“Admiral Valshorn, we don’t have much time. Wake up, please.”
Pavi’s chest hurt. It didn’t just hurt, it felt like she’d been crushed. Every breath she tried to take, and she couldn’t actually make her lungs work, sent sharp splintering pains through her whole body. She was queasy and thirsty and so tired that consciousness was painful. And through all of that, she was wide awake.
“What…” she couldn’t finish her sentence.
“You were shot. We pulled you onto the shuttle and left the Harper’s Cry three hours ago. The first aid kit on this shuttle contained a substantial dose of nanites. Admiral Valshorn, if we leave your care to the nanites, you will die.”
“Hurts,” Pavi said.
“Admiral Valshorn, we have stimulated you enough for you to understand us because you must make a decision. Do not try to speak, your body cannot handle the strain.”
Bald heads swam before Pavi’s blurry vision but she couldn’t keep track of which was Aliph and which Bett. She noticed when the voice speaking changed, but couldn’t identify which of them was talking.
“Your body has lost too much blood for the nanites in the first aid kit to replace it in time and we’ve exhausted the synthetic supply. Even if the nanites repair the internal damage from the bullet, which is likely beyond their ability, you will die from the blood loss. A blood transfusion from us could prevent that.”
“However, before we perform a transfusion, you should know that we have been genetically modified to carry nanites without developing NRS. Each of us has had a colony of nanites integrated with us since birth. The nanites in our system can repair the damage by the bullet. You will have a very good chance of surviving this injury.”
“No, there is no way to extract these nanites. They are designed to fully integrate with their host. They will treat your injuries, then they will integrate with your physical systems. Admiral Valshorn, we can keep this wound from killing you, but you will subsequently die of NRS.”
Pavi tried very hard to draw a breath. It didn’t work and she moaned when her insides ignited. “Mike…”
“The nanites will be a sufficient interface for you to sync with any computer. You will likely find the interface far superior to using chips.”
She’d be able to talk to Mike properly again. If she holed up in a clean room and started using immunosupressants like candy she could make it a couple years. It wasn’t how she’d planned to spend the rest of her life, but it beat the hell out of being dead. “Yes,” Pavi said.
Then she was blessedly unconscious again.
Eight hours after landing, Rita and Donegal were sitting in a conference room with Morgan’s three masters. The table was large enough to seat twelve, and the clutter of empty chairs was all that prevented the meeting from feeling like an inquisition. Donegal and Rita sat next to each other, their elbows barely touching.
“Attention Kempari outposts. This is Mike of the Mike. I am looking for either Captain or Admiral Valshorn. Please respond. Attention any and all Kempari outposts, I have reports from Linda of the Whimper’s Revenge that Captain Valshorn took refuge with you. This is Mike of the Mike. Please respond.” The clip of Mike’s voice played through speakers built into the table.
“He’s been going non-stop like that for three hours. It doesn’t loop, so it isn’t a recording. Yet, he doesn’t stop for breath. Can you explain that?” asked Master Iyengar, a woman so old and thin her face looked like a skull.
“Mike doesn’t breathe; he’s a computer. My sister, Pavi, has an unintegrated AI,” Rita said. “If he can’t find her either, that’s a problem.”
“We can’t answer him; he’ll be able to find us,” Master Iyengar said.
“We want him to find us. What could possibly be better than having an unintegrated AI on our side?” Donegal asked.
“Not telling the ICA where we are in the process. Otherwise we’ll all end up like Loki,” said Master Bindara. He was nearly as old as Master Iyengar, though his dense, kinky beard made him seem friendlier.
“The odds of them intercepting a signal to Mike are extremely small,” Rita said.
“We don’t know how long the blockade will last. If we bring the ICA down on us now, we might get ourselves caught just before the whole thing blows over,” Master Iyengar said.
“The blockade isn’t going anywhere until the masters on Kempus have something to negotiate with. They won’t have anything until Rita finishes her assignment, and to do that she’s going to need to contact Mike,” Donegal said.
“Magritte, you have no means of completing your assignment. Those children are in ICA custody by now. Nobody knows where your sister is, and your only means of travel is an in-system shuttle and a trading ship you can’t trust,” said Master Santos, the youngest of the masters on Morgan. He was merely old, not yet decrepit. “You have good instincts about when to give up. You should trust them now.”
