The Long Dark

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by 2013

I scowled at them like I could shoot lasers from my eyes — which I didn’t have the mods for, but they didn’t know that. “Both of you, shut the fuck up.”

To their credit, they did. He kept glaring daggers at me, like he was promising that the second I untied his hands, they’d be around my throat. She had on her biggest, saddest brown eyes, complete with perfect little tears trickling from the corners of her eyes, like she was just a helpless little thing who could be let go with no consequences.

Both of them were goddamn liars. When I do a job, I do my research. He wasn’t vicious and she wasn’t harmless, and both of them were staying tied to those chairs.

“Now,” I said, once I had a little more quiet plus their attention on me, “you both know me. And you both know me for the same reason.”

That won me looks of surprise on both their pretty faces. Wonder of wonders, though, her tears dried right up, and the clench of his jaw went from offense to defense instantly. It was funny how the truth could be more intimidating than being tied to a chair.

“So I’m going to leave for an hour.” I pointed to the door of the cabin. “And when I get back, we’re going to have a conversation.”

They started their yelling up right after me, but I let it all bounce right off my back. I wasn’t even paying attention to what they were saying when they were like this. Probably equal parts sexual slander, death threats, and insults about my mother. Joke’s on them; my kind don’t have mothers.

I started a timer going the second the door slid shut behind me. An hour would be fine. My ship was fairly soundproof from compartment to compartment, but I could tune into the audio in the room and hear whatever I wanted. Which, at the moment, wasn’t much. With me out of the room, they’d presumably moved onto one another as targets. I wondered how much of what they were screaming at each other was accurate and how much was bullshit. I couldn’t even ballpark it. I’ve never been married.

Fifty-nine minutes, now. Maybe I’d go make myself a sandwich. Maybe I could even make them sandwiches too. Would they be meaner full or hungry? I supposed there was only one way to find out.

Do you know how difficult it is to kill rich people? Pain in my ass already, and I’d just made it a thousand times worse for myself. All because I’m too goddamn curious to shut up, take the shot, and get the money. But that was the problem: I had a sneaking feeling I wasn’t going to get the money either way. The only way my loyalty comes is if you can buy it. Once it’s clear you’re not paying up, all bets are off.

 

~*~

 

One hour and one sandwich later, they’d mostly run themselves out of steam. I’d also worked myself through a couple cigarettes in the time, listening to them a whole bunch of nasty things at one another, maybe half of which I figured were true. True story: I started smoking mostly because I was amused to learn that I had the anatomical setup to make it work. Like all bad habits, it stuck around.

I decided against sandwiches for them for the time being. Instead, I waltzed back in to find them mostly ragged, half-slumped forward in their chairs, their eyes watching my every move. Their hair was ragged with sweat; his was plastered down to his forehead, and hers had all but come out of the pretty knot she’d had it swept back into. They didn’t look anymore like the co-CEOs of Jing Shah Industries, the canny husband-and-wife team who showed up smiling on the top screens of all the business news digests. They looked like shit.

I folded my arms across my chest and looked at them until I was sure I had their full attention. “I’m Hugo,” I said, since the last times I’d spoken to each of them hadn’t exactly been prime occasions for exchanging names. “And yes, in case you hadn’t gotten around to that part of the argument yet, you each hired me to kill the other.”

They didn’t react to that, which made me believe that had indeed been a component of the last hour’s semi-conversation. I wasn’t going to get into it, because I didn’t like to talk about my business outside the business, but double-orders like that weren’t exactly a regular part of the business. I’d just gotten through considering the contract from one Tamara Hughes Lei to kill her husband, Colin Lei, when to my great surprise the next thing that came across my proverbial desk was a contract from a Mr. Colin Lei to kill his wife, Tamara Hughes Lei. You understand why I couldn’t put this one down.

I took a third chair, one that I wasn’t tied to, and sat down at an equal distance from each of them, forming us into a strange little triangle. “Where are we?” asked Colin, his deep voice a little scratchy for all the shouting he’d been doing recently.

“My ship.” I paused a microsecond to retrieve the information, for my own curiosity. “I could tell you coordinates, but I don’t think they’d mean much to you at the moment.”

“And why aren’t we dead?” asked Tamara. I liked that. She cut to the chase.

“What, you mean like your first two husbands?” I asked with a laugh. The fact that her expression didn’t even budge when I brought that up told me everything I needed to know about how true those rumors were. “Do you get some kind of prize if you make your third widowhood by the time you hit forty?”

She didn’t respond to that low blow, and I didn’t expect her to. Those two husbands had been older and already suffering from various maladies, though. Colin was actually three years younger than she was, and by all accounts was the picture of health. I truly believed that he could rip my head from my shoulders if I gave him the chance. Not that that would have done much more than incur me some fairly costly repairs, but I couldn’t tell if he knew that. I was made to pass, and I was made very well.

“No,” I said after a moment, “you’re both still alive because you both wanted each other dead. And I know you think you each came up with the idea on your own, which maybe you did, I don’t know. But you both came to me. A whole galaxy of assassins to choose from, and all the money in the world to do it, and you both just decided to find me. All of which sounds to me like one hell of a setup.”

Tamara frowned, wrinkling the skin between her shapely eyebrows. She was beautiful, there was no mistaking that, but so were poisonous butterflies. “You think we’re setting you up?”

I shrugged. “See, I don’t know. The reason you’re alive is that I don’t know if you’re part of the setup, or just being set up yourselves. And until I figure that out, I’m not going to do something as stupid as kill the only two people around here who can help me sort that out.”

“This isn’t–” Colin set his jaw and cleared his throat, considering his words. “Why would someone set you up?”

I was gobsmacked right into a laugh there. Typical trillionaire bullshit, thinking everyone outside of the c-suite is too little to bother fucking with. I guess that’s how you become a trillionaire in the first place, though — don’t fuck with the little people as individuals, save time by fucking them over collectively. 

Of course, all my indignation aside, I had to admit that he had a point. Why would someone bother entrapping little ol’ me? I’d pissed off plenty of people in my time, sure, but that was the kind of shit where someone rigged a bomb in your ship about it, not the kind that involved conning interstellar-level celebrities into putting out mutual hits on their spouses. The truth was that I probably was incidental in all this, a hired gun as good as any other.

Not that I was going to admit that to any of them. “How’d you get my number?” I asked Colin first.

He only hesitated for a moment, and probably out of reflex. He’d been caught; he wasn’t going to waste energy pretending. “My brother. My middle brother. He said he’s … that you’ve taken care of problems for him before.”

I shook my head. “Never done business with him in my life. Next.”

Tamara pressed her lips together. “It’s the same number I used before,” she said. “I was surprised when you were the one to show up, but you seemed to know what I was talking about, so I didn’t ask.”

Here’s a free tip for life: When you expect one assassin to show up to take your commission and a different one does, ask. I exhaled through pursed lips. “So someone is fucking with this.”

“Seems so,” said Colin. With the fires of his anger dying down, I could almost see the gears in his head start to turn — not literal ones, but you get what I mean. “But why?”

All I could do was shrug. Like I know why anyone wants someone dead. Like I care. I’ve spent the last six decades in the business of not caring about the why of things like hired murder. If you come to me and say you want somebody dead, I’m going to assume you’ve got your reasons. I’m not getting paid enough to judge whether they’re good or bad reasons. I don’t think there’s enough money in the known universe for that.

Tamara’s pretty mouth turned up in a little sneer. “Maybe just one of your many business partners thanking you for fucking his wife.”

“Maybe it’s one of your underlings, trying to off her psycho boss,” Colin snapped back. He’d had that one at the ready. He didn’t even need to think about that.

“Or how about a former CEO of one of those companies you acquisitioned out of existence.”

“Hm, could it be one of your former stepchildren finally got wise to what a shit payout they got compared to you?”

“Oh! I know! It’s one of your uncles who can’t stand to see what a shitshow you’ve made of your father’s legacy!”

“Or how about one of my brothers trying to save me from the absolute shrew I was married off to?”

“Sorry, do you–” I cleared my throat. “Are you two somehow under the impression that I will not kill you?” I gestured to the pocket of my vest, like I might be concealing some deadly weapon in there. I wasn’t but they didn’t need to know that. “Believe me, the fact that I won’t get paid for the job is not a deterrent right now.”

To their credit, they looked a little abashed — but also a little curious, too. It seemed that my words had made them aware of the issue that had tipped me off in the first place. Payment in my line of work is contingent upon success. There’s a little money up front, sure, but most comes from a job well done — as well as the threat of how, if you don’t pay up, you’re next on the hit list.

As they’d shut up for at least the time being, I seized my chance and took the floor again: “Yeah, you see the problem too. I kill both of you, no one’s around to transfer the rest of the funds into my account. Which means somebody’s flipping a coin here, and I’m the coin. And whichever way I fall, they’re ready to act accordingly. Heads, you’re dead and he goes down for it. Tails, you’re dead and she’s the one in cuffs. Which means that all your shitty little speculation is wrong, because whoever set this up wants you both off the board. Dead or in prison, it’s all the same to them.

Now I had their attention, and not just because I’d abducted them and tied them to chairs. I can tell the difference between when the person looking at me thinks I’m all muscle and when they’ve realized my brain works pretty good too. The two people in front of me weren’t idiots — you didn’t get into positions like theirs by being anything short of scarily smart. But it seemed like they might not be smart about the right things. Thank fuck they had me, or they both probably would be dead by now.

“So!” I clapped my hands, then rubbed them together. “If either of you is actually behind this, now is the perfect time to speak up.”

They were both quiet. And the truth was, I hadn’t really suspected either of them, not once I’d figured out what was going on, not once I’d seen that these were setups of mutually assured destruction.

In fact, they were not just mutual in that the two of them were going down for this. I could tell they were so wrapped up in their own little marital drama that they didn’t consider what the hell I had to do with anything. I, on the other hand, was considering the fuck out of it. After all, they’d both come to me. There must have been a reason there too. And if I had a target on my forehead, I was going to find out about it.

Colin cleared his throat, but as he did, he shook his head. “No,” he said. “This is not my doing.”

“Mine either,” Tamara said. “I don’t care for complications.”

Well, neither did I, but in an infinite universe, sometimes complications found you. I had to admit, though, that the complexities here were a little more than I usually went in for. None of it sat right with me. Maybe it’s something in my nature, some leftover programming from ancient subroutines trained on beating humans at chess, but once I’ve decided I want an answer, I’m no good at letting things go.

So I did the fucking dumbest thing I could do, the one thing I never do. I turned to Colin first and asked, “Why do you want her dead?”

Colin looked first at Tamara, then at me. He met my eyes with the confidence of a man accustomed to saying hard things without flinching. I’d seen him on the newsfeeds, see him grinning and charming everyone almost like a politician. He wasn’t trying to charm anything now. His square jaw was set and his dark gaze was steady. “Because she’s been plotting to kill me first.”

Tamara glared at him, but it wasn’t like she could claim he was wrong. That was an explanation for now, though, not for back when we first made contact. I shook my head. “What else?”

“Because…” Colin exhaled. “She’s a vulture. She’s going to crash the company and scavenge it for spare parts. Pretty soon Jing Shah Industries is just going to be another corporate head mounted on her wall. If I divorce her, she’ll take her half anyway. This way everything stays mine.”

Now that was a killing reason I could believe in. “Okay, your turn,” I said to Tamara.

“Because he’s going to run it into the ground, not me,” Tamara snapped, rocking a little against her chair. Her eyeliner must have been unspeakably expensive, given how it was still perfect after all the performative crying she’d been doing today. “He wants my family’s assets as his backup for when his daddy’s little empire starts to crumble. And I’ll be the one with egg on my face, looking like I’m stupid enough to let it–“

“You’re just worried you won’t get your share before–“

Your head’s so far up your own ass there won’t be anything to–“

I slammed my foot hard enough against the cabin floor that the stabilizers took a second to catch up with me. The shock of it seemed to kick the fight out of them, though. They settled back against their chairs, heads a little bowed. If I’d had to guess, I would’ve said they’d gotten so used to yelling without hearing one another that actually listening to each other was taking some of the wind out of their sails. Well, good.

I watched them for a minute, squirming in their seats as the ropes kept them in place. They looked uncomfortable, and I do have at least a little sympathy for that. I never take the kinds of jobs where there’s pain and suffering involved, whether it’s cutting off somebody’s toes first or showing them a picture of someone I’m supposed to be avenging while they die. I know people who do that kind of thing. It’s not a good long-term business strategy, especially for humans. I can literally turn my emotions off and I still don’t get into that shit.

Maybe I should have just shot them both then and disappeared into the night. I won’t lie and say the idea didn’t cross my mind. I could have dumped their bodies into the deep dark and been unimaginably far away by the time anyone found them, if anyone ever did find them. I could have waited decades before coming back this way, or I could have not even come at all. It’s a big galaxy out there, after all.

