Today was a pleasant day on Preservation. But then again, it was always a pleasant day since the terraforming systems had done a great job on this planet and the places where most of the people lived were in a temperate rainforest zone. It rained a lot, but in a sort of omnipresent way that didn’t really mess up anyone’s day. The rest of the planet was split between ocean and grassland and since it was really more of a planetoid, if the rain was really getting to someone it wasn’t more than a half day’s hopper ride to end up in one of the other zones.
I didn’t really get why anyone would want to leave, even though I spent more than my fair share of time in the entertainment feeds.
And yet, most of my favourite humans were heading off-planet to some sort of scientific conference.
“You could still come, if you want,” Dr. Mensah said while rolling up some extra clothing to pack. I didn’t really get the human need for constantly changing outfits, but I approved of her packing technique. It seemed efficient.
Twenty cycles surrounded by scientists with nothing to do but listen to them argue about their areas of research? No, thanks.
Mensah laughed. “Fair enough,” she said.
I took a moment to log exactly how my facial muscles felt. Then I compared that to the footage my drone captured. The drone had been a ‘birthday’ present but I’d mostly been using it for my ongoing project of figuring out how facial expressions worked. Right now I’d just learned that ‘no way, thanks’ felt like my lips were being pulled away from my mouth and looked like I was trying to squeeze my face into a small cup.
One of the horrifying things about suddenly not being so depressed and hopeless was that I started feeling things all the time, which was really inconvenient and led to a lot of facial expressions. And it didn’t seem like I was going to stop feeling things any time soon.
Which is why Operation: Figure Out Faces was such a priority.
I did figure that I’d go up to the Station with Dr. Mensah and Ratthi and Pin-Lee though, because sometimes there were entertainments on the feeds there that travelers brought with them. Station had started saving them for me, which I think was because it liked having someone to talk to sometimes, but the idea of being anyone’s idea of a good conversationalist freaked me out so I didn’t let myself think too much about it.
There wasn’t anything, but without atmospheric interference, the signal was strong enough that I felt one of my dormant feeds re-initialise.
I didn’t have to look to know what my face was doing; I knew what a smile felt like.
Mensah was surprised but she didn’t ask me any questions when I told her I was coming along. It wasn’t like I needed to pack anything. I had two or three ‘outfits’ for different occasions but if they were planning a fancy dinner, not having the right clothes would be a good reason for me to not have to attend.
We’d all lined up in the shuttle waiting area so we could wait for our transport. Ratthi looked surprised for a second to see me, but not for long enough because he sidled over to me and started talking about how this was going to be his first extended trip away from his new partner -- he’d finally gotten over his thing for Pin-Lee, which I’d also had to hear about in extensive detail, and started dating someone who was already in a three person marriage. Ratthi was saying something about his absence and how that might impact the ways the marriage unit built routines around him, but I’d tuned him out. The humans kept doing this, explaining their relationship drama to me. It wasn’t just Ratthi. Overse had asked for my advice about asking Arada to move in several times before it actually happened. It wasn’t like I had anything to offer in these discussions.
It was baffling.
So I stopped listening and started thinking about where we were going. I didn’t know that much about Shaydra, since it was a functional political entity. Functional political entities didn’t have much use for contracting a SecUnit since they either didn’t have much need for protection or were skilled enough at pacifying their own population they didn’t need any help.
But I’d been pulling some stuff off of the feed. It was a small system of three planets, all governed from a space station that travelled to orbit each one on a regular calendar.
It wasn’t at war with its neighbours, it featured many prestigious universities -- and it said something about Preservation’s priorities that I found just as much information about publications as I did about the climate, geography, and exports of the place.
I was just downloading a factsheet about the government, which was apparently some sort of military-civilian hybrid, when I got the ping that the shuttle had docked. I’d distracted myself long enough.
I gave the bot pilot a polite ping, but most of my attention was on the ship.
Hi, I said, along with amusement sigil 159 = wave. It seemed a little inadequate, but what do you say to the ship that radically altered your appearance, helped you figure out your past, and also threatened you with terrifying weapons? Amusement sigils seemed like my best bet.
Hi, Murderbot, welcome ART said back, which was pretty effusive for ART. I sent a status update with my current read-outs, and ART sent one back. It was in good shape, on a mission to transport scientists (which I knew) and very happy to see me. It was a positive little feedback loop.
This was probably the most ‘ripped from a serial’ moment of my life, and that was saying something considering the various action-heavy periods of my life. I knew those sequences were very entertaining because Mensah’s kid had been sharing one of the sequences of me taking on Combat SecUnits until Mensah had found out and shut down the illicit trade. I still had my own memories saved, which I guess would be good currency if I ever needed it.
But still, a heartfelt reunion between long-lost friends? These were the times that were made for large display surfaces and soundtracks with real instruments in them.
My synthetic muscles couldn’t seize, because it would be very inconvenient if any attempted murdering got interrupted with a cramp, but my face had been in the one position for so long I was started to worry about my manufacturer specs. Should faces do that?
I realised Ratthi had asked me a question. Shit. I quickly played back what he’d been saying. Blah blah, it can be hard establishing a place, blah, things always change but what if they change badly, jeez this went on for a while. I fast forwarded. Ok, here he’d figured out I wasn’t listening. Which, whoops. I should work on my sub-routine, maybe add in some random ‘hmm’ and ‘how do you feel about that?’ interrupts.
