In another galaxy…
I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror that morning. -Mik Rile
Was that a weapon? That was illegal on Visily! The man in shiny boots jammed my cheek against an airlock hatch and twisted my arm high behind my back. He kicked my legs apart. I’d only been doing my job, inspecting the docked spacecraft. The man jumped from the hatch before I could read the serial number and pressed a smooth-headed rod to my nape. Security scans in the orbital queue should have found the rod and the man.
I didn’t struggle, not even when he groped me through my work coverall. I had dropped my portable scanner, busting the housing, but he wasn’t interested in my equipment. He checked the pockets of my baggy suit, pulled out my spen, tossed it beside the portable, and it skidded along the ground. He found a metal wafer, my ID.
Behind me, another man barked in an alien language. My captor eased up on my arm, and I sagged. I couldn’t see the second man’s face, just his hand. A glowing stream of data appeared above his palm. He was reading my ID. What did they want with me? I was only a single woman with a flat, parents, and a myna bird. I performed inspections of clean ships, merely a dockworker.
He mangled my name with a bad accent, but that was me, Jubilee. Dad called me Jubjub.
“Yes or no?”
I whined. “You’re hurting me. Please, let me go.”
The second man snapped at my assailant again, and the man twisting my arm swung me to face the craft’s yawning hatch. The glowering foreigner holding my ID was dark-haired and clean-shaven. He wore a Visilian business suit, and his boots gleamed like a bureaucrat’s, but his genetics were wrong. Visilians didn’t have indigo eyes, only black.
I monitored her sleep for hours and watched her cheek darken from red to black. Beneath the injustice was beauty. When she woke, beneath the beauty was a gentle soul. -Mik Rile
I woke to a resentment like simmering sludge. I suspected drugs, but we didn’t physically violate people on Visily. We had laws and followed them. That’s why we had nice things: pure air; planetary healthcare; peaceful cities; and pristine preserves. Yet, resentment was still an inappropriate response. Those men could have killed me!
My bitterness gave way to my physical sensations lying on my back on a padded slab. Twice I’d been in space and knew the characteristic hum of a starship, recognized the artificial gravity subject to detectable deviations. More profound than either and nothing to do with space, I felt the intangible thrum of a sophisticated AI. Warm tears dripped to my ears.
From the depths to which the spaceship had lured me with her thrum, I struggled toward the surface of perception. I swiped at my eyes and probably sat too fast. My vision blurred, and I swayed.
A man grasped my shoulder to help. I remembered his unusual eyes from the spaceport. Instead of Visilian business clothes, he now wore a flightsuit with characters etched across his left breast. Though I inspected alien ships for a living, information was typically in universal atomic code read with a spen, not labeled with text. He glanced at his chest, where I was staring.
“My name,” he said. “Ytar Mik Rile.”
I looked blankly.
“Call me Mik.”
His strong accent was gone. I tugged free of his grip, and he sat back in a tall stool buoyed on rings of white light, which shifted like a spring with his weight and balanced at a stable angle.
“Where am I?”
“I’ll answer your questions as well as I can. Drink some water first. That’s the tranqs.”
I gulped, tipped the glass, and sucked the last droplet that rolled.
“I’ll get you more.”
I drank again, my eyes popping. How had I even cried? With a deep sigh, I handed him the empty glass. He propped his elbows on his knees and hooked his shiny boots on a light ring of the stool. The room’s light was too intense and the wrong spectral band, aniline, alien.
“Jubilee, I’m sorry about the tranqs, but it was safer for you. We don’t want you hurt.”
I rubbed my shoulder, the one the man had twisted. It hurt. So the abduction was real, and this man in the brown flightsuit, despite the water and gentle words, was not my friend. He had taken me from work and drugged me unconscious. Not just from the dock, but into space!
From the start, she was atypical, and I didn’t have sufficient training to deal with the anomalous abilities she displayed. Of course, no one else did either and better me to protect her. -Mik Rile
“You’re aboard K’seng,” he said. At least Mik could answer a direct question.
