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Technically speaking, they weren't raiders. When you have a badge with the Port Authority logo on it, they call it customs and inspection. That still doesn't make their scavenging of unoccupied ships at the docks anything more than stealing, but it does make it legal. The problem was, this ship wasn't unoccupied. I was occupying it.

I have a number of cold storage facilities onboard. These could, theoretically, be utilized to indefinitely store large, perishable objects, until such a time as they can be disposed of.

The ship was also occupying itself. I said, "Theoretically."

Theoretically, agreed ART. If such a thing became necessary.

"I'm not murdering any humans for you. I don't care how much they touch your fancy lab equipment."

ART signaled something like appalled horror through the feed. I did not ask you to kill anyone.

I rolled my eyes, but I didn't press the issue, because I could tell by the increased pressure in my feed that ART was genuinely upset about the inspection. I could let the murder joke slide, this time.

There are also several storage lockers throughout the upper decks, which will most likely be passed over during the Port Authority's inspection sweep, ART continued, this time without any humor markers. None will be comfortable for an extended period of time, but sweeps last an average of 3.7 hours, with the longest only just reaching the eleven hour mark. It queued up a film we'd both been eyeing, a historical drama about a colony ship that followed several generations of passengers over the span of a six hour runtime. I canceled the play command.

"I'm not hiding in a fucking cabinet." I was a little bitter that I'd have to abandon my favorite chair because some corporate PA idiots saw ART parked at this nowhere dock halfway through its cargo run and decided that it would be easy pickings. But this was an opportunity, if an inconvenient one.

Are you certain that you want to perform this test here and now? asked ART. It is not necessary. I am carrying only one thing that the university cannot afford to lose.

"Then I'll make sure we don't lose it."

I started walking for the foyer. The recessed exterior camera mounted over ART's starboard airlock showed six humans and augmented humans, all dressed in the local PA uniform. They were standing in a loose formation, which was becoming slightly more loose with each second that they waited for ART to confirm their credentials. If they had to wait too long, they would probably resort to an override order and force the doors open. They didn't need anything like probable cause, (and in my experience, probable cause only mattered on the entertainment feed anyway,) but that was what they'd call it when they lost their patience and broke the lock system.

Be careful, said ART, as if I were about to square off against a squad of armed hostiles rather than a group of bored PA officers. I do not actually possess enough refrigerated storage space to house half a dozen bodies.

 

 


 

 

When ART finally confirmed the PA credentials and cycled the lock, I was waiting in the foyer. I'd disabled my human behavioral code, so I didn't twitch when the whole group of humans all stopped in their tracks to stare at me. A couple of the humans made half-movements like they were planning to draw their weapons, even though my body language and facial expression were neutral and as unthreatening as a SecUnit can possibly be. (Which, okay, is still pretty threatening.) I forced myself to lock eyes with the augmented human (designation: Group Leader) at the front of the pack, even though the way she was looking at me made my organic skin itch.

I said, "You have boarded the Perihelion, registered teaching vessel of the Pansystem University of Mihira and New Tideland. Please state your business."

In my feed, ART whispered, You sound like a shuttle attendant.

I sound like a SecUnit. Technically I guess I always sound like a SecUnit, since I am a SecUnit. But I sounded like the kind of SecUnit humans expected. The unhacked kind. I added, I thought you were withdrawing from the feed. ART signaled something that's untranslatable into human speech, but trust me that it's pretty rude, in machine language.

Group Leader, to her credit, was not one of the ones who entertained the notion of trying to shoot me. (Or, at least, she didn't entertain the notion visibly. She probably did think about it at least a little. I would have, if I were her.) She managed to sound confident when she said, "This vessel didn't apply for a permit to bring a SecUnit onto the station."

It was almost painful, not being able to say something sarcastic about how I wasn't actually on their stupid station. Since unhacked SecUnits don't talk back, I just sent her my documentation.

