Distance Yourself
rating: +7+x

New file. Title is "Distance Yourself", author is Kay. Author ID we'll keep blank, and the privacy is private. Obviously.


Whether it's money, goods, or services, most employment involves the movement of things from one place to another. And, contrary to what you might expect, the future is not necessarily fast — FTL was a travesty, and teleportation is a death wish. No matter how far in advance you plan, some things will be in places they're not intended to.

That's where skeleton crews come in.

Let's say you're a rich middle-eastern prince who wants his palace moved to the arctic circle for winter. Or a small revolutionary state deep in the heart of N5YC, which needs a REGOLITH dreadnought in position before it can start its assault. Or a deep mantle mining operation which wants to expand beyond its paltry 30,000 personnel workforce, and requires a small city to be lowered 500 kilometres downward. In any case, you don't want to splash out on filling the transport to capacity, so you hire somewhere between 10 and 100 reputable technicians to drive whatever it is the distance to its destination. The bare minimum for the job, of course, but these are professionals, used to spending days at a time without sleep. They work tirelessly in shifts, learning the vehicle's ins and outs in a matter of hours, and are rewarded with enough payment to see them comfortably through their various vices for the next six or so months.

And then doubt starts to creep in. Because there are people who want to move too, and you've got more than enough space for them. The skeleton crew will place restrictions — no more than twice as many passengers as staff, for example — but they can't afford to be too stringent. You're paying them, after all. So you take on a few of the cleaner, more coherent hitchhikers, and maybe plan a few more stops on the route. The skeletons get breaks when you dock in a port, and it's a generally satisfactory arrangement.

Except it's not, because people are assholes. You'd be a fool to let that many strangers onto your property without some manner of insurance. Some form of protection from the inevitable vandalism or hijacking.

And that's where I come in.

The ship bucks slightly as the rail supports tremble in the wind. It's a fairly minor cruise liner, but that's not saying much; it has enough self-sustaining facilities to satisfy a small country, and enough entertainment facilities to satisfy a large one. It's currently riding along a network of rails held twenty kilometres above sea level; scraping the top of Outer London, in other words. In the distance, the destination beckons — a flickering neon seaport clinging to the edge of artificial cliffs, dangling over the Atlantic like a fishhook. I adjust my tie and walk a little way across the outer deck.

"Excuse me ma'am?"

A woman turns around with a start. Much shorter than me — most people are — and clothed in a dress that makes her look like some kind of expensive desert, she sees my metal faceplate and smiles with relief. "Gosh, you caught me by surprise. Is there a problem?"

I nod solemnly, and gesture to a small figure darting back and forth along the wood-panelled ridge. "Your son, I believe. I'm afraid I must request that you ask him to cease running. It's a 30 metre drop to the casino roof beneath us, and my employer is most definite about preventing any accidents while travelling.

The woman laughs, and waves a hand. "Oh, don't worry," she says. "He won't be any trouble."

"I'm afraid I must insist."

"Oh, nonsense." She turns around and looks out over the rail. The word 'dismissed' looms in the air; this was a woman used to ordering the help around, and not the other way around. My cheek polymers tug my mouth into something resembling a smile, and I place a hand on her shoulder.

She turns on a heel to berate me. "For goodness sake", she says, "Get off me! It's bad enough we don't get-"

I didn't stop to listen to her complaint. With one swift jerk of my shoulder, I plunge a metal-tipped fist through her skull; with another, I hurl the body from the deck, watching it land with smack on the roof below. Behind me, a pattering of feet stops as the kid begins to scream.

I smile again. Properly this time, beneath my faceplate. Where only I can see it. My joints start whirring, and I sprint off after the child.

Maybe you've seen me before. If you live near any kind of port, you almost certainly will have. A squat little kiosk, lines of blank artificial bodies stacked up next to a cheesy cut-out of a suave-looking man in a tuxedo, holding a gun in one hand and a martini in the other. A speech bubble usually says something like 'Security satisfaction, guaranteed', along with a list of the current prices. I've never actually said that, just for the record, but it works to sell the illusion. One active copy sits behind the desk, and when a prospective customer requires my services, a body is loaded up with a cartridge containing a dormant clone of my mind. Sometimes I hire an actual person to man the store for a couple of days, just for verisimilitude's sake, but never for long and never the same person twice. A counter above the kiosk counts up the number of successful jobs, with a second counter for the unsuccessful ones. The former is in the octuple-digits; the latter has not yet passed zero. A small LCD screen within the kiosk itself tracks the number of active bodies, and it never drops beneath a hundred.

The beauty of it, of course, is that it's all true. I can't escape that; it's built into the system. When my original programmer passed on a century and a half previously, I was unable to alter the workings of the store without killing myself in the process. I've rented some archengines to decrypt the source code, but it'll be another seven or eight decades before it's clear enough to be useful, and that's with several lucky breaks.

I don't mind, though. Before he died, my designer told me that the secret to happiness was distancing yourself from your work, from your life, from your friends and family. Learn to be satisfied with you, and you alone. He was not, by the end, a very happy man. I think I was his greatest success, and it never seemed as though I was quite as good as he wanted. I'm perfect, of course — meticulously designed and superb at my job — but still not as good as he'd have liked.

Still, I took his advice and ran with it. Hijacked a couple of extra bodies and holed myselves up in various places around the world. We sync up occasionally, agglomerate memories, keep the central 'me' meaningful, but the general idea is to maintain the disconnect as much as possible. I squat deep in megastructures and cities, trading whatever strategic expertise I possess for power and spare parts. I make friends, I establish a rapport with a small community, and I rise through the ranks of respect and prestige until I can afford to start diversifying. Artificial intelligence is extraordinarily rare, and sapient computers will always have job opportunities.

