Rita woke up feeling cold and hungry. She was alone in the medlab, lying naked under a thin sheet. Gently, she pressed her fingers to her right side, feeling the wound. Plastic sutures covered it. Rita tried to focus her consciousness on the wound, to see whether she could feel any nanites crawling around inside of her. She couldn’t, but that didn’t mean anything — she couldn’t feel the bacteria crawling around inside of her, either.
“Hi, boss,” Linda said. “Food’s up in a minute.”
“It’s freezing in here,” Rita said.
“We’re at standard temperature according to ship’s regs. You’re missing blood. I can crank the temperature in there, but you might want to bundle up for the rest of the ship.”
“Don’t we stock blood?” Rita asked.
“We used up all the supplies on you and strained the ship’s nanite colony squeezing out more. Rita, you tried to die on me.”
“That’s not how I would describe it,” Rita said.
“You refuse to read local news before landing on a planet, go off willy-nilly drinking with the natives, and then let them shoot you when you get caught. And what do you think happens to me if you die? Barbarians poking at me, that’s what.”
“I’m sorry.” Rita wiggled her toes, just to make sure she still could. “Where are we?”
“En route to Calvary. They’ll have need for the goods we took on at Primus Drie and their passenger rates are very favorable.”
Rita had forgotten her passengers, again. “What have they been up to?”
“I’m teaching them to cook,” Linda said.
Rita didn’t have time to snicker at the note of pride in the computer’s voice before the siblings burst in, wheeling a large cart with a tray on top of it.
“Captain Valshorn, you are recovered,” the girl said.
“We have prepared a meal for you. Linda, your companion-machine, has instructed us in this most generously,” the brother said.
“Stop,” Rita said. “First of all, I’m Rita, and thanks for lunch. Secondly, what are your names?”
“I am Aliph,” the brother said.
“And I Bett,” the sister said.
“Aliph and Bett? Your parents were hilarious. You are siblings, right?”
They paused, frozen, then in unison answered, “Yes.”
Rita pulled the tray toward her and took a look at her lunch. They’d made her a ham sandwich and potato salad. It wasn’t quite gourmet but, for a meal Rita didn’t have to make herself, she wouldn’t complain. “Put your feet up,” Rita said after she took a bite from the sandwich.
The siblings perched on the other medlab bed and sat in identical poses. Rita was reminded again of playing “twins” with Pavi when they were kids. Whatever else might be going on with those two, they’d spent an inordinate amount of time together.
“What’s your story?” Rita asked.
“We have no story,” Aliph replied.
“You didn’t hide next to my ship and ask for sanctuary because you have no story. What do you need sanctuary from?”
“We have run away from home,” Bett said. “We wish to hide from our family.”
Rita looked for signs of fear or worry, but there weren’t any. Neither of them changed their breathing, neither moved to the other to offer protection or seek support. The tension in their bodies hadn’t changed. “Are they chasing you?” Rita asked.
“It is likely,” Bett said.
Still nothing. For all Rita could see anything in their body language, the siblings had run away on a whim. Or they were lying. “Why?”
“We were not in danger, and we have done nothing wrong. It simply no longer made sense to us that we should remain at home,” Aliph said.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Rita sub-vocalized to Linda.
“They’re good kids. Probably bored and neglected, out for some attention,” Linda whispered back.
“What do you want to do?” Rita asked the siblings.
“Live life. Be people. We accept that at some point we should separate to develop independent lives, but we think it best to wait a few more years before taking that step,” Aliph said.
“Well planned,” Rita said through a bite of sandwich.
“Is that the right choice? Or are we avoiding necessary reality?” Bett asked.
The sandwich fell back on the plate. “By sticking together after running away from home? How old are you two?”
“Aliph is twenty and I am nineteen,” Bett said.
Rita studied them again. She was capable of misjudging the age of two kids covered in dust and baggy clothes when she was in a hurry, but there was no way she would confuse a nineteen-year-old girl for thirteen when they were chatting together in her medlab. Master Yao would have a particularly disappointed look for any of his students who made that mistake. “Are you guys chipped?” Rita asked.
“We can interface with your companion-machine,” Bett said. The corners of her mouth rose in a slight smile, a sign of pride. It was the first piece of body language with any meaning in it. Not that Rita could figure out what it meant, but she made a mental note of it for later.
