Approximately 500 hours after I left Ravihyral Mining Facility Q Station for the second time, I had visited three new transit stations, stowed away in five different cargo holds, and consumed about 475 hours’ worth of media.
I’d also worked out where I needed to go next to get the answers I wanted, and as far as I could tell there were only a couple of problems. The first was that I’d have to get them from an actual human, but I’d decided to avoid thinking about that until absolutely necessary. The second was that the person I needed was a resident of the pleasure station Dorienne, an exclusive resort catering to the kind of humans who were willing and able to pay a premium for security and privacy along with whatever sort of entertainment rich people enjoy while they’re on vacation.
I’d gotten as far as the hub closest to Dorienne, but I couldn’t get any farther without either paying a lot more than I still had in hard currency or hiring myself out to someone who could pay for me. I had an entry in the social feeds that now contained not one but two glowing references for my work as a security consultant. Last time I tried taking on clients, I’d gotten what I wanted. It was a logical decision.
Any objective analysis would probably have included the part where, last time I tried taking on clients, I’d nearly gotten one of them killed, but I really, really wanted to get to Dorienne.
There were a handful of job postings in the feed that looked right for me. I picked the first one set to depart for the station: a couple from the Vraxan system, both female, looking for personal security on a quiet holiday. They’d be there just under a week, probably drinking mind-altering beverages on simulated beaches while I had nothing better to do than take care of my own business. Hopefully they’d be too occupied with each other to pay me much attention at all. It sounded just about perfect.
They set up the meeting in one of the more expensive cafes near the embarkation zone, which was fine with me, since I wasn’t going to be eating or drinking anyway. Whoever designed the place had gone in for a moisture-heavy biome look, and the tables were all separated by long strands of flowering vines. I guess the idea was privacy, but between the bad lines of sight and the complete lack of actual cover, it was the worst of all possible compromises as far as security was concerned.
The clients were late, which would have been irritating if I hadn’t already queued up one of the most recent episodes of Sanctuary Moon. I tried to tell myself this was just because I was bored, but, yeah, I was nervous. New humans, new opportunities to fail miserably at pretending to be an augmented human myself.
I’d only seen this episode a few times. I was just getting to the good part, where the colony’s solicitor discovers that the secret vault in the chief administrator’s quarters is hiding the cryogenically-frozen remains of her ex-lover, when someone pushed the vines aside and came in, so I just paused the feed instead of shutting it down completely like I should have. I arranged my features into a confident, professional expression (or I hoped I did. It was harder to tell when I couldn’t watch myself with the security cameras) and extended a hand palm-up in what a data search had told me was an appropriate greeting in most Vraxan subcultures. It was a familiar gesture from my entertainments, so I thought I had decent odds on not completely fucking it up.
The person I assumed was my prospective client was a female human. She rested her fingertips on top of my own, then smiled, so I’d gotten that much right. She was short, with a shaved head and the kind of simple, well-made clothing most practical humans favor for traveling. She turned to hold the vines open for the human behind her, who was tall and heavily muscled and draped in one of the high-necked robes I’d seen all over this system. It was not practical for traveling, and the stiff collar came all the way up to her cheekbones so I could barely see the bottom half of her face.
They both sat across from me, and I was about to extend my hand to the second human when she unsnapped the collar and pushed the robe back over her shoulders, and I experienced the weird dissociation I usually have when processing multiple security feeds from different angles simultaneously. Only this time the problem was the entertainment in my head, which I’d paused at the point where the solicitor has just succeeded in hacking the vault’s state-of-the-art locks through the power of dumb luck and media logic, and the actual human sitting opposite me. She might not have been a colony solicitor recently accused of murder and separated from her infant child, but she looked an awful lot like her.
She shot the first human an irritated look. “Shit, they’re a fan.” Which was how I realized I’d forgotten to control my facial expressions.
“Is that a problem?” the first human asked. She seemed amused, and she didn’t wait for the not-solicitor to answer. “It’s Eden, right?”
“Yes,” I said. I decided to focus my attention on her. It seemed less confusing. “Are you Verris or Jakatri?”
“Jakatri,” she said. “This isn’t Verris, though. Obviously. Sorry about the fake name.”
“Okay,” I said, then waited. “What’s hers?” She looked confused. “Her name, I mean. If it’s not Verris.”
The human I was trying not to look at made an offended noise. Jakatri laughed. “Let me guess—you’re a fan of Sanctuary Moon, but not of Ixa’s.”
“Something like that,” I said. Ixa, right. I’d only seen the name in the opening credits sequence a thousand times or so. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t care who the actors in my entertainments were. It was that I actively didn’t want to know. Disappointing acting I can get over, but disappointing humans are more than I want to deal with.
