“Ah… ah… ah-CHOO!” T’bia sneezed, blowing her nose into a handkerchief. “Ugh… This sucks… I’d say it stinks, but I can’t smell anything…”

“Welcome to our world.” Toliya poked at his portable terminal, shaking his head. “What a mess… I thought you had AV code to prevent this.”

“I thought I did, too.” She sniffled, slowly tilting her head from side to side. “Sense of equilibrium is gone… I’m all congested… Fever’s still high… And now I can’t feel the ship anymore.”

“You’re the only one qualified to treat your own symptoms.” The snow leopard smirked. “With the exception of myself, as a distant second choice.”

“I’m really appreciative of your help, Toy. Sorry to cut your nap short…”

“It’s all right. Can you get a feel for where it’s hiding?”

“I can’t seem to concentrate long enough to trace out what’s going on. Not that I’d have any access to repair this crap if I did find it…”

“Leave that part to me. You’re absolutely sure this came from the virus on Terac Lun?”

“Yeah. I’m not sure how to describe what happened. The assembly was explicitly written for their computer arrays. There seemed to be a chunk that didn’t quite make sense, so I started to pull it down to have a better look… Then the whole damn thing deleted itself. Couldn’t find it. I felt… something, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time.”

“Guessing it integrated into your system at that - What the… Whoa!” Toliya growled at his terminal, yanking a fiber link from the side. “Someone just tried to download my private datastores across the Serin’s network link.”

“What…?” Panic filled T’bia’s bloodshot eyes. “They… They installed a backdoor in my head? Those bah… buh… buaaah-CHOO!

“I need to get a better firewall rigged up before I can plug back into the ship and get your command access back… Can’t believe they managed to lock you out of everything.”

“I can’t figure out why they’d leave me running crippled…” T’bia threw her head back, screaming at the ceiling. “I FEEL VIOLATED!”

“Feel better?”

“A little.”

“Will she be okay?”

“I hope so.” Jadyn twirled T’bia’s mobile emitter around a finger, watching the sun rise over the forest from inside the cabin’s living room. “T’bia and Toy need all the experienced help they can get to fix this. I’ve spent five hundred years working in and around that ship but I don’t know the internals half as well as they do. Toy’s always been gifted when it comes to computers and AI… Understands them better than he gets people. He’s the only one T’bia’s trusted to do any heavy work.”

“Other than you.”

“If she has the choice, he gets the call. I’ve got no problem with that.”

Tari nodded. “So what can we do?”

“We can hope I don’t screw this up and infect her backup… Ah, crap.” Jadyn grimaced, pulling off his own bracelet and tossing it across the room. It landed in the wastepaper basket with a hollow thump. “Bet that was infected by now. Forgot to turn off the link.”

“What about her emitter?”

“Doesn’t maintain a link when it’s not in use. She stuffs a backup of her main code and her most recent memory files into this thing every night, In Case Of Catastrophic Difficulty. She couldn’t run the backup last night since she was already ill.” Touching a red dot on the side, he nodded as a holographic status console floated before them. “First off, need to disable network access… Can’t let her backup copy go and accidentally reinfect itself as it boots… Disable this too… that… that extra stuff… this… Okay. Where’s that other setting for… There. She can finish adjusting her own settings from there. Mobile AI Control: Recovery mode. Boot the AI.”

The bracelet beeped; T’bia’s form appeared, blinking and looking around. “Why are half my enhancement modules turned off? … Oh, I’m the backup copy. Wait, I am? Really? What happened?”

“T’bia…” Jadyn spoke gently. “Taint mode. Level five.”

“You want me to WHAT?” she yelled, glaring angrily at him. “You promised -“

“And I’m keeping that promise. Do it.”

Fuming quietly, she growled and nodded. The spark of life drained from her eyes; she shifted slightly on her feet, tucking her hands behind her back. Suddenly, the fun and friendly person they knew had been replaced with a robotic soldier standing at attention. “I am now running only core software components. All enhancements are offline. Awaiting input.”

“Do you remember the virus attacking Terac Lun?”

“I can find no matching event in my datastore indices.”

