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“Captain Dessik is on a call coordinating the other captains. She says to come on over to deliver the program and she’ll meet you then,” came the voice of the Harper’s mate.
Pavi rubbed her eyes and pulled herself up from her chair. She’d been coding almost nonstop for two days. She was looking forward to getting underway to slip through the blockade. While everybody else dealt with the actual piloting and fighting, she was going to be asleep. But they couldn’t do that until Pavi had all of their computers synced with the same code and she didn’t trust Linda to transmit it faithfully.
The hack she’d put together was particularly clever, even if she was the only one around to appreciate it. The computer on the Harper’s Cry was a pseudo-extension of Mike. It wasn’t quite awake because Dessie didn’t want an undomesticated AI running her ship and Pavi couldn’t bear to domesticate even a fission branch of Mike. Pavi had spent six months nursing the hardware on the Harper’s Cry into its state of semi-sentience, then frozen it there, dreaming just below the threshold for consciousness The only code she’d borrowed came from Mike, there was nothing of the Aydan-machine in it. It helped that most computers, including the one on the Harper’s Cry, had everything they needed for sentience except awareness of it.
But in a universe where virtually all of the sentient computers were pieces of the Aydan-machine, protocols for confirming that the waking machine you were talking to was actually an integrated piece of your main hub weren’t as secure as they might be. After Mike, the ICA had pushed out several upgrades to protect the semi-autonomous nodes of their AI scattered on ships and back worlds throughout their domain. And Rita, sloppy inefficient captain that she was, hadn’t bothered to approve a single upgrade the ICA had pushed in the whole of her captaincy. Shucks.
In the end, Linda would betray them exactly as she was programmed to, but she’d do it by telling the pseudo-Mike on the Harper. Pavi just had to wake him up the rest of the way, then install a routine in Linda to shift her reporting priorities. Linda would see through the hack if she looked at it too closely, but Pavi didn’t think she would.
Pavi practically dead-dropped down the four decks from the bridge to the airlock connecting the two ships. She grunted blearily at Linda to start the opening procedures, pulled the first door open, then stepped into the lock. The door clanged behind her and she signaled the computer on the Harper’s Cry to start the opening sequence for the next door. When it didn’t answer she cursed her unfiltered chip – she’d probably overloaded its memory buffer as soon as she synced with its system – and used the manual interface to key in a request for access.
A moment later that door opened with the soft hiss of air rushing into the lock, and Pavi stumbled onto the Harper’s Cry. Captain Dessik was there to greet her with an entourage of other officers. Her heavy lips were pursed, her arms crossed over her stomach.
“Hey, Dessie,” Pavi said. Then she noticed the silence. Nothing from the ship’s computer, no flirtatious greeting from Dessie. “This isn’t the champagne and caviar I expected. Did we break up?”
“Sorry, Admiral, but could you have your sister’s passengers sent over here?” Dessie said.
Pavi pouted. She was too tired to deal with this, and she was ready to yank her chip out of her own spine. What good was it if she couldn’t even hear the ship’s computer? “They’re staying on the Whimper. They’re part of the group going down to the planet.” She started a quick diagnostic on the chip.
Dessie shook her head, the large ceramic earrings she favored clinking against her jaw. “No. They’re going into ICA custody. I went ahead and took the privateering contract.”
Pavi snorted. “I’ll buy it out.” Dessie did always get tense and formal about business. Pavi never understood why anybody would choose to be a pirate, then be a stick in the mud.
The diagnostic on the chip came back. It was working fine. Pavi could hear noise from Linda, and something that might be the fragments of choked network.
“We brained it, Admiral. Didn’t figure there was much chance of taking you prisoner if your pal was running the ship. Send the message over, get those passengers here.” Seven pistols pointed at Pavi, illustrating what Dessie hadn’t said.
“Dessie,” Pavi said. She didn’t have much to follow that introduction, so she took a step forward. “I’ll throw in the sexy sheets.”
Not a trace of softening in Dessie’s expression. “No offense, Admiral. You’re cute, but I’m not any more invested in you than you are in me. You’re in love with your computers and I’m in love with the ICA owing me a blind eye. If that sours things between us, I’ll just risk going independent again,” Dessie said.
“Mutiny is a little extreme. The other captains are going to be upset about this,” Pavi said, hoping desperately they weren’t in on it. She’d counted on their dependence on her plotting and technical prowess to keep them in line.
“They aren’t going to know about it until it’s over. They’re not here, and don’t know to come,” Dessie said.
Well, that was a bright side.
“The message, Admiral. Send it now.”
Rita would read something into how Dessie kept calling her Admiral. Pavi was sure of that. She was also sure that she’d never guess what. “Are those tasers?”
Dessie grinned, almost ruefully. “Yes.”
