Jorie strode down the alley like she meant business, passing unskinned ‘droids without a second glance. Apparently, anyway. She was watching them from beneath the concealing shadow of her hood, you couldn’t not. There was no telling who any of them worked for, if their heads and red-bead eyes had turned in her direction just because she was there or because they were evaluating her, deciding if she fit parameters someone was looking for. Only one made a move in her direction, though, and when she kept going he - they were all ‘he’ - went back to his spot, not having been able to get as good of a look as he’d needed to let his algorithms make a decision.
In her dreams they followed her, then lined the alley walls like guards as she approached the entrance…
A drop of paint hit the concrete by her boot, and she shifted her stride to move farther from that wall. Spiders scuttled up and down, filling sprayed black lines with color. In the beginning the spiders had been built to clean graffiti off the city’s crowded walls - another one of Master E’s little projects - but they’d been hacked almost immediately and had been doing most of the painting themselves ever since. Not on their own, of course, but they could act on instructions transmitted through the city utility’s hi-fi carrier. Nobody risked putting illegal art on the walls on their own anymore, they just smuggled their art to someone with the desired location’s control linkup, handed over money or subs or whatever they had to pay the price, and then the ‘paint broker’ would have his spiders clear off a spot and paint the new design in. Graffiti in a popular spot might only last a few hours or a day; on less-visible walls it could hang around for years. The city didn’t like it, had never liked it, but they couldn’t shut off the hi-fi without shutting down everything that made the city run and Master E thought it was funny and wouldn’t disable the spiders, so their only option was to send someone down to pay whichever broker had spiders around the public buildings and hope nobody came along who could pay him more. Most of the brokers were more than happy to have a steady paystream, of course, and kept the important walls clear…but sometimes turf wars broke out and then all bets were off. And sometimes, someone in the city offices got greedy. She snickered, remembering the last time someone had gone dumb and raided a paint broker instead of paying him. There was still pink paint high up on some of the courthouse walls from that fallout, the crude imagery only slowly being weathered away. No broker in the city had been willing to remove it, for any price. Or the graffiti of his ghost ascending into a spider-populated heaven sprayed above the entrance to the city morgue, either.
The graffiti spelled out her name, asked if she was ready, as she typed in a code to open the heavy door…
She’d finished her job an hour ago, target: terminated, and now she was looking for something else to do. Until later that night, of course, when she’d go back to Club Deep to see if another job was available. Which there would be, sooner and not later, because of who had provided her training - and allowed his mark to be placed on her so she could prove he had, if necessary. Korse preferred to stay in Battery City unless something made it necessary for him to leave, but she’d heard him tell the Skinman over vid that he was ‘sharing the wealth’ by providing training. Not that he provided it free, nobody would, but he was spreading his rep beyond the bounds of his city-kingdom by agreeing to share in the first place. It was effective. Jorie almost never spoke his name aloud, she just lowered one side of her jacket so the mark could be seen and whoever saw it fell into line. She’d only met Korse in person once, and that time only because he’d said she and her sisters needed to be able to truthfully say they’d met him. They didn’t work for him, but they did work according to his rules. They only killed for money. They didn’t disrupt Order - not that there was very much order in EM City to begin with, not downtown anyway. They were not to enter Battery City for any reason. And they weren’t to kill children or one particular human male who went by the name of Party Poison. People who asked them to break one of the Four Rules were to be killed as quickly as was feasible and evidence of both the asking and the kill transmitted to Korse, who would pay for that killing himself.
Inside the room was a cage made of glass, and in that cage was a new sister. Freshly decanted, her hair hanging in limp, damp waves. No identity save self, just innocent wondering…
Jorie and her sisters were different from regular ‘droids, vat-grown from real DNA over and around a customized android framework. They had real-surface eyes. Real hair, real skin. They were technically cyborgs, still banned from many human-only areas, but they could pass if they wanted to. Jorie had wanted to more than a few times, not only for work. She’d get into the downtown library by slipping through the middle of a crowd, using the press of bodies to hide her less-than-human internals from the entry scanners. She’d pretend to slowly read one book while leisurely sucking up several dozen others from the library’s old wi-fi catalog. She hadn’t been back in a while, though. The last time, one of the librarians, an older one, had made a point of approaching her while she was alone and browsing the digital shelves. “They’re going to put in new scanners, your current trick won’t work a month from now,” the woman had said, and responded to Jorie’s look with a shrug. “I remember the…source of your DNA. It was a long time ago.”
Jorie had just blinked. “You know what I am.”
“I know who you look like,” the woman had corrected. “I know how people like you are made. I even know how you got your name, although I don’t know which one it is. He had a list, right?”
The Skinman hadn’t, but the Techman had had a list. The Techman had watched them Learning, then selected one of the approved names for each of them based on what he saw. Jorie had nodded slowly, and the librarian had nodded back. “You probably won’t be able to get back in,” she’d said. “They know some of you sneak in, they don’t like that - they’re afraid of what could happen, if you knew more than just the basics, if you got ‘ideas’. Hence the money spent on new scanners instead of new books. So while you’re in here today, learn all you can.” She handed over a folded slip of paper. “Start there, and keep an eye on the end of the aisle.”
