by Jules Jones and Alex Woolgrave

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It took Allard precisely ten seconds to diagnose why “the screen thingy went all black.”

“That’s the fifth power-cable out of its socket I’ve seen today,” he snarled gently. Time to go through the job ads. It could be very therapeutic to reassure himself that there was a vast market out there for sysadmins who had got tired of the current bunch of morons they were working with. He tried not to remember that the vast market was largely composed of other bunches of morons who had recently pushed their previous sysadmins beyond the point of tolerance. If nothing else, if he found a job on another planet, at least it would be a change of scenery.

He glared out of the window. He could think of so many better colours for a sky to be than orange. On the other hand, at least he had a window. His last workplace had been a hundred feet underground to get away from the weather.

Just as he was putting his feet up and reaching for his second cup of coffee, he heard a beep. The prats hadn’t even given him time to open the bloody job ads.

He reached for the com unit, wishing he had the nerve to bury it under his paperwork, so it would never be seen or heard from again.

“Yes?” he snapped, in a tone that meant “no!”

“My screen’s gone all dark!”

He gritted his teeth. “Have you checked all the cables?” Standard procedure, when he wanted to say “fuck off!”

“Yes!” the voice on the other end squeaked. Allard recognised it now. He had given it a lecture last week after the third time in one day it had done something stupid.

“Prescott, isn’t it?”

“Er, yes.

“Don’t run away. I will not be pleased if I get there and you are not around to explain exactly what you have done to your machine.”

He expected to have ten minutes of Prescott denying he had done anything followed by a red-faced admission that he had installed the latest ‘game’ going the rounds. He did hope so. It would put him ahead, in the company’s IT Sweepstake, with the most common “stupidities” this month. Collecting “stupidities” was excusable. You had to derive warped amusement from them somehow.

He was wrong. “Prescott, why do you have a portable heater in your office?”

“They’re doing building work and they switched the heating off.”

Reasonable. “Why have you got it right next to your computer?”

“I wanted to keep my legs warm, and the computer’s main box is under the desk. It gets in the way if I put it on top.”

Allard refrained from using any four-letter words, because last time somebody had actually taken it as an invitation. Instead, he explained that Prescott’s computer would be taken away for repairs, and Prescott would not be getting it back for at least a week. He did not mention that Prescott could have his machine back within the hour if he were not so annoying that it was a public service not to give him a computer.

“But what shall I do about my files?”

“Restore them from the frequent three-generation backups we have been explaining for the last two years you should make.”

“No. No. My personal files on that computer.”

Allard rubbed his hands together. Personal embarrassing files? He might get some entertainment out of today, after all.

He took out the drive unit in seconds (with Prescott looking at him as if that was a black art, as usual) and pocketed it. “With my equipment, I can probably access the files and move them across to the main storage for you. You’ll be able to access them from your office-mates’ machines. Won’t that be helpful?”

Prescott went white, and said, “Er...”

“A job well done, I think,” said Allard. “Of course, it may be quicker just to repair the computer and bring it back to you.”

Prescott looked fidgety.

Allard picked up the computer and walked out with it. It went on his “to do eventually” table, and he returned to his coffee and job ads. With any luck, he’d never have to repair it because he would have left the company. What a good argument for leaving the company.

Allard picked up his coffee and took a long swig. He could feel his brain-cells stretching under the stimulation: when he was talking to Prescott he could feel them shrinking.

The job ads. Surely he would find something there to offer him the promise that not every IT person had to deal with people like Prescott all the time?

Logging onto one of the better sites, he set a search running, and left it to its own devices. He could finish his coffee break with Prescott’s private files, presumably a porn collection, and check the selected ads over lunch.

It was quite an extensive porn collection. Not particularly to his taste, but very thorough. Prescott had a thing for little white socks. He could have happily gone through his whole life without knowing that. Little white socks on airbrushed pretty-boys, posed beside vehicles or stallions or outdated edged weapons in an unconvincing way.