“It might not be Sanctuary Moon they’ve seen,” Ixa said. “I did have a career before that.”
“Of course you did,” said Jakatri. She looked at me. “Tell me the truth. What did you think of the clone arc?”
“This season’s. With the fighter pilot and his comatose ex-husband.”
“I thought Ships in the Night did it better,” I said, and her face fell.
“Of course. Derivative and inferior. I knew it wouldn’t pay off, but they’d already brought the actor back for a dozen episodes, and you try rewriting two season-long character arcs at a week’s notice.”
“You work on Sanctuary Moon?” I asked.
Jakatri nodded. “One of the writers. If you can call it that. Lately it’s just regurgitating old plots and tired dialog, and I—”
“They don’t care about your artistic vision,” Ixa said. “We’re here to arrange a contract. Your rates are reasonable. I assume a standard confidentiality rider applies?”
Great, now I was going to have to pay attention to her. I nodded and made myself look her in the eyes. They were a green bright enough they had to be medically enhanced, and they stood out against her very dark, very smooth skin. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t have any sex-related parts, and I didn’t find her at all appealing from that perspective, but even a construct can appreciate facial symmetry and ideal proportions. We can probably do it better than humans, actually. I can calculate distances at close range to within a thousandth of a millimeter, and even up close without the help of professional lighting Ixa’s face was, objectively, perfect.
It looked a lot more impatient than I was used to seeing it, though. “Tired and slightly pissed off” isn’t the kind of emotion that tends to come up in the serials I watch.
“Your references are fine,” she said, which I’m not embarrassed to admit pissed me off, too. I’d worked hard to lie my way into that employment history, and I thought it deserved better. “We’ll provide your accommodations and food while we’re there. Is there anything else we need to know?”
“Uh,” I said. I’d been expecting a little more lead-in. “There are a few things I’d like to know, actually. What kind of security threat are you worried about?”
“We aren’t,” Jakatri said. “I mean, she’s had threats before, but the last credible one was—that stalker on Omatroe, wasn’t it? But she was caught and sent to corrective therapy, and last we heard—”
“It’s a privacy issue,” Ixa interrupted her. “My publicist has noted an uptick in tabloid activity.”
“At least some of that’s because of the election,” Jakatri put in. “If you don’t follow celebrity news, you may not have heard—Ixa’s just announced her candidacy for the Vraxan Board of System Administration.”
“It’s a publicity stunt,” Ixa said flatly. “Not my idea. I’ll pull out after the first public debate. The point is that I can deal with press scrutiny, I’ve done that before, but a few cycles ago a very—intimate holo was plastered all over the feeds.” Her jaw was set. Jakatri reached over to touch her arm. “That crossed a line. I want a quiet vacation, and I don’t want to spend it worrying about the paparazzi.”
That seemed straightforward. “Why are you just looking for security now? I mean, why not hire it before you got on a shuttle?”
“We did,” Ixa said. I recognized that expression from episode 183, where her character had vowed revenge on the murderer of her half-sibling. “I had a consultant on a long-term contract until we arrived here. Then we figured out exactly who’d taken those holos.”
Which explained why they used an alias to advertise the job. “All right,” I said. I unfocused my eyes while I made a few amendments to the boilerplate contract I’d worked out with ART the last time I did this. (The glassy eyes were just for show. Even most augmented humans could have finished that task without getting distracted, but humans seemed to like a visual indicator when I was doing something they couldn’t see.) Then I sent it through to the contact information they’d given me, and Jakatri’s wrist unit beeped. “Confidentiality rider included.”
Jakatri opened the contract, and they both looked it over. Jakatri herself was clearly skimming it. Ixa read every line. “Our shuttle leaves in six hours,” she told me as we fixed up the signatures and submitted the final document to the transit station’s legal depository. “Dock 12B.”
I got to my feet.
“Wait,” said Jakatri. “We haven’t ordered. Are you hungry? It’s on us.”
“No,” I said. Then, because humans also seemed to like a little more than that when they said their good-byes, “Dock 12B in six hours.”
I intended to spend them finishing off the cryo-freeze episode I’d started and, since it ended on a cliffhanger, powering straight through the two-parter that followed, but every time the colony solicitor showed up I got the same weird mental double-vision and had to shut it off. And that was after only five minutes talking to Ixa. This job had better be worth it.
It did not work in my favor as far as my actual goal was concerned, though. I needed to get inside the personal suite of Tamis, who aside from his political connections was the former COO of the mining concern whose workers I’d murdered. He was currently enjoying an early retirement and had moved into one of the luxury suites at Dorienne’s most expensive hotels, and he wasn’t coming anywhere near our little hideaway.