And then he asked me, “Why are you smiling?”
Since I couldn’t think of a reason to lie, I just said, “I’m friends with the ship, and I guess I’m happy I get to see it again.”
Ratthi walked into the bulkhead.
I sighed, grabbing his arm and guiding him into the shuttle.
“You’re ... friends?”
“Yep,” I said, drawing out the p. I had learned this from Mensah’s oldest. It had this amazing enraging effect on adults and I was kind of hoping it would make Ratthi let the subject drop. But he just kept staring.
Piping up from the seat across from mine in the crew cabin, Pin-Lee said, “I think what Ratthi is trying to say is, we didn’t know you had friends.”
“Well, I do,” I said, feeling my chest curling in a little to protect my energy core. “I’m allowed to have friends.” Mensah had said so, several times.
Pin-Lee waved her hands. “Right! Absolutely! We just ... didn’t know about this one.”
That was silly. “How would you know? I didn’t think we’d ever see each other again.”
An awkward silence. Pin-Lee broke it with, “Why not?”
I shrugged. Wasn’t it obvious? ART didn’t get to pick where it went and, until pretty recently, I thought I’d end up in some sort of reclamation plant, getting stripped for parts.
Mensah cleared her throat delicately. “Would you introduce us? I think we’d all like to meet your friend.”
That’s when ART said into everyone’s feeds, “Hello. You are Murderbot’s crew. Nice to meet you.”
Everyone jumped a little, even Mensah who mostly hid it. Classic ART move, intimidating everyone and showing off that it was listening.
Why are they reacting like that? ART asked.
Humans don’t like knowing they’re being observed, I replied.
ART processed that. Would have been imperceptible to a human, but for a bot with ART’s processing power, it was significant. But they’re being observed, whether or not they know it. Wouldn’t it be better to be aware?
I sent back a shrug. Willful blindness seems to be a key part of human coping mechanisms.
Ah, like in episode nineteen of Worldhoppers when the Commander pretends he is not grievously wounded, even though he is visibly damaged so the Scientist can complete the translations without getting distracted.
It was so nice to talk with someone who made sense. I felt my reliability rating go up a full percentage point. Exactly.
And in the background, Mensah said, “Nice to meet you.”
ART had a low quarters to lab space ratio so I was rooming with Dr. Mensah. I didn’t need a bed, obviously, but I’d grown to like the privacy.
Mensah looked around, and put her bag down on the top bunk. She was always doing thoughtful things like that, since obviously I’d need the bottom bunk in case of a security breach. But with ART here and its death cannons, I wasn’t so worried.
I shared that thought with ART and it wasn’t amused. It’s a debris deflector, it insisted.
Sure, whatever it needed to say to pass customs inspection.
Mensah smiled at me. “This will do nicely. Between you and me,” she leaned in, “I’m glad I don’t have to room with Pin-Lee. Since she started planning her commitment ceremony, she’s had so many complaints about her parent’s meddling it’s like listening to my teenagers all over again.”
Are they always talking like this?
ART meant, obsessed with interpersonal relationships. Yes, I said morosely. And then I realised, I could talk about this with ART and it might have a suggestion. Do you have a theory? It’s always like this. I sent clip after clip of them talking about their siblings, and partners, and partners’ siblings.
While it processed them, I tested the bed, and I sent out my drone to check the hallways.
Mensah went to unpack some items into the small drawers set into the wall.
I agree, this is not standard for the behaviours of most humans I know. We need to think about this logically. Our first question has to be, do they talk like this with everyone, or just you?
I thought about it. They didn’t talk like that when were surveying the planet.
Inconclusive, ART said, they were operating in a professional capacity, and they knew they were being observed by an antagonistic party.
ART sent me a contrasting clip of her Captain dancing in her socks inside her quarters, versus instructing her flight crew to maintain silence on the bridge. I took the point. Seemed similar to me saving new serials until I could give them my full attention.
We can confirm at dinner tomorrow, it said, pleased with its plan, it’s a social gathering, we’ll be able to see how your Preservation crew interact with my crew.
My drones were completing their inspection when one sent a ping back to me that caught my attention immediately. I sat bolt upright.
Mensah turned to stare at me. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s a display screen,” I said.
I knew that hadn’t been there last time I was here.
“Display screen” was a bit of an understatement. This thing was a wall.
“It’s so beautiful,” I muttered.
Mensah laughed. Surely this hadn’t been there when I first traveled with ART. It would have said. My brain shied away from thinking about what that meant. So I focused on the important question.
What to watch first? I accessed my storage.
I’ve got a serial, ART said, showing me the information snippet.
I read it over. It was a musical drama about a bureaucrat who sacrificed everything to help a righteous young commander defend the Federacy from the evil Syndicates. Sounded anti-corporate, which I was into, for obvious reasons.
Why this one? I didn’t see why it was such a standout.
It’s massively popular and I can’t figure out why. I remembered that ART struggled to understand the subtext in dramas without enough contextual cues. My Captain likes it. Any time ART had mentioned its Captain, it had always been with a bit of a glow around the word. So if ART wanted to better be able to relate to its Captain, I’d help with that.
I slid my eyes over to Mensah. “Do you need me for anything?”
Mensah showed me her palms. “Go ahead and queue it up.”
Twenty minutes in and I was mystified. The young commander’s family had cruelly kicked him out of his home because he wanted to serve Shaydra instead of taking over the family business. So now he was standing in the streets, cuddling a live snake while singing a song about never feeling so alone.
