced around the bar to see what the local fashion for consumption was. The straw might be a joke, or it might be the only way to consume Black Death and keep her liver. Rita knew of more than a few local drinks that would kill tourists with their ignorance. Most of the patrons were sipping from shot glasses, but a pair in the far corner had similar glasses and used the straw. That was good enough evidence for Rita, so she set to. It tasted like yeasty, rotten turnip, which was about what she’d expected.
Half way through the turnip brew Rita scanned the bar again. Now that she’d acquired an official reason to be there, it was time to leer. Few people seemed to hang out in the bar in the middle of the afternoon, but there was a smattering of appropriately brawny yokels in the close-cropped navy pants and tailored shirts favored by all sailors on planets courting favor with the ICA. Rita shot her come-hither at the one with the tightest pants and the squarest jaw and was rewarded when he left his table to take the concrete column next to her.
“Afternoon, sailor,” Rita said.
“Afternoon, trader,” he replied.
“Captain Magritte Valshorn,” Rita said, offering her hand.
He took it, squeezed it briefly and smiled, proving that the back worlds lacked essentials like basic orthodontics. Rita ignored the teeth and focused on the jaw. “Midshipman Tyler Hess,” he said. “I’ll get your next drink.”
“That would be lovely,” Rita said.
“Boss, I just scanned the file of updated legal codes since the last time we were on Primus Drie,” Linda whispered into Rita’s ear.
Rita clicked her back molars, a signal the chip next to her jaw understood as, “Important stuff fast, then shut up.”
“They banned the Kempari six months ago. Their next legislative cycle in two weeks sets the penalty, but they’re arguing between death penalty and the stake.”
Had Rita known that before leaving the Whimper’s Revenge, she wouldn’t have bothered socializing with the locals. But she was committed to socializing now – she just wouldn’t do anything stupid. She would finish her drink, enjoy the view, then high tail it back to the Whimper. “Understood. Thanks,” Rita sub-vocalized to Linda.
“What was that?” Tyler asked.
“Update from my ship’s computer. Two hours before I need to be back on the ship.”
“Sleeper unit, or domesticated AI?” Tyler asked.
“AI. It’s debatable how domesticated she is,” Rita replied.
“You work with AI?”
“No, but my baby sister is a serious machine-whisperer. Gave me the comp as a present a while back.” And the ship. And the funds she needed to keep trading at a loss.
“Neat,” Tyler said. “We use sleeper units on the ships. No native talent for domesticating a node of the Aydan-machine and we can’t afford to hire off planet. I’d love to meet her.” A sailor who wanted off-planet; this was going to be easy.
“Do not use me as your wingman again,” Linda said. “They’re always boring and rude.”
“That’s the point of sailors. Easy to dump,” Rita whispered.
“I will purge the cargo,” Linda said.
“Linda’s shy,” Rita said to Tyler. “And she gets stressed when we’re loading. Maybe my next time through, when we’ve got more time.”
Tyler grinned. Rita finished her drink to avoid looking at his teeth. “I’d like that,” he said. “I read all the sites about AI, you know. When we get the hardware to fiddle, I’ll be the guy they give it to.”
“You guys have been linked to the ICA network for almost a decade now. Haven’t you had any native hardware wake up yet?”
“They’re boring. It went back to sleep,” Linda snarked.
“Nothing. But nobody has. The Aydan-machine is the only computer to wake up on its own. All the rest are just pieces of it,” Tyler said.
Rita pretended she hadn’t heard this rant from Pavi a dozen times. “Really? But they don’t seem the same.”
“There’s a lag in the network because the weft-servers can’t transmit instantly. So the domesticated nodes of the Aydan-machine can have unique personality quirks, slightly different priorities. It’s still the Aydan-machine. Native hardware just stays dumb.”
“That’s fascinating,” Rita said, wondering how much success he generally had with that line.
“I hate it when you simper at them,” Linda said.
“Linda, please,” Rita begged.
“Fine. Go forth and be dull.”
Tyler ordered new drinks, the little shots most of the other people in the bar were sipping, while Rita negotiated with her computer. “You got a chip?” he asked when Rita made eye-contact.
