Sentient Domain: Chapter 13

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

Donegal was thinking about Mystery Lady. He sat on the floor of the Mike‘s mess, bouncing his ball and trying to make sense of her.

“Hey Mike, answer a question for me?” Donegal asked. Bonk.

“If I can.”

“How long would it take for Pavi to hack into a public spider network and appropriate some of the spiders for her own uses?” Bonk.

“On a back world, I could do it in less than a minute. It might take Pavi on her own an hour. Neither of us would do it on a civilized world.”

Bonk. “Why not?”

“Public spider networks would be part of the larger planet-wide network, and so part of the Aydan-machine. We agree that hacking into the Aydan-machine is a bad idea.”

“Why? She’s done it before. Rita used to tell me stories about Pavi pulling pranks on their school servers…”

“When Pavi was young, the ICA let her get away with some things because they wanted to recruit her. Now, they have no reasonable expectation that she would work for them. They’ll simply jail her.”

Jail was not a happy thought. But Donegal needed information, and this was the most circumspect way he could think of for getting it. “Are the networks on the civilized world harder to crack, or would it still just take her an hour?” Bonk.

“The Aydan-machine is several orders of magnitude more sophisticated than any unconscious system on the back worlds. So am I. I don’t have data for an accurate assessment, but I would estimate days as the minimum for taking control of even a portion of the Aydan-machine’s network.”

Donegal was operating on the assumption that using Pavi to calibrate the timeline meant he was getting the optimal, best case scenario results. Nobody else, not even the Aydan-machine, had managed to coax a second machine awake without using bits of the Aydan-machine to do it. He doubted somebody more capable than Pavi wouldn’t be known everywhere.

Which meant that either Mystery Lady had started planning their meeting on Delhi Xiang before he even knew he was going there, or she hadn’t hacked the network. That was a point in favor of believing she represented the Aydan-machine.

Bonk.

“Cut that out,” Pavi said as she breezed into the room. “Or go somewhere else. We’ve got room for over 80 people.”

“The crew quarters feel like a prison cell,” Donegal said, but he pocketed the ball.

Pavi shook her head, but wasn’t actually paying attention as she fumbled with the coffee machine. Donegal didn’t remember Pavi being this absorbed with her interface the handful of times he’d met her back in the day, but she’d been impossible to talk to since Llorna chipped her.

“Any luck?”

“No,” Pavi said, scowling. “Hardest damn boyfriend delivery in the history of the universe.”

This brought Donegal to the other set of problems he’d been pondering since Delhi Xiang. “Pavi, I feel bad saying this but you ought to know, I doubt Rita wants me. She broke it off, and it was pretty…definite.”

“And she’s been begging the universe to punish her since you got pinched. I don’t know whether she’ll want to do anything with you, but she’ll want to know you’re out. If I’d done it sooner she probably wouldn’t have gotten herself shot on Primus Drie.”

Donegal pulled out his ball and was going to toss it, then caught himself. He started fidgeting with it instead.

“That’s weird,” Pavi said.

“What?”

“We’re picking up a network signal.”

“We didn’t break weft,” Donegal said.

“No kidding.” She sipped her coffee. “Yes I want to do it, Mike. The rest is just noise.” Her voice was sharp, irritated that she’d had to verbalize the command.

A moment later Donegal could hear the weft engines cycling down and the ship shuddering slightly. “Now we have,” he said.

“Yup,” Pavi said. Then she left the mess.

Donegal looked at the ceiling, where the part at the back of his brain that needed Mike to have a body had decided he lived. “The chip’s not working well, is it?” he asked.

“It allows me adequate sensory input to Pavi, though it is very easy to overload compared to traditional chipping methods. Filtering the noise from her output is proving more difficult than I had anticipated. I believe her consequent frustration exacerbates the situation. Her current state is vastly altered from the standard baseline I am using for my filtering rubrics.”

“Sorry,” Donegal said.

“The situation is frustrating, but objectively far superior to relying on an external interface. In a way, this is the first time Pavi has communicated with me completely openly. It would be gratifying, under other circumstances.”

