Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2) - Martha Wells

Chapter One

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