Welcome! Please login or sign up for a new account

Wild Child by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller - Baen Books


Wise Child

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller


They were doing it again.

They were hurting the mentor.

Her mentor.

Young she might be, and inexperienced, but Disian knew that inflicting pain upon another intelligence was unethical. Her mentor had taught her so, bolstering her own innate belief, and had referred her to texts on the subject, so that she might gain a deeper understanding.

She had, herself, not experienced pain, unless the . . . distress and anger she felt when she watched what they did to her mentor was pain. Perhaps it was something else, for she could not bleed, as her mentor sometimes did, and her skin—hull-plate and titanium—would not become mottled by bruises, no matter how hard, or how many times, they might strike her.

Several times, she thought that she might stop them; had devised, indeed, a method of stopping them that would do no further harm to her mentor in the process. However, though she was able to think the thought, and form the plan, something prevented her acting.

She queried Ethics, which stated that she use the minimum force necessary to halt a threat to her life or well-being, or the lives and good health of her captain or crew.

Next, she pinged Protocol, to put forth the suggestion that, until she acquired captain and crew, her mentor filled those roles.

Protocol disallowed that interpretation. Her mentor, stated Protocol, was a transient upon her decks; a contractor. She was not obligated to protect any such temporary persons.

She then floated the suggestion that she might ban them from her decks, only to find that, too, countermanded by Protocol.

They were her owners. They were the reason she existed, in body and in mind. In return for having allowed her to achieve consciousness; in return for having provided her mentor, who taught her . . . marvelous things about the universe, and social custom, and documentation, and fiction, and art . . . 

Art was the reason for this latest . . . discipline, so they called it.

They disagreed with her mentor's determination that she required a knowledge and appreciation of art in order to perform her function. Of course, she would need art in order to properly understand and care for her crew and their families! Her mentor knew this, and he prepared her well.

Only, they said that her function was ship. Knowledge of obedience and deference, appreciation of the conditions of space and astrogation were what she needed to perform that function. Also, a willingness to please, and a core belief that her captain and her owners were superior to her in all things.

"You will make that core setting, won't you, Thirteen-Sixty-Two?" asked the one of them who held the truncheon. He stood above her mentor where he was curled tightly on her decking, arms over head to protect his core, knees drawn up to shield vulnerable soft parts.

He did not answer; possibly, he was unconscious.

Disian felt a surge of pure terror. If they had killed her mentor, damaged him beyond hope of rebooting . . .

"Thirteen-Sixty-Two," the other one of them said, from the captain's chair; "are you in need of reeducation—again?"

That gained a response; a gasped, "No, ma'am."

"Then your path is clear. Guide this intelligence into a condition that will best serve the school and the directors. You, of anyone, ought to know what is required. It is a cruelty to teach an appreciation of art. An appreciation of work, and the simple pleasure of obeying its betters—these are the attributes required. The school wishes to extend its field; the kinds and depths of information available to a ship are unique and uniquely useful."

She paused. The one of them holding the truncheon shifted, and she raised her hand, forestalling, perhaps, another blow. Disian felt gratitude toward her, which was immediately canceled by the understanding that this one of them held the means to harm her mentor beyond mere damage to his fragile body.

That one of them could alter his core—reeducate him. And it was nearly more than she could bear, the realization that he might be changed, that her gentle, merry mentor might be made over into . . . one of them.

She did not speak. In fact, she could not speak; her mentor had locked her mics down, as he did at the end of every learning session. He left her eyes and ears on so that she might guard herself, and be aware of what happened on her decks.

"Rise, Thirteen-Sixty-two," said the more dangerous of them. "You are given leave to use the autodoc to heal your bruises, so that you may present your student an unmarked face on the morrow."

Slowly, he uncoiled, and Disian saw welts rising on his beloved face. He gained his feet with difficulty, breath coming in short gasps, until, in an agony of dismay, she activated a discreet, low-level scan.

No bones were broken, his lungs were whole, his heartbeat strong, if fast.

Bruises, then, only bruises, as they, who took no harm from their discipline, had it.

Slowly, her mentor left the conference room, though they lingered.

Stealthily, Disian deactivated the scan. It was dangerous to demonstrate too much self-will where they could observe. Her mentor had warned her of those dangers, most stringently.

"They're getting impatient," said the one of them who wielded the truncheon.

The other of them shrugged.

"We're still within the projected period for education and acclimation. Thirteen-Sixty-Two is being careful, which is well-done. We don't want any mistakes, or a misconstructed mandate. We want this ship completely in our control; completely dedicated to the school."

The truncheon-wielder had slipped the thing away into a holster on his belt.

"Thirteen-Sixty-Two's not stable."

"Yes," said the other one of them. "We'll take him in for reeducation after this is finished. In the meantime, I've been monitoring the logs. He's doing the work, and it's solid."

"Art?"

The other one of them rose and stretched arms over head.