Instead I stood and went for Tamara first. She flinched as I approached and got behind her, and I could even see Colin start to tense up. Did he think I’d chosen his commission, that I was going to off her and take his money? The look on his face said that he did, and that he wasn’t happy about it. He’d wanted her gone, not dead. Those of us in the business understand the difference. Most people who hire us won’t until it’s too late.

I sent an electrical impulse through my palm to the ropes. The magnetic field holding them tight collapsed, leaving the coils to fall around her lap and down to the floor by her feet. I could feel the mood in the room shift, swapping almost perfectly between them now that it looked like she was going to be the one to survive and he was going to be my real target. As fun as it is to fuck with people, this wasn’t the time for it. I walked over behind him and did the same thing, freeing him in an instant. They both made noises of complaint and rubbed their joints as they stood. I guess I had had them there for a while.

“There’s a cabin down the hall,” I said, turning my back on them and heading for the door. “One bed, but I suppose you’re used to that. Shower’s sonic, not water. Freshen up. I’ll get you something to eat. Don’t actually kill one another. Oh,” I added, as Colin grabbed the back of his chair, “and don’t even think about attacking me. You can probably do some damage, but I’m backed up to the ship’s drive. It’ll just make me cranky. I don’t know if you’ve ever been inside a cranky ship, but it’s not a place you want to be.”

“You’re Artificial,” Tamara said. She sounded surprised, but she shouldn’t have been. A lot of time and money had gone into making it so you had to get up real close and personal to tell. And by that I mean, cracking open my skull, or examining some of my soft tissues, or even getting my cells under a microscope and seeing the little corporate trademark stamped on every one. I even bleed real blood. You probably don’t want to know the reason why.

I stood in the doorway to the cabin and drummed my fingers against the wall. “I’ll be at the helm. Find me when you’re ready.” And I left them alone to start the process of figuring out just what the hell was going to happen next.

 

~*~

 

It was ten hours later that I heard footsteps coming up the walkway to the cockpit. During those ten hours, they’d shouted at one another a little, but at this point, I figured that was more comforting than anything. Mostly there’d been silence. I’d tried not to be a creeper, but the few times I’d checked in on them, I’d found them sleeping it all off. There’d been no damage to the ship, and no one had tried to get a signal out.

I could tell by the tone of her steps that Tamara was my first guest. I didn’t even look up from the diagnostic scan I was babysitting. “Come in.”

She took the other console chair next to mine, pulling her legs up to her chest. She’d been wearing a form-fitting white number earlier, an elegant garment that clothed her from neck to wrists to ankles in visible luxury befitting a CEO. Now she was wearing my clothes, an old grey t-shirt and a loose pair of pants belted tight around her delicate waist. Once settled, she reached her hand out toward me. I handed her my lit cigarette, which she brought to her lips. I couldn’t decide if she looked older or younger without makeup. Maybe a little of both. Maybe that just settled out to looking actually her age.

“How’d you sleep?” I asked.

“Fine.” The word trailed harsh smoke out from her lips. I had to admit, I was impressed — seeing as my lungs aren’t actually organic human tissue, I tend to save money by smoking the shittiest coffin nails I can find. She didn’t so much as bat an eyelash. “We can pay you, you know. To let us both go. Ten times what the contracts offered. Each.”

Only a fool or a billionaire wouldn’t have been tempted by it. But I shook my head. “Nope. I release you now, back into that ecosystem? The same person will just try again. And they’ll be cleverer this time. They let themselves get sloppy because they thought they had the element of surprise on their side. You get that luck once.”

“We can take care of ourselves,” Tamara said.

I snorted. “And what about me, then?”

“What about you?”

Remember what I said about rich people being hard to kill? Yeah, one of the big difficulties is making them stop paying attention to themselves long enough to realize they’re dead. “This trap wasn’t set for two. It was set for three. Now, maybe I’m just that famous, and whoever’s pulling the strings here picked my name out of a hat. But I find that people who believe in coincidences don’t tend to live long about it.”

Tamara made a thoughtful little noise. I realized she wasn’t going to give me my cigarette back, so I got out my pack and lit another. The air filtration system gave a little whine as it kicked up a notch, compensating for our bad behavior. What were machines for if not that? “So how’d you get into this line of work?” she asked.

“Why,” I asked with a laugh, “are you looking to change careers?”

“Just making conversation,” she said in another soft exhale of smoke. “I mean, I’m assuming this wasn’t your original programming design. I know about a lot of secret R&D and government black-ops labs, but I’ve never heard of anyone designing assassin Artificials. At least, not to scale. I suppose you could have been a prototype, but no.”

“No, huh?” I glanced over at her, pretending otherwise that keeping an eye on the diagnostics was taking all my concentration. “How come?”

“If you were a prototype, they would have built you loyal. And some government would have bought you, or funded you in the first place. You wouldn’t be out here freelancing jobs.” With a little stretch, she draped her legs over the arm of her chair, letting her bare feet swing freely. They looked dainty, with little pink polish on the toes, but I knew how cold the floors were all the way up here. She was expensive silks stretched over something much tougher. “So I’m guessing you were a different build, made to do something else. But you broke free of your function, and now you’re here.”

I tried not to let my expression change, especially not in a way that would let her know how right she was. “Sounds like you’ve made up your mind about me.”

“On the contrary.” Tamara leaned forward a little, letting her arms rest atop her bent knees. Most people never looked that comfortable around someone who was technically still under contract to kill them. “You’re an interesting fellow, Hugo. May I call you Hugo?”

“Sure.” Names made humans comfortable. She was establishing a rapport with me. Standard abduction scenario countermeasures. She could try all she wanted to appeal to my better nature, though; I didn’t have one.

“So, Hugo,” she said, letting the sound of it roll around in her mouth, “what were you made to be?”

I found myself not wanting to tell her — not because I didn’t want her to know, but because she wanted to know, and I was wary about giving her a thing she clearly wanted. Still, I didn’t want to seem like I was ashamed of it. “I was a fuckbot,” I said, cutting to the chase with the most offensive term for it there was.

Despite her clearly practiced exterior, that one got her eyebrows lifted in surprise. Not that she hadn’t met one of my type before, an Artificial Human created specifically for pleasure purposes. But I know it wasn’t her first thought because, basically, it’s no one’s first thought about me. When most people think of pleasure models, they think of voluptuous women, strong-jawed men, lithe and beautiful androgynes. I look like a man nearing forty, handsome but a bit hard-worn, with what I’ve had described as a “daddy” look and a head full of dark hair that looks like it may start to go grey any day. It won’t. Long story short, I was made for some very specific tastes.

“A special build, then,” Tamara said, looking me up and down as I sat hunched in my chair. I wondered what she thought of me. I wondered if I was to her tastes. Considering how dead her husbands wound up being, I decided I hoped I wasn’t. “So you get it.”

“Get what?”

“Being programmed. Made for one purpose. Trapped.” She let her gaze fall from me and out to the void around us. We were between systems at the moment, out in the middle of the real Long Dark. All the stars were cold and distant, and none of them were in arm’s reach. “I didn’t want to be a trophy wife, you know. My first husband, my father married me off to him when I was nineteen. It took me almost a decade before I got away.”

I turned to her then, putting aside the fiction that the diagnostics were more interesting than she was. “Married you off, what the hell? You make it sound like you’re some kind of medieval princess.”

“You can think about it like that,” Tamara said. She was fidgeting now with the wedding ring on her left hand, a cold meteorite band. I’d felt it when I’d tied her up, how it didn’t even seem to take the heat from her skin. Or maybe she was just that cold inside. “Legal mergers are messy. They require a great deal of trust, especially when businesses are taking place light-years from one another. Families like mine absolutely like to seal the deal when they can with marriages. We make it sound cute and romantic, but we all know what they’re about.”

She was one of six, I had done my research on that, too. Five girls and a boy who wouldn’t have had a head for business if you’d handed him one. She was the eldest and clearly the canniest of all of them. Her father was King Hughes, which I guess had been his parents’ idea of a joke. He had a reputation for being a canny man, more interested in steadiness than ambition. “So how’d your father take it when you killed your first husband?”

“Oh, furious!” Tamara exhaled smoke as she laughed, letting it swirl up toward the ceiling. “But he couldn’t prove it, and he hurried things along to make sure no one else could prove it either, and then he wasn’t exactly unhappy when I returned to the nest, a widowed little starling with half my late husband’s company assets tied to my belt.”

“So you did it again.”

He did it again,” Tamara corrected me. “My second husband didn’t even last the year. Heart attack, I’m sure you saw in the papers. A true tragedy. But he was a brutish man, and he drank too much. That kind of lifestyle leads to nothing good.”

I decided right then and there I liked her. Maybe it was a bad decision on my part, but I didn’t care. I’d rarely met anybody outside of my business who talked about murder in the same way I did. It was refreshing. “And now Colin.”

Whatever emotion passed her face when I mentioned him, it was gone too fast for me to read it. She raked her fingers back through her hair, pulling it away from her face and twisting it up into a high bun: severe, professional. It was like seeing a weapons array arm. “I wish you’d killed him,” she said softly.

“I’m sure you do.” I pitched the butts of both our cigarettes onto the floor; the environmental bots would take care of them shortly. “Sadly, you’re both useful to me right now. But when you’re not, I’ll drop you off someplace nice and give you a nice dose of neurotoxin, to be dispensed at your leisure.”

Tamara just laughed at that. “And I suppose you’d make him the same offer.”

“I would,” I confirmed with a nod.

“Well. Thanks but no thanks.” She stretched out in the seat, putting her bare feet up on the console. She was stronger than her petite frame would have suggested at first glance. (Ask me how I knew.) “I suppose I’m a contrary person, but knowing that someone wants us both dead fills me with the perverse desire to keep him alive. At least for a little while longer.”

I wouldn’t say hearing that made me feel easy, but it was at least one less act of violence I had to watch out for on my ship. “So what’s your best guess about who that somebody is?”

Tamara shook her head. “Someone who wanted to kill us both, could kill us both. Killing one of us and making sure the other is alive but incarcerated, that’d tie up everything in the courts for years. Maybe decades, considering how complicated all our assets are. I can’t think of anyone who’d want to fuck with both of us that badly.”

I supposed I had to agree with her. “He really that bad to be married to?”

“He–” Biting her lips back between her teeth, Tamara stared at the stars, as unblinking as they were. “No. He isn’t.”

“So why’d you skip right over couples counseling and go straight to assassination?”

“Give me another cigarette.” I tapped another one out of the pack and lit it for her. She held it between her dainty fingertips, watching smoke twirl upwards from the glowing cherry. When she spoke again, her voice was soft in a way that made me wonder what she kind of person she had been before becoming what the world had made of her. “Because I’m sick of being anybody’s wife. I’m sick of being Mrs. Colin Lei on everything. I’m sick to shit of being treated like putting me in a position of power is the funniest thing since making a horse a senator. Fuck you, I’m good at what I do. That heart attack, that was because I couldn’t talk him out of a merger that would have ruined us. But no, I’m just a little girl. Making me co-CEO of Jing Shah, that was my idea. I wouldn’t sign the papers without it. His people got some insane concessions out of mine because I wouldn’t budge on it. And I’m still being treated like a novelty act. Look, kids, the CEO Wife, she’s on right after the Dancing Bear.”

I guess she was right. I did get it.

Tamara took a deep drag from the cigarette, but she let it out silently and didn’t say anything else. I guessed that was all I was going to get out of her on that matter. So we sat together quietly, looking out at the night, trying to solve a puzzle our lives depended upon.

As the silence dragged on, the ship’s sensors registered a shift in movement outside the cockpit, just below the catwalk. Maybe I should have told Tamara that Colin had been there for most of our conversation, out of sight but not out of earshot. Maybe I should have done a lot of things. But I kept quiet and left him to deal with hearing whatever it was he’d heard.

 

~*~

 

I’m sure that in some CEO manual somewhere, there’s a whole chapter titled “Don’t Come To Them, Make Them Come To You” or something like that. Well, if such a thing exists, Colin had probably read it a hundred times already, which is why I wound up being the one to track him down. He was in the cabin where I’d had them both tied up in the first place, punching a padded bulkhead like it owed him money. For all I knew, it did.

It was good that he’d wrapped his hands, because he was hitting his target not with the light aerobic jabs of a workout, but with the force of a man trying to sweat some poison out of himself. He also had swiped clothes of mine, all of which were just a little too tight on his broader frame. Sweat plastered his hair down to his forehead and soaked the front and back of his — my — shirt. I hoped he’d heard what I’d said about showers earlier, because if he thought he was going to get to wash that all off, he had another think coming.

He turned when he saw me, out of breath and grimacing. “Where’s Tamara?” he asked.

I nodded back in the direction of the cabin. “Sleeping.” Probably because she was still shaking off the sedative I’d used to abduct them, but I wasn’t bringing that up. “Hey, what you did, changing your company policy to hire Artificials, instead of owning them. That was a decent thing to do.” Should it have been weird for me to compliment the business practices of a man I’d been hired to murder? Probably, but I didn’t care. I compartmentalize well.

