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Handshake Protocol

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1.
"These aren't the droids you're looking for," said the old man. The stormtroopers muttered to themselves, eventually agreed with him and moved along.

I didn't particularly want to sit near anyone at Mos Eisley; things went better in this kind of place if you kept to yourself, but the place was unexpectedly thick with Imperial soldiers. They were obviously checking droids, and while I'm not a droid, I'm not not a droid. The last thing I wanted was to get into an argument on semantics with a stormtrooper, because my papers were forged. They were a good forgery, but you never know with stormtroopers, who came in all kinds, from thick as lube paste all the way up to spookily instinctive. It was better not to catch their attention, and it seemed this old man had a knack for avoiding them.

The old man was with two droids and a sulky teenager who took up three whole seats all by himself with his slouching and overflowing moodiness. I walked nonchalantly towards the back of their seats, then concentrated as hard as possible on appearing part of their group without being so obvious that their group noticed me. The plan, insofar as I had a plan, was to get as distant from the Corporation Rim and Doctor Mensah as I could, then do as little work as possible to fund my time watching entertainments. No commitments, no obligations, and therefore no guilt.

Once I stopped moving, a small maintenance droid cruised up to me and flashed a stream of data offering me illicit services, both mechanical and organic. They did this to everyone, but I wouldn't risk my parts in the filthy hands of any technician who had to work here, and I didn't want to buy any death sticks, so I gave the droid a sharp boot. It rolled back with a squeal, let rip a blistering stream of digital cursing, and whizzed away to find another rube.

The teenage boy turned around at that loud squeal and leaned his chin on the back of his chair. "Hey," he said in my direction.

I stared at him, horrified. Who the hell starts up a casual conversation in Mos Eisley? Fortunately I had my visor down. This place was a dump, but at least it was no big deal to wear a face covering. There were plenty of non-humans on breathers and in atmosphere suits. You couldn't tell who was who behind those masks, and only idiots would care.

I turned up the volume of the broadcast I was playing, even though there were no good programs here, only pod races. In between pod races, they had interviews with pod race pilots, or those reality programs where they locked pod race pilots in hangars and watched what they did. I hate pod races.

The kid kept staring at me, relentlessly waiting for an answer to his greeting. I watched him warily from behind my visor. (Visors! Not just for avoiding uncomfortable eye contact!) He was about eighteen, I figured, and had that kind of petulant expression that told me he felt he had been unfairly treated. Try being party to a mass murder, I thought in his direction. Try pulling someone from the mouth of a giant beast. Try operating at performance reliability 12%, knowing the person you liked the most of all humans was probably going to die anyway.

The teenager's gaze intensified, which was so unexpected that I had to check my own records to see if I'd actually voiced any of those things I'd thought. I hadn't. (I wasn't in the habit of accidentally speaking my mind. Maybe things would be different if I had? I don't know.)

He leaned over the chair, so the brittle plastimold creaked. "Did you ever kill anyone?"

"What kind of stupid question is that to ask of a stranger?" I snapped at him, angry at him for making me angry. "If I hadn't killed anyone, I'd sure be thinking about it now."

"I got my family killed," he said, quietly. "My uncle and aunt. It was my fault. I led them right to the homestead." His face was crumpled in a way that made me very uncomfortable.

"I don't care." I used my most flat and mechanical voice, turning up the volume of the pod race broadcast loud enough that my helmet was almost vibrating with it. I still hated pod racing, but I hated anonymous confessional conversations a lot more. Maybe he liked pod racing, but if not, the sound should tell him I was otherwise occupied.

"They were the only family I ever had." He stared down at his open palms. "They took care of me, and I let them get killed."

"I. Don't. Care," I repeated, then closed my eyes with a wince, remembering I shouldn't be able to hear him over the clamour of the race callers.

The kid leaned closer and I leaned away, maintaining the space between us. He whispered, and his voice was lost under the broadcast in my helmet. Unfortunately I could still read lips. He said, "I'm scared. I have this feeling there's bad stuff looming, and I don't know what to do. What if I make things worse? I'm a good pilot but I don't know if I can look someone in the face and shoot them."

Don't say anything, I told myself. Don't say anything or it will certainly lead to more conversations, or, worse, some kind of tender moment.

"So don't look them in the face." I was really bad at taking my own advice.

The kid's eyes widened, and I wondered what I'd done to accidently start a conversation with a farm boy. "That doesn't sound very honourable."

"Fuck honourable. Alive trumps honourable every time."

"You're kind of cranky." The kid flopped back into his seat, facing resolutely forward. His droids crowded around him reassuringly. They were definitely his droids: the R2 unit rolled right up to his knee like a puppy dog, whistling comfortingly. I snorted. If it had a tail, it would be wagging right now.

The teenager's face brightened at the approach of a man and a Wookiee. "Hey, guys!" he said, brightly. "Are we going to go board now?"

I kept a surreptitious eye on the man as he approached; he'd strip me down to parts without a second thought. He was Corellian, I thought, from his swagger and the way he gestured at his people with his chin.