“I want to go back to work. Why am I in space?”
“You feel that, do you?”
“You told me.”
“I said you were aboard K’seng. She’s a ship, but I didn’t tell you we were in flight or in space.”
“I can feel the engines. Why did you take me from work?”
“You shouldn’t be able to feel the engines, Jubilee. K’seng has singularity propulsion.”
“Then the baffles. I feel that. Or other systems. She must power other systems with alternate energy sources. Why are you talking about the engines? I want to go home!”
His eyebrows drew low in a scowl, and he shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry, Jubilee. We were too rough on Visily. We scared you. It’s not what I wanted, but Visilians are the most paranoid isolationists in the Arm. I tried every conduit to get to you. Your government wouldn’t let our ship close, wouldn’t even let me send an envoy. This was the only way.”
His explanation was incomprehensible. My chest ached. Right behind my sternum as if my lungs were compressed. Maybe the atmospheric pressure was set too high.
“Why me? What do you want?”
“For your talent with the sentient ships.”
He’d known my name at the spaceport, had read my disc to confirm it. There was no record of any talents. I had none.
“I’m an inspection drone. You saw my ID.” My voice was shrill. “I’m not even an engineer or a pilot. I studied scanning technology in school. I have an occupational certificate. That’s on the disc you took from me, and I need that back, too.” I was panting. “I need that to get past security for work. If I lose it, it will take spans to file for a new one. I’ll have to go through all kinds of verification checks, and I’ll lose wages, vacation time, and…you’re ruining my life! I want to go home!”
I scanned the wall behind the man, Mik, with biolectric charge and found a switch. When I checked, the door panel wasn’t locked, but where could I go on an alien ship in space? My eyes flicked back to Mic.
He leaned in the chair, and the light rings responded to his movement, drifting closer to my bench. He lowered his voice as if confiding in me. “Calm down. Give me a chance to explain the situation.”
“Situation?” I squeaked, soprano, childlike. I felt like laughing, surely not the healthiest emotional reaction.
“Situation, Jubilee.” He rumbled, deep, soothing. That scared me. “Let’s talk about this. I don’t want to repeat the tranq to keep you calm.”
“No! Don’t do that to me! Please!” I had no control but was conscious. It was something.
“Will you give me a few minutes to explain?”
I licked my lips and rubbed my forearm under the sleeve of my coverall. My skin was ashy and cold. He was waiting, focused on my face as my glance roamed the featureless walls. Though the panels were plain, I skimmed biolectrically over embedded service tech of a personal berth. He almost convinced me, but I was from Visily, where suspicion of aliens was cultural, practically endemic, and violence abhorrent.
“What was that other man holding? At the dock? Was it a weapon? Were you going to kill me if I didn’t come with you?”
He drew a deep breath and held it in his chest before exhaling in a tired sigh. “It was a weapon, a beamer. It was only to be used as defense if we were discovered. The other man is a fellow officer, Ytar Umar Rodin. He gets…carried away.”
“He hurt my arm, and my—” I put my hand to my cheek. It throbbed. That explained my headache. Or was that the tranquilizer? Or the alien, violet light!
“I can get you something for the pain. It won’t happen again. I had a talk with Captain Pau, and she assured me it wouldn’t. Jubilee, my people are not a bad people, just embroiled in our problems and our methods. I never meant to hurt you. Will you give me a chance to ease your fear? And your injuries?”
He was surely manipulating me, but I never hurt so much. “Can you mend my shoulder?”
“I’ll take you to the infirmary. The medic will help.”
K’seng knew the protocol as well as anyone, but could not have predicted how she’d feel when Jubilee Wistler came aboard. Though she knew it was wrong, the ship summoned her and, Jubilee, as she was born to do, swiftly responded. -Mik Rile
In the shiny corridor, I feared rashly extending biolectric. I might inadvertently open an air lock and blow myself into space. Or trigger a low oxygen protocol to smother fire, and we’d pass out. I wasn’t overtly clumsy as a child, but I wasn’t adept. I was careful with unfamiliar tech. My cautious biolectric use had been an asset at the technical institute and, later, at my job, where conformity was more important than initiative. As I walked alongside Mik in the lighted corridor of the ship, squinting at the overly bright light, I kept biolectric close and quiet. It was taxing to keep up with his longer strides. I stretched and hopped, and he grinned when he saw I was struggling. That irritated me.
