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1 /// Dissimulation Procedure

I docked my ship, A Long Way From Home, at the spaceport on Sinclair’s Landfall and boarded a monotrain to Murchison’s Falls. I booked into a hotel, showered, and decided to find a restaurant with a view and spend a quiet evening doing nothing. I thought I’d stay in the city for a day or two, then head north into the Campbell Highlands.

That was the idea, anyway.

The Neutrino Gastrodome was an expensive restaurant specialising in Terran cuisine. Its englobed dining area hung at the end of a scimitar-shaped cantilever overlooking the jewelled spray of the Falls where the mighty Murchison river tipped itself into the inland sea. I selected a table half-way up the curving diaphanous wall and admired the view.

It was twilight, and Procyon was lowering itself slowly into the sea: the far horizon was a gorgeous laminate of argent and marmalade, presided over by the hypertrophied hemisphere of the yellow-blue supergiant.

Ten minutes later I was on my second bottle of wheat beer and was about to start on my order of local steamed fish when I saw the girl. She was perhaps twenty, slim and mocha, with oversized mahogany eyes and a fall of unruly hair like midnight made tangible.

She entered the restaurant hurriedly, looked around as if seeking a place to hide, then crossed to the elevator plate and ascended to my level. She saw me staring and smiled, and I did a fair imitation of the open-mouthed fish on the plate before me.

“That,” she said, slipping into the seat opposite, “looks like the best glass of beer in the world.”

Now, though I say so myself, I am an experienced spacer. I’ve seen the galaxy and what it has to offer, and I’ve been the recipient of a number of come-ons in my time. I should have seen through her innocent guise, but I was a malleable, man-shaped blob of protoplasm in her hands.

“Then perhaps you’d care to join me?” I said, gallantly, if after the fact.

She had lips that seemed too large for her slim face. She twisted them and looked back at the entrance, as if expecting pursuers.

I followed her gaze. The foyer milled with a dozen different races: there were humans aplenty, a posse of arachnid folk from Bellatrix V, four octopoid Regulans, and three spider-drones which scanned the diners with their antennae before turning quickly and scurrying off.

The girl flashed a smile at me. “That would be wonderful,” she said. “I’m Ella.”

We shook hands with an odd formality. She wore a black one-piece made out of some form-hugging material which fitted her like a second skin.

“And I’m Ed,” I said, and indicated the menu. “Would you care for something to eat?”

I knew – and I’m sure this isn’t wisdom after the event – that Ella was no high-class call-girl on the make.

“That’s kind of you, but the drink will be sufficient.”

The way she pronounced the words, with stilted formality, suggested to me that English was not her first language.

Her beer arrived and she drank quickly, then goggled at the effect of the fizz. She suppressed a pretty burp behind two fingers and looked wide-eyed at me.

“It’s best sipped,” I said. “You’ve never had beer before?”

She shook her head, glancing at the sigil on my radiation silvers. “You work on a starship,” she said.

“I run an old tub called A Long Way From Home. A salvage ship out of Altair. Just me and my engineer, Karrie.”

“Altair...” The way she breathed the word, full of childish awe, made me wonder where she’d been all her life.

“You from Sinclair’s Landfall?” I asked.

“I am from Epsilon Centauri Xb, the Hayakawa Organisation asteroid.”

“Ah,” I said, nodding; someone had to come from there, I supposed. “This must seem like paradise, after the asteroid. What do they make there these days?”

She shrugged. “Oh, AIs, ’bots and stuff.” She sipped her beer, appeared to be calculating, then said, “Do you need a pilot, Ed?”

I did my fish imitation again. Just the other day I’d been talking to Karrie about hiring a co-pilot to give me a bit of free time.

“Well, as a matter of fact...”

“You do?” she gasped.

“You’re a pilot?” I asked, suspicious.

She nodded, holding my gaze.

“And you’re registered?”

