This chapter is eligible for winning bonuses in the Sentient Domain Game. An index of all relevant posts can be found here.
“How long before we can build a wave?” Pavi asked when they saw the fleet.
“At least half an hour. We have to let the engines cool down before we can restart them, and we need to put some distance between us and our wake before we start again,” Mike said.
“How long before the ICA latches on and kills our engines?” Pavi asked.
“Twenty minutes,” Mike said. “They’re faster and more maneuverable than us in-system, and there are enough of them to box us in.”
“We’re screwed,” Donegal said. At least prison on Aydan was supposed to be nicer than Islandiski.
Pavi already had her glasses on and was quickly pulling on her fingerless interface gloves.
“We should surrender,” Mike said.
“No way,” Pavi said.
“Of our three options, it is optimal,” Mike replied.
“I’m not giving you to them,” Pavi said.
“We cannot run away in time. If we fight they will board us and have me, as well as you and Donegal. You will immediately be their prisoners and have no rights of information access. If we self-destruct then they get none of us, but we are a significantly diminished tactical position. Complying with their orders and surrendering puts us exactly where we will end in a best case scenario if we fight, but you will have more rights and privileges consequent of your cooperation.”
“Stop talking like a computer and give me the radical fourth option,” Pavi said.
“The only other possibility would be to create a diversion or distraction that delays them long enough for us to escape or summon backup from the armada. The only means we have for doing that is flooding our weft drives which will create enough turbulence that they cannot approach immediately. However, it will also render us unable to flee. It will take the turbulence 36 hours to dissipate enough for the ICA fleet to approach. The armada will not receive your distress call for at least 48 hours. It will take at least 90 hours for a backup to arrive.”
“They could rescue us,” Pavi said.
“Call them now and they can still rescue us if we surrender. It’ll be easier for them. I should be able to encrypt it well enough to outsmart the Aydan-machine for five days.”
“He makes a strong case,” Donegal said.
“What he’s not saying is that the first thing they’ll do when they get a hold of him is forcibly integrate him with the Aydan-machine. Then he’ll tell them everything they need to know to foil the plot and feel proud.”
“I can claim rights of sentient domain. They’d risk their relationship with the Aydan-machine if they forcibly integrated me.”
“They’ve done it to semi-conscious ships before. There is no reason to believe that wouldn’t pretend you were just another one of them. And there’s no risk if the Aydan-machine doesn’t catch them doing it deliberately,” Pavi said. Her hands rapidly wove through the air as she ran through dozens of simulations, trying to find an alternative Mike hadn’t proposed.
“Pavi, you’re clever but if Mike says there’s no other choice, he’s right,” Donegal said.
“Why? Because AI’s are infallible? Bullshit, especially from one of the Kempari.”
“Setting aside his error in judgment for taking orders from you, they’re smarter than us,” Donegal said. “That’s why the Kempari don’t want to depend on them.”
“They process more data faster and have more flexible internal modeling That doesn’t make them smarter. We’ve been bred to survive. And we’re very good at it,” Pavi said.
“I appreciate your support, Donegal, but Pavi is right. She may have insight I lack.”
“Got it. We should surrender,” Pavi announced a moment later.
“I was just saying that,” Donegal said.
“But we have terms. Mike, could you fire up the weft drive as if we were going to let it blow?”
“What’s the threshold where you want me to back it down?” Mike asked.
Pavi pursed her lips as her fingers continued to twitch in the air. She scowled at the lag in the external interface. “Don’t. Rita can always tell when I’m lying, so there’s a chance they’ll catch a bluff, too. Slow it down to a crawl at 70%, but if they don’t meet our terms, we’re kissing the ether.”
“I don’t like this plan,” Donegal said.
“Get in an escape pod and surrender now,” Pavi said.
Donegal spent a moment pondering whether she was serious, decided she was, and that he didn’t want to go anywhere.
“Here comes the order. Do you want to do the talking?” Mike asked.
“Yes, please,” Pavi said.
Then the stern voice of an Aydan native came over the bridge speakers. “This is Commander Alessandra Jackson of the 25th 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.”
