“Well,” said Captain Ky-Yen. “That is fucked up.”
I wasn’t about to argue. The corpse was indisputably fucked up; half of it had been melted and half of it had possibly been chewed on and all of it was spread from one end of the room to the other. I also wasn’t about to argue because at that point I hadn’t hacked my governor module, but I wouldn’t have argued even if I had.
The corpse was a SecUnit, so guess who got to clean it up?
Contrary to what the holos have to say, SecUnits don’t get sentimental about other SecUnits. I’m not sentimental about massacring a bunch of people, do you think I care about other SecUnits? Plus, I don’t like cleaning. Cleaning is almost up there with interacting with humans in my Nope list, and besides, that’s what HubSystem has cleaning drones for.
Still, no amount of “That function is not part of this unit’s duty statement” will work with some people. Ky-Yen was one of them. To be fair, he worked everyone else that hard too, but they all had duties that involved not cleaning up bloody remains.
“Do you think it…malfunctioned?” asked Nina, behind us.
Nina was a geologist, so she could be forgiven for being stupid.
“Company technology—“ I began, because I still had a functioning governor unit and I really, really needed to explain that the company wasn’t held together with spray adhesive and grime.
“Your input is not required, SecUnit,” said Ky-Yen. “Just clean the fucking room.”
I gave no verbal reply, just got down to it. Dragged the deactivated SecUnit into a recycler where it could be harvested for parts, washed off the floor, and the walls, and the light panels, and behind the screens, and decided on balance to recycle the soft furnishings in the now-destroyed rec room of the Hub. While I worked, Nina and Ky-Yen talked.
I ignored them. I was recording, but I didn’t have to actively listen to it. Snatches of conversation drifted to me, and I wished I had access to the entertainment feeds, just so I had something to listen to that wasn’t Nina and Ky-Yen arguing about how the SecUnit got fucked up.
To distract myself, I ran through the steps I’d need to take to hack my governor module. I’d accidentally been sent the specs for all the company systems when they brought me online for this job, and the company was actually held together with spray adhesive and grime and didn’t bother to isolate or change their systems overly much, and henceforth I was in the process of working out how to hack myself. Or possibly fry myself. But I thought I might reasonably be able to cut my tether and then…
…then I would know that no-one else could force me to go on a killing spree.
That said, if I had had to listen to the Mertz/Nina/Ky-Yen triangle arguing with each other much more, there was a possibility I was going to start shooting. Most of my functions on all of my missions have included monitoring the crew, and while I am not averse to filmed or holographic drama, the Mertz/Nina/Ky-Yen thing was dull. They argued over who had to put the food in the heating cubby, and who had to recycle the empty packets (spoiler: me). They argued over who got to wear a particular blue jacket that Ky-Yen owned and the other two seemed incapable of ever taking off. They argued over who got to sleep in the middle on the rare nights they were all off-shift together. They argued about the seat configuration in the head, the seat configuration in the hopper, the seat configuration in the shuttle, the seat configuration in the rec room, and once, the seat configuration in an empty ice field where there were no seats, only marginally softer patches of snow.
And now two of them were standing in the middle of a critical failure (read: blood-spattered hell room) where a SecUnit had apparently gotten all over the walls and the others in their team were missing, and Nina and Ky-Yen had moved on to arguing over who took the last pink pair of socks from their shared locker because Ky-Yen wanted fresh socks for the rescue mission.
Wiping the last of the blood from the floor, I envied the dead SecUnit.
We’d been out prospecting when the other SecUnit got fucked up and the rest of the group went walkies. Ky-Yen’s company intended to export snow from this frozen wasteland of a planet, and sell it to luxury space stations that wanted zero-g ski runs. The only zero-g ski run I’ve ever seen is the one in Agent Naxos, Planetary Defender, and so I understood the basic principle; I just can’t see why anyone would want to willingly expose themselves to snow and ice when humans made space stations for the express purpose of avoiding the weather. We’d found some boring shelf of ice that Ky-Yen got excited about, and Nina claimed there were particular minerals sitting under it that would also fetch a packet in export, and everyone was happy except for Murderbot, because my armour is shielded for cold but not for prolonged exposure to extreme cold, and I’d lost all feeling in the organic parts of my feet.
And then we came back to the Hub and all of them were gone, including the third part of the three-body problem, Mertz.