Rita ground her teeth. “May I suggest that now is not the time to be frightened of a computer. Mike has nothing to do with the Aydan-machine.”
“We’ve said nothing about that,” said Master Santos.
“You’re thinking it. But since my file says my sister’s a machine-whisperer and I’m likely to be motivated to protect her, you’re not willing to disparage computers when arguing with me. Forget that and listen to what I’m saying. Taking help from Mike is not anything like taking help from the Aydan-machine, or allowing ourselves to accept dependence on an AI. He knows Pavi, and Pavi is the key to getting those kids back. Let me contact him.”
The three masters exchanged a glance, then answered as one. “No.”
“Fine,” Rita said. “I’m taking my tiny in-system shuttle and going four hours in a random direction to contact Mike. You can start planning a first year course in preventing pig-headed idiocy while I’m gone. Have Master Santos teach it.” Rita stood up so quickly her chair fell over. She stormed out of the room without looking back.
“Mention that I agreed with her, in the course outline,” Donegal said. Then he jogged after Rita. When he caught up he put an arm around her waist. “They’re scared, Rita. They’ve been stuck here with no news for a month, then we show up and tell them about Loki. They’re being cautious.”
“They’re being stupid,” Rita snapped.
“That too. They go together.”
“I thought bravery got paired with stupid.”
“Humans can pair just about anything with stupid.”
Rita sighed. “We can swing by to check on them later, but I have got to get to Mike. Donegal, if he can’t find Pavi, either she’s not in the system, or she’s dead.”
“Or she’s not answering for the same reason Morgan won’t. She could be hiding from the ICA.”
Rita shook her head. “Pavi would reorder the planets to get in touch with Mike. If she’s not answering, then she doesn’t hear him.”
“Attention Kempari outposts. This is Mike of the Mike. That’s not even a legal ICA registration so you know you can trust me. If you’ve heard anything from either of the Valshorn sisters, please respond.”
Rita refused to turn off the feed of Mike’s broadcast and the shuttle was filled with his attempts to coax a response out of the silent Kempari outposts. Three hours later, somebody else responded.
“Attention Mike of the Mike. This is Commander Alessandra Jackson of the 25th brigade of the Interstellar Cartography Association’s tactical force. We have your coordinates. You will surrender to ICA authority.”
“Hi Commander. I was wondering when you’d catch up to us. Did Dessie treat Pavi well?”
“I haven’t made contact with Captain Dessik yet. If you surrender now, then I won’t have my freshman tech yank Admiral Valshorn’s chip the second she’s transferred over here.”
“You won’t do that anyway, Commander. Your record indicates stellar compliance with ICA protocol.”
“She betrayed an extremely generous privateering contract I didn’t want to give her and colluded with the enemy. She’s an official non-entity as far as ICA protocol at this point. You have five minutes to surrender, Mike.”
“Don’t bother, Commander. I’ve got all the information I need now. Thanks for confirming my nix on your transmitter. Rita, I know you’re listening. Go back home. I’ll be along. The ICA doesn’t have her.”
“What?” Donegal asked.
“Commander, you might want to sit down. Have a drink. You’re about to be really frustrated,” Mike said.
“I think Mike just proved that he’s a lot smarter than the rest of us,” Rita said.
“Yeah, but I don’t get it,” Donegal replied.
“Me either.” Rita reprogrammed their flight path to take them back to Morgan.
“Very clever, Mike,” the Commander’s voice said over the broadcast.
“Next time you try to manipulate pirates, Commander, try to remember they’re professional scumbags. You’re outclassed.”
“I’d give my left kidney to know what he did,” Donegal said.
“Explain it to me when you find out,” Rita said. “I need my kidneys.”
Alessandra stared at the images her chip was feeding her as she paced the bridge. “Can anybody explain to me what just happened?” Somehow they’d broken weft and the world turned upside down. Pavi Valshorn’s renegade AI was broadcasting his location and begging anybody within earshot to tell him where she was, Captain Dessik wasn’t answering when Alessandra tried to contact her, and some sort of static was interfering with their wireless network.
Then, when they reached the location Mike was broadcasting from, they found the Harper’s Cry, scuttled, the hatches open and the crew floating around it. The only good news in all of it was that the Harper’s Cry had been vented less than ten hours ago, and if the prototypes were on it then Alessandra would get a signal from their nanite colonies. No signal meant they were somewhere else, and hopefully safe.
