Not Much of a Criminal
Everywhere Yanmei looked, there was stuff. Great piles of smart parchment slid gradually off chairs and onto the floor. Scattered here and there were fast-food cartons, leftover rice or noodles now spilling out cold and forgotten. Bundles of coloured wire tipped with all kinds of interface plugs poked out from a large wicker basket.
A big box of dusty circuit-boards sat on a workbench in the middle of the room, together with an old pair of sandals and a soldering iron. On the floor in front of the bench sat Xiaofan, peering through a large magnifying glass at what, if Yanmei was not mistaken, was a rust-covered squirt-unit from an old Moppitt-250.
Xiaofan looked up. “Don’t just stand there. You’re doing my head in.”
“Where am I supposed to sit?”
Xiaofan shrugged and returned her attention to the squirt-unit. Yanmei sighed, then walked over to one of the chairs. She swept a pile of paperwork onto the floor where it overturned a large cup of tea that had been hiding behind a heap of dirty clothes. She watched helplessly as the pale liquid spread across the carpet, which was already filthy with oil stains and solidified drips of solder. Finally, she decided to ignore it. It wasn’t as if anyone cared.
“Maybe we should tidy up,” she said. “It’s getting ridiculous.”
“Go for it,” replied Xiaofan. “I’m busy.”
Yanmei leaned forward. “With what?”
“What happened to the barrowdroid?”
“Fixed it last night. Dropped it off at Bo’s this morning.”
“Oh yeah? That was quick.”
“Wasn’t much wrong with it. Small adjustment to the feed-forward weightings on layer 4.”
“Really?” Yanmei laughed. “Can’t they do that themselves?”
“Evidently not.” Xiaofan put down the soldering iron. “That creepy guy was there again.”
“No! Ark’s a dickhead, but he’s harmless. I’m talking about the other one.” She shuddered. “The one who looks at you.” She took out a selectron-phase antiprobe and poked it into the mechanism.
“Oh.” Yanmei thought for a moment. “Which one?”
“The one who licks his lips.”
“Mr Slobbery? Urgh. Yeah, he’s always there, isn’t he? Looking.”
“Looking’s one thing.”
“He touched you?”
Yanmei scowled. “Fucking prick.”
“Yeah.” Xiaofan put down the antiprobe. “I turned round and he was right there. With his little hands. Eww, it makes me want to puke!” She shuddered again. “He must’ve crept up on me. I caught him just in time.”
“Trying to touch your arse?”
Yanmei considered this. “Is it possible he was just—”
“Please fuck off.”
“Okay, yeah,” agreed Yanmei. “Urgh. What a piece of shit. Did he say anything?”
“No. He just smiled.” Xiaofan demonstrated.
“Yeah, yeah. He leered. Much better word.”
“Yeah, well,” said Xiaofan, pointing at the stuff on the table. “It gave me an idea.”
“Watch this.” Xiaofan reached across to a power supply and flicked it on. Then she moved her hand through the air above the squirt-unit. The unit beeped once, then gave a brief whirr as its servos came to life, administering a sharp squeeze to its rubberised bladder. A jet of brownish liquid arced across the room and splattered the walls. “Targeting’s tricky,” she grumbled, switching off the power supply. “It’s just tea at the moment. But I was thinking of chilli sauce or something.”
“Cool,” said Yanmei. “Motion-sensor?”
Xiaofan rolled her eyes. “Spit it out. You look troubled.”
“Could be a lot of false positives. What if you’re in a crowd? Someone might bump into you. By accident.”
“If it’s too crowded I’ll deactivate it.”
“No I won’t.”
“You will,” said Yanmei. “Anyway – what about kids?”
“Yeah, running around. What if they get too close and that thing goes off? A faceful of chilli sauce is no joke, you know.”
“You worry too much.”
“You could end up in jail!” Yanmei shook her head. “I like the idea, but seriously? You need a much better control system.”
