It has a dark past—one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”. But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.
Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.
What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…
Artificial Condition—the follow-up to Martha Wells’s sci-fi action and adventure All Systems Red—is available May 8th from Tor.com Publishing.
SecUnits don’t care about the news. Even after I hacked my governor module and got access to the feeds, I never paid much attention to it. Partly because downloading the entertainment media was less likely to trigger any alarms that might be set up on satellite and station networks; political and economic news was carried on different levels, closer to the protected data exchanges. But mostly because the news was boring and I didn’t care what humans were doing to each other as long as I didn’t have to a) stop it or b) clean up after it.
But as I crossed the transit ring’s mall, a recent newsburst from Station was in the air, bouncing from one public feed to another. I skimmed it but most of my attention was on getting through the crowd while pretending to be an ordinary augmented human, and not a terrifying murderbot. This involved not panicking when anybody accidentally made eye contact with me.
Fortunately, the humans and augmented humans were too busy trying to get wherever they were going or searching the feed for directions and transport schedules. Three passenger transports had come through wormholes along with the bot-driven cargo transport I had hitched a ride on, and the big mall between the different embarkation zones was crowded. Besides the humans, there were bots of all different shapes and sizes, drones buzzing along above the crowd, and cargo moving on the overhead walkways. The security drones wouldn’t be scanning for SecUnits unless they were specifically instructed, and nothing had tried to ping me so far, which was a relief.
I was off the company’s inventory, but this was still the Corporation Rim, and I was still property.
Though I was feeling pretty great about how well I was doing so far, considering this was only the second transit ring I had been through. SecUnits were shipped to our contracts as cargo, and we never went through the parts of stations or transit rings that were meant for people. I’d had to leave my armor behind in the deployment center on Station, but in the crowd I was almost as anonymous as if I was still wearing it. (Yes, that is something I had to keep repeating to myself.) I was wearing gray and black work clothes, the long sleeves of the T-shirt and jacket, the pants and boots covering all my inorganic parts, and I was carrying a knapsack. Among the varied and colorful clothes, hair, skin, and interfaces of the crowd, I didn’t stand out. The dataport in the back of my neck was visible but the design was too close to the interfaces augmented humans often had implanted to draw any suspicion. Also, nobody thinks a murderbot is going to be walking along the transit mall like a person.
Then in my skim of the news broadcast I hit an image. It was me.
I didn’t stop in my tracks because I have a lot of practice in not physically reacting to things no matter how much they shock or horrify me. I may have lost control of my expression for a second; I was used to always wearing a helmet and keeping it opaqued whenever possible.
I passed a big archway that led to several different food service counters and stopped near the opening to a small business district. Anyone who saw me would assume I was scanning their sites in the feed, looking for information.
The image in the newsburst was of me standing in the lobby of the station hotel with Pin-Lee and Ratthi. The focus was on Pin-Lee, on her determined expression, the annoyed tilt of her eyebrows, and her sharp business clothes. Ratthi and I, in gray PreservationAux survey uniforms, were faded into the background. I was listed as “and bodyguard” in the image tags, which was a relief, but I was braced for the worst as I replayed the story.
Huh, the station I had thought of as The Station, the location of the company offices and the deployment center where I was usually stored, was actually called Port FreeCommerce. I didn’t know that. (When I was there, I was mostly in a repair cubicle, a transport box, or in standby waiting for a contract.) The news narrator mentioned in passing how Dr. Mensah had bought the SecUnit who saved her. (That was clearly the heartwarming note to relieve the otherwise grim story with the high body count.) But the journalists weren’t used to seeing SecUnits except in armor, or in a bloody pile of leftover pieces when things went wrong. They hadn’t connected the idea of a purchased SecUnit with what they assumed was the generic augmented human person going into the hotel with Pin-Lee and Ratthi. That was good.
The weird part was that some of our security recordings had been released. My vantage point, as I searched the DeltFall habitat and found the bodies. Views from Gurathin’s and Pin-Lee’s helmet cameras, when they found Mensah and what was left of me after the explosion. I scanned through it quickly, making sure there weren’t any good views of my human face.
The rest of the story was about how the company and DeltFall, plus Preservation and three other non-corporate political entities who had had citizens in DeltFall’s habitat, were ganging up on GrayCris. There was also a multi-cornered solicitor-fight going on in which some of the entities who were allies in the investigation were fighting each other over financial responsibility, jurisdiction, and bond guarantees. I didn’t know how humans could keep it all straight. There weren’t many details about what had actually happened after PreservationAux had managed to signal the company rescue transport, but it was enough to hope that anybody looking for the SecUnit in question would assume I was with Mensah and the others. Mensah and the others, of course, knew different.
