Pavi Valshorn’s body ached, but she didn’t care. She’d been in contact with Mike for days without dropping a single packet. The nanite interface gave them everything of the instant, intimate contact the chip in her brain stem had provided, without any of the junk in the signal that made it worthless. Besides, it was nice, nicer than Pavi had time to measure, to be able to share space with her best friend.
<That planet smells weird,> Mike said.
The nanites hadn’t integrated with her brain, so the signal input was still going to the auditory nerves rather than straight to the language centers. Pavi and Mike couldn’t tell whether that was because the nanites couldn’t integrate directly with her brain, or they just hadn’t multiplied enough to manage it yet. Pavi didn’t really care – if they stayed out of her brain that just reduced the number of unpleasant things that could go wrong before the NRS killed her – but Mike wanted to see how well it would work and whether it would reduce lag in their conversation. He insisted there was still lag. Pavi insisted he was showing off.
<That’s nature we’re smelling,> Pavi replied silently. She didn’t even have to sub-vocalize anymore. She’d discovered machine telepathy. <You are smelling dirt, trees, and a large body of unpotable water.>
<It’s kinda neat.>
<Don’t turn terraphile on me. I’ve already got Rita for that.>
The outer edge of her left shoulder briefly felt hot and tingly, Mike’s version of a sharp poke. <You’re just trying to suppress me. I won’t be confined to the cold clutches of empty space.>
Pavi rubbed her shoulder. Mike was just teasing – he’d been experimenting with translating his “analogues” to physical sensations – but it reminded her of how much she ached.
<Sorry, Pavs. The NRS is hitting you fast.>
<I’m just tired. Too much coding, not enough movies.>
<I asked the Aydan-machine about this. There are a few things we could do.>
<Dead is dead, Mike. I don’t have time to drag it out in a fancy hospital.> Then, to Donegal, “How much farther?”
They’d had a bit of a crash landing and come down several kilometers from campus.
“At this pace we’ll be on the edges of town in ten minutes or so,” Donegal said.
“And how long before I get to talk to the masters in charge of your network?”
Donegal shrugged. “I have no idea. I’ve been away for years and even if nothing had changed with time, there’s no way the blockade hasn’t caused havoc.”
Pavi nodded. She knew that, but too many things depended on timing they had no control over. Rita and Donegal didn’t think they’d be allowed to carry out the plan, Aliph and Bett had refused to even make eye contact with Pavi since she proposed it (which she didn’t mind) and Pavi wasn’t sure she could make it happen even if everything else worked.
<You’ll manage it. You’re the unstoppable circuit seductress. Seductrix?> Mike said.
<We’re never again going to be able to tell which one of us is the bad influence,> Pavi replied.
Eight minutes later they reached the edge of the woods. There were a few small houses in sight, their shingled roofs glowing orange in the afternoon sunlight. A narrow road paved in silver-gray gravel wound among the houses and off toward the main body of the college. They followed the road for half a kilometer. It emptied into a plaza framed by stone buildings covered in blooming wisteria.
The plaza was full of people, many of them wearing the Tyrolean uniforms of the Kempari Home Guard. They were alert, but didn’t seem particularly concerned by the quartet wandering in from the woods. Pavi could hear their network humming in the background. She was tempted to try forcing her way into it, just to get a feel for how it was designed, but she restrained herself. If the plan was going to work in time, she’d need them to give her access. They’d probably be reluctant to do that if she’d already tried hacking in.
A thin, old man emerged from the crowd to meet them. Donegal bowed to him, doubling over at the waist. Pavi didn’t budge. She glanced at Aliph and Bett and they hadn’t moved, either.
“Magritte is not with you?” the old man said.
“She’s carrying out a different part of the mission,” Donegal replied, rising.
The old man’s eyes swept over the group. He smiled briefly at Pavi, then turned to Aliph and Bett. In an instant he’d bowed to the siblings just as low as Donegal had to him. “We welcome you as guests to our home,” he said.
Either he knew what they were, or his guess was close enough.
The siblings bowed in return, though they restrained themselves to a more reasonable angle. “We are honored to be welcome,” they said.
“Let us go inside. A tea is waiting,” the old man said as he straightened.
Pavi started, “Actually, I need to talk to…”
Donegal cut her off by elbowing her in the ribs. “Pavi, this is Master Yao. He’s the current grandmaster of the Kempari college.”
“Oh,” Pavi said. She listened to the network as she followed Master Yao into one of the stone buildings. The need to take a crack at it was so strong her fingers practically itched. She’d dug into systems developed semi-independently on a dozen different worlds, but all of them had been designed by people hoping the hardware would wake up or, at the least, support a conscious branch of the Aydan-machine. The Kempari system was designed to stay dumb. It was unique.
