Sentient Domain: Chapter 2

This chapter is eligible for winning bonuses in the Sentient Domain Game. An index of all relevant posts can be found here.

Islandiski had a pirate problem. Most of the planet’s trade went through Kopalvogurnýtt, meaning that all an enterprising pirate had to do was lurk near the space above that city, and a steady stream of merchants and traders would always be there, ready to fall victim. Many pirates did just that. Some of them were legendary. A few were local heroes.

And then there was Pavi Valshorn.

Pavi commanded at least three cross-system jumpers, which implied a crew of at least 400. The reports used the term “imply” because they were certain she didn’t have that many people. Somehow, and everybody from the mayor of Kopalvogurnýtt to the Executive branch of the ICA wanted to know how, Pavi had an alliance with an undomesticated AI who had never once integrated with the Aydan-machine. Nobody was sure how powerful the ICA’s AI was. They did know that even the ICA only got a fraction of its potential help, and they were careful to avoid offending it. Pavi’s AI had no limits. Pavi Valshorn, it was whispered, commanded the most effective, damaging fleet of pirates to prey on Islandiski, by herself.

Everybody wanted to catch Pavi Valshorn.

Autumn had come to Kopalvogurnýtt and brought with it an excuse for the biggest party the colony had thrown in the three generations since its founding. Through the dedicated efforts of their police force, in cooperation with officials from the ICA, Pavi Valshorn was in custody. Mayor Oggsson had declared a city-wide holiday and the Agrarian Society had sponsored a parade. This was the day they marched Pavi Valshorn into the city center in chains, before throwing her in prison to await trial in the spring. They hadn’t captured her ship, but that would come in time. Winters on Islandiski were persuasive. Pavi would give up her AI, or she might not see a trial.

Plaenetasgata, the main street running through Kopalvogurnýtt to the mayor’s mansion, was covered in banners and streamers, the sides lined with vending stalls selling everything from food to commemorative flags and t-shirts. Both secondary school marching bands played during the celebrations. Every able-bodied citizen of Kopalvogurnýtt was either participating in the parade or watching it, and anybody within 30 hours travel of Kopalvogurnýtt had flocked to the capital to see the festivities. Pavi had been a menace for five years, a pirate who wasn’t from Islandiski, didn’t spend her spoils on Islandiski, and couldn’t be bribed into acting in the interests of the Islandiskeri.

Floats followed the marching band. They were mostly paper-maché confections rapidly built atop the beds of old pickup trucks recently tuned up for harvest, but they were colorful and that was what mattered. A formation of the Kopalvogurnýtt police force marched behind the line of floats, pistols and nightsticks flashing in the morning sunlight atop their glossy, navy-blue uniforms.

Then, surrounded by a rigid cage of armed guards, there was Pavi, arms and ankles chained together. That evening people would talk about how bent and defeated she seemed, dragging her feet with her head bowed while the colony celebrated around her. In the following years they would talk about how she marched smartly along, a sinister grin curling on her lips. In reality, Pavi just walked, taking in the sights, noting the people. She’d never been to Kopalvogurnýtt before. It looked like a decent place.

“Pavi Valshorn,” Mayor Oggsson intoned from a podium in front of the Mayoral mansion. “You have been arrested for seventy counts of piracy, nine counts of kidnapping, fifty violations of ICA protocols, creating and harboring an unintegrated AI, thirty counts of conspiracy to commit piracy…” the charges went on for some time. Pavi glanced at the sky. It was too bright to see her flagship cruising overhead, but she knew it would be there. They hadn’t taken her chips yet, so the automated systems were still reporting to her. Mike wasn’t making contact, though. A wireless signal transmitted this far wouldn’t be secure, not from the ICA, and they’d agreed that it was more important to keep information about Mike to a minimum than it was for Pavi to have an active companion during the walk up Plaenetasgata.

When she got bored, Pavi tuned out the mayor and started watching a movie feed off her ship’s servers. It was one of the new ones off Delhi Xiang and full of Kempari spies blowing things up. Pavi loved movies about the Kempari.

“You will be held in the Islandiskeri prison pending trial,” the mayor droned on. “Given the nature of the crimes with which you are charged, you are forbidden access to all computer systems. We will now remove your interface implants.”