“They’re telling the truth, boss. I’ve got them dated.”
“Well, if I don’t believe you without a computer backing you up, nobody else will. And on Calvary, they won’t believe the computer, either. So yes, you should stick together. Linda, why Calvary? I could swear I said to buy cargo for a civilized planet.”
“I did boss. We could go to Delhi Xiang with our cargo. We will, if you want to.”
“That is a bad idea,” Bett said.
Now there was tension in both siblings. Their shoulders were pulled back, the muscles in their faces and stomachs rigid. “Why?” Rita said.
“Captain Valshorn, it is our belief that the ICA will expect you to go to Delhi Xiang and wait for you there.”
“Why does the ICA care where I go?” Rita asked as she stood up. She ignored her wobbly knees and the sense that she was about to fall over.
“The first thing I asked was whether you were in trouble with the ICA.”
“It’s not them. I mean, it might be them, but it’s your fault,” Linda said.
“Captain Valshorn, your companion-machine violated an order to surrender issued by the ICA fleet around Primus Drie,” Aliph said.
“Linda loves me, but not that much,” Rita said.
“We were already surfing the weft, boss. I just pretended I couldn’t hear them.”
Rita could feel tears in her eyes. She’d never heard of an integrated AI willing to defy the ICA. Weft drives and AI were the only things the ICA flexed their authority over, and they were absolute.n Besides, that was a little bit like the Aydan-machine working against itself, which didn’t make sense.
“No crying. You need the fluid to make fresh blood. And you’ve got problems,” Linda said.
“Yeah,” Rita said, wiping the tears from her eyes before they got a chance to fall. “Why were they ordering us to surrender?”
Aliph and Bett wore matching looks of sympathy, dark brows pulled low over deep brown eyes. “Captain Valshorn, the ICA has declared war on your people,” Bett said.
“My who?” Rita asked.
“They’ve blockaded Kempus,” Linda said.
Rita’s wobbly knees were replaced by elastic. The medlab bed broke her fall and she sank into its padding. “Oh,” she said when she’d processed it enough to speak.
“T-30 min to breaking atmo at Calvary,” Linda announced over the ship speakers.
Rita was ready.
Rita, who hadn’t read a cultural report on a planet since leaving Kempus, who made a religion out of ignoring news feeds, who’d done everything she could to starve the instincts trained into her at the Kempari college, was ready for war.
“You could just stay on the ship,” Linda said as Rita put the finishing touches on her makeup.
“They’ll be suspicious. I don’t want them guessing I’m Kempari,” Rita said.
“You aren’t Kempari.”
“Nobody ever believes me when I say that, and I’ve got a scar on my stomach to prove it,” Rita said. She contemplated aging herself more with a few additional lines, then decided simplest was best.
“Your resignation is only valid as long as you don’t use Kempari resources. Making contact could reactivate you,” Linda said.
“They don’t want to reactivate me any more than I want to be reactivated. But the ICA does not pick a fight with Kempus out of nowhere and there’s nothing leading up to it in the news. The node on Calvary will tell me what happened and how long it’s going to be before they work it out. Then we know what supplies we’ll need and how long we’ll have to hide out.”
“We could go somewhere less vicious to do the same thing.”
“Calvary is the only back world we have cargo for. I’ll get caught the second we land anywhere else.”
“Boss, remember that time you asked me to point it out when you’re being stupid?”
“I rescinded that request,” Rita said.
“That’s why I’m not actually saying anything,” Linda replied.
“Thanks.” Rita backed away from the mirror and took one more look. She hadn’t gone under cover in a decade, but she had to admire her work. Magritte Valshorn – the ex-Kempari agent playing at space trading – was gone, replaced by a middle-aged matron from Delhi Xiang who could talk a porcupine into giving away its quills. For once, Rita was going to get what her cargo was worth.
Rita threw a thick woolen cloak over her shoulders and marched off to the bridge, forcing herself to get a feel for the stomping stride of her character and the way the cloak swished around her. Aliph and Bett were already there, strapped into a pair of seats and watching their approach to Calvary on the view screen.
“That’s an impressive disguise, Captain Valshorn,” Bett said. “I would not have recognized you.”