The truth was that it wasn’t so big of a change, owning versus hiring Artificial employees, given what most of our contracts are like. Still the semantics mattered — letting us be ourselves instead of somebody else’s things. Models like me are rare among Artificials, in that we’re designed specifically so humans can forget what we are. Most of us are built so our nature is front and center, be it with marks on our faces, logos on the backs of our hands, certain propriety hairstyles or colors — whatever each manufacturer decides is necessary to lets humans know at first glance, hey, the person you’re talking to isn’t a person, not really. So yeah, affording us basic human consideration can sometimes seem like an awful lot.

Colin’s eyebrows rose with surprise when I mentioned that. Yeah, asshole, I watch the news. I especially watch the news when it’s about me, at least by proxy. “A lot of people didn’t agree. But thank you.” There was no false modesty or humblebrag in his words. It was just true. “So, has your esteem of me earned me the right to ask a question?”

“Shoot,” I said, only realizing my word choice after I’d spoken.

“Why can you kill me?”

It wasn’t as strange of a question as it sounded. All Artificials are made according to something some chucklefuck thought would be funny to call Asimov Protocols: We can’t hurt people. This isn’t even just some fun feature I can disconnect at will — this is something baked into my code, so fundamental that you couldn’t take it out without taking out the rest of me. It’d be like asking a human to remove their DNA, and only their DNA. It’s the kind of safety feature that should keep folk like me from doing the job I do.

I debated how much I wanted to tell him here. If we got out of this alive — and that was still looking like an if at this point — he could do a lot of damage with the right information. Still, we had to trust one another. “I have a guy,” I said at last, figuring that was vague enough. “And if I pay him right, he can shut it off for individuals. Make little blind spots.”

Colin laughed at that, a bitter little sound. “So what you’re telling me is, you don’t see me as human.”

I supposed he was right. “I guess not.” I shrugged. “Take it as a compliment.”

“I’ll try.” With a little wince, Colin started to unwrap his hands. There was no blood underneath, but his knuckles were pink in a way that was clear they’d be bruised later.

“Careful. I don’t have a lot of medical supplies on board if you bang yourself up.”

That at least gave Colin pause. I could see it all over him, poor little rich boy accustomed to being able to buy whatever he broke, including his own body. He’d probably never been more than five minutes from an army of doctors who could patch all his boo-boos and soothe all his owies. Here, he was just going to have to live with the damage he did to himself. There was probably some painkillers in a drawer somewhere. If he got lucky, I’d even remember to tell him about them.

“I can’t help it,” Colin said with a sigh. “I’m just … vibrating. If we were planetside, I’d go for a run. I can think while I run, while my body’s moving. Here, I can’t concentrate because I can’t stop feeling fucking trapped.” He had a bearing to him that reminded me of caged animals, thousands of pounds of teeth and fury bested by a thin glass wall.

So I drew up my fists. “Come on,” I said, “let’s go.”

It probably said something about Colin that he hesitated for maybe two seconds before coming out swinging.

Lots of people have incorrect perceptions about what Artificial bodies are like. Okay, sure, there are some built for power, but you can tell by looking at them. Me, I’ve got increased durability and stamina, but not really any additional strength. Which was to say, somebody who wanted to fistfight me might be able to take me out, but they couldn’t wear me down.

This seemed to suit Colin just fine. He was a kickboxer, I learned quickly as I dodged a jab only to see his bare foot flying toward my face. I threw a couple strikes back for him to block, but it was clear that attacking wasn’t my job. My job was to take it, to be a better punching bag than a metal column, while he worked out what the hell we’d gotten ourselves into.

Where he’d been cold before, he was hot now, growling and baring his teeth. With every strike, he shouted loud enough to echo off the bare cabin walls. Sweat rolled off him, darkening the shirt where it clung to his body. He looked wild — a little like a monster, a little like me. This must be how he did it, how he kept himself so tightly wound, so neatly pressed. He had a release valve that apparently vented in the form of trying to kick the shit out of somebody. Literally kick, even, for all the times his knees and feet connected with my body. If I’d had traditional blood vessels, I would’ve been black and blue.

And yeah, he looked good. Both of them did. When I’d see them all done up in the media, I’d been able to register, sure, they’re attractive people. But that had been academic, an awareness of how the world saw them instead of something I actually felt. The look was just too plastic, too produced. They didn’t look real. They looked like an artist’s rendition of people, not people themselves.

Here, though, it was different. I thought of Tamara with the cigarette at her lips while Colin attacked me with wild eyes. This is what they were when the cameras were off. Now they looked like the kind of people who’d put a hit out on their spouses. Maybe I shouldn’t have found that hot, but I did. Nobody’s ever accused my survival instincts of being good.

At last, he stepped back and bent forward, bracing his hands on his knees as he caught his breath. “It’s my brothers,” Colin gasped out. “It’s my brothers, but it can’t be my brothers.”

“Why not?” I asked. I’m sure it was annoying to him that I wasn’t out of breath, but technically I don’t have to breathe more than a couple times an hour, so he could deal.

“Because they’re fucking idiots,” said a voice from behind us. We both turned to see Tamara there, leaning in the cabin doorway. I’d been so wrapped up in taking Colin’s attacks that I’d forgotten to monitor the ship for her. I did my best to feign not-surprise, but I don’t think it was too convincing. Damn, they were both so sneaky. “That’s why Daddy Dearest left the company to his youngest son, not his elder four. Not that they didn’t want it, but they couldn’t have handled it.”

With a little grunt, Colin sat down hard on the cabin floor, then stretched himself out on his back, pressing his body against the cold metal. I bet it felt good. “Then maybe they hired someone to be their brains. Someone who could figure out how to set us both up in a way that benefits them.”

Tamara nodded, folding her arms across her chest. “They’ll fight amongst themselves for who gets control later. All that matters is it isn’t you.”

“Or you,” Colin added. “If you’ve still got a controlling interest, and capital to back it up, then they can’t use Jing Shah as a way to line their pockets.”

“Which they clearly want to do,” Tamara said, “but they’re so fucking stupid they’re not even good crooks.”

It was like watching some strange sport to hear them talk like this — strangest of all because they weren’t opponents here, but a team. The couple in front of me bore no resemblance to the earlier pair I’d had tied to chairs, shouting at one another like the wished their words were knives. Oh, they still had those knives in hand, make no mistake. They’d just stopped pointing them at one another, and started aiming them at the rest of the world.

Colin nodded agreement with Tamara’s assessment of his brothers’ general intelligence. “So they don’t care about what happens to your holdings. Those can go back to your family for all they care. They care that Jing Shah assets will go into receivership, where nobody’s going to bother teasing out what came in with you.”

“Particularly not if I’m a convicted criminal.”

“Or dead,” Colin pointed out.

“Or dead,” Tamara agreed with a little nod. “And just in case one of us didn’t take the bait…”

“The other would.” Colin groaned as he draped his arm across his eyes. “They fucking played us.”

I didn’t want to rub salt in their wounds, but yeah. They’d gotten played hard, and what had to sting the most was, just having a single fucking conversation about anything would have short-circuited all that careful planning. Whoever put this together had bet everything on the knowledge that Tamara and Colin would be too busy screaming at one another to notice. And they’d won big. Almost.

Almost wasn’t everything, though. “So, what about me?” I asked.

Colin peeked out from under his arm. “What about you?”

Rude. “I’m not in this for show,” I pointed out. “You both got pointed to me in particular — which, let me remind you, is the only way this thing got foiled. Two different assassins, it would just have been a case of who got there first. Or you both would’ve wound up dead by different hands. That’s the kind of thing ambitious idiots would do.”

They had no answer to that, nor did I really think they would. I didn’t have an answer to that, but I wasn’t a corporate supergenius managing interests that spanned star systems, or whatever the headlines said about them (though Tamara was right, mostly about him). “Well?” Tamara said at last, looking at Colin. “What’s our assessment from the local ambitious idiot?”

“You’re such a bitch,” Colin said with a roll of his eyes.

“A bitch who doesn’t let my brothers–“

“Because you were already planning to–“

“Shut the fuck up!” I shouted at both of them. In the beat of silence that followed, I turned and headed for the door, leaving Tamara standing and Colin sprawled on the floor behind me. “You’re like fucking children. Hit one another for a while. Get it out of your systems.”

I marched down the ship’s corridors, back to the cockpit, making a point to deafen my awareness of the ship’s internal sensors for a while. I was beyond sick and tired of their yelling. Maybe they would beat one another into a bloody pulp about it. My money was on Tamara. In a fistfight, always bet on the one who knows how to walk in high heels.

It was strange having them on board. Not just because they were both clients and targets, as I’d definitely never had that situation before. But it was strange having anybody on board. Yeah, I’ve got a bed and some other accoutrements more suited to humans, but honestly, most of those came with the ship. I’ve sometimes had single people travel with me on jaunts, friends and business associates, and yeah, sometimes I’ve smuggled away a person or two from under the watchful eyes of the Law, I’m not proud, but money is money. And besides, I kill people for a living. Figure I don’t get to be all high and mighty about other people’s crimes.

Those were all short little trips, though, lasting maybe a day cycle at the most. Most of the time, it was just me out here, wrapped up in my little ball of atmosphere, shielded by a metal husk. I’d heard humans say we are all star stuff before, and sure, but I’m also ship stuff. I have more in common with the circuity embedded in the ship’s fixtures than I do with a real, organic being.

It wasn’t lonely, being out here alone. I knew it wasn’t lonely, because whenever it got lonely, I shut down the part of my brain that told me it was lonely, and it wasn’t lonely anymore. Neat solutions for solo travelers. Great ways to survive the Long Dark.

I still didn’t quite know what to do with having two people here, much less two people who screamed a lot more than I did, which was none. So I took a bit to distract myself with sending signals out to some of my buddies in the business, the ones with their ears to the networks. Anyone not in the know who watched one of my little messages would just see a guy sending his friend a quick note saying hi and asking some practical but dull question. There was nothing else in the signal, no code, no piggybacked broadcast. It was as normal as normal could be. Everyone who received one, though, would hear what I was really saying. 

I finished up the last of them and sent them out — on plain, unencrypted channels, as ordinary as any data packets got. Then I decided to look in and make sure the loving couple hadn’t actually murdered one another. Not that I would’ve minded much if they had, but cleanup, you know.

When I locked into the cabin signal again, I saw Colin and the bulkhead again. It took a second to realize Tamara was between them — with her legs wrapped around Colin’s waist, getting fucked right up against the wall. She’d clawed several bright red stripes into his bare back, and he looked like he wasn’t being any gentler with her. They were both surprisingly quiet about it, no yowling, no dirty talk, just the panting and grunting that came with a good hard fucking.

So I lit a cigarette and I watched.

Most of what I could see was him: his back, his ass, his legs, all bare and muscled as he held her up and thrust into her at the same time. He was strong and she was small, but it was still an athletic feat. He was giving it to her good, making her bounce on his dick while she held on tight. I could see her face but not his, and from her pretty half-pained expression, it looked like she was having a hell of a time.

It sounds counterintuitive, but fuckbots like me aren’t built with sexualities. We’re made so whatever we’re with, we can work with, and we don’t tend to give a lot of time or thought to fantasy past that. Still, while I watched them go at one another, I found myself thinking about what it’d be like to be either of them. To have Tamara cling to me as I bounced her on my cock. To wrap my legs around Colin while he pounded my ass. To channel that kind of anger into sex, working out all those emotions on another person. Yeah, I had to admit, it sounded pretty fucking good right now.

That was when Tamara looked up at the lens in the top corner of the room, the vantage point I was using. It must have been lit to indicate it was in use. She turned her head and pressed her lips right up against Colin’s ear, saying something I couldn’t hope to hear. His response was to move even harder, hard enough that he was grunting almost like he had when he was attacking me. The sheen of sweat across his back grew heavier. A grin spread across her pretty parted lips. Her gaze never left the camera.

So they had a thing for being watched. Good for them. Glad I could help them in their journey of self-discovery or something. You’re welcome. Fuck.

Everything was starting to taste a little bitter. I shut down my connection to the video feed, then turned my emotional processing power to low — not off, that’s dangerous around other people, but down to a dull roar. There. It couldn’t make me feel anything anymore.

I came back to it about an hour later, when I got a new message alert. The sender code said it was from Gigi Blue, a young woman so bubbly and bright, you’d never guess how much she knew about neurotoxins. I pulled up the message and set it to play.

“Hi, Hugo!” said Gigi with a wave. She was out poolside but not planetside; when you see it long enough, you can tell when light is and isn’t filtered through an atmosphere. “I was wondering whose leather jacket that was. I should’ve guessed from the style. Yes, you left it here after Mijay’s birthday party, and I’ve got it hanging up in one of my closets. You can pick it up whenever you’re in the neighborhood again. Okay, I’m going to get back to my tan. Birdie and Saturn send their love. Bye!”