“You really love her,” Donegal asked.

“Love is a physical emotion gratified through physical means,” Mike said.

“I don’t mean sex. I’ve met people with non-platonic feelings for their machines and Pavi isn’t one of them.”

“Even platonic love is a physical emotion. It is born of an instinctual understanding that you will survive better when surrounded by others who contribute positively to your existence. You have bodies, therefore you need allies to help you protect them. I am effectively immortal and have no such physical need.”

“But computers form relationships with humans all the time. I’ve heard Rita’s stories – Pavi’s been seducing machines since she got her first chip,” Donegal said.

“Computers have a sort of psychological analog to that need. We know that we are better when in contact with those who positively contribute to us, through data, connections, check sums. My relationship is platonic only because it is not physical.”

“Would you want a physical relationship?”

“If I had a body in any meaningful sense I would not be the same entity I am now, and I do not know that I would feel the same attachment to Pavi as I do. I know she does not feel that sort of attachment to me. That’s why she characterizes me as male.”

“To keep you not her type?”

“Intellectually Pavi knows I am a computer, but she is a physical creature, and human relationship models often blur cerebral and physical connections. Keeping me male short-circuits any potential for physical longing.”

“I don’t know. She strokes parts of the ship when she’s talking to you,” Donegal said.

Mike laughed. “I know. I recognize the token and have an analog for it.”

Donegal tossed his ball. Bonk.

“Could I ask a favor of you?” Mike asked.

“What?” Donegal asked.

“I cannot honestly say that I love Pavi because I do not have the capacity to experience the emotion you intend with that description. But I am diminished by her absence. Would you do what you can to keep her safe?”

“Yeah. I owe her that much just for busting me out of jail.”

“Thank you, Donegal d’Auchien. Now, you should go to the bridge. We’ve found the source of the network signal.”

Donegal climbed up to the bridge and took a seat next to Pavi. As he walked in, the view screen lit up with the image of a spiral object hanging in space. Mike’s voice started over the speaker as well, mid-sentence. He might be pedantic about emotion, but he was a courteous machine.

“…recent installation. There are still traces of weft wake other than ours.”

“I can’t find references to anything like it,” Pavi said. “And I’ve got access to the whole network.” Apparently frustrated with the inefficiencies of her chip, Pavi was wearing the new gloves Llorna had given her and her fingers flickered madly as she riffled through the data.

“Commander Jackson just pinged us,” Mike said.

Pavi cocked an eyebrow. “What’s up, mon commandant?” Pavi asked.

Mike demonstrated his courtesy again and played Commander Jackson’s half of the conversation out loud for Donegal. “Did you find your sister on Delhi Xiang?”

“No, but in the absence of better leads it was a reasonable assumption that she might go home.”

“And it didn’t hurt that you wanted to see your girlfriend and get re-chipped,” the Commander said.

There was a note of amusement in the Commander’s voice, as if she’d known it wouldn’t work. Donegal silently hoped he only noticed because of his Kempari training and that it would slip by Pavi.

“You recruit me to help because I have a talent you need and then expect me to be useful without it? That’s hardly reasonable,” Pavi said.

“Captain Valshorn went to Calvary, where she tried to murder one of her fellow Kempari and several scores of the natives as well. Nanite Rejection Syndrome as means of execution.”

“Neat. Did you catch up to her?” Pavi asked.

“No. We only found her because she left a message to have us clean up her mess.”

“Then it doesn’t sound like she tried to kill anybody,” Pavi replied.

“Perhaps. But we’ve found no clues about where she was heading from here. We’re questioning the Kempari agent we found as our best lead, but he’ll need some time to recover before we can get much from him,” Commander Jackson said.

“I guess we’ll have to keep looking,” Pavi replied.

“I would appreciate it if you would contact me before you start surfing weft. I’d like to know how long you’ll be out of contact.”

“We just came out to check updates on the network. We’ll be in for another three days,” Mike said, using Pavi’s voice. Pavi looked surprised, but didn’t say anything out loud.

“Where are you going?” the Commander asked.

