Look, I didn’t want to see Amena crying again. For one thing, it was awkward and gross, and for another thing, I guess I sort of liked her and I didn’t want her to be sad.
But after we’d talked to Mensah and the general excitement of seeing the PresAux ship had faded – or, at least, dispersed with the humans as they went off to their own tasks – Amena had gone back to the bunkroom I’d claimed for her.
Which also happened to be the bunkroom I’d claimed for myself.
Obviously, when I walked in and heard sniffling, I regretted that decision.
Amena didn’t see me at first, and I froze in the doorway (in my defense, she’d left the damn thing open), so I could have just turned on my heel and gone back to the argument lounge, and I was about to do exactly that, except that ART’s feed presence suddenly got really intense. Don’t, it told me, and it was using one of its scarier tones, so I listened.
I stayed frozen, but before I could argue, ART, now sounding exasperated, said, as I told you earlier, adolescent humans require attention from their caregivers.
I’m not Amena’s caregiver. Yeah, I knew that wasn’t going to work, even if her actual caregiver was less than an hour away and getting closer all the time.
ART, unsurprisingly, ignored me. She’s had a traumatic experience and possibly needs your help. It will not kill you to check on her.
Unfortunately, that was true. If I hadn’t been killed by uncomfortable emotions yet, I probably wasn’t going to be. Yeah, but the traumatic experience is over. Her mom is coming to get her.
Exactly, said ART. So what is wrong?
Huh. Okay, so that was a good question.
Ask her, ART prodded, menacingly.
I sighed, and stepped into the room. Amena started and looked up, hurriedly scrubbing the back of a hand over her eyes, like that might cover up all the incredibly obvious signs of her crying. “Oh!” she said. “I didn’t know you were –” She gave up and tried a weak smile. Looking at my face through the cameras, I looked pretty… unimpressed? Of course this was the moment I actually managed a neutral expression. Perfect timing as always, Murderbot.
Amena looked miserably down at her hands, which were fidgeting in her lap.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I didn’t see any point in a preamble, but ART pinged me warningly and said, be nice.
I’m trying, okay? Shut up and let me concentrate.
Amena went on fidgeting unhappily for a moment, then put her hands on her upper arms and sort of hugged herself. “It’s stupid,” she said.
What was I supposed to do, disagree? I asked, “why?”
She rolled her eyes, and ART said, that is not comforting.
I shrugged. “You had a traumatic experience. Being upset about it is normal.” I did not say it wasn’t stupid, because that would have been lying, and I figured she’d know that it was a lie.
Oh, great. Now she was laughing at me. Okay, she was smirking at me. Even with her wet face and her puffy eyes and her thick voice. “That’s what I told you. You didn’t like it either.”
“Human emotions are gross and I shouldn’t have to have them if I’m not human,” I told her. “You are human, so you can have all the human emotions you want.”
“I don’t want these,” she said.
“You’re avoiding the question,” I replied, and yes, I know it sounded like something ART would say.
She rolled her eyes again. “I already told you it’s stupid.”
“I already asked why.”
She made a noise that was part snort, part huff, so she was annoyed, but I guess she thought I wouldn’t leave until she told me. That might have been true. I’m not sure. I could have just stood there, looking stern and watching media with ART for hours until she gave in, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. “It’s stupid, because the last few days have sucked, like a lot, and now everything’s over, and my second mom is coming to get me, and now’s when I have –” she stopped herself, looking simultaneously angry and like she was going to start crying again.
“An emotional breakdown?” I suggested. I swear I was not making fun of her. Okay, so maybe I was, a little.
Glaring, she said, “oh, shut up.” She scrubbed her face again, and sighed.
You should sit with her, ART suggested.
Hell no, I retorted.
She finds your physical presence comforting. That seemed extremely unlikely, considering I was, you know, a murderous rogue SecUnit, but I’d had this conversation with ART before, about Tapan, and I didn’t really need to have it again.
Ugh. Fine. I moved to the bunk and sat beside her. Not too close, but probably closer than she was expecting. Closer than I was used to being with humans in non-life-or-death-situations.
