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I HAVE THE WORST luck with bot-driven transports.
The first one had let me stow away in exchange for my collection of media files, with no ulterior motives, and had been so focused on its function that there had been hardly more communication between us than you’d have with a hauler bot. For the duration of the trip I had been alone with my media storage, just the way I like it. It had spoiled me into thinking all bot transports would be like that.
Then there was Asshole Research Transport. ART’s official designation was deep space research vessel. At various points in our relationship, ART had threatened to kill me, watched my favorite shows with me, given me a body configuration change, provided excellent tactical support, talked me into pretending to be an augmented human security consultant, saved my clients’ lives, and had cleaned up after me when I had to murder some humans. (They were bad humans.) I really missed ART.
Then there was this transport.
It was also bot-driven, no crew, but it carried passengers, mostly minimum to moderately skilled tech workers, human and augmented human, traveling to and from transit stations on temporary work contracts. This was not an ideal situation for me, but it was the only transport going in the right direction.
Like bot-transports that were not ART, it communicated in images and had allowed me onboard in exchange for a copy of my stored media. Because the manifest was in the transport’s feed and so available to the other passengers, I asked it to list me for the duration of the voyage in case anybody checked. There was a field in the passenger form for occupation and in a moment of weakness, I told it I was a security consultant.
Transport decided that meant it could use me as onboard security and started alerting me to problems among the passengers. I was an idiot and started responding. No, I don’t know why, either. Maybe because it was what I was constructed to do and it must be written into the DNA that controls my organic parts. (There needs to be an error code that means “I received your request but decided to ignore you.”)
Initially, it had been pretty easy. (“If you bother her again I will break every individual bone in your hand and arm. It will take about an hour.”) Then it had gotten more complicated as even the passengers who liked each other started to get into fights. I spent a lot of time (valuable time I could have been viewing/reading my saved entertainment media) arbitrating arguments I didn’t give a shit about.
Now it was the last cycle of the trip, all of us somehow having managed to survive, and I was heading into the mess compartment to break up yet another fight between idiot humans.
Transport didn’t have drones, but it did have a limited range of security cameras, so I knew the positions of everybody in the galley/mess area before the door slid open. I strode across the room, through the maze of shouting humans and overturned tables and chairs, and stepped between the two combatants. One had picked up a food utensil as a weapon and in one careful non-finger-ripping-off twist I had it, instead.
You would think the person they knew as a security consultant slamming in and disarming one of them would cause everyone to stop and reassess their priorities in this situation, but oh, you would be wrong. They staggered back, still screaming profanity at each other. The others in the room switched from shouting profanity at the combatants to shouting at me, all trying to tell me different versions of what had happened. I yelled, “Shut up!”
(The good thing about pretending to be an augmented human security consultant instead of a construct SecUnit is that you can tell the humans to shut up.)
Everybody shut up.
Then, still breathing hard, Ayres said, “Consultant Rin, I thought you said you didn’t want to come back up here—”
The other one, Elbik, was pointing dramatically. “Consultant Rin, he said he was going to—”
I’d had Transport list my name as Rin on the manifest though I’d used Eden at RaviHyral. I was fairly certain RaviHyral transit station security had no reason to associate that identity with any sudden deaths taking place on a private shuttle, and even if they had, wouldn’t pursue anyone out of their jurisdiction unless contracted to. But it had seemed best to change it.
The others, starting to come out from behind tables and hastily assembled chair barricades, all tried to chime in, and there was more pointing and shouting. This was typical. (If it wasn’t for the shows I download from the entertainment feed, I would have thought the only way most humans knew how to communicate was by pointing and shouting.)
The objective twenty-six cycles of the journey had felt like a subjective two hundred and thirty, at least. I had tried to distract them. I had copied all my visual media into Transport’s passenger-accessible system so it could be played on all their display surfaces, which at least kept the crying to a minimum (for children and adults). And, granted, the fighting had decreased dramatically after the first time I pinned someone to a wall with one hand and established a clear set of rules. (Rule Number One: do not touch Security Consultant Rin.) But even that usually left me standing there helplessly listening to their problems and their grievances against each other, against various corporations they had been fucked over by (yeah, tell me about it), and against existence in general. Yes, listening to it was excruciating.
Today, I said, “I don’t care.”
Everybody shut up again.
I continued, “We have, at most, six hours left before this transport will dock. After that, you can do whatever you want to each other.”
