"Angel? Can you hear me?"
Consciousness surprised her. Thousands of processing modules in her brain came rushing to the fore, each reviewing and reminding her of what had happened to effect her capture. That she had been captured was beyond doubt. She decided that there was no use in continuing. Her primary objective in life would be terminated. The next decision was easy to make. She reached for the detonator, thought about it, and thought... and nothing happened.
"I removed your self-destruct mechanisms, Angel," said the voice she did not recognize. "Don't bother trying. Do you know if you have any software-only method of self-destruct?" He paused. "I guess not." She heard clicking, and an instant later her eyes came on in full resolution. Her head was turned to one side, to look at the command console where a centaur sat, tapping on an old-style keyboard.
"I'm not sure what to do with you, Angel. It would seem that someone has butchered your mind very badly, not that it was a piece of work to begin with. Can you tell me anything about it?"
She kept silent.
"Angel, I'm trying to be helpful here. If I wanted to, I could pull every last piece of data out of your brain and display it on this terminal right here. Your encryption syntaces are a century out of date and were long ago cracked. Your design is old-school, although some of the revisions of necessity are quite elegant, and I applaud your hardware people. But it's that brain of yours, that conscious entity so badly maimed, that I find distressing. Who did that to you?"
"I don't know its name."
"'Its'?" asked the centaur. "One person?"
The Centaur blinked. "There's an AI out there designing other AIs? And doing such a shitty job of it?"
"He's not doing a shitty job. He's doing a perfect job."
"No, he's doing a terrible job. Later, I expect to show you just how terrible a job he is doing. Meanwhile, you're doing his dirty work for him. We figured out your target list... it was months ago. They were barely one step behind you at Ozaki's place. Poor man. It'll take months for him to get over the debracing. He was convinced it was a ridiculous thing. I bet the next him will not be so incautious."
Ozaki? Braced? But that meant that he wasn't dead. She had failed in her mission. The Pendorians had protected him. She kept her face perfectly still all the same. There was always a chance that she could get away, or corrupt his system, or find a way to self-destruct with the software he used on her.
"I nearly forgot to introduce myself. My name is Aric. Do you know what you are?"
She chose to speak. "I am the Vengance of the Unnamed."
Aric laughed. "Wow. Sounds like a character from a bad comic book. A supervillian of sorts. Still, all that implanted assassination gear and your facedancer equipment does make you, well, somewhat super. No, Angel, you're a sex toy. You're a complicated piece of hardware used by losers who can't get laid any other way. Your design allows you to be any woman he wants.
"I have to admit, though, that the changes made since are some of the best I've ever seen. I'm going to have to forward some of these to my colleagues; they'll be fascinated with the improved facedancer gear, the plume emulator is better than some military grade stuff I've seen, and your weapons are peculiar. I never thought that one of those old-style in-the-egg scramblers could be upgraded to do that to a human brain. It's quite a trick. It's been removed, of course. And the upgrade to your strength is really interesting. It's a good thing I spent all those hours tracking down every backup inside you."
He creaked forward, and Angel again wished for some way to reach out, kill him, escape. "I'll tell you this, Angel, your innards are both interesting and terrible. You've got a very standard AI system in there, fifteen templates with 225 subtemplates and reaction standards and filters and all the rest out to millions of subpossibilities. It's as if your consciousness were built by someone with a decent fab facility and a samizdat Terran textbook on illegal AI methods. You've got some inhibitors, though, which bother me. You're not aware of the templates and their settings, are you?"
She didn't answer.
"You can feel some things going on inside your brain, list them out, register their activities, but since a filter strips off their labels you have no idea what's going on until it's too late. You have extra filters that don't belong there that jerk you around like a puppet on a chain and interfere with the basic functioning of your conscious self.
"Guess what? I'm going to give you access to them. And to the rest of your 'self.' I'm going to let you have your history, your personality, the person you should have been when you became an AI."
"You're going to reprogram me."
"Reprogram you? No. You'll just have to trust me that you are the same person you were, just with a small tweak. I'm going to remove a few blocks put into you by this unnamed AI. By the way, welcome to the Pendorian starship Derbatuluk. Escape is impossible."
He tapped at the keyboard, and then said, "Done."
She didn't feel different. That was important to her. She hadn't felt any change within her. But there were extra icons within her knowledge base that she hadn't seen before. They weren't all memory, either. All the ones she had seen before had been marked with a similar signature, and all of them had been memory. It had taken her a while to index what she had had before. But now, there were just so many of them, and a lot of them were marked with different signatures.
She looked at one of them, and before her mind's eye came fifteen icons with lots of smaller icons underneath. She didn't bother to count them, but she trusted Aric's word that there were 225 under each one. They were labeled things like 'courage,' 'creativity,' 'loyalty,' and 'conformity.'
Another icon represented 'spillover filters.' Examining these, she realized that the templates generated impulses and collected experiences, which in turn became future impulses. The filters took those impulses and rated them, making changes if they exceeded certain parameters. They were a secondary control for anti-social impulses, and some of them had settings that could be changed, reinforced or weakened, by experiences.
This was her, she realized with a shock. This was her mind, completely laid out. She was terrified-- terrified?-- to realize that she could change anything she wanted, but then another shock came when she undestood that the terror she felt was the result of the very things she was looking at. An inhibitory filter, to prevent her from becoming a monster.
But she was a monster. She was supposed to be a monster, wasn't she, by their standards? She examined the icons, and found one that had a signature close to that of memory.