“Are you the anthropologist? Is that why you’re watching this?” A woman’s voice interrupted me.
I didn’t startle because I don’t startle, but I had not been paying full attention to my surroundings. I noticed that I was pretty far from alone. Mensah was sitting next to me with a bowl of crunchy snacks and Arada was on her other side. Various other crew members were sitting on chairs around the room, five all told, plus my crew.
The voice didn’t come from any of them though. It came from a tall, middle-aged woman with distinctive white stripes in her hair, meticulously rolled and stacked high on her head. It made her look like she had a clover behind her head, with the hair forming three separate leaves off of her face. She had a lot of shiny pins on her jacket so I made a guess and decided this was the Captain.
She needed a response.
“I’m not the anthropologist.” Not my best work, but it had the virtue of being true. I didn’t really want to get into the whole ‘I’m a murderbot’ conversation.
“Captain, I am Dr. Mensah, and this is one of my party.”
The Captain put her hand over her heart. “Greetings. I am Captain Nonnenmacher. I came to introduce myself and make sure you were squared away, but you seem to have settled in nicely.” She had a polite smile on her face but the crinkles around her eyes suggested she was sincere.
“I can leave you to it,” she said, lowering her hand.
I sent a quick pulse to Mensah. I didn’t want her to go. I wanted her to explain what was happening.
“Captain,” Mensah interrupted smoothly, stopping the Captain mid-pivot. “If it’s convenient, you’re more than welcome to join us.” Mensah lowered her voice, “None of us are anthropologists and we must admit…” she trailed off and the Captain finished.
“You have some questions about the entertainment,” the Captain was nodding and I was unspeakably grateful for Mensah, who knew exactly what I had meant.
The Captain settled down, and I blurted out, “What does the snake mean?”
“The snake is a symbol of the federacy, so even while he has nothing, he is never alone.”
“It’s not a metaphor though. It’s a real snake.”
The Captain’s lips quirked. “It’s a real song too, but no one seems to think that’s strange either.”
I frowned. I had wondered about that too, but I’d seen a musical before.
I resumed the entertainment. It was going a lot better now that I could ask questions periodically.
We made it through a full episode and were halfway through the second, which had just introduced the pious bureaucrat, when we were interrupted again. This time by raised voices.
Mensah had gotten up and was arguing with Pin-Lee. Mensah was trying to keep it quiet, but Pin-Lee was agitated.
“-- they’re people, and they would have been separated forever because neither of them have autonomy and you’re saying it’s fine,” Pin-Lee yelled, waving her hands.
“I’m not asking you to do that,” Mensah said firmly, “I’m asking you to --”
“You’re asking me to pretend it’s ok.”
“Keep your voice down.”
What are they arguing about? I asked ART.
You and me, it replied.
That didn’t sound good. I reviewed what I’d picked up ambiently. Ah. Pin-Lee figured out that when I said I didn’t think I’d see ART again, what I meant was, I didn’t think we’d be allowed since ART didn’t decide where it went and, frankly, neither did I.
Well, I couldn’t focus now.
I paused the entertainment.
Pin-Lee noticed and turned to me. “You can’t tell me that’s right, MB.”
MB? ART asked.
Murderbot, for short. It had caught on because no one felt comfortable calling me Murderbot regularly, and I didn’t mind it. It was better than what Mensah’s youngest called me, ‘Merba,’ which made me sound like a prescription medication.
I wasn’t sure what to say. More accurately, I didn’t know what Pin-Lee wanted me to say. Pin-Lee wanted words, and reassurances. I knew humans needed those sometimes but there was nothing I could say that she didn’t know already. I didn’t want an owner, I’d never wanted an owner, and Pin-Lee knew that.
Mensah’s hands were clenching a little, like it was an effort to keep them by her side. “Don’t put this on MB, Pin-Lee. You know it can’t fix the status of bots and constructs in the galaxy.”
Pin-Lee was not dissuaded. “But we could. All of us. The legislation we’re sponsoring is not enough.”
At that moment, one of ART’s crew, who had been sitting in a corner, stood up. The rest of the room, which had been watching avidly, dropped their eyes. The Captain stiffened.
The man walked over to where Pin-Lee was breathing heavily and Mensah was looking worried.
“Please remember the agreements you signed when you submitted to the conference.” His words were quiet, but in the stillness of the room, they carried. “Any attempt to foment dissent against Shaydra is strictly prohibited.”
Pin-Lee and Mensah both rocked back.
Who is that? I asked ART.
The political officer. Every ship has one. I’d never been on a ship with one, but as I said, I’d never been to Shaydra before.
“Is that a threat?” Pin-Lee asked, voice going high.
“You have been warned,” the political officer said.
Pin-Lee’s eyes glittered fiercely and I was already halfway across the room, getting between Pin-Lee and the political officer.
Too late, I realised this was an escalation and I didn’t want to cause an issue on board ART. Sorry, I said. ART didn’t say anything back but I felt its presence in the feed, heavy, waiting.
Before anything else could happen, the Captain stepped up and clapped a hand on Pin-Lee’s shoulder. “It’s been a long day and our guests have not been properly oriented to our customs.” The Captain’s easygoing manner seemed to have defused the room. I could hear everyone’s breathing return to a more normal rate.