That didn’t work, they still had to tell me about what had caused the latest fight. (I don’t remember what it was, I deleted it from memory as soon as I could get out of the room.)
They were all annoying and deeply inadequate humans, but I didn’t want to kill them. Okay, maybe a little.
A SecUnit’s job is to protect its clients from anything that wants to kill or hurt them, and to gently discourage them from killing, maiming, etc., each other. The reason why they were trying to kill, maim, etc., each other wasn’t the SecUnit’s problem, it was for the humans’ supervisor to deal with. (Or to willfully ignore until the whole project devolved into a giant clusterfuck and your SecUnit prayed for the sweet relief of a massive accidental explosive decompression, not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.)
But here on this transport, there was no supervisor, just me. And I knew where they were going, and they knew where they were going, even if they were pretending all their anger and frustration was caused by Vinigo or Eva taking an extra simulated fruit pac. So I listened to them a lot and pretended to be launching major investigations into incidents like who left a cracker wrapper in the galley restroom sink.
They were heading to a labor installation on some shitshow world. Ayres told me they had all sold their personal labor for a twenty-year hitch, with a big payout at the end. He was aware it was a terrible deal, but it was better than their other options. The labor contract included shelter, but charged a percentage for everything else, like food consumed, energy use, and any medical care, including preventative.
(I know. Ratthi had said using constructs was slavery but at least I hadn’t had to pay the company for my repair, maintenance, ammo, and armor. Of course, nobody had asked me if I wanted to be a SecUnit, but that’s a whole different metaphor.)
(Note to self: look up definition of metaphor.)
I had asked Ayres if the twenty years was measured by the planetary calendar or the proprietary calendar of the corporation who maintained the planet, or the Corporation Rim Recommended Standard, or what? He didn’t know, and hadn’t understood why it mattered.
Yeah, that was why I was trying not to get attached to any of them.
I would never have picked this transport if I had a choice, but it had been the only one going to the transit station that was the connection to my next destination. I was trying to get to a place called Milu, outside the Corporation Rim.
I had made the decision after I left RaviHyral. At first, I had needed to move fast and put as much distance between myself and its transit station as possible. (See above, murdered humans.) I’d grabbed the first friendly cargo transport and after a seven-cycle trip I disembarked on a crowded transit hub, which was good, because crowds were easy to get lost in, and bad, because there were humans and augmented humans everywhere, all around me, looking at me, which was hell. (After meeting Ayres and the others, obviously my definition of hell changed.)
Also, I missed ART, and I even missed Tapan, and Maro and Rami. If you had to take care of humans, it was better to take care of small soft ones who were nice to you and thought you were great because you kept preventing them from being murdered. (They had only liked me because they thought I was an augmented human, but you can’t have everything.)
After RaviHyral, I’d decided to stop screwing around and get out of the Corporation Rim, but I still had to plan my route. The schedules and feeds I needed hadn’t been accessible on the transport, but now that we’d docked I was inundated with info, so I had to take some time to go through it all. Plus I had been at this hub for twenty-two minutes and I already desperately needed some quiet time. So I ducked into an automated transient service center and used some of the funds on my new hard currency card to pay for a private rest cubicle. It was just big enough to lay down in with my knapsack, but it was enough like a transport box to be vaguely comforting. I had spent a lot of great alone time in transport boxes, being shipped as freight to contracts. I thought a human had to be pretty tired to rest in here without screaming.
Once I was settled, I checked the station feeds for recently arrived newsbursts about DeltFall and GrayCris. I hit a story thread almost immediately. Lawsuits were underway, depositions in progress, and so on. It didn’t look like there had been much change since I left RaviHyral, which was frustrating. That pesky SecUnit nobody wanted to talk about was still unaccounted for, so yay for that. It was hard to tell if the journalists thought somebody was hiding me or not. They didn’t seem to want to speculate that I’d wandered off on my own. Then I hit an interview with Dr. Mensah, posted six cycles ago.
It was unexpectedly good to see her again. I increased magnification for a better look and decided she seemed tired. I couldn’t tell where she was from the video background and a quick scan of the interview content didn’t mention it. I hoped she was back on Preservation; if she was still on Port FreeCommerce I hoped they had contracted decent security. But knowing how she felt about SecUnits (the whole “it’s slavery” thing) I doubted she had. Even without a MedSystem on my feed, I could tell there were changes in the skin around her eyes that indicated a lack of sleep verging on chronic.
