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Murderbot Goes To Kaer Morhen

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I hate planets. In general, I mean. But I loathe this particular nameless planet. Nameless because its inhabitants don’t even realize they’re on a fucking planet.  Yeah, that's right. I’m a murderbot stuck on a pre-Rim lost colony that’s forgotten how they even got to this rock, or even the fact there is a universe beyond this nightmare mudpit.

There’s no feed. No air transport. No land transport except fucking horses . No communications network of any kind. All I’ve got is a dozen drones stored inside my torso, a quickly diminishing store of unwatched media, and the long-term store of my favorite programs, including all 427 episodes of The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon.  

I’m currently watching episode 206 as I run at a steady pace in the rain on a muddy track through a creepy dark forest. Did I mention I hate planets? 

It wasn’t my idea to land here. I started out on a perfectly respectable hub station, looking for transport to Milu, a failed terraforming experiment. I planned  to investigate the disaster and send any evidence of wrongdoing to my favorite human, Dr. Mensah, as both a thank you and an apology.  The thank you was for her buying me from the company and then setting me (sort-of) free. The apology was for hopping on a bot transport as soon as I was off company inventory, leaving Dr. Mensah to face awkward questions about where her newly purchased SecUnit had fucked off to.

The reason I fucked off was that I prefer actual freedom to the sort-off freedom bots have under the guardianship rules of Preservation. Not that I’m a bot, but no one has ever been stupid enough to free a rogue SecUnit before. In the media, rogue SecUnits are always crazed mass murderers that need to be put down, not set free. (In my defense, my crazed mass murder episode occurred before I hacked my governor module and went rogue). 

Regardless, I still owed Dr. Mensah, and getting GrayCris off her back by tying them to the Milu failure seemed the best way to keep her safe and settle my debt. But it turns out that there’s only one transport to Milu, a supply run that travels on a 47 cycle schedule, and I just missed it. It would be asking for trouble to loiter at a hub station for that long, even one as busy as HaveRotten. I could’ve gotten a short term employment contract as a security consultant to explain my stay; I’d done it before. But that would involve pretending to be an augmented human and also interacting directly with humans and I’ve had more than enough of that lately. 

So I found an unmanned ship scheduled for a short-term survey of a newly opened wormhole system, which should put me back on the station a few days before the next supply run. I pinged the survey ship and offered to share my latest downloaded media in exchange for a ride. It pinged back, happy to accept, and also offering to share its own media files. It was smarter than the average shipbot and happy to have new material for what was likely to be a boring tour of an uninhabitable system. 

It still had nowhere near the processing power of ART, aka Assohole Research Transport, the last research vessel I’d hitched a ride on. Given ART had started our acquaintance threatening to kill me, and could’ve easily followed through, that was probably a good thing. Even though I sort of missed ART.

SurveyShip exchanged media files with me, but didn’t try to watch along the way ART would have. Which was fine. Really. Gave me the chance to sort through my recent downloads and memory files, deciding which to move to long term storage and which to delete. Well, delete from my electronic memory. My organic parts keep memories even after a factory wipe, but those memories tended to be emotionally charged and unreliable.

In any case, we were halfway through the scheduled tour, happily ignoring each other, when SurveyShip sent out an excited alert. Turns out that the likely-uninhabitable system wasn’t uninhabitable at all. We moved into orbit around a planet teeming with lifesigns. Presumably no intelligent life, since there were no electronic signals or other markers of civilization.  I linked into the ship’s feed to follow its probes as they launched down to the planet, and felt its excitement as one of the probes found what looked like a primitive town of humans, moving around between wood and stone dwellings.

Then it screamed in agony as something shot up from the surface and wiped its operating system before either I or SecSys could react. I flung up a barrier around the remaining systems and deflected the remaining chaotic burst of energy, which dissipated into a purple cloud. 

No, the dissipating cloud did not appear on the visible spectrum and yes, it was still purple. Don’t ask me how, I’m just a SecUnit, my education modules are shit. Plus I was straining to keep the ship from losing orbit and burning up in the atmosphere. I can’t pilot a ship this size, and SecSys couldn’t even consider the possibility. It was busy dithering in an existential crisis, having failed at its primary purpose of protecting the ship from attack. I instructed it to launch a distress beacon that included a report about the unknown attack, and it switched to this new task gladly  (it left out the purple part). I finally found the emergency autoland sequence and activated it.