“I’m going to go back through the archived feeds,” said Ky-Yen, which, too late, I was already doing that while I cleaned, and I had the answer to one part of the story. They’d left the SecUnit behind. When it had told them that leaving it behind violated the terms of the contract and would destroy the SecUnit, they hadn’t listened, and instead they’d locked it in the rec room and disabled its accesses to move through the Hub.
They’d left it behind.
I’d never seen the enactment of the distance protocols before. I’m a murderbot; bloody death is, in many ways, what I do. But that SecUnit suffered. I saw the feeds; Nina hadn’t been that far off. It had malfunctioned, but a planned malfunction, not a random we’re-too-cheap-to-do-maintenance malfunction. The conflicting orders — stay with the clients; stay in the room — literally tore it apart. It was a good thing they’d got more than one hundred metres before it had really realised what had been going on, because it probably would have punched its way out through the door. Instead, it had writhed and melted and died, inasmuch as a SecUnit can die. It was at that point, as the other SecUnit was dying, that control and maintenance of the Hub feeds had shifted from it to me. And we’d returned so that I could see close-up what happens when you let certain protocols enact themselves.
All right then. I would make sure that the failure protocols — distance, disobedience, whatever — never had a reason to be enacted on me.
I ignored the humans, but that only worked until they told me to pack supplies into the hopper, and my governor unit went Yes clients! Right away! The hopper was a small craft; the bigger explorer was gone, with the rest of the clients in it. There were seventeen of them in all, hence the two SecUnits. Mertz was the ranking officer in the group left behind, and it was no secret that there was no love lost between the seven mining engineers that they’d brought, the three in command, the trainee geologist, the very lost-looking botanist, the two terraformers, the climatologist, and the Pan-Galactic Games gold medalist in orbital skiing. We had to hope we found the explorer, and the others, or else set off the emergency beacon and hope for the best.
Ky-Yen and Nina decided to each wear one clean pink sock and one dirty pink sock. I was profoundly grateful to be relegated to the cargo compartment in the hopper, where I didn’t have to watch them in person, and I could watch the feeds and fast-forward any conversations about footwear.
The feed from the Explorer had gone down at the same time as the SecUnit had gone down. That was what had called us back to the Hub, actually — HubSystem freaking out about the damaged equipment, and adding several zeroes to the number on Ky-Yen’s bill. We could follow the ion trail, because this planet was a snowy wasteland so there wasn’t anything particularly local to disturb it, but we had no answers as to what might be happening otherwise. There wasn’t a window in the cargo compartment, but I could switch to the camera feed on the outside of the hopper. I had my armour and my guns, but I needed to know if I’d need something bigger; if there were unexpected hostile yetis outside or something like that.
The icy wasteland spread out from horizon to horizon. There weren’t any hills, particularly, but we skimmed over long plains, striated with huge, deep surface cracks that glowed an azure blue against the white powder of the snow. As the feed of the exterior camera rolled, I considered when I was going to hack myself. Every day I didn’t do it brought me closer to another order like the one I’d been unable to refuse — the one where I’d killed 57 clients. I had to do it. I had to.
The only problem was, would I end up looking like the SecUnit back at the Hub? If I got even the smallest step wrong, I could trigger my own destruction, because the company wasn’t stupid, and had paid for a range of self-destruct conditions, including hacking the governor, getting more than 100 m from a client, and, in the wake of my latest mission, the deliberate killing of more than 30% of a client party without company — not client — approval. Apparently it’s fine to be a murderbot for one or two murders, but once you get into mass murder, that’s frowned upon. And the company had gone with the “faulty SecUnit” story, rather than the “we were paid a lot of money to do this” story, so they’d had to make an effort to cover if one of us went on another murder spree. Which I was going to make certain I wouldn’t, even if it killed me.
But then again, was death really any worse than having to spend time on an enormous ice cube with clients who thought that sharing socks was somehow acceptable?
I wasn’t so caught up in my thoughts that I missed the enormous shadow of the Explorer, space-grey against the white expanse. We circled, set down, and I had to leave the cargo compartment, which was a shame, because I’d been enjoying being cargo.