“Well... not exactly.” Her amazing lips contorted again, semaphoring some legalistic dilemma, perhaps. “But I soon will be.”

“Can I see your ID?”

She hesitated, then ejected a data-pin from her wrist-com. She passed it across the table and I read the data on my own wrist-com.

Ella Rodriguez was just shy of twenty, a native of Epsilon Centauri Xb, and had an education that would put mine to shame. She was also fluent in ten languages.

I whistled.

“Ella,” I said, “can you tell me what you’re doing on Sinclair’s Landfall?”

She looked at me, appraising. “I will tell you the truth, Ed. I’m running away from my parents, who have arranged a marriage with a man I do not like. He’s a businessman who wants me as an accessory, no more. I can do better than submit to the cloistered life he would impose on me.”

“How did you get to Sinclair’s Landfall?”

“I stowed away in the cargo-hold of a void-freighter.”

“Resourceful,” I said. “And no doubt illegal. Just like your running away.”

She held my gaze with those lustrous eyes. “I’m an adult. My parents have no authority over me.”

“But they sent agents after you, to bring you back? The Regulans?” I guessed.

She shook her head. “The spider-drones. Yes, they are following me. I thought I’d lost them at the spaceport, but they are determined.”

I had a thousand questions, not the least of which was how she had managed to evade security on reaching Landfall... I let them lie, for now.

“Hokay,” I said, nodding. “Fact is, I need a co-pilot, but I didn’t plan to ship out for another six days. I intended to take a flier up to the Highlands, relax for a while–”

“That will be fine,” she said.

“I thought you wanted to get away immediately?”

“A few days in the Highlands will suit me okay, Ed.”

“It will? Good. We can talk terms when we’re aboard the ship.”

She smiled, and its effect was like ten CCs of pure adrenaline, mainlined.

Go on, call me a romantic fool, or a lustful old man. The fact was, Ella Rodriguez touched something deep within me, and I responded.

“Now, how to get you to the Highlands without those spider-drones giving chase?”


Ella had it all worked out, and told me.

I settled the bill and quit the restaurant. As I stepped out into the street I looked right and left for any sign of the spider-drones. To my relief they had moved on.

I hurried to the flier rental franchise next to my hotel.

On the way I wondered what Karrie would make of the escapade. My engineer is hard-headed and rational to the point of being robotic; she does have a heart, but it’s buried under protective layers of practised cynicism.

 If she knew that the kid was a runaway, with robot drones on her trail, she’d call me all the damn idiots under the sun and not talk to me for a week.

I decided not to tell her about Ella’s recent history.

I hired a flier, stowed my luggage, and flew back to the Gastrodome. I hovered over the Falls, eased back the lift and drifted towards the observation deck.

Seconds later Ella emerged from the restaurant... followed by a scurrying spider drone. She ran along the balcony towards me, concentration twisting her features. The drone high-stepped after her, the sight of it almost comical.

Christ, I thought. We’ll never get away now...

Then Ella stopped dead, lifted a long leg with the precise grace of a ballerina and connected with the drone’s argent cowl. The effect was miraculous: the drone seemed to lift as if yanked on strings, fly over the rail and cartwheel crazily through the spume.

Ella leaped from the balcony rail and landed in the passenger seat beside me.

I powered up, banked away from the Falls, and headed north.

“You said nothing about being a martial arts expert,” I said.

“Black belt, tae kwon do,” she replied, squirming down in the seat and staring straight ahead.

I peered over the side to where the drone had vanished into the sea. “Ah... do you realise how much those things cost?”

“The drones? Yes. The latest model fetches three million Terran credits on the open market.”

“Three million...” I whistled.

She cast me an appraising glance. “Do not worry yourself about that, Ed.”

“I was more worried on your behalf,” I said.

“That is not necessary.”

I veered north-east, following the line of the coast; in an hour I would turn inland, and perhaps an hour after that we’d arrive at Tanner’s Haven in the Campbell Highlands.