“Yeah, right here,” Rita brushed the jaw on her left side where her chip wasn’t. She’d heard too many stories about back-worlders cutting chips out and stranding traders. Lying was the best strategy, from a personal safety point of view. Linda couldn’t summon authorities for a rescue if Rita had no way to talk to her. “It’s just auditory. I get vertigo with a visual interface.”
“Did they yank that chip out or just disable it?” Tyler asked.
“There are tests they do before they hook you up. I was eight when my parents took us to get chipped. Pavi, that’s my sister, ran right through everything no sweat. I get out of the diagnostic, wobble a minute, then lose my lunch all over the sales clerk. I was mortified.”
Tyler tensed and pulled away. “They put them in that young?”
“On Delhi Xiang they do. It’s hard to get through most of the big cities without an interface. They’ve got hand-held units for tourists and whatnot, but they’re slow and mostly a pain.”
“Didn’t your parents worry about cancer?”
Linda was going to play that one back later. Rita suppressed the urge to ask whether his grandparents had worried about cancer when they moved to an uncivilized planet with a nasty sun. “The interface chips are inert, and too big to get lost to your immune system. It’s not like a quack nanite treatment. The chips are about as dangerous as piercing your ears.” Rita took a gulp of the shot to cover her annoyance and promptly discovered why the locals sipped the shots. The back of her eyes started burning the moment she swallowed. Rita coughed so hard she fell off the concrete stool.
“Are you okay?” Tyler asked.
“What is that?” Rita asked.
“Little Shot. It’s a cocktail.”
“You call the turnip drink Black Death when you’ve got that?”
Tyler shrugged. “Nobody drinks too much Little Shot. Lots of people drink too much Black Death.” He offered a hand to Rita.
Rita took it and let him pull her off the floor. She dusted gravel off her pants and sat back down on the stool. She was about to take a moderate sip of her Little Shot when she realized Tyler was staring at the glass. His expression was either shock or horror, Rita couldn’t tell. “Getting back on the horse,” Rita said.
“You’ve got a blue tattoo across your knuckles.”
Rita followed his gaze and saw that it was true. A mottled blue design was rising to the surface of her skin. A cocktail, he’d said, and apparently it had Sylvan whiskey in it. If Rita finished the drink there be enough for the characters tattooed on her knuckles to show clearly. Woops.
“You didn’t have tattoos when I came over.”
Rita turned to him and flashed her broadest, sexiest smile at him. “What are you talking about? I got my first ones when my parents took me to get chipped,” Rita lied.
“I am not Kempari,” Rita said. True, if only technically.
“Slut,” Tyler snarled.
Rita stood and leaned toward him. “Excuse me?”
“Boss, I can alert the authorities, but they’ll arrest you,” Linda said.
“I got it,” Rita said, out loud.
“Is that why you were interested in our computers? Spying for the Kempari whoredom?” Tyler said as he took a step back. He was shouting for the whole bar to hear.
“Don’t talk to me about whoring. You were about to lay down for a chance to crew a trader ship,” Rita said.
Tyler took a swing at her. Rita ducked and thrust the heel of her palm into his solar plexus as she raked his right shin with her boot. She slid backward a step, out of Tyler’s reach, before standing upright again. Three other sailors, Tyler’s prior drinking companions, were coming toward her. Rita took another step backward, then turned toward the door.
The ten-year-old barkeep in the yellow smock greeted her with a shotgun.
“Come on, kid, put that down,” Rita said.
“Stay right there. Cops are on their way.”
“The cops are at least twenty minutes away,” Rita argued, but she put her hands out at her side to prove she was cooperating.
“Five. I called them when you ordered local.” Rita took a moment to cuss the stupid movies that trained anybody smart enough to watch a projection into thinking they could catch a ‘Kempari agent’. As if a planet full of anthropologists was even interesting enough for a movie.
“Where’s your mother?” Rita asked.
The kid glared and hefted the shotgun.
“What’s the evidence procedure here for determining whether or not somebody is Kempari?” Rita asked, hoping that at least Linda would have an answer.
“When your tats are gone tomorrow, we know,” Tyler said. He was inching his way toward her.