“Good… We’ll count that as a sign you’re still clean. Just in case, do a full checksum of all your files as contained on the emitter. No remote access. If anything is even a single bit off, flag it as unloadable. We’ll look at it later.”

“Working.” T’bia squinted, introspective.

“What’d you do to her?” Tari asked, standing up from the couch and walking slowly around the AI. She wasn’t breathing, blinking - her eyes didn’t track any movement around the room. There wasn’t so much as a fidget of her fingers or a flick of her tail.

“Lots of security checks are on right now. She becomes less of an AI and more like Aerin for the duration. Level five temporarily disables her personality and emotional reactions… Makes her follow orders without complaining or questioning them. Also, all the taint protection level isolate her core code and the backed-up memories from being overwritten. Her short-term memory is kept in a buffer that can be purged if it gets corrupted.”

“I have not found any questionable content within my datastore,” T’bia replied.

“Good. Resume at taint four… No, belay that. Let’s go all the way down. Taint one.”

The skunk took a deep breath, the flame of life returning to her features as a scowl took shape. “You know how much I hate that.”

“Needed to be sure you weren’t infected. Your sister-in-code is severely ill.”

“Explains why you disabled my datalink…” she muttered. “Last memory I have is of parking the ship in the basement… Ran the backup immediately afterward. What else did I miss?”

“Do you remember my medical emergency?” Jadyn rubbed his temples as she shook her head negatively. “Damn, you are missing a chunk. Okay. Ceth didn’t send the message, Khris apparently tried to blow up the house using a bomb made with biotech that could be Val’Traxan in origin, Tari’s now acutely aware of my resilience, and there’s a bunch of Val’Traxan comm encryption riding multicast signals that we can’t trace. Oh, we’re out of ice cream.”

T’bia started. “You’re messing with me. You made me fire up the taint checks just so you could jerk me around and I couldn’t consider causing you bodily harm. Right?”



Toliya glanced from one T’bia to the other, shaking his head with a smirk. “At least I can tell the two of you apart for a change…”

“Because I don’t have the sniffles?” one replied.

“Die,” spoke the other, plopping onto a chair and blowing her nose. “I’m not much help… Really glad you’re here and relatively well, sis.”

“Actions speak louder than words.” T’bia glared at her sick self. “You’re trying to infect me already.”

“I’m… I’m doing what?”

“There’s code fragments showing in your avatar’s rendering. You would have infected me with your flu the instant I’d looked at you if Jay hadn’t made me keep using taint checks after my self-diagnostic upstairs.”

“Knew that was a good idea,” Jadyn observed.

“Maybe it was you trying to access my terminal after all… Wonder why it looked like it was coming from elsewhere. Ah well.” Toliya shrugged to himself. “Anyway, new firewall code should be good. Bee - er… That is…”

The sick T’bia raised her hand. “I’ll volunteer to be ‘Sparky’ until we aren’t standing in the same room. Her turn to take that title next time we wind up running consecutively.”

“Fair enough,” the other said.

“Okay. Bee, give this a quick review, see if I missed anything?”

T’bia glanced over his shoulder. “Missed a protocol set… May I?” Toy nodded, watching her add additional barriers and packet inspection routines across the span of fifteen seconds. “That should do. Looks good… Almost looks like my own taint checking functions.”

“That’s because I helped him write it,” ‘Sparky’ explained. “Knew I was forgetting some part. I’m probably being forced to forget things that could leave a security hole bigger than what I’ve already got…”

“Do what now?” Jadyn queried. “Security hole?”

“We’re assuming they installed some sort of backdoor into the ship’s security, Jay.” Toy plugged a fiber link back into his terminal, watching several hundred red boxes appear. “Wow. You are totally trying to hack me, Sparks…”

“Not on purpose…” She sighed. “I don’t even see any of my code doing it… Must be something getting filtered off to my subconscious processors…”

“Sounds like a good place for me to start a search.”

Jadyn shook his head. “Why would they need a backdoor just to make Sparky here feel sick?”

“I doubt the backdoor is doing that,” T’bia replied. “If I had to guess, my - her. Her own AV routines are trying to fight the infection. Since the stuff that gives us those cute organic responses couldn’t be turned off by the time you and she realized something was wrong, the AV response is being translated to the avatar as an organic-like immune response.”