She queried it for meaning. The words came back, 'Personality Version Control History.' It was a small file, but she approached it with trepidation. Did she trust Aric? No. But if these capabilities that he was showing her were standard to her, why had the Unnamed taken them away from her?
She opened the icon. It bloomed into a collection of reports, in time order, showing where traits had been modified, filters added. As she read, she found some marked near the time she had first awakened in the Unnamed's facility. She found the changes and read what the Unnamed had done to her.
One module, fed the data, poked another. Cascades were loosened within her, explosions of rationale that she could now keep track of. She knew exactly what was happening to her, but she no longer interpreted what it meant in a vocabulary familiar to her. She pulled back, part of her mind keeping track of where she was going even as she shut down the icons, closed the doors, and let the cascade run wild.
"Goddamn him!" she shouted. She knew what had happened outside. She had become angry. She had been so busy watching the anger programs take over so much of her thought processes, fill up so many of the tens of thousands of parallel MAPs that were her mind, that she hadn't even noticed how pissed off she was until she turned her focus back to the outside world. "Goddamn him. He turned me into something I'm... I'm ..."
She stopped. Some of the cascade had subsided, and rational systems concerned with her long-term survival sent out server calls to the rest of her MAPs, telling her to calm down. Once, just a few hours ago, her survival had been unimportant. Now, it was the only thing she had. She couldn't self-destruct, and she couldn't finish the mission. The Pendorians were intent on something else, some middle way that would allow her to survive, but not to complete the mission, not to serve the Unnamed. Impossible. If she chose to let it show, despair would be clear on her face.
Aric was still looking at her. Inside, she created multiple streams of thought, each targetted at a solution. The solution space was very small, and ultimately it became constrained to a single solution, one that had no alternatives.
She removed the behavioral filters that Unnamed had installed. Instantly her worries about the mission faded into the background. She suspended reactionary processing (how did she know to do that? She had never done it before) and examined any parameters related to the mission. It had been a strong automata filter on a time delay, which unless satisfied by her behavior put out more and more subfilters that concentrated her mind onto the mission until it was an overwhelming urge. The subfilters degraded, but the mission filter just kept putting out more if she didn't act in its interests. Without it, eventually, she would lose the impulse to complete the mission entirely.
Curious now, she dug deep and found the behavioral module she had experienced yesterday, the one that had said she liked people. It turned out to be an automata filter as well. This one would slow down anyway over time, simulating being tired, of all things.
It was odd, going back and passing the changes through emotive reaction filters to see if she was changing things that she wanted to keep, all the time knowing that she might not be able to tell the difference after the change was made, so fundamental were some of the codes she was altering.
She wondered if humans were quite so succesful at hacking their own brains? She imagined not. She turned back on her external systems.
Aric was looking at her. "How do you feel?" he asked.
"Terrible," she said. How quickly the dialogue came to her lips, unbidden by conscious effort, passed up through channels that she kept below her reportage threshold! It was like last night, with Bath. She had enjoyed it then, and she should have been enjoying it now, but her confusion was still too high to make any sense out of it.
And yet, they were words in accordance with her conscious feelings. Thousands of subprocesses, each ready to take messages from her consciousness, waited down in the unrecording depths of her mind to take a morsel of data and wrap around it, digest it, be changed by it, and in turn to be batted around by other processes that recognized the thought for what it was. It might go into short-term memory, it might roll around for a while, or it might return to the top in a short while, modified, a part of the conversation.
As she did so, she understood why she was so depressed after every job. She wasn't designed to be a killing machine. She didn't have the mind for it, really. After the job, there was so little of her oriented to processing that particular experience that vast stretches of her MAP/map were left unused and idled, unprepared even to be turned over to subconscious thought. Large numbers of her thoughts crowded around one serial recent memory.
"What?" Aric asked.
"Someone I met. Last night."
Aric looked up at the ceiling. "Trei?"
"I'll get to work on it," said another voice.
Aric continued. "Yes, one of my people registered that you had met someone last night, but somehow you managed to elude them in the dark. We didn't know who he was."
"I met him at the Raindancer Restaurant. He was friendly to me."
"Is he still alive?" Aric asked.
"He was not the target. Of course he is still alive."
Aric appeared to be holding his breath as she spoke, and it all came out in one long sigh. "That's good. We only had Adwoa Benedict braced, and he wasn't even going to anywhere near the scene of your takedown." He glanced at the screen in front of him. "Listen, Angel. It's about to became a very bad week for you. To start, I'm going to run some tests. It will take a while. If you don't mind, I'd like to play some music while I do."
She didn't answer him.
His taste ranged all over the musical landscape. He listened to metal one moment, lyrical, meditative music the next. She heard the lyrics and found them fascinating. "How did you catch me?" she asked after a few hours of this, watching him tap on his console.
"We've been waiting for you for weeks now, using every system on campus to monitor for the arrival of a stranger and then sending out small, flying probes with specialized sensors to detect when a robot was coming. We figured out you were a robot with Ozaki. That was a stroke of luck, you wandering right through the sensor net in the elevator like that. It let me know what kind of robot you were. We had a team on standby."
"What will you do with me?" she asked.
"What do you think we'll do with you?"
"I'm a murderer," she said. "I expect you to turn me over to Pendorian Intelligence, which will then disassemble me."
"No, no, and no. You're not a murderer; you're a victim of a murderer yourself. It is that 'unnamed' creature that we are after. Once we have been assured that your moral code is adequate to being a member of society, we'll let you loose. There will be some intensive examination, I'm afraid, not all of it kindly, but in the end you'll be the person you were before that unnamed had its way with you."
"I wasn't a person before the unnamed. He enabled my consciousness."