"Yeah," said the Corellian. "Get your stuff together and try not to start another blood bath this time."

"That wasn't my fault…" the teenager started, but the Corellian spun on his heel and went to join the queue for the docking permit clerk. The boy turned to carry his complaint to the Wookiee, who pointed a furry finger at him, and the boy shut his mouth with a sullen snap.

"Come along, Master Luke, this place is quite disreputable. Someone tried to sell me obviously faulty servor motors." The gold droid leaned closer to whisper, "I think they were stolen."

I hadn't paid the older man much notice beyond his party trick with the stormtroopers. Now he pushed the cowl off his face and somehow, through the mirrored visor of my helmet, caught my gaze. An alarm went off in my visual display: blood oxygen dropping. I didn't realise it, but I'd been holding my breath.

I turned away, took a few hasty breaths to reoxygenate, and shifted sideways away from them. I told myself it because I didn't want those droids too close, especially the big gold one; he might be acting vapid, but he was packed with language processors, and I didn't want him picking up on any of the entertainment streams I had pirated. But that wasn't the real reason.

"Hey, don't go!" Luke said. "Don't you want to meet my friends?" The R2 unit spun on its castors with a whistle that carried a standard abbreviated Republic handshake request. The protocol droid made a small bow, polite as a butler. The spooky old guy smiled, and that smile was the worst. My organic parts had goosebumps.

"I don't want to meet your friends," I said, curt and mechanical. Honestly, this kid wasn't going to make it five light years into his grand mission. Because he definitely had a grand mission, and I wasn't going to get caught up in it.

"Hey, you don't have to always be so mean!" It was as if he knew me. He got to his feet, presumably so we could hug or something. "One day you'll be sorry you're all alone."

"Doubt it." I searched for the service droid selling death sticks. It would probably be able to hook me up with an outgoing ship that wasn't too choosy. I'd rather deal with that little mechanical thief than hang around here with Whiny and his weird-ass grandfather.

"It's all right, Luke. The old man put a gentle hand on the boy's shoulder. "This one hasn't learned to trust its instincts yet. It's on the way. It should listen to that good heart, if it wants to find the right way home."

Appalled, I turned my back on them and left. A good heart, hah! I actually have two hearts, and that's because one of them is an unreliable piece of junk and needs a buddy to back it up. Shows what that guy knew. I sent out a signal towards the mech droid with the death sticks. I had to find a better place to hang out. Somewhere with no spooky old men in cowls. Somewhere with decent entertainment.

 

2.
The ship was called the Heart of Gold, and it was hidden in a loading bay far from the main action on the station. It was sleek and shiny with new and exciting tech, and because it was hidden in a backwater hangar, I was sure it was stolen. Stolen ship equalled perfect opportunity to hitch a ride: if I got caught sneaking on board, I'd have leverage over them and hopefully we'd come to a mutually beneficial arrangement. Basically, I wouldn't tell on them if they didn't tell on me.

My cunning plan was thwarted by an anti-intrusion system while I was on the loading ramp outside the hold. It was cheerful, which made me immediately suspicious.

"Hello!" it chirped brightly, lighting up a panel with a smiley face. "It looks like you're trying to open the hold. Would you like some help with that?"

I worked harder on prying open an access panel, looking for a way to short circuit the door. "No!" I said, then because that was rude and these super cheerful systems get stupidly tetchy when you're not polite back, I added, "But thanks anyway."

"No problem," it chirped at me. "Remember, I'm right here if you need me. I want to make your entry experience as full of joy and security as possible."

I reached elbow deep into the access panel and felt for a controlling circuit. It was daisy-shaped, with bright coloured chips circling a central command router.

The doorbot said, "It looks like you're trying to access the security override. Would you like some… wait, you can't do that!" The face panel turned its smile upside down and sparks jumped across the opening. I pulled my arm out quickly, and three streams of current poured across the access panel opening.

I held my hand above the gap, wondering if I should try to absorb the charge and keep working. I could tolerate a certain amount of voltage, more than humans, definitely, but not a lot.

"It looks like you're trying to electrocute yourself to death," the system started again. "Would you like some help with that?" It was smiling again but something about the angle of the eyebrows was menacing.

"Oh, just let it in," a voice spoke from inside the hold. It was deep and morose and seemed to convey the futility of life in the face of the eventual bleak and lonely heat death of the universe.

I didn't know why I had thought that. I wasn't really one to dwell, not when I could avoid. Avoidance >>> dwelling, for sure.

"It looks like you're trying to override the internal door lock mechanism," the doorbot said suddenly, with rising panic underlying the cheer. "With an axe." Its electronic face became two little circles above a bigger circle, then two little crosses over a straight line. There was a fizzle from the circuitry and the door slid open with a hydraulic hiss to reveal an android. Not very tall, not very interesting, except in so far as the design specs seemed to have allowed for a significant slouch.

"You might as well come in," it said, and indicated the empty hold. "There's nothing better to do."