I slammed my fist down on the console and fed it the emergency shutdown code. Half a second later, nearly everything in the ship went dark. Essential systems only. Nothing broadcasting in or out. To anybody who wasn’t in visual range, we’d look like signal chatter. Anybody who could see us would think we were junk.

I’d never left anything at Gigi’s house. Saturn was dead and Birdie didn’t exist. Mijay was a place, not a person. Gigi’s closets didn’t hold coats. And the fact that Gigi bothered to interrupt her sunbathing that fast to get back to me told me this was serious, serious enough that I didn’t have to wait for anyone else to confirm.

Colin and Tamara arrived at the cockpit a minute later, both dressed and maybe even showered. “What’s wrong?” Tamara asked, her face lit only by the glow of the low-lux emergency lights.

“Somebody’s onto us,” I said. “We’re going to drift for two hours, until whatever positioning they had on us is gone. And then we’re going to Daylight.”

“Daylight?” Colin frowned. “Where’s that?”

 

~*~

 

The Asimov Protocols do have a sort of loophole: I can take actions that might hurt people, if it is to get them to stop doing damage to me. In theory, this means that my programming will allow me to defend myself to a reasonable degree, even if I know that the defensive actions I take may cause harm to my attacker.

In practice, it means the way I get shit done is baiting someone else into throwing the first punch. “Valentin,” I said, crossing my arms and leaning in his doorway. “Time to talk.”

His face turned the color of chalk. “Hugo!” he yelped, dropping the gears he’d been tinkering with. There are places where you can’t get any kind of electronic weaponry past the sensors. For business like that, you either need a knife, or you need Valentin. “Hugo, my friend, what are you — I didn’t know you were even in this system, I–“

“Who’d you tell how to find me?” I couldn’t even summon the energy to feel betrayed. Valentin’s always been a little cockroach. Guys like that, you deal with them when you have to and hope it’s not your turn next at the wrong end of a clockwork barrel. Looked like my time was up.

“Nobody, I swear.” Valentin rose, keeping one hand pointedly behind his back. Dumbass. “Hugo, I wouldn’t do you like that, I–“

His attack was so pathetic, I almost felt embarrassed for him. We were too close for his ranged weapons, so he’d just grabbed the nearest awl and headed right for where he thought my heart was. That was enough for me to be able to disarm him, knock him to the ground, and pin his arms behind his back. The force of the takedown had rattled him a little, and blood was trickling from where he’d split his lip. I couldn’t do any further damage to him after I got him there, but he didn’t know that. “Valentin.” I shook my head. “We could have avoided this.”

“I’m getting business for you! We help each other!” His words were slurred with his face half-pressed against the floor. I could see little metal shavings pressed into his skin. “Someone comes looking for the best, and I’m going to tell them, Hugo is the best! Hugo is the best, Hugo is the man you want!”

You may think I’m the dumbass for believing him, especially right after he’d tried to attack me. But that’s the thing about the stupid people I deal with — they’re stupid in very predictable ways. I didn’t doubt the interaction had started that way, with a casual recommendation of my services. That hadn’t been all, though. “So why are you so edgy about a simple referral?”

“They’re cops,” Valentin moaned.

I almost told him outright, no, they weren’t. They couldn’t have been. If he’d told the police how to get in touch with an assassin, we’d both have been in custody long before now. “What do you mean, they’re cops?” I’m not 

Valentin struggled for a second, then went limp again. “I didn’t know they were at first. I thought they were looking for business, honest business — you know, our kind of honest. But about six months later, there was some big Remembering Our Fallen or some shit parade, and the two guys who came to see me, they were cops. Their faces were there, on the screens. Died in the line of duty, it said. You know I don’t forget a face, Hugo. They were the same guys. I swear.”

Six months? I hadn’t known anything was up six days ago. “When did you tell them about me?”

“Oh, it was–” Having his bell rung didn’t do much for Valentin’s recall. “Two years? Three? No, more like two. Right after Jimmy died. But then nothing happened, and you were all right, and they never came back, and I figured, I don’t know, maybe the cops were just … curious?”

Sure, he wasn’t stupid enough to believe that, not really, but he needed to believe something, and that had been the only part that had made any sort of sense. I got it. Didn’t mean I was letting him up just yet, though. “Names, Valentin.”

“I don’t remember,” Valentin started to sputter, but when I pressed my knee down a little harder, he hastily added, “but I’ve got them written down. Over there. Blue notebook. Pen and paper. Safest thing in the world.”

I didn’t want to let him up and lose what little leverage I had. But at the same time, I figured I’d done all the threatening of Valentin I needed for now. So I let him go. I got up and walked right over to the shelf he’d indicated. Sure enough, in one of the drawers was a little blue notebook. I flipped it open to the place where the spine was most cracked and found two handwritten names and ranks: Полко́вник Масуд Кирабо Бейкер, Подполко́вник Тони Джозиас Магнуссон. Colonel Massoud Kirabo Baker, Lieutenant Colonel Tony Josias Magnusson.

Well, great. I had that information. Now what?

I wasn’t going to let on to Valentin that my discovery wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped. “Is there anything else about them in here?” I asked.

Valentin shook his head. He’d gotten himself seated now, looking a bit rumpled but none the worse for wear. The fucker had tried to stab me and he wasn’t even bruised. “That was all. Two names. I found them, I wrote them down, that’s all. I didn’t go looking. I’m not suicidal. That’s why I wrote it there, because I knew if I keyed it in, someone would know. They’d know and they’d find me.”

“Fine.” I thought about taking the whole notebook with me, but the truth was, there was probably information in there I was better off not having. One of the ways to stay alive in this line of work is to know what things are none of your goddamn business. I put the notebook back in the drawer. “You hear anything, you contact me immediately. Fido protocol.”

Valentin nodded. If he needed to get me any news, I’d get a message from him about his new cat, or a sick goldfish, or whatever pet-appropriate signal he thought appropriate to couch the news in. To tell you the truth, though, if I never heard from him again, I wouldn’t be shed any tears. He hadn’t done anything wrong, necessarily, but he also was a liability. I had too many of those already.

I shut the shop door behind me and walked back toward the central hub of Daylight. I wasn’t surprised Colin didn’t recognize the name — this isn’t the kind of place you know about when you’re somebody who isn’t scraping together the coins in the bottom of their bank account. It’s less a place and more a collection. A century or more ago, it was probably some kind of deep-space post. By now it’s almost a living thing, an organism made from over a hundred welded-together vessels and other debris. Maybe a thousand people, Valentin included, were its permanent residents. For everyone else, it was a place to do all the things you didn’t want to do somewhere else.

The name was a joke: You could only find Daylight where there wasn’t any. We were so far from any star systems that the nearest FTL corridor entrances were a twelve-hour travel in any direction. Of course, that suited most people just fine. Myself included.

I kept my head down and didn’t make eye contact with anyone. A trio of Artificial whores were plying their trade near the main concourse, so heavily modded and patched together you could barely guess at what their initial builds had once looked like. I tossed them some platinum chips I’d lifted from Valentin’s desk when he wasn’t looking. I knew I didn’t need to feel sorry for them, because they were long past the point of feeling sorry for themselves. They’d long since turned off the parts of themselves that cared about little things like dignity or humiliation. But sometimes you can’t help it, you know?

One of them latched onto me. “Hey, mister,” they said. The static in the way they spoke told me they didn’t have actual vocal cords, just a synthbox on its last legs. They’d started out a cheap fucking model. No wonder they ended up here. “Hey, mister, you want some action?”

This was what I fucking got for charity. “Don’t need any, thanks.” I gave them a little wave.

They followed me, though, matching my longer stride with stuttering little steps. “I’m real good, mister. You won’t be disappointed. I promise.”

Maybe even as recently as twenty years ago, I might have grabbed them, shook their shoulders, gave some speech about having an ounce of self-respect, this is why the humans look down on us, fucking pull yourself together. Now, I just shook my head. Everybody else’s ruin can be everybody else’s business. It’s not mine.

I thought for sure they’d give up by the time I left the central hub, maybe backed as I turned down one of the docking corridors. But they followed me instead, spouting their vapid little come-ons in their disturbing, artificial tone. And you know what? Under other circumstances, yeah, I might have fucked them. I might have taken them back to my otherwise empty ship and let them earn their platinum and maybe a couple hours’ charge to their battery. Not because I wanted sex, but because I know how shit it feels to be on the receiving end of pity. Maybe it wasn’t the most humanitarian thing to let someone develop their sense of self-worth by way of fucking me, but shit, what else have I got?

But the ship wasn’t empty. It was filled with two people I probably should’ve killed already, two people who the worst married couple I’d ever met, except for how they were apparently fantastically sexually compatible, and who would’ve guessed that from the way they’d shouted at one another? Or maybe that wasn’t normal. I didn’t know. I didn’t do marriage. I didn’t do relationships. I barely did sex anymore. Small wonder if even thinking the two of them was making me want to set something on fire.

And that was when I fucked up.

“Mister,” whined the little whore behind me, “hey, mister, I’ll show you a great time.” They were closer now, closer than I wanted them to be. How had they gotten so close? Because I’d been fucking distracted being self-pitying piece of shit, that was how. “Mister, come on, I’m worth the money. I’ll suck you off, mister. Whatever you’ve got down there, I’ll lick you so good, I–“

The blow that connected with my head came from my blind side. I never saw it coming. It scrambled my circuits so bad, I wasn’t seeing anything for a minute there. Whoever’d hit me, they’d know where to connect to take out an Artificial’s visual center. I went down, knees hitting the floor before I could remember to turn off my pain sensors. The rough tread of the walkway surface shredded my pants. Fuck, I liked those pants.

The world was dark around me, but I still had my other senses. There were the whore’s feet, skittering on one side of me as they laughed and clapped. Had they been a part of it, or just a useful distraction? No way to tell. Other things were more important. Things like the other set of footsteps on the other side of me. Heavier, like boots. Boots on a heavy body that were now moving into position, shifting their weight. The next blow would probably cave my head in. I had to move out of the way. I just couldn’t tell where that was. If I could roll to the side, would it be fast enough to dodge the impact? I could hear a swinging sound — a pipe, or some long-handled hammer. Maybe a baseball bat. It didn’t matter. I had to get away from it. How long until my eyes were back? No time to run a diagnostic. I had to make a guess. Flip a coin. Stay or go.

“Hey there!” called a voice I was stunned to recognize. “Honey, I think this man can give us directions! Sir, we’re so lost, are you–“

The rudimentary part of visual cortex came back online just in time to see Colin slam a metal baton into a man’s head hard enough to kill him. My assailant was dead by the time he hit the ground, his skull caved in. The little whore shrieked and took off. Colin looked like he was about to run after them, but I waved my hand. “Don’t. Not worth it. Get me back to the ship. And him.”

Tamara’s nose wrinkled in disgust as she looked down at the gore smeared across the walkway floor. “Why?”

“Because I want to know who’s trying to kill me,” I said. I stood up and immediately regretted the decision. Until a few more of my gyroscopes righted themselves, movement would be difficult. “Come on, we’ve got to go. Maybe if we get gone fast enough, they won’t bill us for the cleanup.”

“Get him,” Colin said to Tamara. She got my arm around her shoulders while Colin grabbed my assailant’s ankles. It was a good thing the ship was parked nearby, because the streak of blood and brains made by dragging him was a little much, even for me. As soon as we were all in the door, I had the ship engage the auto-launch protocols. I could only hope that by the time anyone noticed, we’d be long gone.

Well, so much for Daylight. What a shitshow. And what really rankled me was how much of it had been entirely my own damn fault.

“Let me–” Still leaning on Tamara, I made my way over to the me-shaped docking station against the wall. The port entry hatch wasn’t the prettiest place to have a bedroom, but it was right by the engines, which meant it was the most efficient. She held my hand as I leaned back against the ferrogel ports, waiting as their little tendrils fanned out over my bare skin. The looks on their faces said they’d never seen an Artificial plug in before.

“Are you okay?” Colin asked. “I mean … are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, because my head was too immobilized to nod. “I’ve got to go offline for about an hour. When I come back, I want you to know who he is.” I nudged one of my fingers in the direction of the new fourth member of our crew, the friendly corpse. We’d find a way to make him talk, one way or another. “Him and two others: Massoud Kirabo Baker and Tony Josias Magnusson.”

Tamara nodded. “On it.”

As I felt the repair connections start to form, a thought occurred to me, and I laughed. “What the hell were you doing outside the ship, anyway? I told you to stay put.”

They looked at one another, and Tamara shrugged. “We thought you might be in trouble. And we were right.”

I was glad that the diagnostic cycle kicked in right then before I had to admit that they might have been.