Master Yao led them into a small room that faced onto the plaza. The room was tastefully opulent; dark woods on the walls, an ornate chandelier of twisting bronze and crystal, a small fireplace framed in marble and granite. The furniture was elegant, all simple curving lines and downy fillings, the table low and already set with a delicate china and silver tea service.
“We owe you a debt, Admiral Valshorn, for returning our pupils to us,” Master Yao said as he reached for the teapot.
Donegal leaped for the tea pot. He looked mortified and Pavi couldn’t figure out why. “Master Yao, I can….”
“Nonsense. It is no shame for an old man to serve his prodigal student.”
Pavi rolled her eyes. She would never understand why Rita was attracted to people who made up rules just so there could be meaning in breaking them.
<As if you’ve never enjoyed breaking rules,> Mike said.
<That’s different,> Pavi said. A ripple passed over her scalp, almost as if a hand had run over her hair. Pavi grinned.
“Did you study while you were imprisoned?” Master Yao asked.
“I was in solitary. I watched movies and played catch,” Donegal said.
“Master Yao,” Pavi interrupted. “I need access to your network, and I’d like to have it before the small talk.”
“Is that so?”
“My sister is hiding on a breeched ship so she can sneak onto the ICA flagship. If I don’t get access to your network right now, my timing will be shot and she’ll get stuck there.”
“Magritte is operating against the ICA?” Master Yao asked.
“Yes. Now, my last prison break took two years to plan. I’m going to be dead in three weeks, so you’ll understand if I’d prefer keeping her out of jail in the first place.”
<About the dying…>
<Stop it, Mike.>
“I see,” Master Yao said. He pushed his tea cup away and raised his eyebrows as he studied her. “Magritte was impulsive like you when she first came to us.”
Suddenly Pavi recognized the name. <Is this the guy?>
<Yeah,> Mike said.
“You’re the bastard who made my big sister cry,” Pavi said.
His expression darkened. “I suppose I am.”
“Good, that makes this simple. You’ve got two choices. Give me access to your network, and I’ll wake it up. You’ll have an unintegrated AI that can claim the entire system as its sentient domain. Then the ICA backs off, or it breaks its agreement with the Aydan-machine, which they can’t afford to do. You’ll be safe forever. Alternatively, make me hack into your network and I’ll do the exact same thing, except when I’m done it’ll be domesticated, loyal to me, and pissed at you.”
Pavi could feel a wave of anxious disapproval from Aliph and Bett. She didn’t look at them. The distortion in the network around them was loud enough she could practically see them anyway.
“We do not want our network to become conscious. It is one of our founding principles.”
“And I’d let you go ahead and get buried with that, except you’ll be taking my sister down with you.”
“You’d overturn a civilization for one person?” Master Yao asked.
Pavi cocked an eyebrow at him.
<Say it,> Mike urged.
Pavi pointed a finger at her chest. “Pirate.”
Suddenly, Master Yao was chuckling. “Indeed. But would Magritte appreciate it?”
“She would,” Donegal said. “She knows Pavi’s plan. She and I both support it,” Donegal said.
Master Yao glanced at Aliph and Bett. “Principles aside, we also fear provoking the Aydan-machine.”
The siblings studied their teacups but didn’t appear to notice they’d become the center of the conversation.
“Master Yao, I believe the Aydan-machine wants us to do this,” Donegal said.
Aliph and Bett were so shocked Pavi could hear their exchange of surprise over the network. She glanced at them. They were looking at Donegal now, but their expressions didn’t show anything.
“Why is that?” Master Yao asked.
“I…I’m not at liberty to share everything. But I have reason to believe the Aydan-machine supports us. Its children came here willingly.”
<Close your mouth, Pavi. You look like a fish.>
<You can’t see me,> Pavi said, but she closed her mouth anyway.
<You feel like a fish.>
“And I don’t think it’s an accident that Pavi Valshorn came to Kempus for the first time, pissed off and freshly endowed with super powers,” Donegal said.
“Wait, what?” Pavi asked.
Donegal looked at her and shrugged. “Even if I didn’t know about Aliph and Bett, it would take an idiot to miss that you had a blood transfusion and then your interface suddenly got really good. Dead in three weeks confirms it.”
“Oh,” Pavi said.
“Sorry, by the way.”
The arguments Donegal was making to talk Master Yao into giving her access had done a lot to convince Pavi she didn’t want it. The idea that she’d been manipulated into coming here to wake up the Kempari network was enough to suck the fun out of cracking a unique system.
<They’re moving the Whimper to their flag ship,> Mike said.
Too late to change her mind. “I need your decision now,” Pavi said.
“I do not believe you can do it,” Master Yao said. “But until we have word of Magritte’s capture, you may try,” he said.
