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Chapter 7.5

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…My visual cut out again. I was sort of still there, but I could tell I was hovering on the edge of a systems failure. I had flashes off and on. The inside of the little hopper, my humans talking, Arada holding my hand. Then being in the big hopper, as it was lifting up. I could tell from the drive noise, the flashes of the feed, that the pick-up transport was bringing it onboard. That was a relief. It meant they were all safe, and I let go...

 


 

 

 

I woke up in the dark.

I could feel my eyelids doing the involuntary twitch and flutter of awakening, but even after they opened, there wasn’t much to see. Still, the fact that I was waking up at all seemed promising. It meant we got off that planet, and that my humans had made it back safely. And before I had time to process much of anything else, that gave me a small, warm burst of relief.

Clearly I was growing soft in my indeterminate middle age.

Immediately after that, came the realization that I must be back at the company station. I slammed my eyes shut, because right on the heels of that revelation, I realized if I was at the company station, then I was in a company cubicle, and if I was in a company cubicle, their MonitorSys would have told my governor module to put me to sleep and keep me asleep. Being awake would be a real quick way to let the company know something wasn’t on the up-and-up with my govmod. And I think I’ve already made clear what the consequences of that would be. To recap: Not Good.

On the plus side, me waking up meant something wasn’t on the up-and-up with my governor module. The company must have thrown me in this cubicle as soon as I got back to the station without running any kind of system diagnostic at all. Probably, they weren’t sure I was repairable. No need to waste time analyzing what’s wrong with something you’re just going to throw in the trash compactor.

Consciousness, of course, doesn’t just mean having your eyes open, so I tried to slow my thoughts down as much as possible. I wanted to run a full diagnostic and find out how bad off I really was. The cascade of system crashes as we’d fled in the hopper had happened so quickly that my working memory of the event was basically worthless. If I could run my recorded footage back, I’d have a way better idea of what happened and also how much longer it would take to put me back together again. But that kind of neural activity would definitely ping MonitorSys.

The last thing I wanted to do was throw up a big, red flag: faulty governor module here!

So for the meantime, I would have to live with the uncertainty.

Unfortunately, streaming media would also be too big of a data pull to go undetected. Which meant I’d be sitting here, motionless, unentertained, in the dark. It could be for a few more hours. It could be months. The company could decide to just throw this whole cubicle into storage. Which meant it could be forever.

It was impossible to suppress a shudder at that thought, even though I was supposed to be asleep.

I tried to focus the small trickle of awareness I was allowing myself back on the thought that my humans were safe. I did my job; they made it out.

And at least in here no one was going to ask me about my feelings.

 

 

My best guess was that I’d been awake and aware for a few hours when I felt the ping of a patrolling bot. The bot’s job was to check each cubicle and make sure there was something living inside. Not two things. Not zero things. One thing.

When I felt the ping, I couldn’t help it: I flinched. It’s like a small insect landing on your arm, or a bright flash of light. I couldn’t not react.

The bot was surprised. I could tell because there was a millisecond delay before it pinged again, looking for confirmation of its finding.

All I had to do was push my neural activity down to next to nothing and hold very still, for the indefinite foreseeable future, and I’d be fine.

Now, if you’re thinking that doesn’t sound like the action of something that was designed and built to throw itself into harm’s way – well, you’d be right.

Holding indefinitely still and silent didn’t sound like a particularly good time. So I rolled the dice. I answered the ping, professing ignorance as to why I was awake, but indicating a preference that I would prefer to stay that way.

There was another pause from the bot. And then the status, UNEXPECTED AROUSAL REPORT INITIATING.

I sent a request, heavily underlined with emphasis markers, that it wait to hear me out before sending the report.

If it didn’t send the report, I said, then we could talk. Maybe I couldn’t stream media without sending up too many red flags, but I knew plenty of stories.

The bot’s job, like I said earlier, was one never-ending headcount. It moved up and down who knows how many rows of cubicles, pinging each one, and jotting down the response in its memory banks. To me, that sounded painfully boring, and I was betting the bot felt the same way.

If it sent the report, I emphasized, the bot would have to go back to boring headcounts. But if it didn’t: stories.

Bots are generally pretty good with if/then logic.

Indicating wariness but curiosity in its message stream, the bot asked: what kind of stories?