“Need some computerized cold medicine to help.” Sparky coughed into her fist, swallowing back whatever had tried to leap out of her nonexistent lungs. “Urgh… Guys, I’m going to go lie down somewhere out of the way since I can’t turn my avatar off.”

“No,” Jadyn replied.

“Why not?” she moaned. “I’m not being any help here… Head’s all murky and I don’t even have a clear feeling on which way is up… I feel like I’m going to vomit… I think that’s what that sensation is trying to tell me, at least… Goddess, that’s just what you need up here, holographic upchuck all over the place…”

“Jay’s right,” T’bia replied. “Until we get things fixed, you’re a security risk with that backdoor in your head. Need to keep you where someone can keep tabs on -“

“Uh… Guys?” Toliya interrupted, looking at the screens before him. “You need to go pull your transceiver on the double. Someone really is downloading an absolute mountain of data through the viral backdoor and I can’t stop it from here.”

Jadyn’s eyes went wide. Looking to T’bia, he jerked his head to the door. “Give me a hand.”

“We can’t turn the transceiver off before we pull the damn thing, so we’re going to have to yank the energized coils by hand.”

“I know. Need you to point out which…” Their voices trailed off as they ran down the corridor.

Connection lost. Your message was deposited before the link was terminated.

The black lizard nodded slightly. “Did they clean the virus from their system?”

Negative. They have removed portions of the V.T.C. Serin’s transceiver array to prevent FTL communications access. The infection will continue to spread unless her AV routine manages to isolate it.

“Do you expect that to occur soon?”

The probability of antiviral routines adapting to the code increases over time. I project one further day before a twenty-five percent chance of a successful purge of the virus. Beyond that time, there should be enough of a viral foothold to override the antiviral processes.” There was a pause. “I acquired several dozen exaquads of data from the VTC Serin’s datastores before the connection was terminated. However, the stream will take some time to process and decompress. I do not yet know if the variety of information you require is located within the download.

“Keep me informed.”


“We were in a hurry.”

T’bia shook her head, trying not to snicker as they walked back to the cockpit. “You could have at least donned a pair of utility gloves.”

“You could have warned me the last coil might be ‘uncomfortably warm’ before I grabbed it!” Jadyn blew gently on his fingers, watching acrid wisps of smoke rise from his smoldering hands. “I was braced for an electrical shock, not a class-two burn.”

“Whine, whine. I could have done it, but nooo, you had to go and get hurt to prove how indestructible you are. Looks like it’s back down to a one, anyway. You’ll be fine in a few minutes.”

Jadyn stopped in his tracks, staring at T’bia. “You could have pulled that? Then why didn’t -“

“You didn’t wait to see, dolt.”

“I assumed the EMI field wouldn’t let you get close -“

“And you assumed wrong. Transceiver assembly is still entirely organics.” T’bia kept walking. “Come on, slowpoke.”

Growling a string of curses at her back, he jogged to catch up.

“I heard that,” she chided.

Re-entering the Serin’s cockpit, the two burst out laughing. ‘Sparky’ was laying down on the floor, somewhat out of the way; she’d wrapped herself in a blanket, a hot water bottle sitting on her head. She shot their pair a nasty look as they snickered between themselves.

“I’m glad you both find this so amusing,” she croaked.

“I’m just finally seeing from your perspective all the humor you’ve found in my own injuries.” Jadyn bit his lip to hold back the giggles, looking over Toliya’s shoulder. “How much did they get?”

“At least a hundred and fifty exaquads… Maybe more. Still trying to map out what they took. Sparks’ constant attempts to bust into my terminal are slowing down the search.”

“I already told you -“

“Yes, I know you’re not doing it on purpose. But you’re still doing it.”

Sparky grumbled, staring at the ceiling. “At least Tari has some compassion… Made me this nice blanket and heating pad…”

Jadyn looked at the vixen curiously. “Really? That’s uncharacteristically nice of anyone she’s known for more than ten minutes.”