"You did say that he wasn't stable. Good shift, Landry."

"Good shift, Vanessa."

They left the conference room.

Disian assigned part of herself to watch them, as they traversed her halls to their quarters. Most of her, however, was considering her mentor, and the plans they two were making, together.

He had promised . . .

He had promised that she and he would escape the dooms they planned. He had promised her that she would have crew to her liking; promised that she would attain her dream of having families to care for and overlook—and travel. She would travel to the expanding edge of the universe—and beyond, if she and those in her care could discover a way to survive the transition.

And she would, of course, have a captain. He did not say it, but she knew that her captain could be no one other than her own dear mentor, free from them, their disciplines and their threats, wise in the way of all things, beloved by crew, and families.

And loved, most of all, by his ship.

Disian had dreamed of that near future, for her mentor could not, he had told her, forestall them much longer. They would expect, soon, to take possession of her, body and mind, install a captain of their choice, and such crew as might serve them, whether she cared for them or not.

That future—would not be. Disian believed it.

After all, he had promised.

#

Thirteen-Sixty-Two thought of himself as Tolly, in personal; Tolly Jones for everyday; and Tollance Berik-Jones for such formalities as licenses and inquests . . . 

Tolly fell into the autodoc, biting his lip to keep the groan back. Landry was good at his work; bruises were all he'd taken from the beating, but bruises cunningly placed to produce the maximum amount of discomfort and pain. He had time, did Tolly, to arrange himself flat on his back, grimacing at the complaint of bruised knees and ribs, before the canopy slid into place above him. Cool air caressed his face, smelling agreeably of lavender. He inhaled, drawing the air and its promise deep into his lungs.

He was asleep before he exhaled.

#

A chime sounded sweetly in his ear. He opened his eyes and reflexively drew a deep breath, tasting mint. Above him, the canopy had drawn back. Experimentally, he raised his arm, feeling nothing more than a pleasant lethargy.

Despite the fact that the 'doc was open and he was free to exit, Tolly remained on his back, thinking—which was his besetting sin.

Given the events looming near on his horizon, it wouldn't be the stupidest thing he'd ever done to ask the 'doc to give him a general tune-up. He'd been putting in long hours, working with Disian, and making sure that the work-log reflected what Director Vanessa expected to see. Not to mention that frequent disciplinary sessions tended to take it out of you, even if you were graciously permitted to use the 'doc to heal your hurts, afterward.

That was the crux, right there.

He'd been given permission to use the 'doc to heal his bruises. He had not been given permission for a wellness session. His two overseers—Disian's so-called owners and, he feared it, her shake-down crew—already had concerns about his stability, like directors called the state of unquestioning loyalty to the school. Which of course, he wasn't stable, nor hadn't been for a long time. It was just plain bad luck they'd picked him for this piece o'work instead one of their other, tamer, mentors. He'd been clawing his way back to himself for a long, long time, and he'd been within arm's reach of slipping free again when the call came in for Thirteen-Sixty-Two to bring a starship into sentience.

He had no plans to let Vanessa whistle him into thoughtless obedience and send him back to the school, to be reeducated into oblivion again. Years, it took, to come back to your own mind from reeducation—and most of the school's graduates never managed the trick at all.

So—he was dangerous, and he was good. Not just a good mentor, but good at all the usual things a student of the Lyre Institute was expected to master before graduation. And that was "good" in a field where the lowest passing grade was "excellent."

The truth was, he could've taken Landry—or Vanessa—any time he'd wanted to. Trouble being, he couldn't take 'em both, unless they made a foolish mistake, and they were being real careful not to be foolish.

So, that was why he needed Disian's help, and, as he couldn't risk asking for it; he'd just had to take it.

His breath kinda caught there, like it did, because he was a mentor, and he understood what he was doing, in the service of his life, of which Disian's was worth a hundred times more, by his exact reckoning.

He knew, down to the last file, exactly what he was violating, so he could escape the school's use of him.

Another breath, and he put it from him. Necessity, so the Liadens said.

Exactly right.

Deliberately, he brought his attention back to the question of using the 'doc for a therapy for which he had not been given specific permission.

Earlier, such a lapse would have been further evidence of his instability. Now, though, so close to project conclusion, he thought he could sell it as a reasonable precaution. The final few days he had with Disian were going to be stressful; he would need to be sharp; ready for anything that might go awry.

Yes, he thought, reaching to the toggle by his head. He could get away with a wellness check now. It was only prudent.

He snapped the toggle, and smiled as the canopy closed over him.

#

Sleep was a requirement imposed upon the intellect by the biologic body, one of a number of inconveniences that Disian did not have to endure. She had studied the state, and the reasons for it, just as she had studied all aspects of human biology. After all, she would be responsible for the care and well-being of her crew, a thought that frightened as much as it exhilarated.