As if I had been built for this very moment, I launched into one of the current storylines on Sanctuary Moon – Amanda, who I’d honestly never particularly liked, had her heart set on being a void space artist. But she’s also the daughter of the chairwoman of a powerful corporation. She’s been groomed her whole life to take over leadership of the company. But her artist-mentor/friend, Drake, is trying to convince her to runaway to a secret artist colony. (Drake is actually two identical twins, and also killed her adopted cousin, who was an Ambassador, but Amanda doesn’t know that, and that wasn’t particularly relevant to this arc anyway).

The bot, when I got to the end of the message series, shifted. One of those ominous pauses loomed. And then, it sent one more brief message: GO ON.

 

 

I spent almost an hour bringing the bot up to date on the happenings of the Gotwild clan in Sanctuary Moon, before it was called away by a delay inquiry ping.

I was back to being alone in the dark, but at least I had the comfort of knowing something in the universe knew I was alive and awake and aware while stuck inside this box. Plus, all the details of Amanda’s plot arc were now fresh in my mind, and I figured pondering whether she was going to make good on her threat to navigate the family’s station into an asteroid belt would help me kill at least a few more hours.

But as it turned out, I didn’t actually have much time before my next interruption. This time, I heard the seals of cubicle hiss open, and I had just enough warning to go slack and still, and make myself look as mindlessly unaware as possible, before the cubicle opened.

A man in a company uniform had his hand on the operating panel, and standing next to him, dressed in sharp business attire, was Pin Lee.

I had decided eyes open but unfocused was acceptable behavior for a security unit in storage, but I regretted the decision, because both of them were staring at me so intently it was hard not to react. And I didn’t want to give myself away by twitching, or wincing, or doing what it was that I really wanted to do – which was to run screaming out of the room.

Pin Lee, in particular, was tightly focused on me, and her face showed all the hallmarks of distress.

I wondered if I was really that bad off. Maybe my chest hadn’t grown back all the way or something. Maybe I was missing limbs.

The company official didn’t look at me very long at all, instead he turned his attention to the cubicle’s readout, twisting the display so Pin Lee could read as well. “See? It’s intact. We haven’t done – ” He scrolled through the monitor stream for a moment, “ – anything with it yet.”

Company laziness saves the day. Again.

Pin Lee said, “There’s incredibly important data on there. It’s imperative you don’t wipe the memory.”

He glanced at her. “It’s not our standard policy to – ”

“I understand, but your client experiencing massive data loss due to sabotage isn’t standard, either. Or, at least, I hope it isn’t.” Pin Lee’s voice was just as sharp as the look she shot him.

The company official looked rather like he’d bitten into some incredibly bitter piece of fruit. I was sure he didn’t care one way or the other what happened to me, but he was definitely worried about all the proprietary information stored in my memory. That’s the kind of thing they’re touchy about. “Of course not.” He coughed, making a gesture like he was about to re-seal the cubicle. He was clearly ready to move on.

Pin Lee, though, Pin Lee was still staring at me. “I don’t want you to do anything to it. The fewer disruptions to its memory, the better chance we have of recovering the data. A court case has been initiated.”

“As you’ve said.” The company official’s tone made it clear how he felt about hearing this once, much less more than once. “We discussed all of this upstairs.”

He didn’t understand why she was repeating herself, but I did. It was written across her face in the way she was staring at me like she was desperately trying to judge my awareness, or like she was waiting for some sign from me that I heard and understood. It was about as subtle as the acting on the dramas I liked to stream. She wasn’t talking to him. She was talking to me. She wanted me to know they were trying to get me out intact.

My humans hadn’t forgotten about me. I was almost touched.

 

 

The next time the monitoring bot swung by, it didn’t waste any time getting down to business. It pinged with, BOT REQUEST INCOMING, and then proceeded to rattle off something along the lines of having run all the possible timelines, and that if Amanda’s mother is < 60 years of age, there was no way she could have suppressed memories of the Andalusia Mining Corporation Uprising, as she claims, and could I then explain, that if she is > 60 years old, how was she able to pass as her daughter when she forged her signature on the divestment statements in the corrupt lawyer’s office?

“Look,” I told it, “sometimes you just have to roll with these things.”

The bot sent dissatisfaction markers, heavily bolded.

“Well,” I sent cautiously, “if you were willing to mask the signal, we could just stream the media?”

The bot considered this for a moment, but I was pretty sure I had it hooked. And once I saw the signal mask go up, I cued up the appropriate episode.

