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The ring of ships blockading Kempus stretched across the view screen before Alessandra. Her chip projected an overlay with status updates and reports for the various ships as she glanced at the view, giving her the information she might need or want to plan her next steps. The spy and the pirate were definitely going to make a break for Kempus, and Alessandra could not allow it.
“Commander, we’ve got the connection with Aydan Command established,” Camlagh said.
“Thanks,” Alessandra said. Then she synced with the connection so she could have the conversation privately.
“What’s your situation?” Admiral Liger asked.
“I’ve completed my investigation of the Harper’s Cry. It looks like they did succeed in dismantling their network, but the rogue AI hacked into its various subsections individually, then took control of the ship. I believe this was possible because of back doors built into the system by that machine and Pavi Valshorn. Consequently, I do not believe our own ships are at similar risk.”
“Continue to monitor the risks. If you perceive an attempted attack by the rogue AI, implement defensive protocols immediately.”
“Of course,” Alessandra said. “I have more to report.”
“I believe the Valshorns to be taking shelter with an unapproved Kempari outpost outside the blockade. Consequently I cannot make accurate speculations about their resources. I’m taking extreme precautions to maintain blockade integrity, but I cannot at this point guarantee that they will not find a way to smuggle the prototypes to the planet. I’d like clarification of my authority under those circumstances.”
“What is it you plan to do?”
“Sir, it would be imprudent to propose my plan if anybody else is listening.”
“One moment, Commander.”
Alessandra waited while the Admiral went through the process of closing the communication off from the Aydan-machine. As always, they counted on its integrity to respect their intent for privacy. By requesting privacy, Alessandra had planted a giant “we’re plotting against your kids,” flag she was sure the Aydan-machine couldn’t miss. Even if it chose to respect the barriers, she hoped it appreciated the warning.
“Proceed, Commander,” the Admiral said.
“If they take the prototypes to the planet and we know they are there, we should be able to sync with them. If we do that and they do not return willingly, we could subdue them by pulling them into the City, then retrieve them with a minimum of risk.”
“That would be a violation of the prototypes’ extended space.”
“I am aware. But my mission parameters indicate that we must make contact with the prototypes at all costs. I want clarification of the limits to that mission. Am I authorized to forcibly pull them into the City?”
There was a long pause from the other end of the conversation. Was the Admiral considering the merits of the plan, or the integrity of the privacy guards? “Making contact with the prototypes is important beyond all other considerations – we cannot allow them to be cut off from the network. You are authorized to take any actions deemed necessary to achieve this objective. You are additionally cautioned to use extreme discretion when violating their space. If they come home, we don’t want their report to upset the Aydan-machine. Is that clear, Commander?”
“Of course,” Alessandra said. That was something. More than something, that was exactly what she needed. She killed the connection then turned to her page. “Have you received any training about blockade defense?” Alessandra asked.
“No, Commander,” Camlagh replied.
“Good. We’ve already done everything in the book, and everything the experts in the fleet can recommend. I want you to go stare at the problem with fresh eyes and tell us what we’re too experienced to see.”
“Pavi Valshorn will find a way through this blockade. None of us has figured out what it is yet, so we can’t protect ourselves from it. But she doesn’t have any blockade defense training, either. Go think like a pirate for a while; let me know what you see,” Alessandra said.
“Yes, Commander,” Camlagh replied.
He almost certainly wouldn’t come up with anything, but it would be a good exercise for him, and he deserved to get a challenge. Plus, there was a chance, however small, that he would find a flaw.
“I’m off watch. Mate, you have the bridge. I’ll be available as needed,” Alessandra said. She rose from her chair, stretched, then strolled off the bridge. Instead of going back to her quarters she cut through to the medlab and ducked into the suite they’d given Mahkrim.
The old Kempari spy looked better. He’d put on a bit of weight, his complexion was healthier, his posture straighter, but he was still morosely quiet and prone to startle at surprises.
The room was dark when Alessandra entered, a movie from Sylva playing on the far wall. The movie paused and the lights came up as Alessandra walked in. “Hello, Commander,” he said.
“Hell, Mahkrim. What are you watching?”
“I don’t really know. Something the ship’s computer recommended for me.”
“Are its recommendations good for you, generally?” Alessandra asked.
“I don’t pay much attention to the movies. Just need something to block the quiet,” Mahkrim replied.
“I understand,” Alessandra said.
A pair of spiders crawled in, each carrying a tray with their dinner orders. Dinner with Mahkrim wasn’t the same as lunch with the kids, but it shared some of the awkward, halting silences. The similarity to her old routine was welcome, and the social contact was good for him.
“One of the doctors mentioned that we’re near Kempus now,” Mahkrim said.
“Yes. I’ve taken charge of the blockade,” Alessandra replied.
“Did you mean it, when you offered to find me citizenship?” Mahkrim asked.
He poked at his dinner for a while before saying anything else, but Alessandra could guess what was coming. “Could you let me go back to Kempus instead?”
“I can’t violate my own blockade.” She had three plans for how she could, prepped by Camlagh. It was possible, but she still couldn’t actually do it.
“They rescue people, when they can, staking victims. There are people there who know…I don’t think I’m fit for anywhere else,” Mahkrim said.
“They take in staking victims?” Alessandra asked. She’d never heard that before. She’d never even heard of people leaving the stake except through death or ICA intervention.
“When they can. Most of them wait months or years. It was just days for me. But they’ll understand.”
Alessandra reached across the table and took Mahkrim’s hand. “I can’t send you there now. But I think all of this will be resolved before too much longer. If not, I’ll find you somewhere they can help you. The ICA takes care of staking victims, too.”
Mahkrim pulled his hand away, pushed his chair back, his eyes flying around the room. “No. I don’t need that. It’s fine. I can stay here. I can…never mind, Commander.”
Alessandra cussed herself. She shouldn’t have touched him. She knew that, but hadn’t been thinking. “Mahkrim, it’s not a problem,” Alessandra said. “I’ll keep looking for a place that will offer you citizenship. And if you want to go somewhere that will help, or if sending you to Kempus becomes an option, I’ll do that for you. Okay?”
Mahkrim nodded, but his whole body was shaking. Moments later he was hyperventilating, having a fully-fledged panic attack. A doctor and pair of spiders rushed into the room. Moments later he was unconscious, sedated, and reclining in bed.
“Has he done this before?” Alessandra asked the doctor when he was finished treating Mahkrim.
“No. But we’ve been expecting something like it for a while. He held it together longer than most.”
“It was my fault,” Alessandra said, still feeling foolish for her slip.
“It was just a matter of time, Commander. If not you, then something else would have triggered it. He wasn’t going to walk away from that trauma. And thus far, he’s refused our efforts to help.”
“He said they have facilities on Kempus to help him. He was asking me to go there,” Alessandra said.
“Wouldn’t surprise me. They’d know the most about how to treat it.”
“Would they be better than what we can offer?” Alessandra asked.
“I couldn’t say. I’m from Terra Prima. We don’t have much contact with Kempus.”
“Okay. Thanks, doctor. Update me with progress as you have it.”