Am I making it worse?
I think I’m making it worse.
Everyone's favorite lethal SecUnit is back.
Following the events in Network Effect, the Barish-Estranza corporation has sent rescue ships to a newly colonized planet in peril, as well as additional SecUnits.
But if there’s an ethical corporation out there, Murderbot has yet to find it, and if Barish-Estranza can’t have the planet, they’re sure as hell not leaving without something. If that something just happens to be an entire colony of humans, well, a free workforce is a decent runner-up prize.
But there’s something wrong with Murderbot; it isn’t running within normal operational parameters. ART’s crew and the humans from Preservation are doing everything they can to protect the colonists, but with Barish-Estranza’s SecUnit–heavy persuasion teams, they’re going to have to
hope Murderbot figures out what’s wrong with itself, and fast.
Release date: November 14, 2023
Publisher: Tor Publishing Group
Print pages: 176
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Dr. Bharadwaj told me once that she thought I hated planets because of the whole thing with being considered expendable and the possibility of being abandoned. I told her it was because planets were boring.
Yeah, that was a lie. Objectively, planets are less boring than staring at walls and guarding equipment in a mining installation. But planets tend to be less boring in the bad way.
Planets where you have to investigate the probably-not-empty, possibly-alien-contaminated Pre–Corporation Rim occupation site while wearing an environmental suit instead of armor are especially not boring in the bad way, maybe the worst way.
Especially when you could have been wearing armor, but you decided to be weird about it instead.
I should back up.
File access 47.43 hours earlier
So the next time I get optimistic about something, I want one of you to punch me in the face. Okay, not really, because let’s be real, that would end badly. Maybe remind me to punch myself in the face.
On the team feed, ART said, SecUnit, status report.
Or punch ART in the face. I sent back, I wish I could punch you in the face.
ART said, I wish you could try.
Yes, I know it was just humoring me. And yes, we were still on the stupid alien-contaminated lost colony planet despite the fact that we (me, ART, our humans, but mostly me) really wanted out of this system.
ART added, I still need a status report.
I said, Status: in progress. I’d been sending it drone video plus it had access to my visual data, so it knew I was still currently moving through tumbled rockfall at the foot of a low plateau, with an agricultural planting area to my right. Whatever was planted there was green and taller than me, and providing adequate cover from our currently designated Hostile One.
It was midmorning planetary time and the cloud cover, which was a byproduct of the terraforming, was patchy enough for the sun to come through. DroneScout1 was overhead giving me a vantage point of the ongoing situation, so I could see the router installation on another rise past the far end of the planted field. The building itself was smallish, about the size of one of ART’s shuttles, but it was enclosed in a much bigger protective shell made of artificial stone. It looked like a big cylindrical boulder, placed at the foot of the low plateau, past where it had crumbled into a slope of slabs of rock and actual boulders. (Why artificial stone? Because the dead people from Adamantine Explorations had meant for everything to look pretty once the colony build was complete. I don’t know why that’s more depressing than them doing a shitty job and intending to abandon their colonists, but it just was.)
The thick green flora waved in the slight breeze under the colony’s air bubble, and despite my scan and the drone’s scan, it was making me nervous. At least it was making me nervous for a survival-based reason instead of… redacted.
The front of the installation had an indentation artistically carved to look like a natural curve in the rock, but it was actually shelter for the metal hatch that was currently open. At the moment, it would have been better for the hatch to be closed, but when Ratthi and ART’s humans Iris and Tarik ran in there, they hadn’t had time to close it behind them before Hostile One had jammed one of its long metal limbs through.
Remember those agricultural bots that I said looked scary but were actually harmless? Yes, I was hilariously wrong about that at the time and I hadn’t gotten any less wrong since then.
This ag-bot was only nine meters tall but still covered with spike-like feelers for planting or tilling or whatever. Its lower body had twelve long jointed limbs for moving through thick foliage without crushing plants, and its upper body was a weirdly long curved neck with a small head on top where its main sensors were. It was also batshit out of control, its feed locked, and, according to what Iris had been able to observe before she needed to run like hell, chock-full of alien contamination.
ART said, I need your status, not the mission status.
Ugh, my status.