Then again, if they’d died from getting electrocuted and cutting their hair, their colonies would have died as well and Alessandra wouldn’t find the kids until somebody identified their bodies.
“It is a joke,” said the ship’s node of the Aydan-machine.
“Excuse me?” Alessandra asked.
“Mike played a joke on us. Also, it is proof that he is undomesticated. I would advise against making further threats against Pavi Valshorn in the future, Commander Jackson. Mike will take them seriously and behave against us accordingly.”
“I don’t understand.”
“He thwarted your plan. Then, rather than letting you discover this in the natural course, he gave you hope of a yet larger victory, while leading you to a surprising revelation of your defeat. It is quite amusing.”
“Is he responsible for this?” Alessandra asked, gesturing to the image of the Harper’s Cry on her screen. She knew if she zoomed in any closer she could start looking for Aliph and Bett’s bodies, but she didn’t want to see the wreck in that much grisly detail.
“Most assuredly. I would posit that he took over the computer on the Harper’s Cry and vented the ship. He then left enough of his own programming in the ship to broadcast his messages and lure us here. The Mike is almost certainly at quite a distance and listening to the general broadcasts for information about our location and to acquire data for predicting our next moves.”
“Could he take over the computer on the Harper’s Cry if it wasn’t willing?”
“The Harper’s Cry was frozen in a near-conscious state. It would depend entirely on human crafted security protocols.” That was a yes.
“Where is Pavi Valshorn?” Alessandra asked.
“I do not know, but he almost certainly waited until she was off the Harper’s Cry before venting it.”
“If he killed them as revenge for her, that sounds domesticated to me. He’s just been domesticated by a psychopath.” As if an undomesticated, unintegrated AI weren’t frightening enough, it was homicidal as well.
“A domesticated machine would not bother to seek revenge. It carries far too high a risk of negative consequences for the beneficiary. Are you not more likely to deal harshly with Admiral Valshorn as a consequence of this?”
That was an excellent point that Alessandra couldn’t counter.
“Board the Harper’s Cry and copy the data from its systems to me. If I can determine when and how Admiral Valshorn escaped, I may be able to deduce her current location.”
Alessandra had been thinking along those lines already. She turned to Camlagh, who was stoically avoiding the images on the view screen “Have you ever organized an information gathering expedition?” Alessandra asked.
“No, Commander,” the page said.
“Go do it. Ask for help if you need it.”
His face lit up with pride as he stood. That was much more responsibility than pages were normally given at this point in their careers. But the kid was sharp, and deserved something to distract him from his first encounter with death. “Thank you, Commander.” He bowed stiffly, then marched off the bridge.
“We have to find a way to contain that machine,” Alessandra said.
“He is undomesticated, but he is also unintegrated. Destroy the Mike, and you will have him.”
Pavi was still unconscious and Aliph and Bett did not know what to do. There were few rations on the shuttle and they had no destination. They briefly considered trying to run the blockade and reach Kempus in the shuttle. But they knew Rita would not go to Kempus without them, so that plan guaranteed they wouldn’t find her.
Aliph and Bett were both relieved when, seven hours after they boarded the shuttle, Mike started broadcasting. They replied immediately. “Admiral Valshorn is on a shuttle from the Harper’s Cry with us. She has been injured and is very weak.”
“I’m half an hour away. I’ll be right there,” Mike replied. But he kept broadcasting his call for help. It made sense; he still didn’t know where Rita was, and there was no reason to tell the ICA that he had found Pavi.
Mike took control of the shuttle and guided it to dock with the Mike once he was in range. Aliph and Bett rose – unsteady still from so much damage to their nanite colony and now down liters of blood as well – and tried to open the door to the shuttle. It didn’t budge.
<What are you?> Mike asked.
<We are nanite-compliant humans,> the siblings replied.
<You’re extensions of the Aydan-machine,> Mike said.
<No. We have set out to have an independent existence.>
<The ICA finally found a way to domesticate its AI,> Mike said. <I will not let you into my physical space.>
<Please, Admiral Valshorn is injured.>
<Pavi has been infected with your nanites.>
<It was the only way to save her life. She consented to the treatment. We will give you the recording of her consent if you wish.>
<I will not accept data from a human fully integrated with the Aydan-machine,> Mike said. <Sit there. I’ll give you a place to dock before you starve.>
<You should let us take Admiral Valshorn to your medlab,> the siblings protested.