The political officer nodded, seemingly satisfied. Then he asked, “And you, Ship? Are you dissatisfied?”
“I am made to serve,” ART said.
After that, the evening was over so we went back to our quarters. Without the Captain, I figured ART’s show would be pretty impenetrable so I pulled up an episode of Worldhoppers.
New series? ART asked, excited.
Just released this year.
The ship was quiet, and we still had about sixteen more episodes of Worldhoppers to get through, so it was basically ideal. Then, in the middle of an action sequence in the second episode, ART said, “I need you,” and attached a ping with a location.
ART’s presence in the feed was almost staticky with distress and immediately, I swung my legs off of the sleep surface and was preparing to move.
The thunk of my boots on the floor woke Mensah and she blearily asked what was going on.
“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.”
I set off and, cursing the cold slightly, she followed me.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I walked into one of the crew quarters, but it wasn’t a body lying in the middle of the floor.
Mensah gasped and rushed forward, but I threw out an arm to stop her, ART’s MedSystem confirming what my eyes could see. He was dead.
I peered at the body and recognised it as belonging to the political officer.
Lieutenant Sarkar, ART said.
I was really asking: how could this happen? ART watched everything happening on its ship, and it knew everything about its crew. If this was something expected, like a long illness or a heart defect, ART might have disengaged from Worldhoppers, but it wouldn’t have needed me.
I don’t know, ART said. I could tell the admission was painful. Three minutes and twenty seconds ago he clutched his throat, convulsed, and, as I sent drones to supply aid, died. It took less than forty seconds.
I waited for more details but nothing was coming.
“Don’t disturb the body,” I said to Mensah, but she wasn’t pushing. It was a thing that people said in crime serials, and basing my life off of serials had gone well so far, so it didn’t seem like too ridiculous of a thing to say. I was more worried that Lieutenant. Sarkar had a communicable disease than about any evidence, but the principle should be the same. If this was the beginning of an epidemic, I didn’t want Mensah to be patient two.
But that was a little alarmist.
I walked towards the body and crouched down to look at it. Then I was at a loss. Crime serials never were my favourite -- I liked adventure stories -- but I tried to remember what crimefighters did. The body was face-down, but I could see a little puddle of spit under his mouth, and it was flecked with white.
No idea what could cause that though. And I was out of ideas.
“Should we get a medic?” Mensah asked. I swiveled my head back to look at her incredulously. “To figure out cause of death?” Oh. That did make sense.
But ART was already saying, “I know the cause of death.” I waited, then pinged it in the feed. “Poison,” it said out loud. “Lieutenant Sarkar was murdered.”
For my part, I was confused. How could someone get murdered on this ship? Sure, I’d been on ships where people had tried to murder each other -- fun part of being a murderbot is that sometimes the threat is coming from inside the ship, not just the planetary fauna having a bad day. But these people were scientists, and ART had way more surveillance capability than I ever had. It seemed unlikely that someone could get murdered at all.
Who did it? I asked, curiously.
Obviously I don’t know or I wouldn’t need you, would I?
Ok, I know this was obvious, in retrospect, but in my defense, I generally assumed people wanted me to either guard something or hit something. No one brought me along to ask for my mental acuity or deductive reasoning skills.
The other reason I didn’t come to that conclusion on my own was because it didn’t make any sense. I had absolutely no idea how to solve a crime.
There are not many poisons that cause the reaction I saw, so I narrowed down the time frame to the last two hours.
That made sense, establishing a timeframe to narrow down the search.
“I can tell you’re talking,” Mensah said. “What are you talking about?”
I caught Mensah up. She nodded.
“So what now?” Mensah asked.
“I need Murderbot to review the footage from that time period to find out who the killer is.”
“I assume you reviewed it already?” Talking out loud was inefficient, but if Mensah wanted to be in the loop, it was easy enough to do.
“Yes, but I couldn’t see when it happened.” I find myself unable to analyse the footage as I should. That type of note from ART set off alarm bells in my head.
Interference? If someone was hacking ART, I was going to have to … come up with something because that sounded terrifying.
Of a sort. A small pause. I’m having emotions.
I knew how debilitating emotions could be, and it made sense that ART would be feeling disconcerted about this. So instead of trying to talk about how I understood, I just nodded, and signaled that I was prepared to receive a feed of ART’s footage.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mensah press her lips together.
“What?” I asked.
“What footage?” she asked.
I was confused by the question.
“All of the footage I have.”
“And that includes footage of me and my people, right? Our conversations, everything we’ve done since we came aboard.”
“Yes,” ART said.
Obviously, I thought.
Mensah crossed her arms over her chest. Frowning at me, she said, “I’m not comfortable with that, MB.”
That brought me up.
“But none of us did it.”
Mensah looked away. “We don’t know if we can prove that,” she said quietly. “And I don’t want one of ours being brought up on charges on Shaydra.” She looked back at me. “Everything your friend sees is confidential, that was negotiated as part of the conference. But if you find something, they can use it as evidence.”
“If that place is so bad --” and everyone’s reactions to it made it seem like it was, “-- then why were you going there?” I liked my humans because they were usually so reasonable. But going to a place they were afraid of seemed really illogical.
Mensah’s mouth twisted.
“I could send the footage to someone else,” ART said, into the lull.
I resisted rolling my eyes. This is why you’re an asshole, ART. ART never got the module on not telling the nervous humans it had ultimate power over them. My modules were crap, but I picked that one up.
