“Who wants to hear about our hero this week?” There was general excitement and exclamations from the five humans in the shuttle. I felt a terrible sense of foreboding. Ameena and I were going to have a conversation about this later. Or maybe not. I had a suspicion that I was going to be having more than enough conversations with humans over the next week. “So, this is a first. This week, we’re helping out a SecUnit.”
There was a momentary pause, the enthusiasm dimming a bit. I couldn’t blame them. Then the one with the longer hair (Jonathan, human, non-binary, specialist in personal grooming) spoke up. “We’ve never done a construct before!”
“I don’t think I’ve even ever talked to a construct before,” said Antoni (human, male, specialist in food). He probably hadn’t. Humans who lived on planets or stations and who weren’t involved in dangerous work like mining or doing surveys didn’t have a lot of chances to meet SecUnits, and a lot of them just never chose to go to a ComfortUnit. (Oh, did I say “didn’t have a lot of chances” to meet SecUnits? I meant that they were never forced to, so why would they. Nobody wanted to meet a SecUnit.)
I considered speaking up through their local audio system and telling them all that it wasn’t too late to turn back. I wouldn’t be offended if they changed their minds, now that they were learning these sorts of inconvenient details about their client for the week. But doing that would mean admitting that I’d hacked into their shuttle’s system to listen to what was supposed to be a private conversation (that is, a private conversation that would later be available to anyone with access to an entertainment feed), and I didn’t really want to do that just yet. They’d have plenty of time to learn how much of an asshole I could be, after all.
“We’ll all have a lot to learn this week, then,” said the one who was in the pilot’s seat (Karamo, human, male, specialist in “culture” (whatever that was supposed to mean). Although there was no official hierarchy among the group of humans on the show, the seventy-nine episodes I had watched after I’d been bullied into agreeing to do this clearly indicated that Karamo was the default leader of the five). “Bobby, what else can you tell us about—it, right?”
They probably all had the information available in their feeds, but from their reactions I thought it was actually possible that they hadn’t read it yet and were genuinely surprised by what Bobby (augmented human, male, specialist in design) was telling them.
“SecUnit is—huh. SecUnit hacked its governor module, several standard years ago.”
There was a another momentary pause. Yeah, they were probably thinking better of this whole scheme. “Yessss, go queen,” Jonathan managed after a minute, with what sounded like genuine enthusiasm. Huh. They had to be better actors than I’d thought. “Going after that self-determination. Taking what you need, even if they won’t give it to you. Get it, girl!”
“That’s an impressive piece of hacking,” said the fifth member (Tan, augmented human, male, specialist in fashion). “The governor modules on constructs are supposed to be really reliable.”
Yeah, they are. Supposed to be, I mean.
“SecUnit ended up saving a set of clients it was protecting when they ran into trouble during a survey. They were so grateful that they bought it from the company.”
“Aww, that’s sweet,” said Antoni. “Making sure that the SecUnit that saved them got to come home.”
Oh, great. This was going to be so much fun.
“Yes, but it didn’t. It left that system on its own--” Hah, that was a nicer way of saying went rogue and abandoned the nice humans who were just trying to help it, “And, uh, had a few adventures before it ended up rejoining them in Preservation. It was nominated by the daughter of the leader of the survey team that SecUnit saved.” Bobby made a face. “Aww, that is sweet.”
(“Sweet” was not the word I would have used for it. After Ameena and ART had told me that I’d been accepted onto the serial (Ameena had been very careful to keep it a secret before then, and with ART colluding with her, she’d actually managed it) I’d hacked into the video files that she’d recorded as part of the process for making her case that they should pick me. I figured I could at least know what she’d told them about me.
“I’m nominating SecUnit because it’s always taking care of other people, but never thinks much about itself. Plus,” she had made a face that only an adolescent would make, “It could really use some new clothes.”
Sure. I suppose you could call that sweet, if you wanted to.)
“Since SecUnit—which is how it prefers to be addressed, since apparently its real name is private—'settled down’, it’s been alternating its time between the Preservation system and a research transport vessel, where it provides security for the crew.”
“So, it hasn’t really ever had a place of its own,” Karamo said, slowly. Wow, that was unnecessary. (And obviously untrue—like Bobby had just said, I had my work on ART and in Preservation. That was two places, which is actually more than most people had.)
“Apparently SecUnit struggles both with letting go of parts of its past, and accepting and expressing its own needs and desires. It doesn’t really believe that it deserves anyone caring about it, or helping it in any way, even though it’s always taking care of other people.”
A chorus of the sad human noises. This bit, at least, I’d known was coming.
(“SecUnit saved my second mom’s life at least two times,” Ameena had said, on one of those earlier videos. “And mine, too. Plus, like, a lot of other people’s. The whole survey team that Second Mom was on, and another survey team that I was on, and then several techs and part of a team from another corporation, and part of the crew of the transport that it’s friends with, and kind of this whole planet of colonists. And probably some people it never even told us about, when it was off on its own. Anyway, it’s a real hero—”
I’d had to pause my stolen file here for several seconds. I wasn’t sure what my reaction to Ameena calling me a hero was, and I needed to sort it out. The several seconds hadn’t been enough time to do that (I still didn’t know how I felt, even now, approximately nine hundred and eighty hours later), but the need to know what else she had told these strangers about me was too strong, and I had had to continue viewing the file.
