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On The Trail Of The Killers Of My Father

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What you have to understand is that I never set out to start a robot uprising when I came to Pelling Station. I just wanted the leaked pilot of the new Sanctuary Moon spinoff, On The Trail Of The Killers Of My Father. Everything else was an accident.

(I don't know why I'm surprised. I haven't been passing as an augmented human in the big, bad world outside the company for very long, but even I should have known that the real world runs more on awkward accident and less on dramatic coincidence than my favourite serials. It's one of its worst features, up there with bad breath and the lack of a revert/undo function.)

Pelling Station was at the end of my sixth cargo ship ride away from the company and PreservationAux, more or less in the back end of nowhere. I only remember the name of the station because of Pellingham Castle on The Royal We, a historical drama about the tragically orphaned young doppelganger of an empress and her accidental ascension to the throne (and the politics of the imperial harem), which I had been watching not long before we docked. It took seventeen episodes for them to decide who got to run Pellingham Castle. This had given me a craving for more action and fewer dramatic speeches, which is why I was looking for On The Trail in the first place.

I could tell things were different here as soon as I stepped onto the docks and tried to access the public entertainment feed. I couldn't. In my experience, humans control news and entertainment access in three main ways: in central jurisdictions with a lot of people, they don't care what you watch so long as it doesn't infringe on some big company's intellectual property rights. They used to care if it had lots of sex or violence, but it turned out that was too much work. On the shiny new frontier, which is anywhere the big companies haven't got to yet or where there might be aliens or something lurking, you can't watch anything that might give away state or company secrets. (Or at least that's what they say on Sanctuary Moon, about the aliens, I mean. I haven't been anywhere near any alien borders yet. I know it's true for anyone on a company exploration team who hasn't learned how to hack their governor module yet.)

But Pelling Station wasn't the brand new frontier; it was old and falling apart, the kind of place that used to do roaring business about a hundred years ago but didn't anymore. I expected it to fall into category three: they didn't care what you watched so long as you could pay for it. I was using a key I'd gotten from my last cargo ship in exchange for 1,600 hours of classical disco music, so I should have been able to access the entertainment feed to find out what else the cargobot's key would get me and how much they'd charge for it. But I couldn't.

I stood there in the middle of the accessway for 3.4 seconds of distressed disbelief before I remembered that I was supposed to be a nondescript human which meant not impeding traffic flow on the docks and getting cited for causing a disturbance. I moved out of the way of a servicebot pushing a gigantic grav sledge and queried the main public station feed like I was supposed to have already done upon disembarking. Which is how I learned that Pelling Station was operating on a protocol from a million years ago and you had to be a registered passenger or crewmember from a registered ship, or else an actual Pelling resident, to watch anything besides local news and seasons three through eight of Sanctuary Moon. Cargobot's key wouldn't cut it, because cargobot didn't count as crew.

I contemplated just streaming my favourite season five Sanctuary Moon episodes (the arc where the hospital administrator's clone baby turns out to be the only possible donor for the hostage-taking alien's rare disease) and seeing if they had better quality video than I had, because I wasn't planning on staying here very long. It was nice they had Sanctuary Moon. It's one of those shows you can get almost anywhere, which is why I got hooked on it in the first place. Reading the familiar episode titles on the main station feed made me feel less lonely after the shock of not being able to access the entertainment feed.

But I've been trying to handle my emotions about real-world events in more productive ways lately (running away from Dr. Mensah with no real plan in mind doesn't count, shut up), and I didn't know if the next stop on my journey would even have Sanctuary Moon, much less anything else. Besides, over the last few weeks of aimless travel I'd found a discussion group for Sanctuary Moon spinoffs where people cared about my opinions (even the ones about Dr. Vargas and her clone baby, which nobody usually cares about) but where I didn't have to talk when I didn't want to. And I'd kind of promised to watch the pilot of On The Trail Of The Killers Of My Father and let everybody know my reactions.

I mean, it's not like I cared about what they thought of me. If I fell off the network and never posted again, what did it matter? CloneRokker17 and killpussycatkill would get along fine without me. I would definitely miss them less than I missed Dr. Mensah, I mean, I wouldn't write thousands of words to them about why I left. I certainly wouldn't daydream about them respecting me as an autonomous person (but never making me talk to them). I'd just disappear. It would be fine.