I felt a little guilty, sort of, almost. Something was wrong, and I hoped it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t her fault I’d escaped, and I hoped they weren’t trying to hold her responsible for, you know, releasing a rogue SecUnit with a record of past mass murder onto an unsuspecting population. Granted, that hadn’t been her intention. She had meant to ship me home to Preservation, where she would have, I don’t know, civilized me, or educated me, or something. I was vague on the details. The only thing I knew for certain was that Preservation didn’t need SecUnits, and their idea of a SecUnit being considered a free agent meant I’d have a human “guardian.” (In other places they just call that your owner.)
I reviewed the content again. The investigation of GrayCris being conducted by the news agencies was turning up other incidents that suggested the attack on DeltFall was more business as usual for them than an aberration. (This is my surprised face.) GrayCris had been collecting complaints for a long time about sketchy contracts and exclusive-use deals on various sites, including a potential terraforming project outside the Corporation Rim that had been abandoned, though nobody knew why. Fucking up a planet, even part of a planet, for no reason was kind of a big deal, and I was surprised they had gotten away with it. Okay, no, I wasn’t surprised.
The journalist asked Dr. Mensah about that last one, and she said, “After what I saw of GrayCris, I intend to urge the Preservation Council to join the formal call to investigate the situation at Milu. A failed terraforming attempt is a tragic waste of both resources and the natural surface of a planet, but GrayCris has refused to explain their actions.”
The journalist had tagged an infobar to Mensah’s statement, with some commentary about a small company from outside the Corporation Rim which had recently filed to take possession of GrayCris’ abandoned terraform project. They had just set up an automated tractor array to prevent the derelict terraform facility from breaking up in the atmosphere, and were supposed to start assessments soon. The commentary got all dramatic then, wondering what the assessment team would find.
I laid there, flicking through feeds and schedules, and decided I thought I knew what the assessment team would find.
The reason I was wandering free and Dr. Mensah was on the news was because GrayCris had been willing to kill a whole bunch of helpless human researchers for exclusive access to alien remnants, the mineral and possibly biological remains of a sentient alien civilization left in the soil of our survey area. I knew a lot more about it now, after listening to Tapan and the others talk about their code for identifying strange synthetics, and because I’d downloaded a book on it and read it between episodes of my shows. There were tons of agreements between political and corporate entities, inside and outside the Corporation Rim, dealing with alien remnants. Basically you weren’t supposed to touch them without a lot of special certifications and maybe not even then.
When I had left Port FreeCommerce, the assumption was that GrayCris had wanted unimpeded access to those remnants. Presumably, GrayCris would have set up a mining operation or colony build or some other kind of massive project as cover while they recovered and studied the remnants.
So what if the terraform facility at Milu was just a successful cover for a mining or recovery operation for alien remnants or strange synthetics or both? GrayCris had finished the recovery and pretended to abandon the terraform that had never actually been in progress. With the facility derelict, it would eventually break up in the atmosphere, taking all the evidence with it.
If Dr. Mensah had proof of that, the investigation against GrayCris would get a lot more interesting. Maybe so interesting that the journalists would forget all about that stray SecUnit. And then Dr. Mensah wouldn’t be needed on Port FreeCommerce and she could go back to Preservation where it was safe and I could stop worrying about her.
Getting proof wouldn’t be hard, I thought. Humans always think they’ve covered their tracks and deleted their data, but they’re wrong a lot. So … maybe I should do that. I could go to Milu and take whatever data I collected and send it to Dr. Mensah, either to wherever she was staying at Port FreeCommerce or to her home on Preservation.
I picked up the hub feed again and changed my queries to search for transports to Milu, but there was nothing on the public schedule for this transit station. I widened my search, checking other connected transit stations. All I could find was an old transportation advisory, tagged forty cycles ago, when the news said the terraform facility had been declared abandoned after the local transit station had registered a lengthy period of inactivity. It said the cargo routes to Milu were discontinued, all except for the route originating at HaveRatton Station, which was on the edge of the Corporation Rim. I couldn’t get any updated information about transports going to Milu from HaveRatton, except some vague reports that some had still been in operation at some point.
I might not be able to get to Milu without my own ship, and that wasn’t going to happen. I have a training module for hoppers and other planetary aircraft, but not shuttles or transports or anything. I’d have to steal a ship and a bot pilot, and that would just be getting too complicated, even for me.