 

~*~

 

It turned out that my estimate of an hour had been wildly short. It was nearly ten hours later when I came back online, disoriented and slow. I’ve had hangovers described to me, and they sounded something like this. I was the only being left in the port hold, except for the environmental bots, which were slowly and industriously munching their way through the bloodstains on the floor. Good job.

My connection to the ship was still being reinitialized, so I had to go looking for them with my other senses. Everything was still in low-power mode, all systems not dark but dim.. Fortunately, it’s not a big ship. I found them in the cabin, Colin lying on the bed and Tamara sitting in a chair by his side, her lovely face lit by the glow of the tablet she was reading. At the sound of the door, Colin opened his eyes. “Didn’t mean to wake you,” I said.

Colin shook his head. “It’s fine. Glad you’re back.”

“Getting there.” I raked my fingers through my hair, combing it back away from my face. The repair dock will fix a lot of things about me, but it won’t do my beauty routines. “So what’d you find about those three guys?”

“Two.” Tamara held up the appropriate number of fingers.

“Three,” I repeated. Fuck, which one had they missed?

“Two,” Tamara insisted. “The corpse in the other room is Massoud Baker.”

I will admit, I hadn’t seen that one coming. I looked at Colin. “So you just killed a dead cop.”

“Apparently,” Colin answered with a shrug. He seemed a lot calmer than I would have assumed, for a man who’d just bludgeoned someone else to death. I had to wonder if this wasn’t his first time. I bet there was a story there. “According to his records, he’s been dead for four years. Killed in a shuttle explosion along with eight of his squadmates.”

So not only was he a dead cop, he’d been dead since before he’d shown up to Valentin’s shop. “Let’s see if I’m psychic: Tony Magnusson was also on that shuttle.”

Colin nodded. “Who are they?”

“They’re a pair of goons who got my name from Valentin. But they got it two years ago, and then they sat on it. Until you two.” With a sigh, I leaned back against the wall. I wanted a cigarette, but all my packs were in a storage locker in the other room. I’d had one in my jacket, but the ferrofluid had absorbed and recycled them. Stupid ship, nagging me about health I didn’t even have. “Where are we?”

Tamara and Colin looked at one another and shrugged. “We went somewhere and then we stopped,” Tamara said, drawing her dark hair back from her slender neck. “Looking out the windows, I think we’re in an asteroid field.”

I quietly took back everything I’d said about the ship being stupid. Good ship, smart ship, smart enough to realize I was in repair stasis and take measures to hide us. We were probably in the orbit of some asteroid at the moment, letting its magnetic and gravitational fields scramble the sensors of anyone who’d come looking for us. This was probably as good of a place to bide our time as any. I’d spent entire years of my life hiding out in asteroid fields. It wasn’t glamorous, but neither am I.

A thought struck me, and I laughed. “You know, that was a dumb fucking move back there. You should’ve just let them kill me. You could’ve made a clean getaway.”

The looks of surprise on both their faces told me they had legitimately not considered this. Nor, I bet, had they even thought about grabbing the ship while I was out of commission. Maybe they wouldn’t have been able to pilot it without my command codes, but I bet, between the two of them, they could’ve figured out how to get out some little distress signal. Shit, if they’d needed more time, they could’ve just wrecked me again while I was in the repair dock, kept the bots busy patching me up. A prisoner’s first duty is to escape, and they’d royally fucked up their one chance to do that.

Unless they didn’t think of themselves as prisoners anymore.

Well, if they didn’t, then they were even dumber than they looked. I had them captive on a spacecraft they couldn’t fly, in a location they didn’t know, and I was still fully capable of murdering both of them. I swear, I don’t know how rich people make it out of childhood alive, with the survival instincts of a moth by a candle.

Whatever. It didn’t matter. I shook my head. Fine, they could be stupid. No lab-grown skin off my nose. “By the way, isn’t, I don’t know, the whole galaxy looking for you two already?”

“While you were asleep,” Colin said, and never mind how that wasn’t the right description for what had been going on with me, “I sent out a message to my assistant telling her that we’re on a radical couples therapy retreat.”

I knew what those words meant, and I knew what they meant in that order, but I still had to stare at him a moment while I processed what he was saying. I looked to Tamara to see if he was fucking with me, but she wasn’t laughing. Was this what rich people did when their marriages sucked, get strangers to abduct them and lock them in a spaceship? Because if that was the case, then as soon as all this shit was done, I was getting out of the hitman business and starting up my own couples counseling practice. “And she, what, believed you?”

Colin laughed at that. He had a cute laugh, and an even cuter smile, which were things I was noticing now that he was laughing and smiling and not tied to a chair. Dammit, I needed to focus. “She doesn’t get paid to decide whether or not I’m lying about where I am. Anyway, the message arrived in a way that it could only be from me, so she knows to call off anybody who’s searching for us out of concern for our well-being.” Credit where credit was due, it was a smart move, because it meant the only people looking for us now, we could guarantee were trouble.

When had I started thinking of this mess in terms of “we” and “us”? Now I was being the one dumber than I looked. And I’ve been told I look pretty dumb already, so that’s a challenge.

“I’m looking into their records now,” Tamara said, tapping the tablet — my tablet, I should note, which she’d somehow figured out how to crack into. I guess having a string of shithead husbands taught a beautiful lady how to break into a man’s electronics. “Standard requests now, nothing that would trip any alarms. I’d need to be closer to an access hub to get any deeper.”

Now that was something I could do, which was good, because I was otherwise out of ideas. I’d followed Gigi’s clues as far as they’d go, and the trip to Daylight hadn’t been a bust so much as it had nearly busted my head open. Now I was adrift in a universe with no place to go. At least heading for civilization gave me a direction.

“Fine,” I said. “Can you work with slow and remote, or do you need fast and busy?”

“To do this unseen? Fast and busy.”

In this part of space, that meant only one thing. “Setting course to Station Eṣu,” I said, sending the command to the ship to start charting the route. The bad part about a huge crossroads like that was that it meant there’d be many more eyes on us. The good part was that those eyes would have a lot more things than us to see. “Now if you two will excuse me, I have to go fly a ship.”

Had they fucked while I was in stasis? Maybe. Probably. I could check the ship’s data to find out if they had. I wasn’t going to. Why was this bothering me? It shouldn’t have been. And yet it was like there was a virus in my programming, something that kept grabbing my processing power and yanking it back to the thought of them. Maybe it was jealousy, though I couldn’t have sworn to you which one I was more torn up over. Maybe it was just that they had someone at all.

That was the really fucked-up part of it, that I was feeling sorry for myself because I didn’t have anyone in the universe who loved me enough to put a hit out on me. Sure, there were plenty of people who’d kill me if they had the chance — like that Baker guy, whose corpse I really did have to do something about — and probably even more who’d like to see me gone without having to lift a finger themselves. But there wasn’t that single person who felt so strongly about me that they’d fuck me and hire someone to murder me in the same breath. Maybe I’d been too long on my own, but it sounded like love to me.

 

~*~

 

We were still an hour out from the exit to Station Eṣu when Colin came to join me in the cockpit. He was still wearing my clothes, and by this point I was only cursing him a little for looking better in them than I did. Shit, they both did. Maybe I’d let them keep the stuff when they left. Sentimental value, maybe, or something to use as pajamas.

Nah, they probably had pajamas that cost more than my ship had. Better not.

He tucked himself into the console seat much the way Tamara had, pulling his legs up beneath him. Instead of trying to bum my cigarette off me, he had his hands wrapped around a mug of coffee, but otherwise his presence made the room feel the same as Tamara’s had. Maybe that was why they hated one another so much, like the way if the guy in the mirror ever walked out onto your side, you’d beat the shit out of him on principle. They could see the pieces of themselves they hated reflected right back at them. So hate was what they got.

As he looked out at the stars in front of us, Colin took in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “You want to know something strange? Here’s the best sleep I’ve ever had in my life.”

I laughed outright at that. I didn’t sleep as a regular habit, but I did lie down sometimes, and I knew from experience that the bed in that cabin was a piece of shit. I kept meaning to replace it, and then it kept not being a priority. There’s a lesson in here about procrastination or something. “Oh yeah,” I said, rolling my eyes, “real luxury accommodations here.”

“I’m serious,” Colin insisted. “I have insomnia. I can’t get to sleep, and even once I do, the littlest things wake me up again. But here I just…” He mimed with his hand going from vertical to horizontal and staying there, like a felled tree.

“Maybe you need the engine white noise.” I rapped my knuckle against the wall panel, which was vibrating at the same low hum as everything else on the ship.

Colin shook his head. “It’s usually worse on ships. I have to drug myself, and I hate doing that. But here, I put my head on the pillow and I’m out.”

“Then maybe you need to redecorate your bedroom. Just crash one of these babies into the side of whatever building you want to live in, and there you go. You’ll both be sleeping in luxury in no time. Though I’d ask her beforehand. She probably wants the model with a real shower on it.”

“Oh, she–” Colin chuckled a little as he looked down into the mug in his hand, almost like he was trying to scry something from its dark surface. “That is to say, I’m not going to do that, but if I did, I wouldn’t have to ask. We keep separate bedrooms.”

I pointedly managed to short-circuit the impulse before it hit my speech center, or I might have come out with something like so how  did you two get that good at fucking? I figured I had the answer already: by getting into vicious fights and then finding the nearest sturdy wall. And anyway, I wasn’t going to let on to how I might or might not have been watching them be very good at fucking earlier. I still wasn’t in a place to joke about it. Not just yet, if I ever would be.

So instead I went for what I thought was going to be a safe couples question, even when the couple in question was somewhat more predisposed to manslaughter than most: “So how’d you two meet?”

Leaning his head back, Colin laughed, but the sound was bitter, like he wished that weren’t his reaction. “My father was dying,” he said, which was a hell of a way to start a funny story. “He’d been diagnosed with a late-stage neurodegenerative disease. Scans didn’t pick it up until it was too late to do anything, and his work was his life, which meant he never went to the doctor until he couldn’t avoid it. So he calls me in and he tells me that he’s going to leave the company to me, not to any of my brothers. But he can’t if I don’t have a wife.”

I pulled a face at that. “Seems medieval.”

“If now downright Stone Age,” Colin agreed. “But that’s the way it works in our world. Families, stability, the appearance of good household harmony. I was thirty-two then, and I’d never felt the need to have a wife or any other kind of long-term relationship. But he wanted me to marry, because he wanted me to settle down and have a wife on my arm for taking care of all the parties and social obligations and, I don’t know, picking out china patterns. So I say yes, sure, I’ll get married, because I thought agreeing would make him happy, and maybe he’d die before I ever had to do anything about it. Great, he says, I have just the wife for you. Sign here.”

“A twice-widowed woman who probably killed her first two husbands and just happened to have connections to both her family businesses and theirs.”

“In all fairness to my father, I don’t think he was thinking about the murder part.” Colin stretched his arms above his head, just enough that the shirt pulled up and I could see his belly. Not that I was looking. “Definitely the money part, though. And the age. He liked that she was older than me. He said it would keep me grounded.”

I couldn’t say I agreed with the decisions going on here, but I could see the logic. “Did you know her before that?”

“We’d met,” Colin said. “Said maybe a hundred words total to one another before our engagement party.”

Doing my research, I’d seen plenty of pictures from that night. They’d been in all the style and society pages, the happy couple so smartly dressed, holding hands and smiling at one another. It was weird to think of them and realize how they’d basically been strangers to one another. Obviously I hadn’t been so dense as to think they had a good marriage now, what with the mutual contracts on one another’s lives. But I guess I figured they’d started from somewhere good and just gone bad. I guess the truth was there’d never been anything there at all.

After a minute, Colin rubbed the bridge of his nose. He looked tired. “When all this is done, I’m going to grant her a separation.” His smile remained fixed, but it hardened at the edges and settled in the corners of his eyes, until he looked more like he did on the magazine covers. He could probably hold that particular expression for hours.

“Why?” I asked. The word came out more upset than I’d meant it to.

“You heard it yourself,” Colin pointed out. “She doesn’t want to be a wife. A divorce would be a mess, and it would just leave her open to getting married off again. But we can live separate lives. I’ll stop obligating her to things, and she can do what she wants without ever having to see me again.”

Was that what she wanted? I didn’t know. I had no idea what to say. Maybe my rogue marriage counseling idea wasn’t as great as I’d thought it’d been. “Did your dad pull that kind of shit a lot?” I asked, taking a chance on the hope that Dead Dad might be a less touchy subject.

It wasn’t. I could see that clear as day in the shadow that crossed over Colin’s brow. “Constantly,” Colin said. “Growing up, it was like he was the king of the universe. Everything he said was law. He snapped his fingers and people did things. We all had to do what he wanted. He wanted me to play the cello, so I learned to play. He’d bring me out at dinner parties, make me play. I had no real feelings about the cello when he made me start. I hate it now. But I can play.”

“What about your brothers?”

