CHAPTER EIGHTY-SIX: MURDERBOT
“Beloved Murderbot, is that you?” Thammah asked the creature in the cage.
It made a low, dangerous growl that had the hair on the back of Matzen’s neck rising. He knew a predator when he saw one. Though his body was mostly under his control at all times, certain reactions were still automatic. And the reaction to this creature most definitely was. Danger, it was telling him. You are in danger.
“I don’t think it’s her unless she thinks growls that make your blood run cold are adorable. It looks like we’re safe from that thing for the moment. Let me scan the room and find our girl,” Davies said as he turned back to his comm.
Matzen lifted an eyebrow at Thammah and asked, “Beloved Murderbot?”
But it was Davies who answered with a snort of amusement, “That would be our Gehenna. I was thinking of calling her Murderball. But that was just her last form.”
“That’s a good one!” Thammah chuckled. “She was the Cleaning Bot of Doom when we first met her. That Terminator form was quite good. Can’t get better than that name though.”
“Damned straight. Terminator for the win on that one.” Davies nodded. “But I think Murderbot is perfect, because it doesn’t rely on the current form she has. God knows what she’ll pick next, because she thinks it’s cute.”
“Cute?” Matzen’s forehead furrowed. “None of these forms sounds as if it would be pleasing in that sort of way.”
“Not to the beholder, but to Gehenna? She’s convinced that people will totally warm up to her forms once they realize her intent behind them.” Thammah shook her head as she smiled amusedly. “She keeps trying. We keep running away in fear and horror.”
“Why does the Pilot not assign her an appropriate form or forms?” Matzen asked. “One that would be pleasing and nonthreatening to the crew in times of peace, but another that would be applicable to war?”
“The Pilot would never do that,” Thammah said. “It would take away some of Gehenna’s personal autonomy.”
“And it would be less fun,” Davies said.
“But this constant changing of forms must be inefficient,” Matzen declared.
“Did he not hear what we said? Autonomy and fun?” Thammah asked Davies.
Davies smiled, but didn’t look up from the comm.
“Are there not more important things during this conflict than autonomy and–and fun?” Matzen asked. “Gehenna is a machine after–”
“Ah! Don’t say it!” Thammah put up a hand as if to physically stop his words.
“But she is–”
“Ah! Don’t go there! Gehenna is so much more than just a machine or anything like that,” Thammah told him with a shake of her head.
If she had the normal long hair of the Thaf’ell and her selchitte there would have been a faint clicking sound as the beads hit one another. It was strange not to hear it or see that long fall of hair. He knew that she had chosen exile when she joined the Pilot’s crew, but her appearance had been this way before then. At least, his routine searches of her had shown this.
He also knew that her family had been killed by the Khul. Some Thaf’ell who had lost everyone did shave their heads and take out their selchitte. It was not out of shame, but grief. Extreme grief. They, too, were dead so they no longer carried their family’s legacy. They intended to fight the Khul until their bodies joined their spirits in death. Was that what she had done? Or was this yet another show of her independence of thought?
While it was natural and logical to be interested in one’s colleagues, especially ones in whom one was entrusting one’s life, he found himself to be too interested in her. He couldn’t seem to stop watching Thammah or wondering about her. Why was she like she was? She had the usual economy of movement of a soldier, but there was an artistic flair to her movements occasionally as if she was dancing instead of simply moving nearer a target. Even now as she told him to not speak of the AI as anything other than a person he found himself following how she let her arms gracefully fall to her sides.
I am distracted by her. I must not allow myself this indulgence.
So Matzen approached the creature in the cage. Better to face death than whatever this was for Thammah. The creature was clearly mechanical. A robot or droid. But it moved like a flesh and blood creature. Which it proved when it surged against the forcefield right at him. Its front paws struck the forcefield and sparks erupted and an electrical current ran over the creature’s body. Thammah had grabbed him by the shoulders the moment it leaped and pulled him back.
“By the gods, Matzen! We don’t know how long the forcefield will hold! It could have been on for thousands of years! Surely, you were briefed on how the Khul breached the Moturin Compound! The shields didn’t hold.” she chastised him.
Her words would have stung more but for the fact that she straightened his uniform from where she’d grabbed him and patted his shoulder.