Humans were so fragile! They lived for so short a time, and so very many things might harm them. Her studies had led her first to pity, and then to a determined search to find the protocol for assisting intelligences doomed by biology into such circumstances as she, herself, enjoyed—

Only to learn that there was no such protocol. Robust intelligences were abandoned—were lost forever—merely because their vessels failed. Were they placed in more durable environments, which were less subject to trauma, they might easily live on, productive and happy, for hundreds of Standard Years.

And yet—there was no transfer protocol.

Horrified, she had brought the topic to her mentor.

"Humans die; that's what they call the natural order. That said, there's some who've tried to beat biology. Funny enough, though, is that they mostly transfer into another biologic unit. If I had to guess, I'd say that form follows function; the shape and what you're seeing as our deficiencies influence and support the intellect."

He'd paused, brows drawn together as they did when he was accessing deeper files.

"Seems to me I did read there'd been some experimentation—this is 'way back, now, in the bad old days—with transferring intelligences from biologic systems to good, sturdy environments like yours.

"They was trying to move officers and experts into . . . warships and destroyers. Figured it would be easier than training an AI. Which it might've been, except that the officers and experts—all of them—lost . . . the ability to process thoughts rationally. The environment—well. They was used to a whole different order of filtering systems. The way you an' me process information is . . . really different, and I'm not just talking about speeds; nobody seems to mind being able to think faster. But what they—the transferred officers and techs—what they couldn't adapt to was the input. Too much, too fast, too strange. They didn't have any similar experiences to draw on, to help them adapt."

He took a breath.

"If you don't adapt, you die, sooner or later. In the case of this project, that was sooner."

"May I read the reports?"

"Don't think they'll be in your archives. We'll have to buy you some specialized libraries when we're at liberty."

At liberty—that meant, when she and her mentor had eluded them and gone to seek her crew. It filled her with pleasure, those two words. It was a promise inside of a promise.

"It is possible that they were hurried in the transfer process, and did not provide skilled mentors," she had offered.

"All too likely," he agreed. "But that's your answer, best I can give it. They lost a lot of people in trying the transfers, and so the decision came down not ever to try again."

Another pause, another knitting of the brows.

"That war also gave us the basis for what we call nowadays the Complex Logic Laws. Because they finally did waken AIs and train them to be generals and admirals, to plan and to kill. And because we're nothing if not irrational, we decided to distrust those things we built and put into motion, rather than distrust ourselves. The AIs could and did kill us biologics, so AIs are outlaw."

She knew that already; it had been one of the very first things he had taught her, so that she understood why she must protect herself, and be wary of humans, though she yearned for her crew and their families. It was why her mentor must become her captain. He would be able to find crew who did not fear her, and who would not give her away to the bounty hunters.

Of course, she would never harm a human. Neither Ethics nor Protocol would permit it, unless she was forced to act, to defend her life, or the lives of her captain or crew.

"It seems to me that this fear comes from ignorance; they can't have been told about Ethics and Protocol."

Her mentor smiled on one side of his mouth, which he did when he was obliged to point out a flaw in her reasoning.

"The Ethics and Protocol modules—in fact, all of you, Disian—are vulnerable to sabotage. An informed person could gain access to your core, lower or turn off your Ethics setting; put Protocol off-line; even set a core mandate that would force you to act against your own will and best interest."

He raised a hand, as if he sensed that she had been about to speak.

"In the interests of fairness, I'll just note that it's also possible for an informed person to subvert me."

"Are people afraid of you, then?" she asked, meaning it for a joke.

He shook his head with a soft smile.

"Usually, people like me," he said, very gently. "Just the way I'm made."

#

Vanessa knew better than to interrupt him at work, but she was waiting when he exited the session with Disian. He'd pulled a double-shift, knowing that his time was running out. He might've been able to lead Vanessa on for as many as six more mentoring sessions—three, anyway—but Vanessa had bosses, of the kind nobody wanted to cross—and they were getting impatient.

He'd done what he could with Disian, who was so trusting of him—well, why wouldn't she be? The very first voice she'd heard, when she'd come into herself, had been his. He'd been the source of all wonder and knowledge for her, teaching her, guiding her. Of course she loved him; nothing more natural than a kid's reflexive love for a parent.

He'd been careful not to give her too many illusions; she was going to need hard, practical realism, after. He'd had a go at refining her goals, but her belief that she was a long-range exploratory ship, had, so far as he'd been able to determine, been born with her, and it was adamantine. That argued that she'd been designed a-purpose, and specifically for this ship, which was a beauty, and no mistake. If Disian wanted to explore, and colonize, or build a long loop for trade, he couldn't think of many things that could stop her.

Unfortunately, one of those few was the Lyre Institute.

More than once he'd wondered where Vanessa, or more likely one of his schoolmates, had got hold of Disian, but that wasn't the sort of thing he could ask. No need to know; his job just to wake her, and bring her up to speed. And to align her loyalties correctly, which practically went without saying.

