'You want me to what?' Zakalwe asked. 'In a long line of you asking me to do increasingly fucked up bullshit, Sma, this one is especially crap.'
'But not fucked up,' Sma said to him, voice pitched low like the verbal equivalent of her batting her eyelashes. 'Just crap?' He growled; she laughed. 'Come on, Cheradenine - think of it as a vacation.'
'I'm bloody tired of vacations,' Zakalwe said, because he'd set an alien cornfield on fire last week, and before that he'd fucked an alien princess and put a planetary royal system into a tailspin, and before that he couldn't even recall. 'Give me something proper to do.'
'This is something proper,' Sma said. 'This is very proper. This is properly moving you up the proper ranks of Special Circumstances; this is bringing you in from the cold.'
'What cold? I'm happy where I am, waging wars and winning them when you let me.'
'You said you were tired of soldiering,' she wheedled.
'I've changed my mind - I'm not tired of soldiering, I'm just tired of being lied to.'
'So what if you could change that?' Sma uncrossed her legs and recrossed them, and Zakalwe was momentarily distracted. 'What if you could solve the, ah, systemic problems in Contact that you've had so many issues with, all these years?'
'Don't know how to solve all of you lot being twits,' Zakalwe said, dragging his eyes back up and crossing his arms.
'You can't fix all of us,' Sma agreed; he knew he liked her for a reason. 'But you can fix some of us. Here, will you at least read his file?'
She extended a viewer over to him. Zakalwe stared her down, because Sma needed to remember that she couldn't call all of his shots, then snatched it away. He scanned the precis, then dug into the meatier details, and then said, 'Hm.'
'I thought you might like it,' Sma smiled.
'Didn't think you let humans get involved with the ordinance,' Zakalwe said. 'Thought all your guns and toys had to manufactured by a committee of Minds.'
'Come now, Cheradenine. S.C. hires far more than just humans, and - well. Let's just say that organics have a better idea of how they like their, ah, guns and toys than non-organics do.'
'Yeah, yeah,' he replied, already on the fifth page of the dossier.
'So does that mean you'll do it?' she asked softly.
'I'm not in fucking recruiting, you hear me?' Zakalwe said, glaring up at Sma. 'I do this one thing, and that's it. Only because I'm done with the big jobs for now - this doesn't happen again.'
Sma smiled at him, and came over to slide her arms around his neck and hug him close. Zakalwe was reminded, unfairly, of a cold, cold winter, and of someone warm who came to take him away.
Defiantly, he slid a hand up the small of Sma's back, fingers curling into the delightful hollow there before he started to work them upwards.
'Try anything, Cheradenine,' Sma crooned into his ear, 'and I'll really show you fucked up bullshit.'
'One day, Sma,' Zakalwe sighed, dropping his hand. 'One day.'
They dropped him off somewhere in the boonies, and gave him not only a credit chip (a fucking enormous one) but also three other chips ("cards, Zakalwe, cards") and then also a wallet with actual, physical currency in it, some of which were bits of metal coin.
'At least they don't dress like idiots here,' Zakalwe sighed, and tugged on the military-cut coat in a gorgeous navy that they'd dumped on him to help him "look local."
Then he had to find a bus stop.
When he did find one, he had to wait for the bus.
When the bus did come, he had to climb on board and ask the conductor, 'How much for London?'
And then he had to figure out those fucking coins.
The first day was just casing the place. Big metropolitan jam, lots of noise and even more white noise. Road system from hell, too many groundcars, but a decent underground and a river winding through the city that made it almost picaresque. For some reason, they'd built a huge gherkin in the middle of it all.
At the very least Sma'd stuck him in a fancy hotel - the Savoy or something - near the embankment. Zakalwe spent some time in the morning drinking champagne mixed with orange juice, which was the breakfast of champions as far as he was concerned.
Zakalwe figured that the faster he made his proposition, the faster this little game could get wrapped up, so he stuck a terminal earring onto his right ear and said, 'Oi, can you hear me, Sma?'
'Loud and clear, Cheradenine.'
'I'm going to go to work,' he subvocalised. 'Make sure you've got their cameras buggered to hell.'
'Done and done.'
Full and total compliance from Sma - maybe he needed to work her side of the tables more often. Zakalwe smiled, toothily, at security when he entered the building, and smiled even more toothily when they kept scanning his card only to find that he had actual records in their system.
'I'm from the Edinburgh office,' he said to them. 'Here on...' Zakalwe resisted the urge to either wink or roll his eyes. 'Double-o business.'
'One of them,' security grunt #1 said to security grunt #2. There was much nodding and exchanging of looks, and he was waved through without further comment.