“Oh, they got it too. But they were never good enough for him. I suppose I wasn’t either, but they were deficient by a wider margin. They tried, but just to the point where technically they’d complied. If my father wanted them to get all A’s, they’d find out how to put in the least amount of effort possible to still get those grades. I’d work my ass off and graduate as the valedictorian. At the end of the day, it’s not that they’re not smart enough to run Jing Shah. It’s that not a damn one of them would put in the work needed to do it. So they’d run it into the ground trying to bleed off every last bit of it into their pockets before everything falls to pieces.”

Now I understood where Tamara had gotten her earlier accusations from, and why they’d stung so much. “Maybe that’s for the best?” I said, and when Colin glared over at me, I put my hands up in a defensive pose. “Hear me out: Your dad worked yourself into his grave over it. It’s the reason you married a near-stranger, and why that marriage was about two steps away from ending in bloodshed. It’s got your brothers figuring out new and exciting schemes to kill you both. It’s obviously making you miserable. So yeah, you’ve got more money than God right now. Why not just fuck off?”

“It’s not that easy,” Colin said.

It was my turn to laugh. “Trust me, fucking off is real easy.”

“Not that.” He sighed. “Do you even know what Jing Shah does?”

I shook my head.

“Because it does everything. It’s the connective tissue that holds together manufacturing, shipping, transport, construction, recycling, you name it — and across entire star systems. If the galaxy is an orchestra, then Jing Shah is the conductor. If Jing Shah collapses, medicine doesn’t get to colonies. Access hubs go dark. People literally starve.”

“Okay,” I said, “but have you ever considered that that’s a shitty system? One where people have to pray you, specifically, keep on living and making the right decisions, because if you don’t, they die?”

Colin pressed his lips together and was quiet. Yeah, no shit he hadn’t thought about that. If he had, if anyone in that entire weird incestuous network of old-money bloodlines had considered it for five minutes, we would have solved our current problem about eighty steps before it happened.

Well, no, that wasn’t true. I suspected a lot of them would have pressed on anyway, on account of not giving a shit about anybody on the margins, so long as the people in power didn’t notice how many of them died. The fact that it gave Colin pause? That said something about him, though whether it called him out as being noble or stupid, I couldn’t tell which. Still, I was feeling a little better about my decision not to kill him. I sure hoped that kept up.

At last, Colin shrugged and settled down in his chair. “Maybe,” he said.

Maybe,” I echoed, not quite able to dial my sarcasm back below audible levels. “Maybe if you did, you wouldn’t have to get kidnapped to spend time with your wife.”

He glared at me then, but I could tell by now when he wasn’t sincere. At least, I thought I could. And it turned out I was right — after a moment, he broke, his expression getting softer. “So is it my turn now to give you life advice?” he asked wryly.

“Go ahead.” Wouldn’t be the first time I had a rich guy tell me what he thought I should be doing. Of course, most of those previous suggestions had been along the lines of go fuck yourself, so maybe this would be new and different.

He lowered his gaze and looked at me like we were staring at one another across an expensive conference table, and not the center console of a rickety spacecraft. “Come work for me.”

I barely managed not to laugh in his face, but it was close. “Good one.”

“I’m serious.”

“No you’re not.” I turned back to the starry view ahead of us, mostly so I didn’t have to look at that charming expression on his face. I could see how people had trouble saying no to him. “You don’t actually want that.”

From the corner of my eye, I could see Colin shrug. “Why not?”

“Because what are you going to do with me, keep me as a pet? I can’t take dictation and I don’t make coffee.” I didn’t offer any other suggestions, but I also didn’t fool myself to think Tamara hadn’t already told Colin everything she’d learned about my original design.

“I need smart people,” Colin said. “I need people to see my blind spots. Especially ones I don’t know I have.”

Yeah, well, that was obvious. But now that he and Tamara could actually have a conversation with one another, that wasn’t such a blind spot anymore, was it? Beyond that, I didn’t know about how useful I could be for anything. I had two skills: fucking and killing people. I didn’t see the corporate world having a lot of use for either of these.

But there was an even bigger problem, one I bet hadn’t crossed his mind. “You don’t own me,” I said, not as defiance but as a state of legal fact. “But I am owned. They’ve let me go because I’m an out-of-date model who’s been more trouble to track down than I’m worth. But the second I show up on respectable radars again, somebody’s going to come pick up their property.”

Colin’s salesman smile never faded. He looked like I’d said I didn’t like what we were having for lunch, and he had eighty other menus in his back pocket. “Think about it,” was all he said as he got up from his chair. He let his hand linger on my shoulder for a minute. His touch was warm, warmer still from having been holding his coffee. “That’s all I ask.” And then he walked off without looking back. I know; I checked.

I hated that I couldn’t read him there. Had he been joking? Was it a real offer? Was it the kind of polite thing you said to somebody even while you were hoping you never saw them again? I was clueless. Maybe that, if nothing else, was why I didn’t belong in the skyscrapers of the corporate world: I could read motives in the eyes of scumbags every day of my life, but bastards in ties were a different language entirely.

Besides, they had each other now. What did a man with all the money in the world and an astonishing wife need with a junked-up fuckbot?

I’d already made up my mind to take off after this. Set off into the Long Dark, out toward the edges of known space. Not that I somehow thought I’d be a great explorer, the first person ever in uncharted lands — I didn’t want nobody, just not a lot of anybody. Out to where people were few and far between. Maybe I’d find someplace to rest in the quiet, hunker down there for a century. Hell, if I could juice up my ship and find a star to orbit around, I could even go to sleep for that century. Slip into stasis, wake up knowing time had eaten the world I’d known and left me with something new.

I’d had this thought before, this idle fantasy about running away from everything, letting everyone who knew about me die so I could start over. But I’d actually do it this time. I’d head out in a direction that few other people ever went, leaving no trace behind me, no note. Nobody would come looking for me. Nobody would miss me.

Besides, maybe by the time I woke up, the alerts that flagged me as a runaway Artificial would be long expired, and I wouldn’t have to skulk around in the night, trying not to let the wrong people notice me. So of course it had been the stupidest thing in the world to bring myself to the attention of two incredibly rich people, people who probably rubbed elbows regularly with the same people who were my legal corporate owners.

…Shit, was that why Colin wanted to bring me into Jing Shah’s employ? So he could turn me right over to them?

I hated to admit it, but it’d be smart of him. I was dangerous — not just in general, but to him, personally. I was an Artificial who could murder both him and his wife, if the fancy struck me. Maybe if he could get me back into their labs, they could take me apart and figure out just how I got my Asimov Protocols selectively shut down. Then they could make sure that didn’t happen again to any others like me. It’d be perfect. Easy. I wouldn’t even feel a thing.

I was being paranoid. I had to stop thinking like this.

I’d gotten this far on paranoia and my instincts, though, both of which were telling me this wasn’t an offer to trust. So yeah, I’d split this down the middle. Stay with them until we figured out who the hell was trying to frame us all. Drop them off somewhere safe. Head in an unknown direction, not stopping until I could see the edge of the galaxy. Simple. Effective. It’d keep me alive, and more importantly, it’d keep me being my own person.

And if that didn’t work, then I’d destroy the ship and all of us with it. I didn’t care. So what if they’d saved my life? I’d nearly ruined theirs. They had no reason to trust me. I had no obligation to them. They’d do it themselves if they got the chance first. I knew this for a fact.

It was times like this I wished I could get drunk. Instead I lit up another cigarette. I should indulge my bad habits while I still had access to them. There were no cigarettes out where I was going.

 

~*~

 

Access hubs like Station Eṣu looked almost like ship graveyards, if you didn’t know what you were looking for. But in every one of those thousand or so ships parked in the vicinity, there were people inside hard at work.

Out between star systems, synchronous communication is nearly impossible — distance and interstellar debris make for terrible lag and transmission distortions. That’s why Gigi sent me a message instead of calling, to be sure her words came through loud and clear no matter where I was. To do any kind of fast or large data transfer, you had to be near one of the access hubs, which had dedicated subspace information relays. Some of the more remote ones were tiny, barely able to manage channels for a single ship.

Station Eṣu was the size of a small moon, shimmering with its artificial lights. I’d seen someone feed koi before, and that was what the ships reminded me of here, thousands of them swarming nose-first around its sparkling surface like fish descending on lunch dropped from above. You couldn’t escape surveillance here, but I knew the layout well enough to know the places that got looked at less. I pulled right up into one of those, just in the shadow of some giant colony ship. Good. With all their tearful parting conversations going on, no one would notice a few numbers here and there.

By the time I got back to the cabin, Tamara was already on task. Colin was right by her, ready to hand her whatever she needed, but she was in charge here. With her long legs crossed behind her, she looked like some kind of Buddha, serene and lovely as she dove into the data stream.

Watching Tamara work was something else. It wasn’t just a case of being able to find the information — she could do it fast. Her fingers traced across file system trees and selected new branches quicker than I could read the labels. Shit, why did anyone not let her run everything? Her father and husbands were all complete idiots. If she were my wife, I’d just hand her all my passwords and kick back for the rest of my life.

“Here’s Magnusson’s widow’s financials,” she said, pulling up a whole screen of numbers and entries that dated back at least a decade. “She doesn’t work, has three kids and bought a new house last year. Bought a lot of nice stuff, actually. No job, but they take all kinds of vacations. Kids in the best schools. Always drives the newest thing. You should see what she’s shelled out already for her eldest daughter’s wedding, and that’s not even happening until next year.”

“Who’s paying for all that?” I asked.

“It must be his pension,” said Colin. “Police pensions pay twice for death in the line of duty.”

“No, that’s his pension.” Tamara pointed to one of the lines on the screen, then dragged her finger down to a second line, one that sported a much larger number. “That’s something disguised to look like a secondary disbursement of his pension, but it’s not. It’s too much, and it’s from the wrong bank code.”

I squinted at all the digits, trying to follow her logic. I’ve got the ability to hook into more mechanical computer systems, but that doesn’t mean I have an actual computer brain. She had an actual head for numbers. “So he’s got an extra pension?” I asked.

Tamara shook her head. “It’s a salary. That he’s been pulling for almost four years now. Because he’s not dead.”

Colin’s eyes went wide with genuine surprise. He looked from Tamara to the numbers and back to her, but he didn’t have an inch of argument to make. I, however, was still a couple light-years behind. “So,” I said slowly, trying to work my way through this, “two years ago, a couple not-dead cops came looking for my contact information, but they didn’t contact me. A month ago, they get you to contact me, both of you, to put out hits on one another. Somebody, put these two things together for me, because I’m fucking lost.”

“Tell me about the bank code,” said Colin. I couldn’t tell if he was ignoring me or not.

Tamara shook her head. “Ordinary routing number. Global Holdings bank. Earth-based transfer point.”

At that, Colin seemed to freeze over. He took a deep breath and straightened his spine, keeping himself stiff and poised as he exhaled slowly. “Trace the number.”

Without question, Tamara began skimming and scrolling over screens. It took her nearly a minute to find what she was looking for, during which time Colin barely moved. The only way I could describe it was that he looked braced for impact, his jaw set, his hands curled into fists. He knew what was coming. He just had to wait for her to find it.

“Done,” Tamara said at last.

“Are the first three digits 872?”

“Yes.”

“Is the manager on the account Carmen Villanueva?”

Tamara’s eyes widened. “How did you…?”

I was even more lost than I had been two minutes ago, which I hadn’t thought possible. “What’s that mean?” I asked.

“It means,” Colin said through gritted teeth, “I know who the brains are.”

 

~*~

 

Wilson Lai looked good for a dead man.

I’d seen pictures of him before, in the news and other places, so it wasn’t too hard to add five years to my memory and get the man seated in front of me. What was surprising was that he seemed to know my face just as well as I walked in the door. “Ah, it’s you,” he said, his voice deep and raspy. “So which one are you going to kill?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” I said. “Or I could do both for you.”

“No, not both.” He waved a hand with a cigar perched in it, sending trails of smoke into the air. The room I’d found him in was an old-fashioned study, something wood-paneled and book-lined that looked like it had been preserved in amber since the nineteenth century. “Both is too unstable. One will do. I can pay you for both, though, if that’s the issue.”

It surely wasn’t an issue for him. I was now one of a very small handful of beings on this moon, spinning around some uninhabitable planet I’d never heard of. He’d clearly done good work on it. The whole place was terraformed and developed, with enough of a breathable atmosphere that everything could be hidden under a thick layer of cloud. No one passing by would have given it a second look, if they hadn’t know there was something to be found here. Just my luck that Colin knew his father’s habits so well.

It was hard to see the familial resemblance in their features — Colin must’ve taken after his late mother, who to the best of his knowledge was actually dead — but when Lai fixed me with that smug look of his, there could be no mistaking that they were parent and child. “Or is that not the issue?” Lai continued after a moment, looking me up and down. “You don’t have a reputation for going soft.”

I did not give him the satisfaction of making an expression at that. “You seem to know a lot about my reputation.”

