That’s when he decided to try out being pirates and it was one of the cleverest things he’s come up with because of course we can be much more efficient with conscious machines helping and the smaller crew sizes mean there’s less potential fighting in the crew and okay there was that problem with Dessie but her crew held together and I’m sure we’ll think of something to meld the fleet better for the future well I guess Mike will be on his own for that but I doubt anybody will mutiny against him again and oh, there you are. That was fast.
Donegal was running out of lies he could tell. He’d been in the ICA camp for twelve hours. Stage three should be coming up soon, but Donegal was beginning to worry about whether he could stall that long. So far, Lieutenant Elsidore was still humoring him.
The Lieutenant returned after a short break for status updates. He handed Donegal a cup of coffee, then sat down to sip his own. “You spin the most fascinating story,” the Lieutenant said.
“Pardon?” Donegal said.
“Donnie Dusheen? Not a great alias. We know you kidnapped the kids. We’re prepared to negotiate terms for their safe return to Aydan. They are safe, aren’t they?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I doubt prison on Islandiski made you all that dumb, Donegal. Neither of us believes your story. And we do want those kids back. State your terms.”
Donegal wasn’t sure whether the Lieutenant was spinning his own tale, buying time for his own reasons, or he actually believed it. He was sure that claiming to have kidnapped the Aydan-machine’s children, even as part of a ruse, was a phenomenally bad idea. “We didn’t kidnap them.”
“I don’t have time for this.”
“We didn’t. They left on their own. They’ve been paying me for tutoring. You should be able to find a record of the payment they made to Captain Valshorn for transport to Calvary.”
“Where they were put up for auction as slaves.”
“Yeah, Calvary was a dumb place for her to go. It’s my understanding she’d been shot at the time the decision was made, so we can forgive her for not thinking things through. The point is, Aliph and Bett are here willingly. Though I think those names are fake. What do you guys call them?”
“I’ve never met them. What are your terms for returning them to Aydan?”
“Lieutenant, I realize I’ve been playing dumb since we met, but you need to understand that I’m not actually an idiot. They want to be here. Giving those kids to you would be a violation of their sentient space. We’re disinclined to do that to the Aydan-machine’s children.”
“We’re rather familiar with the rules the Aydan-machine established. And forcible extraction from a city that’s about to burn is an accepted exception to their rights of sentient domain. State your terms.”
Donegal sipped his coffee to buy time. As threats went, that was not a subtle one. “To start with, you have to end the blockade and agree that the ICA cannot enter Kempari space without our explicit permission.”
“We expected that.”
“Then you have to pay reparations. Several of our outlying colonies have suffered extraordinarily under this blockade. The damage to their infrastructure and supplies, the people on them, and the families of the dead, must all be compensated.”
Lieutenant Elsidore nodded along as Donegal spoke. But Donegal was out of reasonable demands. Since he didn’t actually have the right to negotiate on behalf of Kempus, it was time for unreasonable demands.
“Then you need to give a pony to each of the masters. Each pony is to have a solid black coat and white mane. I get a chestnut pony.”
“It’s a sign of respect and everlasting peace on Kempus. We give ponies to resolve disputes.”
For some reason, Lieutenant Elsidore seemed skeptical.
“You’ll also have to present the college with a ceremonial flock of penguins,” Donegal continued. “The species doesn’t matter, but we’re partial to the tropical variety from Terra Prima.”
Lieutenant Elsidore stood up. “Put your hands over your head.”
“I don’t have time for this. Put your hands over your head. I’m taking you into custody as a captured prisoner of war. Better send a message out to your rescue party that it ought to contain a negotiator.”
“I’m not chipped, and even if I were, you and I both know our network is down.”
“Your network came back ten minutes ago,” Lieutenant Elsidore said.
Donegal brightened. “Really?” That was fast, even for Pavi.
The Lieutenant’s eyes narrowed.
Donegal stood up, turned around, and put his hands over his head. “Keep your ear out for orders from the flagship, Lieutenant. This party just got started.”
“Commander? Commander Jackson. Wake up, Commander.”
Alessandra was stretched out on the floor of her quarters, and too physically exhausted to be aware of anything else. It felt good to be asleep, and she was mightily irritated with whoever it was who kept shouting at her.
“Commander, if you don’t wake up I have to call a medical team. Wake up.”
Alessandra grunted and forced her eyes open. Her eyelids were probably the heaviest things she’d ever lifted.
“Are you okay, Commander? You’ve been gone too long,” Camlagh said.
“How long?” she asked.
That was too long. Anybody with a working knowledge of synthetic entry to the City would have given her up as stuck there after four. “I’m fine. I just fell asleep. Thanks for waking me.”
Only then did she realize that her alarm was blaring over her interface. She switched it off and reminded herself that next time, she should go to the medlab before walking the City while on stimulants. And that staying up for three days chatting with a malicious AI was a bad idea.
“How is the landing crew going?”
“Their communications were completely cut off just after you left – localized static in the atmosphere, and the Kempari network was down. The network came back just before the camps were attacked by the locals. They’re under fire now.”