“It’s just… fascinating,” he said.
And he had no idea if he meant the creature or her. But she took it as the former. She glanced over at it, studying its sleek lines.
“It really is. I wonder what it’s purpose was. The Altaeth must have made it,” she breathed. “Perhaps it represented a creature they encountered in their travels.”
The creature’s tail–all razors and knives–swished through the air and the tip of it appeared to regard them. A red light appeared there and Matzen realized that it really was looking at them. The light grew brighter. It was his turn to grab her. He flung himself on her and took her down to the ground as a blast was emitted from the tail. Luckily, the forcefield held. They looked at one another.
“Thanks,” she said and flashed him a grin.
“No thanks are needed–”
“Matzen, accept the thanks,” she laughed and jumped to her feet.
She offered him a hand up, which he took.
“Then… you are welcome. I believe our distance from the creature is causing it to react aggressively. Perhaps if we move back?” He suggested.
She nodded. Both of them slowly backed away without taking their eyes off the creature. Well, he did twice to look at her.
“It seems to have settled down some,” Thammah remarked as the swishing of the creature’s tail decreased in speed and wildness.
The scar through her eyebrow pulled as she regarded the creature and Matzen found it, too, rather fascinating. Not that he allowed himself but a few seconds to regard her as anything other than a colleague, and one who seemed to find him objectionable. Considering where they both came from, he should find her objectionable. She behaved more like a human than a Thaf’ell. But artists were always out of balance between Xi and Xa. That’s why they only worked, lived and mated among their own class. But here was Thammah as a warrior.
“Gehenna is not our Razor Wolf,” Davies murmured. His left hand lifted to point to a cube approximately the size of two hands wide and two hands tall that levitated above a smooth pedestal about ten feet from them. It was surrounded by crackling blue electricity. There was a thick cord that traveled from the pedestal holding the cube to the forcefield keeping the “Razor Wolf” inside. “She’s in there.”
“That’s a relief! I was worried something was wrong with her programming and she thought we were the enemy,” Thammah said as she crouched down by the floating cube. “So what do we do to free her? You said that chip just had to be near her for her to transfer over. Is she damaged in some way and can’t?”
Davies checked the comm and grimaced. “With our limited ability to connect to the Osiris down here this is an educated guess only, but I think that the shield around the cube is what’s keeping her from transferring to the chip.”
“How do we take down the shield?” Thammah poked at it and it sparked. She drew back her hand quickly and shook it. “Nasty.”
“We’ve got to power it down,” Davies said as the comm offered him a blueprint-like view of the device from its scan. “Taking out that block there by the base should shut it off and free Gehenna.”
“It will not just free Gehenna,” Matzen pointed out.
“What do you mean?” Thammah asked, evidently not having noticed or seen the cord connecting the pedestal to the platform which shielded the creature. He pointed towards it. She leaned forward. “Oh, damn. So we power down the cube, we also power down the cage that holds our decidedly non-friendly Razor Wolf over there?”
“That would seem to be accurate. Unless there is some way to cease the shield around the cube and not the cage.” Matzen looked hopefully at Davies.
“Of course, there isn’t.” Davies tipped his head back. “Why would anyone design something like this?”
“I doubt they ever considered that a rogue AI would be taking shelter in this cube,” Thammah pointed out. “I’m guessing this isn’t a normal storage facility for anything.”
“No, it likely isn’t.” Davies sighed. “Okay, ideas, people? How do we get Gehenna without getting ourselves killed?”
“We could attempt to destroy the Razor Wolf while it is still in its cage,” Matzen suggested.
Thammah scanned the shield. “Ah, it looks like it keeps things in and out. So I’m not sure how we reach the Razor Wolf.”
“Maybe if we overloaded the shield somehow it could affect the creature,” Matzen said.
“We can’t risk overloading Gehenna too. These systems are interconnected,” Davies pointed out.
“Can’t hurt the Murderbot by accident!” Thammah agreed.
“Perhaps I could set these charges around the creature’s cage. They might take it out,” he said.
“And, again, it could harm the cube so another no go.” Davies grimaced.
“Do we just drop the power and fire everything we’ve got at it?” Thammah suggested.
“We don’t have enough room.” Davies glanced around them.
