Alessandra had been working for the intelligence branch inside the ICA tower on Aydan for two years when she first met the prototypes. It seemed like an accident, at the time. Three children were playing in the corridor outside her office. They chased each other back and forth, tossing a ball in some pattern that indicated rules Alessandra didn’t understand. Two of her officemates had already passed them in the hallway, amused that somebody had managed to sneak their triplets to work with them.
Except that sneaking even one child into the building should be impossible, let alone three. Exhausted from long hours on the project, but unwilling to let an obvious security breach go, Alessandra did the only logical thing and asked the Aydan-machine. “Does anybody know these children are here?”
“Yes,” it replied.
“Anybody aside from the five of us?”
“There has been no violation of security protocols, Lieutenant Jackson. You need not be concerned.”
“Who approved their presence here?” Alessandra asked.
“Who asked you to?”
“They? The kids?” Alessandra asked.
“Yes. Will you keep a secret for me, Lieutenant Jackson?”
“Your peers. I will be notifying your commanders of this conversation regardless of your answer.”
Alessandra considered her options. Something strange was going on, and she half-suspected the Aydan-machine had been hacked. If so, it was critical to get as much data as possible to trace the source of the issue and the culprit. Besides, Alessandra already kept a great many secrets from her peers. It was part of the work. “If you aren’t suborning mutiny or dereliction of duty, then yes, I will keep your secret.”
“My children need a friend, Lieutenant. I suspect you would be a good choice.”
It had taken Alessandra three days to figure out that the encounter in the corridor was the reason the Aydan-machine had requested her reassignment to the intelligence branch. By then she was already committed to her new extra-curricular mission. Within two months her natural response when she felt a touch of wander-lust or missed life aboard ship was to visit the trio. They got some much-needed normal human contact, and Alessandra finally made peace with her reassignment.
Now, as she listened to the looping message broadcast from Calvary, Alessandra wondered how many plots the Aydan-machine was juggling.
“Attention any and all authorities with the Interstellar Cartographer’s Association. This is Captain Magritte Valshorn, registered trader with the Spacer’s Guild of Delhi Xiang. I just left the Calvary system. While there, two of my passengers were kidnapped by Golgothan slavers. In extracting them I was forced to administer low nanite doses to their captors. Within two weeks of the time stamp on this message most infected individuals will be ill with NRS. I cannot develop a suitable prognosis from that point without more data about Calvary’s treatment facilities. I recommend a detachment from the ICA to treat infected individuals. Repeat, two weeks from the time-stamp on this message…”
How blithely she referred to a mass execution of the Calvarian Slavers Guild. Alessandra would have respected it more if she’d poisoned them outright; Nanite Rejection Syndrome was one of the slowest, nastiest ways to die known. And if she hadn’t already been en route to Calvary, nobody would have made it in time to rescue the weakest victim, abandoned and abused on a stake in Golgotha.
“Mahkrim, why doesn’t she mention you in the message?” Alessandra asked the shaking, feverish man stretched on the bed before her.
“Wanted to kill me. Wanted to die,” he said.
“That’s not happening,” Alessandra said. “We’re taking you with us so we can patch you up. Your system can’t handle more nanites so we’ll have to do it the slow way, but we’ll get you there. Then we’ll have somebody run you back out here so you can go home.”
His whole body shuddered and he clutched at the blanket spread over him. “They’ll stake me again.”
“Yeah,” Alessandra said. “But with your papers, Calvary is the only planet that will take you. The ICA can’t sponsor citizenship for just anybody we pick up. Though if you helped us now…”
He shook his head.
“Mahkrim, you’re delirious Nobody could judge you. Where is she going?”
“No.” Now he was weeping. “No,” he moaned.
“Sh, sh, sh. Never mind. Get some rest.”
Alessandra wanted to put a hand on his shoulder, stroke his hair, give some sign of physical comfort. But looking at him, it was impossible to forget that he’d spent a week on the stake before they rescued him. It would be a long time before a stranger’s touch could provide comfort.
Camlagh Ruiz was waiting for her in the corridor. “We estimate we’ve located 70% of the nanite victims,” he said. “Our scouts are still out to round up the rest.”
Alessandra could find out everything the page was about to report just from scanning her feed, but that wasn’t the point. This exercise was a test, to see whether he was focusing on the right pieces of information and making the connections in the data he needed. “The victims are being difficult about treatment. They’re raving about the curse of an Atraxan healer.”
“Are they? Interesting,” Alessandra said. In over a decade of operating on her own, the ICA had not one indication that Magritte Valshorn had used her Kempari training for so much as getting a free drink. On the contrary, she seemed determined to blunder through the universe as suicidally ignorant and unsavvy as possible. Perhaps getting caught and shot on Primus Drie motivated a more radical shift in her behavior than their models had predicted.
“Any news of the prototypes?” Alessandra suppressed her rising panic that they were in danger. She’d been certain they’d just run away until she’d read through the files on Magritte Valshorn. The prototypes could have simply run to a rogue Kempari agent who might teach them even though the masters on Kempus had refused. Or they’d been pushed into company with Pavi Valshorn’s sister.
And the Admiralty insisted on trusting a machine-whisperer with the prototypes. Even if Alessandra were certain Pavi Valshorn had nothing to do with the prototypes’ disappearance, she’d never consider it a good idea to throw them into company together. This seemed aggressively stupid, even from the Joint Committee.
“All of the preliminary reports appear accurate,” Camlagh said, continuing his report. “They left with Valshorn. Still no indication of where she was going.”
“Does she know what she has?”
“Given the events on Calvary, she must suspect something, but no indications as of yet.”
“Good.” It felt wrong to sit on her ship and hope, desperately, that the prototypes had fallen in with the ex-Kempari sister of the most dangerous machine-whisperer in decades by accident, but Alessandra did. What would Pavi Valshorn do to the kids if she found out what they were? “Anything else?”
Alessandra scanned her feed to see if there was anything there the boy had dropped or mis-prioritized. Aside from reports he wasn’t cleared to see, he’d done well. “I have a task for you. Go through Mahkrim Ibn Yula’s file and give me three possibilities for planets that would offer him citizenship.”
“Is he cooperating?”
“Not yet. But we can’t put him back on Calvary,” the Commander said.
“No planet will take a known Kempari agent,” the page replied.
“Then give me three plans for smuggling him back to Kempus.”
“But the blockade…”
“It’s our blockade. If we can’t slip through our own blockade then we’ve achieved omnipotence and we can cancel our research.”
“Yes, Commander,” the boy said.
“I’ll be in my quarters, trying another search of the City. Report to the mate until I return.”
He bowed at the waist and backed up the hallway.
“Is Pavi Valshorn a threat?” Alessandra asked the Aydan-machine. There had to be a way to get the Aydan-machine to reassure her that the kids were safe.
“If she wants to be, potentially.”
“Does she want to be?”
“Unlikely. But the reliability of my models break down when a machine-whisperer is involved.”
“Are you safe from her?” Alessandra asked. Perhaps the Aydan-machine hadn’t helped the prototypes; could Pavi Valshorn have snuck them out of the tower and arranged legal passage?
“I predict minimal personal risk to me from her.”
“Can I threaten the integrity of your AI by talking to it?” Pavi had asked.
Alessandra knew – it depended entirely on what she was talking to the AI about.