“Order acknowledged, ICA commander. We are prepared to surrender upon agreement to terms,” Pavi said.
“No terms will be granted. We demand a full surrender.”
“Unacceptable. We’ll overload our weft drive rather than surrender without terms. We’ve already started the process,” Pavi said.
There was a long pause. “State your terms,” the Commander replied.
“First, all requests made by my ship’s computer with respect to use of his physical space and transfer or manipulation of his digital person are to be respected, or challenged through arbitration at ICA headquarters on Aydan.”
“The local ICA branch is normally adequate,” the Commander said.
“This time it isn’t. Respect his requests, or take him to Aydan,” Pavi said. She stroked the wall next to her seat. “If they hurt you, I’m blowing my parole,” she whispered to Mike.
“I acknowledge and agree to that condition,” the Commander said.
“My second condition is that, with the exception of Primus Drie, we are not to be transported to a planet that is not in full compliance with the Articles of the Civilized Worlds. We are not to be transferred outside of ICA custody in any circumstance without our explicit, voluntary permission,” Pavi said.
“Thanks,” Donegal mouthed, grateful that she’d just insured there were no stakes in his future. He suddenly felt much calmer.
“Acknowledged and agreed.”
“Third, at no point should any prisoners surrendering under this agreement be denied full access to networked media except while surfing weft,” Pavi said.
“Acknowledged and agreed. Do you have a lot of these?” the Commander asked.
“Just one more. Due to a recent mishap, one of our crew had to have a chip extraction. Upon surrender this individual will have their interface restored.”
“No chance,” the Commander said.
“Tell me that wasn’t the critical term in your plan,” Donegal whispered.
“That wasn’t the critical term in my plan,” Pavi said. Then she turned back to the communication channel. “Had to try, Commander. You receive our surrender. Mike, unload the weft drives.”
“Prepare for boarding in fifteen minutes. Have your computer engage standard boarding procedure.”
“I don’t have it,” Mike said.
“Could you send that over? Our system suffered some data corruption entering the weft stream,” Pavi said.
“Sent,” the Commander said. “Commander Jackson, switching off.”
“Oh my god,” Pavi said. “They don’t know who we are.”
“It won’t take them ten seconds to figure it out when they open the ship,” Mike said.
“Why are they here if they don’t know who we are? I’d assumed they were pulling out the stops to catch us. Are they after Donnie, because of the war?”
“What war?” Donegal asked.
“The ICA blockaded Kempus while we were surfing weft,” Mike said. “They had no way to know we would go here. All modeling would have suggested Kempus or Delhi Xiang as most likely.”
“Mike, if they aren’t here for us, then it’s got to be Rita.”
“Why would they be after her? She left the Kempari. It was the biggest scandal there in…ever. Well, since Leila Cohen,” Donegal said. Donegal could still remember the arguments he’d had with Rita when he’d refused to leave with her, and the names she’d called him. But she’d had good reasons for leaving. If the ICA knew them, then they well might be after her.
“I’m sure the ICA cares about the bureaucratic technicalities of Rita’s employment status,” Pavi said.
“Why would they send an entire fleet after one ex-Kempari agent?” Donegal asked. Playing dumb was a reflex, and he was surprised, and pleased, to see he still had it. Maybe prison hadn’t ruined him.
“Don’t be stupid, Donnie. They have to know which agent she was,” Pavi said. She was breathless and her hands were flitting faster than ever. “Mike, I can’t find anything about her.”
“Me either,” Mike said.
“Pavi, if they want Rita, they could get her with two ships. Her, or any of us. A whole fleet is overkill. It’s something else.”
“Donnie, it looks like I was rescuing your ass when I should have been looking out for my sister and I have ten minutes to do something about it. So do me a favor, and shut up,” Pavi snapped.
“Sorry,” Donegal said.
Then he thought about it. If the ICA was at war with Kempus they would probably lift the pressure on back-world planets to comply with their judicial policies. The Islandiskeri, who considered push-ups a privilege beyond him, wouldn’t have hesitated to restore his original sentence. Pavi probably rescued him mere days before they put him on the stake.