Fortunately, I had plenty of time to plan my next move. This was the least demanding security contract I could remember having, and given the way I usually approach my security contracts, that’s saying something. The hardest thing I had to do was convince Jakatri that, no, I didn’t want to share their gourmet meals, and no, I definitely didn’t want to go swimming. She stopped asking after the first 36 hours, and then I could be unobtrusive to my heart’s content while they did what they’d come there to do.
That mostly seemed to be swimming (Ixa, who was a hundred seventy-nine centimeters of solid muscle and didn’t seem to think a vacation was an excuse to lose a bit of it) and pretending to relax on the beach while actually swearing at her work device (Jakatri, who apparently had a deadline). And sex. I think there was a lot of sex, but fortunately I wasn’t around for that. A data search confirmed that most Vraxan cultures strongly disapprove of public intimacy. That probably made the holos Ixa had mentioned more upsetting for her, but it also meant they didn’t mind it when I did my work from a bit of a distance, so it was fine by me.
I did have to talk to them occasionally, though. Jakatri was particularly chatty in the mornings once she’d finished her first caffeinated beverage. Even more so when the writing wasn’t going well.
“It’s just,” she said, apparently to me since Ixa was focused on whatever she was reading, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I keep pitching actual ideas. Original ones! Or at least ones that haven’t been recycled at least twice on every serial that’s running. But they keep getting shot down or reworked into the same old tripe. If they just want another rogue SecUnit plot, they might as well tell me so.”
“Uh,” I said.
She seemed to take my alarm as encouragement. “I mean, we haven’t actually done one of those, have we? Maybe there’s an angle that hasn’t been covered so far.”
“There isn’t,” Ixa said without looking up from her device.
“You’re supposed to be relaxing,” Jakatri said. “Is that Vraxan news? Don’t look yourself up, you know how that always ends.”
“It’s not about me. It’s that idiot incumbent I’m not actually running against and his proposal for alternative education funding. I should write a rebuttal.” She set the device down and glared at it. (Episode 120, when the colony’s solicitor had lost the embezzlement trial in the season finale despite an impassioned speech on her client’s behalf. The client was guilty, but she didn’t find that out until midway through the next season.) “If I’m just doing this for the publicity, I might as well try to accomplish something while I’m at it. Then it’s back to pretending I have amnesia, or crying about whoever’s decided to fake their death this time around. Or being hunted by rogue sexbots.”
“SecUnits,” I said.
Jakatri laughed. “Now that would be a new angle!” Then she frowned like she was actually considering it. “Do ComfortUnits have weapons systems?”
“Does it matter?” Ixa asked. “Make up anything you like. The production team won’t care, and the audience won’t know the difference.” She got up. “I’m going for a swim.”
Jakatri watched her leave with a fondness I didn’t think she deserved just then. “That’s how we met, you know,” she told me. “She kept changing one of my scripts during the line readings. Eventually the director called me in, and Ixa spent the next hour explaining exactly what I’d gotten wrong about the local court systems and why the whole plot made no sense. And then I asked her to keep lecturing me over a drink.”
“Hmm,” I said.
“Her candidacy didn’t come out of nowhere,” she went on. “She has an advanced degree in political science—most people don’t know that. She was considering a career in public administration and doing live amateur drama during the night cycle when she met a talent scout.” She sighed. “And she does have real talent, you know. Classically trained. You should ask her for Morchia’s third-act soliloquy from Nebula in Apogee. She won’t do it without a few drinks in her first, but it’s worth it—moves you to tears.”
I nodded as though I might possibly in a hundred thousand cycles ask her anything of the kind. Then I went back to thinking about how I could get into Tamis’ hotel suite and access the data I needed.
When that didn’t get me anywhere, I fell back on old habits and pulled up Sanctuary Moon while I pretended to scan the empty horizon for journalists with camera drones. The episode I picked had always been one of my favorites. The solicitor hadn’t yet discovered the physician she’d fallen in love with was actually her own child (aged very rapidly due to something-something intergalactic travel, which is not actually how faster-than-light works but unlike some people I don’t insist on poking holes in a perfectly good drama), and she was staring at him with the exact same look Ixa had been giving Jakatri the previous night-cycle after dinner before I decided to make myself scarce. I shut down the episode, then erased it from my data banks with extreme prejudice.
Ninety-seven hours into this contract, and I had nothing to show for it except a light tan on my exposed organic parts and a new inability to enjoy the one thing that really made me happy.
