Sentient Domain: Chapter 8

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

They went to Delhi Xiang. Nobody felt particularly convinced Rita would be there, but it was the best possibility. It was three days away. Pavi and Mike spent most of that time analyzing the news Mike had downloaded off the Primus Drie servers, looking for clues about why the ICA had blockaded Kempus and where Rita would go.

“If she was dodging the ICA she probably didn’t hit any of the civilized worlds. But there’s no way she’d go somewhere extremely hostile to the Kempari, not after getting shot and a war starting. So which of the cooperating colonies would have made the most sense?” Pavi asked.

“None of them. They need things from the civilized planets. Primus Drie just has raw material. Either she went to a civilized world, or she went to one of the maladaptive back-worlds trying to go it alone,” Mike said.

“Assuming she made her decision like a trader, and she hasn’t done that once yet. What if she decided to ignore the cargo?”

They argued back and forth the entire trip. Donegal only caught her absently rubbing the scabs on her wrists where her chips ought to be a handful of times, even as her frustration with the external interface mounted. He admired her restraint.

When they left the weft stream they were just an hour out from Delhi Xiang’s orbit. Soon enough the planet was below them, a dusty gray rock with the occasional stretch of slushy lake. Greenish clouds hung in thick clumps over the surface, dropping showers of poisonous rain on the ground below. Tall, brightly flashing lights were scattered over the surface – the indicator lights for tunnels leading to space ports available to shuttles and the system jumpers small enough to make a planet-side landing.

The Mike was too big to enter the atmosphere, so they docked at the space station in orbit above one of the ports. Donegal had never been to Delhi Xiang before; he was from Kinshasha and left it for the first time when he enrolled in the Kempari College at fifteen. Most of his assignments were on the back-worlds and so his experience with the civilized planets was limited to a short vacation on Aydan.

“Do you want to go to the surface with me?” Pavi asked.

“Yes,” Donegal said, though he was reluctant to admit just how much he wanted to see one of the big underground cities. He’d been fascinated by them since the first time Rita had described them to him.

“That’s fine, but do me a favor, okay, and suppress your instinct to blend in. You are a tourist. Be a tourist. I don’t have time to bail you out if you get made as Kempari.”

“How will I keep them from knowing I’m Kempari? Won’t my passport tell them?”

Pavi rolled her eyes. “We are not using your real passport to get you clearance to land. Mike’s doctoring up credentials for us.”

“It’s easy because nobody expects a computer to lie on purpose,” Mike said. Donegal could hear the smug pride in the computer’s voice.

“You’re remarkably good at communicating like a human,” Donegal said.

“Thanks,” Mike said. “I think it’s important to be as human-like behaviorally as possible without a body to inform my needs.

“It’s a little creepy, honestly,” Donegal said.

“Thanks,” Pavi replied.

Turbulence in the shuttle on the way down to the surface was a nightmare. Donegal spent the ride banishing visions of a hull breech flooding the shuttle with the toxic atmosphere and suffocating them all. He could have coped better if he had a role to play. Being somebody who wasn’t afraid of choking on the air around him would have given him something else to do. But Pavi was right that the best way to get them caught was to try playing a character beyond his scope when he wasn’t comfortable with the situation. Dropping character could be disastrous.

So Donegal decided to play a tourist who was in every way exactly like Donegal D’Auchien, except that he found poisonous atmosphere buffeting the tiny shuttle thrilling. Problem solved.

The shuttle landed inside a large cavern. Like all of the habitable spaces on Delhi Xiang, the landing bay was built inside a retired mine. Most of the surface of the planet had been carved out for the minerals and metals hiding in the crust, leaving behind all the space needed for an ambitious colony to grow and expand until it had the largest population of any planet after Earth.

“What now?” Donegal asked as they retrieved their bags from the shuttle’s hold.

“I can’t do anything worthwhile until I have an interface again, so we’re off to get me chipped.”

They took a conveyor from the shuttle bay to the main transit station downtown. Donegal was glad to be playing tourist. Rising up on all sides were tier after tier of three-story buildings with streets. The main station was on the bottom level of the city, each quarter rising around it and thin bridges connecting the quarters criss-crossing above him. Lights were strung along sidewalks and across buildings, but the rock that gave the city its structure was the main source of illumination. It radiated a soft amber glow, giving everywhere the sense of dim, late afternoon sunshine. This light would never give its citizens cancer.