And then she was gone again. Jorie had looked at the paper, then tucked it into her pocket and started browsing in that direction. She’d found the book and made a show of paging through it, and when she’d seen the librarian removing someone from a viewer at the end of the aisle she’d taken the book in that direction. The viewer had been left on, and unlocked. So Jorie had sat down and started to search. To learn. Sucking up old data files by the hundreds.
The new sister’s feet left the cage floor as she began to Learn, datastreams swirling around her. The expression on her face was pure delight. Jorie approached the cage with her hand outstretched, drawn like a moth to a streetlight…
The book was still in the one-room apartment Jorie lived in, rent paid in perpetuity as payment for the job she’d done for the building’s owner. It had been a paper book, not a digital one, and the tracker in it had been removed so Jorie had taken it from the library. As more of a souvenir than anything else. She’d read it, and understood what the librarian had been trying to show her, but unfortunately for the risk the woman had taken it hadn’t been either accurate or applicable. Jorie and her sisters weren’t necrodroids, nor were they pieced-together humans. They had been created exactly as they were, perfect from birth, and they lacked neither purpose nor agency. The Four Rules had imposed structure upon them, limiting their choices up to a point, but Jorie didn’t resent that and she didn’t think any of her sisters had either. Structure was necessary. Order, however, she wasn’t as sure about.
The moment Jorie’s hand touched the digital glass of the cage, the swirls of light shattered and the new sister fell to the ground. She looked up, into Jorie’s horrified eyes, her own eyes full of confusion and hurt…and then she got to her feet and walked to the side of the cage, extending her own hand. Lightning began to crackle in the cage as she touched the glass…and then she screamed in rage and loss and the glass shattered. Lighting ripped at Jorie’s skin, tearing it away, sending her staggering out of the disintegrating room blind and deaf and screaming lightning into the sky as the guarding ‘droids clambered after her with claws extending from their fingers. They did not see the new sister walking out, walking away, a sadness warring with joy in her eyes as she tasted freedom...
Jorie wasn’t certain what the librarian had expected her to do with the viewer, but it probably wasn’t what she’d ended up doing - which was reading the news. Older news. Newer news. News so old it was history. She’d traced the rise of Master E, the birth of EM City, and then back again to find Korse and his rise to power in Battery City. Which had led her to Better Living Industries, a company she’d heard of - everyone had heard of them - but hadn’t cared much about. She and her sisters and the other sibling-sets created the way they had been didn’t require BLI’s proprietary ‘droid batteries, and Master E had passed laws banning the Order-inducing pharmaceuticals also peddled by the company so BLI did not have much of a footprint in EM City. The news had whispered stray traces of rumors that Master E had also had some secret dealings with a Zone company called Dead Pegasus, but Jorie personally hadn’t seen anything wrong with him trading them tech schematics for money, whether he was doing it officially or not.
The wrong she had seen - and had pursued, sucking up and knitting together information the way the ‘they’ who didn’t want non-humans in their libraries had no doubt been afraid of - was what BLI was doing to ‘droids in Battery City. Jorie did not feel kinship with the ‘droids there any more than she did with the ones she saw in the streets of her own city every day, but some of the news stories were bothersome to her. Machines do not experience slavery, only service - designed and built to serve, that is what they do. But the ‘droids in Battery City were described as being enslaved, forced to serve…and sometimes as having souls. Which had led Jorie to investigate the concept of a soul...
That night, the dream was different. The fear-warped memory had righted itself.
She’d never touched the glass. Neither had her sister.
The Techman had been trying to train someone to help him. The new man had put Jorie’s still-wet new sister into the cage, had played with the digital glass, switching through training after training supposedly trying to find the one he wanted but really just exploring them all. The new sister had grown more and more confused and hurt as each time the Learning was stopped before it started, but finally he picked one and let it go. Jorie had watched from her hiding place, entranced, vaguely remembering…and then the lightning had started. Small at first, but quickly growing into a maelstrom of electric fire.
Fire that had consumed the new sister, shattered the cage, and exploded into the building - an old, abandoned shopping center - while Jorie and her other sisters ran for their lives. She remembered pausing on the metal steps, looking back with longing to help…and then being forced to continue up and out of the building, into the world outside, feeling guilty as the sun touched her skin for the first time and she experienced freedom.
Jorie went to Club Deep that night, and the next job was waiting for her. She asked for more, like she had the last two times, and it was given without question. The shadow of Korse loomed long.
Before she’d gone to the club, she’d gotten in touch with another one of her sisters. That was five now: Swiz, Laine, Audrey, Felicia, and Tay, and all in agreement. Seven more to go. The money they saved would be used as pay. They’d go to Battery City, a small army of sister-assassins, kill the people enslaving their souled ‘droid cousins and pay each other for each one.
So far as they were all concerned, there were only Three Rules now.