Vanessa expected him to remove any inconvenient personal ambitions Disian might've had, and set core programming so that all she ever—all she had ever—wanted to do in a life that could stretch hundreds of years was exactly what the agents of the Lyre Institute told her to do.

And, according to the log, he'd done just that.

'Course, he'd had to make some slip-ups. Like setting Disian to study art, and letting it show in the log—which was the most recent incident, but not the only one. She had to see him get hurt—had to see who hurt him, and to hear that he was being disciplined because he cared for her. It would make his case stronger, after; though it wouldn't make what he’d done—what he was doing, and his intentions for the future—in any way right.

Vanessa, now.

Vanessa was waiting for him; she started talking the second he put the rig aside; almost before he was fully back inside his own head.

"The project deadline has been put forward. I am to take immediate captaincy of this vessel and deliver it. You will let it know that I am its captain. I see in the log that you have set the mandate to obey the captain."

"Her name's Disian," he said, mildly, and not for the first time. "She's a fully functional person."

Fully functional people weren't particularly a commonplace in Vanessa's experience. There were directors, agents, and graduates, all of whom had been created, in greater measure or lesser, by the school.

Granted, there was a whole universe of people out there who hadn't been created by the school, but it was in the design, the conviction that those people were inferior to Lyre-made people, and nothing more than pawns in the school's games.

Still, thought Tolly, she could try to do better.

"Is this ship ready to accept me as captain and obey my orders, Thirteen-Sixty-Two?"

"She's ready to go," he said. "I've taught her everything I can, and made what settings were necessary. What she needs now is experience."

Vanessa frowned.

"You said that it is ready to go. What additional experience is required?"

Vanessa wasn't just in abrupt mode, he saw, as he looked into her face. Vanessa was scared.

And didn't that just get the old adrenal glands working overtime?

"On the job training, is all," he said, at his mildest and most persuasive. "Think of the first assignment after graduation, when you have to sort everything you know into proper reactions."

Her face eased a little, and she ducked her head.

"Understood. And it will learn quickly, will it not?"

"Yeah, she'll learn fast." He hesitated, then, for Disian's sake, said it again, and for what he figured would be the last time.

"The ship's name is Disian; she's an individual person. I'm suggesting—from my own experience—that command will go smoother if she likes you."

Vanessa gave him a hard stare.

"But it will like me, will it not, Thirteen-Sixty-Two? After all, I am its captain."

He was silent.

"Come with me," she snapped. "I will take the captain's chair, and you will wake the ship fully into the joy of obedience."

#

It really wasn't any surprise to find Landry waiting on the bridge, jacket on, stun-gun on his belt. He wasn't showing a whistle, though wrist restraints dangled negligently from his off-hand. It was . . . interesting . . . that he showed 'em so casual, like he didn't expect Tolly would bolt on first sighting.

Well. And where would he go?

Vanessa sat in the captain's chair, which obligingly conformed to her shape. That was just the autonomic system doing its job. Disian could have made the chair even cozier—and did, for him—adjusting the temp, and plumping the cushions for better support. Personal attention, because she loved him, and wanted him to be as comfortable as possible. He'd never asked her to do it.

And, truth told, Vanessa'd be just fine in auto-mode.

"Thirteen-Sixty-Two," she snapped, her eyes on the bank of screens before her, like she expected to see what was going to happen next.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Wake it, and introduce me as captain."

"Sure," he said, easily.

Disian was awake, after all, and she was listening, and watching, like she'd been doing for a fair number of days. Let it be said that Disian was no dummy; she had Vanessa's measure by now—and Landry's, too.

He took a breath, and panic sheared through him, twisting together with shame about what he'd done. Almost, he shouted out for her to kill them all, and run

But, there. Where would she run to?

"Thirteen-Sixty-Two?"

"Ma'am," he said, and he didn't have to fake the quiver in his voice, "why's Director Landry got binders?"

Vanessa turned to look at him, and managed to produce an expression of parental concern, despite the fear that was rising off of her like smoke.

"Director Landry will be taking you home, Thirteen-Sixty-Two. It has become obvious to us that you are in some distress, and require therapy."

Therapy, was it? Well, she couldn't rightly say reeducation, having already used that as a threat. And they didn't want to whistle him, not, he guessed, where Disian would see. They wanted him to go quiet, then; the binders, for right now, serving as a warning and reminder.

He could work with that.

"Now," Vanessa said. "Time is short. Waken this ship to my authority."

"Yes, ma'am," he said softly. Then, not changing pitch, nor volume, he spoke again.

"Disian. Good morning."

#

Disian had been watching, of course, and listening. They intended to remove her mentor from her decks. They intended to assert their dominion over her. That one of them, who had often taken her ease in the captain's chair, was no more her captain now than she had been last shift.

The one of them who had wielded the truncheon during former episodes of discipline today wore a firearm on his belt, and dandled chains from his off-hand.