He slowed down, so I could keep up. “You don’t look twenty-four,” he said.
“I am. You saw my disc.”
He knew everything about me, my height, weight, familial relationships, my address in Visily City, my peanut allergy, medical history, the name of my trade school, the VIT. Even my genome was on my ID. I knew nothing about him except his name, Mik. My paranoia was rampant. I suspected the harsh lighting of breaking mental barriers. By the time we arrived at the infirmary, my skull clattered with rivets and pins.
“Please, the lights….” I said, mourning, and reeled through the door Mik opened.
“It’s the tranqs. Grab her!”
The medic darted and caught me before I stumbled into a pillar of medical equipment with twinkling panels and hidden tech that crackled, brushing my skin with potential. His flightsuit was brown like Mik’s, maybe a uniform. I jerked and backed into Mik. I was trapped. Ions surged and twirled in my chest. Turbulent charge triggered nodes and switches, initiating a high-pitched quartet of warning chimes, a raucous choir, and the pillar of medical equipment lit with a dozen, blazing alarms. Someone, maybe the medic, countered the alerts I inadvertently tripped. The stanchion went silent. The lights overhead dimmed and shifted toward yellow, the color of Visily’s star.
“Jubilee.” Mik’s voice was low and deep. “Calm down. We’re only here to get you a pain pill.”
“This is her?” asked the medic.
Her? The her? Who the hells was I?
“Jubilee Wistler. She just came off tranqs. Thirsty, disoriented, and she has injuries.”
“I see her face…”
“That was Umar. He jumped before I could stop him.”
Why were they speaking Visilian and without an accent? Oh, K’seng. K’seng!
Hysteria leaked from my chest like water swirling down a drain. I stood straight in my coverall to see past the men, ignoring Mik as he cataloged my pains in perfect Visilian. K’seng!
I dragged my gaze from the walls of the ship. She enclosed and protected me. But why was she here for me?
Mik’s eyebrows were low in the scowl I already knew too well. This time he was worried. “Have a seat. You don’t look well.”
Didn’t I? I felt better. I took the seat with lighted rings like springs and waited obediently while the medic flicked a medspen over me. With the current data he was obtaining, coupled with my medical history and the genome on my disc, surely shared with K’seng, the starship, there was nothing this young man wouldn’t know about my physical condition.
“Jubilee.” The medic addressed me, reminding me of my myna bird at home. I was teaching her to say my name, so I repeated it over and over while in my flat. It was like that here, my name–endlessly.
“I’ll administer something for the pain. You won’t feel it, but I want you to know what I’m doing.”
“Is that your ethics?” I asked.
“It’s common sense. I don’t want to scare you.”
Mik stepped in. “You’re not a prisoner. No one wants to hurt you. Let the medic relieve your pain, and I’ll get you something to eat and more to drink. You’ll start feeling better soon, not so confused.”
“I want to talk to K’seng.”
“We can talk about that after the pain reliever,” Mik said.
“Just do it. You’re going to do it anyway.”
Mik nodded to the medic, and my chest didn’t feel so tight, my lungs not as deflated. Each light on the medical obelisk was distinct, not twinkling and blurring. Mik’s clean-shaven face wasn’t as menacing. His violet-blue eyes not as alien. The medic, whose name I didn’t know, had eyes like coffee, skin like molasses, and his hair was dark, shiny, and curly. Watching me, Mik grinned, and the medic’s expression was smug.
“Ready for something to eat?” Mik asked cheerfully.
“No. I still want to talk to K’seng.”
The medic interrupted. “She should eat, and she needs fluids to flush the tranquilizers. The byproducts are still in her bloodstream. What I gave her only temporarily relieves the side effects.”