Which was why, when the subject of leaving their private corner of Dorienne Station came up over dinner, I was waiting and ready to strike.
“I love you,” Jakatri was saying, “and I love sitting alone on a beach with my own thoughts as much as the next writer, but if we’re stuck here for another four day-cycles with just each other for company I will lose my mind. No offense, Eden,” she added, like I might care. “There’s bound to be a concert we’ll like, or a museum gala or something.”
“Fine,” said Ixa, who had been working on a five-point response to the idiot incumbent on the Board of System Administration and seemed to be getting far more writing done than Jakatri. “No synth choirs, though, not after that last concert.”
“A party, then,” Jakatri said, leaning over her device console. “Something where we can drop in for a few drinks and leave if everyone’s too dull.”
I’d been working up the nerve to interrupt. “There’s an event at Haita Tower, “ I said. They both looked at me in surprise. I tried not to look back. “In the penthouse suite. Tamis is hosting, one of the patriarchs from the Stande System.”
“I know who he is,” Ixa said, frowning.
“I hear—” I was flipping frantically through the data feeds, hoping to find an interview where he confessed an obsession with Sanctuary Moon, but instead I found— “his—his group marriage runs an intersystem foundation with a focus on upper-creche schooling initiatives. You could talk about education policy.”
I knew it was a weak argument. Jakatri clearly did, too. Fortunately for me, Ixa thought it was a great plan.
I’ll spare you the details of how I got into Tamis’ personal quarters and retrieved the files I needed from his device. I’ve developed a fine sense of narrative, with the sheer amount of media I’ve consumed, and this little episode is definitely B-plot and shouldn’t be weighted down by our hero’s revenge arc. I got in, I got what I needed, I decided not to look at it too closely yet because I was getting used to being emotionally compromised over what happened at Ravihyral and didn’t want to deal with that right now.
My route back to the cargo hold—sorry, the perfectly comfortable side room where the invited guests were storing their extraneous employees until they were needed again—took me past the lavatories. As I passed, a male human came out and gave me a look best described as “furtive”. It seemed like an overreaction for someone who’d just been taking care of perfectly normal organic functions, so I gave him a second look.
Human bodyguards wouldn’t have picked up on it. The augmented human security consultant I was pretending to be might have noticed. To me, that little camera peeking out from under his lapel was like a signal beacon.
I reminded myself I had an actual contract to take care of, waited until he’d gone back into the main rooms, and then followed him into the party to watch until I was sure.
“Not the most boring thing we’ve ever done,” Jakatri was saying an hour later as we left for the elevators. “It’s not what I’d call a vacation, though. Did you enjoy arguing about public transportation infrastructure?”
“I think I carried my point,” Ixa said.
“I’m glad you were having fun,” Jakatri said, and I think she actually meant it. I wasn’t paying that much attention because I was watching the door back into Tamis’ quarters. “My drinks were good, but the conversation was terrible. I spent most of the time thinking about that SecUnit plot, and I think I’ve got it. Everyone does murderous SecUnits, right? What if we tried the opposite?”
“You’re drunk, sweetheart.”
“No, hear me out! A weaponized construct looking for a real, emotional connection, trying to overcome the social stigma and find intimacy with humans.”
“Even Eden thinks that’s a terrible idea,” Ixa said. “Look at their face.”
“It’s an excellent idea. Forbidden romance is always popular.”
“Quiet!” I said, a little desperate.
“Uh,” I said. “Just a minute. Don’t take the elevator yet. You’ll see.”
It was just over two minutes later, actually, when the door opened again, and the male human with the camera came out.
I waited for the door to close and him to realize he wasn’t alone before I picked him up and shoved him into the wall.
“Camera in the left breast pocket,” I said to Ixa, since Jakatri was just gaping at us. She felt around for it while the other human squirmed in my grip and protested. Then, at my nod, she flicked on the projection screen and started scrolling through so we all could see the pictures—almost all of them of her. Pictures of Ixa walking into the cafe where we’d met on the transit station, getting off the shuttle we’d taken here with her arm wrapped around Jakatri, cornering one of Tamis’ husbands near the bar just a few minutes ago—
Ixa made a disgusted sound. I set the photographer back on his feet. “What are you doing?” he asked, clearly going for indignant, but it lacked a certain moral force.
“Who do you work for?” Jakatri demanded. For someone so short, and without a fraction of Ixa’s muscle or my augmented strength, she did a good job of projecting a threatening presence. “One of the tabloids? If it’s Galaxy News, we’ve already got a lawsuit pending, and they should damn well know better!”
