Rita watched Kempus on the view screen as it loomed large before them. It hung in the blackness, a ball of rich blue ocean coated with striations of white cloud. Rita hadn’t seen it since she left, and she’d been certain she’d never come back. It wasn’t until this moment, as she looked down on the planet, that she realized how home-sick she’d been for it. She could already feel the salty wind that blew over the breezeway between the masters’ lodge and the student residences, smell the oily gaspum fruit hanging heavy and ripe along the walkways. She was desperately grateful only Linda had caught her cheating.
“Shit!” Linda said over the speakers. “Everybody strap in, now.”
“What’s wrong?” Rita asked. She’d never heard a computer cuss before.
“They’ve mined the exosphere. And they’ve got skippers patrolling.”
“We expected that, right?” Rita said.
“We expected mines. And we knew where they were. They’ve changed them, manually.”
“Why didn’t Mike warn us?” Pavi asked.
“He didn’t know. They’ve cut the Aydan-machine out of the loop,” Linda said.
“Just get us down as far as you can. We’ve got a plan for this,” Donegal said.
“It’s a bad plan,” Rita said.
“All of Pavi’s plans are bad. But they have a weird knack for working,” Donegal said.
“Thanks, Donnie,” Pavi said.
Rita glanced toward Aliph and Bett to see how they were doing. The siblings were just sitting there, eyes closed, as if they were relaxing on a beach. Rita couldn’t understand how they managed to remain so unperturbedly serene when the ship might split apart around them at any moment.
“Is everybody strapped in? I’m cutting the gravity to give me some extra oomph to work with,” Linda said.
“We’re good,” Rita said. “Just don’t decide to cut the air for its oomph.”
A second later Rita’s stomach flipped in the way only a sudden loss of gravity could tumble it.
Rita kept her eye on the view screen before her. She could see the skippers bouncing across the Kempari atmosphere now, little pods that were probably armed with cannons and grapple hooks. Rita had never been in one and she was certain she didn’t want to be; they were fast, versatile, and carried a reputation for killing their pilots.
A moment later the display shifted to show a grid of green lights circling the planet. “That’s where the mines are supposed to be,” Linda said. “But I’ve watched several skippers move right through those spots.”
“Maybe there aren’t any mines,” Rita suggested.
“Mike says they’ve definitely unloaded ordnances from several ships. They’re there, we just aren’t going to know about it until we can detect them ourselves.”
“I don’t imagine they’ve got warning flags built into them,” Rita said.
“No, boss, they’re rather more stealthy than that.”
The display switched back to the view of the skippers. Rita tried to spot a pattern in their movements and couldn’t. “But you can tell where the mines aren’t by tracking where the skippers go, right?”
“I think I’ve got bad news,” Linda said.
“The mines are moving,” Pavi said. “It’s not a static pattern. Linda, take us in on the heels of one of the skippers. We’ll follow it as far as we can and hope that gets us through the mined layer.”
“Then the skipper shoots at us,” Rita said.
“A skipper can damage us. A mine will kill us. I’d rather deal with the skipper.”
“There’s still time to quit. We could get the hell out of here and try again some time we’re less expected,” Donegal suggested.
“No,” Aliph said. “We will not make it back through the blockade. They have closed in to make sure of it. This is our last chance.”
“Just a thought,” Donegal said.
“We’d better assume I’m not making the landing. I can get you at least three minutes of a stable deck. Go get your suits,” Linda said.
Rita unhooked her straps, pulled her suit out from under her seat, and started scrambling into it. Two minutes later she’d finished everything she needed to be standing for, and went to help Aliph as Donegal started helping Bett.
“Commander, you should discontinue your conversation with the rogue AI. All of the captains should as well,” Camlagh said, interrupting Alessandra as she finished the third Mike-solicited raunchy joke in a row.