“I dunno. It needs to be pretty smart.”
“A Moppitt processor?” Xiaofan rifled through her collection of circuit boards. “Or one from an old DustBunni?”
“Cleaning bots? Are you serious?” cried Yanmei. “Think about it, Xiaofan; how is a glorified scrubbing brush gonna tell the difference between Mr Slobbery and some poor old lady who’s lost her glasses?”
“I mean, what about accidental touching? What about near misses?”
“Accidental my arse,” said Xiaofan. “It’s usually a cover story.”
“Usually. Not always.”
“What’s the difference? You know it when you see it.”
“Exactly,” replied Yanmei. “But how? What’s the algorithm for that?”
“Okay,” said Xiaofan. “I see what you’re getting at.” She shrugged. “It’s about context, I suppose. It’s hard to explain.”
“That’s my point. Cleaning bots aren’t known for their subtlety of mind. They don’t need it.”
“You’re right.” Xiaofan screwed up her face in annoyance. “Grrrr,” she said. “Fuck!”
“For stuff like this you need proper neural wetware – Class 2 or better.”
Xiaofan laughed. “Oh, yeah? And where we gonna find that? We can’t afford to buy it.”
“Maybe we could steal it.”
“I dunno. A Courier, maybe?”
“Whoa! No way am I messing with one of those,” said Xiaofan. “That’s a serious offence, that is.”
“Yeah,” said Yanmei, thinking about it. “I know.”
“Don’t even think about it!”
“Too late. I’ve got an idea.” Yanmei grinned. “Leave it to me.”
The following night, a dark-clothed figure crept slowly down the alley at the back of Chan Koonchung Street, keeping to the shadows. Its face was obscured by a black balaclava, revealing nothing but a pair of eyes. In the daylight, they would’ve been a striking green colour, but at this time of night there was no way to tell.
The figure stopped at an overflowing dustbin, looked around for potential witnesses, and, finding none, gripped the top of the bin and pulled itself up to crouch on the rim. It steadied itself there for a moment while it checked the alley again. Then it stood, reached for a handhold on the outer wall of the adjoining building, and climbed up a short distance until it arrived at the garbage outlet positioned above the bin. After a moment’s work with a No. 10 spanner it was able to detach the output flap. As the flap came away the figure dangled precariously for a second before dropping it onto the rubbish bin, where it clattered loudly and caused more refuse to spill out into the alley below.
The figure regained its grip on the wall to complete the climb, then poked its head into the outlet, where it was confronted by an overpowering stench of rotting fish. In the darkness behind the balaclava, a nose wrinkled in disgust and a cough was suppressed. After a brief pause to recover from the shock, the intruder pulled the rest of its body into the outlet and disappeared.
A few minutes later, on the top floor of a building a little further down the alley, a window slid softly open and a head poked out to look around. It disappeared briefly back inside, then returned with a length of rope, which was dropped to the ground. After surveying the descent, the owner of the head emerged from the window and began climbing down the side of the building. It jumped the last metre or so, landing deftly between two bins while avoiding a pile of discarded coat-hangers.
Straightening from its crouch, the figure tugged sharply on the rope. It tumbled softly to the ground. The figure gathered it up and tucked it into a backpack, then breathed a sigh of relief. It nodded to itself in satisfaction; the job was done, and it could begin to relax. It looked carefully up and down the alley once more, then stepped out from between the bins.
Something squelched underfoot, and the figure looked down. It had stepped in something that looked like fermented shrimp paste, and smelled worse. The figure swore under its breath, then lifted the soiled foot and tried repeatedly to flick off the worst of it. At last it gave up, shaking its head in annoyance. And, keeping to the shadows, it continued on its way.
As it stepped out of the alleyway into Strugatsky Prospect, it sensed movement. It fell immediately into a crouch and, pulling a knife from its belt, spun to face its attacker.
