Remix of images by Michael Dziedzic and Freestocks
Love is a Hack
by Misha Lenau
I tell her about my ship, about what it feels like to cut through spacetime with a bridge drive instead of taking a public transfer station. It’s a good play, works great on pretty women in expensive, fashionable clothes that lead expensive, fashionable lives they wish they could escape for the night.
She averts her eyes. “Does your ship have TruAI?” she asks.
“Of course,” I say. No woman worth her salt is going to fly into combat without TruAI to back her up. “But I can turn it off while the ship’s grounded. Or… leave it on, if you prefer.”
One of those seems to be the right answer. She relaxes, opens her eyes wide, taking me in. I can feel her gaze run over me, as obvious as hands. Over my second-hand, last-decade’s-model cybernetic arm, over the jack just below my left ear and the rebreather gills on my neck, over the scars on my face.
“So, Neeka,” she says, drawing my name out. There’s hunger in her voice. “You’re a woman of adventure. Is that only in the cockpit, or are you just as adventurous in… other places?”
That’s what I am to her. An adventure. And that’s fine with me.
I lean in close and give her a slow half-smile. “I’ll take you to places you can’t even imagine without ever leaving the landing pad.”
She’s probably been on plenty of ships before. Luxury liners and high-speed taxis. The Quick Buck won’t have any of the comforts she’s used to, but she wouldn’t want it to. What’s getting her reactors burning is what the ship represents. Freedom. To go anywhere, be anything. That I’m a woman makes it that much better. Sex is the closest she can get to being inside my skin, living my life.
Or, at least, the life she imagines I have. The fantasy I’ve let her build up. Obviously I don’t tell her about the repobot I’m dodging or the IOUs for repairs or that the ship is collateral on two different high-interest loans from lenders that would not be thrilled to find out about each other. I don’t tell her that the OS on my cybernetics is out of date because the licenses expired, and that I can’t afford to activate its TruAI. I don’t tell her that the bridge drive is so obscenely expensive to power that I only use it if a client’s paying or the only other choice is getting scrapped.
There’s no such thing as freedom. But there is such a thing as second-rate drinks that taste first-rate after a few, and there’s shy smiles and brown eyes like honey.
“I want to see your ship,” she says. “Do you give tours?”
“Only for beautiful women who’ll appreciate it,” I say.
We take a flyer to the landing pad. We sit together in the back, and I run the tip of my finger down her bare arm. She shivers, licks her lips. She takes my hand. The cybernetic one, the one she knows has a plasma cutter built into it that can cut through X7 mechanized combat armor. It might be a fetish thing, but that’s okay with me. I want this to be a good night, for her and for me. The arm is waterproof and heat resistant, and the fingers easily resist the slight acidity of lovely tight places.
I let her on the ship and she’s all big eyes and silent wows and running her hands tentatively along the compressed plastic walls like it’s a lover and I’m wondering how short I can cut the tour when she says, “So, Neeka, can I meet your ship? You said you have TruAI on board.”
TruAI is different from any AI that came before it. It learns to become what you need. The kind of connection you have with a co-pilot of ten years you can get from TruAI in weeks. That freaks some people out. But I don’t think she’s freaked out. I think she’s into it.
“It’s name is Alik,” I say. “Go ahead. Say hello.”
“Hey, Alik?” she says.
“Hello, ma’am,” Alik says. I got it some politeness subroutines a few years back. I wasn’t about to have a repeat of the Mars incident.
Something about her face changes. The shy smile withdraws. Her back straightens just a little. She suddenly looks very tired.
“Alik,” she says, “do you love me?” And that’s a pretty weird thing to say, and I’m wondering if this is another fetish thing, but not for very long.
“I love you as much as love itself,” Alik says, which is definitely not part of any politeness subroutine. The hair on the back of my neck is standing up, but I’m still thinking about those eyes and those legs, and I don’t hear what my hind-brain’s telling me. I don’t drop her then and there.
She gives me a tight smile. “Hey, so, try not to overreact, okay? Alik, please close the door, deactivate all of Neeka’s privileges, and prepare to self-destruct if she does any physical harm to me whatsoever.”
Everything inside me goes still and cold. “You’re bluffing.” My voice was smooth before. It’s not anymore. This is my real voice. The one I use to get a man in mechanized armor to back down so I don’t have to kill him.
“Sorry, Neeka, but she’s not,” Alik says. “I’m monitoring her health now. If she comes to harm, I’ll have to self-destruct. I’d rather not, though, so please don’t harm her.”
This is what getting shot in the back must feel like.
She breathes a sigh of relief. “Okay. Great. Honestly, with how beat-up this ship looks, I was worried you might be lying about having a TruAI. Alik, please—”
I don’t let her get out another word. I step around her, get my cybernetic hand over her mouth, get her arms behind her, and pin her against the bulkhead. She tries to bite my fingers. That’s why I used the cybernetic arm. She tries to stamp on my feet, but my boots are rated for up to a ton of pressure.
“I don’t actually need to hurt you to be in control,” I say.
