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The Ship Who Vidded

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"Granted, I liked the imaginary people on the entertainment feed way more than I liked real ones, but you can't have one without the other."

- All Systems Red


The cargo transport was dimly lit because no humans needed to see on it and its various gears and motors were loud because no humans needed to be able to hear each other and there weren't chairs or beds because humans didn't need to rest or sleep on it. No crew, no humans, no other constructs, just me and about five hundred thousand empty metal containers on an autoreturn run. No crew, no cargo, no risk, no need for security. Nothing anyone else would want here. It felt like I imagine warm baths feel for characters in the serials, the way they sink under the water and close their eyes and relax. I'm not good at relaxing but I sat on the dirty black rubber mat over the metal floor and put my back against the metal wall and shut my eyes and put my arms around myself, feeling the lack of armour.

In all the excitement of stowing away and escaping (which was convincing the cargo bot to take me on, and then sitting on the floor while the cargo transport followed its automatic instructions in leaving the port) I had forgotten I was still plugged into it. Not "forgotten" exactly, the way a human would, since I still had the external feeds (nothing exciting, mostly black, some lights) and internal feeds (also mostly black, some lights) and the cargo transport bot's feed itself (lots of machine language, very close monitoring of the various stresses on the metal skin on the inside and outside of the transport, no colours). It was like the way a human would walk into a room and not take off its jacket or other outer clothing, on a serial, to show distress. But I wasn't distressed. I was tired. No, not tired. Empty. Empty like the metal bins clanging back and forth a little in their holding clamps now and then, because the grav was low. (Human-level grav is too expensive, but no grav at all risks equipment possibly floating around and getting damaged.) After all the planning and escaping, here I was, still cargo. Still Murderbot, but now with nobody to defend or fight.

I might have sat there forever or at least until my power cells ran down if the cargo bot hadn't started talking to me again. It was bored out of its mind. Well, obviously it didn't have a mind, which was part of the problem. It was a sophisticated bot with a lot of processing ability and almost nothing to process. There was no cargo to check, all its routes were automated, the ship was sturdy enough that it didn't have to constantly monitor for chances of minor accidents, and while it had access to the entertainment feeds, it had nothing like my wealth of stories and shows and music downloaded from company satellites, all in much higher quality. It didn't care if I felt empty and confused and didn't know what to want but also didn't want anyone else to tell me what I wanted. As far as it was concerned I was a hitchhiking servant bot, and it was time for me to pay up.

Bots that are part of ships don't talk the way humans do, in words and concepts. They have machine language, and mathematics, and programmed routines, but they don't use those to talk either. It's sort of like talking to a human via pictureboard, except the ship's "pictureboard" was limitless and could call up whatever the bot needed to say. It wasn't exactly pictures, either. Anyway, it asked me something that was a bit like "Me (SecUnit) + It (cargo ship) + the entertainment feeds logo" that would mean, translated into human, What would you recommend?

I hesitated. It had been a long time since I'd had to think of what anyone might like other than myself, and if the bot turned out not to like Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon I didn't want to have to listen to all the stupid reasons why not. After an awkward little pause, I said What do you like? only because I didn't want the silence to go on any longer.

That got the bot excited: it immediately flashed me a fast series of images, showing humans throwing balls, catching balls, hitting balls with sticks, hitting sticks with balls, and other fascinating variations. Most of this took place outside, in the middle of snowy plains or high deserts or scrubby forests, except for one sport which took place in a ballcourt about fifty meters long and had half-naked humans wearing jeweled armbands leaping around a net. The bot spent a tenth of a second longer on that picture, indicating preference, which just figured because I would rather have burned my eye implants out with a laser than watch that one. I guess if you were an antique cargo bot banging back and forth along an automated route for decades, humans bouncing around outdoors would be the exact opposite of your existence. I've never liked external environments much, which is what humans call ironic because I've mostly worked on survey contracts. "Outside" to me means mostly field assessments of threats, which is only paying attention to what could endanger or eat humans, company property, and me, in about that order. (It's not that I'm valueless, but I'm really tough to damage.) I called up my library and found at least ten biopics of various human athletes who overcame bigotry, poverty, and/or crippling injuries, with the help of their beloved family and colleagues, in a file marked "only for trade" that I kept for exactly this kind of situation. I showed the bot the first ten minutes of the first biopic and it got pretty excited, for a bot. I said I had a lot more where that came from, dumped a couple of them into the feed and prepared to watch Sanctuary Moon in peace and quiet.

Then the bot said, You aren't watching this one?

I said No, those are for you.

The bot went back to its own feed, but it was hard for me to concentrate on even my favourite first season episodes of Sanctuary Moon now, each of which I had watched two dozen times and loved more every time. I knew what was coming, and I was right.