“Whoa!” Yanmei stepped forward. “Take it easy.”
“What the fuck do you want?”
“Just a chat. You can put the knife down.”
“Come on, Nikki. It’s only me.”
“How did you find me?”
Yanmei shrugged. “Stands to reason. Big tourist area. Lots of guesthouses. Easy pickings, I should think. You get anything nice?”
“None of your business,” said Nikki, lowering the knife.
“No. I suppose not. But what about Constable Yi?”
The knife came back up. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Of course not,” said Yanmei. “But he’s not stupid. He’ll check the cameras.”
“I disabled the cameras.”
“Not all of them. There’s new ones now. Very small.”
“Don’t worry,” said Yanmei. “I’m here to help.”
“Shit!” Nikki shook her head in disbelief. “I’m fucked, aren’t I?”
“You’ll be fine.”
“What do you want, Yanmei?”
“Lower your voice. Let’s go somewhere we can talk.”
When they were a reasonable distance from the scene of the crime, Nikki removed her balaclava, and the two women made their way to The Dancing Elephant. It was a late-night teashop frequented by petty criminals and women of bad reputation. Yanmei had little to hide, but she found the atmosphere thrilling and came here often. Nikki usually avoided the place on the assumption it was under police surveillance. She was persuaded on this occasion when Yanmei pulled out a small device she called a fuzzbuster, and used it to sweep the premises for bugs while the other patrons ignored her. After removing half a dozen, she declared the area clear. They ordered a pot of tea and some pastries, then sat down at a table near the back. Nikki eyed the door nervously as they spoke, but gradually Yanmei’s pitch caught her attention, and she began to smile.
“It’s a great idea,” she said. “Why has no-one done this already?”
“What, commercially? Legal problems, I guess.”
“Of course,” Nikki sighed. “Of course.”
“It’s a man’s world,” Yanmei observed.
“No, it’s not. It’s an imperialist Han-supremacist capitalist piece-of-shit fucking fascist patriarchy, is what it is. Bastards!”
“Right on,” said Yanmei.
“It’s been like this for thousands of years. And it’s got to stop now!”
“I agree. But there are technical difficulties.”
“We can’t let them win,” said Nikki. “What’s the problem?”
“Well, it’s complicated. But basically we don’t want the wrong people getting sprayed. Children, boyfriends, little old ladies unsteady on their feet. A simple proximity switch won’t do it. We need something that can handle nuance.”
“Yeah. Class 2.”
Nikki inhaled sharply through her teeth to make a hissing sound. “Expensive.”
“Very.” Yanmei lowered her voice. “Unless we get it from a Courier.”
“Are you crazy?” Nikki glanced nervously around the room. “Or are you working with the pigs? Is this a fucking setup? Cos I don’t get involved with shit like that. No way! How stupid do you think I am?”
“Calm down, okay? I’m not with the pigs. It’s just me.”
“Even so,” said Nikki. “I’m not doing it.”
“Whatever it is you want me to do. Tampering with an Imperial Courier.”
“Just leave me out of it.”
“I see.” Yanmei nodded. “Another armchair revolutionary. You can spout the slogans though, can’t you?”
“It’s a serious offence!”
“Nothing was won without a struggle.” Yanmei frowned and wagged a finger at Nikki. “It’s easy to blame the oppressors, isn’t it? They’re the cause of all our problems – we’re helpless! Innocent! What can we do? After all, we mustn’t break the rules!” She shook her head in disgust. “And you ask why nothing changes.”
Nikki glared at her. “I know what you’re doing. And it’s not fair.”
“I’m trying to strike a blow against the imperialist capitalist fascist patriarchy.”
“You forgot Han-supremacist.”
“See? I need your help.”
“You’re trying to manipulate me.”
“It’s called persuasion,” said Yanmei. “Won’t you please help?”
“You’re making me feel guilty.”
“You’re doing that yourself.”
