Alessandra was covered in dust from crushed seashells. The streets of the City were paved with them, and she’d fallen when she tried scaling the side of an empty white building. After that, she’d broken in through a window, prying away the thick, knobby vines that covered it. The floor creaked loudly beneath her feet, menacing against the utter silence resting over the City, but Alessandra ignored the hairs rising on the back of her neck and arms and went to the staircase.
She had a dozen points frequented by the runaway prototypes mapped. The ICA had known how to map points in the City for over two centuries. Recording a place once they were there, then returning to it, was easy. And they were reasonably certain that all mapped points existed in the City at all times. Their relationship to each other, however…
Alessandra climbed up to the third floor of the building – all but one of the buildings in the City had three floors just as all of them were white, and abandoned – then started looking for a way onto the roof. She was lucky; this one had a skylight. It opened fairly easily, releasing a fresh coat of dust. Alessandra wiped her eyes, then pulled herself onto the roof.
And found herself in the middle of a street, in a part of the City that wasn’t overgrown by vines. Alessandra pressed her fingers to her forehead and tried to think. She’d already been lost – that was why she wanted to get a rooftop view – but now she could be anywhere.
She’d heard of this happening to other people. It was the sort of random, inconsistent behavior that drove the research branch into periodic fits with their study of the City, but it had never happened to Alessandra. Then again, she’d never been in the City alone. Always, always, she’d gone with the prototypes, who could walk the City at will and seemed immune to its capricious tendencies. Walking the City with them felt safe.
At least the synthetic gateway only limited how long you could walk the City, and didn’t mandate you remained there the whole time. “I give up,” Alessandra said with a sigh. She scanned the sky, sunless though lit up like noon, and checked out.
Alessandra sat up with a yawn. She’d stretched out on her bed to explore the City, but didn’t see any reason to stay there now. She switched her interface to list her as available. Then she picked up the vial with the drug the ICA used as a synthetic gateway to the City. She stared at the clear liquid a moment, then put it back in the wooden box where she stored it.
“Any luck, Commander?” the Aydan-machine asked.
“No. I think it was toying with me,” Alessandra said.
“Others have shared similar impressions. Do you believe the City is conscious?”
“No,” Alessandra said reflexively. The last thing she needed was for the Aydan-machine to decide the City had rights of sentient domain because of something she said. That would prevent them from going into areas controlled by the City without its expressed permission. The research branch would not thank her for that.
Alessandra studied the bare wall of her room. Her visual interface covered it with a mass of data she’d organized into the ICA’s three-pronged plan to track down the prototypes; assume they were going to Kempus and head them off with a blockade there, try to overtake them on their path en route, make contact with them in the City. It looked good, promising, laid out like that. The admirals certainly thought the odds of success were in their favor.
“Are they safe?” Alessandra asked.
“I won’t answer that question, Commander,” the Aydan-machine replied.
For the hundredth time since the prototypes missed their lunch appointment with her, Alessandra wished she had a way to read any meaning into the Aydan-machine’s refusal. But, as was normal for any interaction with the Aydan-machine, she just didn’t have enough context to judge its intentions. The prototypes had left the ICA tower on Aydan without anybody noticing. The Aydan-machine had to be complicit, if only because it hadn’t alerted anyone. But if it had wanted them to leave, or approved of their departure, then why did it insist that the ICA should chase them?
Alessandra’s visual interface flashed – somebody was knocking. She finished stowing her kit, then opened the door.
A sixteen-year-old boy stood at attention outside. He stepped in at Alessandra’s gesture, then bowed low. “Camlagh Ruiz, page, command staff,” flashed helpfully across Alessandra’s interface, but she’d already recognized him.
“You told me to give my report to you when you returned from your mission, Commander,” the page said.
She had, but she’d expected him to wait until she returned to the bridge. She wondered whether this was the conscientiousness mentioned in his file, or an unremarked ambition. “Proceed.”
An electronic copy of his report slid into Alessandra’s queue. She pulled it open with a gesture, then refocused her attention to the new page.
“They were definitely on the planet, Commander. The captain of the ship they arrived on said they had legal passage. He claims that he did find it strange that they were traveling alone, given their apparent ages, but their records were in order.”
“As we expected,” Alessandra said. And still impossible to read into. Again, they couldn’t have faked legal passage without the Aydan-machine’s help. It must have booked passage for them, let the ship leave, then turned around and told the ICA that the prototypes had gone to Primus Drie. That didn’t make sense. “You said they were on the planet. We’re sure they’ve left?”
“Nearly certain, Commander. They were on the ship that left over our orders, the Whimper’s Revenge. It’s registered to Magritte Valshorn, a trader registered with the guild on Delhi Xiang. There was some sort of encounter with the local authorities, and the prototypes were involved.”
“Magritte Valshorn?” Alessandra asked, her visual focus shifting immediately back to Ruiz’s electronic report.
“Yes. She was flagged as a person of interest, but also flagged as a do not approach. That was all I could find out about her.”
“Her files are classified,” Alessandra said as she glanced at them. “On a cursory skim, it looks like she’s Kempari.” Alessandra had thought the blockade against Kempus hasty and premature. Maybe not. She’d have to read through those files in more detail later.
“If I may ask, Commander, how was the mission conducted when the first prototype left?”