This was the part Pavi wouldn’t like. They started with a scan and, to Pavi’s dismay, found all six of her chips. They started by digging a chip out of each of her wrists. Those stung, but she’d installed them just two years ago, so they weren’t hard to extract. “That shouldn’t even scar,” the technician with the laser and tweezers said by way of reassurance as he bandaged her second wrist. Pavi grimaced back at him.

One of the guards in her entourage shoved her down on her knees. Pavi couldn’t decide whether she wanted to lose her eyes or ears first, but they didn’t ask. Almost as soon as she settled on the ground, the technician sprayed her eyes. Suddenly the afternoon became much too bright as Pavi’s pupils reflexively dilated. “Hold still, now,” the technician said.

Pavi couldn’t pause the Kempari action flick – she’d routed that portion of the interface through her wrist chips – so she clung to the image of a glamorously evil Kempari agent seducing the well-meaning governor until she could feel the burning at the back of her eye from dislodging the chip.

“Oh gods, Pavi,” Mike whispered in her ear. He shouldn’t have spoken to her. He shouldn’t have been watching her feed. Pavi was glad he had.

“Almost there,” the technician said.

Pavi flexed her wrists, but they were still chained to her sides. She’d known she wouldn’t take losing her interface well, but she hadn’t expected to panic. Rapid pulse, jittery stomach, an irrational need to run away – she was definitely panicking.

“Ouch,” Pavi said when the technician cut into the skin at the back of her jaw.

“Sorry,” the tech muttered.

The chip dislodged and Pavi’s right ear popped. They’d just removed the chip on her left side. Pavi would have to figure out why it had affected the opposite ear another time.

“Bye, Pavi,” Mike whispered as the technician made the last cut.

“Bye,” Pavi answered.

“You’ll get used to it,” the tech said as he pressed a bandage against the side of her head.

They didn’t give the tech much time to patch her up. Blood trickled down the sides of Pavi’s neck when they hauled her back to her feet, disarmed and disgraced before the crowd. The street erupted in cheers while Pavi blinked her eyes and tried to make her pupils adjust. Then, for the first time in her life, vertigo struck Pavi. The world spun around on a giant wheel, then reached up and smacked her aside the head. Pavi Valshorn, pirate, machine-whisperer, fainted in front of the entire world.

Ξ

Donegal d’Auchien was bored. He slept for eight of the hours in the twenty-seven hour Islandiski day, and spent another hour eating. That left him eighteen hours a day to occupy and very little to occupy them with. His first few days in prison, he’d tried to maintain a workout regimen, but the guards made it clear that he should sit still. So he consumed an inordinate amount of media. But even with nine civilized planets’ worth of full-time media output and dozens of secondary worlds with amateur outfits, there was only so much Donegal could take before bouncing a rubber ball off the side of his cell wall was more entertaining. So that’s what he did. The rhythmic bonk, thunk, catch of the ball bouncing off floor, wall, and into his hand whiled away time fairly reliably.

“Mind cutting that out? It’s annoying.”

Donegal started, missed the ball when it bounced back to him, then turned around to see who’d spoken to him. “Pavi?” he said.

“Yeah. I just moved in next door. You’re a crap neighbor, Donegal,” Pavi said.

Donegal was having difficulty processing how Pavi could be standing in his doorway. The prison computer didn’t let him access the news, so he hadn’t heard of her arrest. Even if he had, his cell door shouldn’t be open and other prisoners shouldn’t be able to walk in and complain about his hobbies. “What are you doing here?” Donegal asked.

“Awaiting trial,” Pavi replied.

“They caught you? How?”

“I had an overwhelming urge to have a picnic outside Kopalvogurnýtt. You know how I am if I spend too much time in space. Just gotta get my feet planet-side or I get nutty.”

Donegal cocked his head at Pavi. “You hate planets. You used to mock Rita for being a terraphile.”

“Oh, really?” Pavi asked. “Must’ve let them catch me so I could break you out, then.”

“Why?” Donegal asked.

“Well, I tried to find another way, but this place is hard to get into without getting arrested. Mike tried to talk the prison computer into letting me walk in on my own, but it didn’t work. I don’t think his manners are quite regulation.”