She looked at me, eyes widening slightly, like she thought I was acting out of character – which I was, thank you very much, ART, you asshole. Then she sighed again, and, in a small voice that reminded me just how young she was, admitted, “I’m just tired.” She rubbed her arms again. “And I want to go home.” I couldn’t really relate to that, but I wasn’t surprised either. That was pretty much what all humans wanted as soon as they got into trouble. “And I want to see my parents and siblings again. But –”
I had been nodding sympathetically (and looking pretty stupid while doing it, I might add), but this caught me off guard. “But what?” I asked.
She squirmed and didn’t answer right away. I just sat there and waited. ART had said my physical presence was comforting, but right now I was pretty sure it was just forcing her to talk about things she didn’t want to talk about, and I didn’t like that ART had convinced me to do that. Finally, she burst out, “are you going to stay with ART?”
Okay, that really threw me. “What?”
“Are you going to go on that mission with ART, like it asked you to?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said. I had thought ART was giving us space, making sure I was totally focused on Amena, but now its silence was starting to feel suspicious. “What does that have to do with anything?”
She was getting really agitated now, and I did not have the faintest idea why. Um, ART? I asked. A little help?
Just let her talk. For fuck's sake. That was entirely unhelpful.
“If you go, who’s going to look after second mom?” she blurted.
She went on like I hadn’t said anything, waving her hands around the way humans did when they got worked up. “Who’s going to look after me? And the other kids? And Uncle Thiago? And Dr Ratthi and Dr Arada and Dr Overse? And who’s looking after Dr Bharadwaj and Pin-Lee and Gurathin at home right now?” Having apparently run out of humans for me to keep alive, she looked at me accusingly.
“Well, shit, Amena,” I said, because it was the first thing that came into my head, “I can’t be everywhere at once.”
“I know that!” she exclaimed, like I’d said something totally unreasonable. “And ART’s crew needs someone to look after them too! And I want you to look after them. And I want you to stay with ART because you’re friends, and ART needs someone to look after it too!”
This list was getting long, and it was starting to make me anxious. Was I really responsible for that many people? I know ART wasn’t exactly people, but still. Holy shit. And then I thought, Murderbot, you dumbass, you did this to yourself. But all of that was irrelevant, because she was still avoiding my question. “What does this have to do with you having an emotional breakdown?” I asked, and she rolled her eyes even harder than before, so I knew that was the wrong question.
“Because I’m going to miss you!” she practically shouted.
I stared at her. Like, with my actual eyes. It didn’t matter because she was looking at the floor, but I did it.
“And Iris and Turi and Kaede and everyone.” She waved her hand to encompass the rest of the ‘everyone’.
SecUnit. ART’s voice was warning again, but gentler this time, I thought. I don’t know what it was trying to stop me from doing, because I had dropped all my inputs and wasn’t even trying to pick them back up. I wasn’t doing anything, just sitting there, feeling my processes whirring faintly in the background and thinking about – nothing. Well, sort of nothing. Truthfully, if I had been prone to screaming, I would have. That’s what my brain felt like it was doing. And I don’t even know if it was bad screaming. It was just. Yeah. Screaming.
This is why I try to have my emotions in private.
But I could hardly leave after I’d been the one to push my way in here. After ART had made me push my way in here. I had an actual thought for the first time in ten seconds and pinged ART in the feed, angrily. Did you know about this? I demanded.
I hypothesized several possible causes for her distress, and this was one of them, ART said. But I did not know.
Amena was looking at me now, with a funny expression on her face, like she was mad and sad and laughing at me all at once. “You really don’t like emotions,” she said, like this was news to me.
“I told you that,” I said.
“Well,” she said, with a noisy exhale. “ART is right. You’re stupid sometimes.” Now I was the one rolling my eyes. She went on, sounding embarrassed and looking at the floor again. “But I guess that makes sense. But I just think you should know that people like you. I like you. You probably don’t believe me because it seems like I’m usually mad at you, but I do. And I’m – I’m grateful for your help and for keeping me alive and stuff.”
It was so very adolescent and not profound and unlike anything from an emotional moment in a serial, but – shit. It did make my insides feel a little melty.
“ART is too,” she went on. “Grateful, I mean. You saved it. And it’s crew. And it likes you too. And I’ll be happy if you go with it. But also sad. I know why my second mom wanted to bring you home with her.”