“Look, I’m not stealing an Imperial Courier. Forget about it.” Nikki reached forward to take one of the pastries. “Still, I want to help. And there are better places to get Class 2 neural wetware. Easier places.”
Yanmei grinned. “Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah,” said Nikki, returning the smile. “But we’ll need some tools.”
A few hours later, they were at the docks. Each carried a toolbox, and wore a set of greasy overalls and a peaked cap emblazoned with the logo of a local starship repair shop. Nikki had disguised her appearance further by means of a false beard. They threaded their way through a maze of cargo pods, parked starships, and giant sacks of rice.
“What about that one?” said Yanmei, pointing at one of the ships.
Nikki scrutinised the vessel briefly then shook her head. “I don’t think so. Looks fully manual to me.”
“How can you tell?”
“See the nose? Those antennae? Wrong shape.”
“Oh,” said Yanmei. A barrowdroid trundled past carrying a large pile of root vegetables. “What are we looking for, again?”
“Ideally, a sort of rounded lump, like a large pumpkin. Usually on the underside, towards the rear of the ship. Alternatively—
Nikki turned to look. “That’s more like it.”
“Don’t stare though. Keep walking.”
“You want me to act casual?”
“Don’t take the piss, Yanmei. This is serious shit.”
As they walked past the craft, Yanmei could not resist sneaking a glance – several glances, actually. The ship was wide and squat at the back to accommodate the large cargo bay, but towards the front the hull curved gradually inwards. From the side, the overall impression was of softness and understated power. The ship was finished in midnight blue; the paint-job sparkled in the dim overhead light of the cargo bay. It was a beautiful craft. A small nameplate just forward of the airlock provided the vessel’s name: Lo Shu Tortoise.
“I think we’re good,” said Nikki. “Looks empty. No lights in the cockpit.”
“Someone could be asleep in there.”
“I doubt it. Look at that thing. It’s built for speed, not comfort. Cargo hauler, most likely.”
Yanmei shrugged. “So?”
“Anyone with a ship like that can afford to sleep in a hotel.”
“We’ll be very quiet,” said Nikki. “Come on.” She turned and walked decisively into the cargo bay to approach the Lo Shu Tortoise.
Yanmei followed, trying not to look dodgy and feeling like a failure. She was not much of a criminal. But she was determined to do her best. Ahead of her, Nikki walked purposefully down the length of the ship til she drew level with the rear airlock. Then she ducked under the hauler’s belly and quietly put down her toolbox; Yanmei did the same.
Together, they peered up at the strange bulbous shape protruding from the ship’s underside.
“What is it?” whispered Yanmei.
“Oh. Shouldn’t it be at the front, then?”
“It’s for the autopilot.”
“What difference does—”
“Shut up,” said Nikki. She bent down to open her toolbox. “We need to work fast.”
Yanmei nodded. “What do you want me to do?”
Nikki handed her a 20mm Qi-wrench. “Undo those bolts,” she said. “And remove the casing. Quick as you can – but be careful. They’re more delicate than they look.”
Yanmei nodded again, then set to work. Meanwhile, Nikki returned to her toolbox, where she pulled out a profusion of dongles, a thick bundle of coloured wire, and a mysterious black box. Then, with the aid of a pair of pliers and a screwdriver, she began to connect stuff together.
It didn’t take long, and by the time Yanmei had removed the protective covering for the sensor array Nikki was ready. She stood up and plugged several of the dongles into now-exposed sockets on the ship’s underside. Dangling from the black box in her hands was a pair of earphones; Nikki put them on. She flicked a switch on the side of the box and listened intently for a minute before turning to Yanmei.
She spoke quietly. “You got some Guang-Lau electroputty?”
“Like a dumpling.”
Yanmei rummaged through her toolbox til she found a jar of Guang-Lau, then unscrewed the lid and scooped out a suitably-sized lump. She used her fingers to roll it into a ball and held it out to Nikki.