Zakalwe patted down the back staircases in his near-tractionless but highly attractive leather shoes and pushed his way through the doors that opened at his touch and walked past the cameras that never saw him coming and waltzed right into the laboratory.
It was the twenty-first hour of this planet's twenty-four hour cycle, and so all the higher ups and whatnots had all buzzed off, and there was no one about in the lab but his intended.
'Hello, Q,' said Zakalwe as he stepped into plain sight.
To his credit, Q didn't jump or shout or panic, but the way he drew that tiny little pistol left a lot to be desired, nevermind the way his hand was shaking as he tried to vaguely point it in Zakalwe's general direction. 'Who are you?' Q demanded. 'How did you get in here?'
'I'm a disinterested party here to offer you an interesting proposal,' Zakalwe said. He watched as Q skittered in the general direction of his desk. 'Please don't try to hit a panic button or something - they're all disabled, and in your state you're more likely going to accidentally shoot me in the face than do anything useful.'
Q stopped moving, but did glare.
Zakalwe spread his empty palms. 'Let me lay this out for you, Q. I'm not here to hurt you, I'm not here to bribe you, I'm not here to try and pluck out whatever secrets you think I want to know from whatever systems you think you can hide them in.' He stripped out of his jacket, flicking it over a chair, and in his immensely unarmed state came to lean against the table that separated the two of them. 'I'm just an admirer of your work.'
'I do a lot of work,' Q said, hand still on the gun and eyes still fixed on Zakalwe's face. 'And I do all of it for Her Majesty's government and I'm not at all interested in whatever it is you're p-proposing. Interesting or not.'
'All right,' Zakalwe said. 'You can reject me when you're done figuring out whether my proposal's interesting or not. No consequences, no questions.'
Q tightened his lips, and nodded at the table. 'Fine. Go on.'
Zakalwe dug into his right trouser pocket, and withdrew a watch. He lifted it, swung it in the air, and then slid it across the table. 'See what you can find out about that,' he said. 'I promise it's not rigged with anything. If you want to use a quarantined system, that's fine. Though you probably want to put down that gun.'
Q looked at the watch, then up at Zakalwe, then down at the watch. Very slowly, he put the gun away - not down, just away - and then reached out to draw the watch in towards him. 'Sit over there,' he bit out, pointing at a seat that would put Zakalwe firmly in his range of vision. 'And don't... touch anything.'
Zakalwe hopped over, and waited.
Q had a squirrelly methodicalness to his work - he started with something that looked like general sensors and then worked inwards. He got enough into the swing of things that, at some point, he commented, 'Y-you didn't brand it.'
'You didn't brand it. Omega or S-Seiko or anything. Makes it stand out.'
'Sorry,' Zakalwe shrugged. 'Not exactly my department, but I'll make sure the right people get the feedback.'
'You enormous showboat,' Sma crooned into his ear.
Q huffed, and started taking it apart.
'There's a-' he said, about thirty minutes in when Zakalwe was beginning to regret not bringing a book or something, '- a nuclear device in here?'
'We,' Sma hissed.
'We like to call it the heart of the sun that powers these little devices,' Zakalwe said, rolling his eyes. 'Not the greatest, but it suffices.'
Q looked up from his work table and stared at him. Zakalwe smiled back, and hopped off of his chair. 'Sorry,' he said, pointing at the clock on the other side of the lab. 'But time's up for tonight. I'll swing by again tomorrow, and you can keep hacking away at it.'
'What?' Q said, and automatically drew the watch closer.
'If I stay any longer,' Zakalwe said, 'it gets a bit obvious.' He plucked the watch out of Q's hands, and brushed the pieces carelessly into a plastic bag. Shrugging back into his coat, he said, 'Don't try to work too hard on the security systems; they won't really show much. And don't try to report this one up the ranks, or they're going to think you're a bit loony - and I heard they don't treat loonies too well, hereabouts.' He paused just before the door. 'By the way, the place that wants to offer you a job? Great benefits package.'
He came back the second night, and without gun or preamble Q asked him, 'How did you do that? Trick the cameras? Bypass the sensors? We have the best tech in the world and you just stepped through it like you weren't there.'
'You don't have the best tech in the world,' Zakalwe corrected him. 'Well. This word, maybe.'
Q narrowed his eyes. Zakalwe dug the watch out of his breast pocket. 'Want another go?'
That night, Q figured out the little tracking terminal, or at least that it was there. Current planet-tech meant he was a little baffled by what was in it, but Sma kindly informed Zakalwe that it was impressive that he'd even managed to get that far.