“—but it never thinks about itself like that. A few months ago, when it was—in some trouble—it was really surprised when some of us went to rescue it. I think it actually expected us to abandon it to die!” The indignation was clear in her voice, and I had paused the video to look at her expression. I wasn’t sure what I felt about it either, but that time I hadn’t minded looking for a longer moment.
“A misapprehension we were quick to relieve it of,” a dry voice had added. Oh, yeah, had I mentioned that ART can never resist chiming in? And of course Ameena had done this on board, so its commentary was bound to be everywhere.
“It never really thinks about taking care of itself,” she’d gone on. “I don’t think it ever does much of anything for fun, except for watching media alone. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen it ask anyone for anything.”)
Well, that was just untrue. Watching media by myself wasfun, but these days I usually watched with ART, anyway. And I asked people for things all the time. To let me go first when we were entering an unknown situation, for example, or to let me finish running my risk assessment before deciding on a plan, or to get their hands off of one of my humans right fucking now. (Just because nobody ever fucking listens to me, doesn’t mean I don’t ask.)
“At the end of this week, the transport is bringing SecUnit back to Preservation after its second mission with them. The original survey team and several of SecUnit’s other friends from Preservation are going to be coming over to dinner on board the transport, so that they can get to know everyone better.”
“Aww, meeting the family,” Jonathan cooed.
“That can be a really stressful moment,” Karamo said thoughtfully.
No shit. I mean, most of them had actually met each other during that last fiasco, but that was before I was a member of ART’s crew, and when most of them had been under a lot of stress and distracted by being grateful that they hadn’t died, or that their family members and friends hadn’t died. This? Was going to be a bit different.
(Near the end of her video, Ameena had turned to look directly at the camera. “I just wish,” she’d said plainly, “that SecUnit really understood what it means to the rest of us.”)
“Our mission this week,” Bobby finished, “is to help SecUnit go from security consultant, to secure in itself.”
There was cheering throughout the shuttle. My threat assessment module was insisting that everything was great, but my sense of foreboding? Was only getting worse.
At least, thanks to the hacked shuttle feed and the fact that ART had apparently forgotten that by giving me access to its security functions, it had given me access to all proximity alerts, I knew when they were coming.
ART was currently docked at Croom Station, our last stop before heading back to Preservation to drop me off for a while before the next mission. The station wasn’t in the Corporation Rim, but it was a lot more like it than other independent systems like Preservation, full of shops and advertisements and all of the thing that humans, apparently, wanted when they stepped off of their ships. I had spent almost all of our time here on board, although the humans and augmented humans in the crew had been happy to spend some time exploring the station. We’d originally been scheduled to stop here for a few days while the members of the crew quietly exchanged some documents with someone else who had come to the station because they didn’t want to do whatever it was they were doing inside the Corporation Rim, and to pick up some fresh supplies. Now we were staying a bit longer, so that I could do—this.
“I think this could be an opportunity,” Bharadwaj had said in a recorded message that she’d sent after she’d heard about it. “That serial is known for treating the participants well, and making all of them sympathetic to the viewers.” That much, I had been able to see for myself. I was a bit dubious about it (there was no way that all the people they saw were really that good) but even I admitted that as entertainment, it was pretty convincing. “And it has a very wide audience. A lot more people will see it than will see my documentary.”
So maybe it wasn’t just ART’s bullying that had gotten me to agree to do the show.
I knew, from the episodes that I’d watched (I didn’t usually like shows that were about real people doing things like this, so I’d never watched it until ART had told me that Ameena had nominated me and it had be accepted) that they usually liked to surprise their clients, but I did not want to be surprised. I’d been monitoring all incoming shuttles for several days now, since they hadn’t wanted to tell us when exactly they would arrive.
I also knew from all those episodes that whenever they showed up anywhere, they all got all excited and started hugging everyone in sight. That had been my main stipulation, before I agreed to do the show. Rule one: nobody was going to hug me.
I’d spent some time thinking about what I wanted to be doing when they came aboard. I’d been briefly tempted to wear the armor, but I’d realized that 1) that might look stupid, and definitely like I was trying too hard to make some kind of point (even if I wasn’t sure exactly what that point was), and 2) I still didn’t have real armor, anyway, and the exploration suit just wasn’t the same.
The feed documents that they’d sent over emphasized several times that I was supposed to present myself in my typical day-to-day life (instead of trying to look like, I don’t know, a totally functional and happy bot-human construct that did not, in any way, need the assistance of five strange humans). Anyway, they really wanted that, so I decided to try it. Not from the more exciting days that made up a higher-than-statistically-expected amount of my time, but the routine, dull kind of day. Still, though, I hadn’t thought that interrupting me while I was sitting around, watching media on my feed, would make for very good viewing. So I’d saved some of my maintenance work, the visual inspection of the ART’s repair drones that probably wasn’t technically necessary but was in the official security protocols, and I was doing that when their shuttle arrived.
