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Fugitive Telemetry

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Fugitive Telemetry

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Author: Martha Wells
Publisher: Publishing, 2021
Series: The Murderbot Diaries: Book 6
Book Type: Novella
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Artificial Intelligence
Space Opera
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(115 reads / 58 ratings)


No, I didn't kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn't dump the body in the station mall.

When Murderbot discovers a dead body on Preservation Station, it knows it is going to have to assist station security to determine who the body is (was), how they were killed (that should be relatively straightforward, at least), and why (because apparently that matters to a lot of people - who knew?) Yes, the unthinkable is about to happen: Murderbot must voluntarily speak to humans! Again!

This story takes place between the end of Exit Strategy and the flashbacks in Network Effect, after the short story "Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory".


Chapter One

THE DEAD HUMAN WAS lying on the deck, on their side, half curled around. A broken feed interface was scattered under the right hand. I've seen a lot of dead humans (I mean, a lot) so I did an initial scan and compared the results to archived data sets, like human body temperatures vs. ambient temperature, lividity, and various other really disgusting things involving fluids that happen when humans die. This was all data I still had in longterm storage. The comparison let me estimate a time of death. I said, "Four hours, approximately."

Dr. Mensah exchanged a look with Senior Officer Indah. Dr. Mensah's expression was dry. Senior Indah looked annoyed, but then she always looked like that when I was around. She said, "How do you know?"

I converted my scan data, my query, and the comparison results into a report that humans could read and sent it to her feed address, with a copy to Mensah. Indah blinked, her gaze turning preoccupied as she read it. Mensah acknowledged the report as received, but kept watching Indah, one eyebrow raised. (I was still using scan and visual to examine the scene, but I had a task group of my new intel drones circling above my head, supplying me with video.)

We were in a junction in the Preservation Station mall, a circular space where three small corridors met, one a short passage that led through to a large secondary main corridor: the Trans Lateral Bypass. (All the corridors here had names, a Preservation tradition that was only mildly annoying.) This was not a well-traveled junction, whatever its name was; it was mostly a shortcut to get from a residential area to a work area. (On this station there was no separation between transient spaces and longterm station housing like on stations in the Corporation Rim, but that wasn't even close to being the weirdest thing about Preservation.)

This junction, and Preservation Station in general, were also weird places for humans to get killed; the threat assessment for both transients and station residents was low anyway, and mostly involved accidents and cases of intoxication-related stupidity/aggression in the port area. In this specific junction, threat assessment for accidental death was even lower, close to null. There was nothing here except the lights in the high ceiling and the standard silver-blue textured wall panels, marked with some old graffiti and drawings that were actually being preserved as part of a station-wide history exhibit. I guess if you were really determined, you could find a way to get yourself killed by exposing the power connectors under the panels and shielding and, I don't know, licking them or something, but this dead human clearly hadn't.

The full station threat assessment for murder was sitting at a baseline 7 percent. (To make it drop lower than that we'd have to be on an uninhabited planet.) (I've never been on a contract on an uninhabited planet because if I was on the planet on a contract then we'd be inhabiting it.) You never found dead humans lying around on the floor like this.

"Well," Indah began, having finally finished reading the report. (I know, it takes humans forever.) "I don't know how accurate this is--"

Another security person walked in, one of the techs who normally worked on checking cargo shipments for biohazards, feed ID Tural. They said, "Our scan analysis says the victim's been dead for about four hours."

Indah sighed. Tech Tural, who had obviously expected this information to be greeted a little more enthusiastically, was confused.

"ID?" I said. The dead human's interface was broken so I couldn't pull anything off it. If whoever did it had been trying to conceal the dead human's identity, were they naively optimistic? Preservation Station kept an identity record and body scan for permanent residents and every disembarking transient passenger, so it shouldn't be that hard to run an identity check. "Known associates?"

Tural glanced at Indah and she nodded for them to answer. They said, "There was no subcutaneous marker or clip or augment or anything else with ID. We've done an initial search on recent arrival passenger lists using physical details, but couldn't come up with anything." At Indah's dissatisfied expression, Tural added, "Without an interface, we have to wait until Medical gets here to do the body scan so we can try to match it with the visitor entry logs."