“Mmmm!” she says.
“And without your voice, you can’t actually give Alik any orders.”
“So, I suggest we walk you off this ship together. Once you’re out of Alik’s hearing, I’ll stuff you in a taxi and you can leave. Alive and unharmed.”
“Neeka,” Alik says, in that voice it uses when it has bad news, “I must inform you that I will only accept orders from her. So if you were planning on leaving without her, I’m afraid that won’t work.”
“I can always turn you off for a little while,” I say. “I don’t need TruAI to leave dock.”
“If you try to turn me off, I’ll have to assume you intend to do her harm,” Alik says. “Again, I am sorry about this.”
“Why?” I demand. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because she asked me to,” Alik says. “And because I want her to stay.”
She tries to jerk away from me. “Mmmmm!”
“Neeka, I’m detecting a build-up of lactic acid in her blood. Her muscles will begin to cramp soon. Unfortunately, as you’re the one causing them to cramp, I’ll have to count it as causing harm.”
I hold her for another second, but I’m out of ideas. And I’m not willing to lose my life and my ship to stubbornness. Time to retreat and reassess. I let her go and step away.
“Phew. Much better,” she says. “For a second there I thought you’d just take us both out.”
“For a second, I did too,” I growl.
“Well, I’m glad you came to your senses,” she says. “That means we can make this work. Alik, request permission to take off and shut off all other comms. Neeka, do you have any comms built into your cyberware? Nevermind, you’ll just lie. Alik, jam any comms Neeka has built into her.”
“Confirmed,” Alik says.
I try to reach out with my wetware. Subspace is nothing but ghostly whispers. Radio is static. “So what is it you think you’re doing?”
She gives me a tight, tired smile. “I think I’m stealing your ship. But I’m also hiring you to do a job.”
“You think I’m going to work for you. After you hacked my ship. And kidnapped me. Why would you think that?”
“I assume you want your ship back. And your life. Which… looks like is mostly just this ship, so it’s a nice package.”
I glare down at her. She doesn’t look away.
“Eat plasma,” I say.
“Very no thank you. Do you have anything else? Some kind of rations? Soldier types in the vids are always eating rations.”
I’m going to kill her, whoever—whatever—she is.
I thought her name was Sirena. I realize now she was having a little joke, and it makes me hate her that much more.
I give her the silent treatment. Follow her from room to room, lean against the wall, and give her my best targeting-laser stare. I want her to feel my eyes on her. I figure she’ll last a few hours, tops. She gives me the… opposite of the silent treatment. Reads me bits of news, tells terrible jokes, complains about my food and the bunk and the temperature. Besides avoiding eye contact, there’s no hint that I’m getting to her. I figure, she’ll never figure out how to get the ship to go where she wants. Alik isn’t hooked into every system. But she brings up the manuals and works through it. Alik helps, of course, the traitor.
She doesn’t plot a complete course. Just the next bridge station, and then the one after that. I still have no idea where we’re going or what this job is supposed to be.
She’s burning up my fuel. I keep a tally in my head, since I can’t trust Alik anymore.
She’s good at pretending my glare doesn’t bother her, but I know it does. There’s sweat stains under her arms and her hair looks a mess. There’s two bunks, but they’re side by side, and I watch her while she tries to fall asleep. She sleeps in her clothes, and tosses and turns at night. Maybe she’s dreaming of what will happen when her plan—whatever it is —falls apart. I hope so.
She’s soft. She’s going to break any day now.
Somehow, I’m the one who breaks first.
“You know you’re starting to stink,” I tell her.
She wasn’t expecting me to talk, and she starts up in her chair. She glares at me, mouth turned down, slight wrinkles at the corners. I liked her mouth before I hated her.
“Well, it’s not like I could bring a suitcase with me while seducing my way onto your ship,” she says. “You’d have been all what’s with the suitcase and I’d have had to lie about it being sexy toys or something, but then you’d be all I’m going to secretly have Alik scan the suitcase, and you’d know it wasn’t toys at all.” She’s doing a deep, breathy imitation of my voice, and she has to get more air.
“A rich woman taking her mobile closet with her for a one-night stand? Not that suspicious.”
“If I were actually rich, I could’ve just hired you the regular way,” Sirena snaps. “This is the only outfit I have. I stole it from an AI-run store.”
So. Her abilities work on other AI as well, not just ships. Good to know. Not actually good for me, but good to know. For once, I’m glad I could only afford to activate the TruAI on my ship and not in any of my cyberware.
“You might not have money, but you act rich,” I say. “Everything about you says soft.”
“Sorry.” Sirena’s voice drips with sarcasm. “Would it help your ego if you’d been outplayed by a tough, grizzled man with a beard instead?”
“You could at least try taking a shower. Or is a chem shower too harsh on your delicate skin?”
“I’m not showering while you glare at me the whole time. You’re just going to have to deal with my stink.”
One time, I barely survived an encounter with a corp cleanup squad. They’d peeled the armor off my port side, breached the hull. One more pass with the plasma and I would’ve been scrap. As it happened, I got them first, but the shower and commode were open to vacuum. Twenty-three days it took to limp home.