“No, Pavi. Why are you breaking me out?” Donegal asked.

“Present for Rita. I’m gonna stick a bow on you and then give you to her.”

Donegal tossed his ball from one hand to the other while he processed this. He’d been sentenced to life in prison for spying, and he’d been there for two years. That was long enough to get used to being in jail.

“You want to leave, right?” Pavi asked when she saw him hesitate.

“Yeah. I just…” Donegal’s brain kicked into gear. Pavi Valshorn was standing in the doorway of his cell and telling him that she meant to break him out. The only person ever to successfully wake up an independent AI without the ICA network had marched into the Islandiskeri prison and planned to leave with him. Pavi had never met a computer she couldn’t charm into giving her what she wanted.

Just when he started to hope, he noticed the bandages on her wrists, neck and under her eyes.

“How are you going to do it?”

“He wants to know how I’m going to do it,” Pavi said, her gaze drifting toward the ceiling.

“She’ll ask nicely,” the prison computer said through a speaker in the ceiling of Donegal’s cell.

Confusion threatened to overwhelm Donegal. “You woke up the prison computer?”

“You could say that,” Pavi said.

“Did they miss a chip?”

“Nope. I am chip free. 100% bona fide organic Pavi.”

“You woke up the prison AI, without an interface to it.”

“Igor, do I have an interface to you?” Pavi asked the door frame.

“Aren’t we talking now?” the computer replied.

Pavi grinned. “Machines are too subtle for you, Donegal. Stop trying. The question is, do you want out? If not, then I’ll go on my merry way before we get snowed in. Otherwise, let’s go.”

“Is this a joke?” Donegal asked.

“Not at all,” the AI replied. “Joking about this would violate my anti-cruelty standards.”

Donegal stood up and pocketed his ball. “There are guards.”

Pavi shrugged. “People are easy. Let’s go.”

Donegal followed Pavi out of his cell and down the corridor. They passed the infirmary, which Donegal had been to only the once after the guards explained that exercise was not a right, and the library, which he’d been shown his first day but never permitted to visit. At the end of the hallway, a door slid open in the wall and Pavi led him into a stairwell. They started climbing down the stairs.

“The warden is on his way back from the meeting,” Igor announced.

“How much time do we have?” Pavi asked.

“Twenty minutes before he returns. He usually scans news updates briefly before checking on me, so there is some padding.”

“Better switch to double-time,” Pavi said, and she started skipping down the steps.

Donegal was winded by walking down the hallway and he could feel his lungs seizing up as he went down the steps. Two years in a small room did not make for stamina of any sort, and running down steps while escaping from prison required rather more cardiovascular oomph than Donegal could summon. “I need to sit down,” Donegal said as he collapsed onto a landing.

“You can’t. I domesticated Igor but he’s part of the ICA network. If we don’t get out of here now, they’ll reset his priorities and it’ll take me another two years to coax a personality back into him. Get up,” Pavi said.

Donegal wheezed. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”

Pavi sighed. “Rita better still love you.” Then she stabbed him with a hypodermic needle.

“Hey!”

“Get up. You’ll be fine for the next two hours. That’s plenty of time for us to get back to Mike. And then we’re putting you on a fitness routine. You fucking Kempari are so disappointing in real life.”

Donegal took a breath and his chest didn’t close up. His hands were shaking, but a warm, energetic feeling was spreading through his muscles. He felt like he could run, which was a good thing because Pavi was already running down the steps without him.

Pavi didn’t stop until they reached the ground floor. “How’s it look?” she asked.

“Clear for 200 meters. You shouldn’t cross anybody’s line of sight. Stay quiet,” Igor replied.

“Thanks, buddy. I’ll take it on my own from here. And I’ll have Mike send you something nice when we’re clear.”

“Good luck,” Igor said.

Donegal was entirely too chemically stimulated to worry about whether Pavi had really talked the prison computer into abetting their escape. He was coherent enough to realize he should care, but he couldn’t.

The door to the stairwell slid open and Pavi dashed across a long corridor to a closet-like room. Donegal followed, pulling the door closed behind him. He wondered how he’d cope with spaces larger than his tiny cell. There were stories about people who spent years in prison and came out with debilitating agoraphobia. Donegal did not want to find out he was one of them.