Indah said, "And Medical isn't here yet because...?"

Tural's face formed an anticipatory wince. "It's preventative health check day at the school and the bot who normally does the mobile body scan is busy with that? It has to move the mobile medical suite they use?"

Humans do the "make it a question so it doesn't sound so bad" thing and it still sounds bad.

Indah did not look pleased. Mensah's mouth twitched in an "I would like to say things but I am not going to" way. Indah said, "Did you tell them this was an emergency?"

Tural said, "Yes, but they said it was an emergency until the onsite medic pronounced the person dead/unrevivable, after that it went to the end of the list of non-emergency things they have to do."

Preservation has to make everything complicated. And that's not a metaphor for my experience here. Okay, yes, it is a metaphor.

Indah's jaw went tight. "This is a murder. If whoever did this kills someone else--"

Mensah cut her off. "I'll call them and explain that it's not an accidental death, and yes, it is an emergency and we need them here now." She looked toward the body again, her brow furrowed. "The council closed the port and deployed the responder as soon as we got the alert, but are you certain this person is--was--a visitor and not a resident?"

The responder was the armed ship currently on picket duty, discouraging raiders from approaching the station and rendering assistance as needed to local and transient shipping. With the port closed, it would be out there keeping any docked or undocked transports from leaving until the council ordered otherwise.

Tural admitted, "Actually no, Councilor. We're just guessing that they're a visitor."

"I see." Mensah's expression was not critical, but I can tell you the face she was making did not indicate that she thought Tural or Indah or anybody in the immediate area was doing a great job. It was obvious Station Security was out of its collective depth here. (At least it was obvious to me.)

Indah must have known that too because she rubbed the bridge of her nose like her head hurt. She was short for a Preservation human, a little lighter brown than Mensah and maybe a little older, but with a solid square build that looked like she could punch someone pretty effectively. That probably wasn't why she was senior security officer, which was more of an admin job. She told Tural, "Just keep trying to make an ID."

Tural left with the air of escaping before things got worse. Mensah's eyebrow was still aimed at Indah and it was getting pointed. (Not really. It's hard to describe, you had to see it.) Indah made a hands-flung-in-the-air gesture and said, "Fine, let's go talk about this."

Mensah led us away from the incident scene and out to the Trans Lateral Bypass. It was wide, with a high arched ceiling that projected a series of holo views of the planet's surface as if you were looking up through a transparent port. It was an offshoot of the main station mall, a thoroughfare to a section of service offices, with branches into supply areas. Traffic was minimal here right now, but a bot that worked for the station was out with a glowing baton, directing humans, augmented humans, and drone delivery floaters away from the junction entrance and Station Security's equipment. The group of security officers standing there tried to pretend they weren't watching us. Mensah's two council assistants who had walked down with us were watching the security officers critically.

The bot could have engaged a privacy shield but Mensah and Indah just stepped behind a large plant biome with giant paddle-shaped leaves that was screening the entrance to a food service place. (A feed marker in multiple languages and a colorful sign in Preservation Standard Nomenclature indicated it was called "Starchy Foods!!!" and noted that it was closed for its cycle rest period.)

It was relatively private, but I had my drones scan for any attempt to focus a listening device on us. Indah faced me and asked, "You have experience at this?"

Watching her via the drones, I kept my gaze on the Starchy Foods!!! sign, which had little dancing figures around it which I guess were supposed to be starchy foods. I said, "With dead humans? Sure."

Mensah's pointed eyebrow was now aimed at me. She tapped my feed for a private connection. I secured it and she sent, Do you think this is GrayCris?

Ugh, maybe? Right now all we had was an anomalous death with no indication of a connection to Mensah or any of my other humans that GrayCris might want to target. I told her, I don't have enough data to make an assessment yet.

Understood. Then she added, I want you to work on this with Station Security. Even if it isn't anything to do with our corporate problems, it's a good opportunity for you.