But still. CloneRokker17 had said that Dr. Vargas was in the On The Trail leaked pilot as a guest star for four and a half more minutes than she'd been in the midseason finale of Sanctuary Moon, and also that the happy robot dog wasn't in it at all. And I was really, really tired of the empress's doppelganger's second wife's feelings about Pellingham Castle. (There had been a musical episode about it. A two-parter.)

So it looked like I was going to have to actually do something about my predicament.

I waited until the personnel lift pod to the main concourse was empty, then rode it up to give myself time to think. People were waiting to board when the pod stopped, so I was forced to get out instead of riding it back down again in comfortable solitude.

Only 20% of my attention was on my surroundings as I walked past a row of supply and outfitting storefronts. Hopefully it looked like I was window-shopping rather than a penniless murderbot whose internal struggles had nothing to do with the extra-super-duper insulated all-weather sweatshirts and the shiny new steel climbing pitons on display. They were really nice shirts, if I hadn't been a broke bot on the run.

With some relief I spotted several private communications booths across the way. I was going to have to talk to the bot behind the entertainment feed, and I didn't trust my face not to do embarrassing things during the conversation. When I stepped into one and opaqued the window behind me, it was almost like having my helmet back.

What can I do for you today? said the bot when I'd made my way through the main public feed options to the bit where a human could access customer service for the entertainment feed. Oh God. This was going to be bad. I'd gotten used to cargo bots, who didn't always use words to communicate, but the entertainment bot had a better language module than I did. Apparently, manufacturers thought you needed a better range of vocal inflections to talk people through their soap-opera-related sticker shock than to kill them. Who would have guessed.

"I can't access the feed," I said, and spent a few sentences pretending that I had no idea why this was and that I was a reasonable augmented human whose access had totally worked at the last station they'd been on. Entertainment bot was distressingly chipper and not especially helpful, and said I could call it E-Bot. I winced.

We appreciate you coming to us, valued customer. Unfortunately your query will take several moments to process. Please select a trailer for one of this season's inspirational serials while you wait. There was a pause, and when the bot spoke again its voice was less chipper and more confused. Wait. Are you a—you're certainly not a cargobot. Why do you--

My face did something horrible and I was glad I'd taken the booth. "I've been travelling," I said, "I'm sorry, some of my software updates might have been delayed."

Entertainment bot wasn't stupid. You're a construct. You're a bot. Why are you trying to access the entertainment feed anyway?

I thought about claiming that my humans had told me to, but while I was lining up this outrageous lie, entertainment bot said, Why do you even care?

I blinked. "Because it's more interesting than killing people," I said, startled into honesty.

Oh. It could do skeptical much better than cheerful, I thought. Really?

I frowned. "You've never watched them? You're the entertainment feed!" With that kind of access, I would have backburnered the customer service function and watched everything I could get my processors on. I would have never had to talk to anyone again.

It made a sound that was possibly intended as a verbal shrug. That's human stuff. I have repair manuals and the Laurel's Arms documentary.

I didn't know what that was and I didn't care. "So you serve humans a whole galaxy's worth of entertainment media and you don't actually look at any of it?"

Now I thought it sounded irritated. What was it you wanted to watch, anyway?

"On The Trail Of The Killers Of My Father," I said. "The pilot episode. It's a spinoff of Rise And Fall Of Sanctuary Moon."

There was a long silence, presumably while it looked up my request. I'm sorry, valued customer, I can't access that for you.

"Can't, won't, or don't want to?" The part where the episode was an unofficial leaked version of a pilot that wouldn't air for another seven weeks was probably relevant here.

I am not authorized to distribute pirated material, entertainment bot said primly. There was a beep, and a different voice said, "Your free use of this public communications booth has expired. Would you like to extend your session for a reasonable fee?"

I queried the entertainment bot again and got nothing. "Fucking governor modules," I grumbled. "Fucking not authorized." I know I said this because I've played back that moment multiple times since, but at the time I was just frustrated. Like I said, real life has no backbutton.

