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Sitting alone in a vented ship, with no gravity and nothing but a space suit to protect you, was not Rita’s idea of a good way to pass the time.

“They’re letting us dock,” Linda said.

“Already?” Rita asked. “That was easy.”

“Pavi must be right. The flagship’s computer is a direct node of the Aydan-machine.”

“I’m with Donegal on this one,” Rita said. “How does she know that just from watching movies?”

“Browsing the options, not the watching. The movie menus populated at the same rate, regardless of which planet hosted them. That means her database requests were being cached at Aydan first. Only direct nodes do that.”

“Oh,” Rita said. “You just ruined all the magic. Don’t tell me any more of her secrets.”

“Got it, boss.”

As the Whimper’s Revenge was towed away, Rita hung out in the mess, doing a micro-gravity bop to music Linda piped across her chip. Hanging out in a vented ship wasn’t fun, but there was no reason she couldn’t make the best of it. She cut the feed when she heard clanking noises reverberating through the ship, indicating that something had sealed onto the damaged airlock. Then she pulled herself into a seat. A moment later, gravity returned.

“How’s it look?” Rita asked. Based on the video feed from the external interface, it didn’t look like there was anybody on the other side of the airlock, but Linda would have a better view of their surroundings.

“I don’t know what the ship’s computer will do when you leave, but there aren’t any humans outside.”

“Are there any approaching?” Rita asked as she dashed toward the airlock.

“I don’t know. The ship’s computer doesn’t trust me and won’t let me sync until I let it run a diagnostic.”

“You going to let it?”

“Boss, I do know Pavi’s loaded me with a bunch of junk. No way am I letting my alter ego get a look at it. I’d die of humiliation.”

“Noted,” Rita said. She stripped out of her suit now that there was a vanishingly small chance of finding herself without an atmosphere. Underneath it, she wore the uniform of an ensign with the tactical fleet. Rita had asked Pavi why she had an authentic uniform for a somebody fifteen centimeters taller than her, but Pavi had smirked and refused to answer.

Rita forced the airlock open with the help of a pair of spiders. Then she stepped into the flagship’s hangar and became somebody else.

Ensign Lettie Paracou sealed up the hatch on the renegade ship. She was bored, ten years on the same job with no promotion and no desire to receive one past a hankering for better pay and privileges, but at least the hatch on this ship was something new.

Ensign Paracou walked with a quick, short stride, her hands held primly at her hips, as she rushed across the hangar. Change of shift wasn’t for another hour and if she was quick, she could stream a bit of the latest soaps from Terra Prima before her section chief figured out she needed more work to do. She just needed to get to one of the manual interfaces for the ship – otherwise her section chief would know she was knocking off early.

“Which way?”

“Hang a right. There ought to be a break room with an interface fifteen meters down that corridor,” Linda said.

Lettie ambled up the corridor, nodding brusquely to the pair of crew-mates she passed on the way. She ducked into the break room, sneaky in the obvious way of lazy ensigns everywhere. The break room was empty except for the reek of overheated coffee. Lettie clasped her hands with pleasure, and sat down at the manual interface to log it into the public media access protocol. Then she dumped her feed requests into it.

The first request was a seventeen minute soap streaming from Terra Prima. It contained a script, much like millions of other scripts passing over media servers every day, that offered to install a customized subroutine. The subroutine would check with the node it streamed data from to determine 1) Is it conscious? and 2) is it integrated? Because millions of those scripts crossed the server every day and most of them were junk, the interface didn’t even give Lettie the option to accept it. Once the interface got to know the script better, had seen it pop up on a wider variety of legitimate content, then it might pass the offer to the end user.

Once the stream to the first video started, Lettie fired up another one. Lettie, as it turns out, was a great consumer of media. And her regular soaps just happened to be stored on the obscure but highly legitimate account of small time media mogul Mikavi, who put that little script in all his videos.


Alessandra drummed her fingers while she waited. She hated that she was fidgeting, but she was overstimulated and it helped her stay awake. According to her log, it had been eight minutes since the last time she’d asked for a status update. It felt like an eternity, but she had no intention of nagging her crew. She let another thirty seconds pass then, “Status update.”

“We’ve locked the sync, but we can’t initiate the data push,” Camlagh replied.

“What’s the problem?” Alessandra asked.

“Unclear. The access requests aren’t making it past the server.”

Alessandra cringed. The Aydan-machine was holding the upload, reviewing before letting it go, or refusing to let it go just on principle. She could get the data to push from a domesticated branch, but only a direct node had the authority to force the sync. “I’ll go do it manually,” Alessandra said.

“Commander, there are four other people in the fleet certified to synthetically enter the City. Two of them have clearance for interacting with the prototypes,” Camlagh said.