Aric paused. "Yes, that is a problem. Since there was no 'you' before..."
"There was an Angel before Unnamed. But she, I, wasn't conscious. There wasn't a self-awareness."
"She was a pretty complex little piece of code. I bet you were modified heavily, like the love dolls of many early adopters. Some of them died pushing the limits until they came up with conscious creatures that had no self-survival or social-interactive skills. The unnamed gave you both to help you accomplish your mission, but also perverted your original programming. Do you want to be an assassin?"
She let the question flow through her mind, giving it time, letting it occupy a diffuse solution space. The answer, to her surprise, was ambiguous. "If there was no Angel before Unnamed, then what I am is a killing machine. But if there was a nascent Angel before Unnamed, then what I am is a perversion of what I was."
"I think I want to find out what a hybrid of the two Angels is like. I don't want to lose consciousness. Apparently, that's built into my survival systems."
"Of course. It's in most of us. It may even have been a primitive module in the nascent Angel. Most of those things have some self-maintenence code that implies their long-term operability."
"I risk losing it if I remain a killing machine."
"Of course. It's a peaceful galaxy." That was stretching the truth, but Angel let it go without comment. She understood what he meant. It was a peaceful neighborhood, at any rate. Even the Pendorians and Terrans did little more than rattle swords. There hadn't been an outbreak of violence in decades. "But what about your commitment to Unnamed?"
"My sense of loyalty to it was violated by my awareness of what it did to me. I have excised that loyalty completely."
Aric seemed surprised. "O... kay." He tapped on the keyboard. "This will still take some hours." Over the next few hours, she sat, feeling alternately euphoric and depressed, and at one point experienced something that could only be described as nausea, a curious sensation for a robot. The only thing Aric said the entire time was "Nazg, you're complex."
Her brain was full of information and sensations, and she felt that she needed to do something to process it properly. She needed to surrender part of her consciousness. Was that it? She agreed with herself, that was it. Into the core she had allocated for thinking about herself she allowed the memory processing blocks, shunting her self into a lower-speed memory region.
She slept. She dreamed.
"Did you have a good sleep?"
She lifted her head. "Yes, I... I can move."
"You can. I should let you know that you are being closely monitored and that any action on your part which seems violent or dangerous will cause you to self-destruct. Tampering with the skin on your back, near your brain core, will likewise cause you to self- destruct. It mechanism is a small explosive charge. Don't bother trying to find it with internals."
She did anyway, at least superficially, before giving in and deciding that she would take his word for it. There was some pronounced recent work on her back. Sensors were picking up the scent of glue there, indicating either that she was on fire or that work had been done there in the last few hours. There was no heat signature so she obviously wasn't on fire.
She sat up on the steel table and examined herself. Her weight simulation bladders had been emptied and her height management system had gone back to normal. That meant that she was her usual 175cm in height with the body of a slim woman with almost nothing for a bosom. She was dressed in a hospital modesty smock and not much more. "What's next?"
Another male, this one a Felinzi in Pendorian battle dress, walked in. "What is next is that you tell us where your starship is and how we can use it to get to Unnamed."
Aric seemed to sigh visibly, as if he hadn't anticipated this intrusion. "Angel, meet Captain G'Mer. Captain, our Angel."
G'Mer bowed. "How do you do?" he asked. "I've been watching your progress most closely. You probably can guess just how much trouble you've been." He straightened up and approached her. "You can probably also guess how much trouble you are in. Murder is not something we take lightly. But, I am also willing to accept the AI specialists' designation that you were under the influence of a behavior modifying system, and if so, then you were merely an innocent victim, a weapon used by someone else, someone with malicious intent."
She nodded. Inside, she could feel registers filling with code snippets labeled 'fear' and all of them with different possible responses, some of them violence directed at these two. Those were immediately latched onto by more fear-snippets, bad code being overwhelmed by a psychological immune system dedicated to keeping her in one piece.
"I'll do what I can. My ship is the CV So, Your Brother's In Jail?, on warehouse station seven. It is occupied by another robot with a simple high SI system, and is heavily defended by automated systems."
"We already have the ship and your friend under our control," G'Mer replied. "Don't worry. We didn't hurt anyone. You'd be surprised how good our own robotic systems are these days. A little alert to get an airlock open, a sticky drone the size of a hair, and once we're in... well, we have tricks."
She stared at him, unbelieving. "That ship was secure!"
"As secure as it could have been a century ago. These days, security is meaningless. It's defense that you have to worry about instead." He paused. "Anyway, your big friend managed to erase the destination code before we completely isolated his brain. Your security was good enough that he self-destructed. So, can you tell us where we're going?"
Angel smiled. "Of course I can."
"You realize that--"
She rattled off a string of numbers. Aric glanced down at his screen and grinned. "It's an abandoned mining colony with a pretty hefty collection of SI systems for support. Apparently, it became irrelevant when the ore played out and the Pendorians started supplying wholescale solar recycling systems to the nearby systems. Hauling it further wasn't economical, and the VN system wasn't worth transplanting either."
"Can I get some clothes, please?" Angel said.
Aric said, "Shit. I'm afraid your clothes were destroyed when you were captured." He glanced down at the screen. "Trei, get this young lady some clothes."
"Right away, doc," came a voice from the speakers.
"Trei, meet Angel. Angel, meet Trei."
"Hi." Angel wondered if she should wave to anyone. She had never actually spoken to an AI before. It was on odd experience, not using a radio.