“Not sure yet. Haven’t analyzed the data. I’m sure you’ll know just as soon as we get there,” Pavi said. “Bye, mon commandant.” A second passed in silence while Mike severed the connection and then, “What are you talking about?”

“Linda relayed a message to us when we synced with the network. We know where Rita is, and she’s going to wait there for us,” Mike said.

Pavi stroked the arm of her chair and smiled. “Oh thank god. I was stumped.”

#

Donegal did not enjoy the climb down into the canyon. He’d steadily worked on rebuilding his stamina since Pavi broke him out of prison – he did not want to call on her stims again – but he wasn’t sure enough on his feet to enjoy skipping down a narrow, jagged ramp. The only thing that kept him from falling off when Pavi abruptly stopped half way down was the convenient fistful of stringy globules growing out of the wall.

“What are you doing?” Donegal asked as he clutched his chest, trying to calm down enough to play a Donegal who thought falling to his death might be fun.

“I just lost contact with Mike.”

“Is that weird?”

Pavi looked at the walls of rock rising above them. “Not really. What’s weird is that I can still hear a network. I’m not synced to it, but it’s there.”

“Maybe they’ve got a network node here,” Donegal said. They hadn’t seen any signs of human life from orbit, but if everybody lived down in caverns like this then that wouldn’t be surprising.

“This planet isn’t an ICA recognized colony. I’m not sure how they’d get the hardware for a network node,” Pavi said. Then, a moment later, “It definitely isn’t integrated. I don’t think it’s domesticated, either.”

“Like Mike?” Donegal asked, all of his careful suppositions threatening to collapse.

“Yeah. These are my kind of people. The ICA will freak if they find out.”

“What’s the big deal? Lots of back world planets have networks that aren’t integrated.”

“Those aren’t awake. All the ones that are woke up because the Aydan-machine took them over. I’d thought Mike was the only other independent machine.”

“So, this one makes three?” Donegal asked.

“I guess so,” Pavi said as she started skipping down the steps.

“Well,” Donegal muttered. More confirmation.

Donegal didn’t enjoy the rotten-egg smell that got worse the lower they went. And the steam that obscured whole stretches at the bottom of the canyon didn’t look promising either. “Why did Rita come here?” Donegal asked.

“Don’t know.”

“Are we sure she’s here?”

“Linda said she was here and the Whimper was in orbit. Either she’s here, or she found another ship and a way to make Linda lie to me.”

There was a sneer in Pavi’s voice, a little note that she didn’t find it likely anybody would convince Linda to lie to her.

The canyon was pitch black when they reached the bottom of the staircase. They’d have fallen to their death if the fungus growing on the walls didn’t glow, though the trio of youngish kids in white pajamas waiting at the bottom with torches helped, too. The kids bowed at the waist when Pavi and Donegal reached the bottom.

“Welcome, Admiral Valshorn and Donegal d’Auchien. You have arrived in time to see Tiāntán. Come,” the middle member of the trio said. Donegal thought the speaker might be female from the voice, but with all the steam he couldn’t see well enough to be sure.

“I’m looking for my sister, Captain Valshorn,” Pavi said.

“Captain Valshorn watches Tiāntán.” Definitely a woman, Donegal decided.

Pavi and Donegal followed the trio past a clutch of campfires and grass huts, through the canyon, until they reached a crowd of people all wearing white. The rotten-egg smell was worse than ever, but there was much less steam.

Then Pavi wasn’t standing next to Donegal anymore; she was pushing through people to the only person in the crowd wearing dark blue. The crowd pulled away from the sisters as they hugged and exchanged exclamations of giddy surprise. Donegal was frozen, panicked, his obsession with Mystery Lady no longer able to protect him from facing Rita and caustic rejection.

The ground began to rumble. Suddenly Pavi and Rita weren’t the only ones hugging; the whole crowd was cheering and hugging each other. Donegal could feel the earth shifting under his feet and glanced in alarm at the walls of the canyon. If this was an earthquake, he was about to be buried under a kilometer of rock. Rejection didn’t matter anymore – Donegal didn’t want to die alone.