Three point six seconds after the attack that murdered SurveyShip, we were headed for the surface. When we reached ten thousand meters another fucking burst of purple energy hit the ship. I paired with SecSys to bolster the firewalls around the most critical systems, but this attack was more of a nudge, directing SurveyShip’s carcass to a particular landing spot in a meadow outside the primitive town that it had been so (briefly) excited about.

Well, the best way for me to learn about the attackers is for them bring us straight to them. Chances are they weren’t prepared to deal with a SecUnit on board the ship they killed. When we got low enough in the atmosphere, I signaled the airlock to open and sent half my drones out to scout. As the ship touched down, I prodded SecSys to initiate maximum lockdown on all the remaining operational systems. We waited for our attackers to arrive.

Which they eventually did. On fucking horses .

There were two that were clearly leaders. One was stocky, with a beard and clothing with lots of fancy decorations. The other had elaborately braided hair and a long flowing dress that billowed around the horse’s saddle. Surrounding them were a dozen riders in metal armor. As the group got off their horses, the two leaders began talking in a language that I didn’t recognize.

Luckily for me, SurveyShip had in its long term memory banks all the information available on pre-Rim languages, which makes sense since finding a Lost Colony is the ultimate prize of any survey mission. It took at least ten seconds to find a close match and initiate a translation program. The one with the braids was talking, sounding irate.

I told you that the spell would work, but likely not in the way you expected. It is chaos incarnate. You wanted a weapon that could destroy the Wiedźmini. My magic brought you a flying fortress. 

Magic, huh. Pretty useless if it destroys the bot that’s needed to make the “flying fortress” fly.  Not that SurveyShip would make a very good weapon. It didn’t even have the “debris deflection system” that ART had. In fact, the only effective weapon on board would be. . .me.

Fuck. Did my stowing away on SurveyShip lead to it being zapped by some unknown energy field that I really didn't want to call magic? 

A fortress it may be, but no use sealed up as it is. Open it, woman!  

Patience, Lord Rakvug. Pure chaos magic always involves unexpected twists. Best to proceed carefully.

I’ve been patient! Nearly a year you’ve delayed, and with every day that passes, the White Wolf’s hold on the north tightens. Soon all humans will be ground under his boot, leaving the degenerate races to rule over us. So open the damn thing now!

The one in the dress sighed and made a complicated gesture with both hands. SecSys issued an immediate alert, and I spliced into its feed to see that damn purple energy probing at the different systems - life support, engineering, medical - and then it found me, following my feed, only to bump against my firewalls. Then a snap and it was past my walls, poking at my media storage. I batted it away and tried to push it out. Then it found my governor module.

FUCK NO! Before the purple energy could do more than poke at the module, I was throwing all my processing power at it. I still couldn’t budge it, so I dove into its purple essence and followed it back, through the ship systems and back to the still-gesturing human. Her astonishment lasted a full second, which gave me an eternity to fight back. Her thoughts were fast for a human but she never stood a chance because I was fighting for my life, for my autonomy and I would rather be destroyed than have my governor module messed with by anyone but me and I’m not sure exactly what I did to her but she SCREAMED and her mind burned which is exactly what my governor module did to my brain every time I disobeyed before I hacked it and the purple energy disappeared and I was in the ship I was sitting on the floor arms around my legs face to my knees still watching the humans through the drones outside the sorceress was falling her name was Raelyn and she was dying she died before her body touched the ground and the other one the Lord Rakvug was shouting in alarm and I moved my drones to a safe spot to record and cut the feed and told SecSys to keep watch and queued up my most favorite episodes of The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon and shut everything else out for a while.

Ugh. I really need to stop accessing that particular memory file. I would just delete it, but it had critical information in it.  Raelyn wasn’t the only sorceress on the planet. From the glimpse I had of her memories, she wasn’t even close to being the most powerful either. As much as I hated what I did to her, I might have to do it again. As long as I’m stuck on this planet, I’m going to need to be on alert for those weird purple energy attacks.

Like my threat assessment module doesn’t  have enough things to worry about. It had been tempting to just stay locked away on the ship. But even though I didn't think Lord Rakvug or any of his combat troops could break into the ship, it wasn’t a long term solution. Sooner or later SurveyShip’s sponsor is going to come looking for it. When that happens, I need to be far away, out of detection range. As much as I want to get off this planet, falling into the hands of a corporate sponsor isn’t the way to do it. If they didn’t just destroy me on sight for being a dangerous rogue SecUnit, they’d disable me and try to figure out exactly how I hacked my governor module.