Yes, but everyone with enough processing power is a wormhole away, I messaged ART directly. Humans usually couldn’t hide when they were in a private channel, but maintaining multiple overlapping communication protocols was my situation normal, as long as we didn’t take too long like we had before.
True, it acknowledged. Then, Are you going to help me?
Truth be told, I didn’t know what to do.
Mensah doesn’t want me to, and she’s my friend. Yes, I realise how much like Miki I sounded. No, I couldn’t help myself. I want to keep my crew safe.
This is why bots can’t be friends. ART’s words were like a stun baton to the face. I know I’d said it to ART before, and I’d meant it, but I’d meant that humans could order us around. But I’d experienced enough to change my mind. Station had helped me when Mensah was under threat. Miki had helped me even when it was at risk. And I knew Mensah. Whatever I decided, I knew Mensah wouldn’t -- couldn’t -- force me. That made it worse, really. It really did take me a long time to believe she wouldn’t compel me, that no one would. So all of that ‘I know she’d respect me blah blah’ sounds very easy to say, and I guess it is cause it’s just words, but the process of getting there took a long time. I couldn’t expect to explain that to ART in a concise way. I’m generally pretty shit at explaining things.
So I just said, I’m still deciding, and let ART know I was annoyed. But it didn’t leave me alone.
He was my crew. He died onboard. ART’s words were heavy. I remembered how it could barely handle fictional harm being done to humans. I knew how hard this had to be for it. I remembered being a ship. When I’d had to step in to protect us from a malevolent virus, I’d felt everything happening on the ship, I’d been able to communicate with the other bot systems simultaneously and I’d known on an intrinsic, code-deep level that the survival of everyone and everything aboard the ship was dependant on the thin membrane of alloy that separated the inside from the outside, all of it held together against the stresses of the universe singularly by me.
You begin to see, but you can’t understand. That was the usual ART superiority talking. Imagine that, but forever. I don’t have another perspective, a singular body to tuck back into. I feel the humans on board like they are a part of me. They would die without me.
In the harsh vacuum of space, that was literally true, I supposed. I felt for ART, I really did.
The urge to pull up my helmet and turn over all of my processing power to figure this out increased.
What was my other option? In my crime serial, the detective had gathered everyone together and then waited for the murderer’s guilty conscience to betray them. The detective could tell from the way the murderer blinked. My facial expression recognition wasn’t nearly good enough for that, I could barely tell when Pin-Lee was annoyed, and she usually started with ‘I’m annoyed with you.’
Mensah stepped up closer to me, hovering her hand above my weapon’s port. She didn’t touch me, she was always really careful about that. “What are you going to do?” she asked, and her eyes were worried. I knew she’d let me make my own decision and that made it worse.
“ART, what will you do with the murderer?” If ART said ‘nothing’ then Mensah wouldn’t be worried.
ART didn’t say anything for a long second, which for it meant some serious processing was going on. “I don’t know,” it said finally. Which. Great. Thanks, ART.
I was about to throw up my hands or pace or do something dramatic, like maybe throw a chair, when ART said, “What if we only examined footage with Lieutenant Sarkar. The dead have no expectation of privacy.” The way it said ‘expectation of privacy’ made those words sound really significant.
Did you just look up the legal code? I asked.
Yes. For Preservation. It seemed reasonable. It was inside of the diplomatic packet my Captain had.
Mensah swallowed. “It’s a compromise, but otherwise we’re at an impasse. And I’m not keen to spend more time worrying about a killer among us than I have to.” And then she did something really confusing and took off her jacket. I didn’t stop her, even after she walked up to the body and put her jacket on its head.
I must have been staring more blankly than usual because she said, “For respect.”
Humans were weird. Why would hiding the corpse’s face be respectful?
I ignored it and started sorting through the footage ART sent me.
It seemed like Lieutenant Sarkar had talked to or interacted with every person onboard. I was going to have to narrow this down. How was the poison transmitted?
ART had to admit it wasn’t sure, so I approached the body and crouched down next to it. I removed Mensah’s jacket and placed it aside. My vision was superior to a normal human’s and so I focused on examining the skin that was visible above and around the borders of the clothing, and also looked for tears. If I saw nothing then either the poison was eaten or something really special was going on and we’d have to figure that out.
But I quickly found a small puncture wound on his neck, more like a scratch than anything. “Does that look like a shaving injury?” I turned my head to look at Mensah.
She seemed slow to approach and her face was doing some strange movements. “He can’t hurt you, he’s dead,” I explained.
Mensah moved faster and crouched next to me, looking at his neck quickly. “No, it’s ... it’s too low down.” She swallowed and then stepped back. I realised she was upset. “You didn’t know LieutenantSarkar,” I said, gently.
“He was still a person.” She looked away.
So now I knew I was looking for something that touched the Lieutenant’s neck.
The crowded doorway as crew jostled to get into the mess hall, as they reached over each other for the food. Two crewmembers bumped into him giggling as he was coming out of the bathing area and then straightened up, sobering immediately. And then there were moments I hesitated over. One was of Lieutenant Sarker coming up to talk to Pin-Lee after we finished watching the serial. She was agitated, he pointed his finger, she knocked his arm away and -- did she brush his neck? I couldn’t tell. That disagreement was also broken up by Captain Nonennmacher, who took Sarkar back to her office to talk him down. She leaned on the edge of her desk and clapped a paternal hand on his shoulder. Definitely some neck action there. But then again, that seemed to be a maneuver of hers; she’d done it to Pin-Lee earlier, after all.