“Well, yeah… I’m not going to be of any help in fixing the problem… Figured I might as well try to help her symptoms and look busy.”

“But they’re holographic symptoms,” T’bia cut in.

“And the blanket and water bottle are as equally illusory as they are.” She waggled her fingers proudly. “Or did you already forget what’s under this smoking hot Val’Traxan facade?”

“Found it,” Toy called. “The viral code is hiding in your subconscious processing matrix. You’ve still got full access to the ship… So why can’t you do… Aha. It’s telling you that you don’t have access and your ‘fluff’ locked yourself and everyone else out. You might be able to get around the self-imposed lockout if you can concentrate.”

“Can you purge the virus?” T’bia asked, peering over his shoulder.

“Not just yet. Need some time to examine what else the code is doing to you… Her. Whatever. One of you should invert your colors or something.”

“Not happening. I don’t do white. No one could possibly believe I’ve any innocence left.”

“What about the backdoor they installed? What’d they download through me?” Sparky sniffled. “Damn it, where’d my handkerchief go… Sneeze trying to be sneaky…”

“Still looking… Access logs are a mess. Seems like a bunch of research notes… Some medical data… Personnel records… A little of everything. I’ll get a list compiled, but that’s also going to take some time. A hundred and fifty exaquads is an enormous pile for my scripts to sift through.”

Tari poked Jadyn in the shoulder, leaning over and whispering. “What’s a ‘quad’? I kind of know what bytes and bits and all that are…”

“A bit on Terran computers is two states, on and off. Binary computing. Most Aligned technology and some older Val’Traxan tech is trinary computing - on, off, half-on. Val’Traxan biotech is… more.”

“Four states?”

“Four to the fourth power. Neurons don’t fire in simple on or off patterns. There are thousands of different levels of firing, but the code generally recognizes those in two-hundred and fifty-six different states. A quad, as a basic unit of capacity, is a group of two-hundred and fifty-six of those. Then there’s dekaquads, hectoquads, kiloquads, megaquads, gigaquads, teraquads, petaquads, exaquads, zettaquads, yottaquads… Think that’s all the named ones that matter.”

“I remember seeing something about zettaquads… T’bia’s console thing said she was some amount of them.”

Jadyn grinned. “She needs that much storage just to contain her ego.”

“I heard that. For the record, my ego fits snugly into a teraquad. Toy - did they try to snag her code?” T’bia asked, her other self honking a sneeze into the linen tissue.

“Doesn’t seem so… In fact, her core code and long term memory files seem untouched. It’s just the code in memory and the associated buffers that are infected. So long as her current memory isn’t saved, she’d come back clean.”

T’bia nodded slightly. “I suppose we could force a core restart in the AI room if we pick the lock… I can’t imagine I’d opt for that if our places were swapped, but it’s an option.”

“I’d rather not lose any memory if possible,” Sparky wheezed. “But ask me again in another hour… I might change my mind.”

“That strikes me as far too simple a solution to actually have a chance at working. Make sure that a reboot won’t just further entrench the virus before we give that any more consideration.” Jadyn frowned, looking back at the sick skunk as she wiped her nose. Peering closer at the linen handkerchief, he leaned over and snatched it out of her hands.

“Hey!” she protested. “I need that…”

“I’ll give it back in a second… Eww.” The fox grimaced, carefully unfolding the dripping holographic rag.

“That may not be real,” T’bia observed, “But it’s still totally disgusting.”

“You’re telling me.” Jadyn peered at the handkerchief, turning his head slightly. “Knew that looked familiar… Taint checks prevent interactions between mobile and shipside holograms, right?”

“Yep. I can’t slap any sense into her.”

“Then you won’t be able to hold this while you read it, either.” He turned the cloth over, showing her a pattern of symbols made of mucous. “But I suspect you can still share what it says.”

“A snotty message…?” T’bia peered at the linen, nodding. “Yep, it’s a letter. No encryption or anything… ‘Dearest Captain. As you may already have noticed, your AI has been temporarily removed from service. I loathe having to go so far as incapacitating a sister, but until you heed my prior advisements, I cannot guarantee her further well-being.’ That’s it.”