“It’s not a tabloid!” he said. He actually sounded offended. “I—look, I work for Precis Strategies.”
“Political consulting firm,” I said after a quick search of the data feeds. “They take a lot of contracts in Vraxan space.”
“I don’t understand,” said Ixa. “Explain.” Her eyes were narrowed, and she looked dangerous. (Episode 234, when the solicitor was informed her co-counsel was sleeping with the enemy.)
“We do opposition research,” he said. “Can I have my camera back now?”
“No,” I said.
“Opposition research?” Ixa repeated. “This is about the election? That’s a stunt my publicist talked me into. Everyone knows I’m not serious about it.”
“Not what my client seems to think,” he said, eyes darting between Jakatri and Ixa. He obviously didn’t want to look at me. Getting lifted off your feet can do that. “They got worried when you published that editorial on public pension policies. That seemed serious enough.”
“Serious enough for you to follow me here?”
“Look, I go where I’m paid to go,” he said, putting his hands up in an awkward shrug. “And I was paid to follow you to Doreinne Station and see what I could get on you before the first debate. It’s not like I found much.”
“You’ll take even less back to your employers,” Ixa said. She dropped the camera on the ground, put one foot over it, and stomped down with all her weight. There was a satisfying crunch. The photographer winced. Ixa looked at me. “Is that all he has on him?”
I patted him down until we were all satisfied, then picked up the shattered camera for more thorough disposal later. “You can have him arrested, you know,” I said. “Dorienne has very strict privacy laws.”
She looked disdainful. (Episode 42, when she’d first been brought on as a minor antagonist and was trying to undermine the colony administrator.) “It’s not worth the bother.” So I let him go, and we took the elevator back downstairs with Ixa’s arm tucked firmly inside Jakatri’s.
“Are you all right?” Jakatri asked.
Ixa shook her head, but she looked more confused than upset. “I suppose it’s not as bad as I was expecting. He didn’t capture anything too personal. But I don’t understand why they went to all the trouble. They have to know I’m going to give the whole thing up as soon as we start filming next season.”
“Right,” Jakatri said. Her frown was suddenly stressed instead of concerned. Probably because she’d been reminded of her looming deadline.
“Why?” I asked, because I’d been wondering that for a while. And, yeah, I had ulterior motives. They looked over at me. “I mean, why give up the campaign? You’ve put a lot of thought into it.”
Jakatri laughed suddenly. “See?” she demanded, poking Ixa in the center of her chest. “Eden agrees with me. I’ve been trying to tell you. You’d be much better than any of the other candidates that have been put forward. You know your policy, you actually pay attention to the news—”
“It’s a publicity stunt,” Ixa said again. She seemed less convinced this time.
“Unless you’d rather go back and have to act a rogue SecUnit romance.” I must have made a distressed sound, because Jakatri grinned at me. “I think I can make it work. It’s so original! At least, I can’t think of a serial that’s tried it with a SecUnit. You get ComfortUnits in love, sure, and there was that short-form entertainment with the bot pilot—that was awkward—”
I definitely made a distressed face then, but she was paying more attention to Ixa. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Quit,” Jakatri said firmly. “Then you won’t have to deal with my artistic vision, and you can focus on something you actually want to do.”
Ixa was weakening. I could see it. I wanted to be thrilled about that, but I was too distracted by Jakatri’s threats. “I don’t have any campaign structure in place.”
“So start working on it.” Jakatri leaned closer until their bodies touched, and I looked away. “We’ve got three more cycles here,” she said very quietly. “Before we leave, I’ll have persuaded you.” I cleared my throat, which was not a strict biological need but was clearly necessary for other reasons, and they separated. “Three more cycles,” Jakatri said again. “Think about it.”
Which was how I accidentally changed the course of Vraxan politics and, of more immediate importance to me, my favorite serial.
By the time we left Dorienne and my contract was up, Jakatri had won the argument and outlined six episodes. I wasn’t really planning to follow the election, but every so often I did check in out of curiosity, so I saw the reports when Ixa beat the incumbent by seven points. I didn’t watch any video coverage, though.
The good news was that this meant Ixa never came back for the next round of filming, and that meant I could watch the next release of Sanctuary Moon episodes in happy ignorance of all the humans on my screen. Unfortunately, they had to get creative about writing her character off the show at the last minute, so apparently Jakatri also won the argument about the rogue SecUnit story. By that point my own personal A-plot was moving at full speed and I really needed the pick-me-up, so I watched it anyway.
And, okay. Ignoring the massive inaccuracies about construct psychology, SecUnit physiology, and wormhole physics (don’t ask), I have to admit. It wasn’t terrible.