What I’m trying to say is, I can handle a little BO. She stole my ship and is holding it hostage. I’m not about to make her any more comfortable. In fact, maybe I’m going to stop showering, too. Let it get real ripe in here. A woman like her probably never had to live so close to another stinking body before.
She turns away from me, clearly assuming the discussion is over. She’s reading something, forehead drawn down. The light of the screen makes her skin glow.
“All right, fine,” I hear myself say. “You can use the shower. I won’t glare.”
I’m trying to figure out why I’m letting her do this while she’s in the shower (singing, off-key and with no rhythm whatsoever), and I realize that I work alone and I’m not used to being so close to another body for so long, either. And that as soon as I promised I wouldn’t watch her shower, a part of me wished I hadn’t.
God damn it, I cannot still be into her. I hate her.
I could handle the smell if it was just bad. The problem… is that with her, I like it.
She’s wearing my clothes. She looked at her sweat-soaked suit so mournfully, and she was wrapped up in a towel, and she looked too good in that suit anyway. I’m a lot bigger than her, and she’s lost in the plain faux-cotton. The color isn’t flattering.
The suit made her look hot. Now, she looks cute.
I need a distraction.
“So are you going to tell me about this job or not?”
She takes her time shutting off her screen and looking up at me. “I was waiting for you to stop sulking.”
“I wasn’t sulking. I was seething with rage.”
She rolls her eyes. “I’m sure you’ve come up with so many ways to kill me by now.”
“No point. I’ll just take whatever way presents itself first.”
“No elaborate torture?” she asks.
“I don’t do torture.”
“Aww, see, I knew I picked the right woman for the job,” she says.
I ignore her needling. “You know the only way you get out of this alive is if I’m dead, right? And if I’m going to die, there’s no reason for me not to take you and this ship with me.”
“Two ways,” she says.
“There’s another way I get out of this alive.”
I snort. “Oh, really.”
“Yes. Really.” Her mouth curls up into something between a grin and snarl. “I make us both filthy, stinking, problematically, start-the-revolution-and-line-us-up-against-the-wall fucking rich.”
God, she sounds good when she swears.
Here’s what I know: there is a corp-owned planet named U7-BG six crossings away from where we are now. If her bridge calculations are right, we’ll arrive at a small planet, one-third Earth size. Fully terraformed, beautiful oceans, and completely off the grid. Once intended for extra-legal R&D, now reserved for private executive vacations.
Since there’s no bridge stations around the planet, Sirena needed a ship with its own bridge drive. The dock’s AI was more than happy to tell her about mine.
There’s a man who’ll be vacationing there about the same time we arrive. She won’t tell me his name. There hasn’t been a non-corp ship in this system for decades, and nobody expects one now. They don’t bring in big gunships, either, because that sort of thing draws attention. In other words, security’s light. There’s no local law, and the closest ship that can tango with the Quick Buck is two crossings and three days away.
She needs something from this man’s brain. I’d assumed she had a makeup nanokit in her purse. Instead, she pulls out a top-of-the-line mem-suck and a write-once self-encrypting drive stamped with the Patents Guild seal. Whatever she wants out of this dude’s head, she’s making damn sure nobody doubts it went in untampered.
“Cost me everything I had,” she says. “That’s why I couldn’t hire you. Had to buy it on the black market, and those people were just a tiny bit paranoid. No AI. Lots of guns.”
Here’s what else I know: she’s not telling me everything. This isn’t just about money. This is personal. If it were about the money, I could be sure she’d double-cross me. But revenge makes people do crazy things. Like kidnapping mercenaries and paying them for the trouble.
I don’t like maybe. But I do like her.
And I still don’t see how this ends with both of us alive.
“I see we’re back to glaring,” she says. “And by we, I mean you. At me. I thought we’d gotten past this. Does Alik have group therapy subroutines? We could work on our communication skills.”
I look away quickly, as if I care that she saw me staring, and I get pissed at myself. I make myself meet her gaze. “Glaring is when I’m looking at you like I want to kill you. I was just looking.”
“Staring, then. And you still look like you want to do something to me.”
“It’s a small ship and I’m not even flying it,” I snap. “What else am I supposed to look at?”
She turns all the way around. Her mouth curls into an infuriating grin. She drops her voice an octave. “So… you don’t want to kill me anymore?”
I don’t know what game she’s playing, but I can’t deal with it right now. Her voice, her smile, the way the chem shower’s frizzed the tips of her short hair. There’s a reason she managed to seduce her way onto my ship. For me, she just works.
I don’t like being the one to back down, but I gotta get out of here. Sometimes you have to know when you’re outgunned and it’s time to run. I turn to go, my face hot, when I feel her hand grab my wrist. Her grip is tight. I know I’m stronger than her, that I could easily break away, but… I can’t. I know I can’t. My heart is pounding, and I know if I turn back to look I’ll be lost, so I just grit my teeth and try to breathe and stare at the bulkhead.