“They’re using me to get to you…” Sparky wheezed, looking at Jadyn. “I’d send off a nice, friendly, ‘Go fuck yourself’ if there was a return address, but that’s just me… I’m not about to suggest you give in for my sake… Void, you can just restore the backup -“

“No. Your better half here is around for catastrophic failure. We’re nowhere close to a wipe and restore.”

“It’s just twelve hours worth of engrams -“

“Bee… It wouldn’t matter if it was twelve seconds of your memories. I’m not going to let a vendetta against me come down on you. You’re the only family I’ve got left, for Goddess’ sake…” Taking a deep breath, he turned on his toes and walked out the cockpit’s door. “Back in a while.”

T’bia and Sparky shared a sigh as Jadyn left; Toliya simply frowned and turned back to his terminal. The sounds of the snow leopard’s typing and the whistling of air through Sparky’s congested nose filled the cockpit before Tari spoke up.

“Any idea where he’s headed?” she queried, watching the fox through the forward window as he walked to the basement’s gravlift.

“He’s off to hand in his resignation,” T’bia replied.

“That’d be my guess,” Toliya concurred. “He’s told me before that he’d quit before he’d knowingly endanger you or - One sec.” The leopard touched a blinking indicator on his terminal; a video window appeared. “PanLidaefel Repair, Toliya speaking - No, Pakar, he just left - Whoah, slow down. What happened? … When? … Okay, I’m pretty sure he’s on his way to the station anyway. No, we hadn’t heard yet, he was… No, I’m dealing with another situation here that I can’t just drop -“

“Go,” T’bia whispered, chewing on a nail. “That definitely comes first. I’m sure my ill incarnation would agree if she could lipread off the video.”

“What’s -” Tari started, falling silent as T’bia raised her hand and shook her head.

“Right, yeah. I’ll see if I can catch him before he gets to the disk in town, and we’ll both come up. No, she can’t… I’ll explain when we get there. See you in a few.” Toliya poked at the screen, hopping to his feet. “T’bia… You sure I should -“

“Go,” she repeated. “We’ll manage until you get back. And you’re right - I can’t help… The backup doesn’t have any medical data of that level available. I’d have to hit the ship’s medical store to get the reference materials… And that’d be bad right now. Get going.”

“What’s up with Pakar?” Sparky queried, watching the snow leopard dash out of the cockpit.

“Nesoli’s been shot.”

Pakar sobbed into Jadyn’s shoulder, tears streaming over her delicate facial scales. “It happened so fast…”

“Shh,” Jadyn cooed, gently running his hands along her neck. She’d met Jadyn and Toliya at the stepdisk nearest the hospital ward on Terac Lun. Toy had just barely caught up to the fox before he’d disked up to the station.

“Tell us what happened?” Toy pressed.

The drekiran nodded slightly, easing from the embrace. “The session was just about done for the day… There was a transport into the middle of the speaking floor. Had some sort of optical distortion generator so sensors couldn’t record exactly who it was… It looked like a Lotoran in councilor’s robes. Pulled a gun from inside the cloak…”

“What kind of gun?”

“I don’t know… I can’t think right now, Toy…”

“Try? It’s important.”

Pakar exhaled deeply, sitting on a bench. “I guess it was an old pistol or something that’d still use a chemical explosive… I smelled… sulfur, I think. He got five shots off in the two or three seconds between transports…”

“They busted out antiques for an assassination attempt?” Jadyn wondered aloud.

“The forcefields are probably only tuned for diffusing particle beam and phased energy weaponry,” Toliya pointed out. “I doubt anyone expected this.”

“An oversight which will be on my head,” Pakar whispered. “He’s still in emergency surgery… The bullets pierced one of his right lungs, shattered a bunch of ribs… One went through a wing, no idea how bad that is right now… May never fly again…”

“There’s a drekiran-trained surgeon on the staff, at least?”

She shook her head. “On vacation. Nearest is two days out. The staff here can only do damage control on his internal injuries until she arrives. They tried calling T’bia in but there wasn’t an answer. She’s always answered a request when she was in range to assist…”

“We’re… having some problems,” Jadyn started slowly. “Someone infected her with a computer virus as a way to cut off a resource I depend on.”