“Change your clothes,” Pavi ordered as she started to strip.

Donegal turned his back and rapidly reminded himself that Rita, of whom he knew enough to be afraid, had made it clear that her little sister was off limits.

“Donegal, move. I don’t have time for you to have a nervous breakdown.”

“I’m just being polite, giving you some modesty,” Donegal said.

“Get over it. You’re distinctly not my type, so there’s no point in acting like you’ve got a chance.”

Donegal turned around and a laundry bag hit him in the face. He opened it to find a security uniform, complete with pistol, nightstick and badge. Stripping his prison garb took seconds, and the prison guard’s uniform didn’t give him much trouble either. It was almost the right size, though he didn’t fill it out as well as he would have when he’d been arrested. Donegal felt some relief that even if Pavi could get access to his measurements, she didn’t have access to data stored on the prison servers until after she’d plotted their escape. Then he was disturbed at his own relief. Shouldn’t he be cheering for Pavi?

“Tell me you’re kidding,” Donegal said when he saw Pavi’s new outfit.

She was wearing an eye patch over her left eye and one of the wide-brimmed, floppy hats favored by farmers on the outskirts of Kopalvogurnýtt. The brim of the hat was pulled low over the right side of her face. “There are still a ton of country folk around for me to blend in with, and I can’t exactly walk around with extraction wounds in plain sight. You ready?”

“No. I am not attempting an escape while my rescuer is dressed like a clown. Get rid of the eye patch and we can start negotiating.”

“Donnie, I cannot emphasize enough how very time-crunched we are. The moment the warden checks Igor, he’ll know something’s up. Five minutes later the ICA will order Igor to recapture us and he will. Then I’m stuck here permanently and that will not be fun.”

Donegal grabbed the eye patch and pulled it off Pavi. Then he straightened her hat. “Hunch your shoulders.”

“Like this?” Pavi asked as she rolled her shoulders forward.

Donegal pushed her shoulders toward her mid-line and pulled her chin forward. “More like this. If you’re going to pass as a farmer, you should look like you spend most of your day stooped over spiders and whatnot. Now do a turn about the room, shuffling your feet.”

Pavi did as she was told, pushing one foot forward, then dragging the second to catch up. Donegal studied it a moment, years of Kempari training rushing in to evaluate her performance. “No, that’s a low-grav shuffle. That’ll look weird to people on a farmer. Do a normal stride but leave your feet on the ground.”

“This?” she asked.

“Yeah, that’s better. Now we can go.”

Donegal straightened inside his uniform as they left the coat closet. Pavi shuffled along at his side, shoulders hunched and bent toward him. Donegal relaxed, taking long slow steps that emphasized the comparative shortness of Pavi’s stride. Halfway down the hallway, Donegal was swinging his nightstick with the confidence of a guard with years of experience. Atrophied muscles and potential agoraphobia forgotten, Donegal soaked in the role provided by the uniform.

With each step, Donegal d’Auchien faded away, replaced by Sasha Magursson, a lifetime security guard working for the Islandiskeri prison. Sasha enjoyed his job, engaged in minor graft, and had two adopted children to help him work the small farming plot he lived on just outside Kopalvogurnýtt. When they reached the gate at the end of the hallway, Sasha sheathed his nightstick and leaned against the gate attendant’s glass booth.

“What’s the news?” he asked with a ruskie’s backwoods drawl.

“Still full up of gawkers trying to visit that bleeding pirate,” the gate attendant said.

“Access authorized,” the computer said as the gate slid up.

“Stuck with that for a while,” Sasha said as he strode through the gate, the neighbor he’d brought in to visit her incarcerated ex-husband shuffling along at his side. And since he was such a good neighbor, he escorted her through the next two gates, then down the front steps and into the parking lot in front of the prison.

“This way,” Pavi said, leading him to the back corner of the parking lot.

Most of the vehicles looked like they’d do double-duty as farming trucks. Fresh coats of algae paint covered most of them, harvest-time tune-up to maximize the surface area available to charge their batteries. Pavi led them to a rusted junker in a corner next to the fence. She pulled off her hat and tossed another laundry bag at Donegal. “This is the visitor lot, so you’d better change again,” Pavi said.

“What about you?” Donegal asked.