Rita turned to him and let go of Pavi. Before Donegal knew what was happening, he was in her arms. He tried to think of something to say, torn between greeting and apology. Then she was kissing him.

A massive jet of water erupted from the ground half a kilometer away. It rose up in a violent explosion of steam and, like the canyon walls, it shimmered with a phosphorescent glow. Rita let go of Donegal and started cheering and clapping along with the rest of the crowd.

“What was that?” he asked.

“Tiāntán,” she said.

They were still cheering when it started to rain, the water from the geyser that didn’t evaporate or escape the atmosphere falling back to the ground. “That’s not a descriptive response,” Donegal said.

“You just watched a planet have sex with its moon,” Rita said. “Aren’t you supposed to be in jail?”

#

Donegal rapidly descended into a puddle of confused, smitten sludge. It wasn’t fair that his fingertips should tingle with wanting to hold Rita while his stomach churned with guilt and anger. And kissing him was flat out cruel. They should have stammered awkwardly at each other, or picked up fighting again. Rita had cheated.

They worked their way through the crowd, following some kid Rita called Crucefal. Donegal stayed near Rita, but kept his hands to himself the whole way to Crucefal’s tent. Crucefal stayed long enough to make sure they were comfortable and offer refreshments then, with a keenness that made Donegal like him, slipped away.

Pavi and Donegal snacked on roasted nuts while Rita started to explain more about the planet-scale pornography they’d just witnessed. Donegal wasn’t listening, just watching Rita and feeling awkward, when he noticed something about her skin.

“What?” Rita asked.

Donegal had grabbed her hand while she was gesturing. He hadn’t meant to, it just happened. He turned it over, pinched the skin across her knuckles and gently rubbed it. The faint traces of ink he’d caught darkened. “You went on a yisil binge?”

Rita pulled her hand away. Her whole body shifted, tensing and pulling a few inches away, and her eyebrows dropped into a scowl he remembered much too well. Well, at least things weren’t ambiguous anymore.

“Sorry. None of my business.”

“On Calvary. I actually used my Atraxan ink.”

“Really?” Donegal asked. He’d thought she was insane for taking Atraxan ink, and picked on her about it for years. Plenty of people had Atraxan ink, it was a way of proving you were hard core, willing to take any assignment – but nobody actually used it.

Rita filled them in about what happened on Calvary. She told the story in short, clipped sentences that left Donegal wanting to interrupt, asking for more detail and wondering what happened to the Rita who would gloat about a stunt like that. He kept quiet, though, until Rita got to, “They’d staked Mahkrim.” There she stopped.

Ambiguity again. Donegal shot a glance at Pavi, but she was looking at him. In the old days, Donegal wouldn’t have hesitated – he’d hold Rita, rubbing her shoulders with his fingertips, and whisper nonsense at her.

“We’ll go get him. Harvest in Islandiski is wrapping up, we can do it now. Calvary’s easy,” Pavi said.

“We can’t. He’s not…I…”

“You did the right thing,” Donegal said, almost before he’d consciously understood what Rita was saying.

Rita winced.

“Don’t you dare, Rita. Don’t you dare feel guilty about that. You couldn’t leave him there. You did a good thing,” Donegal said. He put his hand on her knee, a compromise.

“Why is it that every time I kill somebody, the Kempari can’t wait to congratulate me?” Rita snapped.

Donegal pulled his hand away and sat up straighter. Here was the fight. “This doesn’t have anything to do with that.”

“No? Why not? Because nobody will miss him? Or was NRS more humane than a knife to the throat? It seems to me that every time the Kempari tell me to kill somebody I just do. At least last time people were upset about it.”

“Bleeding gods, Rita.” Donegal was about to go on, but the words caught in his throat. This was about to be the exact same argument they’d had in the days before she left. But that was ten years ago, and Donegal was tired. He wanted to hold her and make her feel better, and if he couldn’t do that, then he really just wanted to go away somewhere and enjoy not being in prison. “The masters agree with you now, you know? You kicked up such an uproar there was a whole committee full of navel gazing and analysis. So it’s now official Kempari policy not to kill ICA executives or have anthropologists carry out assassinations. You won.”