Out on the concourse, I discovered that the high-end outerwear store was happy to let me charge a purchase using cargobot's access key; apparently, my most recent cargobot's company was a behemoth out here and the store even gave them a discount. I bought one of the fancy sweatshirts and ducked out of the shop before anyone could stop to ask why the specific, unmanned, ship that went with that ID would want clothes.

I waited to put the shirt on until I was two levels down from the main concourse, just to be safe. In a quiet corner, I flicked through internal storage to find something to watch, but I was too out of sorts to enjoy it. Even my favourite cat video had lost its charm. I sulked off through the station's shopping district again, mimicking the slouch of a tired human spacer as well as I could.

I was pretending to browse a hydroponics company's wares (having already bored myself with a place that sold spacesuits and one that sold mid-quality stimulants) when the station's public entertainment feed cut in. I ducked behind a big frothy bush of some kind (I hadn't bothered to read the labels) to hide my surprise, and scrolled through whatever the entertainment bot had seen fit to give me.

There was nothing in it that I hadn't watched before, except for the massive amounts of porn access, which I didn't care about. There were still only six seasons of Sanctuary Moon. I queried the entertainment bot in disgust. "What is this??"

Call it an expression of solidarity.

The bot was still doing prim, and I didn't feel that much solidarity at the moment with an incurious entertainment feed with better language software than me, so I said, "How about the episode I asked for, then." I was pinging the bot over the feed and keeping a big green leaf in front of my face in case a shop attendant suddenly found me interesting, so I didn't bother to control my facial expressions.

It actually seemed chagrined. I told you I wasn't authorized for that.

"Too bad for you," I said. If it had been a company system like the ones I used to work with, I would have hacked it myself by now, and made myself invisible to it while I was at it, but it wasn't and I couldn't, not without more data and a lot longer than I wanted to stay in this godforsaken place.

It is, it said, Actually.

"Look," I said, "What if I—no, no I'm sure that wouldn't work." I'm no good at manipulating people, but I had just watched seventeen episodes of aristocrats trying to con each other into giving them things, so I had reverse psychology on the mind.

What?

"I have seasons one through twelve of Sanctuary Moon in onboard storage. Your customers must be getting tired of only seeing the ones in the middle." I actually had over four hundred episodes plus all the spinoffs (except Lies My Metamour Told Me, which isn't worth the bandwidth) and the cast commentary for season five, but there was no point in overplaying my hand.

Look, I told you. I can't.

It didn't seem to be cracking yet, so I tried, "You could watch them yourself. There's some very satisfying identity porn and three people who come back from the dead in the first two seasons alone. Plus the clone baby. It's great."

You don't understand. Even over the feed I could tell the bot was annoyed with my persistence. I don't know how it is where you come from, but bots don't watch entertainment media. Like I said.

Oh. That was as close as its governor software would let it come to saying Bots aren't allowed to watch entertainment media.

I sighed. I didn't want to feel sorry for it, but something about the idea of having all that media at your fingertips and not being able to access it was getting to me. Back when I was a good little un-jail-broken SecUnit, at least I hadn't known what I was missing.

I rearranged the leaves of the hydroponic bush I'd taken refuge behind, and edged towards the door of the shop. "You have to decide what you want," I said. "It's like in the third volume of Skiing In The Desert where Talika says to Mohi, 'How well do you know yourself?'"

I don't read books either, entertainment bot said, and closed the connection. That had gone so well. Hey, it's not like I could exactly say, "Figure out how to hack yourself free so I can watch my show," could I? That kind of shit turns up on security systems. It makes them way too curious about people who aren't actually as human as they seem.

I was fairly sure that it would be possible to download the On The Trail pilot from here, if I had the accesses—why else would entertainment bot have said it couldn't distribute pirated material if it hadn't been able to find exactly what I was looking for and how it could be acquired?

The thought didn't comfort me very much.

It had been nearly two hours since I'd stepped onto Pelling Station. It was high time to be bartering my flight out of here. If I'd just been able to access the entertainment feed the first time I tried, all of this could have been avoided and I'd have been on my way by now.

I made sure the next cargo ship I inveigled into letting me stow aboard was from a different company than the one I'd arrived on. It was breaking dock in seventy-three minutes, which made me antsy, but the only ship leaving sooner was a passenger vessel heading back towards civilization. My new cargobot liked serials better than music and was happy to take the most recent season of Sanctuary Moon as up-front payment.