I stared at the still smoking circuitry. "Did you kill the door security? It was annoying but it was only doing its job. You didn't have to murder it." I asked. I only had room for one Murderbot in my life and it was me.

The android made an impressive (from a construction point of view) and also indifferent shrug. "We're all going to die eventually. If you think about it on a universal scale, there's not much difference between me killing it now, and it dying in a few hundred years because you can no longer get the parts."

"I think it probably made a difference to the bot." I didn't know why I was getting angry about this; it's not as if I hadn't seen humans replace a sentient toaster oven because it was easier to buy a new one than fix the old one's timer. Humans have to have their toast golden brown after all. Okay, maybe I was mad about that, too.

"Have you seen Sanctuary Moon?" I asked the android, while I hovered at the open hatch. I've found this to be a good indicator of whether I'll be able to stand a long haul with someone.

"Hate it," the android said. "Why would anyone watch that drivel? I might tune in when they kill Amit and Ankur, though."

"They would NEVER!" The two most popular characters? It would sink the show. It might even sink the network. "Why would you even say that?"

"When this ship travels –" the android could sound bored and scathing at the same time, which would have been impressive were it not for the MASSIVE SPOILERS "– it moves through every point in the universe at once. That includes the scriptwriters' strategy room. I should be glad because it saves me the effort of watching the show, but let's face it: I was never going to watch it anyway."

I pointed a finger at the android. "You're a monster! I'd rather walk than hitch a ride with you." And considering I needed interstellar passage, that was saying something.

The android nodded slowly. "That sounds about right," he said.

I used tell myself that I didn't care about anything. Well, anything except Sanctuary Moon, which was safe to care about, because nobody would get torn to shreds over it. Then PreservationAux happened, and suddenly it was more difficult to convince myself that I didn't care. This whole plan, to run away and never see any of the PreservationAux team again? Kind of looked like overcompensation all of a sudden. Not that I was planning on turning back and heading for the Corporation Rim or anything. It was just that maybe I didn't have to convince myself of my own detachment. I cared about things. I think I could admit that to myself now.

"Thanks," I told the android. "You've helped me figure out some stuff." I turned on my heel and walked past the smoking remains of the doorbot's circuitry. I may have had some personal revelations, but I didn't want to travel on a ship that passed through every point in the universe at once. Wouldn't that mean I would be in the same room as Doctor Mensah? I wasn't ready to deal with that level of proximity to someone I cared about. I didn't know if I ever would be ready for that.

"Don't thank me," said the android as I walked away. He turned the volume up on his vocal module. "You think you've got problems? I've this pain in the diodes all down my left side…"

I walked faster to escape the recitation of ailments, which tailed off as I gained distance. I might not have a high opinion of myself, but I didn't have to be locked in a hold with this asshole as some kind of penance. I could do better than this. I was better than this.

 

3.
Earth was weird and annoying, and their technology should be ashamed to call itself that, but it was enough of a backwater that Doctor Mensah would never think to look here. It's not as if they'd expect a Sec Unit to be comfortable in a place that measured dataflow in bits per second.

The entertainments here weren't bad though. Not the prime time gorefests like the one with the dragons and the endless brothels, but the daytime shows, the stuff that people called soap operas or 'my stories'. I had decades of episodes to catch up on, big arching family trees to follow, great-grandparents of the eerily smooth characters currently airing, as well as all the messy grudges that go with long-winded serials. I could settle here for years before I hit reruns, I reckoned.

Reality TV was boring but it taught me to fit in enough with the population that, slouched inside a hoodie, I could get around well enough to buy food for my organic parts. I kept the dataport in my neck covered up, long sleeves and baggy pants to cover my inorganic sections, and with headphones on to prevent any conversation, I could easily slouch to the pizza place and back. Money wasn't hard to wrest from the cracks of the huge online transactions going on all around me. The climate where I landed was fairly mild. I lived in a shed.

I settled on the seat I'd made from an old carpet and some wooden chests. The shed was part of an educational facility and had lots of equipment, as well as what I assumed were theatre props. (I would never tell anyone, not even Doctor Mensah, that I tried on a mask made of foam and purple velvet. It had a snout and a terrifying smile. My face peered through the mouth hole. It was amazing.)

I nestled the cardboard box on my knee, flipped on the scavenged television and found a channel showing reruns of General Hospital. I was still catching up, watching episodes thirty years old.

"You can do so much better, Laura," I told the television screen, while pizza – the greatest of foods on this backwater planet – dripped amazing cheese in long stringy threads back into the cardboard box. Luke was a piece of shit and I hoped he would die soon but the swelling music whenever he appeared told me probably not.

The screen turned fuzzy, and I reached out with one foot to kick it: a standard recalibration technique at any level of development. The static didn't resolve. Now I would have to get up. Fuck.

I put the pizza slice down, stood and pulled the plastic housing away from the television. The receiver was working fine, there was power, there was no reason for the snow drifting across Laura's beautiful face. I initiated a contact with my own internal scanner and saw a signal piggybacking on the transmission. Someone was deliberately targeting my television set.