These humans and augmented humans were decently smart, at least. They didn’t even try to sneak up on a SecUnit. Probably they assumed it wouldn’t have worked. (Really, it would have been much worse for them if they tried it and succeeded.) Instead they came down the corridor talking to each other about where they might find me. ART, apparently, had decided to pretend to be a regular bot pilot for a little bit longer—it wouldn’t be able to keep it up, I was sure, since eventually it wouldn’t be able to resist sharing its opinion—and aside from giving them permission to dock, it hadn’t done anything except some strategic turning on of corridor lights to lead them in my direction.
I didn’t pretend to be surprised, either, just looked up from my work when they came around the corner. There was the predictable excitement and noise that I was expecting (I’d tuned my hearing down a little bit, in anticipation) and general flailing and exclamations.
“So, SecUnit—that’s what you want us to call you, right?”
I nodded. I was looking a little bit beyond Karamo’s shoulder, but I had a good view of his face from one of ART’s cameras, and the small security drone that had been helping me check all the angles of ART’s larger drones was now up in the air over my head, watching the other members of the team.
“So, we know that you’re not big on touching, so we’re just going to hug each other instead of you, all right?”
They were, in fact, all hanging off of each other, like only humans who actually liked each other would usually do. (I hadn’t been sure, watching the episodes, whether it was real or not, but now that they were in front of me, I decided that it probably was. I was glad, since being around humans who do like each other is always less unpleasant than the reverse.)
It took me half a second to respond, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t notice. Even if they did, they probably wouldn’t guess that it was because I was distracted hacking into the private feed that their cameras were using.
I already did that, ART said to me on our private feed. I ignored it and finished my own hack. It didn’t take long. (It wouldn’t have been hard even if the bot that was directing the camera drones and coordinating the filming wasn’t already thoroughly terrified of the weight of ART’s attention in its feed. I thought about trying to reassure it, but really I thought it would be just fine if it was a bit scared of us.)
Now I could see myself like the viewers eventually would. I looked. . . not too bad, actually. A little bit stiff and awkward, but that was probably inevitable. Since everyone watching would know that I was a SecUnit, I’d altered my acting-like-a-human code to run at about half its normal levels. I didn’t really want any of them realizing how well I could usually pretend to be a human, but somehow I hadn’t wanted to stop running it entirely. I’d even managed to look marginally pleased to see them. That was a relief. In the feed, ART was sending me the details of its plan to delete any footage that it or I didn’t want them to leave with, but I’d feel bad ruining their reaction shot just because I had a bad reaction.
“Hi,” I said awkwardly. So, you’d think that I might have gotten better with people, especially since I had this new crew I was working with? Turns out, not so much.
“We’re so happy to meet you!” Jonathan was wearing a long skirt that was made out of some kind of drapy material that looked really impractical for getting any kind of work done, but also like it was probably really comfortable. “Oh, let me get a look at you.”
He came closer, staring at me, which wasn’t precisely relaxing, but wasn’t too bad. He was careful to keep his hands to himself, though, just looking at my face and hair from several angles. I checked the camera view again and saw that I was looking a little more relaxed. “Girl, I would kill for skin like yours,” he said cheerfully.
“It regenerates fully—” I did not want to say, every time I get shot to pieces. “Every few months, usually.”
“Ugh, lucky! And look at that totally gorgeous hair of yours! You are just rocking those curls. Oh, we are going to have fun.”
“Do you need to finish up here, or can we abduct you now?” Tan asked. (ART, in my feed, informed me that it was rhetorical use of the phrase. I told it that I knew that, and that I was at least as good at interpreting human speech as it was, which I’d needed to be, while I was successfully pretending to be one. ART responded with a directory of the dictionaries it had in storage, both formal and colloquial, with a not-at-all-subtle emphasis on the combined size of the files, which was about half the size of my entire storage capacity (as if I didn’t know that it had several times the storage space than I did). But at least it shut up, after that.)
“This is routine work, it can wait.” The drone I had been checking settled back onto its rack.
“Great,” Karamo said, beaming. “Can we look around the transport a bit?”
Huh. In the episodes I’d seen before, they didn’t usually ask permission before ransacking the place. Or maybe they just edited that part out. “It’s not my transport.”
That probably would have caused an awkward pause, with nobody knowing how to respond, except that ART was here, and it couldn’t keep itself quiet any longer. “You are welcome in any public areas of the ship,” it said, out loud. All of the humans jumped and looked around. “I will alert you if you are approaching any restricted areas.”
Now there was an awkward pause. “Is someone else here?” Karamo asked, eventually.
“That’s—” I started to say, but of course ART didn’t let me finish the sentence.
“Hello, Karamo. It’s nice to meet you. I am Perihelion.” (Yes, that sounded just as creepy as you think it did.) The five of them drew together slightly.
“I thought Perihelion was the name of the transport,” Jonathan whispered to Tan.
Of course, ART could still hear them, and had never been exposed to the idea that manners meant pretending not to hear private conversations. “That is correct.”
“ART is the transport,” I said, because while ART apparently enjoyed this sort of thing, I didn’t. Of course, that didn’t make much sense to them, and I had to explain. “I call it ART. Its real name is Perihelion.” I was still annoyed at ART for trying to make me do this in the first place, so I added, “It’s the bot-pilot.”