Allard preferred women to men, and men to boys. When he was thinking about men, he liked them large and freshly-sweaty, not gleaming with carefully-applied baby-oil. He also liked them old enough to have a bit of personality. Prescott liked a personality-vacuum in his pretty pictures.

The models also all appeared to be sharing a single brain-cell between them. This was doubtless utterly unfair on some of them, because at least one or two of them must be quite intelligent in the real world. It was just, he liked the intelligence to show.

All very boring, really. There was no need for Prescott to have been quite so embarrassed, other than for his lack of taste. This was extremely tame. No orgies, not even a hint of kink, and the pretty boys were all well over the age of consent. In his years as a sysadmin, Allard had learnt quite a lot about human sexuality. Some of it he would rather not have known, including things like colleagues with a penchant for little white socks. Prescott was deeply, wearyingly normal. He felt his eyes closing even thinking about it. There certainly wasn’t anything here that he’d be remotely tempted to add to his personal collection. He preferred pictures of real people.

That little lot really was depressing. Back to the job ads. An unusual advert caught his eye. WANTED: IT SPECIALIST FOR SYNDICATE CREW. There was a word you didn’t see every day. Syndicate? Oh, yes, a political philosophy advocating worker-control, a sort of left-wing capitalist thing.

He put ‘syndicate’ into a search-engine and got back reams of nonsense (including some alarming stuff about pirate ships, back in the days of wood and sail) which seemed to imply that his guess was more-or-less correct.

A quick e-mail query later, he had the appropriate loony-fringe e-mail land in his inbox, explaining why it would be a really good thing to have a part-share in a ship. He sighed. He liked clean, well-paid jobs (where he could get away clean and well-paid); this sort of arrangement sounded messy.

On the other hand, the work sounded interesting, and being his own boss could only be an improvement on his current boss. This lot didn’t believe in management, obviously, but from where he was sitting neither did his current employer.

He sent off his resume.

He was mildly surprised to find an invitation to an interview sitting in his inbox the next morning. He hadn’t expected the determinedly political bunch to show any interest in a faceless capitalist when there were doubtless so many of their own lot interested in joining.

The interview was tomorrow. Not a lot of notice, but as they said, they would be in the neighbourhood.

He didn’t bother to hide the message. In fact, he left it open on the screen. Even if nothing came of it, he could happily annoy various people by letting them know he was looking for a job elsewhere.


The ship was somehow larger than he’d expected, given the impression he’d had of a fairly small group of people. Of course, his previous experience was with passenger ships, and this must be a freighter. It looked good, reasonably trim and well-cared-for, not that he was an authority on such things. It was rather let down by the name Mary-Sue in purple letters with a rose painted beside it. Taste obviously wasn’t these people’s middle name.

“You don’t have to tell me,” murmured a tall, curly-haired man who could evidently read his expression, “it was Harry’s idea, and he’s like that.”

“It just seems a curious name for a ship,” said Allard. “Who are you, by the way?” Now this is more like it, thought a part of Allard’s mind still shuddering from Prescott’s taste in porn, big, friendly, sexy and not airbrushed-to-death. This man was in his early thirties, probably around Allard’s own age, ordinarily attractive without being ‘pretty’, and untidy without being a mess. He also had an impressive mane of brown curls that, with the long face and dark-honey-coloured eyes, actually made him look leonine.

“Vaughan.” The man held out his hand. “Ship’s engineer. I take it you’re the IT expert who’s due for the interview.”

“Allard.” Allard held out his own hand politely, despite worrying about what a large engineer’s grip could do to a precision tool like his hand. “Will you be taking me to see the Captain?”

Vaughan winced visibly. “I am the Captain, but it’s not a way of thinking we encourage. This is a community of equals, I just tend to sign the paperwork if I don’t happen to run away fast enough.”