But Nikki shook her head. “My hands are full,” she said. “I’m gonna need your help.” She gestured upwards with her chin. “See where I’ve attached the green plugs?”
Yanmei peered at the circuitry. “Yeah. There’s two of them, right?”
“Right. About halfway between and along a bit you’ll see a pink triangular thing.”
“In a minute you’re going to pop it out. It’s spring-loaded; just press up gently with your fingers and it’ll come loose.”
“The moment it drops,” said Nikki, “you’re gonna squish it into that Guang-Lau. Make sure it goes all the way in, with just the triangle visible on top. Show me the putty again?”
Yanmei held up the little ball for Nikki to see.
“That’ll be fine.”
“Cool,” said Yanmei. “What’s the pink thing?”
“It’s basically an anti-tamper device,” Nikki explained. “Nothing to worry about. You ready?”
“I’m gonna count to three. And then you’re gonna push on the triangle. Gently. Okay?”
Nikki shook her head. “That’s the countdown. I can say ‘go’ if that helps?”
“I can manage,” said Yanmei.
“I’ll say it anyway. Just make sure you don’t drop that thing – squish it straight in the putty, okay?”
“No delay. Don’t stop to look at it or whatever.”
“I’m a fucking tinker, Nikki,” Yanmei hissed. “I can follow instructions.”
“It’s important, Yanmei.”
“Alright! I get it.”
Nikki nodded. “Good. Ready?”
“You already asked me that.”
“Are. You. Fucking. Ready?”
Nikki nodded. “Okay.” She held up a hand for silence, listening intently through the earphones. Then she flicked another switch on the box. “One,” she said, closing her eyes. “Two. Three. Go!”
Yanmei pressed upward on the pink triangle. She felt a subtle click as the component unlatched, just as Nikki had promised, and as she released the pressure it dropped easily from the socket and into her hand. Without looking, she plunged the business-end deep into the putty.
Nikki opened her eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, good,” she said. “We survived.”
Yanmei frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Intelligent munitions. If you hadn’t—”
“Don’t fucking move,” said a voice. They both turned; a young woman had appeared behind them in a crouch. She was wearing pyjamas decorated with small pink elephants, and held in her hand a flechette gun. “These things are poisonous,” she added conversationally. She held up her other hand to show them a small cylindrical device. “Also,” she said, “if I press this button it’ll detonate that warhead. The AI’s very advanced. I’m in no danger at all. You, on the other hand…” She shrugged. “It would be messy. I’d have to scrape you off the hull.” She thought for a moment. “I’d rather not, though. Much less hassle to shoot you.”
“Hi there,” said Yanmei. “What’s your name?”
“Fair enough. I’m Mo.” She jerked the gun towards Nikki. “And who’s this?”
“That’s my friend Nikki.”
“Can she speak?”
“Usually, yeah,” said Yanmei. She gave Nikki a nudge. “Don’t be rude. Say hello.”
Nikki gave Mo a sullen look. “Hello,” she said.
“The pleasure’s mine,” said Mo. “Love the beard, by the way. Now, Yanmei? Put down that warhead. Slowly.”
“You want me to keep it in the putty?”
Mo shrugged. “If you want to live, yeah.”
Yanmei kept her eyes on Mo as she lowered herself to the ground. She put down the little ball of putty with the pink triangle poking out.
“Roll it towards me, please.”
Yanmei obeyed; the electroputty came to a stop a short distance from Mo’s feet.
She left it where it was. “Now sit down.”
Again, Yanmei obeyed.
“Both of you, please.”
After a sigh of resignation, Nikki sat on the floor next to Yanmei.
Mo kept the gun trained on them both as she sat down too. “Right then,” she said. She nodded towards the warhead on the floor in front of her. “What do you want with that?”
“That?” said Yanmei. “Nothing. We’re not here for that.”
Nikki turned to glare at her. “Shut up, Yanmei.”
