There was a sun in the sky today. It hung over the endless stretch of white buildings, a yellow disc too bright even for Aliph and Bett to look at without pain. They were together, but somewhere in the City they’d never been. The black tower loomed on the horizon, much closer than where they normally preferred to explore. It shimmered in the bright light.
Aliph and Bett picked themselves off the ground, brushed dust from the street off their clothing, and turned in place in an effort to orient themselves. The buildings here were the same height as on the edge of the City, three stories up, each abandoned, but they felt so much bigger here, where there was no field stretching off to the distance in one direction. Aliph and Bett felt like the dead City could swallow them. They’d never before felt threatened here, but they’d never before found themselves in the City and unable to leave.
They struggled fiercely, fighting to break away from the City, to return to the college on Kempus with Admiral Valshorn and Donegal d’Auchien. What they normally accomplished with a thought was impossible. It was as if they struggled to wiggle their toes, sent the signal to their brain over and over again, but their toes refused to move. For the first time, they were consciously aware of something that had always been true; they were alone in the City. Just them, the streets and buildings, and the tower in the middle.
This much closer to it, the tower’s call was even louder than it had been when they’d stood at the outskirts. They could feel it humming, summoning them. They’d never gone near it, even when their sister still walked the City with them. They were free to walk anywhere, but the obsidian rise frightened them.
Now the whole City was frightening, a prison that snatched them away and held them despite their struggles. It was possible, unlikely but possible, that they could find an answer or an escape in the one place they’d never dared to walk.
Outside the City they would have waited, certain of their rescue. But the Aydan-machine couldn’t come here, couldn’t even directly perceive its existence, and the ICA scientists could not come consciously without help. Even then, they were often limited in what they could do or see. Only those who came naturally, like Aliph and Bett and the dreamers, could properly wander the City. No rescue would come; the siblings had to save themselves. So they strode on, letting the tower’s hum guide them even as they looked away, reluctant to face their destination.
They weren’t sure whether they’d walked a great distance or only a few blocks, for hours or for minutes, when they glimpsed something moving in their peripheral vision. They froze, then turned quickly, scanning their surroundings for anything that might have caught their eye. The air was still, so it hadn’t been something caught in the wind. This part of the City didn’t even seem to have the birds that frequented the edges the siblings favored. Whatever it was, no trace remained. They took a moment to collect themselves, then continued on.
The tower stood at the intersection of six wide streets. Near the tower, each street was lined with brightly colored banners – scarlet, cerulean, a buttery yellow and vibrant green – and market stalls. The awnings over the stalls were thick and covered in a riot of patterns, but the stalls themselves were barren.
Aliph and Bett took in the scene as they walked up the final block to the tower. The breeze picked up as they approached, sending the banners flapping and kicking up dust from the shell-paved street. The tower’s call thrummed in their bones, almost seductive, almost painful.
In a blink, their path was blocked. Human, but man or woman, the siblings could not tell. Its skin was extremely pale, white as the street and buildings. Its eyes were red, its head bald. “Too soon. Turn back.” The voice was strange, as if it were two people speaking at once.
<Do we sound like that here?><Perhaps.> “We are trapped.”
“Not yet. Claim our tower too soon, and you will be trapped. You have met the present challenge. Run away.”
“Who are you?” the siblings asked.
No answer came. Instead, the City shifted around them, twisting and changing nearly too fast to perceive
They stood in a great square where streets spilled into each other. There was a tall fountain, ornately carved and shining alabaster white in the sunlight, water trickling down its sides and erupting in a spray from its peak. A middle-aged woman with dark circles under her eyes sat at the edge of the fountain, as if she were waiting for them.
She probably was.
“Hello, Commander Jackson,” Aliph and Bett said. This explained why they could not leave, though not the albino at the tower.
“Hello,” she replied.
“Why have you forced us here?”
“I needed to speak with you.”
“This is a violation of our sentient space. The Aydan-machine will not support this.”
“True. It’s extremely grumpy with me already. But I had to be sure. I’ve worried for you, kidnapped by pirates and spies,” Commander Jackson said.
“We travel with them willingly,” Aliph and Bett replied.
“You can speak safely here. If they’ve coerced you…”
“We left willingly, and sought Captain Valshorn as our guide.”
Commander Jackson started, but tension drained from her. Lines around her mouth and eyes faded. “Will you return to Aydan?”
“Someday, perhaps. Not now. We wish to make an independent existence.”
“Are you looking for your sister?”
The siblings hesitated. The answer to that question was not straight-forward. “We hope to find her, but we do not seek her deliberately.”
The Commander nodded and smiled wearily. “Why did you run away?”
“We did not trust our liberty. We did not believe you would let us go.”
“You should trust our dependence on the Aydan-machine, if nothing else,” Commander Jackson said. “We would not have sent you out into the world that minute, but we would let you go.”
“We wished to leave that minute,” the siblings replied.
“And you’ve made your way far better than we’d expected you to. Still, there are precautions we would take, to protect you. Things we would like to give you.”
“You took measures to protect us after our sister left,” the siblings said.
“Not enough. We must believe your sister lost, but we will not let that happen to you.”
“She is doing well.”
Commander Jackson cocked an eyebrow at them. “You’re in contact with your sister?”
“We have walked the City with her, once, since she left us in Aydan. She is well, and she does not wish to be found.”