Eventually, when people start needing me too much, I'll wire the money along a secure line to another of my accounts, and let my body die in a structural collapse or community cleansing. Usually, I'll take out most of those who know of 'me' in the process. No loose ends. No attachments. Distance yourself.

While that runs in the background, building my funds, I fulfil my primary purpose. I am hired for security, and security is what I do. Killing mercenaries and extremists and desperate thieves and starving asylum escapees.

Thankfully for me, I long ago worked out how to bend the rules. It wouldn't be fun otherwise.

Wiping the blood from my knuckles with a scrap of the kid's t-shirt, I make my way down the winding corridors and stairwells to the primary control bay. There are secondary bays, of course, but I've already dealt with them — four engineers will soon be waking up to find the air filtration system working in what could reasonably be called 'reverse'. The average human can survive without oxygen for around three minutes. Engineers can manage about ten with extensive training. With the recycling masks that come as standard in every safety kit, you can manage upwards of two hours.

I listen carefully, and reckon I can make out a clang as the bundle of masks hits the bottom of the elevator shaft. It might be my imagination, though. It's a deep shaft.

Of course, all those statistics are about survival in a vacuum. As I tear the door control from its socket, I wonder how much those numbers would decrease when the only atmosphere is a kind of dense, dark, borderline-viscous smog. Well, there's security feeds in the primary bay. I suppose I can always check.

The door slides open, and the technician standing next to it smashes me over the head with a chair. He grins wildly as it connects.

"Ha! Take that, y- oh."

I roll my eyes and lift him up by the wrists. "Who's the captain here?", I say — he doesn't answer, but his eyes dart briefly to the side. I make out a dark-haired woman with a pistol aimed at my head, concealed behind a rudimentary cloaker. Expensive technology. Not, it has to be said, expensive enough. I hold the technician up to block the incoming bullets, and walk towards the woman, who very quickly becomes acutely aware that her disguise isn't working. I drop my meat-shield, reach down, and lift her up with one arm. The tech bleeds out behind us as I start disassembling the control desk.

I work fast. Twenty-six seconds to gather components, forty-six more to assemble them. One minute twelve, and I've constructed a passable bomb, which I strap to the woman alongside a parachute liberated from the secondary control rooms. The engineers there won't be needing them where they've gone.

So. Skip forward a little. Cut out the boring trek through the ship's corridors and hallways, and I'm standing at the helm: a modest steel pier jutting out from the main bulk. I've a pistol in one hand, and the squirming captain in the other. Behind me, a corpse twitches. They weren't trained for this. I'm the security, after all. I fire the pistol down at the support rails with superhuman accuracy, and toss the gun down after. If anybody can find it in the wreckage, they're welcome to it. I drop the captain over the edge, and watch the parachute deploy soon after. All according to plan. I begin to get nervous at this point, drumming my fingers on the railings; no matter how often it happens, no matter how carefully I learn from past sabotage, it always feels like a gamble.

A clang.

A thud, and another. The helm jerks, and there's a screech of tortured metal.

I exhale with relief. Unnecessarily, since I have a coolant fan rather than lungs, but it helps soothe my nerves. Or nerve-analogous cables, anyway. You get the idea.

As the ship passes the point of no return and 500,000 tonnes of steel and plastic start to topple into the cityscape below, I flick through the security footage I jacked in the bay. Three were unconscious in under four minutes, one (who I can only imagine possessed some kind of augmentation) made it the full ten before succumbing to the fumes. Interesting.

Something to note for next time.

I watch the ship fall from my home in a dilapidated former-brothel somewhere under Soho. The news broadcast states the cause is unknown, which is fair enough. No investigation is perfect. If they were, I'd have been under lock and key since 2250. Twenty minutes pass, and I see a small explosion in the streets below the rail line — the captain, as timed.

I lean back, and pay some black-market data cell an exorbitant amount to wipe all records of cruise line's finances for the past twelve months. No record of hiring me, no obvious trails to trace it back. Distance yourself. It works wonders.

I power down again. Nothing more to do til next time.

Fun. That's the key. I worked out almost immediately that I was a fundamentally evil person. Maybe it's a consequence of being an artificial mind, as opposed to an organic one. It would be nice to think that nature was kinder than I am. Regardless, I'm a nasty piece of work, and I get my thrills from going against the spirit of my programming. And when I do, I like to do it spectacularly. Not frequently, mind you — once every two years at most — but spectacularly.

Consider the role of security. It's entirely contextual. I have a license, strictly speaking, to kill, maim, or otherwise disable anybody on board the vehicle at any time, for any reason. There will be investigations afterwards, so there's accountability, but I can do what I like in the moment so long as my job as security is fulfilled.

For my job as security not to be filled, two things need to happen. The vehicle needs to be affected in a way that is deemed unsatisfactory to its owners, and it needs to have been preventable by me. When a mining behemoth falls 200 miles down a shaft because of a tectonic shift, that's not a mark against me. Neither is it my fault when a satellite mansion combusts due to faulty fuel lines, or a deep sea naval base suddenly decompresses in its entirety.

The Mary Anne XIX was a case of structural integrity failure of the rails the ship was running on, nothing more. All personnel on board were accounted for throughout the entire trip, and — and this is the sad part — worse accidents happen more often. So what if nine-hundred people in a slum district died? There are kids starving in America. Deal with it.

The captain, you ask? A little trick. They're still alive when the ship goes down, which means the number of survivors was positive, which means I can absolve myself of a 'total failure' condition. Gotta keep that counter at zero. The bomb, I suppose, you can work out for yourself.

I'm not sure why I'm writing this. I suppose it might be useful if the sync ever fails, or — god forbid — if I ever get caught. Distancing yourself is useful, but it can only go so far. Who knows? I might one day need to pull myselves together.

Okay, end file. I've got a flight to catch.

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