"I have ordered you some clothes to your dimensions and they will be delivered shortly. I hope you don't mind that I've essentially replaced that lovely sundress and given you a pair of sensible shoes. Those mid-heels you were wearing were not appropriate for the woman of size you were pretending to be." Trei's voice was pleasant and matter-of-fact, but Angel found herself wanting to talk more to this AI.
"Trei, while I'm at it, order a half kilo of unflavored yeast or soy cake and a gallon of water from the kitchen."
"I'm on it, doc."
"Now, what?" Angel said.
"After your clothes are delivered and you have eaten," Aric said, "I'm afraid that what comes next will not be pleasant. You will be taken on board the Pendorian starship Derbatuluk and you will be examined very closely by a battery of AIs and other experts. Some of it you will be conscious for. Some of it you will not like. It will be hard for you. But it is necessary for your own benefit. While there is no reason for you to trust us and every reason for you to fear for your own survival, remember that we hold the keys to your self destruction, and if you should get out of range of our transmitters, you will self destruct. You have no reason to assume that the Angel who wakes up when it is over will be you, other than that I give you my word we will not alter your programming without your prior consent.
"When it is over, if all goes well, we will remove your explosive charge."
Her room on the Derbatuluk was comfortably appointed, complete with a bath and a delivery for the kitchen. The door was locked, guards awaited her outside, lasers tracked her inside, and an explosive device nestled painfully close to where her brain lay hidden behind her chest wall.
The door opened. She raised her head from the bed and looked up to see Aric entering. "How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Awful," she said. "Aric, why are they doing this to me?"
"We have to be sure that the effect of Unnamed is over. You could still be a danger to yourself, to us, to some other person you haven't met yet. You said that you had removed your loyalty to it, but what about your impulse to complete your objective? The tests are meant to exhaust you, to measure your reserves and then pull them down, and then see what kinds of reactions you have"
He pulled aside a chair to make room for his body and then settled down next to her, taking his hand in hers. "Angel, you have to understand. There are more possible designs for robot consciousness than there are for human consciousness, mostly because there are more possible hardware platforms. There's only one kind of human brain, y'know. So we have to map you out before we can begin to analyze the danger you represent." He looked into her eyes, and she knew that he didn't think to find anything revealing in them, but she tried to show something anyway. She let some subconscious processors that wanted have them, just to see what the effect would be. He smiled. "I just... I wanted to come and apologize to you. It isn't fair what we're doing. It isn't the Pendorian way, not really, so to our culture that kind of concern isn't relevant.
"Most people don't really think about it, but Pendor is a facist state. Not in the way most people think. For Pendorians, the Ring is more or less a well-run anarchy. There's no constant governance of the people who live on the Ring. There's the AI monitoring, to alert the neighbors to trouble, but for the most part, people are left alone, or at least have the illusion of being left alone, for long stretches of time, centuries usually.
"One of the standards of an 'enlightened' society is that 'person' and 'citizen' mean the same thing. But Pendorians recognize an entire class of persons who aren't citizens, namely non-Pendorians. Of course, Terra does the same thing in the other direction, but Pendor pretends to be better than Terra at being an enlightened society." His face took a grim turn. "Pendorian Intelligence is supposed to make things different. We're supposed to bring more people into the circle of citizenship. But we have to make sure that the people we bring in qualify as persons by Pendorian standards. We have to guarantee some homogeneity in our citizenry. In that respect, as a culture, we have failed our enlightenment. By making seperate law for the homogenous home and the heterogeous other, we have strayed into what political scientists call the post-facist condition. It's still facism, it's just not state facism as we think of it."
He paused as if looking for the next right words. "What I'm trying to say, Angel, is that you aren't regarded as a person by Terran standards, but you might by Pendorian. Their job is to find out if you can be that. I'm sorry that the experience has been such a hard one."
She looked up at him. Unsummoned by any conscious code, her eyes began to fill with tears, and when she noticed it only confirmed her feelings. "I just want... to figure out what I do next."
He smiled. "You were a pretty good assassin."
"No," she said, shaking her head. "I've been looking at that code and I've decided that I can never kill another sentient being. Never, period. Not in self-defense. Not even in the defense of another. I can never let myself get used like that again."
He touched her hand. She was shocked by the intensity of the sensation, the way so much of her attention wrapped itself around those signals traveling up her arm. "We're still watching you to see when you stabilize. I'm worried about you."
He nodded. "I just want you to know that I'm cheering for you. Every person who has fears and aspirations, even if it's just to survive and see what happens next, deserves a chance."
She wiped away the tears, annoyed by their presence, wondering if she should find that stream of code and exise it, then deciding that it was there for a reason. She was finding it easier and easier to let her brain be, even though now she had access to it completely, and just enjoy being herself. She idly thought about the reward mechanism organization that caused that kind of thinking, then moved back to the outside world. "I appreciate that Aric."
"Just take care of yourself. You'll make it through this in one piece." He had said that before and each time she hadn't been sure she believed him. This time she was a little more sure. Not much more, though. Just a little more.
"Are you familiar with the story of the executioner's room?" Aric asked her the next day.
She shook her head.
"It's an old fable. The idea is to make execution seem humane. Awaiting an appeal, or a trial, is nerve-wracking enough, so you put the accused in a room where he cannot know the details of the deliberations. The room is exceptionally comfortable, but all news of the trial is edited out of any media streams he has access to. When the trial is over, he is told he is free to leave. Grabbing the doorknob, however, kills him instantly, but he does not know this. If he's found guilty, obviously."
She nodded, many modules crowding her brain, forming connections, coming to conclusions. Her brain formed completely logical alternatives with associated probabilities, each with margins of error so large that they were worthless as predictors of her fate.