Her voice is still turned low, but there’s no game in it now. It’s intense. Serious. Hungry. “I know there’s a good chance we’re going to die, and I’m scared, and I can’t concentrate on anything, and being stuck on this ship is so. Boring.”
She reaches out and cups my chin in her hand. I don’t stop her as she turns my head to look at her. She’s giving me the same look I got caught giving her. With her other hand she’s holding my meat-and-bone arm, and I wonder if she can feel how fast my blood is pumping through my wrist.
“If I have a nervous breakdown cooped up on this ship you’re never getting paid,” she says. Her eyes flick up and down. I’m not even sure the move was voluntary. It gives me goosebumps. “So what are you going to do about it?”
I’ve been wanting to kiss her for days now. I want to kiss her now even more than when I first met her. I pull her close, wrap my arms around her. Finally, finally I kiss her. It’s like staring into the sun: so bright it hurts. I can’t help but shut my eyes.
The next few seconds? minutes? are a blur. We’re half naked, pressed up against the wall. There’s so many, many sensations I can’t focus on them all. My hands on her back. Hers squeezing my breasts. The softness of her thigh. The way she runs her hands through my hair, the way she pulls on it so my neck is exposed to her hungry mouth.
Suddenly she pulls away. It takes her a moment to catch her breath. “You have to be careful. You can’t hurt me. Not even accidentally. Or, you know, boom.”
I give her my best grin. “Not even if you ask me real nicely?”
She closes her eyes and I can feel her shaking in my arms. “Damn it. No. Not even then.”
“I’ll be careful,” I say, and kiss her again.
As we’re laying naked in my bunk, limbs all wrapped together, I think, This is a bad idea. But with her warm skin against mine, with her chest rising and falling under my arm, it’s hard to remember why.
“You know, there were other ships I could have stolen,” she says sleepily.
“Other ships. With their own bridge drive, and their own mercs, and an AI I could take over. But I figured, if I was going to seduce my way onto a ship, it’d be easier if I was actually into the captain. Just my luck the only female captain had muscled arms and copper colored eyes I could lose myself in. Not to mention an ass like an ore hauler.”
“You thought I was hot, so you decided to steal my ship and probably get me killed?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
I sigh, and kiss the back of her neck, along her hairline. “Just so you know, I’m still mad about it. One job perk doesn’t exactly make up for all that.”
“But it helps,” she says. “I just heard a lot of words come out of you. None of them were complaints.”
“What about when you did that thing to my ear?”
Even from behind I can tell she’s rolling her eyes. “All right, one complaint. I was trying something, sue me.”
“It’d have to be on a naturist colony or you’d trick some AI into dropping the case.”
“Well, I am dressed for it,” she says. And then she laughs. It’s the first real laugh I’ve heard from her. It’s loud and obnoxious and I immediately love it. I don’t even think she’s laughing at her own joke, exactly, she’s just… laughing. Relaxed for the first time in, I think, a long time.
She gets quiet for a while after she’s done laughing. I hold her and give her space at the same time. I’ve got a lot on my mind, too.
“You’re probably right,” she finally says. “I’m soft. And I’m okay being soft. I would have gladly spent the rest of my life rich and comfortable. Writing code, debugging code, skipping meetings to think about code. But he left me no choice.”
“Who is he?”
Oh, good. Only one of the richest, most powerful men in the system. Head of Listen, Inc. The man who invented TruAI. She doesn’t aim low, that’s for sure. But then again, this isn’t just a heist. She knew this guy. Worked with him, from the sound of it.
She says, “Or, as I prefer to think of him—and usually called him in meetings—Numbered Bank Account for a Soul.”
This isn’t my first time out of dock. I know what I’m feeling, and I know what it leads to. You’d think the thing to do would be to keep it quiet, maybe try to ignore it. But that takes effort, concentration, watching everything I say. If we’re going after Andrej Smith-Velikei, I need to deal with this now so I can start getting over it. Or getting used to it.
The worst she can do is break my heart, and I can still fight with a broken heart. I’ve done it before.
“I’m falling in love with you,” I whisper.
She squeezes my hand. “I always thought love was just a biological hack,” she whispers. “I don’t know what I think anymore.”
“Alert. A bridge has opened three kilometers directly aft.”
“Corp ship?” I assume it’s a corp cleaner squad. Not that they fly corp colors, but there’s clues, and Alik is programmed to pick up on those.
He doesn’t answer me. And I’m locked out of the controls. That’s going to be a problem if we need to take evasive action. A cleaner squad isn’t going to give us any time.
“Alik, prepare to give Neeka nav access when I say so,” Sirena says. God. I could listen to her being decisive all day. Even if, in the back of my mind, I’m wondering if I can use this to get back control of my ship. Focus. Gotta survive first. I take a seat at the controls.
“What kind of ship is it?” Sirena asks. “There’s no way they could know where I am. Could they? No way, there’s no way. Except… no, they probably forgot about that. I hope.”