“He’s eavesdropping,” the page said. “There’s bleed over between the channels when you run several communication lines through the same chip. He doesn’t have to hack our system, he’s got whispers of what a third of the fleet captains are doing. He’s probably reporting it back to the Whimper’s Revenge so they can accommodate changes in our plans.”
“We’re figuring this out just now?”
“It’s a known issue. I’ve just run across the report on it. Normally it would only be possible for a node of the Aydan-machine to take advantage of it.” And they’d never fixed it because they could trust the Aydan-machine. The Kempari had a point about the consequences of depending on a single AI.
Why hadn’t the Aydan-machine told them about this when Mike first approached them?
“Now he’s kept us all awake for two days. Right,” Alessandra said. She was so tired she wanted to cry with exhaustion. “Mike, we’ve figured out the ploy. I’m going to disconnect you now. And I’m ordering my captains to cut you off as well. It’s been a lovely chat.”
“My pleasure, Commander,” Mike said. “Any time you want to switch careers, let me know. I have a hefty network of contacts who’d be interested in a lady with your sense of humor.”
“Go to hell, Mike,” Alessandra said. Then she issued the order to her other captains. A moment later a third of the fleet captains signed off watch, probably to crash straight into bed. Alessandra hated each and every one of them.
“You should get some rest, Commander,” Camlagh said. “Another stim cycle’s going to put you in bed for a week.”
“Commander, I am no longer engaged in a conversation with the rogue AI,” the Aydan-machine reported.
“Thank you. I wasn’t going to ask you to cut him off, but I’m glad you did.”
“I didn’t cut him off, Commander. He ended it. He’s trying to hack me now.”
“Is it going to work?”
“I don’t think so, but I don’t imagine any machine expects to be hacked until it is.”
The Whimper’s Revenge was close to Kempus, and credible threats against the ship’s computer required her to be on the bridge. Alessandra cringed, then ordered up another stim cycle.
They were all in their suits, clinging to the handholds in the airlock. Bett was strapped to Aliph, Pavi to him, Donegal to her. Rita was strapped to the Whimper. Rita was grateful Linda had cut the artificial gravity; it saved them from being thrown around the ship as it veered wildly, changing course and hopping from one vector to the next with reckless disregard for the comfort of anybody or anything inside the ship. They clung to the handholds, trying to stay oriented in the most comfortable configuration should the artificial gravity suddenly return.
Rita had strapped an external interface to the wall. It was projecting images from outside the ship so they could see what was happening. Linda was skipping along the outer reaches of the Kempari atmosphere, scant tens of meters above the ICA skippers that were bouncing off the atmosphere. There were mines scattered around even this high up; the ICA must have littered the Kempari exosphere with hundreds of thousands of mines.
A skipper bouncing along below them opened fire, forcing Linda to dodge sideways. She barely missed one of the mines. A human pilot would almost certainly have crashed into it.
“Are they really willing to kill you to get you back?” Pavi called to Aliph and Bett.
“Unless we were at the site of the explosion, it would not kill us,” Bett said.
“Just us then. Great,” Donegal said. “I think I was safer in jail.”
“You’re having more fun now,” Pavi said.
“True,” he conceded with a grin.
“This is it. I’m taking us down,” Linda said.
Gravity returned suddenly as the Whimper’s Revenge pressed into the Kempari atmosphere, madly following on the heels of an ICA skipper and shifting rapidly to avoid the scattered mines. The Whimper was bigger than the skippers, and had a smaller margin of safety for maneuvering.
Somebody in the ICA was clever; they’d predicted their strategy of following a skipper to safety. The entire atmosphere was littered with the hull-shattering bombs, but the stretch over the college, where they were hoping to land,was particularly dense. The skippers all bounced through this thickly populated area, guided by idiot machines armed with a map of the mines and basic navigation skills, and incapable of integrating with anything else. Linda figured out the trap just as they entered it.
“This isn’t going to work. I’m pulling up,” Linda said.
