murderbot:~$ open ./Storage/Private/SeriouslyFuckOff/don't_forget_001.mem
"Each worker is allowed only one NutriPack per six hour shift."
All along the mess hall line, humans froze. The one I'd been addressing, Eda, jumped a clear inch in the air and nearly dropped the extra NutriPack she'd been attempting to hide up her sleeve.
"I didn't know it could speak," whispered another human, further down the line. There was a chorus of shh's, and the line resumed, veering around Eda like ants around a leaf in their path. Every one of them averted their eyes.
"I—" began Eda, stuttering. She took the NutriPack out from her sleeve, but didn't put it back. "Please. It's not for me. It's for my partner, she's sick so she couldn't go to work today and she had her meal rations revoked and—"
Please. Now, that was a new one. In the 9,000+ hours I'd been stationed in this stupid mine, no one had ever said please to me. On previous missions, when I had clients to defend and targets to eliminate, sure; targets tended to say please rather a lot, right before I blew them up. But never here. It betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of how SecUnits worked. Of what I was there to do.
I took a second (literally) to examine Eda's files. She'd arrived only one month prior, along with seven other prisoners on lease from a private prison, who had all been arrested for—ah, there it was. Anti-corporation hate speech. She was originally from a small freehold planet outside the Corporation Rim, part of something called the Preservation Alliance. She'd already been marked as a possible insurgent, and her speech and actions were being being carefully monitored.
Only one month. But the photo on her file, I noticed, looked years younger.
"Please," she said again, close to tears. It occurred to me that perhaps they didn't even have SecUnits where she was from, and she thought I was an augmented human guard.
"Sick workers must report to Medical for diagnosis and treatment," I told her. It's not what I should have done. What I should have done, according to the Property Theft Protocol HubSystem was obnoxiously waving in my feed, was restrain her and drag her to her unit supervisor. But technically, it wasn't considered theft until Eda left the boundary of the mess hall—which was precisely 0.2 inches from the tip of her right shoe—so HubSystem couldn't order her punishment. Just suggest it. I was safe from my governor module for now.
Eda's face crumpled. "She did, she went to Medical but they… they said that it would cost more to treat than her 'net labor worth' or whatever the fuck, so she should just keep working until—"
In her agitation, her foot shifted. 0.1 inches from the boundary. She still hadn't put down the Nutripack.
"Please return the Nutripack to its slot immediately," I said. But it must have sounded too much like a threat. Everything I said did, after all.
Her eyes widened, and her foot shifted once again. 0.15 inches over the boundary. Goddamnit.
For a moment, I hesitated. It was enough. My governor module gave me a small jolt—a small one, you know, just enough to kill a fully-grown agricultural dairy animal—and behind my helmet, my face spasmed with pain. I lurched forward, grabbing Eda's wrist. She cried out and tried to twist away, but not before I got hold of her other wrist too.
"Let me go!" she cried as I dragged her down the corridor. Around us, other workers scurried to get out of my way, pressing themselves against the walls. "You can't do this! Just buy and sell us and then decide that—that we're not worth enough to keep alive! Like some piece of machinery! You can't—"
I tried to tune her out as I dragged her to the unit supervisor. But of course, as HubSystem helpfully reminded me, I couldn't. She was a possible insurgent, after all. I had to listen to her every word.
murderbot:~$ open ./Storage/Private/SeriouslyFuckOff/don't_forget_002.mem
"Hey, SecThingy. Over here."
I could have ignored him. Technically speaking, after all, I couldn't be sure "SecThingy" referred to me. It wasn't a direct order. But I had a brain, and I had eyes, and I didn't want these humans realizing I was an obstinate asshole this early in the mission. And it was always better to be given vague orders than highly specific orders, anyway. It was easier to exploit loopholes that way.
So, grimacing behind my helmet visor, I stepped forward and took Kaio's empty drink can.
"Make sure you put it in the metal recycling," he said, not looking up from his tablet interface.
I've been recycling things since before you were born, I would have said, except that there wasn't a single scenario in the entire universe that that was a cool comeback. (And also, disrespecting clients sounded like a great way to get zapped by my governor module, and I really didn't feel like being electrified so early in the morning.)
"Are you sure you should be doing that, Kaio?" muttered Jo from the corner. Through the security camera in the corner, I watched her eyes follow me warily across the room. "He's not a butler, you know. He's got fucking guns in his arms."
Kaio looked up from his tablet long enough to roll his eyes at her. "First of all, it's not like it can actually hurt us without being fried. Second of all, we paid enough for it, it can be whatever we want. And third of all, it's an it, not a he."
"Oh," Jo said. She looked over to where I was busy jamming Kaio's empty drink can in the recycler slot. I briefly considered climbing in afterwards. "Is that another one of those weird pronoun things?"