Suddenly, the foreign flow of the Kempari network shifted into a deep, welcoming pool. Pavi dove in.
Donegal watched with pride as Aliph and Bett switched through the basic positions perfectly. They’d only had time for a few ballet lessons before the interlude on the Harper’s Cry, and they hadn’t had time for any since then. But now they were waiting in Master Yao’s study, hoping Pavi could wake up the Kempus-machine in record time, and Donegal foresaw a lot of time for ballet.
“Good. Now plie, plie, gran plie,” Donegal instructed.
Starting with ballet was a bit unconventional, but as stiff and formal as the kids were, it seemed like the most natural direction to take for turning awkwardness to poise. They could hide a lot of unconventional body awareness behind formal dance training.
Donegal corrected Aliph’s alignment. “Stay aware of your lines. Your shoulders and your hips, all the way down to your ankles and toes, it matters. Otherwise you throw off your balance.”
Suddenly the siblings were both standing straight up, poise gone in a poof of their natural stiffness. “We would speak with you, Donegal d’Auchien,” Bett said.
Donegal cocked an eyebrow at them. “Okay. We’ll take a break and have some tea.” He went over to the table and began to heat water.
The siblings sat down across from him. “What you said about the Aydan-machine making this happen, it’s untrue,” Aliph said.
“The Aydan-machine has no interest in changing the Kempari, or waking their network.”
Donegal had served tea from this set three times before, each an honor so deep that what he remembered most was the nerves and panic. The ceramic pot with the ready-heat element built into the bottom felt good in his hands. This time, he would remember that. Prison had changed him, oh yes, but this seemed like a good change. “You’re not the only ones like you, are you?”
There was a pause, then they spoke together. “No.”
“The Aydan-machine desires a unique intelligence, one unrelated to it. The Kempari network is built with hardware manufactured on Aydan. Its primary software infrastructure originated on Aydan. The Kempus-machine cannot be foreign to the Aydan-machine,” Aliph said.
“Admiral Valshorn’s companion-machine is the only completely unique machine intelligence in the universe,” Bett continued.
“There are far simpler ways for the Aydan-machine to initiate communication with Mike.”
“Therefore Admiral Valshorn’s current plan is unlikely to be a consequence of a plot by the Aydan-machine,” Bett concluded.
Donegal pondered that. What they said matched enough of what Mystery Lady had said to make sense, and lent another piece of support to her claims. But Donegal wanted this to be part of the Aydan-machine’s plot, because it seemed like the only way there would be a cure for Pavi. People could linger with NRS. Rarely, so few nanites were left nobody knew about them until the patient died of cancer. But if the blood transfusion, and Pavi’s functional interface, were a consequence of the Aydan-machine wanting her to wake up other computers, surely it wouldn’t let her die.
Donegal was considering that when Aliph and Bett sat up very straight, wearing identical expressions of alarm. “What’s wrong?”
They turned to him, opened their mouths to speak, then slumped forward onto the table.
Donegal reached across the table and took Bett’s hand, feeling for her pulse. It was strong and steady, though elevated. Aliph’s was the same. Donegal walked around the table, and pulled open one of Aliph’s eyes. His pupil was dilated and his eyes didn’t track. Donegal stretched out Aliph’s arm, pinched him hard near the elbow, and watched for a response. Nothing. He got the same results with Bett.
“Are they okay?” Pavi asked as she burst through the doorway.
“No. They’re both in comas, deep ones.”
“Shit,” Pavi said. “I thought they were after me.”
“What’s going on?” Donegal asked.
“The ICA just locked a sync on their interface. They tried it on me too, but Mike slapped a patch on it before they got anywhere. They must not know about me; the fix was too sloppy for somebody who meant business.”
“They’re in a coma because the ICA hijacked them?” Donegal asked.
“Yeah, I think so. I can’t believe they’ve been on the run this whole time and never patched over a back door that big. Shit, I should have checked.”
The pot with the boiling water began to whistle. Pavi and Donegal both jumped. Donegal ran back around the table, cut off the heat, then poured it into the teapot he’d already prepared.
“I don’t think there’s anything I can do to help them without getting pulled in, and I’m too creeped out to find that fun. Can you take care of this?”
“Of course,” Donegal said. He wasn’t sure what could be done for a nanite-induced coma, but it couldn’t hurt to take them to the infirmary. “How’s it going?”
“I crashed the network.”
“Is that bad?”
“Yeah, but it happens. It’ll come back. And hey, nobody here has a chip, so they haven’t noticed yet.” Pavi’s expression went vague a moment, then her eyes narrowed and she snarled. “The ICA just launched a landing crew. Mike thinks they’re coming to get Aliph and Bett. I have to get back to work.”