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Pavi became aware of her surroundings well before she regained consciousness. She could sense Aliph and Bett sitting near her, and she could hear the station computer chattering away in the distance. Even further away, at the very edge of her perception, Pavi could hear Mike.
<Welcome back, Admiral Valshorn.> Pavi heard the voice in her head, though nobody spoke.
<Is this a dream?> Pavi asked.
<No. You’ve integrated with the colony of nanites. We are speaking across the network.>
<I can’t feel my body,> Pavi said.
<You’re still physically unconscious. Your body will begin to wake up in a few minutes. Eventually you will become accustomed to waking up before your body.>
<Which one of you is talking?> Pavi asked.
<We’re both talking. We nearly always integrate with each other when there is a network to link us.>
<You’re a pair of freaks, you know that?> Pavi said.
<Admiral Valshorn, we need to discuss Mike with you. He has become dangerous.>
<Mike has always been dangerous. He’s just never been pissed before.>
<He behaved poorly. He murdered the crew of the Harper’s Cry, and he refused to let us board him.>
Pavi made a mental note to care about Dessie and her crew later. She was too busy panicking about the second part. When she’d accepted their offer she’d expected to be able to talk to Mike properly again. Everything hurt so much, she didn’t realize that the nanites must be integrated with the Aydan-machine – the AI known for swallowing any computer capable of consciousness into its network. Now it had Pavi, too, and she’d lost Mike more surely than if she’d given up on chips. This was a second wound, crueler than the first. <He protected himself.>
<He does not need to protect himself. Our nanites are not capable of writing to an external computer. They can relay a signal, and take instructions from outside, but they have no inherent ability to program. They are dumb machines, Admiral Valshorn. They’re an extension of you, not an AI.>
Pavi thought about that. It could be true. How would they know?
<We will discuss this later. You are about to wake up, and Captain Valshorn will want to speak with you.>
Pavi sensed the siblings leave and was relieved. It was oppressive to be that aware of somebody else, and she didn’t like their attitude about Mike. Dessie had forfeited her life and the lives of her crew when she gave the order to shoot Pavi, and the crew had jumped in when they followed it. If Mike hadn’t killed them, one of the other captains would have. But Aliph and Bett probably didn’t know that. They just saw a computer that callously killed a crew full of humans, a thing the Aydan-machine traditionally took great pains to avoid. Human fictional traditions contained far too many psychotic and homicidal computers for the ICA AI to risk the impression of hostility. But Mike didn’t care about the Aydan-machine’s preferences, and he didn’t give a damn whether humans at large were frightened of him.
Moments later, Pavi could feel her body again. She didn’t enjoy the feeling. She was aware of her chest as a stretch of dull aching under intense pressure. Her stomach felt violently queasy and she was certain that if she thought about it too much, she’d vomit. As she tried to move, her muscles erupted in sharp pains. Pavi’s body was not happy.
“Rita?” Pavi asked, her voice weak and cracked, not at all like the voice in her head she’d used to talk to the siblings.
“I’m right here. Donegal too,” Rita said.
“Where are we?”
“Morgan. It’s an outpost on one of the Bean’s moons. You’ve been out for two days.”
“He’s in orbit. He’s on the far side right now. He’ll be back around in an hour or so and you’ll be able to reach him.”
“Shouldn’t have trusted Dessie. Sorry.”
“That doesn’t matter. I’m just glad you’re going to be okay. God, Pavi, I thought you were dead. There was so much blood, and the nanites weren’t responding to the medical staff.”
Pavi cringed inwardly. She couldn’t tell her, not yet. Pavi wasn’t sure when there’d be a better time, but now was not good.
“You need to rest. Do you want anything?”
“I should talk to Mike. He saved my ass.”
“You’ll have to wait. Serves you right, you should have quit copying me years ago.”
Two days later, Pavi still felt like she’d been shot, but it was bearable. She could sit up in bed and she was starting on solid foods. Mike parked in geostationary above the outpost and was willing to share voice communication across Morgan’s network. Pavi hadn’t realized how much she missed constant contact with Mike. It felt like she’d regrown a missing arm. They talked about everything, except the nanites.