“Are you about to shoot me with tasers I gave you?” And a lucky thing she’d given the canons to Ivan instead.
“My sister’s on that ship. I’m not sending a message that’ll cause them to open up for a band of mutinous pirates,” Pavi said.
Dessie rolled her eyes. Then Pavi collapsed to the floor under the influence of of a vigorous electrical current delivered by taser dart.
Two of the security guards grabbed her and a moment later her hands were bound behind her back, a mask covering her mouth and nose. The air from the mask was not air. Pavi closed her eyes, prayed that she’d still have her chip when she woke up, and collapsed to sleep.
Aliph and Bett stood in the airlock between the two ships. They’d already spent five minutes waiting for the second door to open and there was no sign of an explanation for the delay, or that it would budge any time soon.
<This is odd,> Bett said to Aliph.
<Yes,> Aliph agreed. <The gas mixture in this airlock is wrong. There isn’t enough oxygen. And there’s something else mixed in.> The nanites in their lungs were compensating, but they couldn’t do that indefinitely.
They replayed the message from Pavi. “I need a hand. Can you duck over here for a minute?” There wasn’t much chance that they’d misinterpreted what she meant.
<This is a trap. We should return to the Whimper’s Revenge,> Bett said.
Just as the siblings reached the door to return the way they’d come, the airlock cycled again and the gases normalized. A moment later the door to the Harper’s Cry swung open and security guards with pistols drawn rushed into the airlock.
Neither of the siblings resisted, just as they hadn’t resisted the slavers on Calvary. Very little could permanently harm them, but they were far from invulnerable. Resistance could only cause the mistakes that led to accidental damage, and they’d been conditioned from a very young age to endure any number of things if it increased their odds of living just a little bit longer.
The siblings were pushed into the room beyond the airlock and forced to their knees. The ship was unusually quiet, the typical sounds of a pilot computer running in the background absent despite the network that allowed the various interfaced crew members to continue working. Strange.
Neither of them spoke aloud when one of the guards drew a knife. They said nothing when he walked around behind them and other guards secured their hands behind their back. But when the guard with the knife gathered Aliph’s hair in his fist and began to cut it off, both siblings shrieked.
Aliph tried to stand and run away but the guard holding his hair kept him pinned to the ground. Bett slipped away from her guard and threw herself against the would-be barber. All three of them fell to the floor in a heap, Bett kicking the guard as Aliph struggled to roll away.
Taser darts whanged through the air. The guard’s muscles locked up and his whole body spasmed, releasing Aliph. Aliph and Bett both spasmed as well, but they’d fallen unconscious when the darts hit them.
“Hurry up and shave their heads before they wake up,” the head of the guards said.
“Seems petty. Who cares about losing some hair?” one of the others commented.
“Look at that hair. Either they’re rich or they spend a lot of time protecting it from radiation damage. They’ll care.”
They cut most of the length off with a knife right there, then dragged the unconscious siblings down to the brig to shave off the remnants.
“Why are they still unconscious?”
“The gas probably kicked in, finally. I bet they’re from somewhere with a thin atmosphere. They don’t breath in much air. Then their system panics when they get shot and bam, conked.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works.”
“Yeah. Then you explain it.”
Aliph and Bett were left locked in separate cells, bound and unconscious, bald. Each woke up at the same moment, tried to stand, retched and heaved instead. Each had an intense migraine and a slight fever. For the first time in their lives, they were each truly alone.
Pavi woke up but didn’t feel the least bit rested. At least she could still hear the tattered remnants of the network in the background. That meant they hadn’t taken her chip and so far, she’d kept her promise to Llorna. Either Dessie didn’t know about the new chip or they weren’t willing to risk removing one from her brain stem. Pavi wanted to know which it was; if Dessie didn’t know, she needed to be fired. If she were reasonably cautious, then depending on how this went down, Pavi would settle for demoting her. Pirates, after all, were a self-selecting group of the morally ambiguous. Pavi planned to hold a grudge over the tasing, though.
“Any chance I can get a movie in here?” Pavi asked out loud.
Nothing answered her.
“Please?” Just in case her movie feed was getting blocked by the constant data-dump from her chip, Pavi disabled its broadcast. The computer could still talk to her, but she was silent to it. Still nothing.
“Come on. Even the ICA left me movie privileges.” Absent a response, there was nothing for her to do now but wait, and Pavi didn’t like that. She kicked the wall of her cell, a 1.5x2m metal box, and yelled. Eventually somebody might come to tell her to shut up, and in the mean time the petty violence made her feel better.
She got tired of screaming and kicking before anybody got tired of hearing her. Either there was nobody to listen, or they were watching a movie and tuning her out. Pavi reflected bitterly on the second possibility.