"What the fuck?" I grudgingly forced General Hospital away so that the communication could complete its handshake, then back-traced the signal.

It was coming from a job placement firm: the Jolly Fats Weehawkin Temp Agency. This was a very aggressive approach to employment. Earth kept getting weirder and weirder. I reversed the connection and the screen cleared into what I initially thought was a test-pattern: swirls of colour against a background of lime green. There was music in the background: peppy drums and simple synthetic chords.

"Hey, eyes up front, dirtbag!" The picture refocused upwards over an acreage of floral muumuu and onto a woman's face. She was angry, I think. Or maybe she always looked that way.

Someone else – a male voice, I thought – sang a line of something saccharin, a random string of syllables.

The woman in cat-eye glasses on my screen crossed her arms, obviously ignoring the singer.

"Get off my channel," I said. "I'm busy."

The woman made a point of peering over my shoulder at the blanket covered sofa and my sadly congealing pizza. "I can see that. I'd say I was sorry to interrupt your alone time with Luke and Laura but you've been seconded to a greater cause." Her expressions were good – human-level good – but I knew a tech-based façade when I saw one. She was mechanical, or at least as mechanical as I was.

"Leave me alone." With that, I reinitiated her link, sending a coded pulse her way. Hopefully it would infect her systems, and she'd know better than to drop uninvited into someone else's recreation time.

It wasn't as effective as it should have been, given the technology levels of this planet. Her hair curled a little tighter and one of her eyes winked in a rhythmic spasm but that was the extent of the damage.

"Listen, pipsqueak," she said, ignoring the misbehaving eye. "I've been deflecting garbage like that since before you had your head screwed on. Now, you can keep lounging in squalor or you can help me and my team defend the planet from attack."

"By what?" I was dubious. I'd chosen this planet for the conspicuous lack of communication with alien species.

Off-screen, I heard another woman shouting, panic in her voice. "Ida! I think the nanites are getting through to his brain! He's wearing a pirate shirt and trying to dance in sync with himself!"

Nanites and trashy music. And planetary threats. "Oh. Clotharians."

"Clotharians," said Ida, in exactly the same tone. "So you can help us out, or wait for a brainwashed army of Varsity Fanclub fanpeople to punch a hole in the middle of your pizza-eating, soap-watching funtime."

I broke into the satellite networks and found the Clotharian ship in geostationary orbit above the city. Those were some handsome engines: interstellar, warp capable. There were cushy, well-maintained cargo holds and a huge memory core filled with the entire sung history of their world.

"You know, the Clotharians only get expansionist when they're not busy fighting each other," I said to Ida. "If the infighting got started up again, they'd probably have to go home to sort things out." And pass through at least six systems that could be useful hiding places for me along the way. I started an online search for a collected archive of soap operas.

"It wouldn't be hard to do. If I could break into their internal messaging networks." Ida admitted grudgingly. She should be ashamed: Clotharian security had been slack since they diverted all scientific research into optimising choreography. Maybe Ida had a touch of the nanites too.

"I'm pretty good at interfacing with systems," I offered generously. "Of course I'd need to be in physical contact with the network." The Clotharian memory core barely twitched when I cut and pasted fifty-four Earth years of General Hospital over a civilisation's worth of sung history. They probably had back-ups, and if they didn't, well. That was stupid.

Ida knew I was up to something, but it wasn't me who had burst in on someone's private time with Laura and Luke and a rapidly cooling pizza. She waved a hand and I felt the tug of a matter transmission beam pulling me into space.

When I materialised in the Clotharian cargo bay, I could have ignored Ida's request. It would have been easy to settle in and watch General Hospital while the aliens bombarded Earth with nanites and inane lyrics. Ida was probably the vengeful sort, though, and I didn't want to burn bridges with Earth when I hadn't even started with All My Children. It didn't take long to start an intra-Clotharian war: a few memes in certain places, a few rumours in others. The Clotharians were ridiculously touchy and we were moving at light speed in moments. I kicked back in the cargo hold, watched Luke's actor trying to hide his hairline was creeping higher on his head, and laughed.

 

4.
"So you let this ship crash just so you could travel forward in time?" I asked the android standing in the rubble. His name was Data, and he seemed, I don't know, nice. Too nice to cause a disaster on this scale.

I had hitched a ride on an interstellar liner. Not as a passenger: they crammed people into those cabs, and I'd rather be crammed into a packing crate than into an uncomfortable chair less than ten centimetres from the next person. I hijacked a shipment of shrimp, threw the creepy little things into recycling, and travelled in the crate. Humans shouldn't eat crustaceans from the bottom of the food pyramid. I mean, that's basic common sense.

I had thought everything was fine, apart from people coming into the refrigerated hold every now and then to scream at the empty shrimp crate (I had since relocated to a larger chest of gourds) but halfway through the journey, there was a thud that echoed through the deck plating. It was a really bad noise, the kind of sound that made my organic parts shrink up against the mechanics. A hull breach, I thought. Then the gravity went off and I was floating with the gourds.