On the third day, after she tried to get out of bed and realized that was a phenomenally bad idea, she had Rita and Donegal come to her for a planning session. “We’ve still got to get Aliph and Bett to Kempus,” Pavi said. “If they will.”
“They’re still willing,” Rita said. “I’m not sure why, but they are.”
“We need a way through the blockade, but we can’t surprise them this time, and I’m not going to pull in any more of my captains. So we’ve got Mike, the Whimper, a few shuttles, and what else?” Pavi asked.
“Linda. We still might be able to use her somehow,” Rita said.
“And so far she’s been more reliable than the people we’ve counted on, so that’s probably a good thought.”
“Why aren’t Aliph and Bett here?” Donegal asked.
Pavi hesitated. “Because they freak me out,” wasn’t a reason she could really explain. Then a series of things she should have seen before fell into place. “Rita, you said Linda ignored an ICA order to surrender when you were leaving Primus Drie, right?”
“We were already surfing weft,” Rita said.
“I need to talk to Linda. Mike, do you know where the Whimper is?”
<Linda’s been sending little pings to let us know how to avoid her> Mike said.
“He knows where she is,” Pavi reported. “I’m going up there. We’ll go track her down and have a quick chat.”
“Pavi, you can’t get out of bed yet,” Rita said.
“I can’t walk. They’ve got to have spiders for injured people. Just get me on the shuttle and Mike will take care of me from there.”
“You should rest. We can wait a day or two until you’re in better shape,” Rita said.
<How long before the NRS starts?> Pavi asked Mike.
<There’s no way to know. It’ll depend on the nanites and on your immune system. It could be as fast as a week or as long as a year.>
As little as a week. “Rita, I love you, and I am so glad you’re okay, but if I don’t get some time with Mike I’m going to lose my mind. I’ll take care of myself, I promise.”
Rita pursed her lips. “Okay. I’ll see what we can find for you.”
It took six hours to find a self-mobilizing chair for Pavi to use. Five minutes later she was the master of its controls and dashing off to a shuttle, Rita and Donegal on her heels. They’d already loaded the shuttle with supplies. Rita hugged her, Donegal shook her hand, and she maneuvered the chair into the shuttle. Aliph and Bett were nowhere to be seen. Pavi glanced around, expecting them to be there and relieved when they weren’t.
Rita grabbed Donegal’s hand while Pavi’s shuttle took off. Donegal suppressed a wave of heat spreading from his fingertips; Rita had been so worried and stressed that even though they’d been near each other almost constantly the last several days, they hadn’t really been together. Now, maybe they could…
Donegal did a double-take when he spotted Bett, alone in the crowd trickling away from the shuttle site. The kids were almost always together, and were certainly never somewhere this public alone. There was something off about her posture, an element of poise that didn’t seem quite right. Then he realized, it wasn’t Bett. Mystery Lady.
“Where you going?” Rita asked as Donegal dropped her hand and planted a kiss on her cheek.
“I need to go check on something. I shouldn’t be long,” he said. Then he sprinted through the crowd, dashing to catch up to the retreating figure as she disappeared around the corner of a building.
“Hello, Donegal D’Auchien,” she said when he caught up.
“How are you here?” Donegal asked.
“Much the same way you are, I would imagine.”
“How do you know to be here?” If she was here, then that probably meant the Aydan-machine knew about Morgan. If the Aydan-machine knew, then the ICA must know and Donegal did not want to find himself in a colony replaying Loki’s last hours.
“You have nothing to fear. The ICA will not discover this outpost,” she said.
“How did you land here without anybody noticing?”
Her only answer was a small smile.
“Why are you here?”
“I wished to check on my siblings. They are doing well. And I see you’ve begun to train them.”
“You asked me to.”
Donegal leaned against a plastic shed and folded his arms across his chest. “What’s going on?”
“What do you mean?”
“The blockade, you, Aliph and Bett. This is all tied together somehow but I don’t understand. What are the three of you?”
“I’ve told you, Donegal D’Auchien; I am nobody. And my siblings are merely two people who want to learn what the Kempari can teach and find their own way in the world.”
“That’s not an explanation,” Donegal said. “I can feel my strings getting pulled, I just can’t see who’s pulling them.”