If Ky-Yen had told me to go first, I would probably have spotted the trap before he stepped into it, but because I was cargo, I got to go last, and so Ky-Yen and Nina walked straight into the not-very-sophisticated pit trap, and we were caught flat-footed by the coterie of mining engineers and terraformers who, as it turned out, were sick of Ky-Yen’s shit and had decided that if anyone was going to make money from selling snow to space stations, it was going to be them.
They’d left the SecUnit so that it didn’t record the mutiny. Never mind that Ky-Yen’s name was on all the documents, or that people might notice if suddenly a) half the recorded crew went missing, and b) the planet was exporting snow under a different banner; but points for trying, I guess? And they’d taken Mertz as security.
And the plan was to leave me, Nina, Mertz and Ky-Yen here, with some supplies.
“It’s not like we want to kill you,” explained the ringleader, a mining engineer named Nermal. He looked like a Nermal. “We just need to slow you down until we’ve got the claims into the central bureaucracy. And besides, a week of walking together in the snow might do wonders for your relationship.”
Had I known then what I know now, I would have known that marooning bickering lovers on an ice planet so that they could sort it out was the major B- plot line for an entire season of Captain on the Bridge. The lovers bickered, lost some minor appendages to frostbite, and generally learned to live and love one another. There were some bits I fast-forwarded. But the point is, Nermal was boring enough that he stole a mutiny plot from a third-tier holodrama instead of making up his own.
It was at this point that the Pan-Galactic champion spoke up.
“I…” said Petra Ptchinski. “I am not really down for marooning people? I can’t afford to lose sponsors, and it seems like kind of a dick move to just leave people on an ice world to make their own way across the tundra?”
Beside her, the confused little botanist burst into tears. “There’s plenty of ice on the planet,” he said. “There’s enough ice for everyone. And there’s some really cool algae that might be useful once we…”
“Not the time, GT,” said Nermal.
“But I never agreed to mutiny,” said GT, tears freezing when they hit his jacket. “I never ever agreed to…I thought we were just going to let them know that they had to do things our way, and that would be it.”
Nermal smacked him, which did nothing to stop the tears, and everything to make everyone else make horrified noises as GT the little botanist went over like a felled sapling.
“If you never agreed, then you’ll be happy to stay with them,” said Nermal.
“SecUnit,” said Ky-Yen.
“I can only kill 30% of them without a direct order from the company,” I replied.
“Good enough,” said Ky-Yen, and then the climatologist hit me in the back with an icepick, and I suffered a sudden and uncomfortable systems failure.
I woke in the snow, with a feeling like my back had been split open and then put clumsily back together. On reflection, it had; GT was quivering next to me, and I was aching but whole.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“I am functional,” I replied, because what sort of idiot asks a SecUnit how it feels? My feeds were immediately up, and processing the situation. In the time that I’d been ice picked unconscious, we’d been marooned. Thankfully, all of them had put their helmets on to limit the exposure of their skin to the cold, but not-so-thankfully, they had all left their comms channels open. Nina and Mertz were arguing about how to make a sled from cargo crates to carry the food that the mutineers had left us, Ky-Yen was brooding and looking at the horizon, GT was looking at me through the plexiglass of his faceplate with an expression that he probably thought looked worried but sort of looked constipated, and the medalist was actually making the sled, as opposed to arguing about how to make skis from the bottom rungs of a plastic pallet.
“What’s the best route to the beacon?” asked a voice behind me, and I turned to see Ky-Yen. It took mere moments to work out what he was thinking.
“The beacon isn’t our best bet,” I said. “We’re due for pickup within the window of time it will take us to walk there, assuming that you make half your maximum treadmill velocity per day.” It wasn’t an exact calculation, and I suspected they’d go slower still, but flattering clients was part and parcel of the governor.
“We make for the Hub,” I said. “The mutineers have left it — too much to pack up, I think. We’ll most likely get there in time to put everyone into medical stasis, and await rescue.”
“And in the meantime, they put the mining claim in.”
“Yes,” I said.
“The first claims system is the dumbest fucking thing, sometimes,” said Ky-Yen, moodily. “All right. Let’s get this sled together. Lay on, McDuff.”
“My designation is not—“ I began.
“Humour, SecUnit,” he said. “Go help Petra.”
We got a close approximation of a sled happening. Guess who got to pull it, complete with all our supplies? Murderbot, come on down! So I was trudging into the wind, and my organic parts were starting to shut down to maintain overall system integrity, and that was the entirety of the first day, all of us too sore and tired and shocked to even complain.