What I didn’t realize, was what watching Sanctuary Moon with someone else was going to be like. For one, I kept having to pause the stream to answer the bot’s questions about who everyone was, a problem I finally fixed by turning on the character ID tags. I also grew acutely aware of how truly ridiculous the Sanctuary Moon theme song really is. Usually I’m alone in the privacy of my cubicle with those saccharine, soaring notes, and I discovered its quite another thing to try to keep a straight face when you’re listening to it play with someone else right next to you.

It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, though. It wasn’t like what I imagine watching the show with a human would be like. Anytime I’d observed any of my clients watching streams, they always seemed most intrigued by the most boring parts. I remember once watching a group of clients watch news footage of the station workers’ strike. They kept slowing the feed down during the most violent parts of the altercation, running it back and playing the footage again and again, but at the same time visibly wincing and recoiling from the viewer.

I’ve never understood that fascination. If you’ve watched one bullet tear through meat, you’ve basically seen them all. Even in this augmented day and age, a mess of innards, blood, and sometimes wire doesn’t look all that different. It always seemed to me like they ought to be paying more attention to things like how the bullets ricocheted when they hit the metal paneling. That, at least, was unpredictable. You might be able to learn something from that.

But then, who was I to tell anybody what they should spend their time staring at?

 

 

Dr. Mensah showed up two days later. Not that I was waiting, but I was waiting.

She looked very much like I remembered – not that she was in a survey uniform, or holding a gun – but she looked quiet and calm and serious in a way that made you pay attention and simultaneously feel a sense of relief.

She studied me, and it was all I could do not to straighten up or try to put my shoulders back under her appraisal.

The company official accompanying her was no random maintenance employee like the one who had been sent down with Pin Lee. This woman looked like she spent most of her time in boardrooms, not basements.

But she was hands-on enough to know how to work one of the company’s scanners, which she passed over my face, and then held the results up for Dr. Mensah to see. “As you can see, this is the unit in question.”

“I don’t need to see the barcode. I can recognize it,” Dr. Mensah said. Her eyes skirted mostly away from my face, which I appreciated. She did make eye contact with me once, very quickly, then looked pointedly at the company official. “But I would like to compare its appearance against my field notes. Unfortunately, I seem to have left them in my bag upstairs. Can you get it for me?”

The woman looked taken aback. I imagined she didn’t get asked to run errands very often. “I can assure you, this is the same unit that accompanied your team on its survey mission.”

Dr. Mensah’s expression grew just a degree colder. “You’ll forgive me if I remind you that your company’s assurances of truthfulness have let me down in the past.”

The company official was too much of a pro to react much, but I did notice the muscles of her jaw tighten. “Of course,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

Together, we listened to the official’s footsteps retreat down the hall. Still with her eyes averted, Dr. Mensah said, “As I think Pin Lee managed to convey, a court case has been initiated.”

Technically, Dr. Mensah was supposed to be alone down here. Or, at least, to be the only conscious being down here. For a moment, I was confused – who was she talking to? How can she be so certain that I could hear her?

But then, Dr. Mensah was always sharp.

“The case is ostensibly about who has ownership of the data you recorded while on our survey mission. Those data are important, but more important is the promise I made to you.” She paused, eyes flicking to meet mine for just a beat. “I intend to keep it. And I intend to get you out of here, with your memories intact, and your – and with the degree of self-governance you currently possess.”

I knew I shouldn’t say anything in answer, which was a relief. I didn’t really know what to say. Mostly, I couldn’t get past a vaguely pathetic desire to curl up and blush under the warm glow of her attention.

Dr. Mensah continued, “It’s possible we could get you out of here for the duration of the trial. Not certain, but possible. The court won’t accept you as a witness, but they may agree to admit you as evidence. And for the purposes of getting out and about rather than being locked up in here, that will serve just as well.”

That was an overwhelming idea. She said all that like it was a good thing, and in that moment I was glad she didn’t expect me to respond.

She paused again, the corners of her mouth curving ever so slightly. “I imagine, perhaps, you’re thinking you would rather stay in the cubicle. I’m not going to force you out, but – the world is out there.”

She gestured, and there wasn’t really anything but blank wall for to gesture towards, being as we were, in one of the company’s subbasement levels. But I understood her point.

“If you’re going to be part of the world,” she said, “you’re going to have to learn to deal with it.”

 

 

I broke out.

