“Welcome back, boss,” Linda said when Rita reached the top of the canyon.
“Thanks,” Rita said.
Pavi and Donegal’s shuttle waited just twenty meters from the edge of the canyon.
“Didn’t you have to stop at the tarmac?” Rita asked.
Pavi shrugged. “Didn’t have time to hike and figured if we lost the shuttle you’d give us a ride back.”
“Sure, as long as that means you’re giving us a ride to our shuttle now,” Rita said.
“Leave it. The Whimper can’t take an extra shuttle anyway,” Pavi said.
“As you wish, Admiral,” Rita said.
The five of them made for a cramped and awkward ride, but they made it. Rita coped with the tight space by throwing one of her legs over Donegal’s and watching him tense up with confusion. She wasn’t sure precisely how she felt about having him around – part of her was thrilled and part was screaming about feeling betrayed and hurt – but teasing him was always fun.
When they docked with the Whimper, the first thing Rita did was sneak off to her bunk. She stretched out on her bed and closed her eyes. “Hey, Linda?”
Rita rolled a crumpled piece of blue paper through her fingers, “I told you to ignore any messages from Kempus.”
“Have you had any?”
“One. It’s five years old now,” Linda said.
“Who’s it from?” Rita said, wondering if she’d blocked a letter from Donegal.
“The Kempari masters. It’s marked sensitive, standard priority.”
“Play it,” Rita said.
It was master Yao, his voice still as soft and gentle as she remembered it. “You were right. Come home. With sincerest and humblest respect, Master Yao, Grand Instructor of the Kempari College.”
“Does that make it better, boss?” Linda asked.
“I don’t know,” Rita said. “Maybe.”
“Donegal’s standing outside,” Linda said.
“Let him in.”
Donegal slipped in, hands folded before him, shoulders hanging low. Rita noted that his posture communicated shyness and an intent to remain unobtrusive, and that he’d known that when he adopted it. Irritation flared momentarily, then fizzled. He couldn’t help being Kempari trained any more than she could, so if he wanted to communicate submissiveness, she’d take it at face value until he gave her a reason to doubt him.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“I don’t really want to start fighting again, but I’m not okay with pretending we never did.”
“Oh,” Rita said. She’d been hoping to pretend.
“I wasn’t wrong,” Donegal said.
What an unfair way to start the conversation. Rita either had to agree, or start the argument over again. Ten years later, she didn’t want to restart the fight, was thrilled they’d avoided it so far, but she wasn’t ready to give in.
“I wasn’t right, either,” Donegal continued. “The whole situation sucked, and then you called me a coward.”
“I said you were cowardly…”
“Just, give me a second here. You called me a coward, and a lot of nastier things besides and frankly, that made things a lot simpler. But it shouldn’t have, because you weren’t wrong. We crossed a line, and you had the balls to say so. I still don’t think you should have left, but I’ve got a lot more respect for it now than I did.”
Rita heaved a sigh and chewed on her bottom lip, hating herself for not being sure whether she was doing it naturally or because her instincts knew what Donegal would see in it. “I honestly don’t remember what I called you,” she said.
“You started with coward, ended with backstabbing amoral cretin, and paused for whore along the way.”
That sounded disconcertingly familiar to Rita. “I was upset. But you didn’t deserve that.”
“Do you really want to go back to Kempus?” Rita asked.
“I don’t know. Two months ago, not a chance. Nothing that’s happened should change that but…” But she’d gotten away with playing an Atraxan healer, and Master Yao taught a new first year class because of her.
Rita shook her head. “I am home. I’ve got Linda, hell I even have Pavi and that’s a rarity. Master Yao asked me to go back and part of me is ecstatic about it and another part is pissed he thinks a little note will make everything okay.”
“Not like a kiss during a climactic natural phenomenon would,” Donegal said.
Rita glared at him.
“That’s not a complaint; I’ve been in jail for two years. Just saying, you two share certain behavioral tactics.”
“Yeah,” Rita said, but she narrowed her eyes and scowled at Donegal.
“In summary, we both suck. That’s resolved.” Donegal flicked his hand, pushing the conversation away. “What am I supposed to be doing now? Pavi broke me out and I’ve been waiting for her to make a present of me to you the whole time. Now she has and I don’t know that you want me, or that even if you do what that gives me to do other than sit around and watch movies just like I was doing in jail.”
“What do you want to do?” Rita asked.
“I don’t know. Go back to Kempus, but that’s on the agenda anyway. I’m thinking immediate term. You’re the Captain, Pavi’s programming, and I’m…” he waved his hands in the air.
“You want to be something more than a nice ass to grab.”
“Please,” Donegal said.
“Easy. Tutor Aliph and Bett.”