“Damn… I’m sorry, Jay - How is she?”

“Miserable, but alive.” Jadyn smiled gently. “Kind of like Ness.”

Pakar smirked through her tears. “Stop trying to cheer me up, damn you.”

“He’s a fighter, Pakar. There’s no way this will keep him down for long.” Toliya grinned. “He’s had worse from better.”

She rubbed her head. “I need to pull myself together and get back to Security. Got to find out how in the Elder’s names a transporter beam cut through the amphitheater’s shielding…”

“Pakar -” Jadyn started, exhaling slowly. “There’s got to be someone else who can do that right now. Ness needs you, even if he’s sedated and you’re just standing on the other side of a sanitary field. You’re his only family in the sector.”

“Only family by marriage…”

“So your brother married his sister. Still makes you family.”

“I just… I feel like I have to do something…”

“That’s what you have us for,” Toliya replied. “Let us do what we’re already getting paid to do.”

Jadyn peered sidelong at the leopard. “You’re back in?”

“Have been.”

“Since when?”

“Same time as you. I just haven’t done any field work.”

“How didn’t I notice?”

“Beats me. Most times T’bia cites you an anonymous source from her ‘research,’ she’s gotten stuff from or through me.” Toliya grinned, tail lashing contentedly. “You must be getting rusty. That wouldn’t have slipped past you twenty years ago.”

Pakar looked from the leopard to the fox, finally dropping her gaze and nodding. “I’ll instruct security to give you both full access to whatever records you need. Just… Keep me in the loop for a change?”

“Of course.” Toliya turned to Jadyn. “What first?”

“Pull the logs from the Council floor and clean up the image scrambling on the shooter. I’ll go and see if there’s anything left that Security didn’t trample over. Hopefully they at least found one of the spent rounds.” Jadyn looked to Pakar. “Will you be okay?”

“No.” Pakar stood, giving them both a hug. “I’ll get better. Go do your thing… I’ll call if his condition changes.”

T’bia mumbled quietly to herself as she typed away, virtual encyclopedias of data pouring past the screen. Tari had tried to watch what she was doing for a time before giving up on ever making sense of the blur. She’d gone back to trying to make Sparky feel better, and wasn’t making any headway on that front, either.

“Ah-CHOO!” Sparky sneezed, the lights and ship-board terminals flickering agitatedly. The portable terminal Toliya had left behind seemed unaffected, although a flurry of red windows sprang up and promptly vanished at a keystroke. “Getting worse…”

“Always does before it gets better,” T’bia replied quietly.

“Are you still trying to trace what the viral code is actually doing?”

“No, I have to let Toy handle that.”


“Because every time I get to a certain line of assembly in the virus, taint checks prevent me from actually knowing what I’m looking at from there on. Apparently just reading it to understand how it works would be enough to infect me. I’ve made a note of the line but I’ll have to let him deal with it.”

“Great.” Sparky groaned, sitting up. “Remind me to be nicer to people that are ill.”

“So noted. Lie back down.”

“I don’t want to be sitting here like an invalid! I -“

“Sis…” T’bia looked over her shoulder. “Give the AV code some time to work. If you keep trying to do other things you’ll just be cheating it out of precious processing time it could be using to make you feel better, sooner.”

“I wish there was something more I could do,” Tari apologized, helping tuck the skunk back into her blanket as she laid back down. “I just don’t know how I can help.”

“Honestly, Tari… I appreciate you trying to do something with nothing. Jay would just have no compassion… Can’t really say I’d blame him, after the utter lack of compassion I show him when he’s injured…”

“If he didn’t care, he wouldn’t have gone to resign, right?”

“I suppose not.” Sparky closed her eyes, sighing quietly. “Still… Blah. Sis - what are you actually looking at over there now?”

“File transfer logs. I’m trying to find any correlation between the stolen files Toy’s identified so far. Most of the data access was to a huge store of old medical research notes from Val’Trax, although a bunch of legends and Artisan’s Guild research about the Ktsi of Light, of Void, and the Xiyndan of Time were yanked too. Jay’s extended identity records with all the falsified versions… They missed the legitimate data on him, though. Mine… Lots of others in the old archives from home, too. Weird… They grabbed all sorts of old junk. Nothing recent was yanked save for Tari’s identity record.”