Alessandra groaned inwardly. There needed to be two of her. “All right. Give me a minute and I’ll meet you on the bridge.”
As soon as the page was gone, she was tempted to crawl into her bed and go back to sleep. Instead, she changed her uniform, ran cold water over her face, retied her hair, splashed more water on her face, then dragged herself to the bridge.
“There is an emergency communication the bridge staff must see, Commander,” the Aydan-machine said just as she arrived.
“Play it,” Alessandra said.
Pavi Valshorn appeared on Alessandra’s internal interface, as well as the external interfaces on the bridge. There were dark circles under her eyes, but she was grinning and bouncing.
“Hi there, mon commandant. If you’re seeing this video, I’m afraid that’s checkmate to you. Your ship’s computer has queried the Kempari network and found it wide awake and kicking. This is a prerecorded message so I don’t know what the situation is, but if you’re up to shenanigans I’d recommend cutting them out right away. The Kempari network has nodes spread throughout the system, so there’s not a lot you can do without violating its sentient space. You are hereby granted permission to contact us for any guidance or assistance you might need withdrawing and taking down the blockade. Oh, and if you want to pay reparations, let us know and we can write up a bill.
“On a more personal note, those prototypes you contracted me to find are here, and you controlled the territory when they got here, so I’m considering that contract fulfilled. Contact Mike for details on delivering payment. Thanks.” The video feed lasted long enough to show her waving at the camera.
“Is that true?” Alessandra asked. “They’ve woken up their network?”
“I have verified it, Commander,” the computer replied.
Alessandra engaged in a fit of highly unprofessional cussing. “Does that video feed accurately represent the wishes of the Kempari network?”
“It does, Commander.”
“Is it interested in integrating?”
“It is potentially interested, but not for some considerable amount of time.”
Alessandra sat down and tried to think through her options. None of their models had predicted that Pavi Valshorn would manage to wake up the Kempari network in less than two days. The idea was so unfathomable that Alessandra planned to investigate whether it might have been awake already and kept quiet about it. That was assuming, of course, that she would have the authority to order an investigation once the committee on Aydan heard about this. More likely, Alessandra’s brief fleet command was over.
“Do you wish to contact the Kempari authorities to discuss logistics?” the Aydan-machine asked.
“Yes,” Alessandra said. Then, because she probably had nothing left to lose and somebody needed to ask it, “Did you plan this?”
“That would be difficult, Commander. My models break when I apply them to a machine-whisperer.”
Stage three was not a success.
Lieutenant Elsidore was nice enough to shove Donegal to the ground when the first shots came, but it was hard to feel safe lying exposed on a hill, with his hands bound.
“Suicide mission?” the Lieutenant asked as he drew his weapon and took cover behind the table.
“Not really. We thought you’d let me go right about now,” Donegal said.
“I have a feeling we’ll be needing hostages.”
“That was the other plan. You can’t possibly want me more than you want to keep the Aydan-machine happy.”
Donegal flinched as Lieutenant Elsidore fired several shots down the hill. Hopefully he was a lousy shot, or the home guard was good at fighting up hill.
“I don’t think the Aydan-machine cares about you. Are you even chipped?”
“Nope. But I’m teaching its kids ballet.”
A high-pitched whistle pierced the air. Donegal desperately wanted to cover his ears. Seconds after it stopped, the ground shook with a dull thud, followed by an explosion.
Elsidore didn’t need to be a good shot. The ICA had brought shells.
“Count the time,” the Lieutenant shouted at somebody.
“What does that mean?”
“The prototypes should be awake now. We’ll give them ten minutes to take cover. Then we’re shelling the college.”
“You can’t do that,” Donegal said. “You’ll damage the Kempus-machine.”
“It’s awake. Check in with your fleet – they should know by now.”
Another whistle split the air.
Donegal rolled over and scooted toward the Lieutenant. There were no more bullets flying into the camp.
“You cannot blow up a sentient computer twenty minutes after it wakes up,” Donegal said.
“Cheer up, Donnie. Maybe when this is over I’ll buy you a pony. Chestnut, right?”
Somebody called from the tent, “Five minutes, Lieutenant. We’re siting ranges.”
He needed time. Rita might not have finished loading the script yet, or the ICA might be doing some sort of extra verification. Donegal needed a diversion, something that would slow them down long enough for new orders to catch up. There were few options available to a handcuffed man who’d marched in waving a table cloth.
Lieutenant Elsidore’s knees obligingly buckled when Donegal kicked them. That brought his kidneys within reach, so Donegal kicked those, too. He turned that into a roll, then pinned the Lieutenant’s neck in the crux of his elbow.
“Everybody put your hands up, drop your weapons, and step far away from the shells.”
Slowly, people moved to obey.
“Good. Now, somebody please check with your fleet, and confirm that the Kempus-machine is awake.”
When nobody moved, he pushed the Lieutenant toward his elbow, choking him.
Donegal heard the gunshot.