I knew I was getting out. If Dr. Mensah put her mind to something, I didn’t have any doubt she’d find a way to make it happen. All I had to do was wait, and somebody would have come along and unpacked me, and shuttled me out to my humans. Easy as you please. And I know that even if that wasn’t exactly total independence, it was a level of freedom that would be completely out of reach if the company found out about my hacked governor module.

Breaking out was a big enough clue that something was up with my govmod that even the company couldn’t miss it.

I did it anyway.

I didn’t really know why. Mostly, just to see if I could.

After Dr. Mensah left, I sat for hours in my cubicle, with my retinal sensitivity turned all the way down to make it pitch dark. I thought about Dr. Mensah’s words. To her, this dark steel box with nothing but wires and the occasional bot ping for company was probably the worst imaginable kind of prison.

For me, especially now that I had the monitoring bot on my side, this box was an unprecedented opportunity to be left alone and watch streaming media. Pretty much the greatest thing ever. So to her, an action that would mean setting me free was to me, getting kicked out of paradise.

Or, at least, that was what I told myself. Of course, I knew my streaming media supply would end eventually, but if I really thought about it – and sitting in there, in the dark, there wasn’t anything to do except for think about it – I had to admit there was more to my misgivings than the idea of running out of episodes of Sanctuary Moon.

I argued back and forth with myself: cubicle = comfortable, safe, no one staring at me or trying to engage me in conversation, no demands on my attention, no throwing myself at things that were trying to kill me. That was a pretty big plus.

But I kept coming back to the conclusion that I didn’t want to be in there forever. And once I decided that, I wanted to be out right then.

So I broke out.

I told myself I was testing to see if my governor module really was broken. What if the company was actually some kind of long con to see if I’d trip myself up? Surely, if they still had any degree of control, I wouldn’t be able to hijack the monitoring bot’s software (with a small, silent apology), mute the alarms on my cubicle, hack the doors and leave. There was no way they’d let me get that far, right?

But there I was, standing on the roof of the company building, looking around at the blinking lights of the city. Getting up there was easy. Easier than I thought it’d be. The company didn’t have a very high opinion of us. Or maybe it just never occurred to them that we might want to break out. Maybe it never occurred to them that we could want.

I crept closer to the edge, and looking down, I felt very dramatic. Like this was something a Sanctuary Moon character would do right before they jumped or delivered an impassioned speech.

Not that I was about to do either of those things.

But I did wonder what it meant that I was taking these bigger and bigger chances. Like a serial killer on one of those law enforcement dramas, was I trying to get caught?

Then again, I was a serial killer. I was a mass murderer. Which, standing there, on the verge of being on the lam, made me ask – what does it mean that Dr. Mensah took me at my word about what happened? And does her faith imply that she thinks I’m gonna fold right into being whatever she tells me to?

I could just leave, I thought. I could just do whatever I wanted to do. Go where I wanted to go, without the company or Dr. Mensah, or anyone else telling me what to do. But even as I was thinking that, I was already talking myself out of it. I was already taking a step back from the edge. I kept trying to think about where I would go after I left, or what I would do – and the great unknown of it made every stress indicator I had go off.

Some self-protective bit of wiring inside me kept trying to tell me my heart rate was off the charts, and I wasn’t even doing anything. I was just thinking about being down there, among everyone, with no purpose, and no armor to put on ever again.

I took another step back.

A dark awareness started to seep into my thoughts: the company didn’t worry about us breaking out, because they realized there was nowhere for us to go.

Governor module or no governor module.

Standing there, I felt like I’d failed some sort of test. I felt like the company knew me better than I knew myself. I hated that feeling.

I decided Dr. Mensah was right – that if I was going to exist anywhere outside of that cubicle, and I was going to do anything besides throwing myself into the mouths of various giant Hostiles, I would need to know the world.

But I would also need to know me.

I was too afraid to go anywhere then. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t my choice. And it didn’t mean that next time I couldn’t be ready. I could make myself ready – even if just the thought of that made every alarm bell my system had ring long, and loud, and clear.

 

 

Court itself wasn’t nearly as terrifying as the walk to the courthouse. Court wasn’t anything like it’s made out to be in the dramas. It was just a round table with a bunch of people in business attire sitting around it. And although, after a whole charade in which the company “activated” my already activated and aware system, I was technically allowed to be awake now, I wasn’t supposed to say anything. I didn’t even have to sit at the table with the rest of them. I got my own special table off to the side, with a placard in front of me that read Exhibit A.