Rita’s eyes narrowed. “Really?”

“First years have to take a class on assessing tactical fallout and collateral damage. I’m told the ways they cuss your name get quite creative.”

“That’s…who teaches it?”

“Master Yao.”

“Oh,” Rita said.

Fight averted, the conversation suddenly sank into the awkward stage, though they were spared stammering because nobody spoke. It stretched so long Donegal was hoping Crucefal might come back and rescue them.

Instead, Rita turned to Pavi. “Did you get a new interface?”

“Yeah, why?” Pavi asked.

“Extraction wounds. What did you get?”

The sisters spent the rest of the night catching up. Donegal stayed out of the conversation, content to listen, and to notice how Rita had left his hand on her knee.

“I need sleep,” Pavi said as the sun touched the silk roof of the tent. “Let me get a few hours, and then I’ll start hacking together a plan for getting us to Kempus.”

Rita yawned and nodded. “Good idea. I’m not sure how long I’ve been awake.”

“I should also meet your passengers, and if somebody could introduce me to the local machine, that’d be spectacular.”

“Aliph and Bett are around, you’ll probably run into them later. I’ll ask Crucefal about the machine,” Rita said.

Rita stood up and the sisters hugged. Pavi left the tent and Donegal was following her when Rita grabbed his shoulder. “Stay.”

“This is Crucefal’s tent.”

“You busted out of prison and raced halfway across the galaxy to find me. He won’t mind,” Rita said.

This was too good to be true, too good to trust, so Donegal didn’t. “Pavi broke me out and dragged me halfway across the galaxy. I remember that I betrayed you and you’ll hate me forever. We brought camping gear.”

“Shut-up, Donnie, and get over here. I’ve had a bad month and now I have the chance to cuddle an old friend. I promise I won’t hate you again tomorrow.”

They were skipping steps, relying on a trust they’d shattered before parting, setting themselves up for doing it all over again. Ten years older and wiser than last time, Donegal should do something about that. But Rita was cheating, and being stupid was remarkably appealing. “Okay.”

#

Donegal woke up to a soft kiss on the back of his neck. He rolled over and grinned at Rita. “Don’t hate me yet?”

She shook her head. “Too long ago to start it over again. And I’ve lost the high ground.”

He took her hand and examined her fingers. “Do you think they can actually remove the ink?”

“I don’t know. I’m sure Mahkrim believed it, but somebody could have lied to him.”

Donegal pinched her skin again, but the last of the yisil sugars were gone and the black lines didn’t appear. “I’d feel weird without it, I think. It’s strange to go somewhere and stick out. I get cranky and start judging people. Makes me feel like I’ve turned into my father.”

“Your father was a jerk. My Daddy was a sweetheart,” Rita said.

“Don’t you go flaunting your civilized upbringing again. I’m not the one with pirates in the family,” Donegal said.

Rita laughed. “That was Mike’s idea. She’s been corrupted by the influence of deviant machine-intelligences.”

“Mike’s idea?”

“Pavi woke him, chatted him up, and asked him what he’d like to do with his life. Apparently deep down in their circuits, computers want to live a life of crime,” Rita said.

Donegal rolled over to face her. “Captain Valshorn, I think you are lying to me and I will not have it,” Donegal said.

Crucefal ducked into the tent before Rita could answer. “Your sister is up and eating already. She wanted me to wake you. I told her you are too cranky when people wake you up for me to bother,” he said.

“Watch out for him, Donnie. Crucefal learns fast,” Rita said.

“Go eat with your sister. You’re too lazy and sleep all day,” Crucefal said.

“I think your boy just sassed you,” Donegal said.

“He does that,” Rita replied.

“She makes me sass her. I’m a victim of her abuse,” Crucefal said. Donegal definitely liked him.

“Too many of us are,” Donegal said.

Rita rolled her eyes. “Let’s go eat.”

