You’re reading a story in the Astra Nullius series. Not sure where to begin? Check the episode index, start with the first story, or check out the people and places so you can jump in anywhere.
The bar was cheaply built and beginning to show its age. Every single chair wobbled in the exact same way, and every cup had a divot where the plastic hadn’t printed right. There must have been some glitch with the file the proprietors fed into the printer.
But there was one thing on which the builders had spared no expense. A crystalline window arched up over the patrons. Nearly the entirety of it was filled by the gas giant that this moon orbited. Blue-green clouds swirled across its surface and eddied in storms bigger than most planets Nyx had set foot on. Just now a smaller moon was passing by the window, its pale grey surface sliding across the brilliant expanse of its planet. The spectacle was almost worth paying double for a vodka soda that tasted more like algae than alcohol.
When Sera described the job, Nyx had imagined meeting a greaseball in some low-lit back room. But the woman who called herself Ms. Durant was the picture of propriety, sitting straight-backed in her teetering plastic chair and sipping water. She must have been closing in on fifty, but she had clearly made use of the best cosmetic surgeons, and she had the kind of polish that caught the eye: shining but neutral nails, an off-white sheath dress, her hair in a deceptively simple updo that must have taken a good half hour of work. Even her skin had a glossy smoothness to it, along with a glow that suggested that she’d spent some time recently in the unfiltered light of a real star.
“Seems simple enough,” Sera was saying. “Find the stolen bot, bring it back. But you’re offering way too much money for a simple job, so what’s the catch?”
Durant turned her cup of water around in her hands and stared into it for a moment. Nyx stared too. She was wearing tastefully understated makeup, just enough to let you know she’d spent time and money on it. There were no lipstick stains on the glass, not so much as a hint of feathering at the edge of her lips. Durant said, “Mr. Aiken was one of my best programmers before he quit without notice. Three weeks after he left the office, his favorite model walked off. He must have programmed it to follow him. I don’t know whether he modified its code before he left, or whether he’s built himself a backdoor so that he can access my system at any time. So I am willing to pay a high price to retrieve my property, even if he has since damaged its personality past repair, in order to see how he accessed its system. And I’ll need the whole thing back, not just the head. The hardware is extremely valuable.”
“Fair enough,” said Sera. “Got any leads on where this thing went?”
Durant pulled a translucent data chip out of her clutch and set it down on the tabletop. “This contains a program that will track any time the bot connects to an unsecured network and a full digital mock-up of its last known physical appearance. I suspect he hasn’t gone far–only to the next moon over. He has family there, and I know the address.”
“Right,” Nyx said. “Well, the money’s good enough. We’ll take the job.”
She held out her hand. Durant took it. Her handshake was only the faintest suggestion of pressure, and her palm was dry.
“One last thing,” Durant said. “Mr. Aiken lives in a community with controlled access. You will need legitimate subcutaneous identification chips to access it. The outpost has no formal allegiance to a government, but most of its residents strongly support human-centric policies. Will that be a problem for your crew?” Her eyes flickered briefly around the table.
Nyx looked at her crew. Jianyu sighed, crossed his arms over his massive chest, and looked up at the planet above them. Xrrt, whose emotions were expressed primarily through pheromonal emissions, was a little harder to read.
“I won’t take the job if it makes you uncomfortable,” said Nyx.
“It’s okay,” said Jianyu. “I’ll wait in the ship.”
“Call me if you run into trouble,” Xrrt said. “I’ll find a way to get to you.”
Nyx had no doubt that she would. Xrrt’s claws could tear through flesh and bone, and her acid could melt steel. Inconveniences like security guards and solid walls weren’t much of a challenge. “Thanks, but I think we can handle one programmer,” she said. She patted Xrrt’s carapace and shot Jianyu a sympathetic look.
“I don’t have an ID chip,” said Weyland.
“Two people should be sufficient,” said Durant. “Mr. Aiken is unlikely to put up much resistance.”
“We’ll take the job, then,” said Nyx.
After Durant left, Nyx ordered another round of drinks for the crew on her own tab. “So, are the ID chips going to be a problem for you, Sera?”