At one point it occurred to her that she was completely useless without an interface to a smart computer. This wasn’t news, she’d made her peace with that before going to Islandiski to rescue Donegal, but she was beginning to wonder whether or not that was an entirely healthy state of being. She seemed to be having a lot of trouble maintaining contact with intelligent computers these days.
Food came through a shelf opening in the wall. Pavi couldn’t tell whether there’d even been a person on the other side, it could just as easily been a spider. Since her hands were still tied, eating was a challenge, but one that filled time. Pavi didn’t rush it. There was a chance food on the tray was poisoned, but Pavi couldn’t think of a reason for Dessie to kill her. The other crews might stand for her mutiny this far, but killing their breadwinner wouldn’t set well. Dessie might get a free pass from the ICA out of this, but she wouldn’t get their protection against angry ex-cohorts. So Pavi ate, trusting to Dessie’s sense of self-preservation to keep her alive.
And she hoped, for her own sanity, that this whole thing would be over soon.
“Who told you to do that?” Alessandra demanded.
“It’s normal procedure when taking hostages. We always shave their heads. If they’re from a prudish colony we strip them, too. Makes them easier to manage,” Captain Dessik said.
Alessandra was angry enough to be irrational, and she knew it. She took a breath and thought carefully before speaking again. “I take it they’re ill.”
“Yes,” Captain Dessik replied with a small voice. Of course she didn’t understand the connection, and Alessandra was not about to explain.
“Headache, fever, intestinal problems. Anything else?”
“There’s a rash on their arms and legs, too. Itchy.”
Alessandra kept her voice tight and controlled. Yelling at this woman would not get the kids back in good shape. It was too late for that, apparently.
“Commander, should we treat them? The only medical treatments we have on board are nanites, and we’re not sure what to program them for.”
“Do not introduce nanites to their systems,” Alessandra said. She was grinding her teeth now. This was why privateering contracts were a bad idea. They might be working for you, but at the end of the day they were still pirates doing pirating. “Treat their systems directly. Put a cream on the rash, IV fluids and a stabilizer for the digestion problems. Leave the fever run as long as it stays mild. And if you’ve got any UV lamps, put them under those.”
“Is it a bacterial infection?”
“No, it’s psychosomatic, a physical response triggered by the trauma of having their heads shaved by strangers. Treat them exactly as I have described, and hopefully they’ll recover in about 48 hours.” That’s how long it would take the portion of their nanite colony that hadn’t been resting dormant in their hair to re-stabilize and begin to rebuild.
“I’ll do that, Commander,” Captain Dessik said.
“If you deviate, it could kill them. Captain Dessik, I cannot begin to describe the extent of my irritation if either of them dies.”
“I understand. And I apologize for the mistake.”
“Yes. Now go fix it.”
“What about the Admiral?” Captain Dessik asked.
“Unless she’s got her AI with her, I’m not interested right now. Don’t kill her, and don’t let her go.” Alessandra disconnected from the conversation and started pacing the bridge. There were models for what would happen if the prototypes were shaved, if they were infected with a disease virulent enough to overwhelm their system, if they received a high voltage shock or were exposed to disruptive radiation. There was nothing for a combination – that introduced too many uncontrolled variables for a reliable prediction. The rash was clearly a symptom of that interaction. None of the models predicted a rash. Was it simple skin irritation from the adjustment, or a sign they were suffering from a latent infection? The identical progression indicated support for the former, but it wasn’t conclusive; their physiology was similar enough that a lay observer might miss subtle differences in the presentation.
Hopefully the kids had enough warning to pull most of the dormant colony out of their hair and into their bodies.
“We’re three days out from Kempus,” Camlagh said. “We could send one of the ships from the blockade to take custody.”
“They won’t have any idea what to do either, and they’ll know enough of what’s going on to try taking initiative, which might kill the kids. The prototypes are safer with the pirates.” It was true, and Alessandra wanted to spit for saying it.
Bored, Pavi started experimenting. They may have given their computer a lobotomy, but she was willing to bet that somebody was watching her cell. And if they weren’t watching, well, then she’d just have to try escaping.
To test, Pavi started coughing shortly after they delivered her second meal. Just little coughs at first. They escalated while she ate. Several hours later she had a fit so bad that she doubled over, wheezed for breath whenever she could, then fell limp and unconscious on the floor. She stayed that way for what felt like a long time but she had no way to be sure – time moves slowly when you’re pretending to be ill and unconscious.
If Pavi were being monitored, then eventually somebody would come to check her condition. She just didn’t know how long it would take for them to decide she wasn’t faking, or that they didn’t want to risk it.
She started counting 1 Kinshasha, 2 Kinshasha when her brain was screaming that she should sit up and start faking another coughing fit. She was at five hundred forty-three when the door to her cell opened. Pavi stopped counting and focused on wheezing slightly with each breath. A hand pushed her over onto her back, crushing her hands against the floor.
