“They were still only computers.”

That’s what I thought, certainly, for a while.

My name is Jenny Cheng. I am forty-seven years old, and at the time this story begins I was working in a cafeteria providing the finest synthetic food to those few employees of the Explorer Federation unlucky enough to be posted to Free City.

The year was 3010, a full twenty years since I was forced to resign from my job with Diagnostics Division on medical grounds. They sent me there, to a café, as far away from Jupiter Orbit as I could be. The fleet that I loved so much had long since departed for new horizons elsewhere in our unending cosmos, and I had only two regrets.

Firstly, that I never stood on the balcony of Jupiter Orbit on that momentous day in human history, the day those three ships began their journey with three million people on board and a further 80 billion watching from virtually every screen in existence.

There was an official week’s holiday, which gave me plenty of time to cry.

My second regret was Elizabeth. Twenty long years of serving food to bored middle managers had given me a lot of time to think about that subject.

'Disposed,' that’s the word that kept running through my head. I knew my department well enough to know that that computer couldn’t have been destroyed. They weren’t the types to dispose of something that they could learn so much from. They would have taken that computer somewhere, opened it up, and tested absolutely everything they could. And they wouldn’t have thrown it away in case they could get more information out of it in future.

Which meant that computer was still around somewhere.

Just what was Bug #23691? Had we finally created a neural network so advanced that it had developed its own intelligence? Had that intelligence noticed that we treated the computers with almost parental attention and responded by developing a childlike personality? It was questions like these that twenty years of consideration had not answered. The only way to find out was to find 'Elizabeth A'.

Every time I considered the prospect, it scared me.

Right from the early days of my upbringing, I was taught – as we all were – to be a conformist. We were the peak of human achievement, we could be and create so much, so long as we all worked together towards the same goals. I’d been posted here, to this café, and the sheer idea of striking out on my own, travelling across half the solar system and breaking into the largest shipyard in existence was ludicrous.

Managing all that on my own – impossible.

But it turned out that I wouldn’t be on my own.

Little did Diagnostics Division realise when they posted me here, but this poor cafeteria wasn’t just used by the Explorers’ Free City branch.

Dissidents had been a problem in Free City on and off since the very beginning, or so they say. The fact that the news archives don’t mention them was presumably designed to put off those thinking of protesting against the Council, but eventually, once the potentials realised that the people’s stories and the official news didn’t match, it had quite the opposite effect.

The security forces in Free City came in two varieties – those employed by the station, who took a very personal interest in dissidents, and those employed by the companies themselves, who couldn’t give a damn about anything besides preserving their own contracts.

The station forces had such control over both public and personal spaces that it was not a good plan to voice criticisms of the Council or its practices in anything other than a watered-down and vetted form.

Such criticisms were counterproductive, they taught, for they only damage trust and do not achieve any good. This meant that the only even slightly safe places to speak one’s mind were the corporate enclosures where station security didn’t go – ones such as my café.

Security wasn’t tight there, since the worst a trespasser could do against the company itself was steal food or trash the place, and a simple bit of biometric forging would give anyone access. I noticed that on the first day, and warned the management about the possible security flaw. They ignored it.

It’s just as well that they did.

A few years ago, two new customers started coming for lunch on irregular days. Their passes declared them to be José Emmanuel and Junko Iwatari, both lowly managers in the Explorer Federation’s Recruitment and Initiatives Division.

Despite their similar positions within the company, the two couldn’t have been more different. José was a carefree man who lounged back in his plastic dining chair as if it were a sofa and ate his food without cutlery if it was at all practicable. His clothing was definitely at the casual end of what the Explorers allowed their managers to wear.

By contrast, Junko was a prim and proper young lady, the very image of what my own mother always wanted me to be. Her carefully presented exterior covered a sharp mind, an equally sharp wit and a great enthusiasm for many subjects.

It took several months of overhearing snatches of conversation before the odd thing finally struck me – in all that time, they had not referred to their job even once.

After the café had closed one day, when they were the only remaining customers, I started chatting to them. Of course, they asked about my past and how I came to be working there. I told them vague details of my job on Jupiter Orbit and my discharge, and I immediately seemed to spark their interest. At that point, though, I refused to say any more. Despite all the time that had passed, I still didn’t like talking about it that much.

Since that evening, the two of them started coming more and more often, and regularly stayed behind after I closed up at the end of the day. Slowly, I found out about their backgrounds and what they did before joining the Explorers, and I eventually told them the full story of what happened to me twenty years ago.

