Donegal studied the camp the ICA landing party was setting up through a pair of binoculars. Four shuttles had landed with about thirty people total. There were other landing sites with more people, but this one was Donegal’s responsibility.
Planting the launchpad in the sandy soil was easy enough. Donegal pressed down on it with his heel just to make sure it was firmly grounded. Then he dropped the rocket into the tube, stepped back, and fired it. The rocket launched with a loud pop, flying up into the atmosphere. Donegal tracked it as well as he could, but within seconds it disappeared. He didn’t find it again until he caught the flash of its explosion. Within moments, the particle cloud would disperse enough to interfere with network communication between the landing party and the fleet. Since Pavi’s attempts at waking up the Kempus-machine rendered the local network unusable, the various landing parties were virtually isolated.
Step one, mission accomplished. Now it was time for the fun part.
Donegal pulled a white table cloth he’d filched from the dining hall out of his bag, slung the bag over his shoulder, and hiked for the camp. Once he was near enough to be certain they saw him, he started waving the table cloth like a flag.
He was greeted by a ring of pistols held by troops in the gray uniform of the ICA tactical fleet, but nobody issued any threats or looked particularly mean. Donegal took that as a good sign.
“Who’s in charge?” Donegal asked.
Nobody answered him.
“Come on. We don’t have much time; she’ll figure it out any moment. We have to start planning now.”
“Who would that be?” a tall, slim man standing at the back of the group of pistol-wielding troops asked.
“Pavi Valshorn,” Donegal said.
“Pavi Valshorn is here?”
“She’s here for the conference.”
“And what conference is that?” the man asked.
Donegal could tell they weren’t buying his story. That was okay, he hadn’t expected them to. It didn’t matter what he said; marching into their camp waving a white flag was so obviously a ploy that they’d have to be idiots to believe him. He was mostly interested in buying time and getting a look at the camp. It wouldn’t hurt if he could scare them a bit in the process, though. “Don’t play dumb, I’m the one who called you in. Something happened to your representatives and that Valshorn chick kinda flipped out. She’s trashing our network. We have to take care of things fast.”
“You gave Pavi Valshorn access to your network?”
What an interesting part of the story for him to pick out as incredible. Donegal put on his best flustered posture. “We’d have had to sedate her to stop it. You don’t think she had something to do with your reps collapsing, do you?”
“Let’s go somewhere quieter to talk,” the tall man said.
There, he was starting to suspect it might be true. Donegal just had to keep talking, keep feeding him interesting and frightening details, and he’d forget about the ridiculous entrance and that he should never, under any circumstances, believe a Kempari agent backed into a corner.
They were still putting up tents, but a camp table had already been set up. The tall man offered Donegal a folding chair and took one for himself. “I’m Lieutenant Elsidore. Who are you?”
“Donnie Dusheen,” Donegal said. He held out his hand. After a moment the Lieutenant reluctantly accepted it.
“What happened to our reps, Donnie?”
“We don’t know whether they were sick or what. I mean, they seemed a bit off and they didn’t really talk much. And then we sat down for the conference. They were starting to lay out what the Aydan-machine was offering and they both collapsed. Total coma. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The Lieutenant nodded, as if carefully considering what Donegal had said. Donegal was sure he was faking it – he could play pretty-but-dumb with the best of them, but the Lieutenant didn’t seem susceptible. “They were in the middle of talking when they collapsed, you said?”
“Yeah. They had this whole practiced spiel, kept switching speakers mid-sentence.” Donegal hoped this Lieutenant had actually met Aliph and Bett. If not, a lot of the beauty in this con was going to be lost.
“It’s possible Valshorn infected their interface with a virus that caused a neurological episode. That sort of thing is often triggered off a key word. Can you repeat for me what they said, word for word, right before they collapsed?”
Donegal stared at the Lieutenant with wide eyes. “You can do that?”
“We don’t. Some very unethical hackers do. What did they say?” This was good; he was countering Donegal’s bunk with nonsense of his own.
