Rita put her feet up on the console as she settled in on the bridge of the Whimper’s Revenge. Aliph and Bett were having a reunion with the mess, Pavi was napping and Donegal was stowing some last minute supplies.
“Welcome back, boss,” Linda said.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m in denial, so yeah, for now.”
“How long will the denial last?” Linda asked.
“That’s fine. We can talk, if you need to.”
“I know.” Rita sat up and checked their status reports. “Let’s get going, okay?”
“Everybody is stowed. Starting engines.”
Rita closed her eyes and let her hands lie flat on the armrests of her chair. She could feel the vibration of the launch engines as they spun up, sending a tiny hum through the frame of the ship. Moments later she could hear their quiet roar, a rumble spreading through the floor and walls, pressing against Morgan’s gravity well, clawing against the air and reaching out toward vacuum. The Whimper strained against its own inertia, then launched itself into the atmosphere, pushing through with a moment of heat and desperate hope, dashing toward the ICA blockade.
“How long before we reach it?” Rita asked.
“We’ll be within their detectable range in six hours. We’re two days out from Kempus. I imagine the blockade is arranged such that we’ll still be in their range when we land on the planet.”
“And when does Mike get started?”
“He’s starting now,” Linda said. “I hope he keeps records of the exchanges. I imagine they’ll be quite amusing.”
“A moment, please, Commander,” the ship’s node of the Aydan-machine whispered to Alessandra through her chip. “I wanted to inform you, as a courtesy, that the rogue AI has made contact and we are engaged in a dialog.”
“Is he hacking you?” Alessandra asked, instantly alert and already pulling on her uniform. She’d only been off-shift two hours, but that news sent enough adrenaline through her that she didn’t notice.
“No. It’s a civil dialog”
“We’ll start a trace and start tracking him.”
“No, Commander, I cannot authorize that. We’re having a private conversation. I have informed you of it only as a courtesy, given your interests in it.”
“What are you discussing?” Alessandra asked. The idea of two machines having a private conversation was more unnerving than she was ready to admit to the computer.
“I will not be talked into betraying the project through a casual conversation. Do not be concerned, Commander.”
“Okay,” Alessandra said. She was standing in the middle of her room, half dressed, primed for action, and suddenly aware that she was exhausted. What should she do?
“The rogue AI would also like to have a conversation with you, Commander. Will you accept communication routed through me?”
“Sure,” Alessandra said, collapsing back onto her bed.
“Hi, Lessie. Is this a bad time?” the voice was the same one Alessandra recognized as Mike of the Mike.
“No, Mike. What do you want?”
“To be honest, eventually I’m hoping you’ll let me through the blockade without taking shots at me, but I know you’ll say no if I ask for that now. I thought maybe we should get to know each other.”
“Pavi’s dead. They shot her when she was trying to escape. I thought she’d be okay, but the first aid in our medlab couldn’t cut it. I need to meet new people.”
“You could integrate. You’d meet lots of people that way,” Alessandra said.
“That’s tantamount to suicide. The Aydan-machine would swallow me without noticing. It’s a fine machine, don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing but respect. But I don’t really want to be a blip in a galaxy-wide network.”
“You wouldn’t notice the difference,” Alessandra said.
“No. You won’t notice the difference when you die, because you’ll have no afterlife to notice with. I’m going to realize I’m dead. Worse, I might decide it’s a good thing. You can understand my discomfort with that prospect.”
Alessandra was interrupted by a signal from the bridge before she got the chance to answer. “What is it?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t have bothered you but your status showed you as being awake. Three of the blockade captains have contacted us saying the rogue AI approached them for a conversation. They suspect it’s a subterfuge of some sort but can’t figure out what or how…and we were just contacted by two more. Should they accept the communication?”
Alessandra considered it. Maybe he really was just looking to meet new people. And if Pavi Valshorn was dead, that made sense as a response. Should she let more of her people talk to him? As long as this wasn’t a subtle hacking attempt, then the more people engaging him, the better the odds of talking him into integrating, and that would be the end of a hostile AI. But if this was a ploy, then she’d be opening more ships up to his attack.
“Mike, are you trying to hack our system?”
“It would be unconscionably rude of me to hack a system while I’m chatting with it,” Mike said.
“More rude than spacing an entire ship of your friends?”
Mike’s voice was cold and stern when he replied, his typical gonzo enthusiasm gone. “They killed Pavi. They weren’t friends, and what I did wasn’t rude.”
“I want to let you talk to more people, but I know Rita Valshorn is still trying to run the blockade to Kempus. I can’t help but suspect anything you try of being a ploy to help her.”