Their eyes virtually sparkled with fascination.

I even told them what I had considered doing to answer my questions at last – my idly thought-up plan for a daring raid on Jupiter Orbit. With hindsight I’m not sure what it was that made me trust them so much, and as soon as I’d admitted it to them I regretted doing so. They asked if we could continue the conversation in the kitchen. I was visibly shaking as I led them through the partition, and I refused to look them in the eyes.

“I suppose you’re wondering why we brought you in here,” Junko observed.

I remained silent.

“No cameras!” José said, and grinned.

I attempted a smile, but it couldn’t have come across as being genuine.

“Sheesh, chill it, will you? Jenny, we’re not corp-goons,” said José.

“Corp… goons?” It wasn’t an expression I’d heard before.

“He means we don’t work for the Explorer Federation,” explained Junko.

“Then…”

“José is a ‘cabbie’. A freelance pilot. I’m a security expert, who went underground after one of the corps tried to sue me for a job they paid me to do. The names on our passes are fake, although we’d appreciate it if you’d keep using them.”

I relaxed, sinking to the floor against one of the waveheaters.

“So what have I got to do with this? You wouldn’t be coming out here to talk if all you wanted me for was to use my café.”

“Junko and me, we’re a team,” said José. “Whatever the goods, whoever you are, we’ll take them or you anywhere you want to go. And I mean anywhere. And off the record. Now our customers – all sorts. Criminals, obviously, political dissidents, rich orphans, paranoid old geezers. But our biggest customers of all, they’re the corps. It figures, even the people in charge have things to do that they don’t want others finding out about. We keep quiet, and they pay us well. They don’t even mind Junko fuckin’ with their computers to keep us hidden.”

Junko continued where he left off. “Charming. What my friend seems to be trying hard not to say is that we do work for the Explorer Federation occasionally. Mostly we’re paid not to ask about what we’re carrying, but the cargo that I think will interest you was clearly marked. Computer cores; some kind of new technology. They came in smooth black boxes, maybe six feet long by two feet wide and deep. We’ve ferried three or four in our time, but from what we’ve heard from others in the business these new computer cores have been in production for about thirty years. And yet only one or two a year get sent, always from a small lab on Callisto, always to EF Jupiter Orbit Dock, and they’re always shipped by rogue traders such as ourselves.”

“Now why might they want to do that?” José said.

Junko gave him a withering look, but he just grinned at her and carried on.

“Seems to me these computers ain’t quite what they’re pretending they are. An’ I think you feel the same way.”

“These are the same computer cores that we installed on the Celestial Fleet?” I asked.

“You bet. Any old-time cabbies I talked to have all said the same – the busiest time for running these things was the time they were building those ships.”

I swallowed, the sound unnervingly loud inside my head. “What’s really going on here?” I asked. “You two run all sorts of contraband around the solar system for anyone with enough money. Why are you so interested in computers that are probably less suspect than most of the other stuff you run, and why you interested in a cook who couldn’t afford to buy even a minute of your time?”

“Well,” Junko replied, “it started with the little investigation we did. In our trade you can’t afford to trust anyone, so when we first heard your story we were suspicious. After all, you could be anyone. We did a little research into your past. And, as I’m sure you’re more than aware, you were telling the truth.

“Now, we did all this from a secure terminal, plenty of cross-net proxies, avoiding Angel nodes, all my usual security measures. We thought our connection was absolutely water-tight.”

“Turns out,” José chimed in, “that it wasn’t. Go figure. A few days later, we got word that someone was after us. Someone’d been keeping an eye out for anyone investigating you, and it was someone with much better gear than our junk.”

“Just because you don’t understand it, José, doesn’t make it junk. Besides, compared to the ship it’s on…”

“Maria is not–” José started, but quickly saw the look on Junko’s face. “Not the topic of conversation. Right.”

“Anyway,” José continued with a sigh, “A contact of ours had an idea who it might be – and guess what, it’s a name we saw in your background. I’m sure you remember the name well, in fact.

“Lance Peterson.”

Lance. That was a name I thought – and hoped – I’d never hear again. Twenty years had been a long time. Plenty long enough to forget what fondness I once felt for the man, and to start blaming his ‘caring’ idiocy for my predicament.