Then I checked the timestamp and saw the newsburst was old, published the cycle after I had left the station. It must have come through a wormhole with one of the faster passenger transports. That meant the official news channels might have more recent info by now.
Right. I told myself there was no way anybody on this transport ring would be looking for a rogue SecUnit. From the info available in the public feed, there were no deployment centers here for any bond or security companies. My contracts had always been on isolated installations or uninhabited survey planets, and I thought that was pretty much the norm. Even the shows and serials on the entertainment feeds never showed SecUnits contracted to guard offices or cargo warehouses or shipwrights, or any of the other businesses common to transit rings. And all the SecUnits in the media were always in armor, faceless and terrifying to humans.
I merged with the crowd and started down the mall again. I had to be careful going anywhere I might be scanned for weapons, which was all the facilities for purchasing transport, including the little trams that circled the ring. I can hack a weapons scanner, but security protocols suggested that at the passenger facilities there would be a lot of them to deal with the crowds and I could only do so many at once. Plus, I would have to hack the payment system, and that sounded like way more trouble than it was worth at the moment. It was a long walk to the part of the ring for the outgoing bot-driven transports, but it gave me time to tap the entertainment feed and download new media.
On the way to this transit ring, alone on my empty cargo transport, I had had a chance to do a lot of thinking about why I had left Mensah, and what I wanted. I know, it was a surprise to me too. But even I knew I couldn’t spend the rest of my lifespan alone riding cargo transports and consuming media, as attractive as it sounded.
I had a plan now. Or I would have a plan, once I got the answer to an important question.
To get that answer I needed to go somewhere, and there were two bot-driven transports leaving here in the next cycle that would take me there. The first was a cargo transport not unlike the one I had used to get here. It was leaving later, and was a better option, as I would have more time to get to it and talk it into letting me board. I could hack a transport if I tried, but I really preferred not to. Spending that much time with something that didn’t want you there, or that you had hacked to make it think it wanted you there, just seemed creepy.
Maps and schedules were available in the feed, tied to all the main navigation points along the ring, so I was able to find my way down to the cargo loading area, wait for the shift change, and cut through to the embarkation zone. I had to hack an ID-screening system and some weapon-scanning drones on the level above the zone, and then got pinged by a bot guarding the entrance to the commercial area. I didn’t hurt it, just broke through its wall in the feed and deleted out of its memory any record of the encounter with me.
(I was designed to interface with company SecSystems, to be basically an interactive component of one. The safeguards on this station weren’t the company’s proprietary tech, but it was close enough. Also, nobody is as paranoid as the company about protecting the data it collects and/or steals, so I was used to security systems that were a lot more robust than this.)
Once down on the access floor, I had to be extremely careful, as there was no reason for someone not working to be here, and while most of the work was being done by hauler bots, there were uniformed humans and augmented humans here, too. More than I had counted on.
A lot of humans congregated near the lock for my prospective transport. I checked the feed for alerts and found there had been an accident involving a hauler. Various parties were sorting out the damage and who was to blame. I could have waited until they cleared out, but I wanted to get off this ring and get moving. And honestly, my image in the newsburst had rattled me and I wanted to just sink into my media downloads for a while and pretend I didn’t exist. To do that I had to be secure on a locked automated transport ready to leave the ring.
I checked the maps again for my second possibility. It was attached to a different dock, one marked for private, non-commercial traffic. If I moved fast, I could get there before it left.
The schedule had it designated as a long-range research vessel. That sounded like something that would have a crew and probably passengers, but the attached info said it was bot-driven and currently tasked with a cargo run that would stop at the destination I wanted. I had done a historical search in the feed for its movements and found it was owned by a university based on a planet in this system, which rented it out for cargo trips in between assignments to help pay for its upkeep. The trip to my destination would take twenty-one cycles, and I was really looking forward to the isolation.
Getting into the private docks from the commercial docks was easy. I got control of the security system long enough to tell it not to notice that I didn’t have authorization, and walked through behind a group of passengers and crew members.
I found the research transport’s dock, and pinged it through the comm port. It pinged back almost immediately. All the info I had managed to pull off the feed said it was prepared for an automated run, but just to be sure I sent a hail for attention from human crew. The answer came back a null, no one home.