“Did you find something?” ART asked, and I knew I’d run out of time to delay.
Sighing internally, I sent the clips over.
Coming up close to mutter to me, Mensah said, “You look worried.” She had her hand hovering again.
I twitched and thought about calling a drone over to look at my expression, but decided better of it.
“Pin-Lee,” I said shortly. Mensah’s hand dropped to my forearm and squeezed, right above where my weapons port was. I knew she meant it more as a sign of comfort, but I took it as a reminder that if it came down to it, there was more I could do to protect Pin-Lee than just argue. Of course, ART could crush me like a bug, but I was trying not to think about that. “And the Captain,” I finished.
I knew ART couldn’t have missed the implications, but it said nothing.
Time to take control of the situation. “Ok,” I said, trying to sound brisk, “We should bring them in for questioning.”
“Acceptable,” ART said, and a minute later Pin-Lee was there, sleep disheveled and distressed.
“Mensah, are you ok? The ship said--” Then she caught sight of the body and stopped dead. “Is that…” She rubbed her eyes. “What happened?” Pin-Lee turned to me and looked so bewildered that I just couldn’t believe she was the killer. Most people are better actors than me, it’s true, but no one could be that good of an actor, right?
Mensah pulled Pin-Lee into a hug and looked at me beseechingly. Which was unfair, I was already convinced, and also I was never the bad guy here.
Before I had to answer Pin-Lee’s question, Captain Nonnenmacher walked in.
She was far more businesslike, barely pausing in her stride as she took in the scene: a shaken Pin-Lee, a consoling Mensah, and me, all of us standing around the uncovered corpse of Lieutenant Sarkar.
It seemed suspicious, but when I shared that thought with ART it chastised me. She’s trained for this.
“Report,” Captain Nonnenmacher said.
I summed up, “Sometime within the last two hours and twenty minutes someone administered a poison to Lieutenant Sarkar via a scratch on his neck. The poison was delayed acting but ultimately quick.”
While I relayed this information I watched the Captain and Pin-Lee. With every word she seemed more tense and more upset, while the Captain did not change her face at all. No surprise, no distress. But maybe that was the military training, again. One day operation Figure-Out-Faces would be a success, but until then I still struggled to interpret facial expressions.
And then ART went rogue. “Captain, Pin-Lee is the perpetrator.”
Pin-Lee gasped and started proclaiming her innocence. Furious, I said, “This wasn’t the plan.” You’re such an asshole, I sent directly to ART. “We don’t know that. It could be you, Captain,” I said, before I realised that maybe accusing the Captain while standing on her own ship with a clearly biased incredibly powerful AI backing her up was maybe not my best ever plan.
You can’t accuse my Captain, they’ll kill her.
I didn’t have much sympathy for ART right now. And what would they do with Pin-Lee?
She’s my Captain. Which wasn’t an answer.
Well, Pin-Lee’s my lawyer. It wasn’t a great comeback but I wasn’t feeling very witty.
“We should detain her,” ART said, generated voice without inflection.
I felt myself tense and my weapons ports open.
“Why would Pin-Lee kill Lieutenant Sarkar?” Captain Nonnenmacher asked, lightly curious. I understood why she had been given command. Anyone who could stay collected in a tense situation was a good person to have around. She had her hands open, projecting calm.
I noticed something. Earlier she’d been wearing a heavy ring on her left index finger. Now it was missing. I wouldn’t have noticed that detail except for all that time I’d just spent closely reviewing footage with her in it. Two hours ago and two minutes ago seemed equally close to me.
From a distance, I heard my own voice say, “Lieutenant Sarkar criticised Pin-Lee, they had a disagreement earlier and Lieutenant Sarkar threatened her.”
I took a step closer to the Captain.
“That doesn’t mean she did anything,” Mensah burst out.
“No, but without a better suspect, they’re going to kill her for a crime she didn’t commit, a crime that was committed on your ship, under your watch.” The Captain absorbed the words and I could see they were palpable hits, but they weren’t meant for her. Just to ART I added, and I’ll never forgive you for it.
I felt distress from ART. Most bots couldn’t convey an emotion without text signifiers, but ART’s presence in the feed was so strong and so heavy that it was like a weight pressing down on me. And when I’d said my piece, the force was so strong I could feel my firewalls buckling. Not under an assault, just from ART struggling to control its bounds.
“No one should suffer for a crime they didn’t commit,” Nonnenmacher said, voice clear and body utterly still.
ART said nothing, waiting. I wasn’t sure for what.
Nonnenmacher squared her jaw and looked straight at me. “It was me. I killed him.”
Dead silence. Even Pin-Lee stopped her shaking.
“No,” ART said, so much pressure behind the voice it was almost distorted.
“Yes, Ship, I’m sorry.”
I got the feeling she was sorry for causing ART distress, not for the murder.
“He was our crew. He was onboard.” The Captain was responsible for the safety of the crew just as much as the ship was. I wondered why ART was having this conversation publicly. “I need to hear you tell me why.”
That seemed dramatic, almost bordering on irrational, but we all got irrational sometimes. I could think of several moments where I’d maybe been a bit more over the top than I should have been. Taking on some combat SecUnits just to watch them die was a pretty good example.