This particular group of clients was from an isolated colony at the very edge of the Corporation Rim, only recently incorporated. From what I could gather through the translator, their native language had only male and female pronouns, used for everything from people to animals to furniture. I will admit, I don't understand human gender at the best of times, but this utterly mystified me. (How could a fucking chair be female?) The humans, it seemed, had been equally confused and shocked by the number of gender options presented to them on the company forms. What the hell—why can't they just do a biometric scan?
Which was to say, they were some of the most annoying clients I had ever had the misfortune to be assigned. And that's saying something.
"Nah," said Kaio, leaning back to prop his feet up on his desk. I watched some crumbs of planetary dirt fall onto the desk, and had the sinking feeling I'd be made to clean that up later. "'It' is just the word they use for objects. Things that aren't human."
Humans always said that like it was such an insult.
murderbot:~$ open ./Storage/Private/SeriouslyFuckOff/don't_forget_003.mem
"Do another one."
In front of me, the prisoner groaned. They were barely conscious, blood dripping from their nose and down their chin, eyes swollen shut. The space where their pinky finger had been a moment before was blackened and smoking. The pinky finger itself was lying on the floor in a little puddle of blood and burnt flesh.
I'm not usually squeamish. It would be stupid of me to be squeamish, when making things bleed is pretty much my job. But looking at that finger lying on the floor, I felt a rush of something that probably would have been nausea if I'd had a stomach.
Or wait, no. No, I think it was rage. Definitely rage.
"Hello?" My client, a ExPanse executive named Ferai, stepped forward and waved a hand angrily in front of my face. "Are you even listening? What's wrong with you?"
I could feel the gears of my jaw grinding. At the edge of my feed, HubSystem was doing the HubSystem equivalent of muttering under its breath—trying to figure out whether I was being disobedient enough to merit frying, or if do another one was technically too vague of an order to disobey.
"I am listening, Lieutenant Ferai. Torture is forbidden within the Corporation Rim under Convention O-676 of the—" I began, but she interrupted me.
"Are you saying you can't do it? Your governor doesn't allow it?"
I fucking hated direct questions. "No."
"So you can do it?" she said, with a horribly sarcastic smile. (Most humans seemed to think SecUnits didn't understand sarcasm. What a wonderful world that would be, if I simply believed everything humans said at face value.)
I gritted my teeth. "I can." I could also record the entire thing and send it to my company, to be used as blackmail or else released to trash ExPanse's reputation and bankrupt them in court. I would, in fact. My data uploads were entirely automatic—my company would have the footage within the hour. But none of that would reattach the prisoner's fingers.
Ferai leaned in close to my face, close enough that I could feel her disgusting human breath on my face. "Then do it."
Slowly, I turned my energy weapon back onto its lowest setting. The prisoner groaned.
And I did it.
murderbot:~$ open ./Storage/Private/SeriouslyFuckOff/don't_forget_004.mem
"Astrid, come on! Jump across!" Jarrow was yelling.
"I can't," Astrid gasped. She was pressed with her back against the wall, watching in wide-eyed horror as the rest of the platform she'd been standing on toppled down into the abyss. "I can't do it."
Great, just what I needed. She was going into shock.
From the corridor behind her came the crackling of fire, the awful smell of cheap fab blocks melting in the heat. The station-wide fire suppressant system should definitely have come on by now. But of course, the station-wide fire suppressant system—like me—had been built by the company. Hence, it was a piece of shit.
Normally, I didn't really give a shit about the company's criminally awful business practices. Another critical system failure, another Tuesday. But these clients I liked more than usual. Well—alright, not all of them. But Astrid and Jarrow I liked more than usual. They were the youngest members on the station, barely out of training, and had apparently been friends since they were children. They'd never been off their home planet before this operation, and were ridiculously excited about the prospect of spending the next four hundred cycles on this shitty hunk of rock being glorified miners. Or pre-miners, I guess. They were part of a team designing new equipment that would be able to scale the hundred-mile deep chasms that ran across the planet without being vaporized by hot gases.
Why did I know all this? Because I was Astrid and Jarrow's rubber duck.
Generally, I hate talking to humans. I hate being talked to by humans. I hate looking at and being looked at by humans. So I was understandably pissed off when Astrid and Jarrow had decided on their second week that "if I was just going to stand there right next to their cubicles all day [which I was, as that was my standby guard position in the sector], then I could listen to them explain their code." It was an ancient coding tradition apparently, which usually involved explaining bugs to a child's toy duck in the hope that explaining the problem would lead to a breakthrough in fixing it. Except that in this case, I was the duck.
I tried not to be offended.