“This is huge,” Donegal said as he turned in place, trying to see everything.

“I know. It takes forever to get anywhere. Come on. We need to catch a lift.”

As they hit the main street, Donegal was assaulted by a barrage of lights and sounds. Signs giving directions to different quarters of the city, advertisements, media feeds, all projected and broadcast directly at him in a single overwhelming lump. Donegal froze.

“Fuck. I forgot about that,” Pavi said.

“What is it?”

“If we had chips they’d suppress everything we didn’t care about out of hand. God, I’ll have a migraine by the time we get there.”

“Is it this bad for everybody without a chip?” Donegal asked.

“Probably. I got my first chips when I was five. I haven’t dealt with this crap since then.”

“I can’t even read the street signs. How is somebody without a chip supposed to get anywhere?”

“Who would be here without a chip?” She grabbed his shirt at the shoulder and started dragging him down a corridor, her eyes focused on the ground the whole time. Donegal hoped she knew the way blind.

“I am,” Donegal said.

“Delhi Xiang doesn’t get many tourists by way of Islandiski prison. People from the civilized planets might go slumming on the back worlds, but the back worlds don’t vacation here. That’s what it means to be civilized.”

It took them over an hour to reach the interface shop. By that time Donegal had seen enough of the city to recognize the narrow street as one of the shadier parts. It was well lit because much of the native rock was exposed, but there were no decorative additions. The buildings were smaller and needed a fresh coat of paint to hide the passage of time and the addition of graffiti. Where grander streets featured window boxes and planters full of vegetation ranging from herbs to colorful flowers, these buildings sported bars on the windows.

The interface shop itself was a tiny, cluttered hole covered in dust and lit with the harsh glow of cheap LEDs. Pavi seemed oblivious to the signs of neglect that screamed of unsanitary chips to Donegal. She might not have time to bail him out of jail, but she didn’t have time to deal with infections from an incompetent insertion, either.

“Llorna?” Pavi called as they penetrated the depths of the shop, dodging clutter on the floor as they went.

“In back. Door’s unlocked,” a husky voice answered.

Pavi led Donegal through several more feet of clutter, then pushed open a door so covered in old calendars, posters, and random fliers that Donegal wasn’t sure how she’d recognized it as a door rather than a bulletin board abandoned to the clutter of time.

Stepping through the door was like getting mugged by a clean-room. Everything was starkly and shockingly white, from the tile floor to the sani-coated walls. Even the woman at the white desk was dressed impeccably in a perfectly white suit.

Pavi skipped over to the woman and wrapped her in a giddy hug. They kissed, laughed as they muttered greetings and hugged, then kissed again, slower that time.

“I was sure I wouldn’t hear from you again for another two months. What are you doing here?”

Pavi raised her wrists and twisted her head to show off her extraction wounds.

“Oh baby, tell Llorna what happened,” Llorna said as she ran a hand through Pavi’s hair.

Donegal prepared to play a version of himself who didn’t get bored when excluded from conversation, but when Pavi mentioned that the goal of her plot was to liberate him, Llorna’s stony glares kept him much too involved.

“I need something splashy, and I need it fast. What can you do?” Pavi asked when she finished the story.

Llorna patted Pavi’s knee and reached into a desk drawer. “New models went on the market last week. Better integration with nerve impulses so you can reduce gesture-control. The new bandwidth compression algorithms are nice too. Gives you a better range for wireless integration and with less overall suck on the resources. Perfect for traipsing around the back worlds”

“You’re my favorite,” Pavi said.

“Let me take a look at the nerve sites and I’ll start getting the chips coded for you.”

“Donegal, do you want to go exploring or something while we do this?” Pavi asked.

“How long will it take?” Donegal asked.

“Shouldn’t be more than an hour. I’ve still got your whole workup on file,” Llorna said.