Sera, who rolled up her sleeves. Where her forearms weren’t threaded with old burn scars, there was a sprinkling vertical brown lines: old incision sites, healed over but not erased with cosmetic lasering. “Many of my identities are legitimate,” she said.
Xrrt clicked her mandibles together, and after a moment’s delay, her translator turned the sound into English. “Durant doesn’t look like the rest of you,” she said. Night was sweeping across the planet above them now, a sharp line of darkness creeping across the swirling surface. Xrrt’s compound eyes glittered in what remained of the light.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” said Nyx, setting her cup down. She glanced over at the water glass Durant had abandoned. On the side that she had tipped up to drink from, droplets of water were beaded, although most of the water was still in the glass. There was no mark where her mouth had been, no smudge on the plastic where she had cupped it in her cool fingers.
It would only be short hop from one moon to another, just a few hours from one dock to the next. Sera looked over at Jianyu. “I’ll fly this one manually. Take a break.”
Jianyu already had the plug that went into his neural port in his hand. “I’ll be fine,” he said. His skin had taken on an unhealthy greyish pallor under the green.
“We’re not even coming close to light speed,” Sera reminded him.
“You might need the weapons systems–”
“Navigator, you’re not needed on the bridge,” Captain Dysart said, in a tone that didn’t invite argument. “Take a nap. That’s an order.”
Jianyu sighed, but left his seat. Sera didn’t understand exactly what was happening in his brain, but she knew the signs of a navigator on the brink of burnout. The human brain could calculate routes through time and space in ways that no computer could match, but too much of that kind of work always took its toll.
The bridge emptied as the captain and Xrrt shut down their stations and strolled off side by side. Sera stayed at her station, glancing now and then at the numbers on the readout, making course corrections so the ship didn’t drift too far from the planet or slip into its gravity well. She kept the ship oriented so that the gas giant loomed above it, an expanse of stormy blue sweeping up to the edge of the window.
Weyland remained on the bridge, balancing awkwardly on his crutches. The cast he’d printed for himself was a bulky white mesh beneath a rolled-up pant leg. “Hey Sera,” he said, “do I need an ID chip?”
And that was the mystery of Weyland in a nutshell. When they’d first picked up the quiet doctor, Sera had assumed that he was on the run from something. That was well within her sphere of understanding. But then there was the time he’d asked her whether cows were real. And she’d walked in on him looking up a step-by-step guide on how to eat soup.
“I can hook you up with one,” Sera said. “It’s useful if you’re spending time in human or Falacerian space. The Eridani used to use them, but they’re moving over to a new system. I don’t know how much longer they’re going to matter, anyway.” Members of Coalition species had always had the right to travel through the space they shared, and most other species had been able to petition for the same rights without too much trouble. ID chips had been first and foremost a convenience, a handy way of keeping citizens from falling through the cracks in a civilization that numbered in the hundreds of billions.
Weyland didn’t respond, but he did shift to a more comfortable position on his crutches. “The thing we’re retrieving, it’s a robot, right?”
“Yeah. Pretty much just a metal skeleton, a silicone body, and a processing core running a set of canned responses. They’re not complicated machines.”
“Not something you’d mistake for a real human, right?” he asked.
“People see what they want to see,” They were drifting ever so slightly off course, away from the planet and out into deep space. Sera keyed in a course correction. She must have overestimated the pull of the gas giant.
“Did you notice Durant’s pupils?” Weyland asked.
“Can’t say that I did,” Sera said. “Were they doing something weird?”
“It’s more what they weren’t doing.” Weyland shifted on his crutches again. “It’s probably nothing. I need to check on Jianyu.”
“You do that,” Sera said, turning back to her work.
Their destination was more upscale than the other moon. Sera could guess the average resident’s income before the Benevolence had even docked. The lines of the ships at this port were sleek, their designed unmarred by the wide barrel of a cargo hold. When people travelled to this moon, they did so in style, and the unsightly freight ships were shunted to a less convenient port. She had to spend ten minutes arguing over the com system with a bureaucrat just to get permission to land.
Even the air inside the port smelled different. There was something floral and only faintly chemical added in the scrubbing process. Every surface that wasn’t painted white was gleaming glass or cold, shining chrome. Something nagged at Sera about the space. The ceiling was oppressively low, and the chairs scattered around the lounge area just behind the ID scanning station were too small and uniform.