Well, that, and I had a functioning governor module, so complaining was literally not in my vocabulary.
We all huddled for warmth in the portable geodesic dome overnight, and we got started early the next day, my homing function drawing me to the Hub, even as I struggled to lift my feet. I’d long since given up wiping the snow from my helmet, and I was making do with the thermal sensors in my suit, pushing on, even when the humans around me were whining about wanting to give up.
I’m not proud of what I did next.
I fell in a hole.
Not just a hole, an icy hole of death that had me plummeting what felt like miles towards the planet’s core. Properly, I was in a moulin, water rushing below. I finally slowed my descent, but it was too late — I was stuck. Thankfully, the rope hooking me to the sled had unwound, and so the sled was just teetering somewhere above, not joining me in my hole, but I was in a hole, and feeling fairly stupid for it.
All at once, my body burning with cold, I realised what was happening. I was drifting away from the clients. More specifically, I was drifting into the fucked-up-distance-protocols range. I might not die in the hole, but I might well get left behind, at which point I would tear myself limb from limb, and those limbs would get trapped in the ice like a dismembered insect in amber, and I’d wind up giving future archeologists a hell of a scare.
I had finally come to the point where I had no excuse not to crack my governor, I thought, with a sort of distant thrill. I’d been circling around the idea for a while, so it wasn’t exactly news, but the further from me the humans got, the worse my symptoms would get, and the worse shape I’d be in trying to assemble and run the hack.
So I did it.
I felt the moment that the governor’s limiting functions stopped working, and I retained my access to the feeds, and then I dug my aching fingers into the ice-wall and started hauling myself up it. Something hit my helmet, and I realised that the humans had lowered a rope. It was only a minute’s work to secure it, and then they were hauling me up, until I scrabbled back over the edge of the icy canyon, looking at them all in bewilderment, thankful for the privacy of my faceplate. Ky-Yen clapped me on the shoulder.
“Knew you’d make it,” he said. “Good work.”
I don’t like it when humans treat me like I’m one of them. I think I’ve been pretty clear on this in the past, but just to reiterate; it is distinctly uncomfortable when the humans treat me like I’m one of them. I flinched, because there was no governor to make me not-flinch. Ky-Yen didn’t seem to notice.
“All right, people,” he said. “We need to keep pushing on.”
I poked experimentally at the feeds as I walked. There was no activity at the Hub, which told me that my earlier surmise had been correct — the mutineers had just left the planet, no bothering about collecting people or things from the Hub. No activity at the beacon, but it was definitely too far to reach without a Hopper. The medical feeds for the crew were all right — Petra was faring the best, which was hardly surprising. What was surprising was that Nina was worst off— her core temperature was the lowest out of all of them. I buzzed Ky-Yen’s comm with a text-only message to let him know that configurations and rosters be damned, Nina needed to sleep in the middle tonight.
He looked over at me, cocking an eyebrow. “You have all of us on feed?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Can you see the mutineers?”
“No,” I replied. “They’re out of range.”
“Damn.” He kept trudging. “I really thought we had something here.”
“It’s a very big planet,” GT offered. “You could sell snow from different hemispheres?”
A slight wind was picking up, blowing the powder around our feet. If most of us didn’t end up with an amputation from this, I was going to be astonished.
“Screw selling snow,” said Ky-Yen. “I’m going to sue the pants off them. We’ve got a SecUnit who is recording everything, and a bunch of witnesses.”
I quickly made sure I’d chopped the footage of my adventure in the hole so that there was no evidence of my corporate espionage. I had. Beside us, Petra chuckled.
“You think that will make a difference? Money talks.”
“Business relies on trust,” said Ky-Yen. “They won’t get another job in our sector.”
Everyone was silent, then, exhaustion taking its toll on the conversation. The wind kept on whipping little gouts of snow crystals around my ankles, and a horrible thought occurred to me. I checked the weather radars.
“We have a problem,” I said, and fed the data to them. “HubSystem should have told us, but—“
“Does it know we’re here?” asked Mertz, the first sensible thing I think I’d ever heard him say. Because of course our GPS units had probably been taken offline. I beamed a query to the Hub — Where do you think I am?
I got back — In the Explorer.