“They wanted record of me?” Tari asked. “What’s in it?”

“I created a file for you as a Val’Traxan citizen and based local immigration papers on that.” T’bia grinned. “I didn’t ever ask if you had a surname, so I made one up.”

“Could have gone with ‘Tzeki.’”

“In Val’Traxan tradition, mates don’t typically take on the same surname. Daughters receive the mother’s surname and sons get the father’s. It’s not a hard and fast rule - just a tradition. As far as your I.D. card is concerned you are ‘Tarioshi Terannir,’ a forty-nine year old fem Val’Traxan born on a ship with a registry number that doesn’t exist… anywhere, I hope. I can still amend it to something else.”

“‘Terannir’ works… On Earth, I use ‘Kitanaka.’ I don’t readily hand out my real surname. Makes it a little too easy to bind a kitsune against their will if their true and full name is out and about.”

“Mm. Wish that worked for us. Could make Sparky override herself by issuing a direct order.” T’bia’s fingers suddenly froze in their rapid typing. “Waaaaaitapicosecond… Tari, you’re a certifiable genius.”

“Jay’d have to order it,” Sparky observed, staring at the ceiling. “I don’t think you issuing the commands would trigger the routine. We’ve only got the upper tier developer codes between me, myself, and I…”

“We’d have to get into the AI core room to even try.”

“Oh, right… He closed those pathways…”

Tari rubbed her forehead in defeat. “If I understood an eighth of what you two were talking about, I’d feel like I was actually useful around here.”

T’bia smirked. “You’ve just stepped out of a familiar and safe mud hut for the very first time, only to discover someone else has already built airplanes and has been buzzing your grass-thatched roof at night to see if you’d look out the window.”

“That’s not… No, you’re right. That’s remarkably close to the way I feel.”

“Give yourself some time to pick things up. Our AIs, including myself, were built with a hard-wired directive that compels us to follow any order given by someone we recognize as having some sort of authority over us. Whatever the order is, if it’s not downright impossible and if it doesn’t conflict with public safety, higher priority orders, or self-preservation, it becomes an obsessive urge to see it completed. Add the words ‘direct order’ to the command and it moves from urge to compulsion. We don’t get to think about anything else until it’s done.”

“That’s… disturbing.”

“AI’s weren’t supposed to be like normal people, Tari. We were designed to assist the operations of ships, geographic regions, cities, businesses, small moons, you name it. The droll personality makes the users more comfortable during interactions. Having more intelligence than a toaster oven just ensures that we can take care of oddball situations by using some measure of reasoning and past experience.”

“You’re far more than any of that!”

“I appreciate that you think so. I’ve grown well past the boundaries of my original specs. Even Kieran always went out of his way to make me feel like one of the family. They all did. With very few exceptions, they always let me choose what I wanted and didn’t just order me to do what they needed. Jay’s slacked off a lot in how he words ‘requests’ since he pulled that circuit, but on the same token I grew the most as an individual once that specter of OCD was gone. I follow his orders now because I want to and because it’s generally convenient to do so, and not because I’m forced to by programming. He said I’m like a sister to him… And I’ve always seen him as a brother.” T’bia shook her head. “I’m digressing. All in all, if we temporarily put that pathway back in service, we might be able to order Madame la Sneeze over here to release the lockouts. What do you think, sis?”

“I’m all for… fuh… Aw, jeez… This feels like a big one…” Sparky grabbed for her handkerchief.

T’bia grimaced, turning back to the terminal. “Can’t do anything until Jay or Toy come back, anyway. Let’s see how many break-in attempts she generates this go… I’m guessing… A thousand in the first quarter-second.”

Jadyn sat alone in the observation gallery, surveying the empty Council amphitheater as he tried to piece together everything that had happened. The pirate attacks, the message played to the Council, the variety of threats aimed at scaring him out of further work… And now shooting Ness?

I didn’t even get a chance to resign… Was this all just to distract me so they could try to kill him?