So I grabbed my travel pack, stuffed as much potentially useful stuff as I could find from the ship’s stores, wiped any record of me from the memory banks and left via the maintenance air lock. It was the middle of the night, and I easily slipped by the reluctant guards who really didn’t want to be anywhere near the “flying fortress” that killed a sorceress.I picked a road at random and started running. The skies opened up an hour later, which made running a pain but would also wash away my trail.

Now the sky has lightened and the rain is an irritating drizzle. The mud’s gotten deeper, sucking at my boots. The path is headed up a hill, and as I approach the top, I can hear voices on the other side.  I skid to a stop, grabbing at a tree trunk to halt my momentum as my feet slide in the mud, and send a couple of my drones to scout ahead. 

The drones zip over the hill and down into a clearing at the bottom, where a wooden transport is stuck in the mud. I direct one drone to keep its distance and the other to move closer. It’s unlikely that anyone on this planet would recognize the drones for what they are - most likely they’d be mistaken for insects - but I didn’t want to risk losing more than I need to, since my supply is limited. Two humans are struggling to free the transport. They were both skinnier than the average human, with unusual points on their ears.The shorter one is standing at the head of the fucking horse, holding on to the leather straps around its head and saying something in a language I don’t understand as the animal strained. The larger one had one arm in a sling, and was futilely trying to use the shoulder of the good arm to push the transport out of the muck. 

It would be easy enough to circle around them and start running again. I was probably out of sensor range for any corporate official investigating SurveyShip’s emergency landing, but why risk it? Then again, unless I was planning to spend the next 800,000 hours alone in the wilderness until my power cell ran out, I was going to have to talk to the local humans sometime.

Ugh. I hate talking to humans. But I do better if I have a task to focus on, and I don’t think that these humans are going to be able to budge their transport without help. I follow my drones up the hill and then pause at the top, giving the two humans the chance to spot me before walking human-slow down the other side. The taller one says something urgently to the one by the horse’s head, and then pulls out a long knife from a sheath attached at the waist. I stop and put my hands up, although even without the sling the human would hardly be a threat to me. The smaller one reaches into the transport and pulls out a projectile weapon. 

It’s a rather clever device, with a cord attached to either ends of a curved piece of wood, and a smooth stick topped with a metal point laying across it. The cord is held under such tension that if released, the pointed stick would be propelled fairly quickly, probably about 300 meters per second depending on the tensile strength of the cord. If I were human, that would be enough force to kill me if it hit the right spot. As it is, it would tear through my organic parts, but wouldn’t be able to damage anything important. 

“What do you want, stranger?” asked the bigger one, speaking the same language that Lord Rakvug and Raelyn had used. “I would remind you that we’re in Wiedźmin territory and protected under Woff’s law.”

“I never heard of Wolf’s law,” I say, “I thought you might need some help with your transport.” 

Wiedźmin , huh? That’s what Radvug had wanted me to destroy.

The two humans relaxed slightly, but kept their weapons ready.The larger one said, “And what do you ask for, in exchange?”

I shrug. It’s one of those human gestures, like the sigh, that’s pretty useful. “I could use some information. Like what Wolf’s law is.”

The larger one stares a minute, and then puts away his long knife. “I am Ailas, and this is my son Arun. May we know your name?”

Well, no, because I don’t have a name. In my head I’m murderbot, but that’s private. And not very reassuring to humans (bots don’t care). 

“I am called Rin. Security Consultant Rin,” I say, and then frown over the fact that security consultant comes out untranslated instead of whatever language we’ve been speaking.  

Rin is the name I used on my last transport, a shuttle for contracted workers going to a mine. The transport bot had asked me to help tend to the passengers, who were slowly realizing how fucked they were by the mining company and acting up from the tension. It was the main reason I picked an unmanned SurveyShip as my next transport.

But here I am, dealing with humans again. 

Security consultant?” says Ailas awkwardly. “I am not familiar with that term.”

“It means I’m responsible for the safety of my clients. But it’s not relevant here, you can call me Rin.”

“Which lands are you from then, Rin?” asks Ailas.

“Most recently on a survey ship that was exploring uncharted territory. The ship was captured and the crew killed, and I was taken prisoner.” 

“You must not be a very good security consultant , then,” says Ailas.

Arun breaks in. “What my father means to say. . .”

I shrug again. “I am usually a very good security consultant , but we encountered a sorceress. I was unfamiliar with her powers. We don’t have such things where I am from. I’ve since learned how to deal with them.”

“Deal with them how?” asks Ailas.

The shrug feels like it’s working for me, so I do it again. “She’s dead now, and I’m free.”