There wasn’t enough space as Davies said. Matzen estimated that the creature could likely leap halfway across any part of the room. It would be on one or more of them in seconds.
Davies was staring at the Razor Wolf. It and it’s tail were staring back. Davies started to type on his comm. The Razor Wolf and the tail looked at the comm. It let out a sound that appeared frustrated. It couldn’t hack the Osiris’ comms anymore than the Osiris could hack the systems down here. Almost immediately a message popped up on his comm from Davies. Thammah was also part of the group chat.
Razor Wolf is listening to us. Or it looks like it is, Davies wrote. So we shouldn’t say anything out loud we don’t want it to know.
Matzen glanced up at the creature. Sure enough it was quite aware of them. Perhaps it had a universal translator. Oral commands were the most efficient way to control anything. The Altaeth would have, undoubtedly, done that.
Why is it so hostile? Thammah remarked. We’ve had tech that hasn’t worked well for us, but this is the first openly hostile creature we’ve encountered.
That you know of, Davies typed back. Whatever your leaders are telling you, I cannot believe that they don’t have some idea what’s down here. In fact, it would make sense if they DID know to keep it from you.
Hostile Altaeth creations would cause more than a little consternation, Thammah agreed. Her forehead furrowed. A creature like this could explain what people have been seeing in the labyrinth all this time.
But it doesn’t leave the labyrinth, right? Davies asked.
I think we would have noticed if a Razor Wolf was stalking the streets. There’s little violence on Haseon, Thammah explained.
The fact that there was so much violence on Earth had been one of the points that many Thaf’ell had used to demonstrate that humanity wasn’t worthy of the stars, let alone access to the Alliance. Now that violence seemed an asset.
Just checking. I find that most repressive regimes hide what they don’t want the people to know as if their lives counted on it, because often they do, Davies replied. Once you lose the Mandate of Heaven, you cannot get it back again.
Mandate of Heaven? Thammah asked.
Chinese political philosophy that justified the rule of kings and emperors and later regimes, too, Davies explained. Loss of control. Bad things happen. Why do we listen to you anyways? That’s sort of the way it goes.
The Thaf’ell are not ruled by a repressive regime. Matzen frowned as he typed this.
Sure you’re not, Davies responded. The problem with chat was that it was easy to hear a tone that was or wasn’t meant. I’m just saying that Nova didn’t exactly tell all of you the problems you were having with getting Altaeth tech, right? Do you honestly think that’s the only thing she was hiding from you?
Matzen let that uncomfortable thought settle. He had always required those he served to prove to him their leadership skills to him before he fully respected them. That hadn’t been a problem under Khoth. He had almost immediately earned Matzen’s respect on the first mission they’d gone on. That had not been true of High Commander Staed.
Staed’s incompetence had so shaken his Xi–not to mention the Khul arriving over Haseon–that he had blindly trusted Jack Parker, because there was simply nothing else to do. He had been right to do so. The human father of the Pilot had led them to a victory no one else could have. Perhaps he should be applying such standards to those above his immediate superiors.
I admit I’m conspiracy-minded, at least considered so among the Thaf’ell, but I’m realizing maybe I’ve been naive, Thammah confessed with a troubled look. I could see them keeping people out of the labyrinth with stories of monsters to hide the truth of what’s down here from the general public.
The Razor Wolves must be down here to defend the technology, Davies mused. If they don’t leave then their programming is to keep something here safe and people away from it.
But why is this one in a cage then? Thammah asked.
I think our Murderbot may be behind that, Davies said with a frown. If that thing had been stalking the hallways, we might never have gotten down here.
But now that we are, what's the plan? Nothing we’ve suggested will work without probably leaving one or more of us dead, Thammah pointed out.
We need to lure the damned thing out into the hallway, Davies texted. While we need to be on the lift at the end of that hallway. We need to set proximity charges all around the route to weaken it or at least slow it down before we let it loose, and we unleash holy hell on it.
Matzen was not familiar with what “holy hell” might be, but he could guess.
That sounds like an acceptable plan. I will start placing charges, Matzen offered.
The Razor Wolf watched him carefully as he left the room while Thammah and Davies arranged to have the power cut remotely. The moment he stepped out into the hallway, his shoulders sagged slightly. The Razer Wolf’s regard, especially its tail’s, was more stressful than he’d realized.