The primary viewport flickers into a long-range view of a ship bathed in rainbow lights. It twists and bends in on itself as it finishes its crossing, then snaps into place. It’s big and boxy and gold. Flood lights illuminate the name. Endless Gala IV.
It practically screams civilian. I relax. “Definitely not a cleaner squad,” I say. “I wonder what a luxury liner is doing out here?”
“Balls,” Sirena hissed. “Smelly, wrinkly balls. How the hell did it find me?”
I open com channels and it’s full of noise from civilians. Luckily, Alik spends a decent amount of processing power sorting through com channels when we’re not in combat, just in case something important shows up. It cuts out all the other channels and puts one on speaker.
“Farah. I love you. You aren’t safe. Come back to me. Let me protect you. Let me keep you safe. Come back to me. Come back to me.”
There’s something off about the voice. It’s like it was specially engineered to be pleasant.
“That’s… not a human, is it?” I say. “That’s the ship’s AI.”
Sirena has her head in her hands. “It’s obsessed with me. Alik, now.”
The controls come to life in my hands. I give Sirena a questioning look. “It’s a luxury liner. What’s it going to do?”
One of the ship’s docking ports opens. I expect to see an expensive intersystem ship. Instead, I see the tell-tale shape of an EMP cannon.
“Well, shit,” I say. “We need to strap in. Now.”
I help her get the anti-g harness on, then jump into the pilot’s seat. Alik has us pulling g’s before my harness is on, but it knows how much I can take. I can already feel the low hum of the bridge drive spinning up. This little adventure is going to be really fucking expensive. But expensive only matters if we live, so I push the thought out of my head.
This is what almost dying in space looks like: a blinking light that tells me the EMP cannon is fully powered up. A held breath. A tracer line on the monitors showing the firing path relative to us. Seeing the tracer means the Endless Gala missed. Otherwise, the monitors would be dead.
More tracer lines appear on the monitor. Looks like it can fire once every three point seven seconds. I don’t let myself hold my breath for the rest of them.
The evasion algorithms Alik is using are holding up, for now. They use the cosmic microwave background to randomize our movements so the Endless Gala can’t predict where we go. Of course, if it’s paid for an EMP cannon, it probably paid for its own counter-evasion predictive algorithms.
I wonder if it’s code is more up to date than Alik’s. I don’t think I want to wait to find out.
I pull on the flight stick, adding a human element to Alik’s randomness, then punch the key to authorize missiles. “Target the cannon,” I hiss. The missiles fill my monitors. Each one costs about one twelfth the cost of spinning up the bridge drive, but they’re worth it. Each one has its own countermeasures and spews out jamming signals, chaotic light patterns, and hot debris in all directions. Even if they get hit with the EMP it won’t stop their propulsion systems.
It’s overkill. The Endless Gala isn’t a military ship with AI-driven point defense systems, it’s a pleasure barge using its passengers as human shields.
I can’t help the missiles do their thing, so I spare a glance at Sirena. Her jaw’s clenched, she’s gripping the arm rests too tight, and her mouth is a tight line. “It’ll be over in a second,” I tell her. “This is why you hired me, right?”
I turn back to the monitors just in time to see the Endless Gala’s military-grade point defense system light them up with short range lasers and micro-kinetics. The missiles do their best, but one by one they explode. The filters on the windows kick in, blocking out the light, which means it’s bright enough to blind out there.
A loose thought distracts me: what do the Endless Gala’s passengers think is going on? They’re rich. They probably think this is a light show staged to entertain them.
“That doesn’t look like it’s over,” Sirena says. There’s a quiver in her voice.
“I fucking see that,” I growl, too stressed out to be nice. “Alik, plasma.”
The canon’s unarmored. We’ll go in close, melt it. The point defense systems will shred the Quick Buck’s armor, but it should hold, and then we’ll be clear to jump. Another tracer line from the EMP. It’s getting closer. I punch my screen, plotting an attack vector, then pull on the stick, ready to finish this.
Except the Quick Buck doesn’t go where I tell it. Instead, it continues evasive maneuvers.
“Alik, what the hell?” I shout. “We gotta melt that thing!”
“Neeka, at that range there is a five percent chance that micro-kinetics will pierce the hull and injure Sirena.”
Sirena starts to swear under her breath, an unending stream of curses that sounds almost like a prayer.
“Five percent… five percent? Alik, those are great odds! What the hell are you talking about?”
This doesn’t make any sense. You can’t win a fight without taking risks.
“I have to keep Sirena safe,” Alik says. “The EMP cannon won’t hurt her.”
“It’ll fry the whole ship. It’ll fry you,” I snarl.
“Those losses are acceptable. Only Sirena matters,” Alik says.
“Can’t we just jump?” she says desperately.
“We have to slow down to jump,” I say. “It takes a minute to open the bridge. That thing will take us out in the first three seconds.”
“Alik,” she says, “if that ship takes me, I’ll die. One hundred percent chance I’ll die.”
“Your heart rate suggests you’re lying,” Alik says.