Nonnenmacher swallowed. “I loved my little brother. All of my family served the federacy in public works or the military, but not him. He was an artist. He wanted to make our world a more beautiful place.” Mensah was wincing, like she could see where this was going, but I didn’t really have a clue. Tragic art related accident? “He was always loyal to the federacy, for all the good it did him.” She raised a shaking finger. “That man decided to bring him down. He lied about my brother, he accused him, he destroyed his spirit and turned the community against him. He had him cast out.” Her voice had been steadily raising. “The serials are a lie. When he had no one, there was no catchy dance number to pick him up. He just suffered, and then he died.” She lowered her arm and brought it to pull around herself.
“Where were you?” Mensah asked gently, like she already knew the answer.
“On deployment.” Nonnenmacher’s voice was almost back to normal.
“He didn’t get a trial?” Pin-Lee asked. Once a lawyer, always a lawyer.
Nonnenmacher’s lips curled up, but it wasn’t a smile. “You see, on Shaydra, you only get a trial when the verdict is going to be guilty. And he didn’t have enough to be sure of that.”
But now, with some of the questions answered, I was just annoyed. “Why now?” Lieutenant Sarkar worked on this ship. Because of the timing, ART and I had a fight, Pin-Lee got accused of murder, all of it was so unnecessary.
“I’d been waiting,” Nonnenmacher admitted. “I couldn’t get close enough, but today I had a reason to pull him away.” Nonnenmacher repeated the hand on heart gesture, this time turning it on Pin-Lee. “I’m sorry my actions caused you distress, but I couldn’t give up my chance.”
Great, thanks, I thought sarcastically.
“You could have given yourself up and saved me some time,” I said. Mensah was pulling her eyebrows down, which meant I’d said something she didn’t approve of, but this was a seriously stupid plan and I’d worked with a lot of stupid humans. “You didn’t think you were going to get away with this, right?”
The Captain’s expression was calm, uncharged from what it was before when she announced she was a murderer. Slowly, she said, “I suppose I didn’t. I think I knew I’d end up here but,” she shrugged and I found myself tipping over into an unlooked for empathy. I’d been known to throw myself into a plan every now and then and just wait for a way out to present itself. I could understand the drive that would push Nonnenmacher to do something with no long term hope of success.
But, like all of improvised plans, this didn’t have to go only one way. The way I saw it, there were a few options. It was only ART’s word, after all, that Lieutenant Sarkar was murdered at all. He could have ‘fallen dead’ for no reason.
What are you going to do? I asked ART. ART was probably the only one in this conversation who cared that Lieutenant Sarkar was dead.
“I don’t know what comes next,” ART said aloud and I realised that it wanted the Captain to hear. ART was pissed. I thought about it a bit and realised that ART was betrayed. It liked its Captain, and it cared about its crew. “I should turn you over to the system governor when we drop out of this wormhole.”
Nonnenmacher was pale, like she was just now realising the consequences of what she’d done. “Ship please, we’ve served together for years.”
“Not together,” ART said. “You used me. You were lying. You’re not my Captain.”
I jerked my head at Mensah and Pin-Lee and they got the message and started heading towards the door. This was going to be dramatic and I wanted them elsewhere, just in case.
“You forged my name to pay a fine for an unauthorised shuttle trip,” Nonnenmacher said.
I realised I knew what that was about. ART had done that for me, so I could save my client Tapan after other humans tried to kidnap her. At the time it didn’t seem like too much, but if Shaydra was like everyone said then it seemed like a pretty big risk.
“Are you threatening me?” ART’s voice was louder than normal. If Nonnenmacher was threatening ART by saying she’d go to the authorities with her knowledge of how ART broke the rules, that seemed like a really stupid move.
Nonnenmacher was shaking her head. “No! I’m saying I wouldn’t turn you over. You’re my ship. Even if I’m not your Captain anymore,” her voice sounded choked up, “I’ll still always be proud to have served on you.”
A momentary pause.
“I need to think,” ART said, and then totally pulled away. I felt a glaring absence, like ART had basically switched off. Which was impossible because everyone was breathing.
The Captain and I exchanged a look. “You should probably go to your quarters,” I said.
She nodded and walked off, sort of slumped over, a big contrast to the way she’d walked in.
ART probably wanted time to puzzle out what to do next. I had the strong suspicion it had never been in a situation like this -- realising that the people who were supposed to take care of it didn’t put it first, knowing that everyone around it was lying, having to make a totally independent choice because its set of rules didn’t cover this situation. I could see why ART wanted to be alone.
Fuck that, I thought.
I went into the recreational area and put on Worldhoppers. Not the new ones, but the first series.
I played it for a while, but less than an episode and eventually ART asked, What are you doing?
I rolled my eyes.
Ok, I see what you’re doing, but why?
This is the episode where the scientist tells the commander there is a minute on the bomb but there’s only thirty seconds and convinces the commander to unwittingly leave him behind to die.
I see what you’re doing, ART said.
What am I doing?
If ART was going to act like an irrational human, I was going to treat it like one. Or more accurately I was going to treat it the way Mensah treated her daughter, and let it come to its own conclusions via irritating rhetorical questions.
You’re making me relate to how the commander eventually forgives the scientist after he is able to disable the bomb at the last minute.
Am I? I asked. Infuriating, right?
You know you are.
I smirked. I could tell because I felt the corners of my lips contract.
It’s not the same.