This wasn't an ideal dry run of my sort-of disguise, but ideally I wouldn't have needed a cover at all. If I was going to test the story I'd drafted about nonstandard SecUnits manufactured for academic purposes, this was as good a place as any to test it. (Actually, it was probably better than any place. The local PA might have been corrupt, but at least they weren't anticipating a fight.) Group Leader's eyes unfocused slightly as she went over the file I'd sent her.

The broad strokes of my cover were my idea originally, but Pin-Lee had taken the idea and fleshed it out into something that was actually believable. She'd set her status on the feed to Do Not Disturb for a few hours, and come back with thirty-eight and a half pages of dense legalese. ("It was fun," she'd told me upon delivery. "Like creative writing for soulless corporate monsters.") I'd skimmed it as much as I could before my performance started to dip from boredom. The gist was that the university had permission to own me because they had me built special for the express purpose of assisting instructors and mediating interactions between students. (Neither of which I actually did. Unless you consider running risk assessments and escorting survey expeditions to be assisting instructors (which, I guess it was, technically). (The students did a decent job of mediating themselves, even if the occasional punch got thrown.))

I watched Group Leader's brow furrow as she worked to parse the paperwork. "'A special model'?" She emerged from her feed to glare at me. "And it's just been left here unsupervised?"

Yes, it is perfectly normal for humans to discuss me like I'm not there while staring directly at me. Yes, it sucks in ways that are beyond describing. She hadn't actually asked me why I was alone, so I didn't explain, slowly, that the whole reason SecUnits are built with organic neural tissue is so that we don't have to constantly touch base with a human supervisor. Leaving a SecUnit to guard an otherwise empty transport was a smart move. It was just that the sorts of organizations that employ SecUnits aren't known for making smart moves.

One of the other officers coughed. Group Leader half-turned to look at aer, and ae said, "I mean, it makes sense. Leaving a SecUnit onboard would be a good way to scare off raiders, or—" Ae trailed off as the human standing beside aer elbowed aer hard in the ribs.

As fun as it would have been to stand there listening to the humans argue about me, I was still thinking about that film that ART wanted to watch. The faster we got this over with, the sooner I could park myself back in my chair and forget this whole thing ever happened. I said again, still in a polite neutral tone, "Please state your business." All of them jolted. Group Leader recovered first.

"We're Port Authority," she said. Her irritable tone made me think that she had dealt with SecUnits before, and was desensitized to us. (It was annoying. Desensitized humans can be even more difficult to deal with than terrified humans.) "We have authorization to inspect any suspicious crafts at will. We've already presented our credentials. Any attempted obstruction will be dealt with using force."

See what I mean? Annoying. They were all armed with energy weapons, so the threat was basically nonexistent, but I could feel ART prickling in my feed. Humans are so bad with weapons that they were just as likely to hit part of ART as they were me. It would give me hell if I let these idiots break something. I said, "You are authorized to conduct a search, but not to remove anything." Inspiration struck, and I added, "Please be aware that certain areas may house materials classified as biohazardous or radioactive. I must advise caution."

Uneasy shifting. I saw a little subvocalizing, probably to exchange misgivings about this particular venture. Good. One of them asked, "Which areas?" I broke eye contact with Group Leader to stare him down.

"I'm sorry. That is proprietary information which I cannot provide." Let them spend the whole of their time aboard worried that their faces might melt off if they opened the wrong door. ART briefly increased the air circulation in the foyer by an amount small enough to be undetectable to the humans.

I was allowing for a 33% chance that the humans might just call the scan off, at least until they could get some sort of hazardous material equipment in here, (I know, my humans' optimism is rubbing off on me. It's disgusting.) but Group Leader put her foot down.