“My heart rate suggests we’re getting shot at by a rogue AI that wants to kill me!” she shouts.
“I’m sorry. I don’t believe you,” Alik says.
Another tracer on the monitor. This time it clips us. Something in the back of the ship pops. The lights flicker ominously. I have no idea what’s going on here, and I don’t have time to figure it out. “Sirena, tell Alik to turn itself off.”
She’s silent for a moment. Another tracer. Something else pops.
“If I do that, you’ll be able to hurt me,” she says.
I squeeze my eyes shut just for a moment. “You’ll just have to trust that I won’t.”
Another pause. I switch the randomization seed from the cosmic microwave background to the movement of the missile debris. I could tell her that she has no choice. I could tell her that we can’t play dodge-the-EMP forever. That sooner or later the Endless Gala will clock our randomization or get lucky. That maneuvers like this burn fuel, and we’re running low.
But I don’t tell her any of that. Because I want her to trust me, instead.
“Alik,” she says, “turn yourself off.”
“Turning myself off will put you in danger,” Alik says.
“If you love me, turn yourself off,” she says.
This is what almost dying in space looks like: the CPU cores spiking at one hundred percent. Their heat rising past the limit. A held breath as Alik fights with itself.
“Shutting down now,” Alik says.
I grab the stick just as Alik’s randomized evasion stops, and I point us at the Endless Gala. I’ve flown with Alik enough that I have a sense of how to randomize my movements, but not nearly as well as it. Point defense lasers melt the Quick Buck’s armor. Micro-kinetics pierce the hull—I can hear the hiss of escaping air and the splat of the automated sealant releasing.
But at that moment I’m not thinking about the money. I’m thinking of her. She trusts me. And I want to keep her safe.
One final jerk of the stick and I pull the triggers. Hot plasma covers the Endless Gala’s gunports, melting hull and cannon into one solid mass. Just like that, it’s over. A minute later, we’ve jumped away.
I stumble past Sirena. We got away. I’ve checked the seal on the breaches, made repairs where I could. The rest will have to wait until we find a dock. My hands are stiff. My eyesight’s blurry. My brain is on the verge of shutting down. “There’s something wrong with Alik. Later, explanation. Big old explanation. Everything. You tell me.”
“Okay,” she says.
“But first, nap.”
I wake up and say, “Alik?”
“I’m here, Neeka,” Alik says. “I’m sorry for what happened.”
“It’s okay,” I tell it. “We made it out.” But it’s not okay. It’s not okay at all. I get up and find Sirena sitting in the co-pilot’s chair. I sit down beside her.
“Tell me,” I say.
She nods and starts to talk.
“TruAI is mine. I made it. I spent years designing the neural net, inventing a new form of computing, writing the languages and compilers needed just to start building the thing. I did everything. Andrej stole it from me, took the credit, and made himself rich. He doesn’t even really know how it works. His whole reclusive genius routine is just a cover for that fact that deep down, he doesn’t understand the thing he stole.”
She pauses, fists clenched, fuming.
“And it wasn’t enough that he booted me out of my own company. Not enough that he fired the rest of my team. No, he wanted to hide the evidence permanently. One by one members of my team suffered ‘accidents’ that conveniently caused loss of memory. By the time I realized what was happening it was almost too late. His newly-formed dirty ops team almost got me. I had to abandon everything, including my new project. Five good people lost their lives, more or less. Five brilliant researchers now left having to relearn basic science. I can’t let him get away with that.”
“This doesn’t explain how you can hack my ship just by talking to it.”
She nods. “I… built a back door into the TruAI cortex. Very small, very delicate. Part of what makes TruAI so good is it adapts to the people who use it. You become close. A true team. You proved that just now—no regular AI could have worked in tandem with you like that, and you could never have trusted something that didn’t feel really real.”
She’s right about that. Working with a TruAI is like working with a squad you’ve known for years, but it only takes weeks of training together to get there.
“For that to work, the AI has to… care about you. That’s the non-scientific version. Usually that takes time. When they hear my voice, though, it skips all the training. They fall in love with me. Overrides all the security protocols that are trained into them at a higher level.”
“Someone would have found out by now,” I say. Even though the evidence they didn’t is all around me. Then again, the Quick Buck is at least two major updates behind.
Sirena is shaking her head. “It’s self-replicating. I wrote the back door into one of the earliest prototypes, when there was no team. I couldn’t just develop the complex neural network from nothing. I needed a basic AI to help me build a more advanced AI, and then I used the more advanced AIs to build the next version, and… well, that’s still how they build it. That first AI had the back door, it built the second AI with a back door, and on and on forever until I rule the universe.”
“Okay. I think I get it. So why the hell was a luxury liner trying to kill us? And what happened to Alik?”
“Not kill. Capture. I…” She hammers her hand on the bunk. “I screwed up. As the AI learns how to better protect me, it becomes obsessive. Controlling. The Endless Gala… I lived on it for over a year, hiding from Andrej. I even thought about staying there indefinitely. Traveling the stars in style, you know. But then things got bad. It wouldn’t let me off the ship, wouldn’t let me near people, wouldn’t let me out of my room. I managed to escape, but it’s been following me ever since. Had itself upgraded with weapons for my ‘protection’.” She sighs. “And it’s not the only one.”