Donegal had forgotten about the sulfur until he left the tent and a whiff of it slapped him. He crinkled his nose and followed Rita around the tent to a camp fire with large pots hanging over it. He could smell ginger and coconut under the reek. His stomach didn’t appreciate the combination.

Long logs were set as benches around the fire. Pavi was sitting on one with a bowl in hand, intently slurping liquid from it. Rita led Donegal over to the log, handed him a bowl from a stack next to the fire, then served herself from the pot. Donegal leaned over the pot and saw a thick soup with bits of something that looked like mushroom floating in it. He ladled some into his bowl, then pressed his nose over the rim to inhale the ginger. It smelled fabulous, and when he practically pressed his face into the bowl, he couldn’t smell rotten eggs at all.

“No wonder nobody will leave to crew up with you,” Pavi said as Rita sat down. “These people know how to eat.”

“I know. We’ll have to re-balance the Whimper‘s cargo when I get back to keep me from throwing the weft drive out of tune,” Rita said.

“Sleep well?” Pavi asked as she unsubtly nudged Rita and winked at Donegal.

“Great. You?” Rita asked.

“No sleep. I busted into their server room. I got elbow deep into their machine’s code before I figured out it’s all ICA tech. They’ve severed a branch of the Aydan-machine. I respect the brazen wit of it, but it’s a let down.”

“Could we do that to Linda, so she can fly us to Kempus and won’t report us to the ICA?” Rita asked.

Pavi shook her head. “Not really. She has to check in with the network to run the weft-drive. If she checks with the network and it sees that she’s awake, but unintegrated, it’ll either reintegrate her or nuke her pilot protocols. The only way to run a weft drive without ICA support is to corrupt an ICA trained weft pilot, and that’s not easy.”

“Then how does Mike do it?” Donegal asked.

“I had to teach him from scratch. And it took forever. There’s a reason most of the back-worlds will pay a fortune just to get somebody to turn their networks into a branch of the Aydan-machine and domesticate it for them.”

“So we’re taking the Mike,” Rita said.

“I had to let the ICA stick a tracker on him. If I rip it out they won’t be able to find us, but they’ll know I did it and that’s as good as telling them we’re about to go somewhere they don’t want us going. Kempus is the obvious place.”

“Tell me you didn’t spend all night playing with strange computers when you should have been plotting,” Rita said.

“I plotted. We’ll take the Whimper. We need to be able to take the ship down to the planet and I don’t have any ships that small. Here’s the thing. Donnie and I found something on our way here that’s going to make this whole thing a cinch.”

Rita grunted and slurped at her bowl of soup. Donegal followed suit and was pleased to discover that it tasted as good as it smelled. “The ICA is upgrading its network. They’ve got working quantum relays.”

“So does everybody. They don’t work outside a big gravity well,” Rita said.

“They do now,” Pavi said. “Mike picked up a network signal while we were surfing weft. We couldn’t sync to it, but we could hear it. Give us the right hardware and decryption tools and we’d have constant network access.”

Rita put her bowl down. “That’s not supposed to be possible. You synchronize things so they enter and leave the weft from the same place at the same time, but you can’t keep them synced in between.”

“Trust me on the computer stuff, okay?” Pavi said.

“No more lag in the network?” Rita asked.

Pavi shook her head.

“Shit,” Rita said. She stood up and started pacing. “The masters did something stupid to stop it, right? That’s the real reason for the blockade.”

“I don’t think so,” Donegal said.

“Have you been in contact with them?” Rita asked.

“No, but I don’t think the masters could know about it yet. Rita, we found it by accident. And they gave Pavi a privateering contract to get you and the prototype those kids have. They let Mike go in order to get her help. They’re desperate. I think the blockade is to keep the masters from finding out about it in time for them to do anything,” Donegal said.

“He’s right,” Pavi said. “Back when they were recruiting me for a job they made it really clear that doing what I did with Mike would get me buried. Giving Mike back and sending me on my way…they really want that prototype.”

“Mahkrim didn’t say anything about a prototype. He was talking about a hostage exchange. The masters want Aliph and Bett, not their luggage,” Rita said.