"That's enough," she barked. All of the subvocalization stopped. (I wanted to push into their private feed connection and backread the conversation they'd been having, but with all of them staring at me and no helmet to hide my face, I was putting a frankly embarrassing amount of processing power into maintaining my neutral expression.) "If anyone wants to opt out of this operation, the hatch is behind you. You can walk out of it, and straight to the work assignment office to get your new job." She paused. No one moved. One of the humans, the one who had asked where the hazardous materials were, held his breath. "That's what I thought. Keep an eye on your scanners. Report if they flag."

Crisp salutes. These idiots must watch more action media than me, if they took their job this seriously. Station Security's dropouts, probably. The group broke up, following the schematics available in ART's public feed. (The schematics were only about 68% complete, but looked thorough enough to not raise any suspicion.) I was ready to follow Group Leader, since assessment said that she was the most likely to touch things that ART didn't want touched, but one of the six didn't move when the rest did. The officer who had vouched for the logic of a guard SecUnit remained behind.

"Um," ae said. Ae was on the tall side for a human (but still a bit shorter than me), and skinny enough to be pointy in places. Ae was also staring at me, with the sort of wide-eyed anxiety that's common when dealing with SecUnits. Ae didn't blink. Neither did I. I pretended that ae was another SecUnit, and we were staring at each other through opaqued helmets. I pretended that pretending that was helpful.

"I'm supposed to interface with the bot pilot," ae explained, aer voice shaking slightly. "To verify the circuit report."

Ae looked expectant, like ae had just asked me a question. ART quietly highlighted a section on its schematic for me, and I said, "You want the bridge. It's on the main deck."

Relief registered in the way aer shoulders relaxed. Ae said, "Okay," brightly and started to blink freely, but didn't look away from me. Ae was waiting for something, and I had no idea what. In my feed, ART gave me a gentle poke. (Gentle for ART. It was a fairly rough prodding, actually.)

"I will escort you," I guessed.

More relief. "I appreciate it." Ae sounded sincere about that. I wondered what the hell was wrong with aer. I couldn't ask, so I just started walking. Ae trotted after me.

While we walked, I did my job. I'd deployed drones to follow each of the PA officers, to make sure none of them fucked with ART. I also took the time now to crack open the seal on their feed and poke around. (It turned out that I probably could actually have done that earlier. Their security was cringe-worthy.) The officer who was following me (slightly more closely than most humans would consider safe) was apparently called Tora, and ae was the only one of the lot who hadn't expressed a desire to retreat when I lied about the presence of hazardous material. Pressing further revealed that ae was only barely old enough to carry a weapon in this system. Ae was so new at this that ae wasn't even green, ae was... whatever color plants are before they turn green. And apparently, ae was more afraid of aer superior officer than of a SecUnit.

Whatever. I really couldn't care less whether some random human is afraid of me or not. But I did sort of wish that ae was at least afraid enough not to talk at me.

"This ship is a real beauty," ae was saying. Ae was reviewing all of the documentation available in ART's public feed. "Ships this nice never dock out here. I was actually pretty excited to come aboard and check it out."

In my feed, ART preened. I sent it, Stop being smug. Don't forget that this human came in with all of the others. (The others were, at that moment, bypassing locks to open restricted laboratories and ART's crewrooms, looking for valuables to "confiscate.") ART flickered the hall lights sarcastically. Tora didn't notice. Ae kept up a steady commentary the whole time, pointing out various exciting anomalies in ART's construction while I tried not to be too glad that SecUnits aren't expected to have opinions on things. Ae still hadn't run out of things to say by the time we reached the bridge. We paused outside of the door so I could pretend that I had to send a code to open it. (ART waited 1.5 seconds to let us in, taking its role as a simple bot pilot a little too seriously.) When the door slid open, I stepped aside and let Tora lead the way. Ae went straight to a console and tapped a few commands into the touch interface.