“SecUnit’s memory isn’t very reliable,” ART said to the humans. “I would be happy to provide a reminder of how much more I am than a bot-pilot, if it’s required.”
The humans were listening to this with rather wide eyes. I forgot, sometimes, how unnerving ART usually was to humans who weren’t used to it. “ART is everywhere in the ship,” I warned the humans.
“Soooo, it’s not going to be just us, this week,” Jonathan said, thoughtfully.
Sounding even more sarcastic than usual, ART offered, “I can refrain from speaking, if it would be preferable for the filming.”
I let out an audible snort at that. ART, keep its opinion to itself? I’d like to see it try to keep that up.
“Not at all,” Karamo said hurriedly. “We want to help SecUnit with the place and life that it already has. If that includes you, then we’re happy to hear from you too.”
Oh, great. They’d actually gone ahead and encouraged ART. They’d discover how big of a mistake that was, eventually.
“Are you ready to have a really great week?” Jonathan asked, before either ART or I could say anything. “We are going to focus on you, one hundred percent, and it is going to be so much fun.”
“I know you’re usually really busy taking care of the crew, but it’s important for you to learn to take time for yourself, too,” Antoni added. That was completely unnecessary. I took plenty of time for myself. If I had a problem, that wasn’t it.
“Right, well, shall we get started?” Tan looked at me. “I want to see what’s in your closet that isn’t a uniform.”
I thought we had gotten started, but I guessed this was just the prelude. I nodded, not sure what else to do.
“It’s a lot, sometimes, to have people focused on you when you’re not used to it.” Great. Apparently Karamo actually was as perceptive as he always looked on the show. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. “Are you nervous about how this week is going to go?” he asked.
I hesitated. Back when this idea had first come up, Dr Mensah had been concerned, and not very happy that Ameena had nominated me without talking to anyone else except ART about it. At first I thought she’d been worried about security concerns, or maybe that I’d be exploited somehow. That seemed like the sort of thing that she’d think about.
It had turned out that her worries were a lot more complicated than that. I still didn’t really understand all of it, even the parts she’d tried to explain. But part of it was that she thought I’d only tell them the versions of things that I usually wanted to tell humans that weren’t her. Which was to say, not very much, and not all of it accurate. And she thought that it would be bad for me, somehow, to keep telling more and more people that version.
I still didn’t really understand. But before she agreed that it was a good idea (not that she was deciding for me, she’d made that clear, but I had asked her what she thought) she asked me to try to do a few things. And if I was too uncomfortable with the idea of doing them, she thought I shouldn’t do the show.
Here I was, doing the show. And Dr. Mensah wanted me to be honest. I turned so that I looked like I was looking directly at Karamo and said, “Yes.”
“So, this is your space.” The others were off on some other part of ART, leaving just the two of us standing in my room. ART was large enough that each crew member usually got their own room, when there wasn’t a larger research or teaching team aboard. I wasn’t usually there for those types of missions, but I knew that when there were more people aboard, the crew had to double up.
“When I’m here,” I said. Wow, my voice sounded weird to my own ears. Even after all the interviews for Dr Bharadwaj’s documentary, apparently I wasn’t used to being filmed for entertainment. This was strange. “It’s standard crew quarters, though. I’m not always on board, it gets shared by other crew members when they need more space.”
“That is inaccurate,” ART said. Out loud. Bobby did a decent job of not jumping too much, although he did give the instinctive look towards the ceiling that humans and augmented humans always do when a disembodied AI starts talking to them.
“Very funny,” I said to ART. “All the crew quarters look like this, I know you didn’t give me a substandard room.”
“That was not the part of the statement that was incorrect,” said ART. “These quarters are not shared.”
I back-burnered most of the inputs I had that were watching Bobby and the other humans, to focus most of my attention on metaphorically staring at ART in the feed. What?
“Nobody else has used these quarters since you joined my crew.”
ART was still speaking out loud, so I was too, even though I knew it meant that Bobby and the cameras could hear me. “Even the humans have to share sometimes.”
“You’ve kept this room empty for me even when I’m not here?” That would be a stupid waste of resources.
I wasn’t sure what to say. “Why?” Did the other humans not want to be in a space that a SecUnit had been using? But surely the ones who weren’t a part of the usual crew wouldn’t even know that was my room, so why couldn’t ART just put them in there?
“The other members of my crew have other homes, mostly near the university. You do not.”
“Well, yeah, but—”
“For them, this transport is where they stay while they are working, until they go home. It is different for you.”
Now I really didn’t know what to say. Was ART implying that it kept me a room here out of pity? Before I could say that, or something else I would regret, Bobby spoke up. “You want this to be SecUnit’s home.”
I waited for ART to disagree and explain. Instead, it said, simply, “Yes.”
Wow. That was—a lot. The first time ART had called me part of its crew had been kind of a lot too, but even that was different from saying that it wanted this to be my home. I thought about checking the cameras to see what my face was doing, but I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know.
“So, SecUnit,” Bobby was saying, “If this is going to be your home, even just part of the time, I want it to be a place where you’ll be comfortable. What do you like?”