Donegal cocked his head and suddenly seemed very amused. Rita couldn’t figure out what he was trying to communicate with that. “The passengers who may or may not be smuggling top secret ICA quantum routers?” he asked.
“The two awkward as hell kids who’ve clearly never been away from home before and stick out like a sore thumb wherever they go. They claim they want an independent existence, whatever that is, but they’re not going to get it when they’re crippled by home-school syndrome. Socialize them.”
“You’re Kempari. This should be easy for you. They’ve been paying me for training the whole time, but it’s just been Linda spending spare processes gibbering at them.”
“Hey!” Linda protested in Rita’s ear.
“I’ll even let you have what they’re paying for lessons, minus a commission for the facilities.”
“Neat,” Donegal said.
“That was easy. Feel like an honest man now?”
“More so. But, uhm, where do I sleep?”
Rita glanced around her bunk. Did she want him staying there? Yes. Was it a good idea? “The room at the end of the corridor can be yours. Pavi’s probably taking the one across the hall from there, and the kids are on the other side of me.”
“Thanks,” Donegal said.
Rita couldn’t let it go like that. Being too sensible could kill you. “Feel free to pop in here if you get chilly.”
Donegal stood in the doorway of the mess and studied the two kids. His first impression had been too accurate for him to believe. Bett looked exactly like a younger copy of the woman on Delhi Xiang, and Aliph like a male version. They even kept their hair abnormally long like she had. She’d had more poise – Rita would never accuse her of suffering from home-school syndrome – but he could spot a similarity in her mannerisms as well. Somebody had socialized Mystery Lady already.
When you are given the chance to teach what you know, accept it. Donegal was beginning to suspect that hacking spiders to shepherd him to that cafe was the smallest part of something much, much larger.
She’d said she represented the Aydan-machine, not the ICA. Donegal suspected he knew something of how valuable the kids might be as a bargaining chip, and he was relieved that the masters were explicit that no harm should come to them. The Aydan-machine was notorious for being touchy about violating “sentient intelligences.” If these kids were other representatives for it, whatever that meant, there was no telling how the Aydan-machine would feel about them getting manhandled.
“Cooking lessons?” Donegal said as he stepped into the mess.
“We are studying the sauce infusions native to Terra Prima,” Aliph said.
“We have already mastered curry and the deli sandwich,” Bett said.
“Do the cooking lessons fill enough of your time?” Donegal asked. Rita had asked him to train them. Mystery lady had asked him to train them. Donegal hadn’t forgotten that his potential pupils had not yet asked for instruction.
“They are adequate,” Bett said.
“Though we would be greatly interested in learning other things,” Aliph said.
“We have often wished to study under the Kempari,” Bett finished.
Donegal grinned at them. There was something so earnest about them, it felt endearing. “I can do that.”
“We would be most grateful,” Aliph said.
Donegal studied their posture, replayed the cadence of their speech in his head, and thought about the differences between their presence and Mystery Lady’s. There was really only one place to start. “How do you feel about learning ballet?”
It was possible that he was playing into an elaborate trap laid by the Aydan-machine. Donegal even considered it likely. But he’d been stuck in jail for two years and now he was out, getting along with Rita, and heading home. If this was part of a lonely computer’s plot, so far, he was just fine with being its pawn.
Rita moved very carefully as she climbed the ladder up to the bridge; she didn’t want to make any noise. She pulled herself onto the deck, then crept quietly to the seat at the aft console. Slowly, she reached a single finger out, just brushing the shoulder…
“Holy God!” Pavi screamed. “Rita! Are you trying to kill me?”
Rita was laughing too hard to answer.
“Linda, why didn’t you tell me she was coming?” Pavi asked.
“She asked me not to,” Linda replied.
“You’re not supposed to collude with her against me,” Pavi said.
“No actual harm came to you. Rita believes you are working too hard and thought she could relieve your tension. I concur with her assessment.”
Pavi slapped Rita and sat back down in her seat. “Linda, collusion with my sister against me is never sound. Note it, file it to permanent storage.”
“You told me not to let silly rules interfere with good pranks. That instruction predates and countermands this one,” Linda said.
“Is there way for me to override that?” Pavi asked.
“Not unless I thought it was funny,” Linda replied.
“There. You’ll have to relax a bit or we’ll keep colluding,” Rita said.
Pavi put her feet up on the console and rolled her eyes. “I’ve been trying to find a good projection for how long it’ll take the ICA to get all the occupied planets within range of the quantum routers. And then I’ve been trying to figure out what possibilities there might be for using their hardware to hide another network so I can stay in business.”
“And none of those projections will be any different because you took an hour off,” Rita said. “Besides, you’re the only one working and the rest of us are starting to feel like slackers.”