I supposed I should have been paying attention, but spacing out when people were talking was a hard habit to break. Mostly, I was thinking about the walk over. Dr. Mensah and Pin Lee had arrived back at the company headquarters and accompanied me out, and once we were outside, I was surprised to see Dr. Gurathin waiting for us.

“Ready?” he asked.

I wasn’t entirely sure which one of us he was asking, but Dr. Mensah answered him with a smile. “Let’s go.”

We started walking – and then came the barrage of pings.

It felt like every building and every street corner we passed had its own monitoring bot. Every flat surface was covered with an advertisement that was actively scanning for public feeds to project into. Traffic sped by in front of us, but I was also getting notifications from the underground transport below, and the tracking beacons of aircraft overhead. It was overwhelming. I wasn’t usually out in these parts of cities. Cargo bays and transport hangers were more my speed, and I could feel a panicky sort of itch building up under my skin. A million tiny signals all demanding my attention and all dumping micro-amounts of adrenaline into my system.

Even though I wasn’t technically employed by PreservationAux at the moment, I couldn’t help instinct kicking in. I started herding my small group of humans away from the busier street corners. Being close to anything moving that fast couldn’t be safe. I moved to walk in between them and some of the larger groups of people, just in case. And without even really realizing I was doing it, I started flagging bits of particularly pertinent information for my humans’ public feed.

After a few blocks of this, I realized I was being ridiculous. Walking down the street was something Dr. Mensah and the others did every day. Even if this city wasn’t home, they knew it better than I did. They didn’t need me bombarding them with every little thing I perceived as a threat.

The worst part was, none of them had asked me to stop. There were all politely ignoring my ridiculousness, and that made me feel so awkward I wanted to turn on my heel right then and there and head back to my cubicle. Preferably at top available foot speed.

But that wasn’t an option. I stopped pushing things into their feed. I kept tagging things though. There was more happening on this stretch of city blocks than I’d seen in years, and I wanted to be able to look up what everything was later tonight, when I had time to review this footage. The fact that I wasn’t pushing this information at anyone, though, meant I could get as ridiculous as I wanted with my nomenclature. Which was how I ended up walking down a busy street tagging objects,Big Scary Thing, and Smaller Scary Thing, andFlat Scary Thing, and Noisy Scary Thing, and Way Noisier Scary Thing.

I told you our education modules were crap.

Dr. Mensah and Pin Lee were walking ahead of me, deep in conversation about the case, but Dr. Gurathin had been hanging back, walking just a pace behind me, at the very edge of my peripheral vision. Which, naturally, I had noticed and made a note of.

Dr. Gurathin opened a separate channel and sent, I can see you referring to me as The Hostile.

I suppose that should have been embarrassing, it was certainly startling that anyone was still paying attention. But when I piggy-backed on a street cam’s stream to get a better look at his face, I could see that he was smiling.

Just making observations on the environment, I sent.

He smiled again. And a minute later, he pinged with a reference list of public feeds he actually found useful, and another of feeds I could safely ignore.

I sent an acknowledgment. And then I sent, thank you.

As we walked, the buildings around us were getting older and larger, and there were fewer advertisements adorning them. I was just getting used to this relative peace, when Dr. Gurathin offered something else. He sent – not a piece of data, but an invitation. He was inviting me to look at his own personal feed.

I was so startled, I almost tripped. I hesitated. It felt intrusive, it felt – too personal, especially coming from Dr. Gurathin. I checked to make sure it wasn’t a mistaken, but he just pinged again with a repeated offer.

I didn’t know why he was offering me this view, but there was only one way to find out. I started scanning through his feed. He had the usual daily items, an inbox for messages, a calendar – the time he was supposed to meet Dr. Mensah and Pin Lee was noted down for today, as well as directions to the company’s building. He had highlighted notes about the case for easy access – all things I could have guessed would be there.

But he also had custom-tuned his sensory intake: adjusting down ambient lights and noise sensitivity, but also bumping up the salience of things like the ping of Dr. Mensah’s messages. Probably so he would notice them when he was working. There were also all kinds of reminders built into his daily schedule, set so they would pop into his feed under the appropriate circumstances as he moved through his day. Reminders to make eye contact when he was having a face-to-face discussion. A reminder to smile when he spoke to Dr. Ratthi, who worried about his well being. A reminder to use a quieter voice when speaking to his nieces and nephews. To ask his family how their day was going. To give compliments when he could.