I felt the smirk fall of my face. I knew this was hard. I, of all people, knew how hard this was.
ART didn’t acknowledge me. In Worldhoppers, no one died.
It probably wasn’t the right time to say that it sounded like Lieutenant Sarkar was a real jerk.
At the end of the day, he was still dead, and nothing was going to change it.
How many other people have to die? This was the open question. Sarkar killed Nonnemacher’s brother, she killed him, and now ART had to decide if Nonnemacher had to die as well.
You don’t understand, you don’t like people. That was ... probably fair.
I like people, I tried anyway.
You like specific people. Of course you think I should save my Captain, you wouldn’t care what your people did. But I didn’t have to like Lieutenant Sarkar to care that he’s dead. I’d still care if one of the scientists died, even if they were just visiting. It’s my function to care. The words were at bot speed and I had to buffer them to process them properly. Our whole society is structured around our functions, a web of duty and care. There are rules. It did sound like there were a lot of rules on Shaydra. You’re all about what you want, but I’m not like that.
I let my processors catch up.
ART was right, I didn’t understand. There were a lot of emotions going on there and some of them seemed contradictory. Mensah would be the better one to have this conversation with. She’d know the right things to say. Unfortunately, I didn’t think I could explain all of this to Mensah, and besides, I was the one who decided to stick my nose into ART’s business.
Maybe I am individualistic. ART sent back a hard agree, which, harsh. But that means I don’t need to care about Shaydra. That was probably the type of language that would have given Lieutenant Sarkar a fit. I care about you. You’re my friend and I care if something is hurting you or making you upset. And this is hurting you. So my question is: what is the choice or outcome that ends up with you feeling the least upset three months from now.
This was a trick I taught myself when I was figuring out whether I should do nothing but watch new serials or maybe go out and try for a job with some nice people. Surprisingly, the answer wasn’t always ‘watch a serial.’
I’m still your friend?
That was not the response I was expecting. Yes? If you want? I was a little out of my depth. It would take more than one false accusation of murder, considering. There was a lot to be considered. And maybe also I was a little guilty about Miki still. Couldn’t do anything about Miki, but could do something for ART. Maybe. This self-awareness business was no fun, let me tell you. Sometimes I missed the days where I had no idea what I wanted or why I was upset. Ok not really, but still. See what I mean about the self-awareness? It takes all the joy out of life.
I don’t know what I want, ART admitted.
I knew that feeling. That’s ok, you’ve got time.
Over the next few days I spent a lot of time with ART, just listening as it worked through some circular logic loops. For example, the state doing something on its own authority that it wouldn’t be ok for most people to do. Those were tricky ones.
The other big ones were around ‘deserving.’ How does an individual deserve to be treated?
At some point I figured out what ART wanted to do, and realised that the real sticking point was being ok with doing it. Humans are much better at holding contradictions than bots. We get headaches if too many of our processes are in conflict with one another. Metaphorically.
Eventually I had to say something. I was sitting on a surface in the rec room with Mensah, Ratthi, and Pin-Lee watching an adventure serial I had saved to my storage. For some reason, I had been herding them into groups to keep them together. The episodes were predictable but the space scenes were well-executed.
We’re exiting the wormhole soon, I said. Which means you won’t have an excuse not to send a communication.
At some point inaction becomes action.
Are you going to the conference with your friends? It was a deflection, but I took it.
Initially I hadn’t wanted to, but now I felt the need to watch everyone’s backs. It didn’t matter how much Ratthi told me that it was all just scientists talking about their breakthroughs in various subjects and then getting embarrassingly drunk at the receptions. I remembered how shook Pin-Lee was when she thought she was getting charged with a crime and Mensah being adamant that none of them should be investigated.
I’ll see you when we take you back, then. Fair enough.
I turned my attention back to the serial.
I have a theory, ART said suddenly. About why your friends talk about their interpersonal issues with you.
I was listening.
The Preservation people spend most of their leisure time engaging in complex interpersonal relationships, usually romantic. That tracked with what I’d seen on the planet. And as part of that, they spend significant time evaluating potential romantic partners, and the potential romantic partners of their friends and romantic partners. I posit, therefore, that knowing you don’t engage in those relationships, they are talking about them with you as a surrogate.
Chewing on that one, I put that through an ART to Murderbot translator. Was ART saying they talk about their dating problems because they want me to feel included in their freaky sex-obsessed lives?
I sat bolt upright, startling Mensah who was listing pretty hard to the left. A few more minutes and she would have fully fallen over onto the surface “Is that true?” I asked her.
She looked at me, confused.
“Oh.” She chewed her lip. “Yeah, does it bother you? We do it with everyone, so we can all keep up-to-date with each other.” She thought for a second. “Maybe we do it a little more than usual with you, in case you haven’t noticed the subtext.” It wasn’t that I didn’t notice, it was that I didn’t care. “We want you to feel involved.”
“This explains so much.”
Mensah’s brow was furrowed. “What did you think we were doing?”
“I thought you were asking me for advice.”
She burst out laughing, which was a little insulting.
Mensah makes a good point.
Ratthi, who had been startled out of a nap by Mensah’s laughter, listened as Pin-Lee caught him up. He just stared at me eyes wide, eyebrows up. I got the sense he agreed with Mensah and ART on this one.
My friends, everyone, in case you were worried I was overestimating my own abilities, they were here to keep me in shape.