“What an interesting outlook on life,” said Allard, hoping that avoiding signing paperwork did not extend to paycheques.

“What would you like first—see what the job is? Tour of the ship? Meet the other members of the crew?”

“I’d like to do the job, not move in and marry it,” said Allard.

Vaughan looked slightly hurt. “You’ve never done a ship-based job before, have you?”

“I should imagine it’s fairly similar to any other apart from the scenery.”

“Well, in a manner of speaking, you do have to move in and marry it, or at least move in.”

It showed how desperate he’d been to leave the current—no, previous—job that it hadn’t actually occurred to him that this job would involve living with his colleagues as well as working with them. “I see what you mean.” He thought about it. “You can explain the job to me as we tour the ship. I’m going to have to look at your equipment anyway.”

Vaughan spluttered slightly. “Sorry. Too much exposure to Harry. For a second I thought you were referring to something else.”

This made no sense to Allard. “Equipment, tools, tech,” he said impatiently, waving a hand.

“This ship,” said Vaughan, stepping through the door and leading him down a corridor that somehow didn’t seem quite to scale, “is second-hand, or more than that, from a bunch of aliens. It’s passed through a number of hands, tentacles, whatever...” he waved airily, “and we’ve landed up with it. Its systems are a little strange, and since we’re, you might call us an accumulation of specialists, we want to find the best IT expert we can.”

“Oh, you’re a group of consultants.” Allard was pleased to finally find a normal handle on this group. The ship looked rather less battered than he’d expect from a ‘communal-property’ bunch of weirdos. Since all of them owned a share, it was their money, paintwork and furniture; he supposed it made sense it wasn’t shabby. The corridor at least was clean and well-maintained, just a few minor scuffs and chips on the paintwork from daily use.

“More or less,” said Vaughan. “Everyone on this ship has a skill that’s useful to the ship itself and can be hired out. We do some trading and cargo-running, but we also act as consultants.”

This is a definite improvement on my previous job.

“So you want me to handle ship’s systems and act as a consultant?”

“That’s the general idea.”

Just as Allard was beginning to wonder if the corridor actually ever came to an end, Vaughan led the way into the computer room. Allard was pleased to see that this too was clean, moderately tidy, and well-lit.

“Yes, that might be acceptable. I won’t stand for having a share in the ship, though. Nothing personal, it’s not the way I work. I want a salaried position.”

“Owning shares in the syndicate is the way this ship works,” Vaughan said, “I thought that was clear from the ad.”

He’d better get this point clear from the start. “It’s not the way I work. If I decide you’re all a bunch of...” wankers, he thought, and decided to wait to say that until the contract was signed, “...idiots, I want to be able to pull out without having to stop to disentangle my capital.”

“We do actually know how to run a business,” Vaughan said. “We’ve been doing it this way for some time, and been quite successful. We are not about to lose your capital for you.”

Allard thought, I should have used ‘wankers’. It makes it a lot clearer. But business sense would have been the next point to address. He assembled what little tact he had, and said, “I was actually thinking more along the lines of working compatibility, whether you would suit as colleagues, but I’m glad to hear that you’re as attached to your money as I am to mine.”

“Well, we haven’t had any other suitable applicants from this system,” Vaughan said rather doubtfully.

How dare he suggest I might not be good enough, Allard thought for a split-second, before catching up to the point that he knew how good he was but he hadn’t actually proved it yet.

“If you’re as good as you seem to think you are, perhaps we can come to some sort of arrangement,” Vaughan went on. “Give you until the next planetfall to make up your mind. Of course, if you left the ship at that point we’d want you to pay a fare.”

It was good to see that at least one member of the crew was very hard-nosed about money. He’d thought they might be a bunch of woolly-minded idealists, but Vaughan at least seemed to have his head screwed on the right way round.

“As long as I get paid a reasonable salary for the work done in the meantime,” he said.

“We’ll be fair about that. Now, can you actually work with these systems?”