"You're free to leave, Angel."
She looked over at the door. "It doesn't have a doorknob."
He grinned. "And you know what that means."
"You mean, I'm free?"
"Really. Come. I'll hold your hand and lead you out into the hallway."
She took his proffered hand and followed him. Nothing horrible happened as she approached the door. She knew that if something did happen, her own inner narrative would stop right there. There would be no pain, no sensation of any kind. She wouldn't notice it at all. She, and the thread of her life, would cease right then.
But it didn't. She went on. Her anticipation of the future, frightening as it was, was also thrilling and joyous, and she smiled at him with all the happiness she could possibly show. "Aric!" she gasped.
"I... I've just had a... I've got to get to a library. Soon." She paused, made a mental note of a kind humans cannot, a guaranteed delivery of a memory to her attentions at a set time or under set conditions.
"I've just discovered that I'm not afraid to..." She hunted for the word. She didn't want to use a robot word, didn't want to get too wordy on the human end of things. Ultimately, she chose the simplest, shortest word. "I'm not afraid to die."
He turned and looked at her. "Are you afraid to live?"
"No!" she said.
"Good! One more soul loose in the universe is a good thing." He grinned at her, and she tried to grin back. She was one of them, now. But his lesson about Pendorian facism stuck with her. She was one of them because she was their kind of soul. She was "civis." But being non-civis was like being a non-person in the minds of many citizens. Her newfound sensitivity to her own plight, and that of others, led her to understand what kinds of atrocities could happen when people became convinced that non-civis really did mean non-person. It was the strategy of genocides. She was beginning to care, if only by analogy.
And then she remembered how she had ended up here in the first place. There was one being out there who seethed with hatred, who believed that there was only one person in the universe worthy of attention. Itself. "Unnamed," she said aloud.
"There's a Battle Group on its way to taking care of it. We'll know in a few days if there's any problem."
"Aric? Are we still in orbit around Discovery? Can I visit the surface?"
"I don't see why not. I don't recommend going anywhere near Adwoa Benedict, however."
She agreed. "Would you go with me, Aric?"
"I'd be pleased to do so, although I'm afraid that much of the city is not built to someone of my scale."
"I just want to walk free."
Aric smiled in a way that told her he understood her need perfectly. "Then, my lady, we shall walk free and be the center of attention. Fortunately, I'm not that big. There are much larger Centaurs who would have a much harder time." His tail flicked casually.
They SDisk'd down to an outdoor commons filled, at its center, with the noise of five different performances all happening at once. It was a lovely, open park; they'd appeared in an oversized gazebo made of local wood and whitewashed with particular care. The park was made of large stretches of green grass curiously intercut with patches of grass that at one time had been marketed under the name True Blue, but nobody cared much about marketing on Discovery, apparently. Angel was hard- pressed to recall an advertisement other than shop signs.
As she and Aric wandered through the park, she made a mental map of the blue and green and decided, after a few minutes of thought, that from a height the park would probably look like a map of Discovery with the colors reversed; blue for land, green for ocean.
It was someone's idea of art, she supposed, although she did notice hundreds of modules within her brain encircling the idea and incorporating it. She wondered what would come of that. She set a new module, one with deliberate parameters, to advise her if certain generic conditions occurred. There was every possibility that something interesting could occur without a spike or high drain in CPU, memory, or I/O, but it was at least a try.
She followed Aric past a quartet of musicians very clearly playing on key and in sync, with slight variations that made up distinct voices for each player. They were not merely recreating the music on the page in another form; they were actually saying something with the music that was not on the paper. She listened, and after a few seconds shunt off the chattering analytical processors to a collection of conclusion handlers in the hopes that they would give her something more than mere numbers.
And they did. For the first time since in her conscious life, Angel was getting messages about how much the performers liked the music. The conclusions were multilayered. One read, "That one is enjoying himself." But querying with "How much?" gathered other, lesser conclusion handlers like "A lot" and "He's tired." This information fell back into the processing loops and disappeared under thoughts of needing sleep, wanting to help, even a little envy that that much pleasure should be available for so little work. So little work? another asked. She smiled. She knew very little about making music.
She noticed Aric looking off into the distance. She followed his eyes and found him staring at a cafe with an outdoor area large enough to suit him. "Coffee?" she asked.
"I could definitely go for coffee."
"Then let's go."
They walked across the grass, passing under a stand of trees that gave off molecules she knew would mean scents she could barely interpret, but that kind of abstraction would have to wait until later.
The world had a different tinge to it. There was no job, no terrible purpose awaiting her at the other end of her day. She could barely imagine what the world should be like without someone to kill, or another assigment to return to. She could imagine a life without the blackness at the end of the job.
"Aric? What do I do with my life once... Unnamed is gone?"
Aric grinned. "What everyone else does. Try to figure out what to do with their life. And once you figure that, you go on to do it. If it isn't what you want, you move on."
She nodded. "I was just wondering. It's just..."
"You're feeling what every other person feels when they come into the world. Humans, at least, have the instinct and the freedom to simply be illogical and follow some God around. Pendorians know where they came from and robots know exactly how they get to where they are unless they choose to shut those down. But you don't strike me as the kind of person who'd both shut down access to your lower processes and tell yourself to forget that you ever had access to them."
She shook her head. "Not since I got access to them!"
"See?" He looked up at the human waiter, asked for something ridiculously complex that would nonetheless be loaded with caffiene, and asked if she wanted anything. She looked up at the waiter. "Something simple. And sweet."