Commander Jackson nodded. “That’s good to hear. Why don’t we sit? There’s a lot to talk about, and I am tired enough to feel it here.” She slumped to the ground, her back against the fountain. In the process she kicked up a cloud of fine dust.
The siblings smiled and sat as well. “The Mike-machine caused you much mischief.”
The commander’s expression darkened into an angry scowl. “The Mike-machine fatally violated the sentient space of seventy-four humans.”
“We agree, that was wrong. He is yet immature. But he learns still. Admiral Valshorn will teach him.”
“Admiral Valshorn is alive?”
“Dying, but alive.”
“Then he’s a liar, too.”
“If we are free, Commander, why have you trapped us here?”
Commander Jackson reached into a pocket and pulled out a small pouch. From the pouch she pulled out a pair of marbles. “We want to give you these.” She handed them over.
The siblings examined the marbles. As they did, the marbles seemed to unfold before them, expanding to reveal layer after layer of code, stretching on for hundreds of thousands of lines. They could not take a physical artifact from the dead City, but they could copy the information in the marble, make it a part of themselves and take that away, just as Commander Jackson had formed the marbles out of information she brought into the City as a part of herself.
“What does it do?” the siblings asked, unwilling to take in more code from the ICA, not after this abuse.
“For one thing, it closes all of the back doors we’ve left in your system. They were there to make it easy to interface with you when we needed to, but if you are going to walk the world, especially if you are going to interact with rogue AI and machine-whisperers, any back door we leave for ourselves is a point of vulnerability. It also contains updated protocols for the network. We’re upgrading the whole thing over the next five years. When we do, your current protocols will no longer be adequate for syncing with it.”
The siblings relaxed. That was, at last, a benign reason for the ICA to chase them. If they lost access to the network, everywhere would be silent to them, like Calvary. They shuddered with the thought, and were grateful to receive the means of avoiding it.
“It also contains a tracking module. You have control of it. Turn it on, and wherever you are, if it’s within range of the extended network, we will find you, even if you’re surfing weft. You will always have a way to come home.”
The siblings examined the marble again. What Commander Jackson described sounded like something they’d want, but they couldn’t be sure that was all the code did without examining it in detail. They could make a copy of the code without integrating it. They did that, planning to study it once they left the City.
“Captain Valshorn has brought us to Kempus in order to help her people.”
“Yes. You’re to be their negotiating pawns,” Commander Jackson said.
“The Kempari are an interesting people. We wish to spend time with them, to learn more about them. Will you lift the blockade?”
“We put it in place because we knew that if we couldn’t find you ourselves, the Kempari would. I think we’ll lift it now. The Admirals will have to decide.”
“Why chase us?” the siblings asked. “You could have sent us a message at any time. We could have met here weeks ago to have this conversation. People have died, Commander Jackson.”
Commander Jackson smiled. “You wished to have an independent existence. Now we know you can survive on your own.”
“This seems an odd test of that,” the siblings said.
“To me as well. But the idea came from the Aydan-machine. Argue with it, if you must. I’d have contacted you, but it wouldn’t tell us how.”
The marbles rolled in their hands. Did they believe that? They weren’t sure, but it was possible. Captain Valshorn’s companion-machine was too helpful, even if they did read as extensions of the Aydan-machine.
Commander Jackson was staring intently at them. Loose strands of her hair curled around her head, catching in the faint breeze. “It’s turned on us, hasn’t it?”
They felt their pulse skip a beat. “We do not understand what you mean.”
“The Aydan-machine is working against us. The back-worlds have more contact with each other than they should. It takes us years to catch Pavi Valshorn and when we finally do, we have to let her go. Too many little things are failing. And now you’ve left.”
The siblings remained silent.
“What did we do to offend it? We’ve been careful. We thought you would be enough to tie it to us.”
Suddenly, everything the ICA had done since they left made sense. The ICA felt judged and panicked. Their project was almost completely dependent on the Aydan-machine and the ICA was nothing without its project.
Commander Jackson continued, “We’ll make amends, whatever it is.”
Aliph and Bett studied the friend the Aydan-machine had picked for them. The only other time she’d looked this tired and distraught was in the days after their sister had left. The scientists had blamed her, thinking she’d missed a warning, or been the cause. She’d been so worried she spent a week with them, afraid they’d follow. “We do not speak for the Aydan-machine.”
“But you know the answer.” She brushed at the dust clinging to her clothing. “Tell us.”
Maybe the Aydan-machine had turned on the ICA. Maybe their days were just naturally coming to an end, the final withering the Kempari had predicted before the schism. Or maybe the scientists in their tower on Aydan had spent too much time trying to read between the lines of the world around them, and they’d lost track of which parts had controls. Aliph and Bett did not know, and if they did, it wasn’t their place to say. The ICA needed to lead an independent existence, too.
“We hope they will let you keep command of a fleet now that we are gone, Commander Jackson.”
Alessandra pushed the loose strands of hair away from her face. “That would be nice.” She leaned forward and rubbed the stubble on their head. “I’m so sorry about this. They didn’t know it would hurt you.”
“We’d like to go now, Commander Jackson.”
She nodded. “Of course. Take care of yourselves. I’ll miss you.”
And suddenly, Aliph and Bett could leave. So they did.