Many of them looked fairly unproblematic, although they clearly had been used by members of several different cultures and at least three different species. He noticed that an AI appeared to have been part of the original fittings—or at least that’s what he’d thought that particular unit was. “What’s your main AI like?” he asked, slightly preoccupied with a little preliminary button-pushing.

“Shy,” said Vaughan.

Allard stopped pushing buttons and looked Vaughan in the face.

“Shy, I said,” Vaughan repeated.

“That’s not a disposition I remember encountering before.”

“Nor had we,” said Vaughan.

He filed that for future consideration. Well, it was an alien system.

After prodding a few more devices, he said, “I can probably manage most of this, the rest would take a bit more work. On the other hand, I can’t think of many people who could do any better than that.”

“I’ll show you the engine room,” said Vaughan, “and then I can take you up to the flight-deck, and you can meet the rest of the crew there, as well as looking at the remaining systems.”

“If you’re the engineer, doesn’t that mean you are adequate for taking care of the engine room? Certainly better than an IT expert.”

“It’s always useful to have some degree of backup,” said Vaughan.

Allard thought, this is certainly better than the situation at my last place of employment now I’ve left, and hugged himself in silent glee at the thought of the amount of mess he would not be expected to clear up.

He followed Vaughan into the engine room.

“Just look at this engine!” Vaughan enthused.

Allard looked at it. It was an engine.

“This is quite an old ship,” Vaughan said, stroking the engine-housing, “and this is the original engine. Not as sophisticated as some of the ones available today, but this one is actually far more reliable. It’s easy for one person to manage. It manages itself most of the time. That’s far more important than an extra percent efficiency.”

Allard looked more closely at it, then he asked to have the housing taken off so that he could see it properly. Vaughan was right, this was actually a rather nice piece of technology even if it wasn’t new and shiny.

Vaughan picked up on his interest and started wittering on about it in detail. It was a pleasure listening to someone who knew his subject, and Allard couldn’t help noticing that Vaughan had rather a nice voice. Especially when he started making love to his engines. Unlike Allard’s last employers and colleagues, Vaughan was actually interested in what he did. This job was looking better all the time, even if the people involved had strange politics.

Eventually, Vaughan broke off from what he was saying and said, “I’m sorry, I got a little carried away.”

Allard said, “Don’t be. It’s a pleasure listening to someone who’s genuinely enthusiastic.” Particularly when he’s enthusiastic in a warm, flowing baritone that’s a pleasure in itself to listen to, he thought. “My last colleagues left any interest in the job behind when they left work.”

Vaughan looked at him appraisingly. “I can safely say we don’t have that problem here. We do things because we’re interested in them.”

“This job seems more appealing all the time,” Allard admitted.

“So how much notice do you need to give your current employers?” asked Vaughan.

“Just as long as it takes me to clear out my desk.” Not very long. Since I got used to taking jobs as bad as that last one I’m making sure I can strip every trace of my presence out of a building in twenty minutes or less.

“You’re not going to give them any notice?” Vaughan sounded slightly shocked.

“They wouldn’t give me any notice if they decided to dispense with my services.” And that certainly didn’t endear them to him. He’d have shown them a good deal more loyalty if they’d behaved better to him or others. “They didn’t give two of my colleagues notice when they decided to dispense with their services and make me do both their jobs. I owe them nothing.”

“I do hope this tit-for-tat mentality extends to giving notice to people who would give you notice,” Vaughan said.

“I treat people precisely as well as they treat me.” Which was, as far as Allard was concerned, the plain truth. So many people overcomplicated social interaction.

“Are you flirting with me, Allard?”

Including him, apparently. “If I’ve got to do that to get a job, I’m not interested.”

“Well, that put me in my place,” murmured Vaughan, sounding slightly regretful.