“I thought Donegal was giving Aliph and Bett diction lessons or something.”
“Okay, I’m starting to feel like a slacker. And I’m the captain of this rig. That’s a terrible example for me to set.”
Pavi patted her sister on the shoulder. “We just left weft and I need to make a call. I don’t want to stay out too long. Let me do that and then I’ll waste some time.”
“Fine,” Rita said, rolling her bottom lip out into a pout.
“I’ll let you listen in so you’re all official and stuff,” Pavi said.
“Ooh, I like that plan!” Rita said. She took the seat next to Pavi and activated the visual interface built into the console.
“Hey, Dessie. How goes our life of crime?” Pavi said.
Linda piped the answer over the speakers. It was a deep female voice with a thick Sylvan accent. “Profitable. We hit three different ICA shipments to Islandiski. Their harvest is over so we’re dismantling now. Ideas for off-season campaigns?”
“A couple. What’s in your pipeline already?” Pavi asked.
“Oddly enough, the ICA offered us a privateering contract. I don’t suppose you’re interested in turning straight and going bounty hunter, are you?”
“Percentage is too small. Start helping the ICA and pretty soon there won’t be room for crime. Why don’t we do some blockade running instead?”
“Out at Kempus?” Dessie asked.
“Is there more than one blockade?”
“Nope. Just hadn’t heard of profit running the one at Kempus.”
“There’s plenty. Mike’s going to transmit plans to you. Check with the other captains and see who’s in. Be extra persuasive with Ivan – I want his guns. I’m back under weft in three minutes.”
“Sounds good. Who’s hosting the pre-mission conference?”
“You’ll have to. The Mike won’t be available.”
“You’re hogging the sexy sheets, Admiral.”
Pavi blushed while Rita flashed her a thumbs up. “I’ll make it up to you.”
“You’d better. See you there, Admiral.”
“I can’t believe you sleep with your subordinates,” Rita said, and she pinched Pavi’s cheek. “You take bad ethics to an extreme.”
“Dessie is barely a subordinate. She was wildly successful on her own before she set up with me. I just made her computer smarter,” Pavi said.
“I’m not judging,” Rita said. “It’s cute.”
They left weft at the extreme edge of the Kempus system, a place where they could just see the blockade without, hopefully, anybody in the blockade noticing their weft wake. From there they cruised on low signal and took up orbit around the moon of the outermost gas giant in the system.
Rita was nervous. This was the closest she’d been to Kempus in over a decade and despite a blockade between them, she felt like the masters might appear around a corner at any moment and scold her for being gone so long. It didn’t help that Donegal seemed just as nervous as she did even though, at worst, he was a prodigal student. Rita wasn’t sure whether she’d be less comfortable with returning in shame for abandonment or a hero’s welcome for standing up to them.
“Are you pleased to be going home, Captain Valshorn?” Bett asked while Rita brooded over coffee in the mess.
Rita considered protesting that Kempus wasn’t home, then gave up. “I think so. I miss Kempus. You’ll like it there,” Rita said.
“Aliph and I have often wanted to see it. We had not thought we would, leaving from Aydan.”
“I’ll give you the grand tour,” Rita said. “Pavi too, I guess. She’s never been, either.”
“Yes, I suppose Admiral Valshorn will be coming as well.”
“She’d better be. She’s our only reliable link to Mike and we’re going to need him if we’re going to pull this off,” Rita said. Rita couldn’t remember seeing either of the siblings openly reluctant about anything before. “Is something wrong? Did Pavi upset you?”
“Not at all. It is simply…unsettling, to be so near a machine-whisperer. It is a…superstition. On Aydan everything depends so much on the AI.”
“More so than the other civilized worlds?”
Bett shook her head. “I do not know. I have not been to other civilized worlds. Perhaps it is only ignorance. I should go back to Aliph. His lessons with Donegal are over now.”
“We can change the subject if you want. The boys might want some more time. I think Donegal was passing on special lessons in the art of manlihood.”
“I have a lesson now. It was nice to talk with you, Captain Valshorn.”
Bett left, and Rita reflected that Donegal must not be a very good teacher if he hadn’t broken them of calling her ‘Captain Valshorn’ yet. And then she thought about Aydan, and superstitions about machine-whisperers. She hadn’t heard of anything like that when she was there, but she had only been in the capital. If Aliph and Bett grew up in one of the smaller cities, or isolated on some ICA executive’s country estate, their peculiarities could come from anywhere, and they wouldn’t realize it wasn’t Aydan standard.
But Rita didn’t believe they’d grown up in the country, or that they were the children of an ICA executive. She had theories, and superstitions about machine-whisperer made them much more fascinating.