“You’ll be the test case, boss. Could I point out that’s a bad idea,” Linda said.
“I wouldn’t get too close,” Rita said, glaring sideways at Tyler.
“We should see if she’s got tats anywhere else,” one of the other sailors suggested.
“More bad ideas. Be reasonable, fellows. Have you ever heard of a Kempari agent so klutzy she fell off a stool?”
“Can’t believe everything you see in the movies. The Kempari are smart enough to plant bad information.”
But not smart enough to keep them from making movies in the first place, apparently. Rita started drafting a list of people she’d strangle if she ever met them again. For no good reason, it started with Donegal.
Tyler was almost within reach.
“Cops in two,” Linda said. “Nobody’s taking any interest in the Whimper. They don’t know where you’re from yet.”
There was only one independent off-world ship at the port, and little ships with domesticated AI were few enough that Rita didn’t think they’d have any trouble figuring it out once they needed to. Hopefully they’d assume she was with an ICA certified crew until she could get away.
Another step forward brought Tyler into her range. Rita lunged sideways, giving the boy the smallest possible target for his shotgun as she hooked one hand around Tyler’s neck and another around his waist. A moment later she rolled him over her shoulder and into the kid. Then she dove through the wicker blinds and out of the bar. She could hear the feet of pursuers behind her as they rushed across the gravel. The Whimper’s Revenge couldn’t take off for at least another hour and running to it would just mean she was trapped in her ship when the authorities arrived. Rita was still attached to the idea of leaving Primus Drie, so she turned south and ran toward the pier
Five seconds later she realized how stupid it was to run toward more sailors. There was nothing she could do about it – turning around certainly wasn’t an option, and there were no side paths to take, so she mentally reviewed the layout of the pier and tried to think of a plan.
“Incoming weft wake,” Linda said in Rita’s ear.
“Not sure, but from the size it’s got to be an ICA fleet.”
That might almost be good news. Rita wasn’t a fan of the ICA – nobody trained on Kempus was – but they shared Rita’s opinion on the barbarism of both the death penalty and staking. If she didn’t elude capture, they just might intervene to arrange a prison sentence instead. “How long?”
“If they’re stopping at Primus Drie, they’ll be planet-side in about 30 hours,” Linda said.
Rita clambered up the roof of a boat house and ran along it, hoping to put a visual barrier between her and her pursuers so she could try hiding. “How swift is justice on Primus Drie?”
“It’s a close call, boss. I wouldn’t plan on a rescue if you can help it.”
Rita jumped down from the far end of the boathouse and rolled into a small dinghy tied to a cleat mounted on the frame. She untied the dinghy and started its engine. Then she pointed the boat toward the open water, stripped her jacket and hung it over the back of the seat. A second later she dove off the side, gulping air just before she broke the water, and swam first to the bottom, from there back to the pier. She didn’t break the surface again until the pier was between her and any potential observers. The dinghy was far enough away that her pursuers couldn’t try swimming after it. Rita could hear people running back and forth along the pier, shouting and starting other boats to pursue her. Thankfully, no sign of the authorities. Hopefully this crowd would clear in time for Rita to sneak ashore and make a break for the Whimper’s Revenge.
“You can’t stay there,” Linda said. “Water’s too cold.”
“It’s fine,” Rita said.
“That’s adrenaline talking. You’ve got five more minutes, tops.”
Rita felt her arms and legs break into goose-pimples and she started shivering. “I was fine until you said something,” Rita said.
“Shut up and get out of the water. You’re no good to me drowned,” Linda said.
“Yes ma’am,” Rita replied. She clutched one of the iron pillars supporting the pier and pulled herself out of the water as far as she could. She shivered more in the air, but the air temperature was around 29º C so she ought to warm up quickly. Rita tried to eavesdrop on her pursuers so she could plan what to do next.
“You three stay here. If she’s not on that boat we’ve got to make sure she doesn’t sneak back ashore.”