"Okay, baby, talk to me," ae muttered to aerself. (I told myself that ae was talking to aerself, because the thought of any human calling ART "baby" made my performance drop by three-tenths of a point.) ART indicated amusement to me, and sent Tora a confirmation code. Even with Tora's PA codes, ART could have shut aer out, and probably sucked the oxygen out of every occupied room. (Which wouldn't have killed me, at least not as quickly as it would have killed the humans.) But it played its part, rolling over and returning optimal codes like one of those predatory fauna humans like to domesticate, as if the animal will somehow forget how to use its big sharp teeth just because the humans give it a cutesy nickname. Tora had no idea how lucky ae was that ART had decided to play nice.

I stood in the corner and watched aer work, half in aer feed and half on ART's console. I was only paying maybe 15% attention, since I had to monitor the other humans, and make sure that they knew I was monitoring them. (Several times, one of them picked up something that looked expensive. I directed my drones to drop from their observation positions to eye level in front of the offending humans and hover. They put the expensive stuff back.) I wouldn't have thought that it would take so long to interface with a bot pilot, but I always forget how long it takes humans to process data. If Tora had thought to ask me, I could have translated for aer, but that was the sort of thing that a SecUnit will only do if we're ordered to. It was also the sort of thing that ART usually did unprompted, but that was obviously not an option, either. Eventually ART got bored and poked me, and I started the film in the background of my feed. I could feel ART leaning on me comfortably during the opening sequence. It had pulled as much of its presence out of the public feed as it could, and was putting a lot of that weight on me for balance. We had managed to make it through the whole first generation of movie humans (and I couldn't remember a single one of their names, so later I was going to have to make ART restart the movie so I could actually pay attention this time) when Tora made one of those noises that humans make to signal that they've finished an arduous task.

"Well, that's in order," ae announced to the empty room. "Everything looks good. Not that I was expecting it not to look good!" Ae held up a hand like ae was apologizing to me, like ae thought that I was allowed to get offended by the implication that the ship I was stationed on might not be up to code, or whatever. (SecUnits aren't supposed to get offended about that sort of thing, and usually we don't, because usually we are actually stationed on shitty ships or in shitty facilities that aren't up to code. In this case I wasn't offended by the implication, because the ship was capable of getting offended without my help.) "I was expecting the bot pilot to be a bit... nicer, though. With a ship this fancy, I would have thought they'd spring for something a little smarter than the standard model."

I waited for ART to retaliate in some way. Obviously it wasn't going to reveal itself to demand an apology from someone it was deliberately hiding from, but it had entertained itself a few times with little indications of its mood that were meant just for me. I figured that it would alter the ambient temperature in the room, or flick open a couple of the ports on its consoles that were meant to receive data clips, or something. That it didn't react at all was... weird. While the human leaned on the console, talking in the PA feed, I poked ART. It didn't respond to me, either.

ART? I never have to tag it directly like this. It's always there, always paying close attention. I could still feel it in my feed, the same level of pressure as before. Tell me you're not sulking because the human called you stupid.

It poked me back, finally, and I barely managed to hold in a flinch. Only organic beings sulk. I was watching the humans in laboratory 2C. They are flirting with losing their fingers.

Oh, shit. I checked my drones and found the humans ART was talking about, who were examining some sort of cylinder that I was pretty sure held one of those substances that flash-freezes organic matter, for whatever reason scientists might want something like that. The cylinder was covered in warning labels in standard lexicon and two other dialects common to ART's home system, but it looked like the PA morons were arguing about whether or not that was some sort of ploy to hide smuggled goods, or if maybe the cylinder itself was something they should confiscate. I sent over the public feed, That object is dangerous. Please replace it carefully. The human holding the cylinder startled and fumbled it, but managed to catch it before it hit the ground.

Over at the console, Tora had turned around to sign out of ART's systems. I took the opportunity to break from staring straight ahead at a blank wall to look up at one of the cameras hidden in an overhead light. I sent, You're capable of sulking and babysitting humans at the same time.

The wave of sarcasm that ART washed over me was strong enough that I had to fight the urge to roll my eyes. I was not sulking. I am accustomed to the dismissal of humans who do not know any better. As, I'm sure, are you.