I pinged the transport again and gave it the same offer I had given the first transport: hundreds of hours of media, serials, books, music, including some new shows I had just picked up on the way through the transit mall, in exchange for a ride. I told it I was a free bot, trying to get back to its human guardian. (The “free bot” thing is deceptive. Bots are considered citizens in some non-corporate political entities like Preservation, but they still have appointed human guardians. Constructs sometimes fall under the same category as bots, sometimes under the same category as deadly weapons. (FYI, that is not a good category to be in.)) This is why I had been a free agent among humans for less than seven cycles, including time spent alone on a cargo transport, and I already needed a vacation.
There was a pause, then the research transport sent an acceptance and opened the lock for me.
I waited to make sure the lock cycled closed, and that there were no alarms from the ringside, then went down the access corridor. From the schematic available in the shipboard feed, the compartments the transport was using for cargo were normally modular lab space. With the labs sealed and removed to the university’s dock storage, there was plenty of room for cargo. I pushed my condensed packet of media into the transport’s feed for it to take whenever it wanted.
The rest of the space was the usual engineering, supply storage, cabins, medical, mess hall, with the addition of a larger recreation area and some teaching suites. There was blue and white padding on the furniture and it had all been cleaned recently, though it still had a trace of that dirty sock smell that seems to hang around all human habitations. It was quiet, except for the faint noise of the air system, and my boots weren’t making any sound on the deck covering.
I didn’t need supplies. My system is self-regulating; I don’t need food, water, or to eliminate fluids or solids, and I don’t need much air. I could have lasted on the minimal life support that was all that was provided when no people were aboard, but the transport had upped it a little. I thought that was nice of it.
I wandered around, visually checking things out to see that it matched the schematic, and just making sure everything was okay. I did it, even knowing that patrolling was a habit I was going to have to get over. There were a lot of things I was going to have to get over.
When constructs were first developed, they were originally supposed to have a pre-sentient level of intelligence, like the dumber variety of bot. But you can’t put something as dumb as a hauler bot in charge of security for anything without spending even more money for expensive company-employed human supervisors. So they made us smarter. The anxiety and depression were side effects.
In the deployment center, when I was standing there while Dr. Mensah explained why she didn’t want to rent me as part of the bond guarantee agreement, she had called the increase in intelligence a “hellish compromise.”
This ship was not my responsibility and there were no human clients aboard that I had to keep anything from hurting, or keep from hurting themselves, or keep from hurting each other. But this was a nice ship with surprisingly little security, and I wondered why the owners didn’t leave a few humans aboard to keep an eye on it. Like most bot-driven transports, the schematics said there were drones onboard to make repairs, but still.
I kept patrolling until I felt the rumble and clunk through the deck that meant the ship had just decoupled itself from the ring and started to move. The tension that had kept me down to 96 percent capacity eased; a murderbot’s life is stressful in general, but it would be a long time before I got used to moving through human spaces with no armor, no way to hide my face.
I found a crew meeting area below the control deck and planted myself in one of the padded chairs. Repair cubicles and transport boxes don’t have padding, so traveling in comfort was still a novelty. I started sorting through the new media I’d downloaded on the transit ring. It had some entertainment channels that weren’t available on the company’s portion of Port FreeCommerce, and they included a lot of new dramas and action series.
I’d never really had long periods of unobserved free time before. The leisure to sort through everything and get it organized, and give it my full attention, without having to monitor multiple systems and the clients’ feeds, was still something I was getting used to. Before this, I’d either been on duty, on call, or stuck in a cubicle on standby waiting to be activated for a contract.
I chose a new serial that looked interesting (the tags promised extragalactic exploration, action, and mysteries) and started the first episode. I was ready to settle in until it was time to think about what I was going to do when I got to my destination, something I intended to put off until the last possible moment. Then, through my feed, something said, You were lucky.
I sat up. It was so unexpected, I had an adrenaline release from my organic parts.
Transports don’t talk in words, even through the feed. They use images and strings of data to alert you to problems, but they’re not designed for conversation. I was okay with that, because I wasn’t designed for conversation, either. I had shared my stored media with the first transport, and it had given me access to its comm and feed streams so I could make sure no one knew where I was, and that had been the extent of our interaction.
I poked cautiously through the feed, wondering if I’d been fooled. I had the ability to scan, but without drones my range was limited, and with all the shielding and equipment around me I couldn’t pick up anything but background readings from the ship’s systems. Whoever owned the ship wanted to allow for proprietary research; the only security cameras were on the hatches, nothing in the crew areas. Or nothing I could access. But the presence in the feed was too big and diffuse for a human or augmented human, I could tell that much even through the feed walls protecting it. And it sounded like a bot. When humans speak in the feed, they have to subvocalize and their mental voice tends to sound like their physical voice. Even augmented humans with full interfaces do it.