I hadn’t seen the man since the day he escorted me to hospital. With my supposed illness I was never allowed to return to the station, so we mailed back and forth for a while. Almost a year it would have been, before he suddenly announced that he was going with the fleet. Two hours before departure, he chose to tell me that. I suppose he thought that leaving it so late would soften the blow, but of course it didn’t. It just reminded me of how much of a coward he was. And that was my last memory of him before he left our solar system, never to return. Or so I thought.

“But, Lance…” I said. “Lance left on the Moon Seraph, didn’t he?”

“So his records say,” Junko replied. “But if it really is him after us, it certainly doesn’t look like that’s the case.”

That lying bastard. Twenty long years, without even bothering to mention to me that he’d stayed behind!

“Anyway, Jenny,” José said, interrupting the flow of my anger. “It rather looks like we’ve gotta’ get that guy off our backs. I’m sure he was a real sweet lad and all, but we ain’t keen to find out what he’s like now.

Seems to me you’ve got yourself a choice. You can either stay here cooking up grub for corp-goons, and have a lovely chat with Lance once he realises you’re an easy way for him to get at us, or you can come with us.”

“Come with you? Where are you going to take me?”

“That’s another choice for you! We can either drop ya’ off on some backwater somewhere and keep on runnin’.

Or since we’ll be up in the sky anyway, we could all pay a visit to Jupiter Orbit.” José winked.

“Jupiter Orbit?”

“Sure, why not?”

“It’s only me that wants to find out about those computers, isn’t it? You two are just on the run from Lance. If it is Lance.”

“Aww, c’mon Jenny! Don’t deprive us of a little excitement!”

“Besides,” Junko said, “Isn’t it us that just put you in this situation? We must owe you a favour.”

“A favour? But you’d be risking your lives for me!”

“That’s what favours are for,” said José. “Welcome to freedom, Jenny. Creds are for the corps, favours are the real currency outside of Corp 'utopia'.”

For the first time in the whole conversation, I smiled honestly.

“The choice is yours,” José said.

Junko handed me a scrap of paper – real paper rather than a standalone vidscreen – and the two of them left the kitchen.

On their way out, José’s grinning face appeared briefly in the serving hatch.

“See you later,” he said, as if the choice was not mine at all.

I sat in silence for a while, the shock of the exchange having caught up with me.

Eventually, the dull pain in my back from the waveheater registered in my train of thought. I stood up suddenly, overestimating the risk of being burned by the thing.

How long had that exchange taken? Five, ten minutes at most. And yet it had held far more storyscreen drama than my previous twenty years put together.

Earlier that day I’d been dismissing my half-formed plan as a meaningless daydream, and now I had fallen in with wanted contraband-runners who wanted to try my plan anyway. And, all the while, we were on the run from Lance of all people, who it turned out had not run away twenty years ago but had stayed in the solar system and still had some kind of interest in me.

That thought weighed heavily on my mind. What kind of ‘interest’ led to hunting down people who looked up her profile? But then, I reminded myself, this was Lance. Always doing the right thing, always doing it in completely the wrong way.

I took a long, deep breath, and looked at the piece of paper.

‘Section D, level 12, bay P16.’

Must be where their ship was docked.

José had been right with that flippant comment of his. Much as I thought I was fond of making my own decisions in life, the choice really wasn’t mine – and the odd thing was, I didn’t feel so bad about it. Just in the immediate sense, my future suddenly looked very simple. There was just one thing I needed to do, I just had to get to that ship. And despite all the paranoia that each of us had built up since childhood – the ever-vigilant Ether network, the all-seeing Angels, the attentive Free City Security – it was easy.

I walked to my room, collected a few things, and turned off my Angel. I had made a habit of turning the thing off every now and again, ever since the incident, so its deactivation probably wouldn’t flag up as suspicious.

Ah, how much I owed to those human rights lawyers who originally campaigned for the ability to turn the Angels off.

With a bag slung over my back I headed out, through the labyrinthine corridors and out into the main plaza, down to level 12, found the right docking bay, walked down the ramp and into the ship. Nowhere did a door deny me access, no security guards interrupted my progress, no-one questioned that my Angel was offline.

Easy.

It was only as the doors of the tiny ship closed behind me, cutting me off from Free City perhaps forever, that the first consideration of real, tangible danger first stirred in my head; the first time the realisation hit that this was as far from a storyscreen adventure as I could get.

It was too easy.

And if there was one thing that real life was not, it was easy.

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