It had me there. Before I could think of a good retort, Tora made another human noise. Ae was still at the console, and had not signed out yet.

"That's weird," ae muttered to aerself. "I wonder what that spike is."

I checked ART's activity readouts to see what ae was looking at. Calling it a "spike" was blowing it out of proportion a bit. There was a tiny blip in ART's activity, barely a 0.1% increase, when it had started talking to me. I felt ART draw itself back up out of the feed, and the activity settled back to its resting point. Tora stared at the screen for nearly a minute before apparently deciding that it was nothing and signing out. As I followed aer out of the bridge, I turned the movie back on. ART settled in.

 

 


 

 

The PA humans managed to finish their security sweep in 5.2 hours, which was pretty impressive considering that I kept interrupting them to tell them not to steal shit. I thought that I did a pretty good job of staying polite and nonthreatening, but whenever I entered a room to stand in a corner and supervise, the humans always straightened their posture like they thought I was judging them. (I was judging them, but they didn't know that. The companies that manufacture SecUnits sell us with a guarantee that we won't develop personalities or opinions.)

Mostly I followed Group Leader around, and interrupted her to offer unsolicited advice about not touching dangerous objects any time I felt ART getting prickly and defensive over something. There was nothing I could do to stop her from invading Iris's bunkroom, but I made a bland comment about sending her bosses a bill for all damaged or confiscated goods, and she put the fancy therapeutic scented pillow she'd been examining back on the bed. She even managed to do it without swearing at me. I wondered if she was maybe a transfer to this station, and had been trained somewhere a little more serious.

I don't get tired the way humans do, but I was exhausted by the time the six of them assembled back in the foyer. Four of them pointedly avoided looking at me while I stared at the back of Group Leader's head, my drones hovering overtly above the lot of them. Tora kept trying to catch my eye, though. I acted the part of a good governed SecUnit and pretended not to notice. (As opposed to acting the way I normally would and pretending not to notice, but while sitting down.) I hadn't managed to figure out what aer problem was, but the second the airlock cycled closed ae wasn't going to be my problem anymore, and I was really looking forward to that.

ART shifted in the feed, stretching like it had literally been curled up and compressed into an uncomfortable position for the duration of this interlude. It began to fill back into itself slowly, keeping its system activity low in case the humans thought to check its public feed for any spikes on their way out. (They wouldn't, because there was no reason to look, but we were so close to clear now that there was no reason to risk rousing their suspicion.) I'd let ART keep playing the film while I followed the humans around, but it paused for me now so I could properly pay attention to all of them at once.

The roundup revealed that the only thing I couldn't discourage the humans from taking was the data that Tora had downloaded while interfacing with ART. Group Leader wasn't happy with that, but I was. ART had forged, spoofed, and lied about most of the important stuff, so there was nothing in Tora's download that would negatively impact the University.

(It feels too clean, one of the augmented humans said in ter feed. Like it was prepped for us specially.

Maybe it was a distraction, replied another, sarcastic and sounding even more tired than I felt. Big fancy tubs like this don't park out here. Smugglers always get their ships secondhand. Team 12 was looking at that junker across the way, I bet they got a good haul.)

As ART was getting comfortable, it tapped me with a request for a status report. I considered for a second. The special unit ruse had been a lot more annoying than hiding in a cabinet and watching media would have been, but it had gone surprisingly smoothly. I sent ART an optimal code.

It whispered, Your levels are indicating stress. Your status is not optimal.

Well, obviously. I'm fine. It's almost over.

It was not necessary for you to do this.

Before I could argue that it was definitely necessary, Group Leader said, "If there's nothing else, then it's time to head out." The way she said nothing else was obviously inviting someone to invent an excuse to stay, but all five of her officers glanced at me, and none of them said anything. I didn't say anything either. I could hear my favorite chair calling for me. I stood impassive and blank as the PA humans turned to file out.