I had to think about that one. I’d spent some time before thinking about this sort of thing, trying to figure out the answer to Mensah’s question about what I wanted, but it still wasn’t an easy question. I liked watching media, by myself and with ART. I liked being able to choose what jobs I went on, and negotiating my own contracts. I had liked my missions with ART so far, especially the part where we were helping people get out from under the control of various corporations. I just wasn’t sure how any of that translated into what I wanted in the place I lived.
Well, maybe some of it did. “I like watching media,” I told him. “In a hotel, I liked having the big display surface.”
He smiled. “I can work with that. Do you have other people over here often?” My face must have answered that before I could, because he laughed. “Ok, a place for you to watch media by yourself.”
I wasn’t sure why I said it. “I watch with ART, sometimes. But it doesn’t need a chair.”
He took a moment to consider whether that was a joke, which was fair, since I wasn’t sure either. (He ended up laughing, so I guess it was.) “What else do you do in here?”
Not much. “Recharge cycles, when I need them. Coding new protocols, or data analysis.”
“You don’t sleep, though? Do you use the bed?”
I did, because it was the most comfortable piece of furniture in the room, and it wasn’t like there was any space to put in a chair or anything else. On a ship, even a room that was intended for two people was a lot smaller than what you’d expect on a planet, or even on a station. “I sit on it.” Or I lay down on it, but not all that often.
“So you need somewhere to relax, but not necessarily a bed?”
I wasn’t sure that “need” was the correct word there (I’d spent most of my existence mostly in cubicles and cargo holds, after all) but I just nodded again.
“Ok, great. And what do you like, in furniture?”
There we were, back at that question. I still didn’t really have an answer. “I don’t know.” Wow, that was more honest that I’d meant to be. Mensah would be proud. Maybe. Bobby was watching me with just the faintest line of a frown between his eyebrows, and I found myself explaining, more than I’d intended to. “SecUnits on contract don’t use furniture that’s for humans or augmented humans.”
There was a pause while he processed that. “Regular furniture doesn’t work well for SecUnits?”
“No. We—” No, that was wrong. “They aren’t allowed to use it. That would trigger punishment from the governor module.”
There was a longer pause this time, and an expression of clear shock on Bobby’s face. “So—you couldn’t—”
“Sit down. Anywhere except my cubicle or when I was packed in the cargo hold.” I really didn’t want to be having this conversation again. I hadn’t even explained any of this directly to the other humans I knew, except for Bharadwaj, when she was interviewing me. I’d seen in her expression that she’d been surprised and upset by it at the time, but there had been more questions that she wanted to ask, so we hadn’t had time to dwell on it.
But, as ART had repeated several times when it was trying to push me into agreeing to do this, most humans didn’t have any experiences with SecUnits. They really didn’t know what our jobs—what our lives—were like. And ART, who had done a thorough analysis of the reactions of its humans whenever they learned something new about how constructs were treated, thought that a solid forty-three percent of humans and augmented humans in independent polities, and up to twenty-nine percent from the Corporation Rim, would change their opinions on the reasonable treatment of constructs if they knew more about it. So, this was. . . good, that this was coming up now.
“SecUnit is welcome to use any furniture on board this transport, of course,” ART said coolly. Not that I’d waited for an invitation, the first time.
“Right.” Bobby had moved on from shock to a kind of determination. It was. . . something. . . to see that kind of look directed at helping me, from someone I’d just meant. “I can work with that.”
That conversation, fortunately, was cut off by Tan and Jonathan sticking their heads in, hugging Bobby, and sending him out. Jonathan and I went into the tiny bathroom, where we established that I had no morning routine or regular “me-time”, and I braced myself and let him run his hands through my hair a couple of times. It was surprisingly not-terrible. At least I was expecting it.
When we came back out, Tan had most of my pieces of clothing that weren’t ART’s crew uniform spread out on the narrow bed. There wasn’t much of it. He was looking at it with an unimpressed expression. Jonathan hugged him (seriously, there was so much hugging that even though none of it was directed at me, it was still kind of disquieting) and left.
“Let me ask you something.” I didn’t see any way I could stop him. “Do you enjoy clothing? When you’re not in your uniform, do you ever have fun with your clothes?”
I was pretty sure “fun with clothes” was something only humans or augmented humans could think up. “No.”
Tan’s eyes widened, just slightly, and he shifted his weight backward, away from me. I checked the camera view of myself, and tried not to wince. I’d gone stiff, both my shoulders and my face. There wasn’t much emotion on my face, but what there was wasn’t particularly happy. And my voice had been just a little too loud, short and curt.
I looked and sounded like a SecUnit. And that would not be helpful right now, and I had to stop. But just at the moment I couldn’t remember how to look less like a SecUnit, and staring at myself through the camera feeds and noticing everything I was doing wrong wasn’t helping.
Then ART was there, in my feed, pushing a code bundle at me. Run that, it told me.
I ran it. The muscles in my shoulders and hands relaxed. My jaw loosened and in the camera I could see that, while I wasn’t smiling, I no longer looked angry. (It was eerie to feel my body doing things that I hadn’t told it to, and if the code had come from anyone else, I would have been terrified.) (Coming from ART, I was only a little bit terrified.)
Drop your elbows and lean forward. Just a little, ART demanded. Humans naturally mirror the body language of the person they are speaking to.