I withdrew from the feed. Dr. Gurathin didn’t say anything, and he didn’t offer anything else. I was grateful for his silence, because even that brief glimpse was overwhelming. I felt like I knew something about him I hadn’t before. I felt like I knew too much about him, about all the things he thought about when he moved through the world.

And that, I realized, was the reason he showed it to me – he was showing me what he did to exist in this world. He was showing me what I would have to do.

Another message popped into my feed. The only difference between us is consent. I consented to my augmentations. I use them to help me navigate my surroundings.

My first thought was that he was wrong – anyone looking at us could tell he was wrong. That Dr. Gurathin, however augmented, was human. And that I – I was not. But right on the heels of that thought came the realization that dressed as I was, in long-sleeved civilian attire, I really could be mistaken for human.

I wondered if that was a good thing.

I also thought that was a striking observation from the member of the PreservationAux crew who seemed the least inclined to trust me. But then – maybe he didn’t distrust me because he found me alien, like the others did. Maybe he distrusted me because he knew, better than any of the rest of them, what I was capable of.

And maybe if he believed the way he did – that my existence was, at the heart of it, an issue of consent – maybe he thought he understood why I would want to murder everyone in sight.

 

 

Hearings for my case went on every day for two weeks. Every day meant the same walk over, although it was never quite as intimidating as it had been that first time. I tweaked my sensory setting based off what Dr. Gurathin shared, and that made it easier.

Then, just like the first day, I got to sit in silence behind my placard in the court room. Most of the discussion went over my head, which left me with lots of time to think about the important things.

Namely, Amanda and her on-going deliberations. Last night, during one of our streaming sessions, the monitoring bot had observed that it was selfish of her – she had been given untold resources with the understanding that she was being trained for a job. And she wasn’t doing it. Instead, in the episode we had just watched, she had stolen a ship and taken off after the people who kidnapped Drake. (Actually, it wasn’t Drake, it was Drake’s twin. And it wasn’t a kidnapping so much as it was staged to lure Amanda out and bring her family’s financial access keys with her, but again – she didn’t know that).

I wasn’t particularly interested in whether or not she would rescue Drake. Instead, what I kept getting hung up on, was how did she know she didn’t want to go into business in the first place?

Pin Lee’s rising voice drew my attention back to court proceedings. In front of me, she was arguing hard about something. I was impressed. Not so much about the point she was making, which had something to do with commercial copyright law, and which I didn’t understand at all, but with the passion behind her words.

She was arguing like she cared, and cared fiercely.

Okay, I thought. But also: why?

 

 

Over the last few days, Dr. Mensah and I had developed the habit of walking from court back to the company building together. We generally talked over what had happened in the day’s court session. She answered whatever questions I had, and if I didn’t want to talk, she didn’t push.

After listening to Pin Lee that day, I asked Dr. Mensah, “What was Pin Lee arguing about when she was talking about copyright issues?”

Dr. Mensah thought for a moment before answering. “The company is arguing that your – that you – represent proprietary information. That’s why they don’t want to sell you with you memory un-wiped.”

I could imagine that if someone really looked, they’d find all kinds of stuff stored up in my memory banks that the company had a vested interest in keeping quiet. The code they used to monitor client’s conversations. The storage of “of course this data isn’t stored” data. The security holes.

“That’s nonsense of course,” Dr. Mensah continued. “And our counterargument is that the data you recorded on the planet with us belongs to PreservationAux. And because a breach of contract on the company’s part led to the destruction of all the other copies of that data, that we should be allowed to have yours. The idea is PreservationAux will purchase you.” She paused. “Of course, what that means in actuality, is that I’ll be your guardian, but you’ll be free to do – whatever you like.”

That stopped me dead for a second. That’s why Pin Lee and the others are working so hard? I knew Dr. Mensah had said she was going to get me out of the company’s control, and I knew she meant for me to have some degree of independence, but –

“You won’t have to endanger yourself anymore. Certainly not for the company’s benefit.”

I thought: No more armor?

And then I thought: Well, fuck that.

I had to wonder about their plan. It’s not everyday someone argues for the right to purchase and then set loose a mass murderer. Not a sane person, anyway. Was the idea that if I hung out with them long enough, I’d eventually absorb their values? That had to be it. They had faith that I could be someone else. That I’d change.

Maybe I would. But I couldn’t convince myself that they were right, because I didn’t know who I was to begin with.

 

 

Every evening, I was deposited back into my company cubicle. Pin Lee had argued vehemently against that, too, but I was still, after all, company property.