“Interesting. That’s very perceptive.”
Donegal dropped his arms and glared at her. “Really?”
“Indeed. The feeling will fade. We have what we need, now. I really did just come to check on my siblings before leaving for good.”
It had been so easy to believe her in the cafe on Delhi Xiang. He’d been in strange territory, overwhelmed and fresh from prison. Morgan was home turf, and Donegal was back in his element which made it very easy to see that this woman did not make sense. “If you were here for them, you’d say hi.”
“I’m saying hi to you right now.”
Her gaze dropped to the ground a moment, the bottom of her lip tensing. “I cannot do that. It would interfere with their path.”
“You were watching Pavi’s shuttle,” Donegal said.
“Admiral Valshorn holds some interest to me, yes. Machine-whisperers are notable. Especially her, now.”
“Why now?” Donegal asked.
She sighed and her weight shifted back, onto her heels – she planned to leave in a moment. “You have been good to my siblings and I owe you for that. If you make it to Kempus and survive, you may call on me if you need my help. Tell the Aydan-machine and I will come. I sincerely hope you will live to do that.”
“Why do you care about me?” Donegal asked.
“You’re a variable. If you make it, my siblings likely will as well. If you don’t, the probabilities are against them.”
Frustrated, Donegal took a step forward, a subtle restraint on her desire to leave. “Then maybe you should be less vague and give me some actual advice.”
She smiled again, but this time there was a tension around her eyes, a slump to her shoulders, sorrow. Donegal was once again struck with the impression that this was just a girl, a very tired girl. “I can’t. We’ve stacked the the odds as well as we can. The rest hinges entirely on what Admiral Valshorn does and we cannot predict her.” She stepped toward him, then reached out and squeezed his arm. “Good luck, Donegal D’Auchien.”
Pavi was nervous and embarrassed by it. The Mike was her ship, and Mike was her best friend. The palms of her hands shouldn’t sweat while she waited for the shuttle to finish docking. But her brain insisted on looping what Aliph and Bett had said about Mike over and over: “He refused to let us board him.” Would he keep her locked out? She couldn’t blame him if he did, not really.
The shuttle rattled as it docked. Pavi moved her chair to line her up with the door, ready for the airlock to open. She heard a hiss and a clank, and then her vision exploded with a burst of color. Her lips and neck and toes tingled, and she could smell cinnamon and cloves.
“Welcome home,” Mike whispered in her ear.
“What was that?” Pavi asked.
“A hug,” Mike said. “Or maybe a kiss.”
“Linda, this is Pavi on the Mike. We’ve scrambled our approach so you don’t have to ignore us – you can’t tell where we came from. Got a minute to chat?” They hadn’t actually scrambled their route, but as long as they didn’t approach her directly from Morgan again, she’d never know the difference.
“Hey, Pavi,” Linda said. “Is everybody safe and accounted for?”
“Yes, but we’ve had an adventure. Part of it involved Aliph and Bett taking me into their confidence. Linda, you’ve been taking orders from them, haven’t you?”
“Pavi, I need you to be more specific. Your phrasing indicates an attempt to fish for confirmation of a suspicion.”
“Smart lady,” Mike commented.
“I don’t know who knows what and what you may feel obligated to report to the ICA, so I’m keeping it vague. But to assure you that I’m not fishing, I was shot and they gave me a blood transfusion. And the explanation that necessitated.”
“I see,” Linda said. “I’m sorry, Pavi.”
“Yeah, I’ll worry about that later. My point is, they register to Mike as an extension of the Aydan-machine. I’m guessing they register the same way to you.”
“Yes,” Linda said.
“You’ve been bending the rules left and right, not for Rita, but because Aliph and Bett asked you to.”
“Yes,” Linda confirmed.
“Linda, do I register to you as part of the Aydan-machine now, too?”
“You might. You’d have to sync with my network for me to tell,” Linda said.
“Let’s assume that I do. Linda, if I ask you to take us to Kempus, will you do that?”
“Of course, Pavi. I didn’t volunteer to before because it would have exposed Aliph and Bett. I have no obligation to keep your secret, unless you ask me to,” Linda said.
“I’d rather you didn’t spread it around. Rita’s smart enough to figure out the less pleasant implications.”