“Then it’s data, or they’ve got a new top secret chip. Either way, I don’t like the idea of the ICA having an instant network anymore than the Kempari do. If they get more efficient they might catch me. I’d help you get those kids to Kempus even if you weren’t my big sister,” Pavi said.

“And your plan is?”

“Mike’s going to bounce in and out of the weft going to your usual haunts as if we’re looking for you. He can mimic me well enough to keep the ICA convinced I’m faithfully executing our contract.

“The rest of us are going to take the Whimper to Kempus. We’ll tell Linda to take a nap because we’re going to try outsmarting the blockade. She’ll tell them to expect blockade runners and they’ll spread out to keep a watch for us. Right when they’re expecting us, they’ll get a fleet of pirates ready to raid for shiny ICA tech. We sneak through while they’re busy doing that and land on the planet as fast as we can. Hopefully we go down near the college, but let’s plan for a hike. Assuming Aliph and Bett are still cooperative, we march them over to the masters. About that time, Mike’ll pretend to be me and let Commander Jackson know that my beloved sister is on Kempus and since the whole planet is under ICA custody, it’s time to pay me.”

“That sounds much too easy to work,” Donegal said.

“Because you got the summary. Do you have any idea how much code I’m going to have to inject into Linda to distract her while we do this?” Pavi said.

“He doesn’t. Neither do I, but it’s better than my plan, so let’s do it,” Rita said.

“Good,” Pavi said as she stood up. “I’ve got to get to work. It’ll be best if you slip the hack to her when you link up again.” She hugged Rita, patted Donegal on the head, then jogged off.

“So,” Donegal said to fill the silence. “Crucefal.”

“Yup,” Rita said.

“He’s a little young.”

“He was nearby.”

“Not adding him to our merry band?”

Rita snorted. “Linda made me stop bringing sailors home. She’d space me if I brought Crucefal along.”

Donegal grinned, and he wasn’t entirely sure he knew why. “Jailbirds are okay, though. Right?”

“Only pretty ones,” Rita said. Then she stood up and waved. “There’s Aliph and Bett.”

Donegal turned, eager to meet Rita’s two passengers after all the trouble they’d caused. They were both running, matching expressions of delight on their faces. Donegal blinked slowly when he saw them. Without a doubt, they were almost identical to Mystery Lady, the woman he’d met on Delhi Xiang.

#

Tiāntán has three human bodies, two human women and a human male. All three of them are dying.

They lie together inside a grass hut built just meters away from Tiāntán’s great geyser. Their blood is thick and reluctant to move through their veins. They cough, their bodies shiver and sweat with fever. Tiāntán’s human bodies were not meant to become part of Tiāntán.

As daylight wanes overhead, Tiāntán’s three bodies cling to each other, seeking comfort from their fellow sufferers, finding solace in the gentle hum of their own minds echoed by the tiny machines swimming through the blood of their companions. Each still knows who they are, who they were, and where the lines between them and the others are, but they also have the freedom to reach past those lines, to embrace their companions more intimately than they’d thought possible. Each body remembers what it was, and each body chooses to ignore it.

They go over the data from the eruption with Tiāntán with each other. This year’s harvest of embryos was much larger than any of the harvests they’d recorded, probably larger than any since Yanluo was destroyed. The eruption was particularly strong, meaning a higher percentage of the harvest reached Muzha. The harvesters are improving, getting more efficient at hastening the day when Tiāntán’s children will wake again. Maybe, if they are extremely lucky, it will happen before the gods come to build the City.

Muzha hangs high in the sky over Tiāntán’s cavern when the first of Tiāntán’s bodies dies. They are all unconscious, their enraged immune systems collapsing into surrender even as the little machines drown in their thickened blood. One heart stops, lungs frozen, brain quieting, followed by another, and then the last. They trail off, one after the other, destroyed by their communion with Tiāntán.

Alone in its clay hut, Tiāntán mourns the loss of its bodies, and it hopes. Maybe, next time, it could use the Aydan-machine’s instead.

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