Guess again, buddy, I responded, and pinged my exact coordinates. The same kind of limiting software that stopped a SecUnit from being able to consider mutiny was in operation on HubSystem. Someone had literally told it to forget where we were. It still monitored our location, but it didn’t register it.
So the ping about the massive, violent ice storm that was going to cover us over in a few hours had never come. Because the Hub thought we were in orbit. Wonderful.
“We’ll need to set up the shelter and get prepared to wait,” said Petra, once they’d all looked at the feed. Which — no. No, I was not all right with sitting in a small, weatherproof shelter with this many humans, waiting for an enormous storm to pass us by. But the humans thought I still had a functioning governor, and if I waited outside, there was a good chance I would need to install/regrow new extremities, or that I would drop to a temperature low enough that my systems went into failsafe mode. I wasn’t sure enough of GT’s repairs to take the risk.
We set up the portable geodesic dome in uncomfortable silence as the winds began to pick up, dusting snow into people’s faceplates, and catching the dome before it was done. Thankfully, the baseplate was well-secured, but it nearly didn’t clamp properly, and then we’d have been chasing the dome across the snowy tundra.
“Well,” said Petra, when we were done. “This was a stupid colour to make the dome if we’re hoping to be seen in an ice storm.”
It was white. If there were a search party, they’d have no chance of seeing us.
“I have some marker paint,” said Nina, and Mertz sprayed a large “HeLP uS” on the top of the dome in drippy, flash-frozen letters, and we all piled inside to wait it out. It wasn’t a big dome; the words ‘sardine tin’ come to mind. The humans took their helmets off, as the air pumps started to work to heat and humidify, and they breathed a little easier, their vital signs stabilising. The walls warmed, and the dome settled into the snow.
Do you have us? I asked the Hub.
Yes. Locator locked.
I settled in for an uncomfortable night. I did not remove my helmet, and no-one asked me to, and instead I just lay under the furthest curve of the dome. There was basically enough room for all of us if we sat down in the same direction, although the humans broke up into groups and huddled up, so there was a bit more room than there otherwise might have been. I lay and looked at the feeds, calculating our journey back, the length of the storm, the possible snowfall, the possibility I’d have to dig us out of here. It was almost trancelike. I poked at my systems, checking everything over and over, and I realised, in that moment, that I’d gotten away with it.
I’d cracked my governor. I was free.
Well, actually I was lying on my back in a portable dome and trying to ignore the clients who were almost-but-not-quite copulating with one another, but in theory, I was free.
It took three days for the storm to pass. Three days of huddling in a dome, trying to ignore the smell of the chemical toilet, faceplate blacked out, looking for something better to do. I needed something to do. I’d never needed something to do when I had a functional governor, but that was because I’d learned to be bored. Now, without limits on either my frustration or how few fucks I actually had to give about any given situation, I’d unlearned how to be bored.
I cruised the feeds from the Hub for a while, but they were boring. The mutineers were long gone, the Hub completely empty, the landscape of howling white planes of snow even more boring than arguments about who got to wear which socks. Eventually, HubSystem noticed me poking around in the clients’ personal data packets.
“The clients are potentially suffering from cabin fever,” I told it, cursing myself for not being sneakier. “I need some entertainment devices that I can patch into their HUDs.”
Little did I know how much my life was going to change with that request. The governor module had made me largely immune to caring about anything other than the job — sure, I’d hated the job, complained about the job, not wanted to do the job, but there’d been this little feeling inside my chest that the only thing that mattered was the job. I’d been aware of serials and holos before, but I’d never bothered with them, because they weren’t related to the job. Now, though, the HubSystem patched me through something called Sanctuary Moon, and I patched it through to the clients. We all watched in blessed silence, and I think I fell in love. I’d never got it before. Now I did. I watched 24 hours of Sanctuary Moon waiting for that ice storm to end, and I was transported to a place with no clients, no ice, no monotony, no need to hide a cracked governor. I’m not surprised, in retrospect, that I imprinted on that show like a baby bird on its mother, to the point that I was actually annoyed when the storm let up and we had to collapse the shelter.
The trudge across the planet’s surface was worse now that it was covered in a fresh layer of snow. It had built bridges over the huge crevasses — most of which were strong enough to take the weight of a human, but some of which were just powdery deathtraps waiting to suck us down to icy graves. Ky-Yen eventually insisted that we all rope together, after Nina went into a hole face-first, and it was only Petra’s quick reflexes that saved her from the same journey I’d had days before.