I wasn’t supposed to come down to the planet again. Me, ART, Mensah, Seth, and Martyn had all made that decision, because of redacted. I had even had an assignment during this day-cycle, sort of. It wasn’t really busywork, but it wasn’t not busywork, either. Karime had an in-person meeting planned with a faction of colonists at the main site habitation, and Three was going with her for security while pretending to be a human (always a fun time) and I was supposed to monitor Three and make sure it knew what to do and to not let ART give it anxiety. (Or more anxiety than it already had on its own.) I had been lying on the bunk in one of ART’s cabins watching The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon (episode 121, on repeat) while waiting for Karime and Three’s shuttle to arrive at the meeting site, when ART had slammed into my feed and said, I need you. ART couldn’t use one of its remaining weaponized pathfinders to take out the agricultural bot. I mean, it could, but that was problematic for a couple of reasons, one being that the pathfinders are jury-rigged bombs—they detonate on command but there’s no way to regulate their impact area. The bot was too close to the router installation and more importantly to the open hatch where the humans were taking shelter.
On the feed, Ratthi said, SecUnit, how are you doing?
I couldn’t get a drone into the router installation without alerting the ag-bot that I was there, but according to the humans they were in the far end of the housing, in a recessed maintenance bay, about three meters from what is apparently the maximum reach of the ag-bot’s… tentacle, poking limb, whatever it’s called. I’m fine, Ratthi. Don’t get any closer to the tentacle.
It’s a growth stimulator, Ratthi said. You don’t have to rush, we’re fine.
You’re not fine, Ratthi, for fuck’s sake. (For however many corporate standard years, all I got from humans was “Run in there now no matter how likely you are to get blown to tiny pieces when a quiet tactical approach has a higher percentage of success” and now it’s “Oh no we’re fine, we can hang out in this objectively terrifying immediately hazardous situation for however long.”)
(I’m just saying that it would be nice for the humans to give me a realistic situation report for once.)
(Dr. Bharadwaj says even good change is stressful.)
ScoutDrone1 hadn’t found a decent vantage point yet for me to get close enough to take a shot. Sort of a shot. The weapon I had was not actually a weapon, it was a recall beacon. (I know. It sounds like the whole retrieval is jacked from the beginning. “The weapon is a recall beacon.” They wouldn’t even pull this off on Sanctuary Moon.)
I had an actual gun, one of ART’s projectile weapons, but we knew from experience how many shots it took to down an enraged ag-bot, and getting up right on its processor for a point-blank impact was not something anybody wanted me to try to attempt, especially me. And shooting it with my onboard energy weapons was not going to work. (ART had altered an environmental suit for me so the sleeves locked in to my weapon ports and I could fire without burning holes through the fabric, but I just didn’t have the capacity to take out this thing.)
I needed something that would work from a distance, and the recall beacon was similar to certain models that the company used, though not nearly as powerful. It was designed to allow a human to hold it during operation and not be exploded into bits, so it could be operated by a landing party in distress. The idea was to get a payload with a transponder high enough in atmosphere that the signal pulse it would broadcast could easily be picked up by a ship in orbit. But you know, if you hit something with that payload at closer range, it’ll knock a really big hole in it.
Back aboard ART, while I was getting into my environmental suit, ART had chosen the recall beacon out of its inventory as the tool most likely to be used in a way it had never been designed to in order to stop a contaminated ag-bot.
This was all just great, since I’d already gotten the shit kicked out of me by an ag-bot before, though that one had been controlled by a higher level of sentient virus. This one was probably just a leftover fragment with a few commands left twining through the bot’s code, like “chase and kill moving human-shaped things.” Iris thought it must have been dormant up to this point, and maybe restoring the routers in this area had woken it up again. (During the intra-colony fighting, one colonist faction had destroyed the feed routers, which we knew now had not been a source of contamination transmission. Not exactly helpful, but of all the weird shit these people had done to each other during the worst of the incident, sabotaging their own routers was low on the list, maybe all the way down into the vaguely rational category.)
By the time I had reached the storage locker where the transponder/bot-buster was kept, Seth was already there. He handed it to me and said, “We’ve only had to use it a couple of times, once on a planet where atmospheric conditions had blocked our comm, and once in an asteroid mining belt where Matteo— It’s a long story.” He scratched the back of his head and added reluctantly, “I know we said you wouldn’t have to go back…”
I didn’t have time for this. I told him, “It’s fine.”
So I’m here now and it’s fine, everyone shut up about it, okay.
ScoutDrone2 had found a good line of sight with cover, approximately twenty meters to my left through the boulders and up onto the ridge a little. I started making my way toward it, but my plan was not giving me great numbers in threat assessment or in the potential for a successful retrieval, which is usually not a metric I look at while in progress. (I don’t want to jinx myself.) But I still felt radically off my game and I was hoping for reassurance rather than statistics that confirmed that I was correct in thinking that everything sucked right now.