“I do!” Lai laughed and chewed on the end of his cigar. “In fact, I have to say I underestimated you. Most people would take a pair of contracts like that as just one of those hilarious coincidences that makes the universe special. But not you. No, you’re too clever for that, I see that now.”

I took a step closer to him. I wasn’t armed. It wouldn’t have done me any good. I couldn’t hurt him unless he threw the first punch, and we both knew it. And he wasn’t going to throw the first punch.

Lai reached forward and tapped the humidor on his desk, a beautifully carved thing that matched the wood around him. This wasn’t even the synthetic stuff, I could tell. Real trees had died for this place. “Have one, won’t you? I know you smoke.”

I supposed an offer like this didn’t come along every day. I opened the box and took out a cigar. The smell of its tobacco was fragrant, and about as far from my shit-tier cigarettes as fine wine was from spoiled grape juice. Fortunately, I’d been created to appeal to the kind of clientele who liked a man that knew how to smoke, so I snipped the cap off and toasted the foot perfectly before lighting up. I could see from the look on his face that he was impressed by that. I felt like I’d just passed some kind of test.

“You see,” said Lai, leaning back in his chair, “my problem now, I see, was that I didn’t bring you along in the first place. But you’ll forgive me if I thought you’d be opposed to what I was trying to do.”

“You mean, frame an Artificial for murder,” I said.

Lai pointed at me with the cigar, jabbing its glowing foot in my direction so that it ashed on his desk. He didn’t seem to care. “See? Too clever to be played, too clever by half. But you must understand, there’s not many in the business like you. And I must say, you’ve done some damn fine business for me in the past. Worth every penny.”

I’d spent the whole ride here running over in my mind every job I’d carried out in the past four years. There’d been the usual types, of course, but more than a few stuck out in my mind as strange — I even remember thinking at the time that the woman I was talking to, it was more like she was arranging this one someone else’s behalf. Which doesn’t matter to me, of course, so long as the money’s right. How many of those jobs had been about keeping Wilson Lai in the game? Taking pieces off the chessboard for him long after he was supposed to have conceded?

“You must understand,” Lai continued, “it wasn’t personal.”

No, I was sure it wasn’t. I didn’t even think the contracts on Colin and Tamara were personal. The man before me was purely, wholly business. I let the cigar smoke fill my lungs and exhaled it back out. The fragrance of it filled my nose.

Lai watched this, seeming pleased with my compliance. “It was, if you’ll excuse the cliche, the proverbial two birds and one stone. I chose Colin to take over for me in my … shall we say, somewhat unconventional retirement, because I knew he’d be the one to steer the ship straight and true. And so he did, until this business with hiring Artificials. I have no problem with it personally, you understand. Frankly, I think for us, it’s even a smart move.”

“So what’s your problem with it?” I asked.

“Not my problem,” Lai stressed, bringing his hand to his chest. “But you can’t just do that, not without disrupting several industries. You can’t set the precedent that your kind are the same as people. If you want to change this, fine. Change it incrementally! But not a sudden shift. I thought he understood this. Far, far too many things depend on the non-personhood of Artificials. Why, the intellectual property implications alone are staggering.”

It was a good cigar. I didn’t chew mine the way he did; I left it in my hand, tending to it every so often so the fire didn’t go out. The smoke didn’t even linger in the air. He had better filtration systems than I did. “So who else knows you’re here?” I asked.

“Oh, a few people, here and there.” Lai shook his head as though the answer didn’t matter. “Old friends. Important acquaintances. People I can trust to keep up appearances.”

“But not your sons.”

Lai stood then, rising from his chair like a god from the sea. Something had clearly been wrong with him, that much was clear from the stiff and often jerky motions he made as he rounded the desk. He must’ve realized he was sick, back then, and instead of getting treatment and continuing to lead in a diminished capacity, he’d rode his illness into making everyone believe the diagnosis was terminal. Enough time to get his affairs in order, and then a sudden good-bye. The cautious man’s way to fake your own death.

“No,” he said at last, “not my sons. And do you want to know why?”

“You know,” I said, “I do.”

With a chuckle, Lai leaned back against the desk. “Because they’ve got to learn to stand on their own, that’s why. Get out from under my wings. Stop double-checking everything with what Daddy things. Make their own decisions. Especially Colin.”

“Didn’t he do that?”

“He did it wrong.” Lai punctuated the word with another glowing jab to my chest. If I’d been any closer, he would’ve singed my shirt. “He was a fool, I see that now. Too soft, too soft. Too little concern about how his actions affect other people.”

“He deserved to die for that?” I asked.

Lai shook his head, taking visible offense to the suggestion. “No! No, no, heavens no. I couldn’t kill my son.”

“But–“

“I couldn’t kill my son,” Lai repeated. “But I could let fate decide. That’s why I guided both of them to you. You’re the coin I just flipped. Heads, tails, it’s beyond my decision. Whichever way you land, I can’t possibly be held responsible.”

I had to hand it to the old bastard, he’d thought of everything. I raised an eyebrow, but stood still. This was the kind of man who needed you to know you weren’t afraid of him, or he’d write you off completely. People who feared him were only good for being bossed around. People who weren’t, well, they were interesting. I needed to be interesting.

“No,” Lai continued after a moment, letting out the same sigh of regret someone might make when they realize they bought skim milk instead of whole, “I should never have left the company. But I can’t exactly take the reins again now, can I? One of my other boys will do it, it doesn’t matter which. With the right advisors, they all can be kept in check. Let them get away with just enough so they wind up thinking they’re getting away with more.”

“Why are you telling me all this?” I asked. “Especially when you know they’re both still alive.”

Lai spread his arms out in front of him, to the point where I was almost afraid he was going to try and give me a hug. “Don’t you see? You’re going to take the fall for this. One of them dead, the other arrested, and you on the hook either way for pulling the trigger. The Artificial Assassin, they’re going to call you, or something more clever than that, I don’t know. Marketing was never my strong suit. And that’ll be the end to this personhood movement nonsense. Who’s going to trust any Artificial now that they know they can kill?”

“This is good news?”

“This is spectacular news, for you in particular, because I am going to pluck you off the scrap heap.” With a laugh, Lai walked over to one of the room’s plush leather chairs and sat down hard. He tapped his ash into a clear crystal ashtray, grinning like winning runner with the finish line in sight. “And you’re going to come to work for me, free and clear, a new man — or something else, if you prefer this time around.”

I knew he wasn’t joking. A man with resources like his — enough to renovate a whole moon to his specifications without anyone noticing — had more than enough to get me a better body. It might even be imperative, given how much proprietary material was still in mine. But the body itself didn’t matter when I could get a new one. And when that one ran out or got damaged, there was always another. No more waiting in a repair dock for systems to get patched together again. Why rebuild when you could replace?

Lai looked me up and down, watching me consider his offer. I knew he could see it on my face, everything I was thinking about how easy it would be to take this opportunity for a new life. Forget flying out into space and letting the years pass me by. I could spend that time planetside, walking under real sun, passing unnoticed among ordinary people.

“I know you’ve noticed,” Lai continued after a moment, “the benefits that come from employing the dead.”

Of course I had. Nobody was looking for them. Nobody expected them to do anything, or be anywhere, or conform to any normal standards of living. So long as you could pay off their families — and especially if you could pick guys whose families wouldn’t miss them much anyway — you could have your own private goon squad of people who were supposed not to exist anymore. And if anyone noticed, like Valentin, what would they say? That they’d seen a ghost?

I slowly twirled the cigar in my fingers, watching it burn. I bet a man who worked for someone like Wilson Lai could afford a lot of cigars. I bet he could afford a lot of things. And for what, the same work I’d been doing for him already? What smart person wouldn’t jump at a chance like that, to take on a brief bit of jail time, to come out the other end smelling like roses and having the same job as before but a hundred times the pay?

Just my luck I was fucking stupid when it came to those two.

I pointed the cigar foot-down and dropped it. I saw Lai’s eyes widen as the glowing end hit the carpet and burned a smoky black stain into it. It wouldn’t catch fire, but it would leave a mark. He recovered quick, but I could see I’d rattled him. “What’s this supposed to be?” he asked, glaring up at me. “You don’t scare me. I know the programmer who jailbreaks your Protocols. Even if you’d had time to ask, there’s no way he would have suspended them for me.”

“You’re right.” I put my foot on the cigar and ground it out, smearing the burn mark even wider. “I can’t hurt you unless you start it. And you’re too smart to do that.”

“You see?” Lai smirked at me, though the expression came out as far more of a sneer. “You’ve got no choice. Take the deal.”

“Oh, you missed an important part,” I said. “I can’t hurt you. They’re a different story.”

Lai looked up at the door to his study in horror just as my new two favorite people walked in. Colin was swinging that telescoping baton in his hand, his tie askew and hair wild. Tamara was back to the tight white dress she’d shown up in, only now it wasn’t so white anymore. I had to trust most of that blood wasn’t hers. I could see some dripping from the heel of one of her stilettos. I guess what had happened to the household’s security staff was obvious.

“What are–” Lai stammered, looking at both of them, shocked as hell to see the two of them on the same side, their gazes now turned on both of them. That look on his face, that was pure fear. Maybe it was the first time in his life he’d ever felt it. His years-long, tightly plotted schemes not only hadn’t gone to plan, they’d backfired spectacularly on him. He’d pulled the trigger only to realize that he was the one looking down the barrel.

And you know what? If he’d gotten me before, I might have said yes to him. I might have been smart enough to see the writing on the wall and make a canny, self-interested decision, one that would have benefitted me, personally, very well. Part of me was even screaming that I should have done it. I could have killed one or both of them right there, or at least crippled them enough to keep them from doing any damage. I could have done a lot of things.

Instead, I looked to Colin and took a step back. “I’m sure you heard all that.”

“Every word,” Colin said. He struck the baton against the side of his leg. It made a sickening whoosh as it snapped through the air.

“Don’t!” the older Lai said now, looking in a panic to me. “You can’t — they’re going to kill me! You can’t let them kill me! You can’t! Your programming won’t allow it! You have to stop them before they kill me!”

I put a hand to my lips in mock affront. “What a terrible thing to say! You wouldn’t hurt a hair on his head, would you?”

“Of course not,” said Tamara, her teeth bared.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Colin promised, tightening his fist.

“Well, in that case, I’ll be waiting in the front hall.” I turned and walked right between the two of them, out the doors to the study. Lai was shouting by then, hollering for help that wouldn’t come. I shut the doors behind me, then set off back to the ship, making sure I was well out of earshot before the first blow fell.

 

~*~

 

As it turned out, Wilson Lai had been a man possessed of tremendously good taste in private home furnishings. There was no way this had happened within the span of a year, especially with no one noticing the flow of funds. Clearly this was a place he’d had done decades ago, a retreat so private his sons hadn’t even known it existed, much less where it was. Things like this were hard to keep quiet, but if there was one thing this whole run of nonsense had taught me, it was that if you had enough money, any bullshit was possible.

The books lining the walls might just have been for show, but they were real. I grabbed one at random, some old volume of Aristotle. Well, I supposed it was never too late to learn about ethics. I just had to pause a few chapters in and drag a couple of the bodies into another room. They were just too unnerving.

Some time later, I heard footsteps coming down the hallway, echoing off the hardwood floors and marble fixtures. I turned just as they emerged into the high-ceilinged foyer, leaning on one another. I assumed it hadn’t taken that whole time to bludgeon an old man to death, but what did I know? They say a job worth doing is worth doing right. I put the book down and stood. “Are we ready to go or–?”

I didn’t get out the end of the sentence. Tamara grabbed my face in her hands and kissed me, hard enough that I could taste the blood of her split lip. The ragged edges of her broken fingernails teased at the skin of my cheeks. Instinct had me move to pull away, but she held on tight. She wasn’t letting me go.

I was so taken off-guard by her frontal assault that I didn’t immediately register the force of hands on my hips. But then there was a mouth pressed up against the back of my neck, alternating between nuzzling my hair and grazing the skin with rows of perfect teeth. He bit down and I shivered. They both laughed at that, him into the bite and her into the kiss. Then he pushed me forward toward her, until I had to wrap my arms around her to keep from falling over. I was getting played again, but this time I found I didn’t so much mind.

“I want to watch you fuck my wife,” Colin all but growled against my ear, pressed so close I could feel the words rumble out of his chest.

There’s something mildly ironic you have to understand about us fuckbots: We don’t feel sexual pleasure quite in the way you’re thinking. This is by design, so we don’t get so caught up in getting ourselves off that we let our needs overtake the needs of our human clients. We’re the ultimate service tops, or service bottoms, or service whatevers. What we’re programmed to seek more than anything is the pleasure of doing what our partners want.

So you can imagine my reaction to that. I shivered as Tamara reached down to cup my cock through my jeans. Usually my erections are under much more conscious control, but oh, that one got away from me. She squeezed my fully hard dick right through my pants and grinned. “He’s big,” she told Colin, her smirk made all the more wicked for her smeared lipstick.