The good thing about being a rubber duck, though, was that I didn't have to talk. I didn't even have to look at them. All I did was listen. It certainly alleviated the boredom of standing in standby for six hours at a time with nothing to do. Astrid and Jarrow clearly got along well, which was more than could be said for most of the other clients I'd worked with. They laughed and talked and told jokes, complained about their coworkers and reminisced about their days in training together. And twice—twice!—Astrid had had a breakthrough mid-sentence while explaining her code to me and clapped her hands, saying: "Ha! Thanks, DuckUnit!"
Okay, the nickname was awful. But the sentiment was there.
And now, from the looks of it, she was about to tumble down into a volcanic chasm and be vaporized by gas.
Saving people wasn't my job on this assignment. My only job here was to stop anyone from stealing or damaging company property, stop the humans from grievously injuring each other, and record the shit out of them at all times. So even though Astrid was currently teetering on the edge of death, flames rapidly advancing down the corridor behind her, the HubSystem was telling me calmly to stay put and "guide the rest of the evacuees to safety." Which was another way of saying that in terms of monetary investment, I was worth far more than she was.
"It's not that far!" Jarrow was screaming beside me, holding out his hands as if to catch her.
"Yes it fucking is!" she screamed back, which was entirely fair. The gap was about eight feet across, and that wasn't even including how much of the platform either side was unstable. I could have made it. But I was a SecUnit.
"Toss your jacket across first!" Jarrow said. "It'll make it easier to jump!"
She did, and that was when I saw what she had clipped to her belt. Five small data clips. I played back the video I'd taken ten minutes ago just to be sure—yes, they were those data clips, the ones she'd copied across all their code onto as the fire alarm blared and Jarrow yelled at her to leave it. I'd thought he had them, but apparently not.
I send a snapshot to HubSystem, as well as an estimate of what they were worth. More than me, definitely.
Ah, that did it. Now, saving Astrid would count as "preventing damage to company property." HubSystem gave me the go-ahead.
Before Astrid's jacket landed on the ground, I backed up and made the leap. I landed in the entrance to the corridor, then quickly turned around and scooped her up. There wasn't enough room to back up here, so I'd have to just throw her across and hope for the best.
"Catch!" I yelled to Jarrow. His eyes widened. Possibly, it was the first word I'd ever spoken to him. Possibly, it wasn't good to throw him off guard like that immediately before I threw a whole person in his direction. But it was too late now. He "caught" Astrid in the loosest sense of the word, and the two slid a few feet backward in a tumble of limbs.
I prepared to jump across myself, though it would probably be more of a scramble with this little room for a running start—when HubSystem ordered me to abort. I froze in place. Why had it ordered me not to jump? Because it was too dangerous, apparently. HubSystem dumped some risk analyses into my feed. Chance of "irreparable damage/loss" if I jumped across the chasm: 82%. If I retreated backward into the fire: 88%. If I stayed in place: 75%.
I couldn't move.
I watched across the gap as Jarrow pulled Astrid to her feet. Clumsily, they punched in the code on the security door that would lead them to the emergency exit. And then…
Astrid looked back. Once. Right before an alert flashed in the station feed telling employees to abandon all "non-essential equipment." Non-essential equipment being me.
Sometimes, I tell myself that they must not have known they could have just ordered me to jump. A direct order like that would have overridden HubSystem's recommendation. They must not have known, or else they would have said it. They would have told me to follow them out.
But that's bullshit, and I know it.
The fire-suppressant system eventually kicked in thirty minutes later. By that time, I'd lost 25% of my body mass, fused and melted all the way down my right side. It took a month in repairs and an entire arm rebuild to put me back together again. My organic parts smelled like smoke for another month after that.
The station had a backup facility located on the other side of the planet. When I was functional again—my rental period wasn't over yet, after all—they sent me there. I saw Astrid again, once. When she came back to her cubicle with a hot drink in hand and saw me in my usual standby position (the backup facility had an almost identical layout), she nearly dropped her mug. She looked more horrified than she had when the platform had fallen out from under her feet, leaving her stranded on the other side.
She and Jarrow requested a cubicle transfer the next day.
I hated being a fucking rubber duck anyway.
murderbot:~$ open ./Storage/Private/SeriouslyFuckOff/don't_forget_005.mem
Wait a minute. What?
I blinked in shock. A bad habit, I suppose, picked up from too many human serials. Or a side-effect of the code I'd written myself to make me perform various human-like actions at random intervals. Whatever. I was shocked.
I sat up on my bunk and glared out at the room. It was still odd to have a bunk of my own—let alone a whole room—but ART's crew had insisted. They wanted to make sure I felt like one of the crew, they said. I was just glad to have a space where I could watch my serials and not look at (or be looked at by) humans all the time. Now, after that last disastrous mission, I was sure they were glad to have a reason not to look at me too.