ART was right, a hit from the launcher would stop the ag-bot. (It wouldn’t stop a CombatBot, but it might make one reconsider for .03 seconds before it came at you again. A CombatUnit would be unlikely to let you get into position to use a slow-loading tool like this in the first place, but you could definitely kill the shit out of a normal SecUnit with it. Note to self: don’t let the ag-bot take it away from you and shoot you with it. Talk about adding insult to injury.) But I knew how fast the ag-bots could move. I had skimmed through the transponder’s instructional feed module on the shuttle ride down and the launcher was not meant to be used in a hurry, and it only had two reloads.
Yeah, this plan was… not going to work.
(I could see my mistake now. I’d let ART and the humans come up with this idea. They had the right weapon, just the wrong way to use it. I should have been more proactive, but, ugh, redacted.)
I recalled ScoutDrone2 and started back the way I’d come, toward the field and the tall plants. What’s wrong? ART said.
This isn’t going to work. I stuck my calculations of the ag-bot’s speed vs. my speed vs. the launcher’s speed and capacity into a chart and sent it to ART so it wouldn’t keep asking me questions. This was where I could have really used Three for backup, but it was arriving at the main colony site with Karime now and diverting it would mean canceling her meeting, and that was important, and honestly, there was no reason—no nonstupid reason—I shouldn’t be able to handle this. And I already had a new terrible plan. The transponder’s instruction module had helpfully explained that the launcher could also be triggered remotely via a secure feed connection.
This plan was going to look more stupid, but threat assessment liked it better: it got the explosive devices farther away from the trapped humans.
I entered the field, the tall stalks of green plants well above my head, the wind making the little lumpy seed-looking things knock together. This field was actually growing out of the ground, not out of growth-medium racks, so it was easier to get through it. The breeze covered the sound of my environmental suit brushing against the plants. The ground was wet and smelled like the inside of a biome display, even through the environmental suit mask. (Yes, I was wearing it despite the fact that we were in an air bubble so I didn’t need it. It wasn’t like I thought it could protect me from alien contamination, it just felt nice, okay.)
The air movement also made the plants sway, covering my progress as I worked my way through. ScoutDrone1 fed me overhead video so I could make sure my motion wasn’t obvious. I came up on the edge of the field, my vision still blocked by the last few heavy rows of stalks, but Scout-Drone1’s vid and scan showed I had about thirty meters of open sandy ground between me and where the ag-bot was patiently jammed into the router housing, waiting for prey.
I checked the one transponder in the launcher, made sure the other two were primed for remote detonation.
Then I ran forward.
I dropped the first charge fifteen meters out and the second five meters later. (No, they did not go off on impact, I did check that.) I slid to a stop and shouted, “Hey! Over here!” (Yes, I could have been more quippy like in a show, but an ag-bot that’s meant to be controlled via code delivered through a local feed and doesn’t understand more than a limited range of vocal commands is not exactly going to be impressed or intimidated by sarcasm.)
It didn’t react, at least from what I could tell on visual. For 2.3 seconds I thought it would ignore me. Which, having to walk up to it and actually put the transponder on its carapace was not the worst thing that could happen.
Then it ripped its limbs out of the doorway and flung itself at me. Okay, that was not the worst thing that could have happened, either, but it was high on the list.
Bots like this don’t have to turn around—it didn’t have any apertures or sensors in its body that it needed to point at the annoying thing it wanted to kill, it just reversed right out of the installation and lunged. It was really fast, is what I’m saying.
But I’m fast too, and I was moving back even as it surged at me. Running toward the field, I had ScoutDrone1’s video in one input so I saw the ag-bot’s first three legs hit the ground two meters from the first transponder. I only had an estimate of its speed (really fast) so I couldn’t do a precise calculation, but it looked right. I triggered the first transponder.
Thefucker jumped. Itwascutoff fromthefeed, it shouldn’t have been able to pick up my detonation command. It also shouldn’t have been able to take in the visual data of what I had done and interpret it as a trap, but that had to be the alien contamination augmenting its processing capacity. It went ten meters up in the air (ScoutDrone1 almost bought the farm but shot out of the way just in time) and it only lost the tips of two legs instead of taking a disabling blast to its joints. And it became obvious it was aiming to land on me, and there was no way I could get away in time.
Two things happened at once: (1) I threw myself down and rolled to face upward, aiming the launcher with the last transponder at the approximate trajectory the ag-bot was arriving at; and (2) I caught a ping from another SecUnit.
