Alessandra sat down at the table with two mugs of coffee and a danish. She slid one of the mugs toward Mahkrim and took a bite of the pastry. “Feeling better?” she asked.
He had to be. The fever was gone, he’d stopped coughing, he’d even put a little weight back on, according to his medical records. His wounds, physical and otherwise, had only begun to heal, but he was well out of danger of dying. They’d rescued him just in time; twelve more hours and his body probably couldn’t have recovered.
“You can have the caffeine, I checked. Might help to make you feel human again,” she said.
“Human,” Mahkrim grunted, but he took the mug and wrapped his fingers around it.
“We’re still looking for her. Even her sister is, if I can trust what my equipment tells me.”
Mahkrim’s gaze didn’t leave the mug.
“I can’t figure out whether you’re not talking to protect her, or to save revenge for yourself. Which is it?”
“It could be both,” Mahkrim said.
“Why did she leave you there?” Alessandra asked.
He shook his head.
“I’m not sending you back. I could, but under the circumstances I can’t really consider it humane. I haven’t found somewhere that will take you yet, but when I do, we’ll get you there.”
“You declare war Kempus, betray us, then try to buy my loyalty with citizenship?”
“I didn’t declare war on anybody. And even so, it’s just a blockade. A negotiating tactic from one bully to another. We’re just the bigger bully this time.”
“We’re not equals. We couldn’t hope to have your power. Worlds like Calvary exist only because you allow it. You made them to be that way. They’re just test scenarios, pawns.”
“Even Kempus?” Alessandra asked.
“Probably,” Mahkrim sighed. “But if one must be a pawn, better to feel like a rebel.”
Alessandra laughed. “I like that.” She sipped her coffee, nibbled her danish. “Where are you actually from? It might help me find somewhere for you if I know that much.”
Mahkrim swallowed. “Calvary.”
“Before Kempus. Before your assignment. Where were you born?”
“Calvary,” Mahkrim said. “The shop they caught me in was my mother’s. She was Kempari, too.”
“And they made you go back because you had real ties there?”
“No, I asked to go back. Calvary was home.”
Alessandra was afraid he’d start to cry. She never knew what to do with people when they cried. Fortunately he’d reached a numb phase where he didn’t seem to feel anything. That was much easier to deal with. “We’ll find somewhere for you. And we’ll keep you safe. Build a new home, Mahkrim. Live a life you don’t have to hide or be ashamed of. And when you decide how you feel about Rita, let me know.”
“It’s not shame,” Mahkrim said, his voice low.
“I didn’t hide from shame. When we hide…it’s love.”
“I don’t follow you,” Alessandra said.
“Calvary is a tiny, miserable little back world, compared to the civilized worlds. But it doesn’t compare itself to anything. It is what it wants to be. Your experiments allow that for now. But you’ll destroy Calvary before it’s done.”
“We’ll help it,” Alessandra said.
Mahkrim shook his head. “We have our god. He’s ineffable and omnipotent and absent. And you would change that.”
There’d been talk, silly it seemed to Alessandra but persistent all the same, about what new experiments they could run with the prototype project. What new variables could they test with humans who could become part of the network, especially when they were surrounded by people who didn’t know it existed? But that talk hadn’t left the underground levels of the ICA tower, not as far as Alessandra knew, and it was her job to know. Had she failed, or was he talking about something else? “Wouldn’t that be good?” she asked.
“We don’t want him.” Mahkrim looked up at her. Dark circles hung under his deep-set eyes. “That’s what the ICA refuses to see. Man seeks god, longs for something greater than himself, but we don’t really want it. We will live with anybody. We’ll tolerate their different beliefs. But their gods must be just as absent. If you give us god, there is no co-existence.”
“Maybe,” Alessandra said. It was strange to think of the Aydan-machine’s children, the three kids she used to chase through the hallways of the ICA tower, as anything other than young and awkward. “But if it turns out that way, we made the gods. We’ll unmake them.”
“If you can. Will the Aydan-machine let you take away the gifts you made for it?” His shoulders slumped forward.
So he was talking about the prototypes. It was possible for them to know things on Kempus that weren’t known to the ICA. But for Kempus to know a secret from Aydan, it would have to travel through somewhere. Kempus might be a black hole for intelligence, but the rest of the ICA domain was transparent. How could the Kempari learn a secret without any traces of it between Aydan and Kempus? When this was over, she’d have to make a serious project of figuring this out.
Mahkrim had fallen back into silence, so Alessandra gathered her dishes and left.
The hallway outside Mahkrim’s quarters was empty. Alessandra used the privacy to stretch, loosening the muscles that inevitably started to cramp when she was around too much emotion.
Camlagh met her as she turned the first corner on the way back to the bridge. “No important updates, Commander,” he said as he met her.
Alessandra glanced at her queue. He was right, and that was remarkable. It normally took them much longer to learn that there didn’t have to be something important enough to highlight. She made a note on his file so she’d remember that for his evaluation in six weeks.
They knew about the prototypes on Kempus. The prototypes had fallen in with an allegedly ex-Kempari agent, the sister of an infamous machine-whisperer. That machine-whisperer was, theoretically, chasing them down, but despite an ICA file that indicated she was unfailingly brilliant at these sorts of tasks, she seemed as lost as the ICA. There was too much coincidence, too much trust to the universe’s good will. The admiral could trust that the Aydan-machine would guide them as it wanted all he liked, but it had given her a page with weft-pilot training and no help since Calvary. Something was wrong.
“I have a project for you,” Alessandra told the page.
“Research Pavi Valshorn. Research anybody connected to her. Find out if she’s ever dealt directly with Kempus, or with us.”
“She interned at headquarters…”
“Since then. Her official file says she broke all contact and we blacklisted her, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t taken a small contract project at some point. And check her people. Especially check for human weft-pilots. We should know if she’s managed to corrupt our trainees.”
“Yes, Commander,” the page said.
If Alessandra did the research herself, she’d be accused of wasting time needlessly checking a dead end. But this was the perfect project to give a page – his time didn’t have to be productive, just educational, and if he couldn’t learn from looking into the workings of a pirate and machine-whisperer, then he ought to be packed back to pilot school.