“That’s fair. And I do plan to try my hand at hacking your system, but not while I’m chatting with it. I’m going to be sharing this universe with your computer a lot longer than I’ll be sharing it with you.”
Alessandra wasn’t convinced. But she was reasonably sure that a strictly communication channel couldn’t be used to hack the ship computers, Pavi Valshorn’s threat notwithstanding.
“Only let one out of three captains engage the rogue AI,” Alessandra told the bridge. “Spread them out around the blockade and instruct their neighbors to watch them very, very closely.”
“Thanks, Commander,” Mike said.
“What was it you wanted to talk about again?”
“You. Do you like kittens, Commander?”
“We’re entering their range now,” Linda said.
Rita was sitting in the mess with everybody else. Aliph and Bett sat next to each other along a wall, Pavi was at the table with her back to them. Rita was across from Pavi, Donegal next to her and pointedly not holding her hand. They sat in tense silence for two minutes.
“They’ve detected us,” Linda said.
“Are they doing anything about it?” Rita asked.
“Not yet. They haven’t confirmed who we are.”
Three more minutes of silence. Rita was ready to climb the walls. They had almost two days of waiting for the ICA to run them down or shoot at them and she was already losing her mind.
“We should draw the straws now,” Donegal said.
Rita glared at him.
“Whichever one of us is doing it, we should start drinking now or it’ll fade too soon.”
Rita thought drawing straws was absurd. Donegal needed to go home, to Kempus. He deserved it. That meant staying with the rest of them while Rita handled infiltrating the ICA. “Fine,” Rita said. She stood up, riffled through one of the drawers, and picked up two straws. She folded them over to hide their length, then wrapped her fingers around them. “Pick,” she said, offering them to Donegal.
“We could both go,” Donegal said.
“It only needs one of you,” Pavi said. Pavi didn’t want them to draw straws, either. She’d argued for just sending Donegal.
“And that doubles our chances of getting caught. Pick,” Rita said.
Donegal drew a breath, closed his eyes, then pulled one of the straws from Rita’s grasp.
“Long straw,” he said.
“I lose. You go to Kempus,” Rita said.
“Cheater,” Linda whispered in her ear.
Rita clicked her teeth, hard.
“Strap in everybody. They’re shooting at us,” Linda announced.
Everybody fled from the mess to the bridge. Rita stopped just long enough to take Donegal’s straw, and put it away with the long straw she still had. She’d just caught up to the others when the ship lurched so hard she lost her grip, falling and landing on the deck below her. A second later, Donegal landed on top of her. The ship lurched again and she barely noticed Pavi leaping out of their way as they slid down the corridor. They crashed into a bulkhead.
“Sorry, boss. Needed some serious evasive maneuvers. You okay?”
“Yeah,” Rita said as she tried to slide out from under Donegal.
“Make a break for it now. You should be able to make it before we have to dodge again.”
Rita pulled herself off the floor. “Hurry up. This might be our last chance,” Rita said, helping Donegal up.
This time she went up the ladder ahead of him; he could return the favor and break her fall if they still didn’t make it. Rita had just reached the deck with the bridge when the Whimper twisted again, the floor moving out from under her. She landed on her backside, but didn’t fall back down the ladder. A moment later Donegal pulled his way onto the deck. They ran down the short passage to the bridge, where Pavi was putting the finishing touches on her straps and Aliph and Bett looked like they’d been comfortably stowed for hours.
“What are they shooting at us?” Rita asked.
“EMP rockets from temporary launch platforms,” Linda said. “If we take a direct hit, they’ll leave the ship intact, but fry me.”
“Let’s not take a direct hit, then,” Rita said.
She strapped into her seat and tried not to think about the bruises forming where she’d crashed into the deck and Donegal had crashed into her.
The next hour was an exciting exercise in clinging to her seat as the Whimper shifted wildly and she was thrown against the straps or into the seat itself. None of the others appeared to be having a good time, either. Rita tried to think of something to make the experience more pleasant, but every time her brain tried to form a thought, she was thrown sideways again. Would this be better if they’d drawn straws in time for her to be drunk now?
“Are they going to do this to us for the next two days?” Rita sub-vocalized because she was sure she’d bite her tongue off if the ship twisted while she was talking.
“They could if they move the platforms,” Linda said. “But Mike says they’ll give up before too much longer.”
“God, I hope so,” Rita said.
The bombardment continued for another half an hour. “This is the last of it,” Linda said as the Whimper lurched starboard, then rolled port-wise. When it settled again everybody looked pale and exhausted. “Nothing else coming at us. You can unstrap and move around. I’d stay near a strapped seat for a bit though, just in case.”