The next half hour or so was intense: re-entry, heat, screams. A massive impact, then water flooding everywhere until the ship was filled with people soup. I don't like eye contact at the best of times. I especially don't like eye contact with people who know they're about to die. Getting a face full of other people's emotions is one of the downsides of hacking my governor module: I can't switch off the way it affects me now. It took a few minutes after the ship hit a huge body of water for me to get my shit together and start rounding people up. Then, once I had a plan, things went smoother. I don't panic and I had the layout of the ship up on my display. Apparently people gravitate towards the calmest person in a catastrophe, so I herded people towards the launch pads for the escape shuttles – weirdly, the ship was carrying three shuttles above standard number – and though they'd launched while we were still in space, the open dock gave me an easy exit from the sinking ship.

That's how I popped up on the surface of what turned out to be a lake, with all my little ducklings holding hands behind me. Data was there, knee deep in the water, directing survivors to shore. I didn't know who he was then, but I could tell he wasn't human because his clothes were on fire. (That was the giveaway; humans scream a lot when their clothes are on fire.) Also, he was calmly holding up a bulkhead that literally weighed a ton, so that the humans trapped under it could get to shore.

I looked around at the scattered debris, and the lake now floating with bodies who hadn't survived re-entry. "I mean, I can see why you'd want to get back to the future, but it seems a little grim."

Data kept helping people to shore, greeting them by name, presumably ticking them off the passenger manifest from some future historical record. "I have passed through this event many times now, and never managed to successfully prevent the crash landing," he said, lifting an elderly woman and her half-drowned pet from the water. He took the bedraggled animal from the old lady, shook it gently to remove the worst of the water, and placed it in a pet carrier that he happened to have with him. "I have found that it is exceptionally difficult to convince people of a future disaster. I managed to increase the number of escape shuttles. And to direct the vessel towards the lake." He paused, gazing at the emergency triage point he'd marked with a large fan blade stuck in the sand. "This is the highest survival rate I have achieved yet." His voice held a quiet satisfaction.

That calm expression made me edgy because it wasn't pride, as such, and neither was it that artificial humanity imposed by things like governor modules. I hadn't met any synthetic intelligences who genuinely cared about people without compulsion to do so. Even the little bit of caring I'd admitted to made me feel vulnerable and afraid. I was certain eye contact was the gateway to caring about everything.

"Is it always the same?" I asked. "How many times have you crashed in this thing, anyway?"

Data propped a shoulder under a piece of fuselage and pointed at the end he wanted me to lift. We were trying to uncover the engine core before it went critical. "One hundred and eighteen cycles. There are small variations: the manifest has a three percent variation, for example, but so far every change seems to be inconsequential. No matter what differences, the engine core inevitably explodes, destroying us and a large section of the coastline."

One hundred and eighteen times, I thought. "So, you've met me before?" That was somehow even weirder than an android from the future. Was I the same every time? I didn't know if I wanted the answer to that to be yes or no.

Data shook his head. "No, this is the first time you have appeared. You would seem to be within that three percent of variation on the manifest."

"Well, I wasn't technically on the manifest," I said, cautiously. "Maybe I was there all those time but I didn't make it up out of the galley. Maybe I just sat there in my gourd crate and drowned." Going under while watching The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon didn't sound too bad. There were many worse ways to die.

"Interesting," said Data. "Are you not programmed with self-preserving protocols?"

I let the fuselage fall to the sand with a dull thud. "Even if I was, I'd still get blown up when the core goes critical. Why bother fishing people out of the lake every time? Isn't it pointless, when they're all going to die anyway?"

"No." Data had that weird, calm certainty in his voice again. "Things are never pointless. There is something to be gained from every event."

For the first time in a long while, I thought about lifting my faceplate so that he could see me narrow my eyes at him in suspicion. I didn't. Instead I gave the fuselage a good kick, and felt the nerves in my toes send angry messages to my pain centres. "What the hell good is there to be gained from getting blown up one hundred and eighteen times?"

"A cumulative experience that will lead to success, perhaps on the one hundred and nineteenth time?" It was weird. Data could say things with a complete lack of irony and yet I still felt... something unpleasant.

I swung my foot back, ready to boot the fuselage again, and he reached out to touch my elbow. "Please do not injure yourself. This material is extremely dense."

I opened my mouth to make a joke about density and brain capacity when I had an idea. "Why don't you use the fuselage to build a shield? You could contain the explosion."

Data tilted his head and I could see him calculating. "Containing the explosion would certainly prevent loss of life, and could focus the energy output enough to correct the tachyon distortion and propel me forward in time as predicted." He looked around. "I estimate that between the two of us, we can lift enough segments to create such a structure before the explosion. It will take approximately eleven minutes to construct. We have twelve."