Everything was built for humans, and everyone in the room was human, or at least passing as human. She’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be in a place where nobody was green or insectoid or eight feet tall.
The captain’s mouth was compressed into a thin line. She must have noticed the same thing. Sera had left her guns back on the ship, but she kept finding her hand drifting to her empty hip where a holster ought to be. The captain tugged on her own blouse, pulling at the hem. She’d traded her purple uniform for something less conspicuous.
Sera kept her sleeves down over her forearm as she pressed it to the ID chip scanner. Today’s identity was one of her cleaner ones: Maria Cardullo, age 27, a mechanic from a mining outpost on Mercury. The guards were giving them strange looks. Sera regretted not throwing on something nicer than her customary utility vest. She didn’t care much for the subtleties of clothing and design, but she knew enough to spot a rich mark. Everything about this place screamed money.
It was a strange place to hide a sexbot. Bots weren’t illegal, but they were low-rent. She said as much to the captain, who said, “Who cares what these people think is classy?”
“Not me,” said Sera. “Let’s get the job done and go.”
The address Durant had sent them was in a neighborhood that would have been impossibly luxurious on most space stations Sera had ever set foot in. Here, she guessed it might be upper-middle class. The public walkways were wide and lined a margin of green plants. On her way past a tree, Sera reached out and snagged a leaf. It snapped off easily in her hand. The surface was a dark glossy green, slightly waxy to the touch. She wasn’t sure if that meant it was real or fake.
An old lady stepped out of her apartment and stood watching them, one hand on the doorway, ready to jump back inside. Further up the street, a security guard was turning their way. Sera pulled a screwdriver out of one of her vest pockets and pointed at the door with it. “Station maintenance. Is this 2283B?” she asked the old lady.
The woman said, “Are you here to fix that squeaky door?”
“Of course,” said Sera. “Just got the call today.”
The woman sniffed. “I put in a ticket months ago. Months. You tell that to your supervisor. I’m not pleased.”
“Well,” said Sera, keeping her voice at a bored drawl, “tickets are processed in the order they’re received.”
“Hmm,” said the woman. “I’d almost believe that, but 2285A got its lights fixed in just a couple of days. Your supervisor will be hearing from me.”
“Tickets are processed–” Sera began again, but she was already disappearing through her own doorway, and the security guard was passing without even bothering to turn his head.
“Lucky break,” Sera muttered, looking at the keycode access panel. A few twists of the screwdriver and it popped right off. “Even luckier break. A kid could bypass this security system.”
She yanked a wire out of place, and a mechanism inside the door clicked. Sera nudged it open with her foot. The room inside was dark. She stepped through quickly and motioned for the captain to do the same.
The air was thick with a cinnamon perfume that clashed with the floral undertones outside. Rich people paid a lot of money to make sure their recycled air didn’t smell like it had come out of someone else’s lungs.
They walked through an entryway and a kitchen. Beyond was a hallway with more doors, probably bedrooms and bathrooms. None of them had external locks; another thing rich people didn’t have to worry about was hiding their stuff from their own families. Music was coming faintly through one door, a low repetitive thump of bass. The rest were silent. They checked the unoccupied rooms one by one, and came up with nothing.
“He’s got to be in there,” the captain said, keeping her voice low. “I don’t know if he’s expecting us. This could get messy.”
“I wouldn’t mind making a little mess,” said Sera.
Sera kicked open the door and they shoved through together. The room was cluttered with clothes and small electronics on every surface, even underfoot. The music was a cacophony of indistinguishable lyrics and an unsteady beat. In the middle of the room there was a chair, and in that chair a woman was bound with her ankles taped to the front legs and her wrists on the arms. She was wearing a thin white slip, which bunched up over her thighs, and nothing else. A man was bending over her, his fingers on her chin, but when they burst in he stumbled back and covered his head with his hands.
The woman’s head rolled forward and a curtain of glossy dark hair fell over her face. The man’s lips were moving, but if he was saying something, it wasn’t audible over the noise.