My first thought was What the hell is Three doing here? but less accusatory and more relieved. It would be embarrassing to be rescued by Three, but it wasn’t anything that hadn’t happened before. The next thought was: That can’t be Three. I knew its location as of 5.4 minutes ago, there was no time for it to get here.
Then: Oh shit, it’s Barish-Estranza.
That was why Karime’s meeting was too important to put off, why she needed Three with her, why ART couldn’t/ shouldn’t use its weaponized pathfinders or try to arm a shuttle or anything else that might seem out of capacity for a university’s deep-space mapping transport.
Four corporate standard day cycles after the Preservation responder had shown up with Dr. Mensah to look for us, another Barish-Estranza explorer had arrived, complete with a new complement of at least three SecUnits that we knew of. Since then the B-E task group had been much more active, sending teams to the planet to “evaluate” the situation and talk to the colonists. There was no legal way to keep them from doing it and killing them all was problematic, though don’t think ART hadn’t run those numbers a few times.
The ag-bot plummeted toward me in a controlled fall, and I was about to hit the triggering sequence. Then a quick scatter of large explosive projectiles from off toward the right hit the central part of the bot’s body. Right where its processor would be.
The bot made a clunking noise. Metal shrapnel sprayed out and a couple of limbs flew off. I scrambled out of the way as the torso broke loose and slammed into the ground. Oh, great save, B-E SecUnit, most humans wouldn’t have been able to evade that. What the hell kind of retrieval was that supposed to be?
ART, watching my visual data, said, That was .2 degrees away from a murder attempt.
Important question you might have: Did this SecUnit know I was a SecUnit?
Answer: I fucking hope not.
On the secure team feed, I said, Use the feed for anything you don’t want them to know. Their SecUnit can pick you up on audible from over there. ScoutDrone1 was already in stealth mode and I told it and ScoutDrone2 to head for the nearest shuttle, which was the one the router team had left up on the plateau. The shuttle ART had landed for me was farther out, past the field, out of the ex-ag-bot’s sensor range. I had one backup drone in the pocket of my environmental suit and I told it to go dormant. I had already let go of the launcher and made sure it rolled out of my reach. I was running all my move-like-a-human code, and I had improved it substantially from the first version I’d written. My feed, the team feed, and my connection with ART were all locked down tight, though SecUnits with intact governor modules aren’t free to detect and hack systems like I am. They have to receive a specific order to do it, and most employers are too paranoid to allow that. But this SecUnit (designate: B-E Unit1) was only about four meters away; it might just look at me, know what I was, and report it.
The only thing I could do was confuse it as much as possble. I rolled over and groaned like a human (potentially not a great idea, it sounded embarrassingly fake) and pulled a few clips from Sanctuary Moon of the various scenes where the colony solicitor’s bodyguard had been injured and had to stand up again. On the team feed, ART was talking to Iris. She leaned out of the installation and called out, “Can you ask your SecUnit to fall back, please.”
Without drones, I couldn’t see what it was doing. ART had switched over to Iris’s feed, using her enviro suit camera, and the resolution at this distance wasn’t good. ART needed a field equipment upgrade. Wait, a human would look at it, right?
ART said, Look at it. It’s obvious you’re avoiding it.
Maybe I’m a nervous human who’s afraid of bots, I told ART, but I looked at it anyway.
The SecUnit was walking away, and five humans in the red-brown Barish-Estranza-branded environmental suits were coming toward me/us. They would have a shuttle nearby somewhere, with probably two more humans and possibly one additional SecUnit inside. They weren’t obviously armed, but intel suggested that at least some members of the B-E scout teams regularly carried sidearms while on planet. The Targets/infected colonists had taken weapons off the previous/posthumous B-E explorer scout team.
And they had brought a SecUnit armed with a nonstandard medium-distance bot-busting weapon, better than anything ART currently had on board.
Ratthi ran to me and on our secured team feed I told him, Pretend to help me up.
“Are you okay?” he demanded. I’d restricted my camera views to ART to keep the humans from getting more agitated, but once it was clear I had survived, ART had shared a clip of my close call. Probably so it had someone to be angry about it with. I let Ratthi grab my arm and made it look like he was taking most of my weight as I pushed upright. “That was too close!” He threw a glare toward the Barish-Estranza party. He added on the feed, Was that intentional, do you think?
Maybe. Maybe it’s just a shitty SecUnit, I replied. I was not in a good mood.
Okay, I’m not perfect, I think we all know that by now, but B-E Unit1 should have understood the trajectory situation and used the explosive bolts a beat earlier and then accelerated in to roll me away and shield me from shrapnel. That was what I would have done. Tried to do. There was no way a client-supervisor would have had time to countermand that save. Fucking assholes.