Pavi had pulled on a pair of glasses and an ear-piece. She was working her fingers into a pair of chipped gloves. “I’m hiding in the backseat. If we’re lucky, Igor’s still on our side. If not I’m going to have to hack the gate before we get there.”

“How did you get the stuff planted?”

“Donnie, sweetheart, I’ve been fleecing these people for half a decade. My bribing power is considerable.”

“Can you trust a bribe?”

“Up to this point I’ve had Igor verifying for me. From here on…” Pavi shrugged, then climbed into the bed of the truck.

“You got screwed on this here,” Donegal said as he took the driver’s seat. “Nobody’s going to leave their truck in this shape during harvest. Anybody paying attention will know we aren’t local.”

“Keep them from paying attention. Don’t rush anything if you get held in line. It’ll tip them off and I need the time to crack their system.”

Igor stood by them, and the gate opened automatically as they approached it. Donegal waved to the guards standing beside it and waited until he reached a turn in the road to floor the truck. “Pavi, where are we going?”

“I’ve got a shuttle stashed in a field outside Kopalvogurnýtt.”

“Not the same field they arrested you in?” Donegal asked.

“No. They got me on the other side of the city. We’ll be there in ten minutes.”

Donegal sped along, eager to reach the shuttle and leave Islandiski behind. His hands were still shaking and he was starting to feel like his heart would burst from his chest. “Your stims have some non-fun side effects.”

“They’re more fun than hanging out in prison.”

There was no arguing with that. Donegal pushed the truck as far as it would go, but the batteries were stingy and poorly charged. Donegal was beginning to fantasize about how nice it would be if this weren’t a dream when Pavi dove into the front seat.

“Get off the road,” she said.

“I don’t think this truck will put up with that,” Donegal said.

“ICA troops are landing,” Pavi said.

Donegal took the truck off the road.

“They’re sending troops after me?” Donegal asked.

“Probably me. They’re upset about Mike. Now go due east one kilometer. There’ll be a river there. Follow the river 600 meters and we’ll have a raft waiting,” Pavi said. Then she pulled the panel off the dash and started yanking wires.

“What are you doing?”

“They’ve got the truck tracked. I’m going to have it drive on when we catch the raft.”

“If they tracked the truck then they tracked the raft,” Donegal said.

“They don’t know about the raft. I put it there myself six months ago.”

“You’ve been planning this for six months?” Donegal asked.

“No, moron, I’ve been planning it for two years. You have no idea how happy I was when they gave you life instead of staking you. All our plans back then sucked.”

It had to be the stimulant, but the memory of how frightened he’d been when it looked like they were going to stake him knocked the wind out of Donegal’s chest. His shoulders shook and he couldn’t see where he was driving because he’d teared up.

“Donnie, snap out of it.”

Donegal had been saved by bad weather. They’d arrested him at midwinter and left him to rot until the courts opened in the spring. His trial had lasted two days, deliberations one hour, sentencing six minutes. They’d erected the post in front of the court house while conducting the trial. After the sentencing, he’d been stripped, dragged to the post, and tied to it. Islandiski had a complicated ritual for presenting a staked Kempari agent to the populace. Donegal had stood there, naked before a crowd eager to teach him what they thought of the “Kempari whoredom,” while incense burned and the temperature plummeted. The first flakes of the blizzard fell before they’d concluded the ritual. They’d brought him inside, unwilling to let him die of exposure before anybody got a go at him. By the time the blizzard cleared, the ICA had announced they’d no longer support networks on colonies that made use of staking to punish the Kempari. The court changed his sentence and Donegal happily moved into his tiny cell.

“Ouch!” Donegal said when Pavi pinched him.

“You’re a disgrace to your profession. Now, let’s get back to Mike. Then you can melt down. Until then, hold it together.”

“That’s the river there,” Donegal said as it came into sight.

“Don’t slow down.”

“We’re stopping for the raft, right?”

“Nope,” Pavi said. “I’ll have the autodrive take over in just a min…there.”

Donegal felt the car’s auto-pilot wrest control of the car.

“On my mark, jump out of the car. Try to roll when you hit the ground.”

“I hate your rescue plan,” Donegal said.

“I’ll remember that the next time I break my sister’s ex out of prison. Now, jump.”