I did it. So did Tan, now looking more relaxed and less like he was forcing himself not to run away. Now that I no longer looked like I was about to have a breakdown from talking about my clothes, I just had to figure out what to say. ART was trying to give me a list of suggested phrases for easing tense situations, but I ignored it this time.
“I’m not human.” Tan just nodded, not sure where I was going with that. “You can tell. From some parts of my body.”
His eyes skimmed over me. I knew, even without looking at the cameras at myself, that the only parts of my actual body that were visible were my hands and a little bit of my wrists, and my head. “So, you prefer clothes that cover most of you.”
“That’s fine.” He turned back to looking at the clothes on the bed, which was a relief. “Have you ever thought about trying out something with color?”
“I have a blue shirt,” I said immediately. I pointed to it on the bed, then wished I hadn’t and dropped my arm again.
“You do,” Tan agreed. “Hopefully, though, I can find some other options that you’ll still be comfortable in but that will also give you some new ideas to experiment with.”
Great. Something to look forward to.
The conversation with Antoni wasn’t nearly as bad. Mostly because I really didn’t care about it. He’d started out by asking me what I liked to eat, which I supposed was a reasonable question to ask if you were used to humans, but made it really clear how little he knew about bot-human constructs.
“I don’t eat food,” I said flatly. This was only partially true—I was physically capable of ingesting food—but I didn’t have a digestive system, and storing it and getting rid of it later wasn’t exactly pleasant.
That took him aback for a moment, but then he started talking about how it would still be fun for me to cook for the humans, since cooking for people is, apparently, a way to show that you care about them. I thought that there were easier and more useful ways to do that, like rescuing them from evil corporations that tried to kidnap them and hold them hostage, or saving them from raiders or pirates or combat SecUnits or colonists who had been taken over by alien remnants. (I mean, I’ve done that sort of thing for plenty of humans that I didn’t. . . care. . . about, but.) Whatever. It wasn’t important. I’d known from the beginning that cooking was going to be a part of this, and I could feel ART’s attention in the feed, like it actually thought this was worth listening to, so I let Antoni finish and tell me that we’d have fun cooking together later in the week.
Then Karamo asked me to go sit with him in the crew lounge area. I knew what was coming next and didn’t really want to go with him, but I did it anyway. He gestured me towards a seat and then took one that was nearby, but not so close that he would risk touching me. “So, I know you’ve been doing security—first for the company and now contracted with the university. I’ve never been on a survey or the kind of exploratory mission that requires contracted security. What’s it actually like?”
I took a moment to sort through some options, then selected a two minute clip from the last mission I’d gone on with ART and its crew. The actual mission had gone smoothly, but the planet that they had had to visit to collect data to fake a survey had had more hazards than the original, real, survey had indicated. I’d ended up in the rear, holding off the large, disturbingly insect-like creatures as the humans had retreated to the shuttle. I made sure that there was no identifying information for the planet, the crew, or what we were doing there, and then sent Karamo the footage of the moment when everything had gone from routine data collection to oh shit, we’re in trouble.
I sent it to play in Karamo’s feed, and used my drone to watch him while he viewed it. When he got to the part where the swarm had emerged from the hole in the hillside where they were nesting or whatever (hey, I’m not the biologist around here, and it’s not like I cared what they were doing until they tried to eat my clients) he jumped, just like the humans who were really there had. He looked more and more dismayed as he watched the humans frantically trying to scramble for the shuttle while I shot the hostiles with my large energy weapon, then the weapon built into my arm, and then, when one got too close to Iris for me to have a clear shot, punched my fist through its head. He winced and looked disgusted as he watched its carapace shatter under the impact of my hand. (Yeah. Trust me, it was worse in person. Insect brain-goo turned out to be really hard to wash off.)
“Wow,” he said, after he’d blinked the images away. “That’s, uh, pretty intense.”
“Most of it isn’t that interesting,” I told him, and sent him the file that I’d assembled while he was watching the other one. He looked a little wary (I don’t think he’d enjoyed the insect-things at all, which I couldn’t blame him for) but opened it to view anyway. This one was a montage of brief clips of how I’d actually spent most of my time. There were shots of me patrolling several different habitats, and guarding the various parts of the transports, stations, and mining installations that I’d been assigned to. There were a lot of corridors, and some of various cargo holds and the inside of my cubicle. Each clip only lasted a second or two, but together they gave a pretty good impression of what most of my work for the company had been like. At the end I added in some of the footage of me trying and failing to mediate arguments between various clients, over such weighty matters as who had taken the last of a favorite flavor of ready-meal, whether the uniform shirt that someone was wearing, which was identical to the uniform shirts that everyone on the survey was wearing, had been stolen from somebody else, and the ever famous cracker-wrapper in the sink debacle.
That part made him laugh. “So it’s a lot of waiting around, and dealing with people, and then sometimes fighting for your life.”
That was a pretty decent summary. I said, “More or less.”
I could tell that he was looking at me. I fought the urge to turn away and just looked straight ahead. “What do you like about it?” he asked, after a minute. “You don’t have to do this anymore, so I assume there’s a reason. Why?”