She busied herself with her wrist-com for a few minutes. I glanced at her. “What are you doing?”

“Checking to see if the remaining drones are following,” she said matter-of-factly.

I swallowed. “And are they?”

She nodded. “Yes,” she said.

“How many? I asked.

“Just two.”

“Two? Great... Is there anything we can do? I mean... those things can be dangerous.”

She smiled, as if mocking my funk. “Do not worry. I have everything under control.”

She closed her eyes and a minute later appeared to be asleep.

Not for the first time I wondered whether I was being used.


Tanner’s Haven is a small settlement of old-fashioned A-frame dwellings scattered across high crags and surrounded by vast tracts of pine forests. I’d booked an A-frame back at the Falls, a small, two-bedroom place beside a lake well away from neighbours.

The three moons were rising by the time we arrived, their silver light illuminating our way from the flier to the cosy front room.

The bar, I noted, was well stocked with an array of vintage beverages.

I poured myself a scotch and asked if Ella wanted anything. She didn’t.

“One question,” I said. “Back at the restaurant, how come the drones didn’t see you?”

She hesitated, then said, “I was running a dissimulation procedure, Ed.”

“A dissimulation procedure?” I echoed.

“It worked – for a while, before I turned it off and they checked the restaurant again.”

I gawped at her. “Turned it off?”

She strode across the room, absorbed in something scrolling down the screen of her wrist-com.

“What is it?”

“They are a hundred kilometres south of here,” she said.

I raised my glass, downed it in one, and refilled it. “Excellent. Fine. I’ll no doubt be arrested as an accomplice to... what? Destruction of Hayakawa property? I might even be charged with kidnapping.”

She twisted her lips. “You worry too much, Ed.”

“I’m sorry. It’s just that the situation we’re in, with two spider-drones in pursuit and one of their number already decommissioned... I just thought there might be reason to worry. A little.”

“I know how to handle the situation, Ed. Please, trust me.”

Earlier it had been me, wise old Space Captain Ed, who’d been the strong, dependable one. The tables, as they say, had been turned... and I felt not only redundant but foolish.

“So you can handle the situation, Ella. But what about earlier, when the drones were after you?”

She looked up. “I didn’t have a way off the planet, then. But thanks to you-” And she gave me the sweetest smile “-I have a lifeline.”

“So... what now?”

“I’m going to make sure the drones are well and truly destroyed before we take-off,” she said. “Okay?”

I managed a nod. “But... how?” I asked.

She twisted her lips. “I have a plan.”


“This is what we’ll do,” Ella said.

We were sitting on the veranda, sipping scotch. Or rather I was. Ella had declined, declaring that she had to be sober for what was to follow. I was on my third double, and feeling rather mellow.

Triple moonlight shimmered off the lake before us and glow-bats performed stunt aerobatics just above the water.

Ella said, “The drones won’t approach together. That’s bad tactics. Together, there’s always the chance that they could be taken out. They’ll come one by one. They’re in constant radio contact, and can call on each other instantly.”

I was about to ask how she knew so much about the spider-drones’ operating methods, but stopped myself. She was a highly educated girl, Ella.

“So what do I do?”

“You stay here, on the veranda.”

I nodded. “I think I can manage that. And you?”

“I’ll go into the woods.” She looked around at the closely packed forest on three sides.


“The drones will probably arrive by flier and come down out of sight. They’ll approach on foot. One will confront you, while the other will track me into the woods.”

I looked at her. “A question: just how have they traced you so far? And how do you know one will follow you into the forest?”

She looked at her screen. “They obviously have a fix on me. Maybe it’s something... genetic, that my parents supplied. I don’t know. Anyway, wherever I go, they’re not far behind.”

And you wanted that, I thought. I took another swallow of the single malt. “So what should I do when the spider turns up?”

She ejected a data-pin from her wrist-com. “Give it this.”