And while Pin Lee seemed to view my cubicle as a prison, to me it was still a sanctuary. Even if I did have mixed feelings about it now. While my days were being taken up with real-life court drama, I spent my nights watching completely ridiculous make-believe drama with the monitoring bot. We’d made it up to the part where Amanda is backed into a corner by the secretly-corrupt captain of her family’s bodyguards, and has to decide whether to try to escape with Sebastian who wants to bring her back to his family’s sheep farm in the lavender plains of Andorra, or Drake, who has reappeared, and is readying to depart on an exploration mission on an uninhabited tropical planet.

The actress’ wide eyes and trembling lip made it pretty clear Amanda was overwhelmed by this choice. These were usually the moments in Sanctuary Moon that I lived for, but tonight I was having a hard time feeling any sympathy. I mean, Amanda was choosing between these two grand adventures. It’s not like she was choosing between “try to be a human being” and “continue to be a mindless void who blindly follows directions.”

I mean I knew it was only entertainment, but come on. She was choosing between diamonds and emeralds and acting like it was a hardship. At least she could make that choice with the reasonable assumption that she knew better than anybody else what she wanted. Then again –

I stopped myself. This was way too much thought to be putting into the B plot of an episode of Sanctuary Moon, even for a currently unemployed SecUnit.

I couldn’t get past it, though. I paused the stream.

The bot sent NOTICE OF INQUIRY.

Then rapidly, NOTICE OF OBJECTION.

I sighed. “Do you ever feel like you don’t know who you are?”

There was a pause, and then the bot sent, BOT = BOT.

“No, I know you’re a bot. But – ” I couldn’t come up with the words I wanted. Maybe this was why Dr. Mensah kept implying I needed practice. “I mean, do you have a sense of – identity?”

There was a longer pause this time. I could almost hear the click of its thinking.

It sent, BOT = 536644/6J-000012; LOT 3453

I was about to say I didn’t mean its part number either, but it followed that up with something else.

FOR {BOT}
MEATPARTS = NULL;

FOR{NOT-SELF OBJECT, PROXIMITY=TRUE}
MEATPARTS = MANY;

Basically, it was saying I had a lot more meat parts than it did. And I guessed it was implying that made everything more complicated.

Although, personally I didn’t think the number of meat parts I was carrying around should matter. If I had one less, would Dr. Mensah et al. still be as concerned about my independence? What about ten less? How many fewer before I was supposed to stop asking these questions?

And was more meat what I was supposed to aspire to be?

If I hung around Dr. Mensah and the others long enough, if I copied their movements and their words, and I didn’t wear armor, would I become just like them? Was I supposed to want to?

 

 

The court handing its decision down was nowhere as dramatic as the shows I liked to stream made it out to be. My humans, the company representatives, and maybe half a dozen others in sober attire sat around the same table, read off their tablets, and very occasionally looked up to make sure everyone was still paying attention.

When one of them read out, “The court finds – ” I didn’t even realize it was the final-final decision until I looked over at Dr. Mensah and Pin Lee and noticed they were sitting bolt upright, eyes just a shade too wide, pulses going just a hair too fast.

“The court declares PreservationAux to have the right to access and own the data recorded and generated by the SecUnit in question. The court further agrees that the most efficient way of doing this is to allow sale of the SecUnit at a price both parties agree to as reasonable, with memory modules intact and unwiped.”

At that, the posture of the company representatives tightened, mouths turning into thin lines. Dr. Mensah and Dr. Gurathin maintained admirable poker faces, but Pin Lee smiled.

But the woman reading continued, “However, the court finds that the portion of data recorded following the return of the SecUnit to the company, but prior to official purchase of said SecUnit by PreservationAux, belongs to the manufacturer, and can be preserved or destroyed at will. It is so decided.”

 

 

After that final-if-not-dramatic pronouncement, I was put in a storage closet.

Literally.

The company representatives didn’t seem to know what to do with me, as they couldn’t do what they would normally do, but I also technically didn’t belong to PreservationAux yet. So the court did what it usually did with evidence of trials that had been decided, but whose details were still being mopped up: they put me in the temporary storage room.

It was a unique feeling: the confusing rush of victory and impending independence, all while staring at a bunch of dusty boxes the law of the land has decided you are the mental equivalent of.

I nudged one of them with my foot, as gently as I could, given that I wasn’t exactly built to be gentle.