“No! I want to talk to her now!”
In my earlier ionic surge, I’d touched numerous nodes, and I remembered a few, distinctly the door. I ran.
K’seng translated that, too, as she’d done all along. A strip of gentle, algal light glowed on the corridor wall, a path to guide me. Overhead, the lights dimmed to ease my Visilian eyes. I had a friend on board, and she called through the thrum.
K’seng, too late, realized her mistake, and I inherited the mess she made of Jubilee. -Mik Rile
Mik chased me in the corridor of gleaming organochrome, but I had a head start, and K’seng guided me. Her gleaming walls provided safety, and the panel she opened was inviting.
Here, she said, the first time I heard her voice processor; I would never be the same.
A dozen people in brown flightsuits on buoyant, glowing stools swung their heads in surprise as I blundered in the room. A tall woman rose from a bobbing seat and strode forward as if to stop me, but K’seng spoke again.
Captain Pau, this is Jubilee Wistler. She’s here to talk to me. She won’t interfere with ship operations.
Captain Pau’s hair was cropped short. Darker than the flightsuits worn by the crew, her umber uniform was burnt brown.
“Welcome, Jubilee.” A crisp stance, hands clasped behind her back, belied her greeting. She wasn’t glad I was here.
I only glanced. The room breathed with tech, denser than in the medical bay. On a small starcraft, I knew my way through control arrays, but nothing of this complexity. I crept across switches and nodes on biolectric toes, searching for access to K’seng. The crew was equally alive, watching me, and the captain was wary. Mik ran in, catching his breath. He and Pau exchanged looks, and she waved him away when he started toward me.
“K’seng wants to talk,” she said.
Jubilee, step forward past the instrumentation obelisk. Place your hand in the exchange field, and we can speak privately.
The exchange field, a manifestation of what I had, since a child, called the thrum, pale-blue and glittering. I didn’t see in my first sweep because the field wasn’t consistent with biolectric. She wasn’t bioloid, and I wasn’t machine, but we shared the thrum, her and me.
The spherical field hovered waist-high, only large enough to enclose my hand. The emitters were nothing but the feelings we shared. I went forward as she explained, past the operations stanchion, and extended my hand. Vaguely, I was aware of a chair though I hadn’t summoned one. Perhaps Mik.
Sound died. Discrepant vibrations on the ship converged to a single quiver as if a musician, onstage in a lonely auditorium, plucked one harp string, K’seng, my friend. Wordless meaning like notes rushed to my mind. She had emotions, hopes, a psyche that needed to dream. She was cosmic, a fastness, and I was small Jubilee. Overwhelmed, I heard a discordant symphony.
She asked me to reciprocate, but the abyss was too wide. Only the thrum, a word she learned from me, bridged the gap. Then K’seng shoved. An EM surge thrust my hand from the field, and I hung limp in the chair, chin to my chest like a plasmoidal doll. I was blind and deaf as a beggar, but I felt a hand on my back. Slowly, hearing returned, a hum like bees, a click, a whisper like trees. K’seng was speaking.
…Jubilee also requires briefing in Katar culture, and she should be taught about the present situation and its history as soon as medically advisable.
I raised my eyes toward K’seng’s violet sky, light that was too bright. “Why can’t you teach me?” I held my heart bleeding in my hand, exposed to the crew, the captain, to Mik. I was a raw ulcer, an oozing wound. K’seng had pushed me away.
Jubilee, trust me. It is better this way.
Mik clasped my wrist. “Come with me, Jubilee. I’ll take you to the mess hall.”
“I don’t want to go. I want to talk to K’seng.”
“You have to eat. I have orders, including K’seng’s advisory concerning my primary assignment. Do you want me to disobey her?”
“I don’t understand,” I said weakly.
In front of the tall captain, Mik was stiff, his speech clipped, and he gripped my wrist like he feared I would slip. “It’s my job to explain. If you’ll come with me, we’ll talk. I’ll help you understand.”
K’seng intervened. Jubilee, go with him. We still have the thrum.