I took the pin. “What is it?”

“Tell the drone we argued. Spin it some story about how I lied to you, and you didn’t like being followed by drones. Say I left this when I took off – tell the drone it’s my itinerary-”

“And the drone will believe that?”

She stared at me with big eyes. “They’re dumb critters. They aren’t sophisticated AIs, just grunts. It will scan the pin for viruses, find none and access it.”

“And then?”

Ella smiled. “Kaput.”


“It’s a germ code that’ll wipe the drone’s system’s program.”

“Two down,” I said, “one to go. And the last drone, the one chasing you through the woods?”

She unzipped the front of her one-piece. I caught a glimpse of a small breast and looked away. She reached under the material and pulled something out.

She was holding a slim needle-laser pistol. “I’ll take it out with this.”

I nodded. “And what if it decides it doesn’t want to be taken out, and attacks you first?”

“It won’t do that. It’s a machine, and I’m human, and it was commissioned to bring me back alive and well.”

“Well, I just hope you’re right.”

She reached out and her small, hot hand gripped my oversized, callused ham of a paw. “Don’t worry, Ed. Everything will be fine, okay?”

I wished I shared her confidence.

She stared across the moonlit lake for a while. “I had to do this, Ed. I had to run away. Can you begin to imagine what it’s like? To be a possession, a mere chattel? That’s how my parents regard me. A possession to be handed on to the highest bidder – which is what the businessman was, in effect. I had to get away.”

“I understand.”

She looked down at her wrist-screen. “They’re almost here. I’d better get going.”

Something kicked in my chest. I wanted to hug her, like a father, and tell her to take care. Instead I just gripped her tiny hand. “One thing – why did you want the drones to follow you?”

She stared at me. “Later, Ed. Okay?”

I nodded. “Okay. Look after yourself, Ella.”

“I’ll be fine.” She stood, vaulted over the veranda with another show of balletic grace, and vanished into the forest.


I scanned the far shore of the lake, the enclosing forest and the night sky, for any sign of the drones’ flier.

Twenty minutes passed and I began to feel more and more apprehensive.

Then I caught a glimpse of scissoring silver limbs about a hundred metres to my right. Moonlight glinted off the drone’s carapace as it disappeared into the woods.

The second drone, as Ella had predicted, approached the veranda.

My heart was knocking like a faulty auxiliary drive.

The drone paused before me, something threatening in its mechanical silence.

It stood on eight thin legs which connected to a cowl the shape of a bishop’s mitre. Its head – if you could call it that – was marked with cooling vents and input sockets.

The drone spoke, and the disconcerting thing was that it sounded very, very human. “You aided the subject’s escape,” it said in a rich, deep tone.

I reminded myself that the drone was just a dumb machine.

“How was I to know she was a runaway?” I said. “I’m a law-abiding citizen, pal. Soon as I found out she was on the run, I ditched her.”

It processed this, and a second later responded. “You will be expected to testify when we apprehend the subject. You will be called.”

The drone moved. It lifted its forward legs and was about to follow the first drone into the woods when I said, “Wait!”

It froze, two legs in the air. “Yes?” Its cowl swivelled to face me.

I held out the data-pin. “We argued. I was damned mad at being used. I... I took this from her. It contains her itinerary, all the codes and clearances she needs to get out of the Procyon system.”

I proffered the pin, praying that the drone would take it.

It hesitated a fraction, reached out a pincer and gripped the pin. I sat back, letting out a nervous breath. I’d done my bit. Now I willed it to insert the pin...

The drone turned the long, silver needle before its optics. Then, swiftly and to my immense relief, it slotted the pin into a socket at its temple.

And nothing happened. I had expected a sudden result – the drone to keel over, kicking its legs, or to start smoking from its cooling vents.

Instead it just turned its cowl in the direction of the forest and, with high mincing steps, danced away from the A-frame.