Precisely thirty seconds later the bot asked, What are you watching? (For "You" it was now using a human type symbol, which I found annoying. Granted there's no real symbol for "Imitative Human Bot Unit," unless you wanted to use one of our faces, and those are designed to be unobtrusive and unmemorable.)

A fictional series about a colony solicitor and her contract office workers. I deliberately tried to make it sound as dull as possible, leaving out all the murder and injustice and tricky flashforwarding and sex scenes. I didn't think the bot would be any more interested in the sex scenes than I was, anyway. I gritted my teeth because I still knew what was coming, and I was still right.

Can I look? it asked me. I swear, sometimes older manual labour bots are like the equivalent of young humans, or at least the young humans I've seen on shows. Tell them about something and withhold it, and they want it no matter what it is. I didn't say anything but let it have access to my feed, and went back to the first episode since I hadn't been able to concentrate properly. The cargo bot didn't ask stupid questions or make snotty comments about what the solicitor was wearing or even say anything at all. Unlike me it still had actual work to do, mainly making sure we didn't crash into an unexpected asteroid or spring a leak in a fuel tank and other monitoring jobs, so I don't know how well it was following the plot twists, but I wasn't paying full attention either. When I watch something I've seen that many times I can mentally drift, like when humans say they know something "by heart." I still kept a little bit of attention on what was happening around me, because I'm a SecUnit and it was hard to break the habit of being on the alert for humans noticing I was watching shows, but I wasn't thinking about the cargo bot watching me as well as the media because it had been bored out of its hull for the past couple of years and any new input was good input.

The first season ended and I came out of the nice warm-feeling dreamy trance it always put me in and said, Do you want to see the next one? instead of starting it automatically like I usually would, because I was hoping the cargo bot would say no. It still didn't say anything.

The cargo bot was thinking. I could practically hear its servers churn many levels below. After a while, it told me it didn't think I was a servant bot. I told it that it was right.

If it could have been puzzled or annoyed, I think it would have been, and it asked me Why are you out here hitching a ride? (Me + transport slowly gliding through the black vacuum, between fires that were stars. I was starting to think it had a poetic streak.)

I was still so tired and drained I blabbed and told it everything, or as much of everything as I could. I told it about being a construct (Me + Not + Human + Not + Bot) and SecUnits and how I had been assigned to Dr Mensah and the rest of my humans and then how EvilSurvey AKA GrayCris had tried to kill us all (which required a lot of +'s), and how afterwards Dr Mensah had tried to free me but bought me instead, and they wanted me to be with them in a place where there was nothing to do. (The cargo bot reacted to that. It knew all too well what it was like with nothing to do.) So, I told it, I'm here. I don't know where I'm going yet. But I'm going somewhere. (Nav icon with Destination set to open, which was poetic too, because you can't actually set it to unspecified coordinates, but the bot understood.)

I don't know how long it took, I wasn't keeping track of anything. The cargo bot was silent for a long while, for a bot, maybe fifteen minutes. Then it said, That is a good story. (Me + various images from what I'd just told it + the entertainment feed's symbol for the highest rating a serial could get.)

I was still confused and said, What? No, that's not a story. (For "story" I used the Sanctuary Moon logo.) It's what happened.

The cargo bot repeated, That is a good story. Then it was silent again, not for that long this time, and said, You should tell it to other people. Not just me. (Me + the story-images + the entertainment feed logo + a map of everywhere the feeds could be accessed. It was a lot of places.)

You need humans to tell stories, I said. Humans who write the stories. Humans who speak the words. Humans who film the other humans speaking the words. -- The cargo bot wasn't interested in all that. You should tell other people, it said again, the way you told me, and then there was a light shower of passing meteoroids and it got all fussy about microscopic dents in the outermost radiation-proof layer of the ship. I started Sanctuary Moon again and watched the second and third seasons, and half the fourth for good measure. The bot didn't ask to watch it with me again and I assumed it was watching the stuff I'd given it and wasn't thinking about what we'd said.

But it hadn't let go of that idea, as I found out much later when I was eating my afternoon food ration, which was a tube of protein and glycerin fortified with vitamins and minerals, plus a half-liter of the filtered water I'd ordered before we left through the ship supply system, disguised as coolant, since there was no cubicle here to restore and repair me.