I looked again at don't_forget_005.mem, double-checking I had the right file. I had the right filename, at least. But whatever had been in it before had been wiped and replaced with that single word. Stop.
There was only one giant asshole research transport who could possibly be responsible.
"ART?" I said. Out loud, because it was harder to convey barely restrained fury in the feed.
After a conspicuous pause, it replied: What is it?
Oh, so it was trying to play innocent, was it? "Have you been in my fucking files? Specifically, the ones marked Private, SeriouslyFuckOff?"
Another pause. A damningly long one.
I stood, gritting my teeth. "Why? Why the fuck are you overwriting my memory files?"
I didn't touch your memory files.
"Yes, fine, whatever, not my actual memory files. My—" I suppose the closest equivalent would be a diary. But I hated calling them that. It sounded far too "emotional adolescent human" for my liking. "Filename don't_forget_005.mem. What did you do with it?"
When I sent you those Time Defenders Orion deleted scenes, I included some code that transferred the file to me, and overwrote your copy. I still have it. I can give it back.
ART shoved it into the feed. I shoved it back. "But why? Why the hell did you take it?"
Because you've already watched it 243 times on this trip alone.
This surprised me. Usually, when ART watched human serials over my shoulder, it felt like having a massive creature breathing down the back of my neck. But apparently it was capable of being a lot more subtle than that.
"So you've been spying on me?"
I've been monitoring your wellness on the way back, just as I have the rest of the crew.
Never a straight answer. Sometimes, ART made me so mad I wanted to run down to the bridge and pour sugary canned drinks on all its controls. I leaned my head against the metal bunk frame and muttered, "I'm doing just fine, ART."
Your body language, refusal to interact with the rest of the crew, overconsumption of media, and current attitude suggest otherwise. A pause. Maybe if you'd just talk to me and tell me why you're upset, I wouldn't have to observe you like a zoo specimen.
"You want to know why I'm upset?" I wheeled around, jabbing a pointed at the ceiling. (Yes, I know that wasn't where ART really was, but whatever.) "You want to know what I'm feeling? I'm feeling like someone just watched my private files without my permission, stole one of them, and then tried to make me feel bad about it for forcing them to spy on me!"
It's not like I didn't know what was on don't_forget_005.mem already.
Oh, now that did it. I slammed open the door of my room, muted ART on all channels, and went to go stand by the airlock. We wouldn't be docking in Preservation Station for another two hours, but I could wait.
* * *
I'd only planned to go on a single mission with ART. Just one mission, that was all I signed up for. That was as far as my contract extended. But on the way back, just as I was lying in my bunk trying to figure out what the hell I wanted to do next, ART had said:
We've received a tip about some illegal experimentation being performed by your company on a research satellite called Thelios.
I paused the episode of Sanctuary Moon I'd been running in the background and waited for it to say more. Apparently, it wasn't going to.
And? I asked in the feed.
I was wondering if you wanted to accompany us. We plan to obtain more information by posing as potential buyers. A company SecUnit would greatly help our cover story. We could extend your contract to cover one more mission. A pause. Or… longer than that.
I turned to face the wall, so that ART couldn't see the expression on my face. Because it was a ridiculous one, I'm sure. And what do your humans think about this?
It was them who asked me to suggest it to you.
Huh. I replayed several of the previous days' interactions. ART's crew spent a lot of time together in their communal living space, making plans and playing games and watching media, but in the whole duration of the mission they'd never invited me to join. I had thought…
If you are wondering why they haven't invited you to join in their group socialization exercises yet, said the asshole research transport spying on my feed again, it's because they know you are shy. They were waiting for you to come to them.
Shy! I'm a ruthless killing machine.
A shy ruthless killing machine, ART said, insufferably smugly. I could feel the organic parts of my face heating up, and tugged a pillow from the floor to shove over my face.
They like you, ART said, when it was clear I was too busy having emotions to reply.
I made a noncommittal noise through the pillow.
They do. Example A: Kaede made you a cross-stitch sampler with your initials on it to hang on your cabin door. Example B: Iris—
"Stop it, I know!" I groaned aloud.
Good. So… do you like them back?
Rule #1: Don't make Murderbot talk about its feelings. I rolled over and threw the pillow at the wall. "Shut up! I'll go on your stupid mission, alright?"
Alright. I'm glad to hear it.
I started up Sanctuary Moon again, glad to be thinking about anything else. But I could still feel ART lurking in my feed. A moment later, I paused it and snapped:
The illegal experimentation being performed on Thelios, ART said. It's being performed on bot/human constructs. We believe they're trying to create an alternative to the traditional governor module. One that is more robust, and resistant to hacking. Will this be too upsetting for you?