“Yeah,” said Mo. “Let Nikki do the talking.”
“Speak up,” said Mo. “What are you doing here?” She waited. “No? Alright then. Sabotage, I assume. I have no option but to report this to the authorities. Shall I shoot you now? Or would you prefer the police?”
“Fuck you, Yanmei,” muttered Nikki.
“This was your idea.”
“Err, no.” Yanmei shook her head. “Don’t think so.”
“‘Nothing was won without a struggle,’ you said. ‘Strike a blow against the patriarchy,’ you said.” Nikki shook her head in disgust. “Fuck you. Now look at us!”
“The patriarchy?” said Mo.
“You wouldn’t understand,” said Nikki. “Girls like you never do.”
Mo frowned. “Is that so?”
Nikki swallowed nervously. “No offence.”
“You’re wrong,” said Mo. “But you’ve got me intrigued now.”
“I still might shoot you.”
“Yeah, no shit,” said Nikki.
Mo ignored this. “You weren’t after the warhead. So what was it? The autopilot?”
Nikki said nothing.
“All we wanted was the wetware,” said Yanmei. “The warhead was an inconvenience.”
“Yeah. Actually, I didn’t know it was a warhead. She didn’t tell me.”
“I see,” said Mo. “And why do you want the wetware?”
“Ah, well.” Yanmei grinned. “We’re tinkers, see? I mean, I am. Nikki’s sort of different.”
“Yeah. And there’s this place, Bo’s Bits n’ Bobs?”
“I know it.”
“There’s this guy there – we call him Mr Slobbery?”
“You know the one,” said Yanmei, reading Mo’s face. “Well, he tried to touch my friend.”
“She’s a tinker too. Her name’s Xiaofan, and she’s making an anti-perv cannon.”
Mo burst out laughing. “Really?”
“Yeah. It’ll shoot chilli sauce or something. ”
“I know, right?” exclaimed Yanmei. “So cool. But we need wetware for the control system. Class 2 or better. To distinguish between innocent touches and pervacious ones. That’s a hard problem. Almost intractable.”
“In my experience,” said Mo. “It’s obvious.”
“For humans, yeah,” Yanmei agreed. “We’ve got wetware, see?”
“Hmm. Okay. So…”
“Basically Nikki thought we could take this thing off your ship without getting caught.”
“She blackmailed me,” said Nikki.
“She threatened to go to the police! I had no choice.”
“Alright,” said Mo. “That’s enough.” She thought for a moment. “I’ve decided not to shoot you.”
“Oh, good,” said Nikki. “And the police?”
“Fuck the police. It’s none of their business.”
“Right on,” said Yanmei. “So, what – you’re letting us go?”
“I’m still thinking about it,” said Mo. “But probably yeah.”
Nikki frowned. “Why would you do that?”
Yanmei rolled her eyes. “Ignore her. She’s very cynical.”
“Heh,” said Mo. “Funny that.” She and Nikki stared at one another for several seconds. “It’s a good question though, isn’t it? Why?” Mo shrugged. “Business reasons, let’s call it.”
“Hm,” grunted Nikki. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’ll give you the wetware, too,” said Mo.
“For free?” beamed Yanmei. “Really?”
“Don’t be naive,” said Nikki. “Nothing’s ever free.”
“I’m not naive,” Yanmei retorted. “It’s just my manner.”
“Nikki’s right,” said Mo. “Business is business. You can take what you need. But I want something in return.”
“Distribution rights,” said Mo.
“For the cannon?”
“Assuming you can get it working.”
Yanmei shrugged. “I don’t see why not. It’s not up to me, though – I’ll have to speak to Xiaofan. It’s her thing, really – not mine.”
“Don’t worry,” said Nikki bitterly. “She’s very persuasive.”
“Yeah,” said Mo. “I can tell.” She lowered the gun. “We have ourselves a deal.”
Also published on Medium.