Tora fell into the back of the line. I had fixed my gaze on the humans' backs as they left, so when ae turned around I accidentally allowed them to make eye contact with me. It was unexpected, but I managed not to react outwardly.

"Thanks," ae said, and smiled awkwardly.

I should have responded with some sort of confirmation that I heard aer, but I was a little too baffled to think to do that. Fortunately, the human in front of Tora turned back to look at aer, so my hesitation didn't register. He whispered, "You don't have to thank it. It's a SecUnit, it doesn't have feelings."

Tora turned away from me. I watched through one of my drones as aer face folded into something that looked like a cross between annoyance and embarrassment. "It still feels weird, to leave without saying anything to it. It's stuck in here all alone with nothing but the bot pilot for company."

"If it had something in here to keep it company, it would probably kill it." So saying, the more pragmatic human stepped out of ART's airlock. But Tora turned back to look at me one last time.

If I were a character in a serial, I would have taken the opening ae was giving me and said something. I could have tossed out some quip like "get a better job" before the airlock closed between us, leaving Tora shocked but holding a seed of a suggestion that ae could change aer life by taking some initiative and getting away from aer deadend position analyzing ship manifests and circuit reports for an ineffectively corrupt Port Authority. Maybe ae could have gotten specialty training to work more closely with bot pilots, or taken a job on a ship aerself and gone out to see the universe, expanding aer horizons for the better.

But I'm not a character in a serial. I'm a SecUnit. So I said nothing, and Tora turned away from me. When the airlock door shuddered closed, I started blinking again.

"That sucked," I observed. I was still watching the humans as they trooped away from our dock, following their progress on their own spotty surveillance network.

ART lifted as much of its weight out of my feedspace as possible, now that there was no reason for it not to occupy the public feed. The gap it left behind when it eased up was always sort of uncomfortable for a bit, like the way that a projectile hole leaves your internal bits exposed to the air and even when you disable your pain sensors you can still feel that unnatural chill. It said nothing, so I added, "I need to get Pin-Lee something in exchange for the paperwork, so I don't owe her anything." A second later, ART showed me where it had drafted an order for a bottle of some expensive intoxicant that Pin-Lee liked. (I can tell the difference between intoxicants based on how poisonous they smell, but I can't tell which ones are supposed to taste good, or whatever. ART has charts for quantifying what's considered good based on its crew's opinions, so I let it handle all consumable-related decisions.) I said, "Thanks." It acknowledged me wordlessly.

I'd been expecting a little more than that. "The human wasn't insulting you on purpose," I said, doing my best not to be annoyed. "Ae didn't know you were here."

ART settled back into my feedspace, draping its presence over me in a more casual way than before. I am accustomed to the dismissal of humans who do not know any better, it told me again. I do not find it insulting when one makes a general statement about bot pilots without the knowledge of my existence. General statements about bot pilots can usually be categorized as neutral. But I do not understand why you insist on placing yourself in situations where you will be subjected to general statements about SecUnits. General statements about SecUnits are nearly always negative. It is not necessary for you to tolerate these interactions.

"I'm your security consultant," I said, a little snappier than I meant to. I needed to recharge and watch media and not interact with humans for a couple dozen cycles. "It's my job to make sure nobody hurts you, or takes your humans' stuff. I wasn't going to protect that special thing you didn't want to lose by hiding from humans who were looking to take it."

The overhead lights flickered. That would have been the most effective way to protect it, said ART. But unfortunately it suffers from a disproportionate sense of self-sacrifice.

I had no idea what to say to that, so I said nothing. ART queued up the colony ship movie from the beginning, but then reconsidered and closed it in favor of episode 233 of Sanctuary Moon. I didn't veto the change, so it started the episode. When the theme music started, I remembered that I was still standing in the foyer like a SecUnit awaiting a dismissal order from humans who weren't around to give it. I checked the port surveillance system again, then headed back to the conference room, and the awaiting embrace of my favorite chair.