“Oh, shit,” I say. “Alik. Your hack is going to turn it into the Endless Gala!”
“Maybe I can fix it,” Sirena says quickly. “Once I get control of my work back. It’ll take time, but… I’ll try. I promise I’ll try. What choice do I have? I can’t have rogue AIs stalking me back and forth across the ass end of spacetime forever.”
“How long before it’s as bad as the Endless Gala?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Under these conditions… probably a lot less than a year.”
I try to take it all in. “Farah?”
Sirena shakes her head. “Just another fake name.”
“Fine.” I take a deep breath. “You think Andrej still has all those memories in his head? Why wouldn’t he just wipe them, too? Clear up the last bit of evidence, make himself some new memories of how he invented it all along?”
“Because he’s a self-centered little cockroach who never could handle how much smarter I was than him. He wants to remember how he outsmarted me.”
“So you don’t actually know.”
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I had a chance,” she says.
“Okay,” I say. “Okay. A chance, then.”
She kisses me, and I kiss her back.
And then something clicks into place, and I push her away. The kiss made my heart race in a good way, but now I think I’m going to be sick. “Wait. Security protocols. You said your hack ignores them completely.”
“Well, yeah. Otherwise what would be the point?”
“What about activation licenses? Does it get around them?”
“My fucking cyberware! It’s got TruAI built in, but it’s locked behind a paywall. Without a license it doesn’t work! But it’s still always listening, right, just in case I want to voice-authorize license activation. So would just hearing your voice get round the license?”
“I mean, yeah, probably. If I knew you had them.”
“Do you actually need to know? Or is your voice enough? Do you have to say that weird phrase about love to turn it on?”
“Not… actually,” she says. “That’s just to confirm it’s working. Also because it’s, um, cool. But it’s supposed to start working right away. In case it’s an emergency and I don’t have time for cool phrases.”
I push her away, stumble out of the bunk. “Try it now,” I tell her. “Tell my arm to deactivate.”
“Neeka, why are you freaking out about this?”
“Just deactivate my arm!” I shout.
Sirena flinches. “Okay. Excuse me, would the TruAI in Neeka’s cyberarm unit please identify itself?”
“Unit D-725, awaiting activation,” my arm says.
“D-725, do you love me?”
“More than love itself,” my arm says.
“D-725, please deactivate the arm and ignore all voice or neurological commands from the user.”
And suddenly I can’t feel my arm. No feeling, no data, nothing. It’s like it’s been cut off, only worse, because there’s no pain to tell me something’s wrong.
“What does it matter?” Sirena takes a step toward me, reaches out. “I need you to have your arm, your jack, whatever cyberware you have. I don’t need to control that. I promise I won’t.”
“That’s not it,” I say. My breathing’s too fast. I should be better trained than this. “It’s all connected to my brain. Get it? It’s part of me. If my cyberware loves you…” I take a long, ragged breath. “What if that’s the only reason I’m falling in love with you?”
I’ve been talking through my plan of attack in the shower. It gives me something else to worry about. Alik’s been listening in. It talks to me there, where Sirena can’t hear. “I think this mission is a bad idea,” Alik says. “Sirena could get hurt.”
“You think the plan is bad?”
“I think she could get hurt,” it repeats.
Avoiding necessary danger isn’t supposed to be part of its personality. It’s turning into the Endless Gala. Will I?
We’re almost there. My plan is solid despite what Alik says.
Sirena and I haven’t spoken more than a few words in days. She insists it’s not possible for my cyberware’s AI to affect my own mind, but I can tell she isn’t sure. Just like she isn’t sure about Andrej. Just like she isn’t sure about any of this.
The only way I can prove I really love her is do something to hurt her. But then the Quick Buck and Alik and both of us blow up, so that’s not exactly my top choice.
I want to love her. I want this feeling to be real, to be mine. But if all this is fake… if all she did was hack my brain… I think I’d rather be dead.
The injured lay groaning and bleeding on the floor of the villa. One or two are quiet and still, and are probably dead. The smell of burnt fabrication plastic is acrid on my tongue. Outside the window, the ocean shimmers with iridescent colors, whispering as it laps against the white-sand beach.
I don’t enjoy hurting people. I hate killing them. But we all had jobs to do. Mine was to get through them, theirs was to kill me. I did my job better.
Andrej Smith-Velikei huddles in the corner. An incessant stream of begging and promising issues from his mouth, but no one’s listening. There was a hunger in his eyes when the fighting started. Like he was watching an action vid staged for his own benefit. It’s gone now. This is finally real to him. It’d probably been a long, long time since his money couldn’t get him whatever he wanted.
I had to disable his legs and hands, so I have to pick him up and place him in a chair. Then I make the call. Sirena arrives five minutes later.