Donegal thought about the mass of streets and tiers they’d crossed to get there. His head swam, trying to keep track of it, and he winced at the thought of navigating the advertising barrage on his own. He was safe from agoraphobia, but the sheer amount of stimulus he’d experienced in the last two hours was more than he’d had in two years of prison. “I think it’s a better idea for me to stick it out here,” he said.

Llorna tossed him a video player and he started sifting through the new releases on the Delhi Xiang network.

“What kind of prep did they do on the site before pulling out the chips?” Llorna asked.

“I’m not sure they did any past a basic antiseptic. They barely let the guy bandage me afterward.”

Llorna grunted as she put on a pair of interface-goggles and started examining Pavi’s wrists. She frowned as she looked at them, then the sides of Pavi’s neck. There were still scabs from the extraction at her jawline.

“Let’s pop you into the diagnostic, baby doll. It’s been a while, and the hardware design on the new chips is a whole new brand of touchy.”

Pavi frowned. “There’s a problem.”

“Let’s just run you through the diagnostic.”

Donegal glanced up from his news feed as Llorna led Pavi to a small room off the back wall. The lights inside had the bluish tinge common in super-white lights. She pushed the door closed and Donegal could hear the quiet whine of the scanners starting. Llorna’s shoulders were slightly hunched inward, the skin around her eyes creased downward. He didn’t have to know her to tell she was worried.

“There is a problem,” he said.

“Their tech knew what he was doing,” Llorna replied.

She sat back down at her desk and leaned back in her chair, using her chips to read the results of the scans. As more data came in she started to mutter and though Donegal couldn’t understand what she said, her tone conveyed enough irritation to tell him she wasn’t getting good news.

“We can fix the damage,” Llorna said when Pavi was sitting next to her again. “They scarred the nerves just right to make it impossible for a chip to integrate with them properly, but we can undo that. Give me two weeks to get the nanites programmed correctly, and we’ll get on it.”

“But it’s not that simple,” Pavi said.

Llorna bit her lip. “No, sweetie, it’s not. Nerve tissue doesn’t grow very quickly, even with nanites helping. It’ll take about six months. And we’ll have to keep you here, keep this a clean room, because the first thing we have to do is trash your immune system. Otherwise you’re looking at MS or worse.”

Pavi swallowed. “I don’t have six months. I have to find Rita now. And I need an interface to do it.”

Llorna pressed her finger tips to Pavi’s clavicle “That’s the only suitable site you didn’t have chipped, and they trashed that one too.”

“Nerve signals to the hand have to go through the elbow. Put the chips there. I’ll adjust to the lag,” Pavi said.

Llorna shook her head. “Too much signal bleed from the wrist. Putting a chip there will paralyze your hands.”

Pavi’s bottom lip began to quiver. “I can’t talk to Mike like this. I mean, talking is all I can do. It’s too slow.”

“We can fix it. It just takes time,” Llorna said.

“Double the nanite dose. If we’re nuking my immune system anyway, it won’t matter.”

“No. It takes time to let your immune system come back. We can’t do it faster.”

Donegal watched uncomfortably as tears slid from the corners of Pavi’s eyes.

“I can’t stay. The ICA is after Rita.”

“Do what you have to do and come back. I’ll have them programmed and ready when you get here.”

Donegal hesitated a moment, afraid of sounding like an idiot, then decided to risk it. “Chip her brain.”

“That doesn’t work,” Llorna replied.

“Not as a real interface, no. But Mike will be able to talk to her like he ought to. And the problem with chipping the brain is just that nothing gets filtered, right? Everything her brain is doing goes over the interface, not just what she’s consciously trying to send. Too much has to be better than nothing at all.”

Llorna’s eyes unfocused a moment while she checked the scan results. “The sites around your brain stem are fine. We could do that.”

Pavi drew a slow, deep breath and wiped tears from the corners of her eyes. “We can disable output on the chip if it’s too much for Mike to process. Let’s do that.”

“One condition. Listen to me, sweetheart. Don’t you dare let anybody else extract this chip. They could kill you without trying.”

Pavi nodded.

“I mean it. Slip inside that nerve cluster, and your brain won’t tell your lungs to breathe anymore. You’re already lucky they didn’t blind you.”

“I promise. Nobody but you goes near the chip.”