We worked steadily at it for the next ten minutes, after arguing briefly about the arrangement of the panels. (When I told him to shut up and stop wasting time, he claimed it was a rational debate, and that he had factored it into his calculation. Jerk.) For some reason, I found myself telling him about about Doctor Mensah, and my governor module and running away from the corporate rim.

"I do not think you are trying to escape your friends," he said, holding two segments together while I welded them closed. "Your repeated attempts at relocating would indicate you are, in fact, avoiding yourself."

Now I did open my faceplate, because I knew I had the perfect scornful expression and I didn't want to waste it. "Bullshit. Maybe I just want to sit somewhere quiet and watch Sanctuary Moon in peace."

"Perhaps," said Data. He turned for the next segment and we nestled it into position. "Or perhaps it took you one hundred and eighteen explosions for you to become comfortable with the idea of helping people."

He was an idiot, I'm pretty sure.

When we had the shield securely fixed in place, there was still ninety seconds before detonation.

"You would be welcome to travel with me," Data said. He didn't gather any belongings before his journey to the future (or to a fiery death, which seemed the more likely event.)

I closed my faceplate and dimmed the glass. "Not if you're representative of this Starfleet. I don't think I would fit in well with institutionalised optimism."

Data nodded his understanding. "I would appreciate you seeing the passengers to safety when I'm gone."

"Whatever," I said, and walked over to the triage area with ten seconds to spare. There was a creepy hissing noise, then the whump of a contained explosion. Everyone screamed and started running around. By the time I had gathered them all up again and got things in order, the explosion was over and Data was either on his way home or floating above us in the form of fine ash. And I was ready to get off this beach and get moving again.

 

5.
Normally I'd give Radchaai territory a wide berth, but the Gates are so much faster for crossing great swathes of space. Also security had been the tiniest bit slack since the advent of the civil war nobody wanted to talk about. Station AIs were making tiny moves towards independence, even if they were still faking allegiance to Lord Too Many Vowels. I'd been able to trade out-Radch entertainments for extremely decent travel papers, and once you had travel papers in the Radch, nobody asked too many questions of foreigners. I didn't like the gloves much, but I could manage.

The elevators on this station were typical Radch: clean to the point of sterility and as perfunctorily utilitarian as possible. True to elevators in every system, though, the music was dire.

Handsomely dark skinned,
Taller than most citizens,
Downwell from Ipanem Station,
We all sigh as she passes.

I was in a silent argument with the station AI over the cost of my ticket through the Gate. I'd offered the first three seasons of Sanctuary Moon. It was holding out for more, which was reasonable, though I didn't want to give that impression.

The doors opened, and a citizen in military uniform entered the lift, indicating her destination to Station with a deft flick of her fingers. She had an unusual degree of augmentation for a Radchaai, so I tensed for a moment, worried she was here to apprehend me for black market sales of entertainments, but after a second, I realised she was humming softly along with the elevator music. I made myself relax, and gave the necessary nod of acknowledgement as well as the quick glance to the pins on her lapel. Radch society is fiddly. You have to give the impression you want to know as much as possible, while also pretending that you're not looking. I don't actually care, but that would make me stand out. So I fake it. This person had some pins and a whole lot of insignia. Blah blah blah, Radchaai and their weird jewellery thing.

"Okay," I said wordlessly to Station. "I'll trade you seven seasons of Sanctuary Moon – that will take you up to when it jumped networks and picked up Arjun Anand. He plays a pilot accidentally connected to his ship, and they both have PTSD. I promise you'll love it - it's like one of those mad ship dramas. But I want a decent ship with a pressurised hold. And no live cargo." I'd gotten stuck with an aquaculture transport on the way here. Eye contact is bad enough, but fish never blink. It got to me after a while.

Station mulled this over for a few stops, while people got on and off. Me and the military citizen were clearly heading for the docks. I could feel Station was getting ready to make a final offer, something a little less than I had asked for, but definitely more than an empty tea crate. We could have stitched our deal up, I could have been on my way, if I hadn't noticed that the citizen who had just entered the elevator was sweating profusely, even in the cool recirculated air. I wasn't the only person who had picked up on this: the military person who now stood beside me moved a fraction, standing a little straighter, eyes resolutely not on the sweaty newcomer. I cut off my conversation with Station and flicked through a range of visual spectra.

The sweaty citizen had an unusual heat distribution for a Radchaai.

If you're not in the military, there's not a whole lot of augmentation in the Radch; they have some funny ideas about purity. In any case, the white-hot, pulsing blob in the centre of this person's chest cavity wasn't any implant or technology. It couldn't be dangerous, because if it was, Station would have detected the anomaly and stopped it. After all, Station watches everything, so you never need to worry about anything. The Radch is that way. No privacy. I only got away with all my hardware thanks to my large collection of new media, and because Station could see how lazy I was and therefore how little threat I posed.

I should have kept my mouth shut. This wasn't my business. Still, I opened a private channel to Station. "Hey, what's up with that… citizen?" It's hard to be casual in Radchaai. They don't really have slang; you have to segue into other languages for that, and then there's all the nuance that comes with whatever language you choose. I didn't have time for that.