Instead of thinking of the Razor Wolf as an animal–or even a machine–he assumed it was as smart as they were. He hid the charges behind fallen tiles and in the center of pools of water where they might go unnoticed. He had to be careful to not put too many or put them anywhere that would bring more of the ceiling down on the hallways otherwise they might not get a chance to return and retrieve Gehenna. Knowing that there very likely might be more of the Razor Wolves out there, stalking the empty labyrinth hallways had him desiring to get topside as quickly as possible.
Once he had completed his task, Matzen returned to the room where Gehenna and the others were. He would be able to use his comm to set the charges after they had taken their positions on the elevator. Davies and Thammah had set up a small neat little charge that should cut the power, but not affect the cube.
Hopefully, Davies added. I’m counting on Gehenna moving the moment the shield is even weakened.
Are we certain the Razor Wolf will follow us once it is released? Matzen asked.
Oh, yeah, I’m pretty damned sure. It’s practically salivating to chomp us. Davies tipped his head towards the creature.
Though it was a machine, Davies was not wrong that its affect was one of an angry predator that was being taunted by its prey being just out of reach.
Will it suspect a trap? Matzen questioned.
Undoubtedly, but I think it’s aggressive programming is going to override it’s logic and it will come after us, Davies said. Nothing that’s come down here so far has been able to harm it.
Are we ready? Thammah asked. Because I am so ready to get out of here.
Your words reflect the current state of my Xi as well, Matzen admitted.
She playfully jostled his shoulder. Look at you! All emotional and stuff! Nice!
I am just admitting to feeling the emotion, Matzen said.
Exactly. That’s a win, Thammah said.
Let’s head out. I’m going to speak out loud now, Davies said. I want to encourage our friend to follow.
“All right, looks like we need to get more people down here to assist in removing this tech,” Davies said with a clear, loud voice that had the Razor Wolf’s head lifting higher and higher. It was clear that the creature was alarmed by that possibility. “I’m sure we’ll be able to strip this place of its parts when we return. Let’s head to the elevator.”
“Absolutely. We’re definitely going to take this place apart when we get back,” Thammah agreed.
The Razor Wolf’s eyes glowed hotly as it tracked them all to the door and into the hall. They immediately jogged down the hallway.
Good job with the mines. I only glimpsed one or two, Thammah said.
I camouflaged them as best I could. He actually blued.
Thammah lifted her scarred eyebrow, but said nothing.
When they made it to the lift, all three of them took out their draagves and arranged themselves so that each had a clear shot down the hallway, but were as far away from the entrance as possible. They needed as much distance as they could get.
“Shields up,” Davies instructed.
A press of a button had their helmets sliding snugly in place and their shields activating all around them. Matzen wondered how much protection they would give against the Razor Wolf if it got up close and personal with those paws or that tail.
“We should go for its limbs,” Thammah suggested softly. “If it can’t move, it can’t hurt us.”
“Good point,” Davies agreed with a sharp nod.
His HUD changed to precision marksmanship. It would assist him in his aiming. Stims were injected into his bloodstream, which, in fact, made him quicker, but made everything else seem slower to him. There was a hiss as Thammah did the same. Davies did not use any, or so it seemed. But they were not meant for a human system so perhaps it would do more harm than good.
“Setting the proximity charges now,” Matzen said as he pressed a button on his comm. “They are live.”
“Setting off the small charge in the room,” Davies said.
There was a soft explosion followed by a hideous roar that must have come from the Razor Wolf’s throat. Every hair on Matzen’s body stood on end. He heard a sharp intake of breath from Thammah next to him. Only Davies remained silent and, seemingly, unmoved.
The Razor Wolf jumped into the hallway. It slid slightly and its shoulder hit the wall because of its powerful forward momentum. Matzen wondered if he had underestimated its jumping ability.
They all froze, or so it seemed to him on the stims, as the creature righted itself and aimed glowing eyes and tip of tail towards them. The tail immediately began to heat up.
“Get that goddamned tail!” Davies’ words were strung out like beads separated by lengths on a line, but Matzen knew what he wanted before he’d finished the sentence.