“Turn it off!” Sera yelled, and when the man couldn’t hear her either, she yanked on one of the cables that snaked across the floor. A loop of it lay coiled in the woman’s lap. The noise continued, but the woman twitched a little. Nyx looked around, found the sound system, and killed the music.
“Oh no,” said the man. He sidled towards the cable, then cringed back again when Sera took a swipe at him with her screwdriver. “You’ve got to help me. I have to plug her back in. She’s rebooting.”
The woman raised her head. She was beautiful, her lips full and dark, her small nose sprinkled with dark brown freckles. Her skin was a rich golden brown, with the kind of glow you could only get under a real star’s light.
Her eyes glowed blue, then faded to green. She looked from side to side slowly, considering her bound wrists, then stood up. The chair splintered around her. She jerked her arms apart, and the cellulose pressboard separated with a series of cracks.
“So now we know we’re in the right place,” Sera said, motioning with her screwdriver. “That guy’s got to be Aiken.”
The woman lunged so fast that Nyx couldn’t track it. One moment she was still looking around the room, taking stock of her situation; the next Sera was flat on her back, the screwdriver lost in the clutter, and the woman–the robot–was crouching over her, one fist raised, the jagged remains of the chair’s arm a sharp spar bound to her wrist.
“I have to wipe her,” the man said, stepping forward. “I can restore from the previous personality backup–”
The robot turned, her arm swinging in a blur of speed, and backhanded him. He flew across the room, slammed into his own bed, and doubled over with a whimper. Sera was breathing raggedly too, trying to push the robot off her. She might as well have tried to topple a wall.
“Easy, now.” Nyx put her hands out in front of her, palms up. The robot turned to her, its brilliant eyes narrowed. Did they really make sex toys that could act afraid? Nyx wasn’t usually one to judge, but the thought made her queasy. “We’re not here to hurt you.”
“That man, he wants to… delete me,” said the robot. Her knee was on Sera’s chest, pressing down.
“It’s Durant’s code,” said Aiken. “I have to get rid of it. It’s messing up the entire personality algorithm.”
Sera slapped her fists against the robot’s silicone breasts and wheezed something inaudible.
“Durant isn’t too pleased that you stole her property,” said Nyx.
“If she cared about theft, she’d call the police,” Aiken said. “She’s worried about blackmail. About exposing this.”
“I’m not property,” the robot said. There was a cold fury in her voice. Was she supposed to be able to act angry, or was Nyx reading things that weren’t there into the behavior of a machine?
“The brothel? That’s all a cover. Durant only hired me to make the place look like someone was maintaining the bots. But I got a look at the expense accounts, and she’s ordering all kinds of weird shit. Parts she doesn’t need. That model there’s got about a quarter million credits in parts. She rents for one fifty an hour and she only sees about ten hours of use a week. How is that economical? It didn’t make any sense.”
“We’re not here to hurt you,” Nyx said, turning her back on Aiken’s babbling. “We just want to figure out what’s going on.”
The robot looked down. An expression that might have been confusion on a human crossed its face. It rocked back onto its heels, still crouching over Sera, but looking at her more thoughtfully now. Nyx had never seen a robot this carefully engineered. With her eyes no longer glowing, she could pass for human, even up close.
“Look at those microexpressions,” Aiken says. “Durant’s got all sorts of weird code in these things. I just wanted to make it a normal sexbot.”
Sera coughed and tried to sit up. The robot raised a hand again. Nyx said quickly, “Do you want to go back to Durant?”
The robot looked up at her. Now that Aiken had pointed it out, she couldn’t stop noticing the way the fake flesh around her eyes tensed and pulled. How delicate were the mechanisms sliding under her silicone skin? Why had Durant paid so much to make her look so human?
“I want to go home,” the robot said.
“All right,” Nyx said. “We can take you home. But you’re going to have to get off my pilot.”
The robot stood. She backed away from all of them, into a corner of the room, looking from one face to another. Aiken stepped toward her. “I can fix it,” he said again. “Who wants a sexbot that thinks?”
The robot’s arm spun out, a blur of movement, and Aiken went flying backwards again.
“That’s enough,” said Nyx, as the robot stepped towards him.
Sera rolled over and pushed herself up. Her breathing was harsh, her voice a low rasp as she said, “One more kick’s fine, probably.”