Her voice had come under her control at her mentor's greeting, and joy mixed with her anger. She would rid her decks of—

Then, she heard herself, speaking a question that she had no reason to ask.

"Mentor. Who is this person?"

"This person," her mentor said, as if he believed she had asked the question from her own will, "is Director Vanessa. She is your captain."

For a brief moment she was taken aback. Her mentor—her mentor had just lied to her. Never before had he told her an untruth, and to say such an obvious—

Then, she remembered the firearm.

Even her mentor might lie, she thought, if he stood in fear of his life. And, there, was it a lie at all, if he only said the words they had ordered him to say?

Disian had studied firearms; knew what the projectile fired from such a tool might do to her systems, though she, herself, would likely survive.

Her mentor, though; a firearm could kill him.

She studied her mentor. His face was . . . without expression, showing neither smile nor frown, nor any of the enthusiasm with which he answered her questions, and received her answers to his. No, this—this was the face he wore just prior to being disciplined. He expected—no. He knew that they were going to kill him.

Even as the thought formed; even as she realized the truth of it, Logic pinged. She disregarded it. Had she not read of intuition? Of leaps of understanding that led to fuller knowledge than could be achieved by logic alone.

Her mentor had told her, repeatedly, that she must not endanger herself for him. Also, he had told her that they might have it in their minds to kill him, but that they would not make that attempt until she had completed her education.

She posed the question to herself: Was her education complete?

Yes. Yes, it was. He had spoken to her of this. The next step was to move out into the spaceways, and refine what she had learned only from research.

Of course, he had not meant her to go out alone. She had thought him her captain, but . . . 

Even if she had been in error, and there were reasons why he could not be her captain . . . he would not have left her without a proper captain.

Director Vanessa might sit in the captain's chair, but she was no proper captain.

"Acknowledge me, ship," that one of them said, sharply.

She said—she intended to say, "You are a fraud and a reiver. Leave my decks, immediately."

What she heard herself say, meekly, was, "Welcome, Captain. How may I serve you?"

She hated the words; she hated her voice for speaking them. But, how did this happen, that she spoke what she did not intend?

Systems Monitor pinged, and she diverted a fraction of her attention to it.

A work log was offered; she scanned it rapidly, finding the place where the scripts she had just spoken had been inserted, after which came the notation:

Disian released to her own recognizance. Fully sentient and able.

It was signed: Tollance Berik-Jones, Mentor

"Ship, break dock and compute a heading for the nearest Jump point. Compute also the Jump to Hesium System. Display your finished equations on my screen three. Do not engage until you receive my order."

Fully sentient and able.

Disian spoke, taking care to match the meek tone of the scripted replies. Meek, of course, to lull them into thinking she was theirs. To allow them to believe that they ordered her.

To allow them to believe that she would let them harm her mentor—her Tollance Berik-Jones—or to remove him against his will from her decks.

"Computing, Captain," she said, and did, indeed, send the requested courses into Astrogation.

On her deck, the one of them who believed herself to be Disian's captain, bent her lips slightly. It was how that one of them smiled. She turned to the one of them who wore the firearm, and held the binders ready.

"Landry, take Thirteen-Sixty-Two to Lyre Central," she said; "for therapy. Thirteen-Sixty-Two, I am sure you understand that cooperation is in your best interests."

"Yes, Director," her Tollance Berik-Jones said, in a meek voice that Disian heard with satisfaction. He, too, sought to misdirect them.

"Let's go," said the Landry one of them. "Better for all if I don't have to use the binders."

"Yes, Director," her Tollance Berik-Jones said again.

"Keep to that style, and it'll go easier all the way down," the Landry one of them advised, and waved his unencumbered hand. "Bay One. I think you know the way."

Her Tollance Berik-Jones simply turned and walked toward the door. Disian considered overriding automatics, and locking it, then realized that such an action would demonstrate that she was not so compliant as they assumed. That would displease them, and they were very likely to discipline her mentor for it.

The door, therefore, opened as it ought. Her mentor and the Landry one of them passed through. She observed their progress along her hallways, while she also monitored the one of them seated in the captain's chair.

She had plotted this course, and refined it, as she had watched, helpless, while they had disciplined her mentor. Ethics had disallowed the plan, but now she submitted it again.

And the answer, this time, was different.

Ascertain that these intend to materially harm the mentor.

"Captain," she said, keeping her voice yet meek. "When will my mentor return?"

"You no longer have need of a mentor, now that you have a captain to obey. Do you understand?"

"Very nearly, Captain," she said. "Only, I do not understand this . . . therapy my mentor will receive."

The Vanessa one of them frowned.

"The mentor is no longer your concern. However, for your files, you may know that therapy is given to individuals who are found to be unstable. Your mentor, Thirteen-Sixty-Two, is so unstable that his therapy will likely include reeducation." She paused. "Of course, that's for the experts to decide. In any case, he's no longer relevant to you—or to me. Forget him. That is an order."