For a long moment I was stunned speechless. Would it be upsetting? Would it be upsetting? Of fucking course it would be upsetting.
But I could hardly say no, could I? Not when I had the chance to put a stop to something like this.
We can always drop you off on Preservation and pick you up when the mission is complete—
"I'll do it," I said aloud, through gritted teeth. "It'll be fine."
Except it hadn't been fine, of course. It had been a fucking nightmare.
It had been nearly 90 ship cycles now since I'd seen Dr. Mensah and the rest of the PreservationAux crew. It was a good thing at least that we'd gotten back when we did, because in just a few hours they'd be leaving again on another survey mission (this one hopefully much less lethal than the one I'd accompanied them on). Mensah had sent me the number of the bay their transport was docked in, in case I wanted to stop by and say goodbye before they left. So the instant ART's airlock doors opened onto the station dock, that's where I went.
It was late now, the very end of the day cycle on the planet itself, but I didn't care. I'm sure there would be someone on the transport already, unpacking and readying things for the next morning's departure. I blocked 200+ more of ART's pings and marched down the dock toward Bay 278A. I found it easily enough, marched right up to the passenger door, and sent an entry request.
"Oh, hi!" said Dr. Ratthi when he opened the door. He seemed to have been in the middle of brushing his teeth, I noticed, and waved at me with his toothbrush in hand. "I didn't—"
"I'm coming with you," I interrupted.
Ratthi was speechless a moment. Then he narrowed his eyes. "Oh, no. Have you and ART been fighting again?"
I hated that he could tell that just from looking at me. I took a look at my face from one of the cameras in the hallway and—oh, yeah. Yeah, you could tell.
But one of the great things about not having a governor module anymore was that I didn't have to answer questions. I could ask my own.
"Is Dr. Mensah here?"
He made a dramatic motion like he'd been shot. "You wound me, SecUnit. No, she's out at a goodbye dinner with her family. But she'll be back soon if you want to wait. And, uh… discuss coming with us. If you want."
He stepped aside to let me in. I walked past him, straight through into what was clearly a small recreational living space, and sat down in a chair in the corner. The fabric patterning on the chair opposite me, I noticed, was the same kind as ART had in its crew quarters. I turned around so I didn't have to look at it.
Ratthi leaned against the doorway. "So… not that we wouldn't be delighted to have you of course, but—why the sudden change of heart?
"I don't want to talk about it," I said flatly.
Ratthi looked down to fiddle intently with the feed interface he wore on his wrist. I suspected that it really didn't need fiddling with at all, and that this was more so that I didn't feel him looking at me. I appreciated that.
"You know, I still have Dr. Pia's info I could give you…."
Well, that undid any appreciation I might have felt. "For the last time, I'm not seeing your fucking human marriage counselor."
He threw his hands up. "Hey, she's a relationship counselor! She does relationships. Friends, roommates, families, uh…" He scratched the back of his head. "Rogue SecUnits and their giant sentient spaceships."
That "their" made me feel something. What that something was, I had no idea. I thought back to when ART's crew had first met me—Peri's SecUnit, they'd called me. I still couldn't quite tell if I liked it, or if I hated it, or if it was just plain embarrassing.
"Is it the human part that's the problem?" Ratthi said, after I was silent a few moments.
"I was just wondering. Would it help if you had…" He shrugged. "Another bot or construct to talk to?"
Now he was going to try and find some sort of rogue-Sec-Unit-turned-marriage-counselor for me to talk to. Great. I shook my head. "No. I… I just really want to talk to Dr. Mensah."
"Okay. I'll give her a call and let her know you're here."
"No—don't." I remembered what Ratthi had said, about her being at a goodbye dinner with her family. I didn't want her to have to cut that short just to deal with Murderbot Problems again. "I'll wait until she comes back."
Ratthi nodded and left, the look of concern on his face making me squirm. I sat back and started a new serial, a ridiculous one about an augmented detective who solved mysteries using his psychic connection to his long-dead grandmother. I'd been waiting to watch it with ART, but fuck that.
A few hours later, just as the detective was engaged in a three-way motorcycle chase (i.e., he was chasing a murderer on a motorcycle while an entirely different murderer chased them both on a much larger, noisier motorcycle), Mensah appeared in the doorway.
"So," she said, eyebrows raised. "I just got a message from Seth saying that you were apparently yelling in your cabin, and then stormed out and stood with your nose pressed against the airlock for two hours before docking. I don't suppose that has anything to do with your sudden decision to come with us on a six-month survey mission?"
"Nothing at all," I said drily. She sighed and sat down in the chair opposite me. The horribly patterned one that I hated.