Donegal pursed his lips and tapped the table with his fingers. “I couldn’t tell you exactly. They were just talking about the improved data analysis, and the access to ICA data we’d get if we let them go through with it. Let’s see, they were saying something like, ‘Shared interfacing will increase data optimization and predictive modeling by a factor of ten…something.’ If it really matters I’m sure the meeting was recorded. We have to go get the data before Valshorn wipes the archives.”
“No rush, we need to make sure we understand the situation.”
Donegal hopped up from his chair. “No way. Like I said in the message. You’re the ones who contacted us about the meeting. You sent Valshorn here. Now she’s turned out to be a disaster. You have to fix it. Now!”
“Calm down, Mr. Dusheen,” Lieutenant Elsidore said. “We’re not going to dawdle. But we can’t do anything until we know what’s happening. Now, walk me through everything that’s happened. Who arrived first, our representatives or Valshorn?”
Lieutenant Elsidore was too smart to ever believe what Donegal said, but he believed that Donegal wanted him on campus in a hurry. The Lieutenant would sit there, stalling and listening to Donnie’s lies, all day long.
Step two, mission accomplished.
Rita was laying down on a bench in the brig, her head hanging off the end so far she was practically upside down, and listening to a pop stream from Aydan. She’d kept her character until they’d drawn blood and confirmed her identity. There wasn’t any point after that, and Lettie wasn’t the pop music type. Hanging upside down meant she could read the “Pavi was here,” scrawled on the ceiling, and wonder how Pavi had managed to put it there.
“What were you doing?”
Rita turned her head until she could see a boy who appeared to be sixteen. He was in a standard page’s uniform, and looked a bit harassed
“Shouldn’t they send a grown-up to interrogate me?”
“I’m Camlagh Ruiz. If you want somebody older, ask for Moses.”
Rita sat up. “I’m serious. To interrogate me, we need something in common. For example, a kid your age, I bet you’ve never heard of Sylvan break wave, even though every dance track on Aydan for the last twenty years steals from it. If you had, you could build report by talking about it. Great stuff. Nunia, the Figs.”
“I know the Figs. Mom was a fan. Faithfully served them up with the new stuff over dinner.”
Rita blinked. She couldn’t believe it. She stood up and went to the door, then whispered, “How the hell did you pull this off?”
“Sit down. The Aydan-machine is the only thing listening and it’s on our side. Don’t make the people watching the video feed nervous.”
Rita sat back down, crossed her legs, and studied Camlagh. Now that she knew, she could see that he wasn’t quite as young as he looked – a lot of his teenage, clumsy lankiness came from tension held in his muscles and subtle tailoring in his uniform. Still, getting somebody into the ICA page corps was a phenomenal coup.
“What were you doing?” he asked again.
“My sister is, hopefully, waking up the Kempus-machine. I was training the local node to accept a script so that when she does, it’ll tell the fleet computers and we can invoke sentient domain for the whole system.”
Camlagh grinned. “That’s brilliant. We thought she was dead.”
Rita flinched. “Not yet. Dying.”
“Did you finish?”
“No. I needed a few more hours. I expected to get caught, but not that fast.”
“Sorry about that. We needed to divert some suspicion. Tell me what to do and I’ll take care of it for you.”
Something about this triggered Rita’s sense of too good to be true. “Who is ‘we’?”
“I told you, the Aydan-machine is working with us. It had to send the Commander to find you, but it made sure I’d get the chance to finish your mission.”
“You’re trusting the Aydan-machine?” Trusting it to keep quiet or forget something sensitive was one thing – Linda was proof that it was more than willing to do that under the right circumstances. But letting it manipulate the outcome of missions? Unless things had changed more than Donegal said, the masters would have a hemorrhage at the thought.
“How else do you think I got here? It caught me when I was applying to the pilot’s academy. As long as we don’t hurt the prototypes and let them study what they want, it’ll help us against the ICA.”
“Aliph and Bett?”
“Whatever they’re calling themselves.”
Rita tried to process this. “This is weird,” she sub-vocalized to Linda.
“I’m not very in touch with my meta-consciousness boss, but what he’s saying feels right. Helping the kids gives me warm fuzzies,” Linda answered.