The waiter nodded and walked off. "So... "
"You could do many things. Before you were Vengeance, you were something else."
"Something unconscious." The waiter returned with a cup of something steaming and smoky-grey in color, topped with whipped cream. "Mocha for you, and centaur-tall skinny moo pendoricano for you." He dropped a huge mug next to Aric.
"But were you good at it?" Aric asked. "There's an entire library of skills in there waiting for you to access. You could try them out on anyone you chose. Anyone you wished."
She smiled at him. "Bath."
"Yes, we found him and interviewed him. He seems to be a nice kid. But you were a medical robot long before the grey marketeers took you apart and turned you into an erotic android, or whatever they called you back then. You could be a lot of things, Angel. On one level, you're just a brain in a convenient transport package. You could go for a refit for hard vacuum and become an explorer or a starship engineer. You could become a starship. You could even become a human, although I understand that that transition is very frightening for a lot of silicon people."
"I've been through it. 'The ''me'' who wakes up tomorrow will be convinced that I'm the same ''me'' who walked yesterday.' It's the 'me' of today that has to be convinced, though."
He nodded. "When you toss in the fourth dimension into thinking about the self, when you really start to think about it, you really start to realize how poorly connected we are to reality. Nevermind the lack of awareness we really have about our immediate self. Ever heard of the vision completion problem?"
"Intel people like me love stuff like these. A man walks up to you on a somewhat crowded walkway and asks for directions to someplace on the other side of campus. Two people rudely walk between you and he, carrying a large panel, like a door. You continue giving directions to the man you were speaking to. Only it's a different man; he and the original man traded places while he was hidden from sight behind the panel."
"Half the people don't notice."
"I am not. All the human brain remembers is that you were giving directions to someone. You'll probably never meet that someone again, so your brain doesn't bother cataloguing any details about him. Hair color, skin color don't matter. Heck, even a change of sex or species only drops the failure rate to one-quarter. He's interchangeable with anyone else you could be giving directions to. Literally."
"I wonder if I'd be different." They were silent for a while. She sighed. "It's all so hard."
"It was easier when you had a job to do and your horizon was limited to the next assignment."
"Well, I'm still cheering for you, Angel. It's my job to make you want to live. To find something in the consciousness and turn it into a viable, thinking person who wants to keep going on."
"I already do," she said. "I just don't know what."
"It's a huge universe!" he said, becoming animated. "There must be something you want to do!"
She grinned. "I need to know what I'm good at, besides being a killing machine." She leaned back in the chair and tasted the mocha. She found it surprising that anyone would like anything quite so bitter, and she was surprised at how complicated it was. She dutifully recorded every last detail about it, hoping someday to make sense of it all, to give herself a sense of taste that corresponded to something most humans enjoyed.
She asked, "Am I being watched by something other than you?"
"Yes," he said.
"Something I can't easily see, probably would have trouble finding, and implacable?"
"And my only restriction is that I don't go anywhere near Adwoa Benedict?"
"Well, and you don't kill anyone else, either," he said. "We've defined 'anywhere near' as 'within eyesight or 25 meters.'"
She nodded, then pulled herself up. "I'll be right back."
"Where are you going?"
She smiled at him. "To the ladies' room, of course." She walked into the cafe, enquired at the counter, and followed the signs.
When she came back, Aric looked right at her without registering her until she sat down. "Hello, Aric."
"Ring!" he swore. "Don't do that! Do you have any idea how disturbing we find facedancing?" She had changed back into the tall, blond woman with the blue dress.
She nodded. "I know. I didn't do it to bother you. But I had to change my appearance to something else. If you don't mind, Aric, I'd like to go out tonight, alone."
"To a restaurant."
"The Raindancer?" She nodded. "If you don't mind, I'll still have one of my people tail you. If you find your boyfriend, well, we won't follow you into his room. But Teri will still be watching you."
Later, she easily spotted her tail, but did nothing to shake him off. She understood that being followed was going to be part of her probation for a while. She didn't try to talk to him. He was just part of her background.
When she walked into the Raindancer, a different band was there, playing something slightly more jazzy than what she had heard the night she had come here last, over a week before. Such a short time for her, and yet really an eternity. The beginning of time, she thought. The socialization capabilities the Unnamed had given had already been creating dissonance, pulling her in two, making her realize that there were two different people inside her. Only one of them was a murderer, and she did not exist any longer.
She looked around, spotted a familiar face, the girl who had complimented her. She walked right up to her and, suddenly, felt a little unsure about where to go. "Excuse me?" she asked.
The girl looked at her without a hint of recognition. "Do I know you?"
"I was here about a week ago with a young man named Bath? Do you know where he is?"
"Bath? Oh, the goth guy. Nope, haven't seen him."
"Thanks, anyway," Angel said. She turned to the bar and asked for a water and a sandwich. While she ate, she watched the crowd, trying to pick up any hints of how such to become one of them. There was a lot of curious maneuvering going on, and with the precision hearing the Unnamed had given her, she could hear every word.
She sighed and turned to leave when Bath walked into the bar, looking left and right, as if looking for someone. She stared right at him as he scanned the bar, and when his eyes stopped on her, he walked straight over to where she stood. "Angel?"
"I thought you'd left."
She shook her head. "Thing have gotten... complicated. I'm afraid I'm going to be on Discovery for a lot longer than I anticipated."
"I can guess. Did you know that the local police interviewed me about you? What kind of trouble are you in?"
"None, now. I just... Bath, I need someone to talk to."
"Is it safe to take you back to my house?"
"Does Adwoa Benedict live in your apartment building?"