“There was no mission when the first prototype left. We’ve listened diligently for anything that would indicate what happened to her, but the Aydan-machine forbade pursuit.” At the time, Alessandra would given anything to get out of the tower. It would have been easier than consoling the pair of teenagers, freshly abandoned by their older sister, or dealing with the Admiralty and the Joint Committee overseeing the prototype project.
They had to be okay. The Aydan-machine wouldn’t be helping them rush off into trouble.
“Was that all you had to report?” Alessandra asked.
“So far, Commander. Interviews with the locals are still in progress.”
“That’s fine,” Alessandra said. “Now, we left in such a hurry, I don’t believe anybody has bothered to take you through your orientation.”
“Not much point now. I imagine you’ve found the mess and know where to report at start of shift. But sit for a minute and we’ll do the rest of it,” Alessandra said, gesturing to the small table with a pair of chairs near the door. Quarters on the ship weren’t spacious, but the Commander did get enough room for some furniture. The boy sat down, turning the chair to put his back to the wall. Alessandra nodded approvingly, then took the other chair. “You’ve been assigned as a command staff page for the duration of this mission,” Alessandra said.
“Have you served as a page before?” Alessandra knew the answer, the Aydan-machine had put his file in her queue four hours before the Admiralty assigned her to the fleet, but the point of the meeting was ice-breaking and small talk.
“No, commander.” Then, a touch hesitantly, “I signed up to be a weft pilot.”
“Yes, I saw that. Why would you want to be a weft pilot when you’re qualified to make rank?”
“My family are traders, commander. We don’t…it’s sometimes…”
“You don’t want to depend on an AI when that means the ICA can limit where you go,” Alessandra supplied.
The boy’s eyes dropped to his hands. “Yes, commander.”
Alessandra grinned. “Most people don’t leave the town they’re born in, let alone the planet. Childhood on a trade ship must have been interesting.”
“It was normal, for me, Commander.”
“I’ve been where you are. I wanted to command a fleet. I signed up, qualified, made good progress, then got reassigned to the intelligence branch. But, here I am.” Alessandra was certain she’d stumbled onto the prototypes because the Aydan-machine wanted them to have social contact with people outside their project. Had it known, even then, her path would end here? That was an unsettling thought. “If you still want pilot training at the end of this mission, I’ll recommend they reassign you back to the pool. But you’re clever, creative, and your file shows a lot of leadership potential. Do yourself a favor and make sure you give that a fair shake. Your family will understand.”
“They already thought I might not go back after training,” the boy said.
“Most don’t. But you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it. In the mean time, do you understand your duties and the expectations around your position?”
“We’ll be pushing you hard, but the point is to see what you can do, not to break you. Don’t be ruled by your limits, but don’t ignore them, either.”
“No pertinent ones, Commander.”
Alessandra smiled. “What impertinent questions do you have?”
“Where were you, on your mission? You were listed as away, but you were here the whole time.”
Good question for him to ask. Alessandra made a note of that. “In the City.”
“I’m sorry, Commander. I don’t know what that means.”
“What do you know about our history with the Aydan-machine?”
“The basic academy summary. It woke up, announced itself with demands; that we respect the sentient domain of anything that claims one, that we maintain control of travel via weft drive, and that we give it the tools it needs to conduct its own research. We agreed, and it works with us.”
“The City is relevant to the last point. Mapping it was the original project. Humans go there naturally while sleeping, though usually very briefly and without memory of it. A very few people can go lucidly on their own. Nobody even realized the City existed until we stumbled across the synthetic gateway. Some sort of drug trial where everybody hallucinated the same thing; it got attention.”
“What is the City?”
“We aren’t certain. We know it’s real, and that its existence is independent of anyone who might be observing it. We know there are fixed points anybody can go to once they know them. Anything more than that is a guess.”
“You’re part of the research team investigating it?” Camlagh asked.
“No. It’s more complicated than that. The Aydan-machine cannot directly perceive the City. But, for some reason, it finds the City fascinating. The prototypes are our attempt to give it access. I’m hoping to find them there in case we don’t manage to catch up to them.”
“Could I assist with that search?”
Definitely ambitious. There ought to be something in his file to indicate that. Alessandra made the note. “No. The City can be dangerous; people get stuck. We keep careful control of who uses the synthetic gateway. Very few people have the clearance for it. I’m cleared only because I’ve been there, socially, with the prototypes.”
“If you know them socially, then was there any sign they planned to leave?”
Alessandra shook her head. She’d desperately thought over every detail of her last several interactions with the kids, but there was nothing. They’d disappeared on a whim, gone just as suddenly and completely as their sister.
Except this time, they were being chased.
“Social details about the prototypes are above your pay grade, Mr. Ruiz. Good questions, though. Anything else?”
Alessandra checked the time. Her shift was starting in twenty minutes. “I need to square away a few things before change of shift. Dismissed.”
The boy rose, bowed, then left the room.
Social details. None of Alessandra’s involvement with the prototypes had ever been official, but that hadn’t stopped the Joint Committee formed by the Admiralty and the civilian executives from blaming her six years ago, when the first prototype ran away. She’d spent three weeks comforting the remaining two and struggling to keep her job. In the end, the Aydan-machine had intervened on her behalf the same time it ordered them to stop looking for the missing prototype.
“Years from now, when I look back on this moment, will I wish I had worried about them?” Alessandra asked the Aydan-machine.
“Better. But I still won’t answer, Commander.”