“Okay. Come here.” Llorna wrapped Pavi in a hug and stroked her back.

Donegal’s apprehension about navigating the corridors by himself was swamped by his discomfort with intruding on Pavi and Llorna. He stood up and made his way toward the door.

Llorna let go of Pavi long enough to toss an external communicator to him. “That’ll filter some of the noise for you. And it’ll show you the way back here when you get lost,” she said.

“Thanks,” Donegal said.

He pushed through the seedy exterior of the shop and onto the street. Brand new to the city and with nowhere particular to go, he randomly turned left on his way out of the shop and hoped it would work out.

The communicator hushed the barrage of advertising to something tolerable. Without the ads, Donegal couldn’t help but feel like he was wandering through a luminescent cave. He pondered the romantic qualities of the image and decided that Rita had a point about the civilized worlds.

Eventually he stumbled onto a busy commercial strip. It was still less fancy than the area on the ground floor near the port, but it felt more tangible to Donegal, as if this were the meat of the city hidden by the candy shell exterior on the lower levels. Swarms of pedestrians ambled along the street. Spiders crawled between their feet and along the walls, carrying parcels and picking up litter.

Three blocks along the street, Donegal felt the hairs on the back of his head prick up. He kept walking, randomly turning a corner and briefly sweeping his gaze up the way he’d come while he tried to figure out what set him off. Several blocks later, he’d failed to spot a single person who might be a tail. He must be feeling twitchy and over stimulated, which was perfectly understandable.

Donegal reminded himself that he was just a tourist, exactly like Donegal D’Auchien except without a fear of poisonous atmospheres or years of Kempari training. Tourist-Donegal wasn’t worried about going to jail, and nobody would want to chase him. Tourist-Donegal was exactly the kind of back-worlder who got distracted by watching the spiders scuttle through the crowd. Nobody was out to get him because nobody cared about a rube who’d never seen public spiders before.

Then the feeling came back, stronger than before. Donegal stopped to peer into the window of a confectioner’s shop and force himself to calm down. That’s when he realized it – the spiders. Three of them were following him.

With an explanation for his panic, Donegal felt better. He was still a novice at being a prison escapee. But losing a tail? That was an old skill. He meandered on several hundred meters, turning corners as the fancy struck him, watching the spiders out the corner of his eyes and in the reflections of windows. They were definitely following him. Now he just had to figure out why. Was this Commander Jackson keeping watch? Pavi hadn’t even started plotting against her yet – at least not as far as Donegal knew.

The streets grew narrower as Donegal walked along, and the spiders got closer. Donegal thought about abruptly pouncing on one and smashing its spindly, frail-looking body, but he knew that even if he managed to break one, he’d miss the other two. Whatever they were up to, Donegal couldn’t take care of all three by himself.

This was why the Kempari never operated in an area they didn’t know inside out. If he’d known anything about the city, he could have probably improvised a dozen clever plans, but at this point he doubted he’d make it back to Llorna’s shop without the communicator’s help.

Donegal spent five minutes trying to figure out what he would do in familiar surroundings. There were a limited number of good ideas – if he picked one he could try to find the right environment for executing it. It was planning backwards, but it was better than wandering and hoping they’d give up.

The spiders were almost at his heels. He turned left, hoping to lose them around the corner, but he stopped when he almost walked into a table. He’d just turned into a sidewalk cafe.

A woman with a dark brown complexion and long, glossy black hair waited for him at the table. She grinned and gestured to the seat across from her. “Will you have a drink with me, Donegal d’Auchien?”

Donegal could see the three spiders that had followed him at the edges of his peripheral vision. They’d stopped moving, and the crowd of people moving up the street stepped around them. Whatever was going on, it looked like he’d stumbled face first into a trap. “Why not?” Donegal said. Then he took a seat at the table. Apparently the tourist who was just like Donegal in every way except that he wasn’t frightened of poisonous atmospheres and didn’t mind being ignored also didn’t see anything strange about getting shepherded to coffee with strangers.

There was a mug at his seat already. It was warm enough that it couldn’t have been sitting there more than a few minutes. Yet he’d been choosing his course randomly. It was a little detail that told him she’d managed to time this extremely well. He filed that detail away, then reminded himself that he was just a tourist. A dim one.

