I am not slinking through the lower levels of McLan Docking Station, but this is mostly because I can’t slink. Humans can: my projection fakes it, being a human male in his twenties with muscles earned through work and the rough hands of a mechanic who gets their hands dirty snapping inkages into place. I’m under the projection, the real Dar, a transfer of my brain into a non-human body after an accident. I’ve survived longer than most transfers, my body a cylindrical shape on treads, limbs stored inside my chassis, a viewscreen at the top with my projection-face visible to interact with others when not using the projection.
I don’t have any actual weapons to deal with people who decide the universe needs less transfers in it. Orien and I almost have fights over that sometimes. Medic or not, he thinks it is better to be armed; I have memories of what happens to transfers with weapons. What people do to them. If I defend myself, all people remember is a transfer killing humans, how some of the early transfers that were little more than people thrust into machines and sent to kill enemies of nations. I’d die, stories would spread and things would be harder for the other transfers out. Orien says he doubts other transfers feel the same way, but it’s how I feel.
I’m on my rest day. The Station insists we take those and Rodun – the head of security – pointed out I’d been to less than ten percent of the station in five years. Docking bays, quarters, meeting rooms. I didn’t waste my time pointing out that most of what McLan had to offer isn’t anything I can use at all. Rodun suggested I take in the lower decks. Without telling me why beyond that ‘jewels exist in forgotten places’. Which was probably code, though I had no idea what for.
The lower decks exist between the engines that hold the docking station in place and the vast chambers storing elements and solutions that powered food replicators, chargers, and kept the station itself existing. They’re small, cramped and the cheapest places to live on the station. Eyes watch, and other organs and sensors as well. People make sure I am past them, continue about their business. I am almost certain this isn’t what Rodun meant by ‘jewels’ but I don’t much care. I find hallways I can get down easily, slip through accessways. Make a point of noting anything that needs to be fixed and sending flagged messages to the maintenance crew. Partly because the idea of not doing so is wrong, and also because it will make Rodun twitch a little.
The person who ends up following me isn’t trying to hide; I find an empty corridor to wait in that has two exists from it. The follower is female, wearing a stitched-together stealth mesh. It takes her ten seconds to round the corner, and in that time I do a deeper scan, filtering out the stealth mesh and trying to make sense of energy patterns. Technically it’s not possible to filter out steath meshes entirely, or to scan someone at the genetic level due to protection laws; I’ve had a lot of free time on my hands over the years and paranoia breeds useful skills.
I poke the infoweb carefully, framing queries and sneaking searches in under them. Her name is Brin; biologically and legally sixteen. One parental unit, deceased; stowaway turned scavenger on McLan, born with a genetic splice to disrupt energy. Uncommon but not illegal; she has it spliced into her at least a dozen times, with other traits and splices designed to allow her to survive using it. And enough of a field stored inside her to disrupt an entire spaceship if she had to.
Brin stops as she rounds the corner, blinking at me under the hood. She looks ordinary enough: short dark hair, no obvious traits visible on her skin or under it, no weapons close at hand. Not that she needs any. “You’re with maintenance?” she asks, soft, keeping an eye out for anyone else.
I don’t move. “I’m a mechanic. I was told I needed to see more of the station. I can get them a message, if you want?”
Brin studies me, eyes narrowing. I have no idea what she can see, or what she knows about me in turn. “I want to know why you’re using a projection, if you are really a mechanic,” she snaps.
I consider options, then kill the projection. She jumps back half a step, eyes wide. “A-a transfer?”
“My name is Dar. And yes.”
“I should-should go,” she stammers. “I could hurt you.”
I smile in the viewscreen. “You could tell me what you wanted first?”
She shakes her head, scrambles back further.
“I don’t mean you harm, Brin,” I say, and her eyes widen further. She hasn’t told me her name, and fear washes through her. Followed by the disruption field lashing out from within, killing ever power source for three corridors. Even emergency systems. Lights die, Life support shuts down. Gravity fails.
I extend grips from my treads, digging into the floor, and move toward her as Brin bobs in the air, clearly taken aback by what happened. I doubt she’s ever cut loose before without thinking if only because shutting off life support in an area you are in is foolish. I extend a limb into the wall as the last of the disruption field dissipates, drain a few of my power cells to jumpstart repair modules in the walls.
Brin hits the ground with a surprised sound, gulps in air and shivers against the cold. She stands as I move closer, but doesn’t try another disruption. Or to run.
“We shield ourselves against EMPs of any kind, even to your extremes, or I would be dead. And I scanned and looked you up on the infoweb as you rounded the corner, before you ask.”
“But I have a stealth mesh,” she says in a small voice.
“I have a lot of free time on my limbs.” I extend three, wriggle them, pull them back into my chassis. “And I didn’t survive as long as I have without being cautious. And careful.”
“But if you scanned me. I can disrupt more than just that,” Brin says. “Maybe strong enough to kill you.”
“Careful is also boring; I’ve been informed I need to be less boring.”
“But if people realized what you are,” the girl says slowly, “they’d destroy you.”
“People aren’t that scared of transfers anymore,” I snap, feeling more than a little miffed.
Brin just looks confused. “That’s not – that has nothing to do with it. I’d be set for years if I sold you for parts. Scrap dealers would pay a small fortune for even half the apps you must have inside your body.”
I blink in turn, rather glad I don’t have my projection on. “I never thought of it that way.”
“You’re really lucky I found you then.”
I turn my body in a slow circle to take in emergency lighting, the distant sounds of systems grinding back to life. “I am, am I?”
Brin flushes at that and says nothing.
I stop in front of her. “You could tell me why you wanted maintenance now.”
“I’m a stowaway,” she whispers. I say nothing. “I can break things. But I can see breaking things, too. Leaks in systems, energies off-kilter. I could help maintenance fix things.” She looks away. “I’m a weapon and I don’t want to be just that, no matter how stupid that sounds.”
I skim the infoweb, hunting public data quickly, send a few requests to relevant parties. There are a few protests – mostly because I am very good at my job – but perhaps not as many as my ego would like. I ignore that, turn my projection back on and extend a hand from it, placing a limb into it and reaching down to squeeze one of her hands.
“I’m working in maintenance as of four seconds ago and I could use someone who knows the underbelly of the ship to help me. The security chief owes me at least one favour for sending me to find ‘jewels’ and giving you clearance will be it. All right?”
“We are not slaves,” I say quietly, “not to our own splices, traits or skills. Not even to fate.”
She licks her lips, then nods, squeezes my limb and follows me down the corridor. “Is it okay if I call you Dar?”
“It is my name. So yes.”
She ignores that. “Thank you? For being a jewel, too?”
“For being nice, when you didn’t have to be at all. To me?”