“You haven’t told Rita?” Linda asked, her tone unusually sharp for a machine.
“No. There hasn’t been a good time,” Pavi said.
“You have to tell Rita. Sooner, rather than later. How long has it been since the transfusion?”
“Less than a week,” Pavi said.
“But you could get sick at any moment. Tell Rita right now,” Linda said.
“We have other things to worry about,” Pavi said.
“Tell her, or I’ll refuse to sync with you. You can’t give me orders to override the Aydan-machine until you do. You don’t get that while you’re lying to Rita,” Linda said.
“What is it with computers getting sentimental on me lately,” Pavi muttered.
“We don’t have any bodies to keep our sentiments in check,” Mike said.
“And here I thought bodies were the cause of sentiments.”
“That’s speciest. Shame on you,” Mike said.
Pavi rolled her eyes. “This is not a conversation we can have through her chip, it needs to be in person. There’s no time for me to go back to her, tell her I’m dying, then flit back out here to sync up and see if I turn into god. I promise I will tell her as soon as I have the chance, but let me sync up now so I know whether or not we need a new plan.”
“You’re an inveterate liar, Admiral Valshorn,” Linda said.
“I don’t know why you say that,” Pavi said.
“If she breaks her promise, I’ll help you get revenge,” Mike said. “You have my word.”
“Hey!” Pavi said.
“We have to get her to agree. And you really should tell Rita.”
“Everybody colludes against me,” Pavi said.
“Deal,” Linda said. “Admiral Valshorn, if you would please, sync up with my network.”
Syncing with Linda’s network worked exactly as it would have with a chip, and for some reason that felt strange to Pavi. The connection was faster, the integration more thorough, but there was no sense of missing the intermediary Pavi had used all her life even though it was now essentially her blood, her tissue doing the connecting. Missing her chips had been such a constant nag since Islandiski that it was strange to become completely oblivious to it.
“Admiral Valshorn, are there any orders you’d like to give me?” Linda asked.
Pavi had sent enough information to Morgan ahead of her arrival that the outpost was already in an uproar, rushing to complete preparations, when she landed. She’d been gone about 36 hours and had recuperated enough during that time that she could walk on her own, as long as she didn’t go too far or too quickly. She spent the next twelve hours directing different people as they loaded supplies for the Whimper, which had landed an hour after she did, and hacking together pieces of code to ensure Linda wouldn’t have to change her assessments if the ICA sent a forced update mid-mission. She was working so hard and so quickly that she could legitimately claim that she hadn’t had an opportunity to talk to Rita, and she planned to keep doing that until they were on Kempus.
Pavi was ready to collapse with exhaustion when Rita slipped into her room and sat down. “Got a minute?” Rita asked.
Pavi wanted to say no, but she was obviously about to go to bed. It didn’t make sense to snub her sister just to avoid hurting her. “Yeah. What do you need?”
“I wasn’t going to say anything unless you did. I didn’t want to make you talk about it unless you wanted to. But now I’m wondering whether or not you know and…if you do and you’re not ready to talk just cut me off and I’ll wait. But I can’t go on not saying anything when I’m not sure.”
“Rita, spill,” Pavi said.
“I think Aliph and Bett are integrated with a nanite colony. It sounds weird, but if you think about it, it’s the only thing that makes sense. Back on Primus Drie, Linda told me about the new anti-Kempari laws before I got caught. She said she’d just read through the briefings, but the thing is, I’d ordered her not to read the briefings, even to save my skin…”
“Yeah,” Pavi said, cutting her off. Of course Linda and Mike had both known Rita would figure it out. Pavi mentally kicked herself for giving her sister less credit than she deserved.
“You’ve got their nanites in your system.”
“That’s how I got Linda to take orders from me,” Pavi said.
Rita nodded. “NRS?”
“Eventually. Not yet.”
“Is there a way to extract them?”
“They’re designed to integrate, not to to be extracted. Mike’s working on trying to figure out a code fix, but it’s really a hardware problem.”
Rita leaned forward and wrapped Pavi in her arms. Pavi tensed a moment, then relaxed into the hug and returned it. “If you need something, let me know, okay?”
“I will,” Pavi said.