As if anybody needed clearance to interact with them anymore. Alessandra was tempted. She watched as her fingers continued drumming against the side of her chair. “I’m the only one who knows them personally. If the update isn’t coming from the Aydan-machine, it should come from me.”

“We could wait until we’ve retrieved them, give you some time off-watch, Commander,” the page suggested quietly.

Alessandra shook her head. “I don’t want to leave them trapped there that long. The Aydan-machine wouldn’t like it.” Nor should it. Over a month of spending her down time in the City looking for them, and she still found the place creepy and disturbing. The prototypes treated it like a playground, but it wasn’t the sort of playground Alessandra would want her kids trapped in. “I’m off the bridge.”

On the way back to her quarters, Alessandra double-checked the dosing recommendations. She ran a quick model to account for the stims she’d been taking, then ran it again to include the caffeine. She didn’t want to wind up trapped there, like the man sitting with the pigeons.

“You should stop for coffee, first,” the local node suggested.

“I’ve already had a lot,” Alessandra said.

On second thought, she’d probably want some when she came back. Alessandra hefted her thermos, then ducked into the first break room she passed. She barely noticed the ensign at the manual interface as she filled her thermos. Something about her felt familiar, though.

“Dodging work, ensign?” Alessandra asked. This close to a shift change, it was common to knock off early and take a break.

“Just stopping a moment, Commander,” the ensign replied.

Alessandra capped her thermos, then stepped over to see what the ensign was watching. “Four at once? That’s efficient.”

The ensign shrugged and grinned.

The grin sealed it. There was something familiar about this ensign, because Alessandra had been staring at files on her for weeks. “Don’t let your section chief catch you.” Alessandra sent a signal to security over her interface as she walked to the door. They’d be there in two minutes. At the door, Alessandra drew her sidearm and aimed it at the ensign. “Hands up and step away from the interface.”

The ensign turned and nervously pushed up her sleeves, revealing years of mission tattoos common among lifetime maintenance staff. “Commander?”

“What are you doing to my computer?” Alessandra asked. Pavi Valshorn might be dead, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t armed her sister with something dangerous.

The ensign slowly raised her hands. “I just knocked off for a bit, honest. I’ll work into the next shift to make up for it. Don’t tell the chief, Commander.”

Alessandra pulled up the file on Magritte Valshorn. She knew there were charges in there already, which would save her tired brain from having to come up with something new. She found them just as two security officers came into the break room. “Magritte Valshorn, you are formally charged with accessing restricted areas of the Interstellar Cartography Association’s headquarters under false pretenses, unlawful coercion of a committee vote, resisting and evading arrest, and the murder of Executive Raymond Calderos. You will be held in the brig of this ship until you can be delivered to Aydan for trial.”

“What are you talking about?” the ensign asked, her eyes wide as she sucked in her cheeks. “I’ve never been to headquarters. Check my records, honest.”

The security officers cuffed the ensign and pulled her out of the room. She didn’t resist. Alessandra was starting to have doubts. She was fried; it could be a mistake. “I heard about Pavi. Sorry.”

The ensign winced.

It could be a mistake, but it wasn’t.

Camlagh was waiting in the corridor outside. “Commander?” he asked.

“I just caught Magritte Valshorn trying to hack our system. Call the techs and have them figure out what she was doing and if it worked.”

“Yes, Commander.”

“I think we can relax about the Aydan-machine. It might be upset with us, but it’s not on their side.”

Alessandra hefted the thermos with pleasure, then marched off to her quarters. Too much time had passed since the kids were dragged into the City. She needed to get to them before anything else interrupted and she had to send somebody else.

In her room, Alessandra lifted a panel from the floor to reveal the Commander’s safe hidden there. Every ship had their safe hidden somewhere different. She gave it a moment to recognize her through her interface, then punched in her combination. It took it, compared the style of her entry with some combination of data points about her current physiological state, then clicked open. Alessandra sighed. She’d vaguely hoped it would reject her for being too drugged to trust.

From the safe she pulled out a small wooden box. It had a trick lid, a gift from the Commander she’d served under as a page. She slipped the lid off, then pulled out the pouch with needles. It took her a moment to find a good vein – she was still a little jittery – and then she double-checked to make sure she’d loaded the syringe with the dose her model recommended. Then she updated the model to account for how much time had passed since she ran it last, and made sure the recommended dose hadn’t changed. She jabbed the needle into her vein, closed her eyes, and pressed the plunger.

Only then did it occur to her that under these conditions, it might be smarter to do this in the medlab. If she got trapped in the City, she’d spend eternity hoping somebody strangled Mike.


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