Zakalwe got bored enough by the half hour mark, though, that he began wandering the lab.
'Please don't,' Q said, looking tortured.
'No cameras,' Zakalwe pointed out, once again holding out his empty palms. 'I'm not a thief.'
'If what I'm finding out about this watch is any indication,' Q said, 'then you don't need a camera to steal.'
'If you're as good as I think you are,' Zakalwe retorted, 'you also know that we don't need to steal any of this stuff, on account of the fact that we already have it.'
'Then why are you here?' Q asked, and that was a pretty good question, except...
'This is a nice car,' Zakalwe said, stroking one hand down the gorgeous curve of whatever it was in front of him. 'A really nice car.'
'It's a DB 10,' Q agreed, going absent-minded again the way he did, Zakalwe noticed, when the work was more interesting than the people. 'Besides all of the regulars, it's got rockets and a flamethrower and a boot full of caltrops. Speaking,' Q looked up, 'in layman's terms, obviously.'
Zakalwe felt his heart skip a beat. 'Does it blow up when you want it to?'
Q looked pained. 'Unfortunately, yes.'
'And only when you want it to?'
Q blinked. 'I could guarantee it, probably, physics and other things being given.'
Zakalwe felt his whole face seize into a grin. 'Try finding out what's underneath the main face,' he suggested. 'Don't go so carefully, just rip the whole damn thing off and... tell me what you think.'
Q ripped the whole damn thing off. He gazed down at whatever tech Sma's whomever had stuffed in there, and Zakalwe thought, we have him.
'I've got to,' Q said faintly, his hands shaking on the watch band, 'I've got to think about this.'
Zakalwe nodded, scribbled down his address on the back of a card, and slipped it into Q's breast pocket. He tipped it in with his finger and felt Q's breath catch.
'Come see me when you do,' he said, tapping Q's chest, and then he took the watch away and left.
What Zakalwe hadn't expected was to be woken up in the middle of the goddamned night by Sma screaming into his ear, Cheradenine, get up! That was all the warning he got before his hotel room door was bashed in by an over-muscled man in a suit cut too close for real combat-use.
'Oh, what the hell,' Zakalwe swore, and threw his sheets across the room at the guy. It was a rough fight; a good fight; a blood-boiling fight - whoever this was, he knew how to throw his punches despite his insane sartorial choices.
Zakalwe still won, but he had to win by sitting on the man and tying his hands together behind his back with the man's own tie. 'Okay,' Zakalwe wheezed, 'who the fuck are you, and what the fuck are you trying to do?'
'He's Bond,' Q said, and there he was, with a backpack over his shoulder and a laptop clutched to his front. 'James Bond. He helped me get out.' Q pushed his spectacles carefully up his nose.
Zakalwe hauled himself to his feet, and then picked up Bond-James-Bond and shoved him into a chair. 'One, get out of where, and two, no one's yet answered the question: what the fuck is he trying to do?'
'MI-6 noticed a discrepancy in my logs,' Q shrugged. 'Attempting to explain the situation to M resulted in... suggestions that I should seek psychiatric assistance.'
'Told you not to try to explain the alien technology,' Zakalwe said. 'What does this have to do with me getting charged by your furious boyfriend?'
'He's not my boyfriend,' Q said the same time Bond-James-Bond went, 'I'm not his boyfriend.'
'Uh huh,' Zakalwe said, unconvinced.
'I told 007, and he was kind enough to come serve as a forward guard, of a sort.' Q looked at the man in the chair. 'You can untie him now.'
'I'll take my chances,' Zakalwe said.
'You could take him with us,' Q said brightly. 'He's a very well-trained weapon.'
Bond narrowed his eyes.
'Position of well-trained weapon unfortunately already taken,' Zakalwe said blandly. 'Now what's with the hastily-thrown together go-bag?'
'This?' Q tugged at his backpack. 'I thought we might be leaving immediately.'
'Oh,' Zakalwe said. 'You could, as they say... Work from home, you know. We don't have to get you up there,' he pointed up, 'to get you kitted out to do what you do best. Regular communications and the occasional work retreat would suffice, since it's not like you need to be on the field.'
Q looked disappointed. 'Ah. But I would quite like to... see.'
Zakalwe laughed. 'Okay,' he said.
'Okay?' said Q, brightening.
'Don't you dare say it,' Sma hissed into his earring terminal. 'Don't you dare, Cheradenine, there's already a module on the way-'
Zakalwe slung one arm over Q's shoulder and turned his face to the sky. 'Hey ship,' he said, grinning. 'Two to beam up.'