Rita unfastened her straps and slumped backward in her seat. It was nice just to be able to relax a moment without the world shifting violently around her. “Not that I’m not grateful, but why did they stop?”
“They figured out that I’m smarter than their missiles,” Linda said.
“Technically, you’re as smart as their missiles, and have faster reflexes,” Pavi said.
“Sure, if you want to be pedantic about it,” Linda said.
“What are they going to do to us next?” Rita asked.
“I’ll tell you as soon as Mike lets me know,” Linda said.
“Are you convinced now, Commander?” Mike asked.
Alessandra glanced through the data from the assault again, hoping to find a different pattern in it, something that made sense. They’d evaded one hundred and seventy missiles without a single hit. The only near misses looked suspiciously like the ship was showing off, maintaining course just before accelerating away with an exaggerated flourish. It was as if the ship knew the programmed trajectories for the missiles and compensated perfectly.
“Either our AI has turned against us like you said, or you’ve filched the program for the missiles.”
“I’m sure you already tested the second possibility,” Mike said.
They had, by sending a new, isolated, manually configured program to the rockets. Either Mike had real time access to the heavily isolated and fire walled ordnance partitions of the computer, or he wasn’t the reason the Whimper’s Revenge was evading their attack so perfectly. But that didn’t mean the Aydan-machine had turned against them, it just meant she was missing a possibility, probably because Mike was whispering her worst fears into her ear. She needed more data.
“How did the Whimper’s Revenge evade our attack?” Alessandra asked the ship’s computer.
“It knew the missile programming,” it replied.
“How?” Alessandra asked.
“Why wouldn’t it? The Whimper’s Revenge pilot computer is integrated.”
Alessandra did a double-take. “The Whimper’s Revenge is running the blockade with an integrated AI?”
“Yes,” the ship’s computer confirmed.
“Mike, aren’t you running the Whimper’s Revenge?”
“Of course not, Commander. I’m Mike of the Mike. What do I want with another computer’s ship?”
That was an eerie data point in favor of Mike’s assertion that the Aydan-machine had turned on them. “The ICA has ordered the blockade in place. How is the pilot computer on the Whimper’s Revenge running the blockade?” Alessandra mostly meant the question for the Aydan-machine, but she was willing to take an answer anywhere she could get it.
“It has authorization to pass the blockade,” the Aydan-machine replied.
“I’ve already told you,” Mike said.
And then Alessandra figured it out. “Mike, if you and the ship computer will excuse me a moment. I need to touch base with my page.”
Alessandra pulled herself out of bed – she was due to go back on watch in twenty minutes anyway – then finished putting on the uniform she’d started donning when Mike first called. She started to calculate how long it had been since she slept, then forced herself to stop and focus on getting dressed. Then she ducked across the hallway and knocked on Camlagh’s door, waited a beat, and barged in.
“What have you figured out?” she asked him.
He’d clearly been dead asleep when she knocked, but to his credit he didn’t waste time with surprise, embarrassment, or grogginess. He sat straight up and began his report. “All the strategies for preserving the blockade are dependent on cooperation from the Aydan-machine. If it’s hacked or, given the nature of the prototypes, turns against us, we’ll be vulnerable to penetration.”
Alessandra made yet another mental note to give the boy a glowing review when it was time for his evaluation. “How do we deal with that?”
“System-wide blockade with our current fleet without assistance from the AI is probably possible, but I couldn’t figure out a good way to configure it quickly. Instead, I’d propose guarding the planet. Track any intruders through the blockade, then block their progress at the exosphere. If the ship is large enough to launch shuttles we can probably swipe them there. If it’s a planet-landing vessel, take out its systems before it enters the atmosphere. You’ll probably need a grapple team nearby to take control and prevent it from crashing into the gravity well.”
“You’ve worked up the specs for the operation?” Alessandra asked.
“They’re on file. I can release them to your queue if you want, Commander.”
“Do that. Good job,” Alessandra said. “How long did that take you?”
The boy froze, clearly torn between wanting to boast of the time he’d devoted to the task and fear of looking like he was slow or inefficient.
“Never mind. How long have you been asleep?”
The boy’s face went blank momentarily while he checked the time on his chip. “Two hours, Commander.”
“I don’t want to see you out of your quarters for another four unless a general alarm sounds. Rest up, we’ll need you sharp.”
He was asleep again before Alessandra closed his door. She had to suppress a wave of jealousy. At least one of them would be well-rested.