(Obviously this is not actually what I’m upset about, it’s just easier to be angry about B-E Unit1’s fuckup and/or disregard for minimum client safety.)
Safer to be angry about it, ART said on our private connection.
I was not even going to respond to that. ART had told Mensah it wouldn’t push me. Just because its MedSystem was certified for emotional support and trauma recovery it thought it knew everything.
I was on my feet, pretending to have an injured ankle and leaning on Ratthi. Iris had come out and moved forward to meet the lead Barish-Estranza human, and Tarik had stayed with her, which was good. He had also dropped his enviro suit helmet visor before he came out, so it wouldn’t look strange that I still had mine down, which was also good. Just us humans here, some of us like to wear our visors down when we don’t need them to breathe and some don’t, we just like to mix it up.
The B-E humans had their visors up, and we’d seen the lead human before. He was Sub-Supervisor Dellcourt (male/demi) and he was one of the smart ones, which was just how this day was going.
“Thank you for your help,” Iris said, in a way that could be mistaken for politeness by a bot but a human would definitely know there was an undercurrent of fuck you. “Are you going to bill us later?”
Martyn told me that Iris and ART have been interacting since Iris was a new human baby and ART was a new whatever the hell it is and sometimes that is not surprising at all.
Dellcourt said, “We’ll put it on your creditor’s statement,” and chuckled. Iris smiled with a tension in her jaw that indicated gritting teeth.
The billing thing is not actually a joke; Pin-Lee and Turi, who does the accounting for ART, were preparing a counter-bill to present to Barish-Estranza after this was over. (If this was ever over.) These money fights between/with corporations were very common and incredibly boring.
(According to Martyn, ART is of course capable of doing its own accounting, but it always ends up with extra numbers that no one can trace. So now Turi does it and has to keep a hardcopy ledger because otherwise ART would alter their data. No one knew if ART was making up numbers for the hell of it or if these numbers represented actual credit balances that ART was hiding somewhere.)
Still smiling, Dellcourt said, “Can I ask what you are doing here? Besides antagonizing the local inventory?”
Inventory = the ag-bot. The explosive had destroyed its processor, so it was no longer a contamination hazard to humans, which was not a coincidence.
Iris said, “Only if I can ask you what you’re doing here.”
This was some kind of human posturing thing. It was pretty obvious Iris’s task group had been fixing the routers; if the B-E humans had been oblivious, their SecUnit would have called their attention to it. It was also pretty obvious that, considering the specific explosive bolts their SecUnit had been armed with, they had been out looking for contaminated bots.
That’s not encouraging, ART said, which was understating the case dramatically. We were collecting depressing datapoints indicating Barish-Estranza’s intentions all the time.
The first thing the new Barish-Estranza explorer had done was power up to ART and try to intimidate it/us. (I know. I was below 66 percent operating capacity at the time and I thought it was a bad idea.
ART had dropped its main weapon port and transmitted, Targeting lock acquired.
The explorer had replied something to the effect that they didn’t mean to be intimidating and was the widdle academic transport crew scared, but in corporate speak, and ART had replied, It’s so easy for ships to disappear out here.
There was a pause, indicating a scramble to adjust operational parameters, then they made the mistake of trying to intimidate back with something like Oh yeah well you’ll get damaged too, and I am not exactly an expert on nonfictional human interactions but that just obviously wasn’t going to cut it.
ART transmitted, You can make this complicated situation simple for me. Which I can tell you was not any kind of posturing, it 100 percent meant that.
Barish-Estranza must have picked up on that subtext because they backed down and now they think ART is a human commanding officer who’s a giant asshole.)
(ART is a secret from everyone except for the upper level departments at the University of Mihira and New Tideland. Barish-Estranza had no idea what it was dealing with.)
The rest of the B-E group was staring at me and the humans. Overse had said that the B-E corporates always look like they’re trying to figure out how much to sell you for, and she wasn’t wrong. I was glad I had refined my act-like-a-human code because if I had to wing it on my own, I wouldn’t have known what to do with my hands. Iris was doing a good job of trying to keep most of the B-E humans’ attention, but I could tell the SecUnit was looking at me.
I don’t know if Iris had noticed this or not, but she turned in the SecUnit’s direction and said, “Thank you for your help.”
Dellcourt’s expression was startled. “It’s a SecUnit.”
Iris ignored him, and we left.
Excerpted from System Collapse, copyright © 2023 by Martha Wells.
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