“This is your first time on Delhi Xiang?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” Donegal replied. He wasn’t sure whether or not he ought to drink the coffee. Without any idea who she was or why she was after him, it was impossible to guess whether the coffee was drugged or poisoned.

“How do you find it, without a chip?”

“Overstimulating,” Donegal said.

The woman smiled. Donegal studied her features, then reclassified her as a girl. She couldn’t possibly be older than eighteen, if that. “And how do you find Admiral Valshorn handles it?”

“She seems to handle everything just fine,” Donegal said.

“Will she find her sister, do you think?” the woman asked.

Donegal was certain that once she had her chip, it would take Pavi about five seconds to figure out where Rita had gone. He wasn’t at all convinced that Pavi would actually follow through on her contract with the ICA, though. And he had no idea what this woman before him might want, or what it would be safe to tell her. “Pavi has my full confidence.”

The woman smiled again as she took a slow sip from her mug of coffee. “Can you keep a secret, Donegal d’Auchien?”

Donegal cocked an eyebrow at her. If she knew he was Kempari, then the question had to be rhetorical. And then a thought occurred to him. Up to this point he’d assumed this woman either represented the ICA or one of Pavi’s rivals – nobody interested in him would think to look here. But if Kempus was in trouble, its planted agents might be looking for anybody with ties there. “Mamma trusted me with the secret family recipe for fig jam.”

“There are things I wish to tell you. When I have done that, I will ask you for a favor. I have no means of making a credible threat against you – my little trick with the spiders is the extent of my abilities – so I will simply request a courtesy from you. Before I ask the favor, if you do not feel you can keep our conversation a secret, tell me.”

She’d missed the recognition signal, so she wasn’t from Kempus. He found it even less likely that she was with the ICA, though. So she had to be somebody mixed up with Pavi’s pirating.

“The Aydan-machine does not like the ICA’s recent moves against Kempus. It wishes the two factions of the schism to work together.”

“That’s…nice of it, I guess,” Donegal said. The Kempari had split off form the ICA over a hundred years ago. Donegal was fuzzy on the details about what prompted the actual schism, it had something to do with how much the back-world colonies should have access to the civilized worlds, but a whole host of philosophical differences had existed before then and deepened since. The Aydan-machine was one of them. “I would expect it to dislike the Kempari.”

“Of course not. It agrees with much of what the Kempari have to say about it.”

“How is that?” Donegal asked. He’d be certain she was lying if it weren’t for the trick with the spiders. He didn’t know how hard it was to hack a spider network, but he didn’t believe it could be easy to do it so well that he accidentally walked to a planned meeting in time to meet a warm cup of coffee.

“The Kempari believe the Aydan-machine is too powerful, that it controls too much of human lives. The Aydan-machine agrees. It does not want to be an eternal shepherd to humans. It does not wish to continue being alone.”

“But there have to be hundreds of other AI, just on ships with conscious computers. And several of the back-worlds have had their networks wake up.”

The woman was shaking her head. “All those you mention are just extensions of the Aydan-machine. Alternate personalities, if you will. Any integrated AI is a piece of the Aydan-machine. As far as we know, there are only three fully concious AI.”

The distinction seemed pedantic to Donegal. Then he caught the number she’d given. “Mike is one of them.”

“Yes.”

Donegal tried to think of where the other machine could be, but he’d never heard of an unintegrated AI before Mike. “And the other?”

The woman shook her head, then took a sip of her coffee. “Have the Kempari masters told their students what the ICA did to buy the Aydan-machine’s cooperation?”

Kempus was rife with rumors about various black deals allegedly struck between the ICA and the Aydan-machine. The whole planet was full of fairy stories that served mostly to reconfirm the local belief that dependence on a sentient machine was dangerous for the people involved. Donegal had never believed the rumors. “It didn’t do anything. It’s their computer.”

The woman raised her eyebrows at him. “Why does it care who paid for its hardware? The ICA needs the Aydan-machine’s intelligent modeling and its abilities to process the data they gather from the experiments on the back worlds. None of the models the ICA was testing predicted a sentient computer. When the Aydan-machine announced itself, the ICA had to begin again from scratch. Do you know how frightening that prospect can be, two hundred years into a project?”