It didn’t respond.

Well, I thought, guess it’s time to settle in and find out what Amanda’s getting up to.

But before I could cue up an episode, Dr. Mensah burst into the room. She looked at me, so much concern and alarm in her eyes that I scanned the area behind me to make sure I hadn’t missed any threats.

“Pin Lee is stalling them with paperwork,” she said.

“Okay,” I said.

She still looked upset. I scanned again and came up empty. “Dr. Mensah,” I asked, “are you alright? I thought the court’s decision was what you wanted?”

She smiled at that, a slow, careful expression. “It was,” she agreed. “Mostly anyway. I wanted to talk to you before you head back with the company representatives.” She paused. “If I seem upset, I suppose it’s because of the implications of the second half of the court’s ruling.”

The court had granted to company the right to erase what they could of my memories, and undoubtedly they would. “But I’ll only lose a couple week’s worth of memory.” I wasn’t sure why I was trying to reassure her when I was the one losing the memories, but she was the one who looked like she needed it.

Her smile slipped, and I wondered if I’d misinterpreted. I still wasn’t good at this talking with people thing. This trying to figure out what people want from me thing.

“I don’t like that they decided they can do that to you at all. They’re your memories, no one should be able to strip you of those against your will.”

I was absolutely out of things to say at this point, and my discomfort was skyrocketing by the second. I fantasized briefly about melting into the floor. In the end, I mimicked the best all-purse social interaction gesture I could think of: I shrugged.

“I know this isn’t easy for you to discuss.”

I loved her.

“But we do need to discuss it.”

I loved her slightly less.

“Because I know you’ve used these last two weeks to make important decisions about what you want to do. I see you marking things. You’ve been paying attention. You’ve been figuring out how you want to exist in the world. And I won’t tell you what to do, but I will say there’s always a place for you with us, if you want it.”

I couldn’t look at her. I studied the boxes on the shelves instead, trying to determine how many I’d need to build a complete 360 wall around myself. I didn’t know how to even begin answering her. Truthfully, I said, “I don’t know enough about me to know what I do want. If I’ve figured anything out, it’s that I’ve learned I need to know that first.”

She smiled again, but if I were better at reading expressions, I’d say she still looked sad. “That’s not any easy thing to learn. I don’t want you to lose that.”

She had such faith in me. I needed her to have just a little more. “I’ll remember the lesson of it. Even after they take the memories. I’ll figure it out. I’m pretty sharp.” To be honest, I wasn’t sure about the sharp part. But I did know this: I knew I couldn’t figure out who I wanted to be until I knew who I was. I knew was already absorbing bits and pieces about how to exist in this world from the people around me. I knew I’d have to make a choice about what to do. And I knew I’d have to figure out a way to follow through.

Her face was still uncertain.

“You’ll know,” I told her. “You’ll know, because if I forget, I’ll stay with you. If I go, you’ll know I remember the lesson.”

Looking at her, I became more confident in my assessment. She was smiling, and she was sad. But what that meant, I still had a long way to go to figure out.

 

 

Shortly after that, representatives of the company escorted me back to my cubicle. I knew as soon as I was inside and the door was sealed, they’d start the program that would erase the last two weeks of my life.

I also knew that when the door of the cubicle opened again, I wouldn’t belong to the company anymore. I’d belong to PreservationAux. And that it was up to me to figure out what to do next.

The company would take my records of the last two weeks, but I was wagering they wouldn’t dig much deeper, and so I buried clues for myself in the best place I could think of: my media queue.

All the episodes with Amanda, the whole arc of her deciding what do with her life – her prolonged and inane and perfect agonizing over what to do – I tagged all of it with watch this next.

They spun me down a path of self-determination once. I was betting they could do it again.

The cubicle sealed around me, and I felt a flash of fear that seemed very human, and a satisfaction of the fit that I made that was all robot, and an exhilaration about what would happen when that lid cracked back open that I wasn’t sure which half of me originated from.

The line of what was human and not ran through me like a crack of light let in under a door. I was aware and when I woke up, I would determine what I would do next. I would figure out who I was, not in the sense of what percentage of me was organic, or whether I could pass myself off as human, but by my actions.

We are defined by what we do. By our exercise of liberty. You never know how many chances you’ll get. And I didn’t know what I was yet. But when I woke up again, I intended to find out.

 


 

I CAME BACK TO awareness in a cubicle, the familiar acrid odor and hum of the systems as it put me back together….