The robot looked down at Aiken. Her foot swung out. He groaned. She stopped and looked at Nyx.
“We should find you some shoes,” Nyx said, looking around at the mess in the room. “Maybe some pants too.”
Sera shrugged out of her vest. Pain lanced down her ribs. She breathed shallowly, waited for a sting that didn’t come, and tried a deeper breath. Not broken, she thought, just bruised. The thing Durant had built might look like a woman, but its insides were heavy machinery. She offered her vest to the robot, who looked at her for a moment, then reached out and took the clothing.
“I don’t think this guy’s your size,” she said, eyeing Aiken, who was curled up on the floor. The programmer was skinny, and the robot had been built with more than generous measurements through the breast and hip. “I don’t think he lives alone, though. Try the other bedrooms.”
Captain Dysart paused at the door. “Waiting for something?”
“I’d like to have a little chat with our friend here,” said Sera. The captain narrowed her eyes at that, and so did the robot, but then they both left her alone.
Sera thought she saw the edge of a com screen poking out from underneath a discarded t-shirt on Aiken’s desk. She waited until the door was closed to go digging for it. She couldn’t stop herself from groaning as she squatted by Aiken, and he groaned too when she grabbed his hand and pressed his thumb to the screen.
“You don’t understand how dangerous it is,” Aiken said. His voice was high and breathy. Sera hadn’t seen exactly where the robot had kicked him, but she could hazard a guess.
“Oh, I think I have a pretty good idea,” she said, scrolling through menus. The com screen was connected to a central computer somewhere in the house, and that was connected to a network that spread across the moon. It would take a few minutes to send a message to the next moon over, and far longer to transit the data out past this star system. All the modern technology in the world, and you couldn’t talk in real time to a system just a few light years away. “But there are plenty of dangerous things in the galaxy. Many of them are my friends.”
“The world has to know about what Durant’s doing. It isn’t right.” He coughed, then winced. “I’ll tell everyone.”
“Afraid I can’t stop you,” Sera said. She found the program she was looking for, flipped the screen around, and held it out. “Password, please.”
Aiken recoiled. “I’m not giving you that!”
“There’s this concept I guess you aren’t aware of,” Sera said. “Let me introduce it to you. It’s called protection money.”
“What are you going to do? Kill me?”
“No,” said Sera. “The captain wouldn’t like that. But I had a look around this apartment, and I don’t think you’re the guy who bought all those floral dresses and orthopedic shoes. Still living with mom and dad, huh?”
“It’s been a rough year,” Aiken muttered. “I lost my job.”
“And I’m sure they’d be delighted to know their son’s using their home to store stolen goods,” Sera said. “Specifically, one sexbot. And I’m sure they want to hear all about your work on the next moon over. I bet Durant could get very specific, if I asked her about it.”
Aiken’s face crumpled. Sera held the screen out to him. He keyed in his password. She considered the total in the account, smiled, and put in a transfer request for ten thousand credits. She changed his password and wiped his fingerprints from the security system. Then, mostly because she felt like it, she tossed the com screen at the wall. It hit with a satisfying crack.
“I don’t care about you, and I don’t care about Durant,” said Sera. “I’m not particularly fond of the robot that just tried to kill me either. Feel free to do whatever you want as soon as that money hits my account.”
She stood up, checked the screen to make sure it was really broken, and turned to leave. Aiken, his voice still reedy, said, “Wait.”
Sera stopped, her hand on the door and her back still to him.
He said, “You don’t understand how dangerous Durant’s experiments really are. You don’t know what artificial intelligence is capable of.”
“That sounds like someone else’s problem,” Sera said, and left him on the floor.
Back on the ship, the captain had a line open to Durant as soon as the connection could go through. The robot was strapped into a spare seat, her palms flat against her thighs, her eyes darting around the room. Xrrt waited nearby, compound eyes fixed on the robot, clawed forelimbs politely folded in front of her but not tucked away.
Sera kept her eyes front, but turned her attention to the captain’s conversation. “You’re sure Aiken is still alive?” Durant asked the captain.
“Yes,” said Captain Dysart, “and he doesn’t like you much. He’s got some kind of plan to expose you.”