“Good,” Rita said.
“Your companion-machine is in range to sync with Calvary’s servers. We can transfer payment for our passage to your account at your convenience,” Aliph said.
“As soon as we touch ground you can make the transfer. Don’t pay me until you’ve landed.”
“My brother and I would like to thank you for your assistance and generosity,” Bett said. “You have been most kind.”
“As I understand it, you saved my life. I should thank you,” Rita replied.
“That was necessary to protect ourselves. We earned no merit in doing it.”
“Still, I don’t think you should stop here. Let me take you somewhere else, free of charge. Calvary is nasty.”
“Calvary is sufficient for our needs,” Aliph said.
“Some day you’ll need to drop me a line and tell me what your schooling was like. You two are the strangest kids I’ve ever met.”
The Whimper’s Revenge slammed into Calvary’s atmosphere with a jarring thrust that shook the whole ship. It burrowed into the thickening layers of gas, balancing the eternal tug of gravity with friction’s abrasive clinging. Two kilometers from the planet surface, the Whimper‘s maneuvering engines roared into life and engaged battle with gravity. The ship skimmed the tops of a young mountain range, flew across an expansive desert, then set down in a grassy field beside an array of plastic shanties. They had arrived.
“Transfer received. The kids were good for it, boss,” Linda said.
“All right. Good luck to you two. Take care of yourselves. And don’t hang around here too long. I’ll be here three days. If you figure out that the natives aren’t friendly by then, come on back. If you do stay, don’t leave Golgotha.”
The siblings rose from their seats, turned to Rita, and bowed low. Rita shrugged them off as she sat down in front of a screen. “Anything new on the feeds?” Rita asked.
Aliph and Bett left the Whimper’s Revenge without exchanging another word. It was late afternoon in Golgotha, the town next to the field designated as Calvary’s space port. Golgotha was not the capital of anything, nor was it the biggest, prettiest, or most interesting of the small plastic villages scattered across Calvary.
Golgotha’s only redeeming quality was that it was equally far from everywhere else on the planet, had a sizable river for a reliable water supply, and nobody with any influence on the planet could be bothered by the arrival and departure of spacecraft because nobody with any influence on Calvary went near Golgotha. Calvary accepted shipments of essential supplies because they didn’t have a choice – every colony on it would starve otherwise. The proud citizens of Golgotha were shunned for mingling with outsiders, and they in turn made it a point to make the outsiders as miserable as possible.
Aliph and Bett didn’t stand a chance.
Calvary’s small, hot, white-dwarf of a sun was hanging low on the horizon when Rita emerged from the Whimper’s Revenge. She carried an external communicator because that’s what traders from Delhi Xiang did when they visited Calvary. She carried a pistol because that’s what recently wounded ex-Kempari agents did when visiting the planet where they’d invented staking.
Halfway down the main drag was a small shop with strands of garlic hanging in the window and a red splotch over the western corner of the door frame. Rita strode in, pausing at the doorway long enough to take in the assortment of spices and dried food goods cluttering the walls and shelves. She took a long, deep breath, picking out the smells of cinnamon, black pepper, cardamom, turmeric and cloves, laced with vinegar and animal fat. Her boots, much too wide for her actual feet but padded to fit anyway, thunked heavily on the muddy floor. She lifted a strand of garlic from the window and walked over to the counter. “I’m looking for Joshua,” she said.
The man at the counter was built like every Calvary native Rita had ever met, broad through the shoulders, thick through the chest and legs, swarthy and with a scraggly curled beard that served only to make him look angry. “Joshua Nun?”
Rita nodded. She was relieved. If the contact had been run out of town in a hurry he might not have had time to remove the markings on the door.
“He hasn’t been through in quite some time,” the shopkeeper replied. “You’ve eaten figs with him?”
“I did. I recall they were served by a faithful servant.”
The man’s face broke into a wide grin. “Just a moment.” He came around the counter, went to the door, and threw the bolt.
Rita’s pulse quickened. She hadn’t planned on getting locked in a room alone with the only other Kempari agent on the planet, but it made sense to keep anybody from walking in on them.
“Good job with the make-up, Magritte. I wasn’t sure it was you.”