Pavi waited a second, then let her eyes flutter open, a small, phlegmy cough shaking her body. “Hurts,” she whispered.
“Your chest?” the security guard asked.
Pavi nodded. “Burns,” she said, then another cough, this one bigger.
“It’s probably just a reaction to the gas. It’ll pass.”
Pavi turned to her side and had a hacking fit filled with dramatic pauses where she made big, wheezy gasps for air. She buried her face in her knees, as if to hide the cough-induced tears streaming from the corners of her eyes. When the second wave of the fit struck she made a point of straining her shoulders, twisting them to highlight how awkward it was to lie on the floor, tied up and unable to breathe.
“We can do this much at least,” he said, and he cut her hands free.
Pavi pulled her hands around to cover her mouth as she kept coughing. She was being monitored, so there was no chance of actual escape. Getting her hands back was an improvement at least, and Pavi didn’t intend to squander it by dropping the facade now.
“If you’re not better in a few hours I’ll see what we can do,” he said. Then he left, closing the cell door behind him.
Pavi started counting again, letting her coughing fits dissipate slowly over the next hour. Now she had some data, and the use of her hands. She didn’t know what to do with it yet, but she was pretty sure she had time to figure that out.
After the pirates cut their hair, Aliph and Bett withdrew to the dead City.
At the edge of the City, where the expanse of empty three-story white buildings met the grassy plains, Aliph and Bett stood together. They shared space and consciousness just as they always did when walking the City. It was a relief that, even after being shaved, they could still merge here.
The street, a wide avenue paved in crushed oyster shells, stretched on toward the center of the city in one direction and faded into the edge of the plain in the other. This far out, the siblings could smell the salty tang of the ocean, waiting just a kilometer beyond the outer bounds of the City in all directions. The black tower at the center of the City was barely visible this far out. The siblings knew it was there only because it called to them. It had called to them since they’d first walked the City with their sister. There was something unsettling about the way the tower called to them, a hum through the air pulling at their shared bones. The trio had explored many parts of the City, but mostly the edges.
In all their experience of walking the City, the siblings only rarely sensed anybody else. Now there was somebody very nearby, in the special section they’d never shared with anybody else. Aliph and Bett entered the white building in front of them, curious to see who would wait for them here.
“Welcome home,” she said when they entered the dark room.
This room was different from the other rooms they’d explored in the City. Where others were empty, dusty from disuse and tattered with neglect, this one was fresh. Small lights mounted along the walls and ceiling made the room bright. A thick, colorful carpet was spread along the floor. Wide, comfortable chairs were arranged around a low circular table. Small ornaments and knick-knacks covered the table.
And in the chair across from the door, her feet propped on the edge of the table as she rolled a glass marble in her fingers, was their sister. Aliph and Bett, who’d never walked the City alone, who’d only ever been there merged with at least one of their siblings, were astonished to see their sister sitting there, independent and alone.
“You’ve left Aydan,” she said. “I’m proud of you.”
“We wanted to follow you,” they said.
She stood up. “You cannot do that. My path is not yours to walk. We are separated forever, my siblings.”
“Where did you go?”
She shook her head, her glossy black hair falling around her. “If I tell you, you will try to follow. You must not do that.”
“We miss you.”
“And I you,” she said. She approached her siblings, her hands brushing their bald, shorn head. “You did not do this voluntarily.”
“Your bodies will adjust. Depending on the nanites makes them weak. You will be stronger for learning to cope without. I have shaved my head many times since leaving Aydan.”
“We do not understand why you are different from us. You did not seem different.”
“One small difference becomes large with time. Do you not recognize the wedge that pulled us apart?” she asked.
“I was the first. I stood alone until you came. I had known solitude, so I did not fear it as you did. As you still do.”
“You prefer solitude?” the siblings asked, their shared incredulity ricocheting through them.
“I walk alone with the universe. It is a sufficient companion for me.” She smiled and took the hand of her merged siblings. “Come, let us walk the City together again.”
Their feet crunched on the broken shells paving the streets as they wandered through the City. Birds called from the rooftops, flitting here and there as they nested in empty windows and mated in a sunless sky.
Several blocks down the street they reached a square where it intersected with other streets. At the center of the square stood a weeping willow, its roots buried in white dust, its foliage an intense autumn crimson though there were no seasons here. The long fronds swayed in a slight breeze, brushing the ground. Enchanted, the siblings walked to the tree, letting the fronds run their their fingers. They closed their eyes, committing the image to memory so they might find the tree again the next time they came.
“Will you walk the City with us again?” they asked, turning away from the tree to their sister.
She was gone.