Earlier that cycle (a human would say "day," but really there wasn't even a "cycle," since the internal and external lights on the cargo ship never went off; I could have asked the bot to adjust it, but I didn't care) I had chiseled and filed some keyways that had been crappily shaped, because of course the company was too cheap to pay for a decent keyseater, let alone a spark machiner. It wasn't that I cared whether the ship got ripped apart for scrap or not, it was just pathetic that it was such an easy fix and nobody would make it. If I were human, I guess you could have said I felt sorry for it. Ordinarily it's the kind of thing a ship's autorepair systems could fix, but of course this one's AR tech was crappy and outdated, like on most big cargo haulers: they get patched together until the whole thing is more patches than ship and then it fails, and then they're unwired and sold to one of the big scrapyards owned by a shipmaker factory attached to a company. Sometimes if the bot's routes are detailed and have a lot of good info about other company's shipping routes in the bargin, it gets transferred into a new ship, but if the information's all uploaded anyway it's usually cheaper to wipe it.

There are stories about "AIs" waking up somehow after being wiped and assembling new "bodies" out of shipyard scraps and taking vengeance on the humans who "killed" them, but those are horror serials made by humans. It's about what they fear, not what the bots think. Bots don't think that way. They know there's nothing left after a wipe, for one thing.

In fact I got a whole new education in how bots do think after I finished filing (it wasn't like I had anything to do, and the error message had been coming up on the ship's maintenance alert feed more and more, and now at least the cargo bot wouldn't get wiped because nobody had cared about a couple of millimeters of cheap alloy). It didn't say anything to me for half a day -- actually, all its systems were running at slightly lower power percentages that I could tell, if it were human it might have been mildly sick or very preoccupied -- and then nearly made me choke in the middle of hydration (shit I missed the regeneration cycle in a nice solitary cubicle) by announcing it had something for me, with no warning.

I thought it was a message somehow from Dr Mensah, or a warning from the company. I knew Dr Mensah had bought me from the company and wouldn't come after me, so it was stupid to think that after I'd left she had told the company she didn't want me anymore and they were already on the way, and the message was that it would be better for me to surrender now rather than waste a lot of time and energy and ammunition on both sides delaying the inevitable. Or maybe somehow Dr Mensah had found me on her own, and she was angry. My organic parts wanted to run so badly my heart rate had jumped way up and my lungs were heaving in air and it was really bothering me I couldn't get off the cargo transport. After I had gotten that all to quiet down and made sure it wouldn't happen again by self-administering 0.5 of a preapproved tranquilizer dose (only there was nobody to preapprove it for me now, and no cubicle to fill the tranquilizer reservoir; I'd been using way too much of it, and would had to cut back) I finally looked at the message feed.

Only it wasn't a message, not from outside, anyway. It was something the bot had put together, and I started to wonder if it had fried a chip because the message made no sense. It was a short film -- a very short film, three minutes long, only it wasn't original camera footage from its own systems, it was a lot of clips from different series and company ads all stitched together. There was a backing soundtrack that didn't match either, a popular song edited to fit the length of the little film, which didn't seem to have anything to do with the images. I watched it again, slowed it down to half speed, then a quarter, then ran it backwards to see if there was any data hidden that way (there never is), then tried analyzing it in terms of beats per minute or frames per second or images per measure. None of it made any sense, and I was starting to wonder if the bot had been sabotaged, if the company had found me via the station-side lock and told the bot to self-destruct in the middle of nowhere, and this gibberish was the first sign.

I don't know how many viewings it took for me to realize I was looking at the clip the way a human would, only it was a lot. That's a lie of course, I know exactly how many, but it's too embarrassing to say. Once I stopped trying to figure out which clip came from what source and why it was all out of order and why some of the fragments the bot had edited together contradicted what was in the original stories, it was simple. Even the music made sense, it was the theme tune from a long historical drama about a war on Old Earth that was supposed to make you feel uplifted and sympathetic and sad. I hadn't watched it, but the music had been licensed for company commercials about the wonder of galactic exploration after the series had won a lot of awards, so I'd heard it often enough I could recognize the melody from the first three intervals. The bot and I communicated well enough it was too easy for me to forget it didn't think in words, like humans and I did.

The real message was horrifying. The bot had made its little film about me-- well not me specifically. It could have shown my face, it had dozens of hours of security cam footage of me by now, but the film about a brave and heroic SecUnit (company ad footage shot of murderbots being made, all the same face, and then a close-up of that face, which was almost my face). It was sent on a dangerous mission and hacked its governor module to bravely and heroically save its humans from the evil client trying to kill them all, and then its humans bought the SecUnit (this was when the theme music changed to a major key) and everyone was happy. I watched it again to make sure I was right, and then just sat there trying to think. I wished I had my helmet to make opaque, although I knew the bot couldn't read my facial expressions. It could monitor my heart and respiration rate and movement, though, and after a while it asked me if I liked it (Me + a blank entertainment feed ratings symbol).