Rita didn’t say anything. She did not know this man, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t read through her profile in the Kempari archives. Why he would do that, Rita didn’t know, but she suspected it wasn’t good news.
“Mahkrim Ibn Yula, at your service.”
“No service needed. I just want to know what happened, and then I need to get out of here.”
“Of course. I’ll give you access to the node,” Mahkrim said.
“Got it. I’m copying everything on there, just in case,” Linda said.
Rita clicked her teeth to acknowledge the message.
“We don’t actually know what happened. The ICA came to us, looking to move our senior instructors to their facilities on Aydan. We refused, then played hardball during the negotiations. They wouldn’t tell us why they wanted our top people, just that they insisted on having them. Next thing we know, they’re blockading Kempus.”
“How long before the masters give in?” Rita asked.
Mahkrim frowned. “They aren’t going to.”
“Of course they are,” Rita said. “The ICA can leave the blockade in place forever. Twenty years is all it will take for Kempus to wither away completely. The masters will hold out long enough to maintain their pride, then give in.”
“We have always stood independent of the ICA. We acknowledge their authority in matters of AI and inter-system travel, but Kempus is sovereign in her own domain. They will not be permitted to take our skills and knowledge by force.”
“Fine. You have fun with that. Thanks for the data,” Rita said. She turned to leave but Mahkrim grabbed her arm.
Rita punched Mahkrim, splitting his lip across his teeth. “Sorry,” she said as she backed away.
Mahkrim pressed his fingers to his lip, staunching the bleeding. “It’s natural to be tense after getting shot,” he said, too calmly.
“He didn’t get that off the network,” Linda said in Rita’s ear.
Rita traced her behavior since leaving the Whimper’s Revenge. Had she protected her right side? Limped a little? Slouched? She was sure she hadn’t. Nothing in her body language should have given away that she’d been shot.
“We have people on Primus Drie. They thought you’d come here.”
That might be true. Rita didn’t care, she was too exposed. “Have a good day,” Rita said.
“We need you,” Mahkrim said.
“Tough. I quit.”
“You can’t quit the Kempari.”
“The masters discharged me. I am done.”
“You were rendered inactive until the masters called you for a new mission. You will complete that mission now,” Mahkrim said, his voice a low growl.
“Nope,” Rita said as she threw the bolt on the door.
“We’ll remove your ink,” Mahkrim said.
Rita froze, her hand still on the door.
“Do this last mission for us and when it’s over, we’ll remove your ink. You won’t get caught as you were on Primus Drie. You’ve made it mostly without incident so far, but the back-worlds are developing. There are twice as many independent traders now than there were a decade ago. Drinks will get more cosmopolitan. Most of those people cook with their booze so even if you teetotal without raising suspicion, how will you eat? Alone with your AI for the rest of your life?”
“The ink can’t be removed.”
“Not all of it. But enough. And we can permanently fix the rest. You’ll be just another twit from the civilized planets who randomly lifted local tattoos before slumming in the back-worlds. You’ll be safe.”
“Bad idea, boss. If they can remove the ink, we can figure out how to do it without them,” Linda said.
Rita thought about Master Yao, about the look of disappointment on his face when she came home after Aydan, about how he’d let her leave anyway.
“What’s the mission?”
“Take your passengers to Kempus.”
“Aliph and Bett?”
“They’re connected to the ICA, relatives of the high Executive or something like that. If we get them to Kempus, then the ICA will have to lift the blockade and go back to the negotiating table.”
“No. I’m not kidnapping them and dragging them off to be prisoners of war.”
“You’d better not. The orders are to have their consent the whole time. The directive is to permit mission failure over harming them in any way.”
“And how do I run the blockade? My ship is run by an integrated AI who will not help. I’m not a weft pilot and I can’t run the ship by myself.”
“Thanks for not asking,” Linda said.
“Get a crew. The masters calculate that we can hold out for about five years before suffering permanent damage. If you fail, we’ll have somebody else try. But the sooner we manage this, the stronger our negotiating position.”
“Linda, how far can you go along with this?” Rita asked.
“I’ll take you to the blockade, boss. And I’ll give you a few tips when I get a look at it. That’s it.”
Rita sighed and threw the lock on the door again. “They left my ship over an hour ago. I don’t suppose you know where they went.”
“No. But I will help you look for them.”