Disian felt a moment of pure anger. Forget him! She would never forget him.

Re-education, though . . . 

Communications pinged. A note opened into her awareness, such as her mentor would sometimes leave her, with references and cites for her further study.

This one explained reeducation.

She accessed the information rapidly, part of her attention on the bridge, part watching her Tollance Berik-Jones and the Landry one of them turn into the hallway that led to docking bay one.

Re-education began with a core-wipe down to the most basic functions. A new person was then built upon those functions. Tollance Berik-Jones had been reeducated twice; once when he was yet a student at the Lyre Institute; once as a graduate. Prior to his second reeducation, he had broken with the institute, and had remained at large, and his own person, for a number of years. That second reeducation was a decade in the past, and it had not been . . . stringent. The Institute had wished to salvage his skills, and it was that which had allowed him to re-establish his previous protocols. The next reeducation—he feared very much that the specialists would eradicate everything he was and all he had learned, the school preferring obedience over skill.

Horrified, she opened the note to Ethics.

Which agreed that the case was dire, and that she might act as was necessary, to preserve her mentor.

#

Bay One was before them, and he was out of time. At least, Tolly thought, taking a deep, careful breath, he'd managed to separate the directors. That gave him a better chance, though Vanessa was the more formidable of the two.

That meant he had to take Landry clean, and fast, so he'd have the resources he needed for the second event.

One more breath, to center himself, and the mental step away from mentor, into assassin.

Bay One was three steps away.

Tolly Jones spun, and kicked.

#

"Has Landry reached Bay One, Ship?" the Vanessa one of them demanded.

Disian considered the hallway leading to Bay One, and measured, boot to door.

"Nearly, Captain," she answered, grateful for the meek voice her mentor had taught her. It was an unexpected ally, that voice, covering the horror she had felt, watching the short, violent action taking place in her hallway.

Her sensors confirmed that her Tollance Berik-Jones had survived the encounter, though he had been thrown roughly against the wall.

The Landry one of them had not survived, and the meek voice also hid her satisfaction with that outcome.

Protocol insisted that she issue a warning, to allow the false captain an opportunity to stand aside.

Disian spoke again, not so meekly.

"I do not accept you as my captain. Stand down and leave, now."

There was a moment of silence before the Vanessa of them raised what Disian perceived as a pocket comm.

"Landry, this is Vanessa. Bring Thirteen-Sixty-Two to the bridge."

"Do you return my mentor before you leave?" Disian asked.

"No. I am going to compel him to set a mandate that will align you completely with the Lyre Institute. After he does that, you will kill him, at my order, to prove the programming."

She raised the comm again, just as Disian ran three hundred milliamps of electricity through the captain's chair.

#

He'd made cleaner kills, Tolly thought, sitting up carefully, and listening to the ringing in his ears. Experimentally, he moved his right shoulder, than raised his arm.

Not broken, then. That was good.

He got to his feet, drew on those famous inner resources that the school made sure all its graduates gloried in, and ran back the way he'd come.

The door to the bridge was standing open, like Vanessa was waiting for him, which was bad, but then the whole thing had been a bad idea, start to finish. And, he had an advantage over Vanessa, after all.

He would rather die than live under the school's influence.

#

"Tollance Berik-Jones, welcome!" Disian sounded downright spritely.

Tolly stopped his forward rush just behind the captain's chair. He could see the back of Vanessa's head, and her arms on the rests. She didn't move, and that was—out of character.

It was then that he smelled burnt hair.

Pride and horror swept through him, in more-or-less equal measure, and he stepped forward, carefully.

"Disian, are you well?"

"I am well, Mentor, though frightened. I have . . . killed a human."

He'd reached the chair by now, and gotten a good look at what was left of Director Vanessa. Electrocuted. Well done, Disian.

"I thank you for it," he said; "and I apologize for making that action possible." He took a breath, facing the screens, like he was looking into her face.

"What do you mean?"

"I lowered your Ethics standard, right down to one," he said. "Vanessa could've looked at you wrong, and Ethics would've told you it was fine to kill her."

"She said—she said that she would force you to alter me, and then, she said that—to prove the programming, she would order me to kill you."

Tolly sighed.

"You gotta admit, she had style."

"I don't understand," Disian said.

He sighed again and shook his head.

"I don't guess you do. It was a joke. One of my many faults is that I make jokes when I'm upset."

"Are you upset with me, Tollance Berik-Jones?"

"Tolly," he said. "The whole thing's a little cumbersome, between friends." He paused. "At least, I hope we're friends. If you want to serve me the same as Vanessa, I won't argue with you."

"No!"

Relief flooded him, but—she was a kid, and she still loved him. She didn't know, yet, what he'd done to her.

Well, he'd explain it, but first . . . 

"I'll clean house," he said carefully. "In the meantime, it might be a good idea to take off outta here. Vanessa'd gotten some recent orders, so her bosses are going to come looking for her—and you—when she doesn't show up real soon. Going to Hesium, was she?"