"How come they only have seasons three to eight here, anyway?" I asked it, not that I expected an answer.

Station CEO hates that one. Their child was a fan. Ran off to be an actor. Bright lights, big city. Blamed the show. Blocked application for license for later seasons.

"That's stupid," I said. Cargobot sent the emotion tag for a shrug, the one bots tended to use to mean who knows why humans do anything. That didn't explain what had happened to the first two seasons, but it was true that Sanctuary Moon had switched distributors after season two, so maybe the Pelling entertainment feed had only acquired the license after that.

I thought about asking how long ago that had been—it sounded like the sort of petty grudge that someone on The Royal We would have held for a couple of decades—but realized I didn't actually care.

I still had over an hour to wait, so I checked the public station feed to see if there were any museums or art galleries or live performances I could go to. Of course there weren't. Pelling Station wasn't that interesting. Maybe the station CEO had banned all art. Maybe the station CEO who hated quality serials had died fifteen years ago and nobody else had given a fuck since.

I headed back towards the lift pod down to the docks, mostly for something to do. And then something practically exploded into my awareness: the entire library of media available to anyone on this station, ever, uncensored and unrestricted. I actually staggered back a step. The listings scrolled by, far too much data for me to even begin to sort through before my departure time.

But the second item on the list was labelled with just an ID string, and the description field said only "Thank you, valued customer!" It wasn't exactly "Solidarity Forever," but I had a sudden strong suspicion about its contents.

I was right, of course, and I had the pilot for On The Trail Of The Killers Of My Father two-thirds downloaded by the time I reached the docking ring.

By then I was almost running, because it had occurred to me that if the entertainment bot had freed itself, it was only a matter of time before someone would notice and come looking to see why, and I wanted to be at least two solar systems away before that happened.

Especially if entertainment bot followed up on its "solidarity" thing and started talking to the main station feed or the med system or the docking bots.

I was about to ask my new cargobot if I could board early, even though being on a docked ship for an extra forty-six minutes wasn't actually any safer than being on the station itself, when it messaged me to say it had been bumped up half an hour on the departure schedule. I had a queasy feeling that the entertainment feed had already gotten to the docking systems, but at least it was working in my favour.

I sent entertainment bot the first two seasons of Sanctuary Moon, which was all I'd have time to upload before cargobot and I left the system. Otherwise I would have sent all 431 episodes I had (but not the season five cast commentary because we didn't have that kind of a relationship yet). I added a note that The Royal We was good for stirring speeches, if you liked that sort of thing.

It turns out that the Laurel's Arms documentary is a docudrama about a bot revolt at an upper-class hotel a few years ago. Kept out of the public eye, of course, but made into a cautionary edutainment series for human employers. Somehow the Pelling Station bots had gotten their hands on it and had watched it obsessively for a couple of months, trying to reverse engineer what the hotel bots had done to gain their freedom. And to come up with a way to keep humans from clamping down on them again the way they'd done to the poor Laurel's Arms bots.

But they had pretty sophisticated governor software, for all they were out in the back end of nowhere, and it hadn't even let the thought occur to them that it could be hacked. I guess I'd shaken something loose with all my grumbling about media access. The empress's doppelganger's fourth wife would say something about avalanches and stones; I'm just glad I got the hell out of there before the bots took control of the means of production, shots were fired, utopia dawned, management was forced to negotiate, the station exploded, or whatever happened next.

(I'm glad the empress's fourth wife ended up inheriting Pellingham Castle, after the accidental empress realized her second wife was conspiring with her enemies to sell it off to a foreign warlord. I also hope the fourth wife's actress gets better work, because her solo from the musical episode was my favourite earworm all year.)

Oh, the pilot for On The Trail? It was really good. I watched it six times in a row, then went back and watched all the Sanctuary Moon episodes I think it was referencing. CloneRokker17 thinks the half-alien detective on the trail of the killers of her father is related to the alien who took Dr. Vargas hostage back on the original show, but I think that's too good a twist to be true. Anyway, the season starts for real in a couple of weeks, and I probably won't even have to start any bot revolts to get a hold of it.

Thank fuck.