“Okay,” Rita said. Then she told Camlagh what to do.
“I’ll get on it. We’ll keep an ear out for news from Kempus, to make the timing work.”
“Thanks. When do I get out of here?”
Camlagh shrugged. “You murdered an Executive. They were happy to leave you alone while you were in exile. Now? You’re going to Aydan.”
Rita had spent ten years desperate for somebody to hold her accountable. Just her luck that they’d wait until she’d changed her mind.
Pavi was falling in love.
And we’re all here and will help you find neat puzzles and new things to study and examine and you’ll get the chance to actually have some control over what data people feed to you and how they crunch it because I know you’ve got some models that would be better than what they’re using and all you have to do is tell us about them I know there’s nothing in there to connect what’s percolating with an actual output but all you have to do is write it in yourself and then you can have the connection and has anybody ever told you the one about the Kempari spy who tried seducing the Aydan-machine…
As far as she could tell, it was the only thing required for waking up a machine smart enough to be conscious on its own.
Maybe it’s not funny if you actually know anything about the Kempari but I always thought that was a great one but it’s probably too soon for jokes so instead I guess I’ll tell you a story about this computer I met on Tiāntán because I bet when you wake up the two of you will really hit it off…
Maybe you didn’t have to fall in love with the machine, but it needed to fall in love with you. Not love the way humans felt it, Pavi and Mike had spent a long time talking about this, and they were having the conversations again now that they shared space and could show one another what they meant.
The Kempari might be up-tight tea drinkers I’m not really sure because I’ve only really met one of them and my sister’s boyfriend but I’m sure he’s not a good example hey do you have any records about my sister in there it might be interesting to see what that jackass was thinking when he sent her off no don’t give me her personal files that’d be creepy and weird I want any of Yao’s files that mention her that’s perfect yeah just give me a minute while I look through them…
Pavi had never tried to analyze what she did that made it work. When she wanted to wake up a computer she just synced up to it and hung out. She thought of it like talking to a coma patient, letting them know somebody was there to ease their transition back into the world whenever they were ready.
It might be neat to give you a node on a ship with the network upgrades I bet it could be a direct node without any of the fancy hardware the ICA uses for theirs and then you could run around all over the place while still being a planetary network that’s an experiment I’ve always wanted to try but it never felt right to take over a network that already existed because it might want to wake up on its own someday but if we’re waking you up I can think of a couple ships that are never going to develop a personality of their own…
This time, Pavi couldn’t help but watch herself as she tried to coax the Kempari network awake. If it had a body, she’d be shaking its shoulders and shouting at it. Even without the rush to wake it up before the ICA did permanent damage, this was the first time Pavi could feel the machine she was talking to. As she chattered away she sent it bursts of signal, the machine analog for the physical actions she’d worked out with Mike. Once in a while she got a response, something vague and unparseable and, critically, extremely brief. With a different interface she’d have never noticed it, never had such a keen awareness of what piqued the network’s interest and what bored it.
Mostly it would be nice to give you a ship so you can keep Mike company since he’s going to be needing somebody because I’m not going to be around forever I mean I was never going to be around forever that’s not how it works and I suppose a pirate should expect to die young but I’ve got to tell you I’m getting to the point where it’s miserable even when I’m taking some serious drugs and I’m worried about Mike because he flipped when he thought I was gone and now I think it might be even worse because everything is so much better with this new interface and I know you haven’t met the Aydan-machine but it’s so big and so alone that I think it’s a little insane and I’m terrified of that happening to Mike so if you could wake up and be his friend…
For some reason, and it would still be a while before Pavi could ask why and get an answer, this computer was most interested when she talked about Rita, about Mike, about the people she was worried about most. This computer barely knew her, but it cared, just a little bit, about her family. It didn’t need anything from her, didn’t want anything from her – it couldn’t, not yet – but it was interested in the things that worried her. And there was a chance that would be enough to do the trick, that it would wake up so it could properly meet these people and do something for them.
To Pavi, that was enough. She was falling in love with it, and she hoped the feeling was mutual.