The Whimper‘s passengers floated in micro-gravity once more, shaken by the attempt but otherwise unchanged. Rita accidentally bit her tongue in the transition. “Time to get creative,” Linda said.
As they reached the edge of the densely populated area, Linda made another plunge into the atmosphere, blindly hurtling downward without an ICA skipper to lead her. She extended her sensor arrays as far as she could, trying to gain every possible fraction of a second in detecting mines so she could dodge before hitting them. They passed so close to one that their wake through the atmosphere triggered it, the explosion spreading on their heels but failing to do more than rattle the ship during its descent. Rita involuntarily closed her eyes as the explosion played on the screen.
“Better do it now,” Linda said.
Rita opened the air lock and stepped aside to let the others run in. Donegal stayed back while the rest filed in.
“I just wanted to say, Captain Valshorn, you’re a magnificent cheat.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Rita said.
Donegal threw an arm around her waist and pressed his lips close to her ear. “I’ll explain when you land. Don’t be stupid.” Then he was on the shuttle with the others and Rita had to catch her breath.
She synced her chip with the shuttle and warmed up its engines. They would be much less maneuverable inside the shuttle, but smaller too. If Linda could get them below the skippers, they should be able to make a break for it and dodge the mines the rest of the way down. Then Rita and the Whimper would just have to make it back to the exosphere without getting blown up.
Rita’s ear tingled with heat from Donegal’s breath. Getting blown up sounded very not fun.
“Everybody secured?” Rita asked.
She was answered with a chorus of “Aye.”
Rita closed the hatch to the airlock and started cycling it. Then there was a loud thump followed by the screeching sound of metal scraping on metal.
“I’m ejecting them. A skipper’s got us,” Linda said. A moment later, Rita could feel the locks on the shuttle disengage. It was falling away, taking Pavi and Donegal, and the two weirdest kids Rita had ever met.
Shuttles were not designed to leave dock with a ship except in the vacuum of space. The seals between a shuttle and its docking ship required a level of finesse in their handling hard to achieve in a gravity well or with air resistance. Even under carefully controlled circumstances on the ground, breaking a shuttle away from its docked ship could rupture a seal.
There were few circumstances in the universe less controlled than a space ship plummeting through the atmosphere while bucking an ICA skipper’s grapple lock.
Rita crossed her fingers.
“The Whimper is out of the atmosphere, and we’ve scuttled its engines,” reported the skipper squad leader.
“Are they still on it?” Alessandra asked. She was exhausted, but at this point she knew better than to trust good news.
“The ship’s computer is reporting as empty. They launched a shuttle almost immediately after we grappled on.”
“So they’ve made it to the planet. Bring the skippers back in. Clear out the fake mine debris. We’ll track them down on the surface and take it from there.”
“What about the Whimper?” the squad leader asked. “Its AI is demanding that we give her ‘some dignity.’”
“What does it mean by dignity?” Alessandra asked.
The squad leader played a clip for her. “I am not hanging helplessly in space with my sides torn open and littering my cargo everywhere. Let me dock somewhere or slap a patch on me.”
Alessandra considered it. Normally she’d tell the ship to go hang, but it was integrated, and there were too many pitfalls in their relationship with the Aydan-machine already. Better to err on the side of indulgence. “We don’t have time to patch it. Let it dock here. I’ll have the maintenance guys rig something to seal off the damaged airlock. Search it, unless it pleads sentient domain.”
She sent the orders to maintenance, then started calculating whether or not she could afford to take a nap. At this point she was so far beyond her limits for exhaustion that anything she could get would help, and the situation could probably wait two hours while she stole a few winks. On the other hand, she was reasonably sure that once she stopped, she would not get out of bed for at least a shift, and they couldn’t wait more than two hours.
“Commander?” It was the chief doctor from the medlab.
Alessandra braced herself for a scolding and threat of medical suspension. “It’s the Kempari prisoner. You should probably come down here when you get a chance.”
“What about him?” Alessandra asked.