Mik urged me into the corridor and dropped my arm when the paneled door sealed.
“I’m sorry that happened, Jubilee. Forgive me.”
Mik never made any sense to me.
I fell in love with her that day. -Mik Rile
I dropped asleep over a salad in the ship’s mess. My head flopped back, and my dream collapsed. Brown-suited crew at other tables with other plates of food stared as my eyes snapped open to the harsh light. I was a bug under a scope. Squinting, I winced in pain.
Mik had learned faster than my myna to repeat my name. Rubbing my neck, I whined like I was three. I was wearied to my marrow. Spent. Mik’s talk had swirled past my ears like eddies in a stream.
“Do you need the medic again?”
I whimpered. “Just want to sleep. Is there anywhere I can lie down?”
“The cabin where you woke earlier is yours.”
“That’s my bed? That bench with a pad? For how long? When can I go home?”
“We have to talk about that. I know this is hard for you. Try to be patient. I’m doing my best.”
“If you won’t let me go home, let me sleep. I’ll sleep on that pad.”
We went first to the infirmary for another injection, which helped my neck. The coffee-eyed medic told Mik my vitals were wonky, my electrolytes out of whack. Not in those terms. Mik said I’d spoken to K’seng, which explained to the doctor, whose name I didn’t know. I stared at the characters above his left breast, still meaningless though K’seng was translating speech. Neat trick. But how was it done?
As we walked toward the cabin, I asked Mik, “Why are the lights so bright on this ship?”
“It’s only bright to you. Not to the Katar.”
“Are you Katar?”
“I am,” he said.
“Don’t you wonder why I can speak your language?”
“No. I ceased wondering about the wonders on sentient ships long ago. I assume K’seng is helping you.”
“Why do you think that? I don’t even know how she is. How do you? Is she helping you, too?”
“I thought you were tired,” he said
“I’m more tired than I’ve ever been in my life. Are we there yet?”
Mik chuckled. “No, Jubilee. We’re not there yet. If we were, we would be. One more turn, a bit of corridor, then we’re there.”
I slept fourteen hours. When I woke, I needed to pee. Stroking the walls with biolectric, I read a coded switch that suggested a toilet, summoned a basin, and hoped the egress went to waste reclamation. With the emergency diverted, I twiddled with more controls and identified a sink and shower. I didn’t find food or a dispenser. I tried the door, and it was unlocked. I was free to come and go, but not home.
“K’seng, I’m scared.”
No answer. Lying on the padded bench, I closed my eyes and listened to the thrum. Despite what Mik said about the silence of K’seng’s engines, I heard her singularity propulsion, the ionic hum, the celestial song, the singing of stars. A chime rang, dragging me back. I lay quiet, listening. It rang again, and I still didn’t understand. The door to my cabin opened, and Mik filled the portal with his muscled bulk.
“Why didn’t you answer?”
“Jubilee, that chime is an alarm for the door.”
“Oh, I didn’t know. Isn’t there a comm?”
“There is if you activate it after you hear the chime.”
He was exasperated, but how was I supposed to know how things worked on the ship? “Then how did you get in?”
“It wasn’t locked, Jubilee.”
“Oh.” I knew that.
Mik sighed and summoned the light-ring chair into view. I hadn’t invited him to sit, but he took a seat anyway and propped his boots on one of the rings. Was this my cabin or not?
“We need to talk. There’s much to explain and not as much time as I’d like.”
“Why didn’t you eat?”
He swiveled on the rings toward the storage chamber I’d opened earlier, as empty as before. “Well, damn.” He brushed his fingers through his hair. “I’ll have food brought later. For now, I’ll take you to the mess. We can talk on the way.”
He never asked if I felt better after a long sleep or if my headache was gone or if my shoulder hurt or my neck or my cheek. He was just irritated because I didn’t answer the door and hadn’t fed myself with food that wasn’t there. How did I get reassigned? “Yesterday, why did you say I am your primary assignment? What does that mean?” I was trotting again to keep up. Could he not see his stride was twice mine?