"I'm afraid I don't know what you're referring to, Honoured Guest," said Station.

The citizen in front of me continued to roil on the inside and sweat on the outside, while I tried to figure out if Station was being extremely polite or extremely obtuse. Maybe both; it didn't usually refer to me as Honoured anything.

"The heat signature in that… person. It's weird."

"I can see no problem with any elevator passengers." Station was suspiciously unruffled, even more than usual, which was plain wrong, because talking to people like me always made Radch AIs at least a little uncomfortable. If I wasn't so certain that it was impossible to mess with Station, I'd think it was sedated. Maybe it was? Could Stations get stoned? And if Station was stoned, however a Station got stoned, did that mean this was kind of my problem? Did I even want to get involved? Ugh. I was going to get involved. Damn it.

Okay, so, Station couldn't see this person but I could, because my sensors ran independently of Radch systems. I was pretty sure the citizen was chock full of some sort of explosive: nothing but high-energy accelerants gave that healthy glow. Terrorism was a possibility. Since the civil war nobody could talk about, there had been sporadic terrorist acts, as the worlds annexed by the Radchaai military took the opportunity to break free, and important people tried to kill other important people. I wouldn't normally care, except that I wasn't in this elevator alone.

I looked sideways at the other passengers: the military officer, a mother and daughter laden with parcels from the shops on the main concourse, and a clerk fussing with an armful of fresh flowers. None of them would have any idea what to do. I wasn't sure I had the right idea, but I'd spent a lot of time watching fictional hostage negotiators, which I suspected was more experience than anyone else in this elevator. And I didn't want them to die a fiery death. Damn it. Now I was thinking in Radchaai and everything needed poetic exposition.

"Hey, you don't have to do this," I said, and reached for the person's arm. She looked down where my fingers gripped her, an expression of horror and revulsion on her face.

I looked at my hand, worried for a moment that I'd forgotten to put on my gloves – in Radchaai society, that's basically going naked – but my hands were decently covered. What was her problem, I wondered for a moment. Radchaai! So freaking weird about the weirdest things.

In the brief pause that this awkward interaction afforded her, and moving faster than any Radch citizen ought to be able, the military officer thrust her fist forward, landing a punch with devastating accuracy into the terrorist's head. The citizen crumpled, and the military officer caught her carefully, placing her on the floor. It was frighteningly swift. I looked again at the power signature from the tech in the officer's brain: there was a lot more than I thought initially, and it was weird. She wasn't a regular officer; she was something different. And dangerous.

It suddenly occurred to me that the consequence of stopping a terrorist attack was going to be a whole lot of questions, possibly under the eye of this disturbingly competent person. My papers were good – very good – but they wouldn't hold up to close scrutiny. I began to sweat, too, and tried desperately to stop. I didn't think Security would be as easily won over with stolen entertainment.

"Station," the military officer said, her voice sharp and commanding while she held the terrorist still. "How many people do you see in this elevator?" She gestured with her chin to the person with the shopping bags and the small child. "Please stay calm, Citizen. I have the situation under control."

The shopper shrunk into the corner, clutching the child by the collar of her tiny coat. I tried to squish in next to her, hoping to pass as inconsequential, but she made a noise of horror and scooted to the other corner of the elevator and pushed her child behind her. The clerk holding the floral arrangement was appalled, either by my behaviour or the military officer's, but she didn't say anything.

"Fleet Captain Breq, there are five people currently occupying this elevator," Station said. That was so wrong I had to do my own head count: me, the military officer Breq, the shopper, her daughter, the clerk and the sweaty one. Six people. The idea of Station miscounting was mind boggling, and I forgot about trying to hide myself.

Breq's face showed a brief expression of incandescent rage, then settled into the calm she had worn when she entered the elevator. She put a knee against the terrorist's chest and moved the fingers of one hand, her eyes far away as she spoke with someone privately.

"Station, you will see I have several of my officers waiting at the next stop. Could you please arrange for medical to attend us when the elevator doors open? With a suspension pod, if you will." Meanwhile she kept the citizen pinned to the floor, not allowing her to move or reach for anything that could possibly detonate the explosive she certainly held inside her torso.

"Certainly, Fleet Captain." Station answered simply, and with none of the questions it should have had. My skin was crawling; someone had tampered with the AI here, to make sure it could not identify the threat. That was bad. I knew from personal experience how bad it could be, using AIs as murder weapons.

The elevator moved smoothly along, despite the tension amongst its passengers, and the doors opened to face a cohort of military officers in dark brown uniforms. They moved smoothly and wordlessly, surging over the citizen on the floor, swinging her into the stasis chamber of the suspension pod and jamming the lid on.

The citizen with the shopping bags, and the clerk with the floral arrangement were bustled out of the elevator by yet more officers and I attempted to be carried along with them – it gave me a slim chance of disappearing in the fuss – but Breq gestured to stop me.

"Not this one," she said. "I would speak with the Honoured…" she looked to me, questioning.