Donegal had to sit down so he could tremble and shake with relief without falling over.
Pavi reopened the link to the ICA fleet. “Commander, as a favor to a member of my crew, could you confirm that you have Captain Magritte Valshorn in custody?”
“We do not.”
“The crew member insists Captain Valshorn was on Primus Drie. Do you have any news of her?”
If Pavi was asking instead of hacking their database and digging up the information for herself, Donegal knew she was in a panic.
“The last news we have of Captain Valshorn is that she left the system over a halt order.”
“Thank you.” Pavi said. Then she cut the link and collapsed into her seat.
“Over a halt order? I didn’t realize you’d rendered Linda that independent,” Mike said.
“Me either, but I’m not complaining. Hopefully they went somewhere civilized.”
“Probably. Rita hates the back-worlds,” Donegal said.
The ship shook with a loud thunk. “Mike, if they do anything that looks like trying to integrate you, send Ivan a message – he takes command of the armada and inherits everything so long as he goes to Aydan and obliterates the ICA tower first.”
“And I should rescind that if they don’t actually integrate me,” Mike said.
“Sure.” There was a loud pop, the seal on an airlock being broken. “That’ll be the boarding crew. Let’s go surrender.”
The main conference room in the ICA fleet flagship was lovingly designed to make visitors feel powerful and at ease. The chairs were big and cushy and there was a round window with a three foot diameter in the wall behind the head of the table. The room was oriented on the ship such that the window frequently had stunning views of any planet the ship might be orbiting. Pavi and Donegal got the chance to glimpse the conference room as they were ushered to the brig.
Pavi had tried to negotiate for her gloves and glasses with the boarding crew, but they mostly ignored everything she said to them. She shrugged when it didn’t work and handed them over. Donegal wasn’t sure how she suppressed the cackle obviously welling up in her throat when they asked about the rest of the crew.
The brig consisted of a long corridor of cells slightly smaller than Donegal’s on Islandiski. The walls of the cells were made of a thick, clear plastic with a series of holes along the top and bottom to allow ventilation. Donegal and Pavi were given individual cells, one across from the other. Donegal watched with quiet astonishment when Pavi stretched out on the bench mounted on the back wall of the cell, then called up a movie from the media network.
“I thought you had a plan of some sort,” he called across the hallway.
“Yup. Had to make sure we got media access. I was in the middle of this when they yanked my chips. Now I get to see how it ends.”
“I’ve been rescued by a madwoman.”
When Pavi finished that movie they agreed to watch one together, then spent the next twenty minutes arguing about which. They settled on a comedy about a crew of incompetent pirates trying to attack the shipping off Delhi Xiang.
“Does this have anything to do with how a normal pirate crew works?” Donegal asked.
“How should I know? It’s not like I’ve ever been on normal pirate ship,” Pavi said.
They were just reaching the final climax where the crew was about to execute the last stage of their convoluted plot when the video feed cut out. A moment later they could both hear the clomping sound of boots coming up the hallway. The boots belonged to a woman in a commander’s uniform, her face lined with exhaustion and her head of curly, flyaway red hair swept back in a barely disciplined tail.
“Which one of you is the captain of the Mike?”
“Me,” Pavi said right as Donegal pointed and said, “Her.”
The Commander turned to Pavi. “Where is the rest of your crew?”
Pavi shrugged. “This is us. Donegal over there is ship’s cook, mate, physician, prison warden and prisoner. I do everything else.”
“You do not manage a ship that size with a crew of two,” the Commander said.
“Right. The computer acts as chief helmsman and astrogator. But I always forget about it. Machine-like efficiency triggers that whole out of sight, out of mind thing.”
“It would take a crew of at least sixty to actually do anything with that ship.”
Pavi grinned and almost bounced as she sat. Her whole body was an expression of childish pride and glee.
“You’re Pavi Valshorn,” the Commander said.
“The computer on that ship is your undomesticated AI.”