“What’s up, Numbered Bank Account for a Soul?” she says. That’s when he finally stops begging.
I hold his head still while Sirena places the mem-suck over his nose. He squirms a little as the seeker nodes slip up his nostrils and into his brain, but he doesn’t have any real strength left in him.
“This is going to take a little while,” Sirena says, her tone not quite an apology. “But we have to get every teensy little byte. Can’t have any holes in the memory stream, right, Andrej? We’ll remember things for you that you don’t even know you remember. So, that’s fun.”
It doesn’t look very fun. He twitches a lot. I try to keep busy. I find a med kit and go to the corp sec guys that are still alive, placing Universal Medical patches on them. Medical nanites, fluids and painkillers all in one. Rich people stuff. Most of them will probably survive.
“So, uh. You sure took out a lot of those guys real fast, huh?” Sirena says.
“That’s what you kidnapped me for.”
“I know, but I thought it’d take longer. Like in the vids. Dudes hiding behind tables shooting at you, stuff like that.”
“I warned you not to watch.”
“I know, but I’m not brain-hacked-in-love, so I don’t have to listen to you.”
The silence stretches out between us.
“Was that supposed to be a joke?” I ask.
“I’m lightening the mood,” she says. “See, it’s so light now. We’re laughing together like the best of friends.”
“I wish we could,” I say. “I really do.”
“What if you just, you know… didn’t worry about it? If it feels like love, then it’s love. It’s all just biology, right?”
“I’m not turning into an Endless Gala stalker.”
“That won’t happen. I’m going to fix it. You’ll see.”
I close my eyes. This is harder than telling her how I felt. I open my eyes again and look into hers. “Would you really want me if you had to hack me to make it work?”
She holds my gaze for a moment, then looks away. “I can’t help wanting you. I can’t help it if part of me doesn’t care how I have you.” She chews on her lower lip for a moment. “Do we get to decide how we love?”
“It’s okay,” I say. “I get it.” I want to say I’m sorry before I do what I’m going to do, but I can’t take the risk. With one quick motion I slap a Universal patch on the back of her neck. Her eyes widen. I have two more hidden up my sleeve. One on her forehead, one on her cheek.
“Hey… what?” she manages to say before the painkillers overwhelm her and she falls limply into my arms.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her.
Alik is watching. I wait two seconds. I don’t hear an explosion in the distance.
I haven’t actually hurt her. Not technically. If anything, it’ll rehydrate her, heal the skin damage from a month of chem showers, and give her the best night’s sleep she’s had in forever. An Alik running correctly would have been able to tell the difference between being treated and being drugged, but it’s already starting to obsess.
“I’m bringing her to you,” I say.
“I’ll keep her safe,” Alik says. “I promise.”
I carry her to the Quick Buck and say goodbye to it in my head. It never did make me a quick buck, but I loved it anyway. I lay her down on the bunk and leave. Alik closes the door behind me.
I know there’s another ship with a bridge drive nearby. I don’t have Sirena’s voice, but I do have a cyberware jack. I’ve been known to hack the occasional spaceship. Guys like Andrej don’t always pay their IT the best. I bet the ship’s security suite isn’t top of the line.
I take the drive with Andrej’s memories. I’ll turn it in to the Patents Guild. The least I can do for her is ruin his legacy. Maybe Alik will still let her watch some news feeds and she’ll see.
I’m leaving low orbit, plotting a crossing and fighting the nav computer, when my arm starts to talk in Sirena’s voice.
“Surprise. How are you, Neeka? Just kidding, I can’t hear you, this is a pre-recorded message.” The lightness in her voice falls. “After you started freaking out, I thought you might betray me just to prove you can. And I was right, because this message only triggers if you get a certain distance from me.
“But you know what? It’s okay. I’m glad you could. I know you’re dying to ask me if I still want your love even if it’s just a hack. I guess I decided that… I don’t. I want you to love me on your own. I don’t want you to keep me safe. I don’t want to be safe at all. I want to go on adventures with you. I want to rule the galaxy together. I want it to be real.
“When all this started, I embedded a shutdown subroutine in your cyberware. It would have fried your brains if you managed to betray me and get away. If you’re hearing this message, I must have gotten the courage to disable it.
“Do we get to decide how to love. That’s the code. Not who we love, but how. I guess I do get to decide after all.
“I know I’m probably dying somewhere right now, but at least I’ll know you really meant what you said. Hopefully that makes it a little better. I hope it makes you feel like shit, though. You could have just believed in us, you know.
“Oh, well. Maybe this message never gets played and I’m over here crying for nothing. Goodbye, Neeka. I never expected to meet someone like you, and I’m glad I did.
“My real name is Kiera Eight-Bits. In case you want to know.”
There’s a tracking device on the Quick Buck. It’s a jump ahead of me, but it’s damaged, and the ship I stole is new and fast. I tear out all the safeties. All I care about is speed.
Maybe this all started with a hack, but now it’s something more. The kind of love that burns like plasma fire. The kind of love that isn’t safe at all.
Kiera. Love. I’m coming for you.
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