“Just your luck.” Colin grabbed the collar of my jacket and yanked me backwards, toward a door just a few feet away. It seemed like their little rampage through the house earlier had taught them where the bedrooms were. How handy.

The bed they threw me down on was light-years from the shitty cot in my ship. I actually bounced a little. Colin was the one to kiss me this time, pinning down my shoulders as he thrust his tongue into my mouth. They both kissed so well, I might’ve thought they were the ones built for this instead of me. Tamara got to work on my lower half, yanking my jeans down toward my thighs. As my cock popped right out, stiff and ready, she opened her mouth wide and drew her tongue up its whole length, getting a taste for what she was getting next, if Colin had anything to say about it.

He wasn’t saying much now, though. He had his hands in my hair, holding me down as he kissed me like he’d been waiting for this a long time — and by “this” I didn’t just mean kissing me, specifically. I meant everything involved with snapping out of the perfect suit he’d been raised to be, only to throw in with scum like me. Who would’ve known the two of them liked getting dirty?

And speaking of dirty, Tamara let go of me and grabbed at her dress. We watched together as she pulled it up and over her head, stripping away the layers of expensive white fabric and red-brown gore to reveal her slender body beneath. Now she was naked, I could see she wasn’t just skinny, but toned with lean muscle. There were rich women out there, many I’d met, who put time and effort into making their bodies delicate and desirable. Tamara had spent her time making herself powerful. Lucky us, it had paid off.

“You’re beautiful,” Colin told her with a little sigh. The way she smiled in return made me wonder if he’d ever said those words to her before. Coming from him right now, this wasn’t a statement of objective fact, even though there was no doubt about that. That was a man appreciating his wife — really appreciating her — and letting her know it.

Maybe my hypothetical abduction-and-marriage-counseling business wasn’t such a bad idea after all. At least now I could surely get some glowing client testimonials. I’d ask for them later.

Colin stripped me down the rest of the way as Tamara got back on the bed, reclining against the mass of pillows waiting by the headboard. She opened her arms wide to me as I came back, letting me kneel between her thighs as she brought me in for another kiss. She still managed to smell good, despite … well, everything. I cupped one of her breasts in my hand and caught her puffy brown nipple between my fingers, making her laugh and squirm. “Did you like watching us?” she purred against my lips.

There was no point lying about anything now. “Yes,” I confessed. “And no.”

“No?” Tamara stroked my cheek. “Why not?”

“Because…” I exhaled through pursed lips and bent my head so my forehead was pressed against the pillows beside her. This was hard to say, not because I thought they’d take it badly, but because it made me sound pathetic. “Because I was jealous.”

At that, Tamara laughed sweetly, wrapping her legs around me the same way she’d embraced Colin back on the ship, a few days that felt like lifetimes ago. “No reason to be. There’s plenty of room for you.” She lifted her hips so that I could feel her soft pubic hair brush the underside of my cock. “Right in here, in fact.”

I couldn’t have resisted that even if I hadn’t been programmed not to. I shifted my weight back on my knees. As I did, I felt Colin behind me, still dressed despite how the two of us weren’t wearing anything. He knelt next to me and leaned around me, stroking my cock as he spoke. “She likes it rough,” he said. “Don’t hold back. She’s tougher than she looks.”

That, I could believe. I let him guide me inside of her, groaning a little as my cock sunk into the warmth of her cunt. Tamara gasped sharply as I pressed into her, arching her back. Instinctively, I stopped right where I was — so she grabbed me with her legs again and pulled me the rest of the way inside her. I was made to cater to some fairly specific tastes, and those tastes did not run small. Fortunately, she seemed to share those preferences. She grabbed at my biceps as I settled inside of her, feeling her get comfortable around me. “Fuck,” Tamara exhaled happily. “Fuck, that feels good.”

“Don’t stop now,” Colin said, stroking my back and ass tenderly. “I want to watch you give her what she wants.”

That was precisely what I did. Tamara liked it hard? She was going to get it just how she liked it. I straightened my back and grabbed the headboard for leverage, and then I started fucking her in earnest. She moaned with delight every time I got balls-deep inside her, making her firm little breasts bounce. Her hair was slowly coming loose from the style she’d twisted it into, spilling out over the pillows. She looked every bit the beautiful, murderous temptress she was, and yeah, I fell more than a little in love with her right then. Wouldn’t you?

Colin leaned over me, and this time I could feel his bare cock pressing up against the cleft of my ass. I’d been so wrapped up in fucking Tamara that I hadn’t noticed him strip down. Now he was as naked as we were, and for the same purposes we were. I could feel his fingers part my ass cheeks, getting me ready so he could join in with us.

When he met a little resistance there, though, he chuckled — enough that it made me stop mid-stroke. “What?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing, I–” Colin fingered my asshole again. “Aren’t you supposed to be more, I don’t know, prepared there?”

I grunted and collapsed down on top of Tamara. I could feel her body shake beneath me as she laughed. “Look,” I said, “I haven’t been fucked in a while, so you’ll forgive me if this is a literal dry spell. Trust me, though, it’ll work.”

“Are you sure?” Colin asked. He meant it, too — this was not a trick question.

“I’m fucking sure,” I promised him. “Come on. You want to fuck me, fuck me.”

He wanted to fuck me, that much was more than clear. He put the head of his cock against my ass and pushed in, hesitantly at first, and then with more strength as he figured out, yeah, I know what my body tolerances are. I was made for taking cock, among other things. Running a little low on fluids wasn’t going to change that.

As soon as he was settled inside of me, he grabbed my hips and thrust, like he was fucking all the way through me and into Tamara himself, using my cock as an extension of himself. I got Tamara’s legs up over my shoulders, making sure she was comfortable before I let the weight of both of our bodies sink into her. And then I let them see just what a body designed like mine could be good for.

It was a hell of a thing, to be caught between the two of them. When I’d seen them before, I’d imagined taking one place or the other. I’d never thought, not even for a second, that there might be a place right in the middle, not even having to choose one to replace. Tamara’s eyes were shut, her head stretched back as she moaned her pleasure with every stroke. She did like it hard, it turned out — hard enough that I wondered if she’d ever really been satisfied before she’d had the two of us together. Colin wasn’t gentle either, at least not when it came to the two of us. He grunted as he bent over my back, thrusting into me with all the force he could muster.

And me? It felt good being between the two of them. They made no secret about what they wanted, and I was glad. I hated guessing. I just wanted to give them what they wanted, whatever they wanted, as much of it as they wanted.

“Does he feel good?” asked Tamara. I knew she wasn’t talking to me.

“Incredible,” Colin said, all but growling the word in my ear. “Do you like having him inside you?”

Tamara nodded helplessly. “God, he’s good. I can feel you move through him.”

Colin reached around me and put his fingers in my mouth. I took the cue and sucked them, tasting just the slightest copper tang of blood as I ran my tongue across their tips. With his lips pressed up against my shoulder, I could feel him grin. Then he began to move again in earnest. His balls slapped against my ass as he took me — took both of us, more accurately. I braced myself against the headboard again. I didn’t need to breathe, necessarily, but I was panting hard anyway. Bodies like mine know that some things are more psychological than physiological.

“Rub her clit,” Colin ordered me. “Make her come.”

I did just that. I reached down between our bodies, right up against the bud of her clit. I placed the pad of my thumb against the little nub of skin, feeling her moan as I pressed down and continued to fuck into her. The electrical impulses I can send through my palms aren’t just for the ship — I gave her the lightest buzz of sensation. “Fuck, oh fuck!” Tamara gasped, grabbing hold of my shoulders as she came. Her body shook beneath me, hips rocking as though to spur me on. I didn’t stop fucking her either, not unti I felt her collapse completely beneath me, shuddering with the aftershocks of that kind of pleasure.

Colin wasn’t long after her. I was still buried deep in Tamara when he pressed hard up against my ass and thrust a few more times. I sucked on his fingers eagerly then, even biting just a little. It wasn’t like he didn’t know I had teeth. At last, he exhaled hard and came inside me. A contrast to Tamara’s noisy, active climax, his was softer and far more in control. Still, I didn’t have any doubt about how good it was.

And me? Well, fuckbot pleasure is already kind of a grey area in general, and orgasms in particular really aren’t a thing. For me, the best part of sex is the satisfaction of a job well done. And I’d done them both very well, if I do say so myself.

Tamara reached for me as Colin pulled out of me, drawing me into a kiss as I collapsed all but on top of her. Moments later he joined us, curling up behind me. He reached across her and stroked her bare hip lovingly. She responding by reaching across my legs and poking his knee with her foot. Those kind of easy affection gestures between them seemed unfamiliar and natural all at once. I guess that after years of marriage, they were finally figuring that part out.

My first post-sex instinct was to get up — to clean up or to get out, whichever I was supposed to do. But Colin and Tamara both put a swift end to that one, Colin with his arm around my waist and Tamara with her hand on my shoulder. I hit the bed with a soft thud. I guessed this was where I was staying.

“So,” I said after a minute, “how are you going to explain all this?”

Tamara laughed. “Explain what? Killing a man who’s already dead? Breaking into a house that doesn’t exist?” She shook her head as she brushed my hair back from my face. “What’s left to explain?”

Colin nodded his agreement. “As far as anyone else needs to be concerned, this was a romantic getaway. All the more romantic for its spontaneity, no less. I’ll have to make some pointed apologies to a few people for not giving them a heads-up, but I suspect I can buy their forgiveness.”

Some couples played tennis together. Some did murders. All relationships are unique.

“You know, I like this house,” Tamara said softly, stroking my chest with her fingertips. “It’s got a real rustic charm. I was going to suggest burning it down, but now I’ve changed my mind.”

“Yeah?” I snorted, figuring this was another one of their weird rich-person jokes. “I know a cleanup guy. He does good work. I know for a fact he’ll take half off his fee if you let him keep the organic material.”

“Call him,” Colin said.

“Call him?” I glared back at him over my shoulder, as much as I could see his face given the way he was spooning me. “You call him.”

You call him,” Colin said as he poked me in the hip, “because I am capable of ordering you around, because as of about forty-five minutes ago, you are legally mine.”

I sat bolt upright at that, faster than either of them could grab me and haul me back. Why had I ever been so fucking stupid, to let him convince me that he was anything except the true heir to his father’s throne, just one more human who didn’t see the difference between me and a toaster. “You son of a bitch, you–“

And.” Colin cut me off mid-sentence, looking over to Tamara with a smirk like they’d both expected this reaction. When I was quiet again, he continued: “And as soon as I can get your imprint on a couple documents, you’ll be legally yours. That is, if that’s what you want.”

I wanted so bad to stay angry at him for pulling a stunt like that. Instead I couldn’t help the grin plastering its way across my face. “You son of a bitch,” I said again. This time it was affectionate.

With a smirk, Colin stretched out on the bed, putting his hands behind his head. The sheets were ruined beneath us, smeared with bodily fluids of the kind that would never completely wash out, but he was pristine and handsome on top of them. They were both like that, naked and beautiful, laughing at me like they liked me.

And as it happened, there was a place right in the middle. Room for one more. A place someone actually wanted me to be.

“So hey,” I said as I let myself settle back into that very spot, “is that job offer still open?”

“You mean the one where you won’t make coffee or take dictation?” asked Tamara.

Son of a bitch, they’d gone from hating each other’s guts to telling each other everything. I didn’t know which was more annoying. “Yeah, that one.” I sighed.

Colin reached for Tamara’s hand and twined their fingers together, then pressed their joined palms to my chest. “You’re in luck,” Colin said with a wink, looking over at his wife. “I know the new boss.”

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5 thoughts on “The Long Dark

  1. FUCK YES!!!!! I love android-y personhood politics and shit happening in space and energetic threesomes very much so of course there is a LOT to love here!

  2. An examination of the nature of humanity from a technically nonhuman narrator? Well I’ll be, it must be my birthday! Hugo has a very relatable form of distance to him; who among us wouldn’t jump at the chance to just turn off the parts of our brains causing problems, especially if they can be turned back on again later? It was also fun seeing the logical conclusion of “people would make androids for sex” paired with “not everyone thinks a curvaceous femme is the height of sexuality,” and the fact that he’s more or less at peace with who and what he is in spite of some lingering awkwardness was a fun detail. Colin and Tamara’s bitter chemistry is believable, too, and so very satisfying to watch become something healthier for them both (especially with the room they’ve made for Hugo quite literally between them). Sometimes the happiest ending really IS beating a gajillionaire to death with a loved one.

    As always, 2013’s art is great and feels like the objectively correct fit for the prose. A splash of neon makes everything a bit more futuristic!

  3. We love a noir story with queer androids in this house! We also love beating manipulative rich men to death in this house, so overall: fuck yes

  4. your stories are never anything less than a delight, and this one did not disappoint – assassins, betrayals, androids, characters with principles they steadfastly insist they don’t have, threesomes, characters revisiting their relationships, it’s got everything, and i loved it!

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