The father and son exchange looks. “And are you likely to be pursued?”

“I think I’ve outrun any pursuit. But if they do catch up, you should turn me over. I don’t want to cause trouble.”

Plus I would have a much easier time fighting my way free if I didn’t have to worry about protecting a couple of humans.

“And to whose soldiers might we be surrendering you?” asks Ailas.

“Lord Rakvug.”

Ailas sneers. “I wouldn’t surrender a dog to that man.”  He gestures to Arun, who puts his projectile weapon back in the transport.

Ailas takes a big breath and bows. “Master Rin, please help us to free our wagon, and travel with us until we get to the border of Kaewin, where the roads will be much better. We should get there by nightfall. You can make camp with us, and we will share what we know about these lands.”

I copy his bow. “Sounds good.”

Freeing the wagon only takes a minute. I send Ailas up to help Arun to coax the fucking horse to try one more time as I lift up the end of the wagon out of the mud and carry it forward until all four wheels were free. After some discussion, Ailas and Arun sit on the wooden bench at the front, with Arun holding a leather cord attached to the straps around the horse’s head. I trot beside the wagon, declining Ailas’s offer to rearrange the goods in his wagon so I can ride in back. I weigh more than a human my size would, and didn’t want to add to the horse’s burden. It’s a strong animal, stronger than both the humans combined, but still it walks resignedly, using all that strength to trudge in a straight line while attached to a wagon. Watching it makes me feel a certain way, so I focus mainly on the trees alongside the road.

The rain has finally stopped, but the mud pulls at my boots. The thinning clouds let in the fading light of the sunset, and I wonder whether they can keep going in the dark. Moments later, Arun lets out a happy shout, pointing to a large stone, carved with what is presumably a name, although I don’t recognize the alphabet. 

“We are passing into Kaewin. There should be a traveler’s rest about a mile ahead,” explains Ailas.

Huh, I’d been wondering how I’d get through the border crossing, since I wouldn’t be able to follow my normal routine of convincing SecSys I belonged. Didn’t think there’d be no security at all. 

The traveler’s rest turns out to be a large meadow with a fire pit and a small spring, with a stack of wood under a cover. I surreptitiously release half my drones to scout out the area as Arun takes all the leather straps off the horse and rubs a short brush along its fur. I ask Ailas about the lack of security at the border.

“Oh, the White Wolf has patrols and lookouts enough, no army would be able to sneak through. And any bandit camps would be sniffed out pretty quickly. Otherwise no one is going to worry about a few travelers on the road. The bigger towns will have their own gate guards, though.”

My perspective shifts, and I realize that the towns are the equivalent of space stations, and the forest is like the deep of space. Too vast and unpeopled to police. And without reliable communication feeds, we’re even more isolated than a transport ship. My drones confirm that the whole valley is empty of people; we’re totally alone.

I’m not sure what my face just did, but Ailas is looking concerned.

“But you have no cause to fear. As long as we remain peaceful, the Wolf’s Law protects all non-humans in Kaewin. It’s not a paper shield the way it is in Redania.”

Okay, I’m guessing that there’s a mistranslation in there, because I’m sure there’s no bots, or constructs like me, in this technology desert.  “Non-humans? What do you mean non-humans?”

It’s now Ailas’ turn to look concerned. “It means people who are not human, like elves,” he says, gesturing to himself and to Arun. 

Ah, so this is one of those truly backward planets that excludes certain races from the definition of humanity. If I had a stomach it would be churning. There’s one thing to be said about Rim corporations, they tend to equally abuse people regardless of any racial characteristics. 

“Why do they say you’re not human? Your ears? Seems a ridiculous reason to discriminate.”

Ailas frowns. “They say I’m not human because I’m not, I’m an elf. Just like dwarfs and gnomes are not human Just like you’re not human.”

My face must’ve done a thing again, because suddenly he looks nervous. “I mean no disrespect, Master Rin.”

I try to school my expression, wishing fruitlessly I had my helmet. Never had to worry about my face when I kept it covered all the time. “What do you think I am?”

“I assumed you were some type of upiór, considering how strong you are, and tireless. Please forgive me if I am mistaken.”

Ugh, I should’ve taken him up on the offer to ride in the wagon. On the other hand, it’s good to find out that there’s a local explanation for my non-human abilities. Although it would be better if I understand more about these upiór. I shrug non-committedly.

“Are upiór really welcome here in Kaewin, then?”

He looks a little shame-faced. “Well, welcome may be overstating it. But as long as you don’t go drinking people’s blood without an invitation, no one will hunt you. But it still may be best to keep your human form and hide your superior strength while you’re in a town.”