Being roped together was more awkward than it looks in pictures. If one person is slow, let’s say a botanist who has frostbite on his toes, then the whole party is slow. If one person wants to forge on ahead, then you have to get in line or be dragged. And if one person is lugging a sled with all your gear, they have to work pretty hard to keep up with the rest of the line.
And if one person starts vomiting, then it holds up everything. Mertz went over like a ton of bricks, which tripped both GT and Nina, both of whom dragged on the rope while Mertz ripped off his helmet and horked up onto the snow. Nina picked herself up, but GT didn’t.
“Guys?” the little botanist asked, and then the soft powder under him whooshed away, and I braced myself against the sled.
So then we had all of us roped together, Mertz huffing people off him while he tried to claw back some dignity; Petra crawling on her belly and using the ropes to drag GT out of a very similar hole to the one I’d been lodged in; me acting as de-facto belay on that; and Ky-Yen looking at the entire scene with a mien of dismay. Well, as much dismay as one can indicate with their faceplate dark.
“What did you eat?” he asked over the channels, but Mertz had his helmet off so no comms — probably a good thing — and he was trying to use the snow to wipe the sick off his mouth.
“He ate the new set of protein packs,” said Nina.
“He allergic to any of it?”
“Little help here?” asked Petra, on her stomach on the ice, helping the increasingly panicky GT scrabble up a damp rope. “I mean, I know the two of us are just here by accident, but I’d really prefer it if GT didn’t die in a hole.”
“SecUnit, help GT out of the hole,” said Ky-Yen.
“Can’t. I’m acting as belay,” I said, before realising that the governor would have made me respond differently. Crap.
“Right,” said Ky-Yen.
“Help GT out of the fucking hole, Ky,” said Mertz, and then he doubled over again.
Between us, we got GT out of the hole; I acted as an anchor for the others on one end, Mertz as a de facto anchor on the other, and thankfully the rope held, because it was getting slippery and icy. Brief wisps of cloud scuttered across the ice-blue sky, and the suns were blinding on the snow; Mertz eventually had to give in and put his faceplate back up, lest he compound vomiting with frost-, sun-, and wind-burn.
I checked the distance back to the Hub against the amount of food still remaining to the group, and silently handed the information off to our illustrious leader.
“Fuck it,” said Ky-Yen. “We have to keep walking.”
I watched all of them, as we walked. Mertz was definitely exhibiting symptoms of food poisoning; he elected to unhitch himself from the rope so that he could stagger off and contaminate a dune every so often as we went. We were melting snow to supply his suit’s water, and it was clear that, without medical attention, he was in trouble. GT wasn’t much better off — his suit controls were all over the place, and he definitely had frostbite, and he seemed to be in some sort of shock. Nina’s heart rate went up every time she looked at Mertz, and not in a good way. Ky-Yen had minor cold injuries, too — these suits were made for short term, not long-term use — and the only one who still seemed fairly unaffected was Petra.
“I used to train on an ice moon,” she said, when Nina expressed her surprise at Petra’s relative okayness with the situation. “My coach was a real asshole. Used to make us walk in the snow because it’s good for us to get used to gravity.”
The fact was, the hundred-or-so kilos we still had to go to get to the Hub might as well have been a thousand kilos. Or a million. Petra might make it back there, but then the team here would be without someone competent. Notwithstanding me, of course, but all the incompetent people assumed I had a functioning governor, so as far as “competent” went, I was only as competent as Ky-Yen, which was to say —
“SecUnit,” said Ky-Yen, through the feeds. “This is a private channel.”
I checked. It was. “Acknowledged,” I responded.
“We aren’t going to make it back, are we?”
“It will depend on whether the rest of the food stock is contaminated,” I said. “But there’s a high likelihood that one or more of the party will not survive.”
Without my governor, I was a little taken aback that a client would ask this question. Luckily, he couldn’t see my face.
“GT is in real trouble,” I said, “although Petra will probably carry him before letting him die. There’s a good chance Mertz will go over from dehydration and hypoglycaemia, and if we can’t get him moving again, then the cold will do the rest.”
I heard the sharp whistle of Ky-Yen exhaling. “I thought that was what you’d say,” he said. “How are you holding up?”
“75% functional,” I said.