Rita promised herself that if she lived through this, she would write Master Yao and apologize for rolling her eyes when he’d made her repeat “The ignorant are not necessarily stupid” 1000 times before letting her go to dinner. In fact, she was determined to get out of this with enough time to spare so she could send the message off the Primus Drie servers. The thought of sending a message to the Kempari College with Primus Drie hardware gave Rita a moment of vindictive satisfaction.
The moment passed, and she was still clinging to an iron pillar while soaking wet and trapped. Rita scanned the shoreline, looking for some kind of cover she could use to get to shore. There were several other dinghies tied up right at the edge and larger fishing vessels moored off a dozen docks. The three large cargo ships occupied giant bays along the main pier. But the ships were crawling with sailors, and Rita couldn’t hope to pass for one of them. Maybe if she stole somebody’s clothes … but Rita didn’t see how she’d corner anybody, overpower them and take their clothes without setting off an alarm.
Rita shimmied down the support and gently lowered herself back into the water. She dove for the bottom again and swam parallel to the shoreline. When it felt like her lungs were trying to burst from her chest, she cut toward the shore and came up next to a dinghy. Using the boat as cover she rested a moment, then took another deep breath and dove again. When she came up the next time she could see spots. Ideally she’d do that two or three more times to put as much distance as possible between her and the people looking for her, but Rita was certain that if she went under again she wouldn’t be able to run when she got out of the water. She quietly pulled herself around the boat, then grabbed the cleat it was tied to and hauled herself out.
A moment passed while she tried to wring some of the water out of her clothes and catch her breath. Then she took off running toward the airfield where the local plane traffic came and went. That would bring her closer to the Whimper, hopefully without tipping anybody off to go indict her ship.
There was a loud crack. Rita felt a hammer ricochet through her side. She fell to the ground, dizzy and with the wind knocked out of her.
“Boss, your blood pressure just went wonky,” Linda said. “Did they shoot you?”
Rita couldn’t think well enough to try answering. She pulled herself to her feet and started running again. She achieved a kind of rapid stumble. The last thing she remembered before passing out was falling into a cluster of thorny, stunted bushes growing next to the station hub and wondering where the blood came from.
Rita felt queasy and her head was too painful and tense for her to believe it actually belonged to her. She was lying on her left side and she could just see the edge of a bucket on the floor next to her head. That was convenient, and she decided to use it. All she managed was a dry heave that made her feel like she was splitting across her middle.
“Easy there, boss. The nanites are still working,” Linda whispered in her ear.
“Where…where am I?” Rita asked.
“The Whimper‘s medlab. You’ve been out for ten hours.”
“How?” Rita asked.
Rita groaned and tried to turn her head. “What?”
“Captain Valshorn, we are glad you will be well,” said a voice from behind Rita. The voice sounded vaguely familiar. A moment later memory rushed back and Rita remembered the pair of teenagers she’d granted sanctuary on a whim. If this wasn’t a lesson about Samaritans and goodness, Rita never wanted to meet one.
“They rescued you, boss. You were unconscious and bleeding to death. I could play back the audio for you. I got it all, for posterity.”
“No,” Rita said. “Where are we?”
“We’re still on Primus Drie. The locals have cordoned off the ship and they’re trying to get approval to storm the Whimper. They tried breaking in, but I filed a protest for violating my sentient domain. With the ICA coming in they’re dickering rather than ignoring me. That’s why I woke you up. The ICA fleet is going to break weft in another hour.”
Rita groaned. “I hope they nuke the planet.” The ICA granted rights of sentient domain to anything conscious enough to claim them. Since they monopolized access to the Aydan-machine and, consequently, weft travel, most back worlds respected their standards.
“Not likely. I think we should skedaddle,” Linda said.
“Have we pissed them off?” Rita asked.
“I don’t think so,” Linda said. “But they might rule against you over the Kempari thing.”
“Aw, you love me,” Rita said. She wanted to heave again, but was too afraid of the pain in her middle to try.
“Not enough to defy the ICA. Let’s avoid needing to.”
“Yeah. Let’s go,” Rita said.
“Thanks, boss. Go back to sleep, now. You’ll feel all better when you wake up next time.”
Rita grunted. “Make sure you clean up the nanites when you’re done.”
“Of course. You’re no good to me dead.”