by Laurence Raphael Brothers
It's a dirty little tavern on a dirty little station circling a dirty little world. Just a job, until something better comes along.
"You missed a spot," says Gerhard, the owner, and he pours out the dregs of a sleeping drunk's gin. Coriolis force pulls the stream out into an arc before it splashes on the floor. That's how crummy a station this is: despite all the transuranics that pass through this place, they can't afford gravity generators; the place actually spins.
Everyone laughs, but I don't say anything, just mop the spill up with my rag. Someone slaps my ass when I bend over, but the silicone is old and hard, and he hurts his hand. I can tell because I hear the yelp, but I don't react.
Sometimes when no one is watching I stare out the viewport into the dirty space around the station, wondering when it will happen. If it will happen. I sent the call long ago, but anonymized interstellar message delivery takes forever.
"Hey Gerhard," a regular asks, "why don't you refurbish her? In her prime she must have been hot. Kind of a waste to use a gynoid for nothing but cleaning and making beds."
"J3Ns have been obsolete for centuries," he says. "Of course, you might not mind her as is. Let me know and we can negotiate a fee."
General laughter, but it doesn't bother me. I know it's been many years since any human could possibly have found me attractive. That kind of work hasn't interested me for a long time.
Later, while I'm cleaning up the back room, another regular approaches me: Helmut, who runs a repair shop on the station. He's a middle-aged man with a lined face set in a perpetual expression of sadness, or perhaps resignation is the best way to describe it.
"I'm sorry for what Gerhard makes you do," he says. "It makes me sick, the way he treats you like a thing. But I know your model has full sentience."
I'm taken aback. Can he possibly be serious?
"It's not right," he says.
"You could buy me," I say. I tell myself I'm testing him. And myself.
Helmut blanches. "Buy you? As a slave?"
"My labor contract," I say. "It's much the same thing. I could work at your shop. I'm handy with machines."
He bows his head. I've pushed him too far. As expected.
"I'm-- I'm sorry," he says. "I have so little. I couldn't afford--"
"It's nothing," I say. "I understand."
He's red-faced now. Helmut presses some coins into my hand, a few lousy sternmarks, and lets me get on with my work.
Months pass. I spend more and more time staring out the viewport. The regulars in the tavern notice, but they don't know what I'm looking for. Once or twice I even visit Traffic Control during offshift downtime, as if the arrivals list would tell me anything. Pathetic, really.
At last it happens, when I'd almost given up hope. I can see the freighter coming in on its approach. They stand off a kilometer from the station. Broadcasting a yellow flag signal: quarantine warning, a good excuse not to dock. My com beacon is an internal module. Just as well there were no spare parts here on the station to refurbish me or someone like Helmut might have found it. Once activated, station security will notice the unauthorized high-power transmission. I activate the beacon, wondering if it will work, wondering if I'll survive to be arrested. To be honest I don't much care either way.
"Hey Jenny," says Gerhard, "What are you grinning at?"
"Nothing," I say, "nothing you need to worry about."
"Are you talking back to me?" Menacing.
I force my plastic lips into a grimace. "No sir," I say, bowing my head, but it's my little joke. No need to be demure anymore.
"Good," he says.
And then the panels on the freighter retract, revealing the laser arrays, the missile pods, the matte-black hull of the corsair within. No one else in the tavern sees it. They're looking at the wallscreen, watching some old musical recorded on Earth centuries ago.
"Okay," says Gerhard, "you might as well get started making up the rooms for the next shift."
"No need," I say.
"No need for made beds here. No need to clean up. Not ever again."
"What the hell? Are you crazy?"
I shake my head and point out through the viewport at the freighter. Firing has already commenced. The first impact is felt rather than heard.
"Hull breach in sector 2." Alarms are going off now and there's panic in the room. People are screaming. No one is even looking at me anymore. I laugh out loud. It doesn't matter anymore what they think of me. The truth will be out soon enough if we survive the initial assault.
"Hull breach in sector 3. --in sector 4. --sector 5. --sector 6. --7. --8." The announcements are coming so quickly they're overlapping. We're in sector 9.
"Oh god!" Someone has figured it out. We're next.
"Hull breach in sector 10."
Or not. Looks like the beacon worked. All station defenses have been reduced. It only took a few seconds. And now the assault shuttles are launching. Docking at sector 1. Where the transuranics are stored in the secure vault, the one rigged to self-destruct if it's tampered with. Station management figured that little trick would dissuade a pirate raid if they publicized it.
The next five minutes could be dicey if anyone pays attention to me, but they have other things on their minds. A few of the patrons flee the tavern, though where they think they're going I have no idea. Most stay huddled by the bar. A few more explosions rock the station, communicated through the hull. And then at last the door opens. Four boarders in black space armor appear, the skull-and-crossbones gleaming gold on their chests, plasma burners out and ready to fire.
"Don't move," comes the instruction, voiced through an external speaker, harsh and lovely.
Inevitably someone moves. It's Helmut. I'm still carrying the coins he gave me. The pirate swats him casually across the face with the barrel of his gun and Helmut goes down.
"Good work, Jenny," says the pirate. "Your codes worked. The vault is ours."
I nod at them. The tavern inmates goggle at me. At last they realize what I really am. Helmut is moaning now, scrabbling at the pirate's armored boot in an attempt to get up. He spits out a tooth and a dollop of blood, and the pirate pulls back in disgust.
"What about this lot?" he asks me. "Should we torch them? Or would you rather do it?" He hands me his plasma burner. I take it, a heavy weight in my arms, cold with exposure to space and hot with charged hypercapacitors at the same time.
I stalk over to Helmut. The tavern patrons are paralyzed, watching me like a family of mice frozen before a snake choosing one of their number to devour. But the truth is I'm hesitating. I've been a servant here too long. I remember now. I told myself I'd never let it happen again. That's why-- But still. This man tried, once. Perhaps I should--
I nudge the shopkeeper with my foot. This is his chance. I can make him my cabin boy or just dump him at the next free port we stop at.
"Helmut," I say, but the fool whimpers and tries to scuttle away. One of the pirates laughs and kicks his legs out from under him and the shopkeeper hits the floor again. I kneel beside the man. "Look at me, Helmut. See what I am." But he turns his head away, hunched over on the floor, as if not looking will somehow save him. Seeing him there, seeing that abject display, it sickens me. I'm glad I'm not human now.
So I pull the trigger. I burn a hole right through his body, right through the floor, almost through the outer hull. His face relaxes as blood pools around his corpse. No more sadness, no more resignation for Helmut. And no more pathetic simulation of humanity for me. I reach into my pocket and scatter the coins over the body. Paying my debts.
And then I hand the gun back to the pirate. I look deliberately at Gerhard. But he won't meet my gaze either.
"Kill them," I say. "Kill them all."
Later the station goes up in a thermonuclear blast, with four secondary detonations in a tetrahedral array around the core to make sure no fragments survive intact with data-readable memory elements.
And the ship -- the black freighter -- disappears into space.
And on it... is me.
© Laurence Raphael Brothers, 2018
Laurence Raphael Brothers is a writer and technologist with five patents and a background in high-tech R&D. He has published more than fifteen stories in the last three years in such magazines as Nature, PodCastle, the New Haven Review, and Galaxy's Edge. Visit his webpage at https://laurencebrothers.com/ for links to more stories that can be read or listened to online.
The Freighter was read by Elizabeth Alice Murray on 5th December 2018 for Cops & Robbers