I stood, wondering what the hell to do now. Should I follow, somehow attempt to alert Ella?

The drone was at the edge of the woods when it halted suddenly and froze, three legs raised, five still braced on the uneven ground. It made not a sound but, as I watched, the thing keeled over and hit the earth with a clang. I jumped from the veranda and hurried over. The machine’s eight limbs were twitching in concert now, scrabbling in the soil, and I wondered anew at the many abilities of Ella the runaway.

Seconds later I heard her screams from the forest.


I took off without thinking.

The first scream had been a long, piercing cry of terror. Seconds later she yelled my name, and then gave a heartfelt cry for help.

I recalled her words: that the drones were commissioned to bring her back alive.

I wondered, as I ran, if she had got that very wrong.

I followed the screams. She was yelling, “No!” and, “Help! Please help me!” and, “Ed! For chrissake...”

Somewhere along the way I picked up a hefty branch which would double as a pretty effective club. Effective, perhaps, against human opposition. How useful it might be against a mechanical drone I didn’t stop to think about.

Ella’s screams grew louder.

I came to a clearing, and the brightness after the forest gloom dazzled me: triple moonlight fell en bloc into the clearing, illuminating it like a stage set.

I could only stare in fear at what was happening.

Ella had lost her laser; it lay on the ground beyond her reach. She was on her back and the remaining drone was straddling her, pinning her down with six of its limbs. This drone was unlike the first two: it was bigger, for a start, and possessed more metallic tentacles – two of which were clamped to her head.

I moved. I raced across the clearing, swinging the club. In a flash, the drone swivelled a limb and fired a needle beam at me. I ducked. The beam missed my head by a centimetre, singeing hair. I yelled aloud and swung my makeshift club, and it connected satisfyingly with the drone’s bulbous cowl.

The drone flew through the air, limbs ascatter, landed with a thud and attempted to right itself.

Ella moved. With lightning rapidity she swivelled, leapt across the clearing and snatched up the laser. Rolling, she landed in a crouch, aimed and fired. It all happened in a matter of seconds – and the drone, hauling itself to its legs, weapon’s tentacle taking aim, took the blast directly on its cowl.

The drone exploded, ejecting a shrapnel of components, and I fell to the ground.

By the time I righted myself, staring at the remains of the shattered drone, Ella was on her feet. She seemed hardly out of breath, though her hair was mussed and the material of her one-piece tattered to show her slim, brown belly.

She crossed to me, touched my arm and murmured, “Thanks, Ed,” then crossed to the drone.

She knelt and poked through the wreckage with the point of her laser.

I joined her. “Ella?”

She shook her head, dismissing my enquiry.

“Why did you want them to come after you, Ella?” I asked. “What are you looking for?”

She lifted a small disc the size of a coin from the debris and examined it closely.

“What is it?”

“Just its systems program,” she said, and cast the disc aside.

She went on searching through the debris, then found what she was looking for – a silver needle, perhaps three centimetres long. She smiled to herself and slipped it into her one-piece.


“Not now.” She stood. “Let’s get going.”

She hurried from the clearing. I remained where I was, crouching down over the metallic confetti.

On impulse I reached out for disc she’d discarded – the drone’s systems program – slipped it into my pocket and followed Ella from the clearing.

Two could play at that game.


We made it back to the A-frame, hauled my luggage aboard the flier and took off.

Ella curled in the seat beside me, silent, eyes closed.

I said, “We’ll get back to the port, straight away and phase-out, okay?”

She smiled at me. “Thank you, Ed.”

I got through to Karrie. “Change of plan. Meet me at the port as soon as possible. We’re getting out of here.”

“What?” She stared up from my metacarpal screen, surprised. Bright lights pulsed behind her. She was in a bar somewhere, living it up.

“I’m sorry, Karrie. Something’s come up and we’ve got to leave, okay?”