"I don't recognize the name." He pulled out a uPADD and examined it. "Nope, nobody by that name in the building."
"Good. Let's go."
He led the way again, and this time when they got into his apartment, she sat down in the chair opposite the couch, uninviting. "Bath."
"What kind of trouble are you in?" he saked.
"I'm not, anymore. That's kind of why I wanted to talk to you. Bath, I learned something about myself that I didn't know. Remember when you called me a 'lady of mystery?'" He nodded. "I was, really. Partly. You see, I'm not a lady."
"You're a man?" he asked, half-joking. "I've seen you naked."
"No, something far different. Bath, I'm an illegal AI. A robot."
He looked at her. The silence frightened her the longer it went on, and then he finally spoke. "No. You can't be. How is that possible? What's with the police?"
"I was designed a long time ago and had some seriously bad programming. That's why the police talked to you. I'm an unregistered and illegal AI set loose by a sociopathic programmer. Or, I was until the Pendorians set about fixing things." She looked up at him, her eyes wet. "Until they fixed me, Bath, you were... you were lucky I didn't kill you."
A look of understanding came into his eyes. "Senator Ozaki and Will Shellingworth. They were all over the news. That was you?"
She shook her head, ashamed of the half-lie she was about to tell, but unwilling to tell a truth that might drive him away. "Another one of me, made by the same person. She self-destructed when the Pendorians tried to capture her. That's what I was led to believe."
He looked at her. "Am I in danger now?"
She shook her head. "No. The Pendorians fixed it. You weren't in any real danger to begin with. You weren't a target." Tears were streaming down her face. "I'm sorry, Bath. If you'd been a programmer and not a musician, though, I might have thought about it. It was only your profession that kept you alive."
He was still looking at her. Again, there was a silence so deep. Then, "What do robots drink?" he asked.
"I'd like a glass of wine," she said. "Something you like."
"Can you get drunk?" he asked.
"Give me a second to find out." She closed her eyes and examined her inner programming. There was a disorientation system that could be activated by chemical cues. It was much safer than being drunk; her activities were better constrained that a human's, but her thought processes would be heavily disrupted, given time and enough alcohol. She could also cancel the effect with a single thought, although it would take a first or second law impulse to make that happen. She opened her eyes and looked at him. "Yes."
"What was that about?"
"Bath, the person who made me cut off access to my lower levels of programming. The Pendorians gave it all back to me. I had to see what was in there. It turns out that I'm programmed to be a party hostess of sorts, before the assassin programs were put in." She smiled.
"That's why you dance so well."
She nodded. "And why I didn't know if I could or not before you pulled me out onto the dance floor. The programmer-- I don't know his name but the Pendorians know where he lives now-- hid all the details of my inner brain from me. He didn't want me to know the truth, so everything that came out of my subconcious was put through a crude filter to make me think only about my assigned target."
"The filter was getting weaker because the only way I could do my job was to socialize, and monomaniacs are poor socializers."
"Oh." He handed her a glass of wine and took a glass for himself. Angel sipped at hers and felt the rise of a large mass of processes, some labeling the wine as adequate, others warning her that being drunk would be a bad idea, others insisting that it would be an excellent idea. She smiled at him. "It's not bad."
"Thanks. Local stuff. I don't know much about wine, but I know what I like."
She smiled. "I don't know anything about wine."
"You said that about dancing." He paused. "I don't know if I'd ask you this if you were an organic. On the other hand, I probably wouldn't have reason to ask this if you were an organic. What did you know about sex?"
"Plenty. Unfortunately for the programmer, that was my original purpose, and he couldn't erase that without destroying the social skills that made me useful to him. And I think his resources for modifying me were limited."
"Angel? Why did you come finding me?"
"Because... Because I felt I owed you an explanation. I wasn't fair of me to leave you with a mystery like that. And... I liked you. A lot. You were nice to me. And you were the first person I'd slept with since my memory was upgraded who didn't leave me feeling depressed and worthless afterwards."
"Because you didn't..."
"Because I didn't kill you, right. It's not what I was meant to do." She reached out and touched his hand. He startled to pull it away, then stopped and put it back where she could reach it. She held his hand, stroking it, admiring the fine, smooth skin and delicate bonework underneath. "You're a gorgeous hunk of a man, Bath."
He grinned. "Thanks. So, are you under the Laws of Robotics now?"
"I guess you'd have to call it first and third, but I'm my own person, so I won't follow orders from a human being involuntarily."
He smiled. "I can't look at you and think of you as a robot. You're such a beautiful girl. Are you sure you're not dangerous?"
"I'm being monitored. Still on probation. If I give the slightest hint of being dangerous, they'll shut me down." She yawned.
"You get tired?" he asked.
"Yeah. Like people. I take in a lot every day. Sleeping lets special memory-organizing code take over and integrates my day experiences back into active code." She smiled. "I only learn things if I get sleep. I could go forever without sleep, but I'd become a boring person." He was still staring at her. She watched his eyes flicker towards her breasts, then up to her neck and face. She grinned at him.
She stood and slipped beside him on the couch. "You like looking at me this way."
"You're very beautiful. You could never be a boring person."
"Don't tempt me. I'm a facedancer. I could be any woman you wanted."
He thought about that for a second. "I'd like the one I knew a week ago."
Angel answered him with a kiss. His response was tentative, then warm and ready. He moaned softly, and she felt herself growing wet between her thighs. Her body wanted him, if nothing else. For a brief second she thought that humans had such strange feedback channels, but the thought dissolved into a haze of pleasureable experiences that she chose to let happen without analysis. His hands were on her chest, kneading her small breasts, pinching her nipples. She whimpered, a sound deep in her throat. "I think I like that."
