Actions

Work Header

no more a machine

Work Text:

"I already said no. Do I need to make it an order?"

The words might be described as a slap by someone who doesn't know what being slapped feels like. Gurathin knows better. It’s been a long time since a client has raised a hand against him, but he still has the archived memories. The bite of Mensah's refusal is worse.

He doesn’t blank. He’s careful about that; he passes with relative ease, especially after a couple decades’ worth of missed cubicle maintenance has creased his face and streaked his hair with gray, but humans have a hard time ignoring someone whose expression has fallen to default neutral. Still, though, Mensah must see something in his face that makes her regret the force of her tone.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “But it’s a terrible idea. It’s too dangerous.”

“I agree, Dr. Mensah. That’s why I believe it would be to everyone’s benefit if I joined you.”

“It’s to no one’s benefit if you get arrested.”

The right word is “confiscated,” and he knows that she knows it. It’s one thing to talk like he’s a human in mixed company, but the fact of his being is central to the conversation right now, and it’s frustrating that she still wants to dance around what he is like it’s wrong to refer to him as a thing. “There are no standing corporate laws against bringing your personal ComfortUnit on a survey trip.”

“You’re not my personal ComfortUnit.” Her brow furrows. Gurathin suspects that she’s just swallowed down a common refrain, the affirmation that he’s a person to her. “I don’t own you. I don’t have any documentation to claim otherwise. This bond company —” (and here the venom is concentrated to deadly volume, here there is bitterness and just a touch of irony, because they both know that “bond company” is a euphemism which barely pretends to disguise ransom as rental fees) “—if they figure out that you don’t belong to us, there would be no legal means to prevent them from taking you. The only logical thing for you to do is to stay here.

It’s not an order. Mensah is very particular about how she phrases instructions, and she nearly always leaves Gurathin room to skirt the governor module outside of outright life-or-death situations. He rarely sees fit to take an offered out, though. Mensah is the best client in the best group of clients he’s ever had. He would follow her anywhere, including back into the greedy grasp of a corporation whose biggest profits are generated by construct rental.

He says, “They sold you a SecUnit.”

Mensah squeezes her eyes shut. His behavior analysis program reads her manner as indicative of a manifesting headache. “They’re trying to sell me a SecUnit,” she agrees. “Pin-Lee has lodged several exemption claims. I have no intention of participating in a slavery transaction, even temporarily.” It’s a hard line for her, but one that she’ll inevitably be forced back over. 

"I spoke with Pin-Lee,” he says. “She's not optimistic about the claims. Apparently the new bond laws are airtight." Mensah opens her eyes to glare at him.

“What’s your point, Gurathin?”

“This survey wouldn’t just be dangerous for me. You can’t go if there will be a SecUnit.” He wants to get really, properly angry, but the bond company and the hypothetical-but-probable SecUnit aren’t immediate enough subjects to be really real, as far as the governor is concerned. If he were to get angry, the nearest recognizable subject would be Mensah, and clients are invalid targets for negative emotions. He’s only able to manage moderate annoyance. “They're designed to exert control over a group of humans by force. They aren’t like me. They’re not pets.”

“Don’t say that!” 

If he had flinched away from a client before Mensah and the others had found him, he would have been marked down for maintenance. It’s a shame that he hasn’t been able to patch his software since then. He hates the guilt in her eyes, and hates that he caused it. 

“That’s not what you are,” she says, softly but firmly. “Not anymore. Not here.”

It was a bad angle to argue. He doesn’t think his clients are stupid enough to try and adopt a SecUnit, regardless of their attitude towards him. Still, though, the distinction has to be made.

"It's not like me," he says again, careful of his phrasing now that the direct order has been logged. "It's not there to protect you. It's there to spy and steal and kill, if that's what its company wants it to do." 

The look Mensah fixes on him says simply and what the fuck do you propose we do? "Someone has to go. If not us, then another group. It might as well be us." 

He raises his hands, palms up in one final plea. "Then take me with you. I'm the only one who can interface with a HubSystem in a way that will allow me to monitor the SecUnit while it monitors us. I can keep it in check, to some degree."

He curls his fingers into loose fists. Another way that SecUnits and ComfortUnits differ is in their respective physical limitations. A SecUnit could tear him in half nearly as easily as it could a human. But pound for pound, he's still considerably stronger than any of his clients. He can't lie directly to Mensah, but he can omit non-essential information that might upset his client. She doesn't need to know that he intends to stand between her and the SecUnit, if it comes to that.

The furrow of Mensah's brow eases slightly. "Systems analysts are nonessential to this type of preliminary survey, Dr. Gurathin," she says. "To bring one might be considered suspicious."

Doctor Gurathin. He worked hard for the title, and has used it for years, but the absurdity of it still gives him pause. Still, though.

"I can make myself useful in other ways." Mensah's eyes go wide in warning, and he quickly adds, "I took a minor in geology. I can assist Dr. Volescu in the lab with his samples."

"...You studied geology?"

"I wasn't actually learning anything new, only studying systems and computing."

Mensah opens her mouth, then closes it and shakes her head slightly.

"Are you sure that the bond company won't be able to make you?"

He can't avoid the question, but he can editorialize. "I can't be completely certain of anything, but since I arrived in Preservation space, no humans have ever identified me, and I haven't been identified by any bots since the day I arrived."

"And you think that the SecUnit—light forbid, if we can't avoid it—won't break that streak?"

"I don't intend to give it any reason to suspect that I'm anything but a human with neural augments."

Mensah knows that he's choosing his words with care. In spite of the deliberate edits he's made to his behavioral modules over the years, Mensah once told him that he lies-without-lying the same way that her eldest child does. His promises are flimsy. If Mensah says no, he has no further recourse. All he can do is beg his humans not to go, and the action of begging is no longer compatible with his physical configuration.