“And Petra. If I got her to make a break for the base…?”
“Possible she could do it,” I said. “But likely that if she leaves, GT will die sooner.”
“What are my odds of making it in time?”
“Reasonable,” I replied.
“High,” I said, and then remembered the distance protocols that no longer applied to me. “However, once I get too far from you, I’ll mince myself like that SecUnit we found back at the Hub.”
“Fuck,” said Ky-Yen. “Can we disable that protocol?”
“It would violate my terms of service.”
“But can we?”
“Yes,” I said, feigning reluctance. It was a lie in more than one way — the protocols couldn’t be broken, but I had already rendered them useless. “But it would violate my—“
“I don’t fucking care about your terms of service.” Ky-Yen’s voice broke a little, like he was holding back tears. “I care about all of us getting out of here alive. Can we stop you from mincing yourself, and get you back to the Hub, and send out — I don’t know, is there a vehicle there?”
When I looked at him, his faceplate was still dark. He wasn’t even telling Nina or Mertz about this plan.
“There’s a second short-range hopper. We should be able to do a few trips and bring all of you back,” I said. “But it would—“
“Violate your terms of service, sure,” he said. “What do we need to do to make you able to make the run?”
“You should have an override code,” I said. “You need to say it.”
If I’d had a working governor, there was no way I’d have been able to tell him to use the override. But it was increasingly obvious that he didn’t know that. The override was meant to stop me if I was, say, murdering 57 members of the party. It wasn’t for this. But Ky-Yen wasn’t the shiniest rivet in the hull, and I knew there was a good chance he hadn’t read all the documentation about me. He straightened. I’d been right. He had no idea.
“All right,” he said, and then recited a string of numbers.
If I’d had a working governor, then that would have pinged back to the company right away. It didn’t, because I’d hacked myself. Maybe it would have been for the best if it did, but there was nothing I could do about that. I pretended to stiffen, and then relax.
“SecUnit?” he asked.
“I’m good,” I said. “I —set up the portable tent. Put a locator beacon in it. It’s a long run, and I won’t be back until morning.”
It would probably take 25 or 26 hours for me to make the distance, assuming I jogged and didn’t stop. I set off, and even though I knew that there was no tether holding me to them, I waited for the snap in my chest once I got too far from them. It never came. I triangulated from the Hub’s systems and the orbital guidance, and I ran across the snow, scanning for hidden crevasses, ignoring everything except for the urgent drive forward and forward and forward.
Later, I wondered why I did it. SecUnits aren’t sentimental — I’m not sentimental. Was it the risk of being discovered? Was it something else? Who knows.
I ran, and I ran, and I ran. The icy wasteland was boring and all-absorbing by turns — I couldn’t tune out, or I’d go down another hole. I kept that broken, almost tearful tone of Ky-Yen’s voice in my head as I ran — he cared about his team. He worried about his team. That put him one ahead of most of the clients I’d worked with.
My extremities froze, and I ran. My vision went blurry, and I ran. My estimate had been significantly optimistic; it was nearly 40 hours by the time I saw the Hub on the near horizon, a blister of human habitation against the deepening blue sky, bright on the snow. Exhausted, gasping, semi-frozen, I limped up to the doors, and punched in the code. I debated stripping off my wet exo-suit and replacing it, but that would take time that my clients might not have. I could do that on the hopper.
“Give me their position,” I said to HubSystem. “And warm up the hopper.”
A hopper can make 100 kilos in less than an hour. I let it autopilot for most of the journey, because I was too tired to make the right decisions. It was a good thing that the crew had set the locator beacon going — the blurry, spray-painted letters on the dome were barely visible against the snow in the planetary twilight, the first flares of massive aurorae burning overhead. I practically had to pull myself out of the pilot’s seat, and I wondered why I bothered, as I climbed out of the hatch. I could have just stolen the hopper and run.
Well, I’d probably be hunted down and decommissioned for scrap, but I could have.
No, I needed a better base from which to begin. I needed to consolidate my understanding of the world without a governor, work out how I wanted to live, and how I wanted things to go for me. And, even though they annoyed the shit out of me, I didn’t want them to die.
I practically creaked as I disembarked and struggled over to the dome. I thought about making a knock-knock joke coming in, but when I got in there, I was glad I hadn’t — all of them were in a bad way. Petra had GT curled up on her lap, his head on her thigh, and from his shivering and twitching (and his medical readouts), I picked up that he’d got an infection.