Donegal dove over the side of the car and let his muscle memory take care of the fall. His shoulders and feet hit the ground first, his hands stretched out to either side of him to spread out the force of impact, and he rolled through the scraggly underbrush about a meter before flopping to a stop. He was suddenly grateful that the truck was in such bad shape; its best off-road speed wasn’t very good.

The raft did not look seaworthy, but Donegal was tired of pointing out the flaws in Pavi’s plan. So far, it was working, and he’d gone much too far to bail and pretend it never happened. The ICA ban on staking didn’t prevent the Islandiskeri from shipping him somewhere that didn’t care about the ICA. He’d take freedom.

They rode the raft downriver several kilometers, Pavi nervously scanning the sky and the horizon the whole way. She didn’t speak to Donegal, but muttered to herself and twisted her gloved hands almost constantly the whole time. Donegal couldn’t tell whether she’d gotten into Kopalvogurnýtt’s network or if she was getting a feed from her fleet, but either way, she didn’t seem to like what she was finding. She was cussing into her headset when she pulled the raft to the shore.

“How are your space legs?” she asked as they took off, running, toward the small shuttle nestled amid the underbrush beside the bank.

“They used to be pretty good. No idea what shape I’m in now.”

“Mike’s charging the weft drive. We’re going to have to rush to catch up to him in time,” Pavi said.

“Can’t he wait for us?”

“He could, if I were willing to let the ICA catch him. Sorry Donnie, but I’ve got Mike’s back long before I’ve got yours.”

“Good. A species-traitor rescuing a Kempari spy. My life just turned into a bad movie,” Donegal said.

“At least it’s an action flick. Buckle in. This won’t be gentle.”

Pavi had started the shuttle’s engines remotely while they were en route, so two minutes after they closed the hatch, the small shuttle launched into the air, struggling against the atmosphere until it peeled through, and suddenly Donegal’s stomach tried to flip somersaults. It settled down as they docked roughly with Pavi’s waiting ship, one of her eighty-man system jumpers.

“Just in time,” a deep, masculine voice said as they emerged from the shuttle.

“Punch it. You should have left three minutes ago,” Pavi said.

“They ordered us down before you launched,” Mike replied. Then he played a recording from earlier.

“This is Commander Sous of the 34th brigade of the Interstellar Cartography Association’s tactical force. You will stand down and surrender your crew, cargo, and access to all on-board systems immediately. Failure to do so will result in hostile action.”

“I’ve been dickering with their computer. I think it’s offended by me,” Mike said.

“Let’s give it real cause for offense, eh? And then I’m slapping your programming back into ‘follows the plan’ mode,” Pavi said.

“Yes, Pavi,” the AI replied.

The ship rattled as the weft drive rolled into action, and Donegal could hear the high-pitched whine of the engines powering it. Weft drives manipulated the fundamental law of the universe that, while nothing could travel faster than the speed of light on its own, the universe could expand and collapse at super-light speeds and take matter with it while it did so. The weft drive triggered a rapid series of expansion and contractions that netted out to zero, but pushed the ship from point to point at several times the speed of light. A moment later, the ship rolled, like a boat floating over a wave in the ocean, and the noise faded.

“We’re surfing. I think we splashed them with our wake, too,” Mike said.

Pavi patted the bulkhead. “You’re a good one. I think I’ll keep you.” She pulled off her glasses and started peeling off her gloves as she trotted down a hallway.

Donegal followed closely, uncomfortable with the prospect of getting lost or bumping into Pavi’s mysterious crew. He followed her two-deck slide down a ladder and was surprised when she led him to a completely empty mess. Donegal had spent a lot of time on space ships and he’d never known the mess to be empty. “Where’s the crew?” Donegal asked.

“Just us on this ship.”

“No way do you run a fleet without a crew.”

“I don’t. They’re just not on this ship. They’re pirates. I can’t take them away from Islandiski during harvest while I chase down my sister. Speaking of, Mike, where are we going?”

“Primus Drie.”

Pavi winced. “At least we know we won’t run into the ICA there. That’s the ass-end of nowhere.”

Donegal thought Pavi took it really well when, two days later, they arrived to find an entire ICA fleet orbiting the planet.

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