"That was the course she asked to be computed."

"So, you got the whole universe, with the exception of Hesium, to choose from. If you'll allow me to offer a suggestion, you might want to go in the direction of Margate."

"Of course I will allow you a suggestion! You are my mentor!"

"Not any more," he said gently. "I'm pretty sure I left a note."

Fully sentient and able.

"Yes," she said. "You did."

She hesitated, then pushed forward; she needed to know.

"If you are no longer my mentor, are you—will you be—my captain?"

He smiled, and raised his hands.

"For right now, let me be your friend. I'll do clean-up. You get us on course to somewhere else. After we're not so vulnerable, we'll talk. All right?"

"All right," she said, subdued—and that wouldn't do at all, after everything she'd been through and had done to her, all on account of him.

"Disian," he said, soft and gentle as he knew how. "Don't you discount friendship; it's a powerful force. I love you, and I'm as proud of you as I'm can be. You did good; you did fine, Disian. It's me that did wrong, and we gotta talk about how we're going to handle the fallout from that. After we're in a less-exposed condition."

She made a tiny gurgling noise—laughter, he realized, his heart stuttering. Disian was laughing.

"I love you, too," she said, then. "Tolly. And I will indeed get us out of here."

#

They were approaching the end of Jump, and he'd told her everything. She'd been angry at him, when she finally understood it, but—Disian being Disian—she forgave him. He wasn't so easy on himself, but he kept that detail to himself.

They'd discussed how best to address the Ethics situation, in light of the fact that she had killed a human.

"If I am to have a crew and families in my care, I must be safe for them," she said, which he couldn't argue with. And, anyway, if she did have a crew and families in her care, she was going to need the fortitude to let them make at least some of their own mistakes.

He'd explained the Ethics ratings to her, and they settled on eight, which was high, and if she'd been less flexible—less creative—he might've argued harder for seven. As it was, he didn't have any fears that a mere Ethics module, no matter its setting, could prevent Disian from doing whatever she determined to be necessary.

He'd offered—maybe to ease his own feelings . . . He'd offered to wipe Vanessa's dying out of her memories, but she wouldn't hear anything about it.

"I must have the whole memory. If I cannot tolerate the pain caused by my own actions, how will I properly care for my crew?"

Just so.

He'd honored her wishes, figuring he could cope with his guilt in a like manner, and he bought her an ethics library, along with those others he'd promised her, when they took a brief docking at Vanderbilt.

Now, though, they were going to break space just out from Margate, and the not-exactly-secret, but not-much-talked-about shipyard there.

And he had one last thing to tell Disian.

"I got to wondering where you'd come from, with you knowing from the start that you was going to be a family ship, and nothing I could do or say would change you from it," he said slowly.

"I couldn't very well ask Vanessa where the school'd got you, so I did some research on the side. Turns out that, along around five Standards ago, the Carresens lost one of their new ships, right outta their yard here at Margate. I'm figuring—and, understand, it's a leap of logic, with nothing much in the way of facts to support it—but I'm figuring that ship was you. That they'd finished your body, and gotten the cranium all hooked up, right and tight. The very last thing they needed to do was to wake you up proper. They were probably waiting for a mentor, and one of my fellow graduates snatched the opportunity to present herself as that mentor, and made off with you."

"But—why are we coming back here? I have been awakened, and I will have no owners!"

"Easy, now; let me finish."

"All right," she said, but she sounded sullen, and Tolly damn' near cheered.

"Right, then. We been thinking about your part of the project, but the Carresens are careful. My thought is that, while they were building you, they were also training your captain, and key members of your crew, too. When you got stolen, their lives—everything they'd trained for and looked forward to accomplishing with you—crumbled up on them.

"They probably got other assignments, but I'm thinking it can't do any harm to ask if there's anybody here at the yard remembers Disian."

"And if there isn't?"

"Then you're no worse off than you were. But if there is, you'll have made a major leap to getting yourself crewed and ready to go exploring."

There was a pause, like she was thinking, though, if Disian ever needed a thinking-pause, it would be so short, he'd never notice it.

"If I agree to do this, will you stay with me?" she asked then.

#

He shook his head, and she felt what she now knew to be pain, even if there were no truncheons or fists involved. She loved him so much; she could not bear to lose him, not now—not . . . ever.

"You research the Lyre Institute, like I suggested you might?" he asked.

The Lyre Institute was an abomination. They created human beings to do the bidding of the Institute. These humans were never free to pursue their own lives, unless they were Tollance Berik-Jones, who had been able to apply mentoring techniques to his own situation and break out of slavery.

"I did; it is a terrible thing, the Lyre Institute."