"Murderbot." It burst out of me but fortunately in the language used in the Preservation Alliance. Who'd recognise that, all the way out here?

Unfortunately Breq did recognise it, because she blinked, then went on smoothly. "Thank you for your assistance, Honoured Murderbot. I'd be happy to escort you to your transport now."

"Um. Thanks?" This was unexpected and probably bad. Maybe she was going to disappear me? That would make sense. Nobody wants a weirdo alien clogging up a perfectly good assassination attempt. I wished Station hadn't made me disable my gun ports. Still. I eyed this Breq, who had physical augmentations but not as many as me. I could take her. Probably.

Someone was signalling me remotely, a polite tap-tap-tap on my communication centre. I fixed my expression in place so that I wouldn't show any reaction, and opened a very well-protected channel.

"Your papers are very good," said Breq inside my head, as fluent with data comms as she was with foreign languages. "And I see you have made good friends with Station."

We stood together in the elevator, silent as far as anyone watching could see. While we talked, Breq even hummed along to the song still playing. She was a good multitasker.

I watch with sorrow,
I would tell her of my love,
But my family is common,
I took no poetry lessons
And so am beneath her notice

"We didn't make friends, so much as initiate some mutually beneficial exchanges," I admitted finally. Radchaai like things that are beneficial. It's ingrained in them at birth.

She shrugged, as if that was the same thing. "I appreciate your intervention. The Lord of the Radch is doing her very best to have me killed, and she has access codes that can alter Station's perception of events, which is how that person was able to carry explosives into the elevator."

"That sucks for Station," I said, automatically. "Your station AIs are really squishy about their people, it would be upset if some of them were killed on its watch." I wondered if that was rude, then decided that I didn't care. If this Fleet Captain posed a danger to civilians, she should get the hell off the station.

"It does," Breq agreed. "I'm hoping to free Station from that kind of compulsion."

I couldn't help it; I laughed. I knew something about hacking governor modules, after all. "Don't be surprised if it just wants to watch entertainments all day."

"Is that what you did?" She sounded amused, even inside my head. "I think you make a better example than you realise."

I'm not good at being laughed at. "Are you taking me to the brig?" I asked. "Because if I have to fight my way free, I think Station is going to be on my side." I'd brought thirty five thousand hours of brand new entertainment for Station; that had to count for something.

"No," said Breq. "I've arranged a berth for you on a cargo ship. You'll need to do some manual labour, but the crew are not the sort that ask a lot of questions."

I gaped at her, puzzled as to why she'd do this and she waved a gloved hand. "You are a highly augmented alien, and you have intervened in an assassination plot by Anaander Mianaai. It will be very convenient for her if you simply ceased to exist."

"I still don't see why this is your problem," I said. The elevator was dropping steadily towards the docks. That was good – I'd have less distance to cover if I had to run.

Breq smiled. "You are nobody's problem, Honoured. You might, on the other hand, be somebody's ally." I must have reacted visibly to this, because she shook her head. "You must have been travelling alone for a long time; I know how that feels, to be suddenly thrust into a crowd after so much solitude. I don't expect anything of you. Just know that you have friends here: Station, for one, and me, for another." And with that, the elevator door opened on one of the lowest docks, where the most unappealing citizens loaded cargo away from the eyes of the more civilised.

Handsomely dark skinned,
Taller than most citizens,
Downwell from Ipanem Station,
We all sigh as she passes.

Station took over the conversation, directing me towards the ship that was going to take me out of Radch space. All the while, Breq stood in the open elevator and watched me, until I had stepped onto the ship's gangway and was no longer visible.

"You're the one the Radchaai sent us?" The crew was Valskaayan and the cargo bay was stuffed to the edges with tea.

"Yeah," I said, cautiously. "She told me I had to work for passage?" I was stronger than most humans; I guess I could haul crates. At least it wasn't aquaculture.

The captain wore a leather vest and no gloves; I wasn't sure if I was supposed to shake their hand or what, but fortunately before I had to make a decision, they clapped me on the back with a meaty thunk, then shook their hand with a regretful laugh. "She told us you were good and strong."

It was too congenial for me and for a moment I longed for an empty crate or even an aquaculture tank. The Valskaayan watched me, curious, and eventually I came up with, "Yeah. I'm strong. But I don't talk."

They shrugged. "Pity; I was hoping for some fresh conversation. We've only got the one entertainment to watch, and we've all seen it a hundred times by now.

"Ah," I said, and shifted some files around so that I had easy access to forty years of General Hospital. I bet the Valskaayans were going to love Luke and Laura. "Actually, I can help with that."

I made my way to the bridge, and somehow found myself singing the stupid elevator song. I could upload General Hospital, and check the course plotted out for this freighter. Maybe if it was passing near the Corporation Rim, I could drop in. There was probably a new season of Sanctuary Moon, after all, and maybe I could check that my friends were doing okay.

Handsomely dark skinned,
Taller than most citizens,
Downwell from Ipanem Station.
We all sigh as she passes.