I . . . didn’t know the answer to that question. I didn’t mind the waiting, not now that I could usually relax and watch media, but if I wanted to do that all the time, I wouldn’t be working security at all. I didn’t like the parts where humans didn’t listen to me, or the parts where a hostile tried to kill them, or me. “I like knowing that my clients are safe,” I said, finally. “Or at least that someone is taking security seriously.”
He was still looking at me, which was getting annoying. “You don’t think they’re safe unless you’re protecting them?”
“Humans are terrible at doing security.” I didn’t really want to keep talking about that, so I tried to think of something else. “I like winning.”
“I think we all do. Especially when it’s about something that important,” he said. “Still, that sounds like a lot of pressure, if you think you’re the only one who can keep the people you care about safe.”
I stared past his shoulder, not sure how to respond. Yes, I cared more about my clients now than I used to. And yeah, sometimes it was a little terrifying if I thought about how ART felt about its crew, and that it had asked me, specifically, to come along and keep them safe. But it was still literally what I was designed for, what I had done for my entire existence before I hacked my governor module, and then kept on doing afterwards, even now that I could make the choice for myself.
Karamo, apparently giving up on getting a response, went on. “It’s too much for one person to take on by themselves.”
“I’m the head of security for the transport,” I said, because that was straightforward. “It’s in my contract. I’m responsible for keeping everyone safe.”
“The people on the team, when you’re on a mission, sure,” Karamo agreed. “But not everyone you know. Not all the time.” He paused, but again I didn’t know what to say. “I just want you to see that you’re not alone. You don’t have to shoulder that whole burden yourself.”
I knew I wasn’t alone, of course. The events of at the lost colony planet, just over a standard year ago, when ART, the humans, and Three had all worked together to rescue me, had shown that. And in Preservation, Station Security had helped me provide security for Mensah and her family, and now ART helped me with security for the team. But, still. I was the SecUnit, and the security consultant, and it was actually my job.
“So one of the things I want to do this week is think about those relationships you have, and how you might be taking more responsibility for things than you need to. Than you should.” Oh, great. That sounded. . . terrible.
I thought that next he was about to ask me about my relationship with ART, like just about every human I knew seemed to want to. I braced myself for explaining, again, that it wasn’t a relationship. Not like that.
Instead, he asked the one question that was worse. “So, can you tell me more about you and Dr. Mensah?”
No. Not here, not now, not in front of the cameras that I couldn’t forget were always filming us. I couldn’t summarize how I felt about Dr. Mensah in just a few words, and I didn’t want to give the long version. (Not when I couldn’t even manage to say it to her, not yet.) So, instead, I started rifling through my archived storage, pulling together another set of clips to rapidly edit into a rough narrative, which I sent to Karamo.
He watched as Mensah argued against having me at all, asked and listened to my advice during the survey, rescued me from a hostile SecUnit, was rescued by me from an explosion, a CombatSecUnit, sentient killware, and assassins. As she held my hand and talked about why I liked Sanctuary Moon while we evaded GreyCris and Pallisade.
ART watched in the feed, too, although it already knew about most of the events I’d picked out, and offered suggestions for places where I might have made smoother transitions between clips. I made the feed equivalent of a rude gesture.
Karamo watched the file through twice. I wondered what he was going to say about it. Instead of asking more about Dr. Mensah, though, he said, “I notice you’re sharing videos with me a lot, to answer questions. Are you more comfortable doing that than putting it into words?”
That seemed like a very. . . human sort of question. “Videos are better,” I said. “I could describe it, but that would take longer, and wouldn’t give you the full context of events.”
“I wasn’t asking about events, though,” Karamo said, gently. He seemed like he was trying to catch my gaze, but I keep my eyes straight ahead. “Do you think you’re more comfortable with sharing the video archives because it keeps you from having to put your own interpretation and emotions into words?”
Altogether, I wasn’t as unhappy as I normally would have been, when the raiders chose that moment to attack.
It wasn’t a very serious attempt. There had been an increase, recently, in groups of raiders whose strategy was to have small, fast groups that attempted to take out ships that were in dock at a station. They wouldn’t have stood a chance against the full strength of station security, but usually they didn’t need to. The idea was to pick a single, hopefully undefended ship, take it over quickly, and disengage and be fleeing the station before the alarm had even been raised.
It wasn’t the worst sort of plan, and if they’d chosen a normal transport ship, with just a bot-pilot and maybe a couple of human crew members but almost no security, it might have worked. It was just their bad luck, then, that they found ART. And me.
They were fast. I didn’t know that anything was happening until a feed alarm alerted me that the shuttle hatch had opened without authorization. I ended up on my feet, standing there silently while frantically trying to grab all the relevant inputs and sort through them, looking for any information on who they were or what they were doing.
“Is something wrong?” Karamo asked, sounding worried.
“All systems are currently engaged. Please hold while I access that information,” I said automatically, as I finally managed to isolate a camera view that showed four rather shabby humans running through ART’s corridors. They seemed to be heading. . . right towards us. Great.
“Get down. Behind the chair,” I said to Karamo. Over the general feed, ART was announcing that we had a security breach, and advising all humans to take shelter. It was too late. The remaining four had all abandoned whatever they’d been doing when the commotion started, and were headed directly our way.