Time to think about un-squashing Vaughan later, if necessary, Allard thought. He could do with a few weeks concentrating on work before he started considering recreational activities. Vaughan was the sort of person that would probably bounce back quite well if Allard decided to un-squash his ego later.

“I suppose I’d better take you to meet the others,” said Vaughan, leading the way into the corridor.

“How many are there?” asked Allard.

“Three more humans, plus Master Control Unit 93.”

“The shy AI?”

“Yes. He’s got a bit more personality than your average AI.”

“In other words he’s as weird as the rest of the crew.”

Vaughan faked a huge double-take. “Who told you about the rest of us?”

Allard smiled politely.

“But seriously,” Vaughan said, “why the hell would you apply to join us if you have no interest in what we’re doing?”

“You may have gathered that I do not enjoy my present place of employment.”

“Somewhat,” agreed Vaughan.

“Even a slightly cuckoo job with people who are at least marginally intelligent would be a big improvement. I can stand a few political speeches for the sake of a decent job, and if you can stand the odd ideological disagreement for the sake of a decent worker, we may be able to come to some arrangement.”

Vaughan said, “That’s not the point.”

What a pity. We were getting on so well until now.

“This is not a lunatic-fringe operation that substitutes verbiage for work,” said Vaughan rather firmly. “It’s a serious way of getting people to work together on a long-term basis in a way that benefits both the group and the individuals. This co-operative has been running for about five years now, with changes in membership as people found they were suited to a larger or smaller group. We do have provision for people to leave, whether to join a group more suited to their tastes or to leave syndicalist ship-running completely.” He looked at Allard with intense dark eyes. Allard was interested to see that Vaughan’s eye colour shifted with emotion. “But it’s a serious operation, and we ask that our members try to take it seriously. We cannot run on the same basis as short-term contracts for a large corporation, if that’s what you’re used to.”

“I find that quite understandable,” said Allard, “but it’s not my way of working.” He paused. “Look, I’m not the easiest of people to get on with. I don’t get on with other people easily. I function best where I have the security of knowing I can walk out if necessary.”

“All of us,” said Vaughan quietly, “have probably worked for large corporations at some point. We appreciate the freedom to make our own minds up.”

“Who exactly is ‘we’? You were about to tell me before we got sidetracked into political debate.”

“Well, here we are at the flight-deck,” said Vaughan. “You’re welcome to come in and meet the rest of us.”

Allard followed Vaughan through to the flight-deck. It was spacious, well-equipped, and clearly old but well looked-after. It was also not designed by humans.

A balding but quite young man was trying to sprawl in an alien chair and put his feet up on the desk. Obviously it was quite difficult for humanoids to lounge about on this ship, but he looked as though he was putting in the effort. Despite the casual nondescript clothes and thin fairish hair, he wasn’t bad-looking. An expressive face, and Allard liked the look of the laugh-lines around his eyes.

He got up when he saw them come in. “Harry Chance. Valuations man. Are you the one who’s going to throttle our computer systems into some sort of shape?”

“Possibly,” said Allard non-committally.

“Harry’s already introduced himself,” said Vaughan. “Over there we have Karen Bright, our weapons tech...” A rather attractive woman with dark curly hair glanced up at him, smiled, and then looked back at her console. “And our pilot, Claire Steele.” The striking blonde did not look up at him. That was all right. If he’d been busy when somebody had strolled into his office, he’d probably have waited until he’d finished what he was doing as well.

“And, last but not least, Master Control Unit 93.” Vaughan indicated an arrangement of geometric shapes on the wall that Allard had taken for a piece of art. It didn’t say anything.

Allard politely faced it, feeling slightly silly, and said, “Hello, Master Control Unit 93. I am Allard.”

“Say hello, MCU 93,” said Vaughan.

It still didn’t say anything.

“This may be your new personal physician,” said Vaughan. “You might say hello to him.”

An androgynous voice (tilted very slightly towards the male end of the spectrum) said, “Welcome aboard the Mary-Sue, Allard.”