I still wasn’t sure I did. I mean, I did. But I also didn’t. Whatever, it was stupid and I wasn’t going to think about it.
She is right. ART’s voice suddenly filled the cabin, and Amena gave me a triumphant smile. I am grateful. And I do like you. As does your crew, and mine, and Three. If you think we all went through so much trouble to rescue you without liking you, you are a bigger idiot than I previously believed.
“Asshole,” I muttered, and Amena groaned, “ART!” in a distinctly annoyed and adolescent tone. But it just sat our combined feed radiating smugness.
After an objective forty minutes and a subjective twenty-three point six seconds of awkward silence, I said, “I’m going to go.”
I hadn’t even stood up yet, but Amena jumped and turned to me, looking alarmed. “No, wait!”
I really needed to be having these emotions in private right now. I grated out, “Why?” and tried really hard not to sound too much like an asshole who really wanted to get away from her.
“Well –” Oh shit. She was giving me a sad face. Almost as bad as Arada’s sad face. Actually, maybe as bad as Arada’s sad face. “Can you stay? Just for a little longer?”
“Okay.” I tried to make my voice as neutral as possible. I’m not sure if it worked because her face got sadder. “What is it now?” I asked.
“Is –” she stopped, and ART’s MedSystem told me her body temperature was rising in her face. I wasn’t sure what it wanted me to do with that information. “Is it okay if I touch you? Just a bit?” I eyed her suspiciously and she threw up her hands. “You can say no.”
That was… weird. I mean, the emotions I was feeling were weird. Most of the time I liked saying no. Actually, most of the time I didn’t say it, I just didn’t do whatever it was the human wanted me to do. But this time… “You can,” I said slowly, and no, I didn’t know why I was saying it. “But no hugging. It’s in my contract.”
“You are an idiot,” she said, but she was smiling and I was so relieved that her sad face was gone that I almost forgot what I’d agreed to do. And then she moved over, just a bit, so that our legs were just barely touching, and she leaned her head over and put it on my shoulder. And then she just… sat there.
I upped my body temperature a little. I wasn’t sure if that had something to do with what MedSystem had been notifying me about (maybe I wasn’t supposed to make her warmer? I had no idea), but it seemed like the right thing to do.
Through ART’s cameras, I could see her frown in puzzlement. “Did you – get warmer?” she asked.
She made a noise like a puff of air escaping, that I think was a kind of laugh. “That’s nice. I wish I could do that.”
I had no clue what to say to that. 'Thanks'? That seemed stupid. 'You’re welcome for me being a freaky SecUnit with weird heating abilities'? That seemed more stupid. 'There's an augment for that'? Even more stupid. So I just didn’t say anything, and Amena just kept sitting there.
Half an hour later, when we got the notification that the Preservation shuttle had docked, she was still there.
She jolted upright, exclaimed, “they’re here!”, and hopped to her feet, pausing to roll the kinks out of her neck. Having her head craned to one side for half an hour couldn’t have been comfortable. She stopped to look at me, her face doing something complicated, then beckoned to me. “Come on!”
“You have dried fluids on your face,” I told her, and she groaned far more dramatically than the situation required.
“Ugh, I hate you,” she complained, which I thought was funny considering what she’d just said. She stomped into the bathroom while I stood up, then poked her head back out. “I didn’t mean that,” she told me, looking sad again.
“I know,” I told her, and for once I wasn’t lying.
In our private feed, ART said, was that so painful?
It was, actually. And… it wasn’t. I caught myself smiling in ART’s cameras, wiped the expression away, and told it, I don’t want to hear about this for the next billion cycles.
That would require you staying alive for the next billion cycles. Given your history and complete lack of self-preservation skills, I do not find that likely.
What, aren’t you going to blow up any more planets for me?
ART was silent for a whole second. I’m not sure if that was good or bad, but I hoped I’d annoyed it. Hey, ART could have some emotional turmoil too. It was only fair.
I didn’t blow up any planets, it said, and yeah, it was definitely annoyed.
Whatever, I told it. But if it was going to say anything else, Amena coming out of the bathroom stopped it. She grinned at me. Aside from her face being slightly puffy, all traces of her earlier despair were gone. “Come on,” she said again. “Let’s go see second mom.”
She bounded out of the bunkroom, and I followed her.