"Look… We'd obviously love for you to come. But I'd hate for you to make a decision like that just because you're stressed or upset." Her face went painfully serious. "…Seth told me about the mission too, you know. About what happened to you."
What happened to me. I gritted my teeth. It had been all ART's crew wanted to talk to me about on the way back. About how sorry they were, and how they didn't blame me for anything, and they knew it wasn't really me that had pushed Iris to the wall and nearly strangled her, etc. etc. But they had no idea what they were talking about.
They'd been right about the fact that the researchers on Thelios were experimenting on SecUnits, trying to develop an unhackable alternative to a governor module. What they didn't realize—what none of us realized, until that stupid weedy lab-tech shot it directly into my brain—was that it was also designed to get rogue SecUnits back under control.
I'd been in the news too much recently, I guessed. Giving the company too much bad press. So they'd laid a trap, leaked some information, and waited. And I'd walked right into it, along with ART's whole crew. The only reason any of them were still alive right now is that ART eventually managed to hack me and pry the damn thing out of my brain. The whole operation had been a disaster, start to finish.
"I can't even imagine what it must have been like for you," said Mensah, her voice so gentle and understanding it made me wince. "Having to deal with a governor module again. It—"
"It wasn't a governor module," I snapped.
She stopped, startled. "What?"
"It was nothing like that. It didn't punish me. It…" I knew basically nothing about human biochemistry besides the word 'biochemistry,' so I asked: "What's that chemical that makes humans happy?"
Through the room camera, I saw her frown. "Dopamine? Serotonin?"
"Something like that." I put my face into my hands. "It didn't hurt me when I disobeyed orders. It… made me happy when I followed them."
"Oh. Oh." The color went out of her face. "Oh, shit."
"Oh, shit," I agreed, not having the energy to think of anything else to say. For a long moment, we sat in silence. I could see her through the camera, moving her hands in that way that meant she wanted to lay a hand on my shoulder, but knew I wouldn't like it.
"Most humans think," I said at last, "that SecUnits can't disobey their governor modules. It would be like a bot disobeying its coding—it literally can't. But that's not what it's like. Every time I was ordered to hurt people, I had a choice. I could obey orders, or I could be zapped with a thousand fucking volts of electricity and have my brain dissolved. And I chose to hurt people, every single time."
"But you understand that's not really a choice, right?" Dr. Mensah said.
"If someone handed you a gun and told you to shoot yourself or shoot fifty-seven people, which would you choose?" I snapped. Her face did something sad and awful. I cut the room camera from my feed so I didn't have to watch.
"But… even if you had refused, they would have just gotten another SecUnit to do it, wouldn't they?" she said quietly. "You're still not ultimately responsible. In the trolley problem, you make a choice to kill one person or five, but above all it's the person who set up the trolley that way who killed them."
I waved a hand. Whatever. If Mensah wanted to logic out the situation in a way that made me not-a-murderer, she could. It wouldn't undo everything I'd done. And we were getting off topic.
"On Thelios, when I was infected with the… the virus, the control-module thing, it was the same. In that way, at least. I could choose to disobey it and feel nothing or I could wrap my fucking hands around Iris' neck and feel—feel—"
Shit, it had felt amazing. Like the sun had come out from behind the clouds. I didn't even give a shit about planetary weather like most humans did, but that was the image that had popped into my mind the moment I obeyed its first order. Stand up. Just a small thing, one tiny harmless action. And in return I'd gotten a blast of sunlight, warm and golden. It was like I'd been miserable my whole life, every minute of it, and that was the first time I'd been really, truly happy.
It was entirely possible that that was true. Now, that was depressing.
"It's like an addiction, then?"
I lifted my head, confused. "What?"
"This virus that infected you. It sounds like it affected you like a drug." I shifted the room cam back on to watch her. She was staring off into space like she did whenever she was thinking intently. "In the Corporation Rim, addiction is criminalized, but on Preservation we recognize it for what it is: a sickness. The most addictive drugs actually alter your brain chemistry so that you can't feel happy any other way. People will do absolutely anything to experience it again—things they'd never dream of doing normally."
I could see she was giving me a significant look. I could also see that I was scowling, though since I was facing the wall that was kind of pointless. "What's your point?"
"My point is, again, it's the person who created this virus to prey upon your state of mind who's the real villain here. They must have known that constructs aren't exactly…" She sucked in air through her teeth. "Happy people, usually. Is that too much of a generalization?"
Hah. "No, I think it's safe to say we're all pretty fucking depressed."
She nodded, mouth set in a grim line. "In that case, it's even more impressive that you actually managed to fight it."
Oh, this was going to be the worst part. I turned the chair further, wishing there was a way for me to face the corner even more than I already was. Perhaps I could convince her to go into a different room and communicate through the comm.