He aimed for the creature’s tail. The HUD zeroed in on the weakest part and he squeezed the draagves’ trigger. It let out a steady stream of projectiles that would have hit the spot if the creature had still been there. But despite him being on stims, despite their quick action, the Razor Wolf was quicker.
It had leaped again. It twisted its body in mid-air as the proximity mines went off, avoiding most of the damage. What it did take was minimal as its own shields protected it against the shrapnel.
There was a hail of projectiles aimed at the thing. His HUD had him aiming at the things eyes as those glowed and were hard to miss even with the haze of dust and debris that leaped up into the air from the explosions. But they might have been hitting it with feathers for all the damage to the thing. The Razor Wolf landed outside of the door just a few spans from them.
“The lift! Get it working!” Someone yelled.
The elevator started to rise. The Razor Wolf stared up at him from the platform as he aimed over the edge at it. And then it leaped and scrambled onto the elevator itself.
The three of them kept firing. No one screamed. No one tried to run. No one abandoned the fight even though it was clear to all of them that they had already lost.
We are going to die, Matzen realized with that startling crystal clear clarity of the sunniest of days.
The Razor Wolf roared again. This time not in rage, but in triumph. It knew that they were dead, too. The tail swished. It would cut them all down.
But then it stopped. In mid air. Just froze.
The Razor Wolf’s head arched back and it let out a much more electronic squeal. Its body juddered and jolted. Its head thrashed. Another weak roar and the Razor Wolf collapsed on the lift.
“What the Hell?” Davies muttered. “Is it dead?”
They should have been dead, not the Razor Wolf.
“It doesn’t even look injured!” Thammah exclaimed.
She nudged it with her foot before leaping back.
“We should destroy it now while we have a chance,” Matzen suggested, not sure their weapons could do anything to it even when it was just lying there.
Except it wasn’t just lying there any longer. The eyes were glowing again, except instead of red, they were blue. The Razor Wolf shook its head as it lumbered to its feet. Everyone’s weapon was aimed at the creature’s head. The head that was turning this way and that to stare at them all in seeming amazement.
Suddenly, across his HUD were streams of smiley faces and hearts.
Hi, guys! It’s me! It’s Gehenna! The words followed.
“Murderbot?” Thammah gasped.
Yep! More smileys, hearts and little figures dancing appeared on Matzen’s HUD. I’m so glad to finally see friendly faces again! How is Jace? I can’t connect with him yet!
“How did you–you were supposed to–the chip!” Davies managed to get out.
Oh, yeah, as soon as you turned off that nasty forcefield, I was able to transfer out, Gehenna explained, her tail swishing happily. I could have transferred into the chip, but why would I when there was this cool puppy body for me to use?
“Puppy… oh, thank the gods for you, Gehenna.” Thammah had collapsed onto one knee by the Razor Wolf.
Matzen sagged a bit against the railing as they rose the final floor to the doorway out.
“I would pet you, Gehenna, but you’re a little pointy and slicey,” Thammah told her.
Yeah! I’ve totally got to rework this form so I can have a pettable and then non-pettable version! It’ll be so cool! Everyone will want me to hang with them then! Gehenna enthused. But boy, oh boy, I just want Jace! Is he okay? Tell he’s okay!
“He’s more than okay,” Davies assured her. “He’s anxious to get you back as well. He sent us after you immediately. He would have come himself–”
Oh, no! It’s too dangerous down here for him! I’m glad he didn’t! Gehenna let out a small howl of distress.
“Well, that’s good to know. Did you find out a lot of things, Murderbot?” Thammah asked.
“Everyone,” Davies interrupted, bringing up his draagves as the floor they were stopping at arrived. He had already seen the red splashes and drips. His HUD had filled in the rest.
“Oh, by the gods! What–what happened to them? Another Razor Wolf?” Thammah gasped.
The Moturin guard members–there were three of them–that had been following in their footsteps were all lying half in and out of the doorway. They were all dead.
I don’t think so! Gehenna said as she surged ahead and scanned the bodies. These cuts were made from rahirs. It looks like they were snuck up upon and their throats were slit.
Matzen was aiming his weapon in every direction. “My HUD is not showing any other life signatures anywhere nearby.”
“I have a feeling that they went back to where they came from,” Davies said with a darkened brow.
“Where?” Matzen asked.
Davies grimaced. “The Moturin Compound.”