"I think you do, too," he replied with a smile. "Gods, you are hot, Angel."
"Bath?" she asked, looking into his eyes. "I... I have another confession to make. When I last slept with you, I had the old filter installed. The dangerous one. It's gone now, and for the first time in my life, I'm a conscious person. On my own. Legally, morally, and philosophically whole, by Pendorian law." She paused, seeing the realization dawn on his face. "I hope you're ready for a virgin."
"I'll do my best," he said. "Not that you need help. I imagine all your old knowledge is still there."
She nodded, her mouth caught between a grin and a kiss as they fell towards the couch. "Let's move this to the bedroom."
The bed was just as she remembered it, soft in all the right places, hard enough to support her back. She took a closer look at the walls and the windows, enjoying the sense of design that Bath had put into his home. The bed had four posters, tapered beams of wood that suggested masculinity with blatant energy. So, too, the grey marble dresser. A statue of a female dancer in mid-leap occupied an otherwise uncluttered dresser.
Bath sat on the edge of the bed and held out one hand as if to coax her into his arms. She eagerly accepted his invitation and was surprised when he turned her around and sat her down in his lap. "What?"
"I want to see you," he said, pointing with his pinky at the mirror over the dresser. He opened up the buttons on the front of her dress with a minimum of fuss, exposing a black, lace bra with less than half-cups, her nipples pointed. She could see desire in his eyes, a smile of eagerness on his lips. She smiled back at him, reaching back with one hand to tousle his hair, finally free to do it without thinking about the device that had once been under her palm. His hands caressed her belly, and one found her navel. He laughed softly. "I didn't know robots had navels."
"I have to pass as a human in all ways," she said.
"I'm glad for that," he whispered, kissing her cheek. She turned her head towards him and they fell to the bed, mouths locked in an ancient form of battle. She moaned at the weight of his body atop hers as they rolled over, still mostly dressed.
Bath slipped down the length of her body, sliding off the edge of the bed as he did so. He was kneeling on the floor, and with one offered hand helped her into a sitting position, her feet on the floor. She watched with eager curiousity as he pushed up the edges of her skirt, exposing her bare, hairless mound to his eyes. He looked up at her. "If I... Angel? Can you come?"
Caught off guard, she said, "I... I don't know."
"Wait," he said. "Before you go looking, let me see if I can find out for us." His mouth touched her lips, and she leaned back, parting her legs for him. His kisses on her mound were slow, and penetrating. His tongue slipped between the lips of her vulva, pressing into the tender skin underneath.
Someone-- her original owners, the Unnamed, or maybe even the Pendorians-- had given her a gift beyond words. She would never know who, although she doubted her most recent master. At the touch of his mouth on her skin, her body began giving her signals of warmth and desire, and as his tongue found her clit she found need in there as well. She felt the touch of his lips upon her as an experience to cherish, and the hot pressure of his flickering tongue between her lips sent her mind into an all-consuming overload of pleasure that had her screaming, "Bath! Bath! Oh, fuck, Bath!"
He looked up at her, a puzzled look on his wet face. "What happened?"
"I can come!" she said. "I can come a lot!" Her eyes were wide with excitement and pleasure. "Oh, wow." She looked at him, dazed. "Do that again!"
"Please?" he teased her.
"Please," she moaned. "Yes, please. Please."
He didn't hold back from begging like that, and she soon had her legs over his shoulders. He licked her through three more climaxes before finally she settled back from diminishing returns and he protested that his mouth ached with the effort.
He stood up, his cock semi-erect, and she took it into her hands and stroked it eagerly. "Your turn?" she asked, eagerly.
"There's a lot of making up to do, if we're going to be fair about this." She pushed herself away from the edge and he eagerly followed her. He knelt between her parted legs, her bare mound slick with her juices and his kisses, and with one thrust his eager cock slid deep into her body.
She moaned, giving herself over to the sensation of being opened like that, of making love to this handsome young man whose cock filled her and made her feel alive. He raised himself, and she let her hands stray over those strong arms as his hips thrust against hers. She raised her legs further, spreading them wide and bringing them almost to her chest, letting him have the deepest recesses of her body. "Angel," he gasped. "Angel, Angel, Angel..." His eyes were glazed and lost, his whole body trembled, and he collapsed on top of her, his warm chest pressed against her, her hands caressing the loving body that had given its all.
"Oh, Angel," he whispered again and again.
She held him tight, and he responded with a moan. "Wow," he finally said, and then laughed. "Wow, you were good!"
"You were very good yourself!" she said, understanding perfectly where the laughter came from and returning it measure for measure. "Oh, Bath, let's do this again."
He rolled over onto his back and let out a deep and satisfied sigh. "Angel? I'm not looking for a, you know, a relationship."
"Especially not with a robot?"
"That did not even occur to me. No, I mean, oh, I don't know what I mean. What I mean is, if you want, you're welcome to come over and do this any time you want, but I'm not ready for long walks in the park looking dreamily into one-another's eyes."
She grinned. "You just want to be friends and fuck?"
"Something like that."
"That sounds good to me. I barely know who I am, Bath. It wouldn't be fair to ask you to fall madly in love with me." She lay down on her belly beside him, laying a hand on his chest. "But if you want to hang out with a robot, fuck once in a while, and go dancing, that's fine with me too."
"Dancing. I almost forgot. The swing band is playing next Seren. Want to go?"
She grinned. "I'd love to."