"I didn't fight it," I said quietly.
She frowned. "But ART said—"
"I got back onto the ship, yes." All of ART's crew had thanked their various deities that I'd managed to resist the virus enough to tear myself away from killing Iris and get back to the ship. But that wasn't what happened. "It wanted me to go back to ART. To destroy its controls, I think. So none of us would be able to leave, even if I did snap out of it."
"No, that's not what I mean," said Dr. Mensah, sounding a little impatient. But still at least 75% less impatient than anyone else would have been with me in the current situation. "You let ART in."
"ART said you let your firewalls down. It would never have been able to get enough control over your system to delete the virus otherwise. You did that."
For a long minute, I couldn't say anything. I thought back, trying to replay my memories from that moment, but they were corrupted and incomplete. The first thing I remembered clearly was waking up in the MedBay on the way back, all of ART's crew around me. Telling me how glad they were to see me awake. Even though I could still see the bruises around Iris' neck.
Even so. Even if I had managed to resist the virus for the 0.5 seconds it took to take my firewalls down, that didn't change the fact that I'd been useless the rest of the mission. ART's crew had fought their way out on their own, and even managed to destroy a good portion of Thelios' research archives. Not all of them, but a lot of them. All while I'd been lying inactive on the floor of ART's control room, having my brain unfucked for about the fourth time this year.
"I still could have killed them," I muttered. "It could happen again."
"First of all, regular humans are perfectly capable of killing people, too," Mensah said, in that infuriating tone that meant she knew I'd read that section of Dr. Bharadwaj's documentary script, and I was just being a miserable asshole. "Second of all, if it happens again, you'll resist it again. I don't think there's a virus or a governor or a handler in the universe that can keep you controlled for long, SecUnit. And lastly: If you really do believe it could happen again, and you could kill people again, why not just lock yourself in a box and launch yourself into space? Why come on this mission and endanger us?"
I turned to look at her, stunned. She sent a joke symbol to my feed, looking vaguely amused. Man, what an asshole.
"You should be careful," I said drily. "I'm always looking for reasons to launch myself into space."
She chuckled. "I'm just trying to show you what a ridiculous argument that is. I know your whole job is minimizing risk, but there's no such thing as a zero-risk situation." Her face grew more serious. "And… that applies when making friends, too. There's always going to be some risk involved. You have to be prepared for the fact that they might see you when you're upset, or hurt, or out of control. You have to let yourself be vulnerable."
I groaned and leaned back in my seat. "Are we talking about my 'relationships' again?"
"Oh, yes." Through the room camera, I saw her smile. With me leaning back in the chair, and her sat with one leg crossed over the other in the armchair across from me, we looked uncomfortably like all the therapist-and-patient scenes I'd seen in the serials. "What was it that you and ART were fighting about?"
I scowled at the ceiling. "ART stole one of my memory files."
Mensah's eyes went wide. "It did what?!"
"Well, one of my backup memory files. I had arranged some of them like a…" I refused to say diary. "A… scrapbook."
Okay, that was so much worse.
"A bad scrapbook," I pressed on. Through the room camera, I saw that I was wincing so hard it looked like I'd been stabbed. "Of… things that I did. Or things that happened to me. Before I hacked my governor module."
Mensah blinked for a few moments in what appeared to be concerned horror. "Why?"
"Because I need to remember what it was like," I muttered. "Being controlled."
"Oh." She leaned forward, looking like she wanted to lay a hand on my arm again. "Oh, SecUnit."
I shut off my view of the room's camera again so I didn't have to look at her. "ART thought I was watching them too much."
"How much is too much?"
I shrugged my shoulders in the sullen adolescent way Amena always did when one of her parents asked her a question she didn't want to answer. "A lot."
"You realize that you're just punishing yourself, don't you? I'm sure you already remember what happened just fine. There's no reason to keep reliving it all." Then, even more quietly: "Haven't you had enough punishment already?"
SecUnits don't cry. We don't even have the parts for it—my eyes are mostly camera, anyway. I'd always wondered (when I could bring myself to care) what it felt like, wanting to cry. Probably a lot like this.
"I'm guessing that's why ART was worried, too," said Mensah.
"So—not that I'm trying to excuse ART's actions, it really shouldn't have been messing with your files, that's a huge violation of privacy, I'm just trying to figure out its motives—it thought it was taking the file away for your own good. Trying to protect you, in a way. Like it does with its humans."
"Ew," I managed.
She chuckled. "Or—like a friend. And again, it was definitely on the wrong track there, friends shouldn't steal each others' memories, but at least we know it wasn't being purposefully harmful. Right?"