“It means I’m assigned to you, and it’s my primary project.”
“Am I a project?” Tired of trying to match his gait, I stopped in my tracks.
He turned and put his hands on his hips. “I thought you were hungry.”
“K’seng will show me the mess.”
“K’seng is busy. She can’t constantly babysit a fledgling sensitive.”
His words struck like small, sharp ice. I rocked to my heels, my eyes stinging with tears. “K’seng cares about me! Unlike you! You’re a violent brute! I don’t even know what sensitive means. You keep talking over my head. How am I supposed to know the door chime when I never heard it before? It could have been a low oxygen alert. I was figuring it out when you came in my cabin and activated my chair without even asking. Is it my cabin or is it really my prison cell? Make up your mind, something-Mik-someone!”
I had better company from my myna bird, who I missed terribly. My chest ached. I’d never get my job back now. I was a security risk. I’d be lucky to find a flat supervisor position fixing sanitation containment systems. This man had ruined my life.
“You haven’t given me a chance,” he said.
“Chance? You talk, but you never say anything.”
“It only seems that way because there’s more than I can explain at once. I’m briefing you as fast as you’ll listen to me.”
“I only want to go home.”
“And leave K’seng?”
He knew that was cruel. I slapped his cheek. Whirling, I ran, retracing our steps to the cabin, which I locked from within. There. If it was really my cabin, the lock would keep Mik out. Curled on the padded bench, I cried, missing Mum and Dad, my job, and my bird.
She was a pixie. -Mik Rile
When the door chime rang, I didn’t open the comm. I sat, wiping tears, and my stomach growled. How long now without eating? A day? The medic said my electrolytes were out of whack.
The chime rang again, and I shouted in anger, “Comm!” I couldn’t remember the last time I was angry on Visily. There was nothing to be angry about. My job was sufficient, my flat clean, my bills paid, my Mum and Dad pleasant people, and my myna was entertaining.
“It’s me. Unlock the door.” Mik. He entered with a metal case in one hand, a tray of hot food in the other. He summoned a light stool and a table on which he set the tray. “Take the chair. I should have asked earlier. I apologize.” He sat on the carboflex bench. “Just eat. I’ll talk.”
I was too hungry to refuse. “What’s in the box?”
“Food for your locker. Now eat. I’m talking.”
He glared, and I ate. They had good food aboard K’seng. I started to ask Katar’s environmental rating, but Mik raised his hand in warning. The cheek I’d slapped was pink, so I ate instead, afraid to piss him off.
“Jubilee.” I wished he would spend a couple weeks in my flat, training my bird. “I apologize for what I said in the corridor. K’seng cares though maybe not as deeply as you. That’s not unusual when a sensitive meets one of our ships.” I choked potatoes past a lump in my throat as he hastened to add, “But she does care in a way she can’t care about me, for example, and she’s as disappointed the two of you can’t fully communicate.”
“How do you know that?” The gap K’seng and I’d failed to bridge had left a hole. It’s where my heart had been, the one I’d held bleeding in my hand, exposing my wound. I didn’t like Mik poking it.
“I’ve worked with sensitives and sentient ships, and that’s how it’s been explained to me. And you’re wondering what those two entities are… You know what a sentient ship is because you met K’seng. There are others. Sensitives, that’s you, sensitive to the inner minds of our AI ships. It’s genetic but not restricted to the Katar. It’s nothing to do with us at all, only a fortunate coincidence that sensitives occur among us as frequently as among other races. Not that frequently.”
“What?” I wasn’t particularly brilliant in school, and I wasn’t now. Mik smiled tolerantly. Maybe I hadn’t slapped him that hard.
“Which part, Jubilee?”
“The frequently part. Who is and who isn’t? Why am I?”
“Heterozygotes express the gene, which happens to be recessive and lethal in the homozygous state.”
Bear with me, Jubilee. All it means is one of your parents is sensitive, too. In your case, both are, which is why they lost two infants before your birth. That information worked its way off Visily through your parents’ contacts with AIs, eventually to Katar. It’s also how we learned about you.”