“Now we’ve been introduced,” said Allard, “may I approach you with a probe at some point? I’ve been known to get unpleasant showers of blue sparks from AIs who do not consider me properly introduced.”

“I like this one,” said MCU 93 to Vaughan, “may we keep him?”

“We haven’t decided yet,” said Vaughan.

He turned to Allard. “You’re doing a lot better than the last one we tried. He did his best to rewire MCU 93 without bothering to ask first. MCU 93 took it personally.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Allard. “In case you didn’t know, changing an AI’s circuitry can actually affect their personality. It would be roughly equivalent to somebody spiking your drinks. Or, in extreme cases, a lobotomy.”

The blonde (ah yes: Claire Steele) looked up. He noticed she had brown eyes: unusual combination with what he was ready to swear was a natural blonde hair-colour. She gazed at him thoughtfully, and then said, “At least you seem to know what you’re talking about. There aren’t that many people with much experience of AIs. Let alone alien ones.”

“I know enough not to treat them like ordinary computers.”

Actually, the opportunity to handle an alien AI was an attractive feature of the job. Living on a ship controlled by that AI was less appealing. AIs weren’t that common for a good reason. They were just as capable as humanoid intelligences of going insane. For some reason, people were far more bothered by that when the life-form in question was silicon. This was irrational: Allard wanted to keep as far as possible from mental disturbance, whatever the physical make-up of the circuits containing it. But it was easier to overpower something if it wasn’t built into the fabric of a ship; that particular worry was sensible enough.

However, MCU 93’s personality seemed pleasant and likeable, which was a good start. Allard wouldn’t be surprised if insanity had warning-signs like brooding or paranoia, and the ‘feel’ of MCU 93 was quite healthy.

“We do have a slight problem, everybody,” said Vaughan rather hesitantly. “He’s not a syndicalist.”

“What’s he doing here, then?” said Claire, staring at him. “The advert was clear enough, we don’t want any time-wasters.”

“If I might join the conversation at this point,” said Allard, “there are more important things than minor political squabbles. Like finding out if the work I can do is necessary, and if we can work together.”

Harry exchanged a ‘full of himself, isn’t he?’ sort of glance with Vaughan.

Vaughan said, “That point didn’t become clear until he was already touring the ship, but I believe he may have something to offer us.”

“The last non-syndicalist we tried,” said Claire, “was an industrial spy who ripped off all the technical details he could take back to his corporate home.”

“I don’t like working for corporations any more than you do,” said Allard flatly, “but I need my freedom.”

“Why should we take you instead of somebody who believes in the same principles as we do?” said Harry.

“Because I’m very, very good.”

Vaughan sighed. “And he’s not flirting when he says that. I’ve tried.”

No, Allard agreed, I wasn’t flirting and I don’t intend to. At least not just yet. However, this crew provide considerably more inspiration for flirting than the last lot.

“Are we supposed to take his abilities on trust?” Claire said. “This is a secondhand—well, tenth-hand—ship bought from aliens. It has special requirements. Can you deal with alien computers?”

“Probably better than most. Oh, you want a free sample, do you?”

“You must see our position,” Karen said. “We don’t know anything about you.”

“I’ve been discussing this with Vaughan,” Allard said. “He seems to think that a form of consultancy work might be fair on both sides.”

“As a probationary period,” Vaughan hastily put in.

At the end of the probationary period, Allard thought, I will have left if I don’t like it. If I do like it, I can always threaten to leave. And if they don’t care if I leave, I haven’t been doing a good enough job anyway.

“I’ve never worked on a ship before,” said Allard. “As Vaughan has already pointed out to me, it involves living as well as working with my colleagues. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to find out whether I’m suited to that before making a long-term commitment.”

Harry said, “Yes. If you go stir-crazy after three days in space, we probably don’t want the hassle of trying to untangle you from the contract before you can leave.”