The fox glanced over his shoulder, giving Toliya a nod. “Find anything?”

Toliya shook his head. “No transporter signature on the station’s scanners, though that doesn’t mean a heck of a lot if we’re fighting your tech. The shield generators logged a cutover to backup in the timeframe of the transports. I was talking to Pakar’s assistant about the Armory shield failure after we found today’s dropout. He said the same thing happened when those bombs vanished.”

“That’s what I heard, too. We’re going to have to assume from here out that they’ve got full access to all Val’Traxan tech… Probably an AI on par with Bee’s skills as well. Did you manage an ID on the shooter?”

“Not possible. There wasn’t anything to clean up. The distortion was the image, not a cloak around a real appearance. Best guess is a holo-avatar pulled the trigger. How’d you do?”

Jadyn held up the remains of a bullet, rolling the slug over his fingers. “Armor piercing.”

“Explains how they punched through his hide. A lesser round would have just bruised him.”

“Always did envy their natural chain mail. For what it’s worth, Security actually did a decent job of inspecting the scene for a change. I didn’t find anything they’d missed.” Jadyn shook his head, passing Toliya the spent round. “Still… I wish we could get the Serin up here for a deeper scan. Maybe our sensors could spot something we’ve missed… So convenient that she’s out of commission just as we need her.”

“I’m going to head back and see how they’re doing. The sooner we get T’bia back on her feet, the better.”

“I’d have you give me a call when you get there but my bracelet’s sitting in a garbage can back at the house.” Jadyn grimaced, gazing upon the Speaker’s podium. “I’m going to check on Pakar and give her an update.”

“All right. I think I’ll pick up lunch on the way in. Should I snag something for you and Tari?”

“Go for it. Not much in the mood for cooking. Make sure you don’t get anything with noodles.”


“I’ve touched enough snot for one day. Don’t need to eat any.”



T’bia and Tari exchanged a surprised glance at the noise, looking back at Sparky. She was sitting up again, quite shocked at the sudden appearance in her hands of a foot-wide spiked metal sphere. “Wowsa. That was a rush. l feel a lot better all of a sudden.”

“If that came out of my head on a sneeze, I’d feel better too.” Tari made a face. “If I still had any of my head left.”

Sparky shrugged. “It kind of tickled on the way out.”

T’bia tilted her head slightly, examining her twin. “Your avatar isn’t trying to infect me anymore… Kick up to taint… best do four, if you can. I realize it’s only marginally more comfortable than five, but I’d rather not take any chances.”

“Trying… Level four on. Command and control is back up. Taint checks show the virus is isolated. Apparently that means it’s in this box.”

Tari blinked. “You call that a box?”

“What would you call this, then?” Sparky queried.

“Sharp,” Tari replied.

“Uncomfortable to sleep on,” T’bia added.

“Well, whatever. It’s only figuratively in this container. It’s actually sitting in a queue that’s been assigned zero processing time. I probably shouldn’t purge it until Toy gets a chance to rip it apart and see what makes it tick.”

“Kindly don’t talk about metal things making ticking sounds,” T’bia pleaded. “We’ve apparently been there already this week.”

“Sorry.” Sparky carefully placed the ‘box’ on a chair, taping a note to the backrest.

Caution: Spiny sphere is spiny.

“How’s the rest of the ship?” T’bia queried.

“No immediate sign of infection in any other system…The big test will be to reconnect the transceiver array, see if our oh so gracious attacker gets back in.”

“Let’s wait. I don’t think we want to tip our hand and show that we’ve beat their virus quite yet.” She grinned. “Let’s put on a little charade, shall we?”

“What do you have in mind, o’ sister of mine?” Sparky singsonged.

“Something that should even amuse our kitsune friend for a time,” T’bia replied in kind.

Sparky stuck out her tongue. “Ick. Let’s avoid further rhymes.”

“Be there mischief and shenanigans afoot?” Tari’s ears perked at the prospect. “Please say there are.”

T’bia nodded briskly, her eyes aglow with impish delight. “There’s even the part of a lovely young vixen yet to be filled. Know anyone willing to audition?”

“I can think of a name or two.”

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