He waved a finger at my plate, but the potatoes didn’t taste as good as before. My parents never told me, but it explained how they’d loved me, like a gift, like I was special. Now they’d lost me, too.
“There’s more, Jubilee. Your parents produced a third homozygote, and she lived; you. As far as we know, you express the gene the same way heterozygotes do and metabolize the gene product identically, there’s just more of it.”
“Am I supposed to be dead?”
His smile was sad. “I guess you are, but you’re not, and we don’t know why, but it’s not particularly important.” It was to me. “What matters is you possess the same skill as any heterosensitive.”
“Are you saying I’m homosensitive? I’m not sure I like that.”
Mik chuckled, but I didn’t feel like laughing. “Yeh, to the Katar. Though most people aren’t interested in your genome, only a few specialists on the homeworld. What interests most of us is you can establish intimacy with AI sentients.”
I pushed my plate away and adjusted my weight in the chair until the seat cradled me at a comfortable angle. Unlike Mik, I didn’t hook my boots on the light but let them hang. I wondered how I lowered the rings so my toes would touch the floor.
“Maybe. You would know better than I.”
“So why did you beat me up and bring me here?”
“Well, you did.”
“I tried to explain that,” he said.
“Doesn’t change it. I want to know why.”
Mik leaned forward, touched the seat of my chair, and it went lower until my toes stopped it. Hm, what had he done?
“Obviously, there’s a lot to share. What do you know about sentient AIs?”
“I don’t know anything. I only know K’seng because I feel her.”
“But you had other experiences on Visily surely. Jubilee, try to pay attention and stop playing with the chair.”
I’d touched the seat like he had, and the chair had popped to the original number of rings, five. Now my toes dangled again. I was trying to repeat Mik’s maneuver to get it back down.
“How did you do that? I can’t find it.”
“It’s a touchpad under the carboflex. You’re not pressing hard enough. Jubilee, just let me do it. Do you want up or down?”
Mik activated the control, and I settled downward until my feet rested on the floor again, three rings. He was glaring. When Mik lowered his eyebrows, he reminded me of an angry ape on the veldt. I took all my vacations on wildlife refuges but hired an antipod in which I was safe. Those wild primates were never this close.
“I’m done,” I squeaked.
“Now about sentients.” Mik laced his fingers and relaxed as if settling in. Maybe he’d rehearsed. “Once AIs began making long-range spaceflights, the computational and ethical challenges spurred their evolution, and they emerged. A movement began to recognize them as citizens of Katar, so they could enjoy the same protections and assume the same responsibilities as any other sentient. It was wrong to continue treating them as slaves.”
“So you freed them. What does that have to do with me?”
“I’m going there, Jubilee. Some Katar disagreed with emancipation and continued to operate ships without removing the shackles.”
“Shackles? You mean obedience protocols? Failsafes? Loyalty programs?”
“All those. Some sentients are shackled with self-fragmentation orders if they disobey. They’re slaves.”
“But you’re not one of those people who shackle sentient AIs.”
“I am not. I serve in the same force K’seng serves, the Conservative Katar Legion, and something-Mic is Ytar Mic Rile. Ytar is both rank and a position, which K’seng, I suppose, is unable to translate because there’s no equivalent in Visilian. K’seng is only providing transport for me and my assignment, Jubilee Wistler.”
“Oh, that’s me.”
He smiled indulgently. “That’s you, and you’re far more important to me than you realize although I’ve been trying to tell you for two days. I wish we could have had a better start. I’m trying to make it up to you, but I’ve never met anyone quite like you, Jubilee. If all Visilians are like this, it must be a mad, mad world.”
“What? It’s peaceful on Visily. No one ever gets their face slammed against airlock hatches. Never.”
Mic touched his palm to his cheek where I’d slapped him. “Oh, really?”
“That was different! You…you…”
He grinned. “I forgive you, Jubilee. It’s not the hardest a woman ever hit me, and I’ll get over the sting eventually.”