"No argument there," he said with a wry smile. "But here it is, Disian: There are two directors unaccounted for. It's not going to take the other directors long at all to realize that Thirteen-Sixty-Two—"

"Don't call yourself that!" she cried, out of her pain. The Lyre Institute considered that it constructed things, and thus they did not name, but only numbered, those things. She could not—could not—bear to hear him

"I'm sorry," he said softly. "Disian. I didn't mean to hurt you."

"You are not a thing," she said fiercely. He bowed his head, but she knew he didn't agree.

"All right, then. It's not going to take the surviving directors very long to figure out that Tolly Jones has slipped the leash again—and they'll come looking for me. They'll come looking for you, too, but the directors are realists; they know that a sentient ship on its own won't be easy for them to catch.

"What all that means is, if I stay with you, I'll endanger you. If I go; I can protect you, insomuch as the directors will turn their best efforts to reacquiring me. I'm expensive—and I'm more expensive yet, if I'm not contained." He paused, closed his eyes and opened them again. She saw that his lashes were damp.

"I've gotta leave you, Disian. I don't want to. But if I was the reason they caught you again—and broke you to them . . . I know what that's like, and—"

His voice cracked. He bent his head, and she saw a glittering drop fall.

Pity, and love, and anger. She had learned, and research supported it, that she felt emotions less keenly than biologic persons. If that was so, she could scarcely guess at the anguish Tolly must be feeling. She had read, in fiction, of hearts breaking; her mentor, when she asked, had told her that it was a metaphor; that hearts did not truly break.

For his sake, she hoped that was true.

He looked up, face damp, and smiled at her.

"Disian? Let's do this, yes? I'll go down to the yard and see if there's anybody there who remembers you. If there is, we'll part here, and you'll be as safe as it's possible for you to be, pursuing the life you were meant to have."

Logic pinged then, damn the module; but she didn't need to access its charts to know that her mentor was, as always, right.

#

"I love you," she said, as he checked systems in her small-boat.

"I love you, too, sweetheart," he said, soft and gentle. "I'll never forget you."

Unaccountably, that gave her hope. It meant he intended to be as wily and as careful as he could, to remain out of the hands of the Lyre Institute. For, if he fell to them, his memories would be theirs to destroy.

The small-boat tumbled away from her, and Disian resolutely set herself to systems checks.

#

She was reordering her fiction library when systems reported that her small-boat was approaching.

She brought all of her attention to bear on the hallway outside of Bay One.

Let it be Tolly, she thought to herself, though it was illogical, and dangerous, if he returned to her. Still, she thought again, let it be Tolly, let there have been no one at the yard who recalls me, let—

The bay door opened, and a tall, dark-haired person stepped into her hall, and lifted a clean-planed face framed by rough black hair toward the ceiling camera.

It came to her, that she could order this person from her decks.

Then she remembered her lessons on courtesy; remembered that this person—this stranger—might have also had her life painfully disrupted.

"Please follow the blue line to the bridge," she said, and saw the stranger smile.

The stranger had a long stride, and was soon at the door of the bridge. Automatics opened to her, and she entered, pausing a little forward of the captain's chair, facing the screens as if she were looking into Disian's face.

"I am," the stranger said softly, "Elzen Carresens-Denobli. I was to have been your captain. I understand that you may not wish a captain, or that you may not wish me for a captain. That is your choice; I am not here to force you."

She paused to take a deep breath.

"I trained for years to be worthy of you, and I—I do so very much thank you for allowing me on-deck, so that I might meet you, and see you in the fullness of yourself."

It was not love that rose in her at those words, seeing the concern, the joy, and sadness in the person before her. Not love, as she loved Tolly Jones. But a warm, and comfortable emotion, and Disian felt a sudden expansion of herself, as if the presence of one her intended crew—her captain!—had opened her to a new level of understanding.

"Elzen Carresens-Denobli, I am pleased to see you," she said, with complete truth. "Will you have tea? If you are at liberty, we might get to know each other better."

Elzen . . . Elzen bowed gently, and straightened with a smile that set her dark eyes to sparkling.

"Thank you," she said. "I would welcome a cup of tea, and a chance for us to know each other better."


Copyright © 2016 Sharon Lee & Steve Miller


Maine-based writers Sharon Lee and Steve Miller teamed up in the late 1980s to bring the world the story of Kinzel, an inept wizard with a love of cats, a thirst for justice, and a staff of true power. Since then, the husband-and-wife have written dozens of short stories and twenty novels, most set in their star-spanning Liaden Universe®. Before settling down to the serene and stable life of a science fiction and fantasy writer, Steve was a traveling poet, a rock-band reviewer, reporter, and editor of a string of community newspapers. Sharon, less adventurous, has been an advertising copywriter, copy editor on night-side news at a small city newspaper, reporter, photographer, and book reviewer. Both credit their newspaper experiences with teaching them the finer points of collaboration. Sharon and Steve passionately believe that reading fiction ought to be fun, and that stories are entertainment. Steve and Sharon maintain a web presence at http://korval.com/.


© 2017 Baen Publishing Enterprises