Maybe it was trying to be friendly and was just awkward at communicating. I said aloud, “Why am I lucky?”
That no one realized what you were.
That was less than reassuring. I said, cautiously, “What do you think I am?” If it was hostile, I didn’t have a lot of options. Transport bots don’t have bodies, other than the ship. The equivalent of its brain would be above me, near the bridge where the human flight crew would be stationed. And it wasn’t like I had anywhere to go; we were moving out from the ring and making leisurely progress toward the wormhole.
It said, You’re a rogue SecUnit, a bot/human construct, with a scrambled governor module. It poked me through the feed and I flinched. It said, Do not attempt to hack my systems, and for .00001 of a second it dropped its wall.
It was enough time for me to get a vivid image of what I was dealing with. Part of its function was extragalactic astronomic analysis and now all that processing power sat idle while it hauled cargo, waiting for its next mission. It could have squashed me like a bug through the feed, pushed through my wall and other defenses and stripped my memory. Probably while also plotting its wormhole jump, estimating the nutrition needs of a full crew complement for the next 66,000 hours, performing multiple neural surgeries in the medical suite, and beating the captain at tavla. I had never directly interacted with anything this powerful before.
You made a mistake, Murderbot, a really bad mistake. How the hell was I supposed to know there were transports sentient enough to be mean? There were evil bots on the entertainment feed all the time, but that wasn’t real, it was a just a scary story, a fantasy.
I’d thought it was a fantasy.
I said, “Okay,” shut down my feed, and huddled down into the chair.
I’m not normally afraid of things, the way humans are. I’ve been shot hundreds of times, so many times I stopped keeping count, so many times the company stopped keeping count. I’ve been chewed on by hostile fauna, run over by heavy machinery, tortured by clients for amusement, memory purged, etc., etc. But the inside of my head had been my own for +33,000 hours and I was used to it now. I wanted to keep me the way I was.
The transport didn’t respond. I tried to come up with countermeasures for all the different ways it could hurt me and how I could hurt it back. It was more like a SecUnit than a bot, so much so I wondered if it was a construct, if there was cloned organic brain tissue buried in its systems somewhere. I’d never tried to hack another SecUnit. It might be safest to go into standby for the duration of the trip, and trigger myself to wake when we reached my destination. Though that would leave me vulnerable to its drones.
I watched seconds click by, waiting to see if it reacted. I was glad I had noted the lack of cameras and not bothered trying to hack into the ship’s security system. I understood now why the humans felt it didn’t need additional protection. A bot with this complete control over its environment and the initiative and freedom to act could repel any attempt to board.
It had opened the hatch for me. It wanted me here.
Then it said, You can continue to play the media.
I just huddled there warily.
It added, Don’t sulk.
I was afraid, but that made me irritated enough to show it that what it was doing to me was not exactly new. I sent through the feed, SecUnits don’t sulk. That would trigger punishment from the governor module, and attached some brief recordings from my memory of what exactly that felt like.
Seconds added up to a minute, then another, then three more. It doesn’t sound like much to humans, but for a conversation between bots, or excuse me, between a bot/human construct and a bot, it was a long time.
Then it said, I’m sorry I frightened you.
Okay, well. If you think I trusted that apology, you don’t know Murderbot. Most likely it was playing a game with me. I said, “I don’t want anything from you. I just want to ride to your next destination.” I’d explained that earlier, before it opened the hatch for me, but it was worth repeating.
I felt it withdraw back behind its wall. I waited, and let my circulatory system purge the fear-generated chemicals. More time crawled by, and I started to get bored. Sitting here like this was too much like waiting in a cubicle after I’d been activated, waiting for the new clients to take delivery, for the next boring contract. If it was going to destroy me, at least I could get some media in before that happened. I started the new show again, but I was still too upset to enjoy it, so I stopped it and started rewatching an old episode of Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon.
After three episodes, I was calmer and reluctantly beginning to see the transport’s perspective. A SecUnit could cause it a lot of internal damage if it wasn’t careful, and rogue SecUnits were not exactly known for lying low and avoiding trouble. I hadn’t hurt the last transport I had taken a ride on, but it didn’t know that. I didn’t understand why it had let me aboard, if it really didn’t want to hurt me. I wouldn’t have trusted me, if I was a transport.
Maybe it was like me, and it had taken an opportunity because it was there, not because it knew what it wanted.
It was still an asshole, though.
Excerpted from Artificial Condition, copyright © 2018 by Martha Wells.