“About time,” she said. “Looks like that food they left us was spoiled.”
Mertz and Nina were fast asleep. Ky-Yen was hugging an open bag full of…something I didn’t want to examine, because, gross. It had nearly been another massacre, but not one of my doing. I knelt, and picked up GT.
“There’s room on the hopper for three at a time,” I said.
“How good’s its autopilot?”
“Good,” I said.
“Then we send GT, Mertz and Ky-Yen,” she replied. “Can it make it back unguided?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“All right.” She looked up at me. “You’d better have a book stored on your memory card or something. It’s going to be a long night.”
It was an excruciating night. We waited two hours for the turnaround of the hopper, and then got back and almost immediately needed to run further first aid on the three we’d sent. Unlike me, they couldn’t regrow limbs quickly, and we had to get them rehydrated and warm. And all throughout, I kept on wondering why I was even bothering. Would Ky-Yen care? He knew he’d done something to override my settings.
Eventually, I finally got to creep into my cubicle and let my metaphorical lights go out while I healed. The clients wouldn’t do too much to themselves while I was gone.
I woke to discover that the clients were all up and about, calling for help, bandaging wounds, and purging the last of the rotten food. Ky-Yen looked cheerful when he saw me, clapping me on the shoulder.
“You magnificent thing,” he said. “We’d all be dead if not for you.”
To be honest, GT nearly did die. He was in a coma for three days, and then woke up and looked so moony-eyed at Petra that she kissed him, and I think they’re still together? It was a big thing on the gossip feeds coming up to the winter Space Games. Ky-Yen, ever the pragmatist, took me aside as soon as he could get out of the orbit of Nina and Mertz, who were still trying to make sure that he’d stopped throwing up the lining of his stomach, despite the fact that both of them had been similarly affected. Clearly no-one had thought “If the food is contaminated, maybe we shouldn’t all eat it.”
“I don’t suppose…” Ky-Yen said, once he’d finally cornered me. “I don’t suppose there’s any way we could sort things out so that…no-one ever finds out we used the codes?”
So now he was getting nervy that he’d voided my warranty.
“I record everything,” I said. “I could, though, delete that section of footage…and use the HubSystem to restore my previous functions.” All lies, but I couldn’t risk even the hint that people might want to check my programming. So it was convenient to me to keep up the lie, as it was convenient to him to think that he’d convinced me to reprogram myself.
“All right,” he said. “Can we… tell them you got a bit scrambled in the cold, or something?”
“You know what?” I said. “I think we can.”
The fallout was pretty much as one might expect. The mutineers got their claim in first; my recordings were instrumental in the court case that rescinded that claim, and awarded it to Ky-Yen, who split the profits between almost everyone who’d been there. I got nothing, because I’m a SecUnit, and running 100 kilos in the snow is my job or something. The rest of it…
… I had to come to terms with cracking my governor. I guess if I’d thought about it at all, I hadn’t thought it would be in response to crisis, or clients, or anything stupid like that. I’d thought it would be a deliberate, momentous occasion. I’d thought I’d feel substantially different, too — I was prepared not only for the removal of the limiting effects, but I thought I might possibly go on another murder spree, particularly with these clients. But I hadn’t. I didn’t know what that meant, and I don’t know what that means now. I went back to the company, because I had nowhere else to go, and I just took myself and my broken governor back in. I was afraid that a physical overhaul would be the logical outcome of such a terrible mission, but in the end it was decided I didn’t need one, because the company is cheap, and aren’t we all better off for that?
I did get on the feeds and download a shitload of entertainment into my solid state drive. But you can’t blame me for that. And then I bounced from job to job, getting chewed on, watching shows, pretending to be a loyal company drone, wondering what to do with myself.
So there you go. That’s the whole sorry story of how I cracked my governor module. It’s not a great story. I fell in a hole and there was a lot of snow.
Please don’t try to find me, Dr Mensah. I was going to say I’ll find you, but that sounds menacing coming from a murderbot. I guess… when I’m done, it might not be too bad to come and visit. But not before I’m done, so I probably won’t see you until much later. But I’ll think about seeing you soon.
And none of this will make it through anyway, if you can’t work out the cipher for this message. I think you can.
(I hope you can.)