"Fine."

Gurathin doesn't bother blocking his surprise from translating to a reaction. "Fine?"

He reads several things in Mensah's face at once, but primarily there is resignation. “You know that I don’t want to restrict you. Don’t tell me that I’m your client and that it’s okay. I’m not, and it’s not. So if you really want to go, then fine.” She fixes him with a hard stare, the one that makes him forget manually logging her name on his client registry. She’s not his client. She’s his leader. “I’ll submit your name to the council. But if we can’t get out of the SecUnit rental, be careful with it. I don’t want you to make yourself a target.”

Mensah is very particular about how she phrases instructions, but she’s spent so many years working around Gurathin’s governor impairment that frequently, things that ought to be orders don’t come out as such. Phrases like “be careful” are left to his interpretation, and statements about Mensah’s general desires can be dismissed altogether.

“Thank you, Dr. Mensah,” he says. “I intend to be an asset to you.”

 


 

It should have killed him. It would have killed him, or so it said, but when the SecUnit pinned him to the habitat wall it was shockingly, impossibly, insultingly gentle. It thought he was human, after all, and humans bruise. Gurathin could have broken its grip, and maybe even surprised it enough to land one untrained blow before it deployed its inbuilt weapons and fried his circuitry, but its words stopped him.

I don’t like you, it had said. But I like the rest of them, and for some reason I don’t understand, they like you.

They like him because they're good humans, and good clients. They like the SecUnit for the same reason.

He’d tried again, in the hopper. He’d found a vulnerability. ComfortUnits are good at that, at least when their subject is human. When their subject is human, though, they can’t dig at the weak spot with the intent to irritate, to provoke pain. The SecUnit was a valid target. He pushed, and it slapped him back, again in a way that was offensively pacifistic. But this time, its blow landed harder than it knew.

You don’t need to look at me. I’m not a sexbot.

And his clients had sided with the SecUnit. They’d called it shy, and said that it had every right not to want to interact with humans. “You know how constructs are treated,” Overse had said, as if she thought he might for a second have forgotten what it was like to exist. All while that word still hung in the overcharged air.

But it didn’t hurt him, not really. And, infinitely more importantly, it didn’t hurt his clients.

When he said “I’m coming with you,” the words surprised him at least as much as they surprised the SecUnit. It didn’t look at him while it rounded out the pre-flight checks, but he could feel the way that it hiccupped in the feed.

“I thought you were satisfied,” it said coolly. 

Satisfied? He was satisfied before this survey, before this SecUnit. He didn’t know what he was anymore. Terrified was a good place to start—for his clients, primarily. The SecUnit was still an unknown, a danger from within, but the danger without was greater. 

And, although he barely wanted to admit it to himself, he was curious too. He wasn’t lying when he said that the SecUnit wasn’t like him, but the ways in which it differed were unexpectedly fascinating. 

He is Dr. Gurathin, a systems analyst. He wants to analyze the SecUnit’s systems.

Now, while his clients sleep, he picks at the data he copied over from the SecUnit’s archives. It’s incomplete, difficult to decipher. He’d acted on what he’d found immediately, thinking only of protecting his clients, but now he wants to backtrack, to fill in the blanks.

“I have a question,” he says, sharper than he usually prefers to start a conversation. He expects satisfaction from seeing the SecUnit flinch, but there is none. Even now, with no humans present to mediate, it doesn’t act on his provocation.

“...Go ahead.”

What he wants to ask is Did you do it on purpose? but he can’t ask the question so bluntly. He’s afraid that it might say yes.

“Did they punish you, for the deaths of the mining team?”

It can’t possibly be aware of how thickly its emotions cloud the feed. A ComfortUnit would know well enough to exercise some self-control. He makes the SecUnit nervous. Its discomfort tastes tangy and off-putting.

“No,” it says, “not like you’re thinking.” And it describes not manually inflicted punishment, but a simple factory reset. A badly botched one, for sure, one that left its memories discolored and damaged and damn near worthless. But, critically, not a procedure used to train out bad behavior. The SecUnit that calls itself Murderbot was treated to a round of debugging after committing the act that gave it its name.

Gurathin’s mouth is dry. He’s lost a lot more fluids in the last cycle than he really ought to, when he’s not actively utilizing them. He needs to replenish his levels soon. “You don’t blame humans for what you were forced to do?” he asks, forgetting his decades-long charade in one moment of simple bewilderment. “For what happened to you?”

It actually scoffs at him. “No. That’s a human thing to do. Constructs aren’t that stupid.”

And suddenly, he wishes that his clients were awake. He wants to laugh, and he wants someone to share in the joke. He could tell the SecUnit. For a moment he wants to tell the SecUnit. He wants to tell it that it is stupid. It’s stupid to have taken the disconnected data left over from its purge to mean that its fatal glitch was a deliberate murder spree. It’s stupid to have tightened its hand around a ComfortUnit’s throat without recognizing that even if it squeezed, it still wouldn’t have earned its moniker. And, hell, he’s not immune. He’s stupid to have ever thought that his stupid humans wouldn’t take one look at this stupid SecUnit and try to save it. All people are stupid, apparently, even the ones who don’t consider themselves people.

He is satisfied, he realizes. He doesn’t think that the SecUnit isn’t a potential hazard, but it’s proven him wrong. It is like him.

He sits with the SecUnit silent beside him and the epiphany in his mind. He turns it over and over again, contemplating it. The SecUnit is like him. He and the SecUnit are the same.

And if that much is true…

All company equipment is the same.

From the bundle of data, he withdraws the SecUnit’s user manual. As his humans begin to stir from their brief, uneasy sleep, he checks the index for the section about governor modules.