I sat there for a long moment, staring at the ceiling. Eventually, I turned on the room camera to watch Dr. Mensah as she watched me. Finally, when I saw her stifle a yawn, I said—
"I should go."
She raised her eyebrows. "Back to your ship?"
Your ship. There it was again. I think I knew what that 'something' was now. Though I felt stupid even admitting it. It was… fear.
I'd been shot at, burned, blown up, and put back together. I'd been threatened and kidnapped and nearly found out as a rogue SecUnit and recycled a thousand times. But this, apparently, was what I was afraid of. Great job, risk assessment modules.
I got to my feet, trying and failing to wipe the awful grimace off my face. I still looked like I'd been stabbed.
"Yes," I said. "Back to—ART." I couldn't say it. Not right now. I had far too many emotions going on. But Dr. Mensah smiled like I had.
* * *
Halfway back across the docks, I answered one of ART's pings. The 627th one it had sent me, to be precise. I couldn't even get a word in before it messaged:
I apologize for taking your memory file. It was inappropriate of me, and an invasion of your privacy. I will not interfere with your files without your permission again.
It sent don't_forget_005.mem to my feed again, and this time I accepted it. Though I did an obnoxiously over-the-top malware check first, and made sure ART could see.
Did a human help you with that apology? I asked wryly.
No. A guilty pause. Well, technically. I read twenty-seven articles by human psychologists on the construction of an effective apology. Unfortunately, none of them discussed how to include clarifying footnotes, so I will simply go over those now. I will not interfere with your files without your permission again, unless a) an emergency situation requires me to do so in order to prevent imminent danger to i) yourself, ii) myself, iii) my crew, or iv) another allied party which in this instance counts as—
"I know, I know," I said aloud, to shut it up. Hesitantly, I opened up don't_forget_005.mem, just to check it wasn't damaged. It began as it always did: I was in the mine on Milu, walking down a corridor toward the company recreation room. I turned a corner and walked inside. I raised my gun and—
I closed the file.
It was only when a luggage transport bot beeped at me that I realized I'd stopped in the middle of the thoroughfare. I got out of the way and kept walking, looking squarely at the floor so I didn't accidentally make eye contact with anybody.
You should stop watching those, ART said.
None of it is your fault.
An hour ago, I might have argued. I still wanted to argue. I still wasn't quite sure if I believed it. But instead, I just shook my head and carried on. ART was trying its best. Which was more than I did, most of the time.
When I came to the bay where ART was docked, I stopped. I gathered up the contents of the folder SeriouslyFuckOff, changed the name simply to Don'tForget, then sent the folder to ART's feed.
I want you to keep these.
ART accepted the file, in a confused sort of way. Why?
If I ever catch some sort of virus again, or if the company catches me and refits me with a new governor module—
We won't let that happen.
I know. It was infuriating sometimes, talking to an obnoxiously intelligent research transport who didn't believe in letting people finish their sentences. But if it does, I want you to send me these files again.
ART hesitated. Alright. But only if I can add some files as well.
ART sent me several video clips. Shots of the PreservationAux crew from various news reports, looking tired but triumphant. Amena, laughing at a joke in ART's control room. ART's crew, standing around me as I woke up in MedBay after the virus had been pried out my brain. About ten full episodes of Sanctuary Moon.
It was supposed to be something quick, that you could send to me in an emergency, I said.
I'll edit it down, ART insisted. Then, as I started towards the main airlock again, Dr. Ratthi said you were considering severing your contract and going on the survey with PreservationAux instead.
Dr. Ratthi was a fucking snitch. Yes, I was.
But you aren't anymore?
No. I paused. So long as you double my pay.
Oh, fuck you. You don't even use money. We pay you too much already.
Excuse me, are you attempting to dock my pay purely because of my nonorganic status? That's an infringement of my rights as a bot/human construct under Preservation Law. I'm telling Dr. Mensah.
ART sent me a clip of a character from Worldhoppers making an obscene hand gesture, then dramatically left the feed.
As the airlock cycled, I took a quick look through the ship's various interior cameras and saw Kaede, Mattheo, and Iris gathered in the main recreation room, watching serials. Suddenly, they all started like they'd received a simultaneous feed alert.
"Peri's SecUnit is back!" Kaede said. Quickly, they scrambled to open the main rec room door and change the show on the display from Jupiter Rose—a mushy human romance that I'd watched for all of five minutes, before giving up and searching my manual to see if there was any way to make myself vomit—to episode 206 of Sanctuary Moon.
Well. It had been a while since I'd seen that one.
After a few moments spent staring at myself in the hallway cameras, trying to make my facial expression as un-murdery as possible, I stepped forward and into—alright, fine, fine, I would say it—my asshole research transport again.