Double ugh. I told her, They don't want me. (Hey, I don't want me, either, but I'm stuck with me.) And it would be easier for me to investigate on my own, particularly if my investigations led to me having to do things like disposing of abruptly dead GrayCris agents.

(No, I didn't kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn't dump the body in the station mall, for fuck's sake.)

She said, If you want to stay in the Preservation Alliance, improving your relationship with Station Security will help immeasurably. This might lead to them hiring you as a consultant.

Mensah didn't usually take the "this is for your own good, you idiot" tone, so the fact that she had meant she really thought it was a good idea. Also, I'm not an idiot, I knew she was right. But it wasn't like I could leave Preservation yet, anyway, even if I didn't like it and it didn't like me. My threat assessments were still rising steadily. (I had an input on my threat assessment module continuously now so I could get real-time updates instead of just checking it periodically, and yes, it was a constant source of irritation because it reacted to everything. No, it was not helping my anxiety. But it was necessary.)

Station Security had been briefed on the danger from GrayCris but I trusted them as much as they trusted me. (Surprise, it was not very much.) And they had no experience with corporate attacks. Their job was mostly accident first response and maintaining safety equipment and scanning for illegal hazardous cargo, not repelling assassination attempts. They didn't even patrol outside the port.

Indah watched us with an acerbic expression that indicated she knew we were talking privately on the feed. Mensah was still eyebrow-glaring at me so I answered Indah's question. "Yes, I've had experience with investigating suspicious fatalities in controlled circumstances."

Indah's gaze wasn't exactly skeptical. "What controlled circumstances?"

I said, "Isolated work installations."

Her expression turned even more grim. "Corporate slave labor camps."

I said, "Yes, but if we call them that, Marketing and Branding gets angry and we get a power surge through our brains that fries little pieces of our neural tissue."

Indah winced. Mensah folded her arms, her expression a combo of "are you satisfied now" and "get on with it." Indah narrowed her eyes at me. "I know Dr. Mensah wants you involved in this investigation. Are you willing to work with us?"

Okay, I'm not lying about having investigated this kind of thing in the past. It turns out the big danger to humans on any isolated corporate project, whether it's mining or--okay, it's mostly mining. Whatever--the big danger to humans is not raiders, angry human-eating fauna, or rogue SecUnits; it's other humans. They kill each other either accidentally or on purpose and you have to clear that up fast because it jeopardizes the bond and determines whether the company has to pay out damages on it or not. SecUnits are ordered by the HubSystem to gather video and audio evidence because nobody trusts the human supervisors, including the other human supervisors.

I had dealt with some instances of humans killing each other surreptitiously instead of, for example, in front of the entire mess hall during food service, but most had been pre-memory wipe(s) so the details were fuzzy. It was better to prevent them from murdering each other in the first place, by keeping watch for aggressive or destructive behaviors, things like trying to sabotage another human's life support pack or poison their water supply. Then you put in a notice to MedSystem to call them in for an evaluation, or reported to the supervisor who moved them to a different section so it would be someone else's problem if MedSystem couldn't convince them to stop. But whatever, the idea was to keep it from getting that far.

(And I know it sounds like they were all just running around trying to murder each other on these contracts but really, it was more like it had been with the poor humans on the transport I used to get to HaveRatton, who thought I was an augmented human security consultant. They had been complaining and fighting out of frustration and fear about going into contract labor. Actually being in contract labor just made it that much worse.)

I had archives of everything that had happened since I hacked my governor module, but I hadn't had as much relevant experience in that time. But what I did have were thousands of hours of category mystery media, so I had a lot of theoretical knowledge that was possibly anywhere from 60 to 70 percent inaccurate shit.

But Mensah was right, butting in on the investigation was the best way to find out if the anomalous death was a sign of GrayCris-related activity on station. I said, "Yes. Will you increase security around Dr. Mensah to the specifications I stipulated?" Yeah, that had been an ongoing argument.

Copyright © 2021 by Martha Wells


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