“I think I can manage three days,” said Allard. “I have, after all, travelled on a number of occasions.”

“Just how many jobs have you run away from?” said Claire.

She’s a bitch. But so am I. I can cope with that. At least she had a personality. It might be no more pleasant than his own, but compared to Prescott and his un-charming stable of pretty-boy photos, it was a big improvement on ‘bland’. She was better-looking than Prescott as well.

He grinned at her. “I didn’t run away from all of them, and no I wasn’t sacked either. I’ve worked as an independent consultant as well as in a salaried position.”

“I’m still not happy about this,” said Claire.

“Just think of me as a consultant who just happens to be on board,” said Allard. “If I was a planet-based consultant I would expect to go and stay in the area. The area in this case happens to be your ship. If nothing else, you may care to employ me short-term to sort out your ship’s systems. We can worry about long-term contracts after that.”

“If you’re happy with a short-term contract, why do you want to leave your present position?” asked Karen.

“Because they’re a bunch of wankers and I can’t stand them,” admitted Allard, “but don’t tell them that until you’ve offered me a job.”

Claire started to snigger. “At least he’s honest. You can say that for him.”

“There are two ways to take that from someone I don’t know,” said Karen. “Either they are a bunch of wankers or you’re a shit-stirrer. Without knowing you I can’t say for sure,” she added demurely. He took a second glance at her: yes, she was much politer than Claire, but she was quite capable of coming out with her own blunt style of remark—very decorously. He suspected that the quiet voice and sweet smile covered up for that rather well.

“There is always the possibility that I am a shit-stirrer and they are a bunch of wankers who set me off,” Allard said, with a helpful smile.

He paused, and decided to deal with the query seriously. He suspected that that, rather than stupid jokes, was the way to impress Karen. “Look, they really are a bunch of jobsworths. They arrive on the dot of nine and leave exactly at five, whether or not they’ve finished what they are doing; nobody has any idea what anybody else is working on, or why; and the senior management treat us like dirt.” He thought about that. Vaughan had been more sympathetic to his attitude when he’d explained why he had that attitude. “Two of my colleagues were sacked, and I was expected to do their jobs. I resent that, but I also resent the fact that they came in on a Monday morning, were told to go to the office, and came back with a security guard to stand over them as they cleared their desks into a black bag, and were then marched to the door. They happened to be two of the few people I actually liked at that firm, but I would also like to be clear that it isn’t a good way to treat anybody.”

“This is the sort of thing we’re trying to stop!” said Vaughan, eyes alight with fervour. “We are all co-owners. Nobody should have to deal with that sort of behaviour just because there are bosses.”

“You’ll have to excuse Vaughan,” Harry said lazily, returning to his default sprawl. “We all take it seriously, but Vaughan takes it very seriously.”

Allard thought he could probably put up with the evangelism as long as he was merely expected to share a room with it and not pontificate as well. At least Vaughan had a rather nice voice, even when he was talking complete bollocks. It could always be considered background music.

“If you can put up with me, I can put up with you. I think.” He decided, on a provisional basis, to like these people. They were weird, true, but they were intelligent, and even good-looking, which might be a consideration later on in the long distances between planets. “As long as I can decide to leave later if I’m wrong about that, or you can decide to put me down on the nearest planet sooner than actually strangling me.”

“Is that what passes for diplomatic from you, Allard?” Claire said.

“Yes. If you can cope, this may be a fruitful relationship.” He looked at Vaughan, and said, “Do I have a job?”

“Hey!” said Harry, “the rest of us have a vote in this too.”

“Sorry,” said Allard, meaning it. “It’ll take me a while to get used to the way things are done here, but it’ll probably be more interesting than the sort of job with a boss who decides everything.” Whether he’s competent to or not, he thought.

“Show of hands?” said Vaughan. “Hands up everyone who’s willing to try this arrangement with Allard.