Ewww. “I promise I won’t drink anyone’s blood, with or without an invitation.”  Sounds like these upiór are some sort of mythical mutant.

Arun returns from taking care of the horse and pulls some wood out of the covered pile to start a fire. He pulls a contraption made of metal rods and chains out of the wagon, and soon a pot of soup is cooking over the fire. I borrow an ax to cut some wood to replace what’s burning, and by the time I get back, they are serving their soup into bowls made of bread. I decline their offer to share, causing them to exchange a knowing look.

I awkwardly sit down by the fire. Back before I went rogue, I was never allowed to sit down with humans, and since then I’ve never had to sit on the ground. My clients live in civilized places with plenty of chairs, or at least pads. But trying to converse while they sat and I stood wouldn’t work either, so I folded my legs and ignored the damp dirt that would soon be clinging to my pants.

“So, you were going to explain Wolf’s Law to me?” It’s an awkward way to fill the silence, but I’m a murderbot. I’m never not going to be awkward.

Ailas at least seems happy with the subject. He launches into an enthusiastic explanation of the rules imposed by the White Wolf, who seems to be the person in charge of the north part of the continent. To my surprise, this law seems mainly focused on the obligations of the ruling class to ensure the average person is treated fairly and has enough to live on. But what Ailas is most excited about are the protections for the so-called non-humans.

“How are these protections enforced?” I ask.

“For individuals and businesses, there’s a justice system that will impose fines, or jail for the worst cases. A ruler that violates the edicts, or even allows them to be violated through neglect, will find himself deposed. And for larger groups, well, there’s always the example of Ghelibol.”

“What happened there?”

Ailas pauses so long that I think he’s not going to answer. “For three human generations, elves and humans lived and worked peacefully in Ghelibol. But then things changed, faster than anyone could imagine. The elves were forced to move into prescribed areas, and then limits were placed on their businesses. And then one day, a mob turned on them. Some human children had gone missing, and the elves were blamed. Many of the elves were tortured, and then all were killed, down to the last infant.”

Another long pause. “Then what happened?” I finally ask.

“There was no sorting the guilty from the innocent; the whole town turned out for the mob, or turned their faces away. The White Wolf declared all of Ghelibol guilty, and burned it to the ground.”

I don’t say anything, but my face must’ve done a thing again, because he hurried on.

“He gave them time to pack their belongings and leave the city before he set the fires, more mercy than their victims had. But you can be sure that any other town would think twice before allowing such a thing to happen there.”

I nod. “So do most people approve of the White Wolf, then? Or is there a lot of resentment.”  I haven’t forgotten why the sorceress was trying to summon a weapon in the first place.

“The common folk all approve these days. He’s improved things so much; taxes are lower, food is more plentiful, the roads are much better. These days rulers on bordering lands have to watch out for their people wanting to join the White Wolf’s kingdom, because they can see how much better things are now. The only ones who resent them are the failed rulers he’s replaced.”

Sounds like Lord Rakvug.

Ailas looks over at Arun, who’s been eating quietly. “For the first time in a long time, I have hope that the world my son inherits will be a better one than I’ve lived in.” 

Oh. Well, he’ll be in for a surprise, then, when SurveyShip’s corporate sponsor comes to take possession of the planet. Not sure exactly what they will make of this place, but a Rim corporation never saw a population they couldn’t exploit.

My plan, if you could call it a plan, is to get far enough away from SurveyShip’s shell so that the corporate sponsor doesn’t immediately find me when it comes looking for its lost ship, and then blend in and hide in the population until the corporate takeover is complete, allowing me to sneak back to civilization.

It’s a sensible plan. The safest. It’s not like this place could successfully fight against a takeover. Of course, there’s the unknown factor of the sorcery, which did take down SurveyShip. But they’d need to know what was coming and exactly how to fight it to even have a chance. It’s not like these people are my clients. I don’t owe them anything. 

I look at Arun, who is still listening quietly to our talk. Fuck.

“This White Wolf, does he have any sorceresses working with him?”

Ailas laughs. “Only the most powerful sorceress that ever lived, Yennefer of Vengerberg. And several others from her school.”

I sigh. There’s definitely something wrong with my threat assessment module, because I know this is a stupid decision but I’m making it anyway.  “Okay, no way around it. I’m going to have to go talk to this White Wolf person.  I don’t suppose you have a map to where he lives?”

I’m not letting a Rim corporation take over this mudpit without at least trying to stop it.