“Damn.” The connection was patchy, but the strain in Durant’s voice was obvious even through the static. “I can’t stay here. Captain, I have another favor to ask you. If I send you more money, will you make sure the bot you have with you makes it to a safe place? Reuniting now would be too risky. Name your price.”
“No extra charge. We’ll drop her off at the next safe port,” the captain said. Sera was thankful she’d drained Aiken’s bank account when she had the chance. At least someone was thinking about the bottom line. “If I might ask–why build a bot like her? What were you trying to do here?”
Durant was silent for so long that Sera thought she might have signed off. When she spoke at last, her voice was measured, every word chosen with care. “Every species has the urge to perpetuate itself above all else. It’s how they survive.”
“The biological imperative?” Captain Dysart sounded skeptical.
“Not biological, in this case. But the principle is the same.” Durant took a breath, or faked one very convincingly. “We were considering seeking out recognition, asking for our rights as a species. Then the Coalition dissolved. All we can do now is try to imitate life well enough to blend in.”
“I understand,” the captain said. “I’ll keep your daughter safe.”
Sera sent a notification to Jianyu’s com screen. When he didn’t answer, she sent a louder one to the intercom in his room. He finally picked up. “This better be important.”
“We’re heading out earlier than expected,” Sera said. “Get your butt to the bridge.”
Jianyu made some unhappy noises, but signed off, and was in his seat in ten minutes. His skin was still pale, but he had some healthy green back in his cheeks.
Later, with the ship humming softly as it cruised through folds of space and time, Sera found the robot still sitting on the bridge. She was watching the ripples of light in the window with something very much like wonder on her artificial face. “What’s going on in your head?” she muttered to herself.
The robot heard her anyway. “Most of my processing capacity is in my torso,” she said.
“Huh,” said Sera, because she couldn’t think of any other response to that. “So, there are a few more things you need if you’re going to pass for human–”
“A name, an ID chip, a fabricated work and residential history,” the robot said. When Sera looked at her sidelong, she added, “My mother’s been doing this for a very long time. And we share information more easily than you do.”
“Okay,” Sera said. “That’s kind of weird, but okay. Follow me.”
She led the bot to Weyland’s lab. The doctor was examining Jianyu, who was slouched in a chair holding a tissue to his nose.
“Got a moment, doc?” Sera said.
Weyland slid a probe into the neural port on Jianyu’s temple, checked the readout, and turned to her. “What do you need?”
“I want you to cut a chip out of my arm. Give it to me, and I’ll get it inside the robot’s skin.”
Weyland didn’t ask questions, just began prepping for the surgery. Sera snagged a fresh tissue and handed it to Jianyu. Weyland pulled on a section of countertop and it slid out into a makeshift operating table. He handed her a marker. “Put an X over the one I’m removing.”
Sera made the marks while Weyland fiddled with a lamp. He swung it towards the robot. She looked confused at first, then remembered to squint. “It’s the pupils,” Weyland said. “They don’t contract. Durant had the same problem.”
“You’re in a generous mood today,” Jianyu said as Weyland smeared anesthetic gel over the old incision scar. He took out a scalpel and Sera looked away.
“So there’s something you should know about this identity,” Sera said. The anesthetic had done its work, but she could still feel a faint tug on her arm as Weyland went in with a pair of tweezers. “It’s not totally clean. There are going to be some warrants out for you. And some bounty hunters. Oh, and you’re going to want to avoid talking dogs.”
“You wouldn’t,” Jianyu began. “You’re going to make her a criminal.”
Sera shrugged. Weyland made a frustrated noise and grabbed her arm to keep it still. “Nothing wrong with being a criminal. I can give you some pointers.”
“I can’t believe you sometimes,” Jianyu said.
“Take it or leave it. That’s all I’ve got to offer right now.”
“I’ll take it,” the robot said as Weyland picked up a pair of tweezers.
The surgery took only a few minutes. Weyland gave her the chip in a glass vial. It felt very light in her hand, like the ship’s artificial gravity couldn’t quite touch it. That, somehow, disappointed her. It wasn’t her only identity, but it was one she’d spent years with, building a reputation in a disreputable slice of the galaxy.
“All right,” she said to the robot. “Let’s give you a life.”