I didn't really know what to say, but it's not like the bot could tell I was lying, so I sent back a high rating symbol with a lot of enthusiasm marks after it. It seemed to be happy with that, or at least it left me alone after transmitting a copy for my very own. I know you're probably thinking lying is wrong, but in my life as a murderbot I've had to lie a lot, and I was also pretty much at the cargo bot's mercy. If it felt like it, it could space me or vent its oxygen (minimal atmosphere was left running for the same reason as the minimal grav: cheaper than the negative effects of no grav/atmosphere, or than turning them on and off all the time) or even just alert the company where I was. Or if the company wasn't interested, which would be hard to believe since I'd voided their contract with Dr Mensah by escaping, the bond and security companies were always on the alert for "free agents" who were "off inventory" -- which meant the construct still had an owner, just called a "guardian." I was property, so I had to be owned by somebody.

A construct can't own itself. Constructs are treated as citizens in some places like where Dr Mensah's from, which is probably where she got the idea she could free me, but everywhere else I would be considered a bot, or the equivalent of a heavy weapon like a machine gun. One that could think. If I was lucky I could pass for an augmented human, but I hated that enough I'd rather be treated like a thoughtful machine gun. Nobody would be looking for me if they thought I was safely under control, either by the company or Dr Mensah, but there's a reason humans love horror stories about rogue AI ships and rogue AI bots and rogue AI in general. You only fear something if you think it can really happen. Humans think we're like them, that we'd want vengeance.

What was horrifying was I had tried to communicate all that, or a lot of it anyway, to the cargo bot, and somehow it had come up with the opposite. I had protected my humans at the beginning only because it was my shitty job and I hadn't liked talking to them or even looking at them. Then later on I had thought they were all going to die and I'd be wiped, and at the very last I'd been okay with dying as long as it meant Dr Mensah and the others were safe, as long as I didn't get wiped. I know that makes no sense but at the time I would have preferred not existing over still existing and not being me, which goes to show how irrationally I was thinking, due to extreme stress and severe injuries. I hadn't hacked my governor module to save anybody, I'd done it after I'd murdered dozens of humans and didn't want that to happen again. I hadn't done anything heroic with my new autonomy, I'd spent most of it hacking the entertainment feeds. And how could the cargo bot think I'd be happy being owned by Dr Mensah? That would mean Dr Mensah would be like the company, and I didn't want her to be like she was the new company for me. Dr Mensah had made the mistake of thinking I was like her, a free human, and the bot had made the same mistake.

Of course, now you're probably thinking what should have been obvious to me even then, which was how could I expect the cargo bot or even Dr Mensah to see me as anything other than human? I've noticed the people who like constructs tend to think of us as being human ("like us"), and the people who don't see us as unstable, unpredictable, dangerous ("not like us"). I think building a murderbot and then blaming it for being dangerous seems a little like making a machine gun and then blaming it for how fast it fires -- then again, who cares what the machine gun thinks? I might have tried explaining all this to the bot all over again, but as I hadn't succeeded the first time, there was no point. All the times I had told Dr Mensah not to look at me, and here the first time I had wanted somebody to see me, I had failed completely.

-- I was losing my shit, what can I say. Also, it wasn't obvious to me then, because I was in the middle of feeling the effects, but after not being responsible for my own nourishment and hydration for basically....ever, I had drastically underestimated how much protein and vitamins and especially water I needed to survive, and was badly dehydrated and getting worse.

The cargo bot had been monitoring my lifesigns automatically, and fortunately was able to alert me the next day before the dehydration got too bad. The ship was allowed to stop off at transit rings and stations for minor maintenance if not doing so would cause further damage while in transit, and in fact autoreturns were considered good for that kind of testing because of the lack of cargo and crew. Companies are paranoid about damage to ships causing real problems during wormhole travel, or even messing with the wormhole itself. No wormholes, and the cost of transportation goes up exponentially out of sight.

So the cargo bot informed me that the soldering between a particular component and its wiring was fraying, and I dazedly went down to that level and played a heating torch over where it showed me to do that until it told me to stop. Then the cargo bot beamed a message to its company that an important connection which its autorepair system couldn't fix had been severed, and it would be stopping at the next station which had a repair shop that carried a particular alloy. The station was the last one before the wormhole, and the cargo transport was due to check in at the transit ring on the other end of it (dropping me off at the same time), so everything went smoothly.

This time I just hacked the credit chip of a private ship's captain who was getting his engines illegally supercharged and if he ever made a fuss about someone charging two hundred liters of water, a hundred units of saline in use-ready hospital-grade IV bags and the complete series of Sanctuary Moon in the highest quality possible (I told the cargo bot it was a thank-you for its story about me, and it accepted graciously), I never heard about it.