The Aydan-machine’s children had run away. It was simple, to the point, and unacceptable. Stellar service in the fleet followed by phenomenal work with the intelligence branch didn’t matter. Alessandra was supposed to be their friend, their tether, but the Aydan-machine’s children had run away. The Admiral was very sorry, but the Executives on the committee insisted. This time, the Aydan-machine said nothing to defend her. She could dismantle the blockade and bring the fleet back to Aydan, but after that, her career was over.
Mahkrim was dead, and she’d probably never see the kids again. Even her routine had abandoned her.
That’s how, ten hours after first watching Pavi’s video, Alessandra found herself in the ship’s brig. Rita Valshorn was sitting upside down on a bench, her feet tapping time against the wall. The tattoos on her arms were beginning to fade already.
Alessandra didn’t know what she wanted to say. She pulled up her interface, synced with the brig’s sub-system, and ordered the cell door open. Rita sat up when the door slid aside, but she made no move for it. “Donegal D’Auchien is dead. Your sister is dying. I’m having trouble seeing what’s wrong with killing Executives. Go home.”
Something, somewhere, had gone terribly wrong, and despite turning Rita Valshorn in, Alessandra suspected the Aydan-machine. She’d dismantle the blockade and take the fleet back. Then she’d have her chips removed and move somewhere with a dumb network, maybe Primus Drie.
But first, she was going to get some sleep.
“You okay, boss?”
“I could do an extra orbit, if you need time.”
“That’s a good idea.”
Rita closed her eyes and listened to the silence as the Whimper’s Revenge, battered and broken as it was, descended through the Kempari atmosphere. How quickly she’d gotten used to having other people on board with her. How strange that the engine noise and music streams suddenly weren’t enough.
The ship landed, but Rita didn’t move. She didn’t know what to do. She’d just saved Kempus from the ICA for the foreseeable future and escaped with her life, but why? Donegal was dead and Pavi was dying. Rita, on the other hand, could look forward to a long life on an empty ship.
“You have quite the crowd waiting, Magritte.”
Rita hadn’t heard him come in, but Master Yao was standing behind her.
“I could send them away, if you like. It is more important to give you the welcome you need.”
Rita took a breath, but she didn’t know what to say.
Master Yao took a seat next to her, then reached out and squeezed her hand. He’d been old when she left Kempus. Not much had changed – he was thinner and had a few more wrinkles, but he had the same energy, the same glint in his eyes. It was like he was up to something, but far too dignified to let on. “I am pleased you came back.”
“Mahkrim said you’d remove my ink.”
Master Yao frowned, and suddenly he looked much, much older. “If you wish, yes. Do you want me to arrange it?”
“How did he die?”
“He was preventing them from shelling the college. Shot through the head.”
“Shot?” Rita was shot, but it only left a scar. Pavi was shot, and she claimed to have ascended to godhood. Donegal was shot, and he was dead.
He had the worst luck.
“You two were very close before you left.”
Rita thought about Loki, and Morgan, and the trip between them. She thought about a kiss on Tiāntán and spooning in a tent. She thought about cheating. “We still were.”
She wasn’t going to return to the Kempari for Donegal – he hadn’t been enough to stay when he was alive. But she wasn’t going to leave just because she could, either. Loki was dead and the Kempus-machine was awake. This was not the same place she’d left.
“Can I post-pone the removal?”
“Of course, Magritte. But you will always have a place here, ink or no. We owe you a great debt.”
“Don’t,” Rita said. “I just…I’d rather sit with you for tea.”
“That would be quite nice. We’ll do that now.”
Outside the ship the air smelled like sea water and gaspum fruit and wisteria, just like she’d remembered.
“Are you still partial to sailors, Magritte?” Master Yao asked.
Rita felt her cheeks burn. “Yes. Why?”
“There’s a new bar by the port you might like. Someone described the clientèle as ‘very square.’”
“Master Yao, are you using sailors to bribe me into staying?”
“Kempari persuasion need not always be subtle.”
Pavi rushed into the room the Kempari had given her and riffled through her bag. She paused long enough to cough, clutching her sides, then went back to searching. After several agonizing moments she found the bottle. She poured a pair of pills from it into her hand, then dry swallowed them. More coughing, and she sat down on the edge of the bed until the spell passed.
She didn’t have time for this. Studying Aliph and Bett had made her realize all kinds of things the Aydan-machine could do, even with a normal interface. If the Aydan-machine tried anything sketchy with Rita’s chip, Pavi wanted it to give back as good as it got. She could tell already that Mike would have to do most of the work, and that was frustrating.
Threads of gentle pressure ran down her shoulders, tingling along her spine; a pat on the back from Mike. <It’s no big deal, Pavi.>
Pavi jumped. Aliph and Bett were standing in her doorway, and it was a sign of how distracted she’d been that she hadn’t noticed them until they actually spoke.
“Hi, kids,” Pavi said.
<You are becoming quite ill, Admiral Valshorn,> they said. It took Pavi a moment to realize they hadn’t spoken out loud. At least that meant nobody would overhear them.
<I’ve still got a few weeks.>
<You could suppress it, have several more months.>
Pavi shook her head. <I’ve already told Mike, wasting away in a hospital isn’t better.>
The siblings stepped forward. Each took one of her hands. It was the first time she’d seen either of them touch someone deliberately. <The Mike could be rendered a clean room. It will be safe for you to take immunosupressants there. And we will be there to care for you when that is insufficient. We will oversee the transfer.>
<What transfer?> Pavi asked.
<Admiral Valshorn, the nanites are part of you. They map onto you, mirror your physiological systems. When your body dies, they will still be able to integrate with Mike. You can merge with him. The resulting machine will be neither of you, but both of you. It will kill him while resurrecting you, in a sense.>
<I couldn’t ask him to do that,> Pavi said.
<He has already expressed consent.>
<I’ve been trying to ask you to do it for days, but you always cut me off,> Mike said. <This was my idea.>
<Admiral Valshorn, we have lost our sister. Let us care for you in her stead.>
Pavi thought about it. She loved computers, couldn’t help but love them, but she’d never wanted to be one. Still, it had to be better than letting her body kill itself, and her with it. <Mike, do you really think it’s a good idea?>
<I think we’d make a monster. But a fabulous, fantastic monster. And I’d rather warp my protocols than lose you.> Her whole body broke out in waves of soothing warmth, and her vision momentarily sparkled with bursts of optical fireworks.
<That’s sweet,> Pavi replied. “Let’s do it.”