To Allard’s complete amazement, everybody raised their hands. That’s not how it works, he thought, people drew lots not to sit next to me at the last place but one. “Are you absolutely sure?” he asked. “Remember you will be living with me, and I might not manage even the most cursory façade of pleasant behaviour over my own personality on those terms.”

“We’re weird too,” said Harry.

“He certainly knows of what he speaks,” said Claire, with a cynical grin and a toss of her bright blonde hair. “Quick, Vaughan, get him to sign the contract before he finds out about Harry’s idea of personal entertainment.”

“What is Harry’s idea of personal entertainment?” asked Allard quickly.

“We’re it,” said Claire. “He’s a voyeur, and we can’t keep him out of our data-files or his audio bugs out of our bedrooms, try how we might.”

You can’t,” said Allard, rather smugly, thinking that at least Harry seemed to have a more lively taste in porn than Prescott did.

“And you can, if you’re capable of doing the job we hired you for,” said Karen. Allard was moderately surprised: she’d kept fairly quiet until now.

“Where are you going, Harry?” asked Claire, over the sound of Harry getting up with more speed and animation than he’d shown in half an hour.

“Running a backup!” said Harry, over his shoulder.

“Tut, tut,” said Allard, “you should already have one in a safe place. I can see I will have a lot to teach you about data security.”

“When can you join us, Allard?” Vaughan asked.

He glanced at his watch. “My employers (may they rot in hell) are still at work at this point, so I should be able to clear my desk and get back to you within the next hour or so. It’ll take me a little longer to clear out my flat, but I’m a consultant—I’m used to knowing I may need to move at short notice. I don’t seem to have collected a lot.”

“Want a hand packing stuff?” Vaughan asked.

About to refuse, he stopped and thought about it. With two of them, he could get away with shifting the stuff himself rather than getting professional help. And Vaughan was reasonable company when he’d dismounted from his particular hobby-horse.

“Thank you, I’d like that,” he said.

A discreet distance from the front door of his erstwhile employer, he finally gave vent to his feelings. He’d bottled it up until he’d left the premises, on the grounds that he might one day need a job with the same bunch of morons again.

Vaughan politely let him rant until he’d run out of steam. “Do you need help finding further synonyms for ‘wanker’?” he asked, after a while.

“No. Thank you for listening to me get that off my chest.”

“Even my brief exposure to that establishment,” said Vaughan, “tells me why you were so eager to leave. It reminds me of why I became involved in the syndicalist movement in the first place. Let’s move on quickly before I succumb to the temptation to set fire to it.”

Allard could quite understand why Vaughan felt that way, having been subjected to a security-check for unannounced visitors. He led the way to his flat: one of the few enjoyable features of working for that company had been that he was within easy walking distance of work, and still living somewhere pleasant.

Now it had the benefit that he’d never bought a car—one less thing to get rid of.

“You do travel lightly, I see,” said Vaughan. “I suppose if you’ve been working as a consultant on short-term contracts for the last few years you’ve needed to be able to move in a hurry.”

“Not usually this much of a hurry,” said Allard, opening his front door. “Why did you accept me? I was expecting a lot of talking-around-the-subject.”

“We are quite practical,” said Vaughan.“We have sound business reasons for needing a very good person to handle our computer systems, and although we would have preferred to have a full member of the syndicate we would have needed a short-term computer consultant anyway.” He grinned cheerfully. “And there’s always the hope that we’ll have converted you by the time you’ve finished the work that needs immediate attention.”

“And besides, your AI likes me,” said Allard, smiling back, and mentally dividing his possessions into those he wouldn’t mind a casual acquaintance handling and those he was going to pack himself, in private.

“This is a nice flat,” said Vaughan. “With windows. Are you sure you’ll be comfortable on a ship?”

Allard thought about it. “I don’t see why not. You showed me the cabins are nice and big, even if it’s because they were designed for eight-foot aliens. If it comes to a view, I can always look at the stars.”

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