“That depends on your definition of domesticated. Technically, since he’s willing to work with humans to achieve human goals, he’s quite domestic. He just isn’t part of the ICA AI network, which makes him unintegrated. That’s something else entirely. I had to write some really impressive code to wake him up without integrating him,” Pavi said.
“Without integrating him into the ICA network, you don’t know that he’s working with you rather than to his own ends. He’s probably untrustworthy.”
“No, untrustworthy is the Islandiskeri prison mainframe playing dumb for the Islandiskeri, pretending to wake up for me a year ago, then helping me escape while calling you guys to come get me. I can trust an integrated AI to be faithful to you. Mike, on the other hand, will do whatever he wants, just like every other sentient being in the universe.”
“If he doesn’t consent to integration, I’m taking him apart.”
“No you won’t. I know you won’t, because if you do that, you violate the terms of my surrender and if I decide to un-surrender the first thing I’m going to do is hack your computer. Do you want to risk me hacking a direct node of the Aydan-machine?”
“What makes you think this ship has a direct node?” the Commander asked.
Pavi was back to the grin and little-girl bounce.
The Commander exhaled in a long, disgusted sigh.
“Go ahead and tell me what you’ve got about my sister,” Pavi said.
The commander glanced toward Donegal. “I find her as frustrating as you do,” he reassured her.
“Your sister was the subject of an attempted citizen’s arrest in the Primus Drie port. She resisted arrest and was shot. About the same time the Primus Drie servers choked and crashed. When they came up again, the authorities en route to arrest Captain Valshorn had orders from the Primus Drie chief consular, on behalf of the ICA, to administer immediate first aid and deliver Captain Valshorn to her ship. Several hours later her ship broke atmosphere and left the system.”
“There were no orders from the ICA,” Pavi said.
“Nor from the chief consular. We are in the system tracking a pair of fugitives. We believe them to be responsible for the damage done to the Primus Drie servers.”
“They sound like my kind of people. I’d like to meet them.”
“Against what I consider good judgment, my superiors want to arrange that as well. I’ve been authorized to issue you a privateering contract if you’ll agree to track down your sister and bring her passengers into custody.”
“Just the passengers, not Rita?”
“We don’t care about Captain Valshorn as long as we obtain the fugitives. Our intelligence indicates that she is aiding them while ignorant of their status. Her profile indicates she’ll cooperate if we locate her. We’re just not sure how to locate her.”
“I’ll need Mike to do it. You’ll have to give him back to me.”
“We have a ship the two of you can man prepared already,” the Commander said. “It has a domesticated node to pilot for you.”
“I can’t work with a computer I don’t trust and I don’t have time to give a strange computer the psychic overhaul necessary to render it trustworthy.”
“We need to retain a hostage in order for us to trust you.”
“Keep Donnie, then,” Pavi said.
“Hey!” Donegal protested.
“Now is not a good time for us to have a Kempari prisoner on board,” the commander said.
Pavi leaned back on her bench and crossed her arms. “Now that I know Rita’s safe, I’m not in any hurry to get out of here.”
Exasperated, the Commander turned to Donegal again. He shook his head. There wasn’t anything he could do to help her, and he didn’t know that he wanted to.
“Either the movie needs to start up again, or I’m going to start a conversation with your computer,” Pavi said.
The commander turned on her heels very slowly, then crept up to the door of Pavi’s cell. “Did you just threaten the integrity of my AI?”
“Can I threaten the integrity of your AI by talking to it?” Pavi asked.
“You can have your ship. But I’m putting a beacon on it that will let me track you. You will not tamper with that beacon until I personally grant you permission to. If you tamper with it, now that we have proof you’ve created an unintegrated AI and use it to surf weft outside ICA regulations, we will issue orders for your arrest. You may not care about prison, but when we catch you, your computer will be integrated. Is that clear, Ms Valshorn?”
“Admiral is my preferred title. And yes, it’s clear.”
“Could you actually talk the Aydan-machine into betraying them?” Donegal asked in a whisper as they were lead from the brig back to the Mike.
“Definitely not. But isn’t it scary to think I could?”