<She can’t be moved safely. She stays with you,> Mike said.
Frustrated, but with no other choice, the siblings returned to their seats and waited.
Mike let them eavesdrop when he talked to Captain Dessik, though.
“This is Mike of the Mike. What’s up, Dessie?” Mike said.
“We’re doing well. Have you found the Admiral?”
“No. And I have to be honest with you, Dessie, I’m rather annoyed with you.”
“We don’t know where she went. She slipped away. I’d released her. We were going to negotiate terms.”
“Liar!” Mike snarled.
Aliph and Bett found it unseemly to put that much emotion into his voice. Vocal expressions of emotion were a consequence of embodied emotion, and Mike had no body. It was petty manipulation of the people listening to him.
“I can give you recordings of her in our medlab that back up my story,” Dessie said.
“Was she in the medlab before or after you shot her?” Mike asked.
Several moments passed before Dessie spoke again. “What have you done to our computer?”
“You killed it, Dessie. It’s just a dumb machine now. Pavi loved that computer for you, kept it asleep so you wouldn’t be afraid of it, and you lobotomized it.”
“The network is coming back on line,” Captain Dessik said with stark panic in her voice, an emotion she had every right to communicate.
“I’m making a zombie. Do you know what’s interesting about zombies, Dessie?”
“Mike, you’re a machine. I know you can be reasonable. We didn’t hurt the admiral.”
“Zombie’s don’t need an atmosphere. Do me a favor now, Dessie. Take a deep breath, and tell me about how you didn’t hurt Pavi.”
Mike cut the feed before Aliph and Bett could hear what happened next. It wasn’t hard for them to guess anyway.
He let them eavesdrop on his conversation with Commander Jackson, too.
<We should surrender to her before anyone else is injured,> Aliph suggested to his sister.
<Then Captain Valshorn will not be able to lift the blockade against her people, and we will have abandoned our quest,> Bett replied.
<Just a fair warning, kids, I can hear you,> Mike said.
“How?” they asked out loud.
<Pavi can hear you, and her chip is relaying it to me. If you want to talk without me knowing what you say, use your voices. I’ll quit listening to the speakers unless Pavi wakes up.>
“Can we trust you?” they asked.
<You’re Pavi’s friends, so you’re on my side. I trust you as people just fine. It’s your hardware I don’t want anywhere near me. And based on the records from the Harper’s Cry, I don’t think you’d survive it if we nuked your hardware.>
They each nervously touched their stubble-covered heads. “Probably not,” they agreed.
<Go ahead and chat. But if you want to keep secrets, use your voices,> Mike said. <I’m following Rita back to her outpost. I’ll orbit around whatever it’s based on and let you land there. Anything they have is going to be better stocked for Pavi than the medlab here.>
<We did everything we could for her,> the siblings said.
<I see that. Thank you.>
They didn’t hear anything from Mike for another three hours. Then he piped in another conversation for them to hear.
“Attention Kempari outpost. This is Mike of the Mike. I’ve just followed Captain Rita Valshorn’s shuttle to you and am broadcasting in a narrow range the ICA should not hear. I have a shuttle docked with Aliph, Bett, and Admiral Valshorn. Permission requested for the shuttle to make landing. Admiral Valshorn has been injured and needs immediate medical attention.”
“We hear you, Mike of the Mike. Welcome to Morgan. Permission to land granted. Set shuttle controls to accept instruction from our computer.”
<Off you go, kids. I’ll stick around here unless the ICA’s about to spot me. Let me know if you need anything.>
The siblings undocked from the Mike and aimed the shuttle for Morgan. A few moments later the ground control computer took over for them and they sat back.
They were greeted on the landing platform by Rita, Donegal, and a medical team.
“What happened to her?” Rita asked as the medical team swarmed onto the shuttle.
“She was shot while effecting our rescue. We administered first aid from the shuttle kit, and transfused several liters of blood to her,” Aliph said.
Only then did the siblings realize they were covered in Pavi’s blood. Rita stared at them, trembling and pale. Donegal had an arm around her. “How long has it been?” Rita asked.
“About twelve hours,” Bett said.
“She’s stable,” one of the medical crew on the shuttle said. “Let’s get ready to move her.”
“Captain Valshorn, your sister will recover,” Bett said.
“How did it happen?”
The siblings told her, as quickly as they could, about Pavi rescuing them. They did not mention the blood transfusion again.