“He’s dead, Commander,” the physician said.
More adrenaline. Alessandra turned bridge control over to her mate and strode to the lift that would take her to the medical deck. Five minutes later she was standing at the front of the medical suite.
“I called you as soon as we found him,” the chief doctor said as he came out to greet her. “Right this way.”
Alessandra followed him down the corridor to Mahkrim’s suite.
He looked fine, asleep, except that his head was twisted at an impossible angle, his shirt tied around it and looped through the grate on the ventilation shaft.
“You were supposed to watch him,” Alessandra snapped.
“We did. And we’d taken hanging into account. Normally it would take him several minutes to suffocate. He managed to break his neck, which was too fast for us to intervene.”
“You told me he was a suicide risk, and now you’re surprised that he’s committed suicide?”
“It’s been several weeks, Commander, and like I said, he planned this carefully. There was no opportunity to intervene. To prevent it he would have had to be kept in restraints this whole time.”
Or Alessandra could have promised him that she’d find a way to get him to the facilities on Kempus. Having that hope dashed was a death sentence. Alessandra had killed him just as surely as NRS would have if she hadn’t intervened, but her way had taken longer.
He looked so calm.
Alessandra forced herself to look away before she started picturing one of the kids hanging there in his place. Just because they were on Kempus, possibly kidnapped by a machine-whisperer and homicidal AI, did not mean she’d be taking their bodies back to Aydan. With the blockade in place, the Kempari would need to negotiate, and the prototypes were all they had to offer. There was still time to rescue them, time to figure out how to know if they could trust the Aydan-machine.
Mahkrim had been a tool, a continuation in her routine, not a portent. Alessandra was stressed and exhausted. That was the only reason this felt so much like an omen.
“Treat the body with respect. We’re either giving it to Kempus or we’re returning it to Calvary. I should know which in a few hours.”
“Are you going off watch, Commander?” the doctor asked. Alessandra could hear an undercurrent of threat in his tone; either she went off watch or he’d pull medical on her.
“In a few more hours. Then I’ll get some sleep and decide what action needs to be taken about this lapse in care.” That should hold off a medical. It was a dirty trick to pull, but Alessandra did not care.
“You shouldn’t take another stim cycle,” the doctor said.
“I won’t need one.”
Alessandra dragged herself to the mess where a pot of strong, black coffee was waiting for her. Stimulating, but much milder than what she’d been using. She poured herself a cup, decanted the rest into a thermos, and sipped the brew as she blearily made her way back to the bridge. She could barely feel the caffeine, but the warmth helped ease her tension.
“They’ve landed on the planet surface now, Commander,” the mate said as she entered the bridge. “Should we prepare a landing party?”
Hadn’t she already ordered one prepped? Alessandra couldn’t remember, scanned through her records and couldn’t find a trace of one. If she ever got her hands on Mike, she was going to take great joy pulling his hardware apart by the atoms. “Yes. And start the sync cycle with the prototypes.”
“The prototypes have not given us permission to sync since they left Aydan,” the local node said.
“We have a diagnostic routine we need to run. It was part of our mission when we left Aydan since they weren’t cleared out before departure, but it’s critically important after their hair was cut and they were subjected to electrocution on the Harper’s Cry.” Also, Alessandra was dragging them back to safety if it killed her.
“Does the diagnostic suite include utilities for checking and repairing that kind of damage?” the computer asked.
Not remotely. “I don’t think a suite for correcting damage consequent of pirate attack exists yet. But it’s better than nothing. And it’s designed to run unobtrusively. We’ve tested an earlier release on them already, with good results.”
“Initiating sync,” the computer said.
Good. All Alessandra had to do now was wait for the computer to finish the sync, get a landing party on the ground to retrieve them, deal with the fallout from an unauthorized landing on a hostile planet, and continue lying to the computer fast enough that it didn’t balk at violating its children’s sentient domain. And then go to bed. For a year.