But HaveRatton was a main hub for transports heading outside the Corporation Rim and I could choose hundreds of destinations from there. So even if the Milu plan turned out to be a bust, it wouldn’t be a wasted trip.
The next transport leaving directly for HaveRatton was listed as cargo and passenger, and that’s how I ended up with Ayres and his bunch of contract-labor-bound idiots.
* * *
After breaking up the latest fight in the mess, and trying to end my short-lived career as a relationship counselor for desperate humans, I went to hide in my bunkspace. When we came through the wormhole and started to approach HaveRatton, I picked up the station feed.
I needed to get the schedules as soon as possible, and I was also looking forward to a chance to download new media. The latest new show I was watching had started out good but turned annoying. It was about a pre-terraform survey (on a planet with completely the wrong profile for terraforming anyway, but I didn’t care about that part) that turned into a battle for survival against hostile fauna and mutant raiders. But the humans were too helpless to make it interesting and they were all getting killed. I could tell it was headed toward a depressing ending, and I just wasn’t in the mood. It was especially annoying because I could see how the addition of a heroic SecUnit and maybe some interesting alien remnants could have turned it into a great adventure story.
And there was no way their bond company would have guaranteed the survey without some kind of professional security. That was unrealistic. Heroic SecUnits were unrealistic, too, but like I had told ART, there’s the right kind of unrealistic and the wrong kind of unrealistic.
I had stopped watching it when the mutants dragged off the group’s biologist to eat him. Seriously, this was exactly the kind of situation I was designed to prevent.
Thinking about the probable fate of Transport’s passengers put me out of the mood, too. I didn’t want to see helpless humans. I’d rather see smart ones rescuing each other.
I sorted through indices of available info, then started new downloads and queried the schedules and transport guide for ways to get to Milu.
Nothing this cycle, nothing the next. Even when I widened the search to thirty cycles from now. Well, that was possibly a problem.
I had been thinking about my plan a lot in between bouts of passenger-wrangling, and now I hated to give it up; I really wanted to hurt GrayCris, and if I couldn’t do it with explosive projectiles, this was the next best way. Maybe the schedules hadn’t been updated; humans are so fucking unreliable when it comes to maintaining data. As we slowed for final approach and docking, I searched the station’s public destination catalog, and yeah, Milu was listed. As usual, an independent company operated the transit station, so it was listed as still active even after the facility had been abandoned. The population of the station was floating and under one hundred at most.
Floating was good as it meant there were few permanent residents; people came and went constantly. But under a hundred was bad. Even if I could get there, with no legitimate reason to be there, I’d have to make sure no one saw me.
ART had altered my configuration so scans wouldn’t read me as a SecUnit, and I had written myself some code to make sure I behaved more like a human or augmented human. (Mostly randomizing my movements and breathing.) But I had to avoid other SecUnits, and it was best to avoid humans (like deployment center personnel) who had seen SecUnits without armor. GrayCris contracted for SecUnits in the Corporation Rim, and they might have used them on the Milu station, too. GrayCris was supposed to have removed any offices from the transit station when they abandoned the facility, but the humans who were still there might have seen their SecUnits. It was a calculated risk, which meant I was doing it even though I knew it could be like shooting myself in the knee joint.
I could have given up on the whole idea. There were transports leaving for destinations far away from Corporate territory, destinations I didn’t know anything about. But I was tired of pretending to be human. I needed a break.
I tried the schedule for privately owned ships and didn’t see any marked for Milu. But there were several ships scheduled to leave in the next cycle or so with no listed destination. One was a small bot-piloted cargo ship that was just large enough to carry supplies for about one hundred to one hundred-fifty humans for one hundred-plus cycles. I checked its history in the knowledge base and saw that it left and returned on a regular schedule. It could be a private contractor supplying Milu station, and not listed on the schedule because they didn’t want any random humans trying to go there until the terraforming facility debacle had been sorted out.
The cargo ship had actually been scheduled to leave eighteen cycles ago, but had requested a hold. Six transports of varying sizes and points of origin were arriving on HaveRatton at the same time as my transport. The supply ship might have been waiting for one of those, if it was fulfilling specific cargo orders. It might have been waiting for a repair.
To find out more, I’d have to ask in person.
Copyright © 2018 by Martha Wells