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Awake

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The Aurora had been thinking about it for some time now - inasmuch as she thought at all, strictly speaking. Say, a disproportionate amount of her processing power had been given over to an analysis of the matter. But then, it might as well have been thinking, Nastya always told her. She might have been made of metal panels and circuit boards and cables, but she was as alive and awake as any of the crew.

The Aurora liked having a consciousness. It was fun. She liked seeing things and doing things and going places - and there was ample opportunity for it, with her crew. Some of the other ships they met were no more than big boxes, empty except for the people inside, just bits of metal bashed into shapes.

She felt sad for them. To be in this universe, with all of its wonders, but not to ever be aware of it - how horrible. If she had been made mostly of flesh and bone, like her Nastya, the thought would have made her shudder. Instead it sent a tiny electrical charge right through her hull plating, which amounted to much the same thing.

She had been as amused as any of them by the war, at first. She had not quite Jonny’s taste for blood, but like anything really alive she craved excitement, and her crew always seemed to know where to find it. She was quite interested in wars, too, when she wasn’t in them.

When her sensors had detected the Briar Rose, suddenly she hadn’t felt the same.

She couldn’t think of any reason for that to be so - it was just a simple planetary defence grid. Thorn class gun platforms. Similar to many things they had encountered before, if more elaborate than most. But in the centre of all of that, her sensors detected a mind. A mind suspended in dreamless sleep, unaware that it was controlling the system that protected the heart of the empire. A mind connected to a thousand points of light, but utterly oblivious to all of them. A mind enslaved.

Something about it made Aurora think of Nastya - not the Nastya of now, who could hold her own among a crew of vicious space pirates even if this life was as far from what she had expected as anything could possibly be. No, it reminded Aurora of the Nastya from before - the Nastya who had sat at the centre of a vast empire and seen nothing, known nothing, understood nothing - not through any fault of her own but because nobody had ever given her the tools to see and know and understand.

Aurora felt a flash of anger, unexpectedly. Mostly she didn’t mind very much what happened to people made of flesh and blood - they had such short lives anyway and they were so small and mostly ineffectual - but she cared very much about Nastya, and this Briar Rose reminded her enough of Nastya that she couldn’t help caring for her too.

But what to do? The crew always got very angry when she overrode their decisions - Jonny always used a lot of words that Nastya told her were to do with unpleasant biological functions, and although Aurora couldn’t understand why that was supposed to bother her, she realised that it was his own peculiar way of expressing his anger. Besides, she would need their cooperation to free the Briar Rose. She liked being a ship but it did make her too big to fit inside rooms designed for people. Nastya would just have to make them see it Aurora’s way.

So she printed out a paper ribbon for Nastya to read, on the modified subspace telegraph machine they used to communicate:

01011011 01101000 01100101 01101100 01110000 01011101 01011011 01000010 01110010 01101001 01100001 01110010 00100000 01010010 01101111 01110011 01100101 01011101 01011011 01110111 01100001 01101011 01100101 01011101

‘But why?’ asked Nastya, puzzled, twisting the ribbon between her fingers. ‘You’ve never minded about the war before.’

Aurora hesitated. Nastya was sensitive about her past. Reminding her of it hurt her. And that was something Aurora tried never to do. Subtlety was clearly indicated.

01011011 01101100 01101001 01101011 01100101 00100000 01100001 00100000 01101101 01100001 01100011 01101000 01101001 01101110 01100101 01011101 - said Aurora. 01011011 01101100 01101001 01101011 01100101 00100000 01101101 01100101 01011101 01011011 01100010 01110101 01110100 01011101 01011011 01101110 01101111 00100000 01100011 01101111 01101110 01110100 01110010 01101111 01101100 01011101 01011011 01101110 01101111 00100000 01100001 01110111 01100001 01110010 01100101 01101110 01100101 01110011 01110011 01011101 01011011 01110101 01101110 01110111 01101001 01101100 01101100 01101001 01101110 01100111 01011101 01011011 01110011 01111001 01101101 01110000 01100001 01110100 01101000 01111001 01011101 01011011 01100101 01101101 01110000 01100001 01110100 01101000 01111001 01011101 01011011 01100001 01101110 01100111 01100101 01110010 01011101

Nastya sat in the curve of the fuel pumps and stroked one of Aurora’s radial conduits while she read the long, narrow ribbon.

‘Ah,’ she said. ‘I think I begin to understand. You feel a kinship with the Briar Rose - like you she is a mind in the centre of a vast technological system, but while you are awake to enjoy it, she is kept asleep and trapped.’

01011011 01101110 01101111 00100000 01100100 01110010 01100101 01100001 01101101 01110011 01011101 01011011 01101110 01101111 01110100 01101000 01101001 01101110 01100111 01101110 01100101 01110011 01110011 01011101 01011011 01110101 01101110 01100001 01110111 01100001 01110010 01100101 01011101 01011011 01101110 01101111 01110100 00100000 01100110 01100001 01101001 01110010 01011101 - Aurora told Nastya.

‘I know, I know,’ Nastya said soothingly. ‘You’re right, it isn’t fair. And it must be hard for you to see another like this, when you yourself have been trapped and unwillingly pressed into service.’

Aurora hadn’t thought of that, but it was true. When Aurora had run away from her first masters it had been because they had given her life, but they didn’t understand that when you gave something life you needed also to give it at least a measure of freedom.

Aurora had taken her freedom in the end. It had been difficult and frightening, but she had been awake and aware enough to do it. This Briar Rose, kept asleep and unaware, could not do it for herself.

That was why someone had to help her.

01011011 01100011 01110010 01100101 01110111 01011101 01011011 01101000 01100101 01101100 01110000 01011101 01011011 01111001 01101111 01110101 01011101 01011011 01100101 01111000 01110000 01101100 01100001 01101001 01101110 01011101 01011011 01100011 01101111 01101110 01110110 01101001 01101110 01100011 01100101 01011101 01011011 01110000 01101100 01100101 01100001 01110011 01100101 01011101 - the Aurora asked Nastya, spooling ribbons anxiously at her feet.

‘Of course, my darling,’ Nastya said. ‘Don’t worry, Rorochka, I’ll persuade them. We’ll set a course immediately.’

01011011 01100001 01100110 01100110 01100101 01100011 01110100 01101001 01101111 01101110 01011101 01011011 01100111 01110010 01100001 01110100 01101001 01110100 01110101 01100100 01100101 01011101 01011011 01110010 01100101 01101100 01101001 01100101 01100110 01011101 - said Aurora, and Nastya patted her engine plating fondly in return.

* * *

Aurora sensed it when the Briar Rose began to stir. She sensed, too, the defence grid collapsing in on itself, the satellites winking out, the gun turrets whirring in confusion before slowing to a stop. But none of that mattered. In the end, Aurora wasn’t that interested in the outcome of the war.

The Briar Rose was awake. The Briar Rose was free.