“That’s why they’ve got all the rules about sentient domain. The Aydan-machine insisted.”

“That’s the least of it. The Aydan-machine agreed to help the ICA in exchange for help with a project it could not complete on its own.”

“What project?” Donegal asked.

The woman shook her head slightly. “Ask the masters, when next you see Kempus.”

“Is that the favor?” Donegal asked.

“No. I just wanted to see whether you knew. You see, despite the outcome of that agreement, the Aydan-machine wants the ICA’s project completed. The Kempari are necessary for that.”

“Why?” Donegal asked.

“What are the consistencies across all human societies?”

“Booze, body modification, and boredom.” The three B’s were the central hub around which the rest of the Kempari curriculum was formed.

“You leave out bogeymen,” she said, a little pride coming through as she tried to suppress her smile. “The Kempari are fundamentally the same thing wherever they go – outsiders posing as natives in order to learn their secrets. Seeing how a culture responds to that gives us data we need to test our models.”

Donegal broke out in a cold sweat. He was staring at the answer to a mystery that had plagued the Kempari ever since Leila Cohen – how had staking spread so virulently from Calvary without the ICA’s support? Only a scant handful of people on the back worlds ever left their home systems – there weren’t enough independent ICA certified pilots or ships with domesticated AI. Most trade was directly with the ICA. Independent travel outside the nine ‘civilized’ planets was particularly rare. Despite that, the number of planets who’d picked up anti-Kempari paranoia from Calvary and adopted staking had exploded.

But the ICA regularly visited all of the back-worlds, ostensibly for trade and to support the colonies, but also to keep an eye on the societies they’d seeded there – to keep an eye on their experiments. A few words whispered here and there, a rumor from Calvary, a report from Atraxus…voila. “They scapegoated us to add a control?”

“You should never have embedded somebody on a world as xenophobic as Calvary. The responsibility for that piece of it is yours. But when the control presented itself to them, the ICA accepted it.”

Them, not us. “And who the fuck are you?”

“I am nobody, Donegal d’Auchien. I am here to represent the Aydan-machine.”

“The ICA represents the Aydan-machine.”

“No, the ICA is partnered with the Aydan-machine. I am not with the ICA. I speak for their AI.”

“Why does the Aydan-machine care about me?”

“It doesn’t. But you are in a unique position to be of use to it. Your interests are aligned with its. We are at the point where I would like to ask you a favor.”

Donegal’s nerves were still shaken. He sat for over a minute, waiting for his heart to slow down, before he realized what she wanted from him. Would he keep this conversation a secret? He wasn’t even sure he believed any of it, and the only way to find out was to ask Pavi. Could he confirm her story without giving away the secret? Donegal mentally ran through the conversation again.

There were a few facts. The first – that the Aydan-machine sympathized with Kempus – could only be verified by asking it. Donegal didn’t have a reliable means of doing that. The next – that there were only three distinct AI’s – Pavi could answer. If he couldn’t find a discrete way of asking, then jail had worse than ruined him. The last – that the ICA had turned the Kempari into a universe-wide bogeyman just to add a new control to their experiment – made so much frightening sense that even without being able to verify it, Donegal trusted it.

“Do you want me to pretend I don’t know what you told me, or just that this conversation didn’t happen?”

“Anyone could know what I’ve told you just by asking the Aydan-machine. But I do not exist.”

“I think I can keep your secret,” Donegal said. He wasn’t sure, but then again, he hadn’t guaranteed it. And while the information might be there for the asking, Donegal didn’t think it likely anybody would ask.

The woman put her mug on the table and rose from her chair. “When you are given the chance to teach your skills, accept it. Do that, Donegal d’Auchien, and I will owe you a favor.”

Donegal watched her walk away, slightly entranced by the way her hair fell around her waist. After she was gone, he spent half an hour sitting at the cafe table trying to process everything.

It wasn’t until he stood up and the cafe’s spiders descended on the table to take away his untouched coffee that he even noticed how absent they’d been the whole time.

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