She nodded with obvious reluctance. “Okay, Ed. Whatever you say. I’ll be at the port in a couple of hours.”

We flew on in silence.


Whatever techno-scam Ella had pulled on her arrival to get through the security check, it also worked like a dream to get her off-planet.

A bored customs official scanned her ID-pin and waved her through, and we hurried across the tarmac to my ship. Thirty minutes later Karrie cycled herself through the hatch, flung her luggage into the storage rack with ill grace, then saw Ella.

She laid a mock-solicitous hand on my arm. “Ed,” she murmured, “a word in your ear. This type of girl – you pay for their services, have your fun, then say goodbye, okay?”

“Stow it, Karrie. Ella’s our new co-pilot.”

I thought she was about to say something, but she just shook her head and took herself off to the engine-room.

While Karrie prepared the drives for phase-out, I showed Ella to her cabin and told her to get some rest. I climbed to the flight-deck, strapped myself into the pilot’s sling and ran through the pre-flight sequence.

Then I pulled the spider drone’s systems program from my pocket.

I sealed the hatch, making sure no-one could enter the flight-deck, and slipped the disc into the com-system Karrie had lashed together over the years. It took about five minutes for the shipboard ’core to locate a compatible operating system.

A second later it flashed its readiness.

“Okay,” I said, fearing what I might learn. “I want to know who commissioned you, and what your mission was in apprehending Ella Rodriguez on Sinclair’s Landfall.”

The drone’s rich, modulated voice issued from the speaker. “You are running an illegal infiltration program on my systems program. Please shut down the program immediately and inform the Hayakawa authorities.”

“I’ll do that when I know what you want with Ella Rodriguez,” I said.

A hesitation. Then, “The entity which calls itself ‘Ella Rodriguez’ is the property of the Hayakawa Organisation-”

“The property? But...”

“‘Ella Rodriguez’ is a registered AI product manufactured in the factories of Epsilon Centauri Xb.”

My heart seemed to clench. I said disbelievingly, “But Ella is... human.”

“The entity which calls itself ‘Ella Rodriguez’,” said the drone, “is an AI construct, designation HO-xia-73, running on an integrated self-aware paradigm. It absconded illegally from the holding bay at Namura spaceport on the 10th July-”

I reached out and killed the program.

I sat for a while, going over what the drone had said and thinking back through Ella’s lies. The important thing I needed to know was: would she ever tell me the truth? I understood why she lied to me, but I could only accept her deceit if she would come clean, trust me.

So I ejected the system program, slipped it into the disposal chute, and watched the disc tumble through space. Then I left the flight-deck and made my way to Ella’s cabin.

She was stepping through the sliding door as I rounded the corner.

“Oh, Ed – I was coming to join you on the flight-deck.”

I stepped aside, indicating the ladder. Ella went first, and I followed, keeping my eyes on the bulkhead before me as I climbed.

I strapped myself into the pilot’s sling and Ella eased herself into the co-pilot’s. I glanced across at her. She was beautiful, and I had helped her escape a life of servitude – though not the one she had told me about. Her lies hurt, even though I knew that in her situation I would have done just the same.

She reached for the controls.

I said, “You told me you weren’t registered, Ella.”

She hesitated, looking at me. “The drone which attacked me was a pilot-servitor, Ed. The thing I took from its wreckage was its operations protocol. With it, I can pilot this ship. Technically, I am now a registered pilot.”

She paused, then said, “Ed, I have something very important to tell you.”

She even managed to look contrite.

My soul lightened, and I smiled like a fool.

“Can it wait till we phased-out, Ella? I mean, I’d hate it if the authorities got wise and apprehended us now.”

She nodded. “So show me how this tub works.”

I talked her through the phase-out procedure. A minute later the spaceport outside vanished, replaced by the marmoreal vistas of voidspace.

“Now,” I said, “you were saying you had something to tell me...” and I reached out and took her warm, human-seeming hand in mine.

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