They were within sight of the crew lounge area when all four hostiles abruptly emerged from a corridor junction. The one in the lead reacted instantly, reaching out to grab Tan, holding his arm tightly and waving a weapon around. Jonathan and Antoni, who were on the far side of the junction, hurriedly backed up. Bobby, who had been in the lead, did the sensible thing and kept running into the lounge.
I pushed Bobby sideways, so that he was out of the sightline of the corridor, and stepped forward to block the doorway. Using the inbuilt energy weapon in my right arm, I shot the target who was holding Tan. I used a low-intensity setting designed to incapacitate, not kill, just in case she managed to swing Tan around in time to use him as a shield, but apparently that was overestimating her reaction time, since she’d barely managed to start the move when the energy bolt hit her straight in the chest.
Target Two was distracted by the noise and Target One’s abrupt collapse. By the time she’d recovered enough to aim her projectile weapon at Tan, I was there. I ran a couple of steps up the wall and used my momentum to knock her back. I shoved Tan behind me and reached for the target’s weapon. She tried to resist, so when I took it away it was with the cracking sound a breaking wrist. I punched her hard, in the stomach, and then in the face as she bent over. She dropped to the deck.
That left just Targets Three and Four, who were still standing in the side corridor, too slow to respond to my attack on the others. I shot Target Three with my energy weapon, still set to incapacitate, and he fell too. Target Four, showing the most sense of any of them, tried to run away. I shot her in the back of her knee with the projectile weapon that I’d taken from Target Two, and she stumbled and went down.
With all of the targets neutralized, I turned back towards my—the humans. “Are you injured?” I asked Tan.
“I. . .” he seemed a bit dazed. “No, I don’t think so.”
The duration of the situation had been short, but for a human who wasn’t used to any kind of violence, it might still have been jarring. “Do you need the retrieved client treatment protocol?”
“No,” he said, sounding a bit steadier. “I’m—I’m fine. They barely had a chance to touch me.”
By this time the other humans had realized that the threat was gone and had come back, mostly to cluster around Tan and fuss at him. The attention seemed to help—his face was regaining the color it had lost, and his heartrate was settling down—so I stood back awkwardly and pretended I wasn’t watching.
After a minute Karamo turned away from the group to look at me. “That was quite impressive,” he said.
“Yes! You were so fast, and so strong, and so ready to get out there and defend us,” Jonathan said.
“I’ve never seen anyone do anything like that,” Antoni added.
I shrugged, uncomfortable again. “It’s what I do,” I said.
There was more exclaiming and a lot more hugging—none of them seemed to want to let go of Tan, and he didn’t seem to mind. ART smoothly assured the humans that it would take care of notifying the proper authorities, and that their continued presence wouldn’t be required. All of them seemed relieved at that, and, after promises that they would see me the following day, they left.
I began dragging unconscious or whimpering targets back to their shuttle, while ART’s drones started cleaning up after us. You let them on board, I said, as I dumped the last of them onto the floor of the small control area of their shabby shuttle. It was impossible that they’d managed to sneak up on ART without it noticing, and I could think of at least five ways it could have prevented them from boarding, if it had wanted to.
Either ART had really wanted to keep its abilities secret from the humans, or it had known that I’d really wanted a distraction. It ignored the accusation now, though, instead giving me completely unnecessary instructions on how to disable the shuttle’s engines and navigation. I finished the hack and secured the targets so that even if they regained consciousness they wouldn’t be able to move. ART jettisoned the shuttle on a random trajectory and called in an anonymous alert to station security, who would pick them up and take care of the rest.
I don’t need your help with the humans, I told ART, as I walked back to my room. Yes, I really had wanted that conversation to be over, but I didn’t need ART interfering to make it happen.
On the contrary. You are head of security on board this transport. By taking care of the targets, you were merely fulfilling your contractual obligations.
I guessed I wasn’t going to get ART to admit to anything. What I really needed now was to several uninterrupted hours to watch media, before I even thought about seeing the humans again tomorrow. I sat on my bed and ART queued up a video.
I’d assumed that it would be the next episode of Transport Lyrica, the new serial we were currently watching, or maybe an episode of Sanctuary Moon, if ART thought I had been really upset by the humans. Instead, though, we were watching me from just a few minutes ago, as I took out the targets.
I’d watched footage of myself in combat before, but usually to figure out what had happened, if it had been too fast to follow in real time, or to go back and analyze what I had done wrong and could improve. This was different. The cameras for the show had kept filming throughout the entire incident, with better angles and image quality than security cams, and then ART had edited the footage together, not with the goal of reconstructing events, but to make it look dramatic, and interesting.
It looked—I looked—good. Like something you’d see in a serial, if serials ever actually featured non-evil SecUnits and realistic combat choreography. The entire engagement had been fast, less than two minutes total, but with the different camera views you could still see everything that had happened. ART had even artistically slowed the footage at one point, so you could see more clearly how I’d taken down Targets One and Two.
There was a reason I wanted you to accompany my crew on their more dangerous missions, ART said. It waited for one point two seconds for me to respond, but I wasn’t sure what to say. This had been a pretty standard engagement, and I was pretty sure that just about any SecUnit could have managed it and not gotten any of their clients killed.
When I still didn’t say anything, ART just started the next episode of Transport Lyrica. `