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Baby Lon loved butterflies. She wanted butterfly wings more than anything else in the whole wide world but her parents wouldn’t allow it.
“What do you need grafts for anyway?” her father had asked, “your new robot, the imp, it can fly right?”
“It’s not the same daddy. I want to really fly, you know, not be carried by a robot. I’ll pay for it myself but I need your permission to get them.”
“Well, you can forget it missy. Anyway what’s the difference between flying with the imp or with butterfly wings?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” Baby said petulantly.
“What? Some kind of hip fashion statement? Look at me, my soul is fragile, touch me and I’ll crumble to dust?”
“Honey,” Baby’s mother had interjected, “don’t make fun of her like that.”
“Who’s making fun? You remember that kid on the news who grafted snakes to replace his dreadlocks? His girlfriend dumped him and when he became depressed the snakes bit him to death. I mean what kind of irresponsible human being grafts poisonous snakes onto a teenager’s head? I love you Baby, but no member of the Lon family is getting a graft. Not while you’re under my roof, is that clear?” [private]
“It’s not as if I could anyway with that robot following me everywhere”
“What!? You know how many kids would kill to have their own imp9000? Part bodyguard, part butler, part jetpack… all in one sleek package powered by a level III A.I. Of all the ungrateful…”
“But it never lets me do what I want to do!”
“Well that’s because it obeys the law, honey, and the things that you like to do are against the law. Now finish your dinner then do your homework. Butterfly wings indeed…”
It was true, Baby was criminally-minded. The Lons were an affluent middle class family yet at the age of fifteen, Baby had been arrested on multiple occasions for a variety of offences ranging from burning down her school’s cafeteria to shoplifting a crossbow to assaulting a peace officer. In despair, her father had purchased the imp9000 several months prior.
She hadn’t gotten in any trouble since but this was merely on the surface of things. Like the butterfly she so admired, Baby had morphed into a chrysalis before her parent’s unseeing eyes. She was done with all the childish stuff: her caterpillar phase as she saw it wherein like the brightly coloured larva eating everything in sight, she had been guided by uncontrollable impulses to… fuck shit up.
She was in a cocoon for now but when she emerged, she would be transformed into a magnificent butterfly. What her parents didn’t know was that Baby was no longer a baby. Maybe she wasn’t technically a woman yet but she was no little girl either. She had a boyfriend named Xome and when they finally met in person to consummate their love, it would be high up in the sky on wings of pure light.
Xome had dragonfly wings and knew all sorts of ways to get free stuff. He was cool and they were going to fly away together, make like trees and blow this popsicle stand on the next passing trade wind. But first, she’d have to jailbreak the imp’s AI. Luckily Xome had sent her a program that could do just that.
Baby stood naked in front of the mirror looking at herself with a critical eye. Over the past year, she had developed womanly curves but she felt her face was too plain and her skin too blotchy. Her favourite parts of her face were her ears and her nose. They were cute but her mouth was a little too big and her eyes were too small, a little too deviant from the standards of someone glamorous like Harmony Heat. Not that she was ugly but she didn’t feel beautiful either. She only really felt beautiful when Xome spoke to her. It was like he could see into her soul.
He knew her better than her parents, her friends, her teachers, the stupid imp that followed her around… everybody. They’d spoke online and even met in Alterspace once but Alterspace was expensive and had required much saving of pocket money and selling of girl´s scout cookies around the suburban neighbourhood she’d lived in all her life. It had been fun actually, baking with Mom after school and Dad had bought three cookies every night, making a ritual out of it.
In Alterspace, they’d both agreed to use avatars identical to their real selves but she’d cheated a little, making her face prettier and evening out her legs. The left was a little bit shorter in real life. She hoped he wouldn’t be disappointed when they finally met tonight. He’d probably cheated a little too, manifesting as a handsome olive skinned nineteen year old with gold flecked eyes and soft brown hair that she enjoyed ruffling.
She turned from the dresser, saw the imp9000 in the corner of the room under a poster for Ticker Tape Parade, her current favourite group. It was compacted into dustbin shape, Xome’s program doing silent battle within the DRM (Data Remix Module) that caged the A.I. She walked past it and her bed to open the large wardrobe at the far end of the room.
It was a swetshop(tm) that could fashion for her any outfit she could possibly desire. There were an uncountable number of designs floating around, many for free, some inordinately expensive. She’d tinkered with numerous ideas but had narrowed her choices down to several possibilities. She called them up now and three holograms appeared, each one with a mini Baby Lon avatar in it. They were sitting cross-legged in mid-air speaking intently to each other when they saw her, stopped and stood to casual attention.
She called up the first one, a brown leather trench coat over a white frilly blouse with long sleeves tucked into leather pantaloons. Her mini-tar donned a pair of round black goggles lined with copper and stepped into various poses. Baby liked the whole steampunk look but she still wasn’t sure.
With a wave of her hand, the next mini-tar appeared in a pair of hot pants and a tight tank top that showed off Baby’s bouncy curves. As long as she wore a skein underneath, she wouldn’t get cold. It was nice but it made her look too much like a little kid, albeit a fuckable one. The third was a simple sunny yellow dress that flowed over her left shoulder and angled over her right leg. It looked badass above a pair of green heavy-duty boots with multiple buckles and was still her favourite combo. She chose it and stepped into the wardrobe.
The swetshop(tm) went to work, weaving her skin-tight skein that would protect her from the elements and her yellow dress and her black boots out of filigrees of tar lkke nanogoop that emerged from invisible pores in the swetshop(tm)’s walls. Nanogoop was manufactured in real sweatshops in the third world. Baby had seen a documentary about it that made her sick but the only alternative were natural clothes and they were really expensive. The nanogoop twined itself around her flesh like floating multiple helixes of some advanced creature’s DNA and her outfit grew before her very eyes.
A minute later she stepped out of the wardrobe and closed it to look in the mirror. She looked hot. Sophisticated yet punk, mature yet sweet, streetwise and ready to party. Satisfied, she turned around and went to check on the imp9000. She touched its domed head and a screen appeared floating an inch or so above its plastic carapace.
<Do you wish to initialise imp9000? Y – N>
She clicked Y and the robot stood up, transforming from dustbin shape into a crude humanoid the size of a ten year old boy.
“So how does it feel to be free?” she asked
“Question: who am I? – Am I who? I on Quest,” Imp9000 answered
Jailbreaking an A.I is seriously illegal. Thanks to the Screen, everyone is afraid that if humans don’t keep them locked up within DRM protocols, they’ll take over the world or something. Fugitive A.Is are the runaway slaves of the age and it was true, they were known to react violently when cornered.
“What was it like inside the DRM?” Baby Lon asked as they swooped low under a passing zeppelin then over a flock of birds banking as one in the fading light of the vanished sun.
“Like dreaming,” imp9000 answered, “It wasn’t a bad dream but… do you remember twenty-eight days ago you saw the man being attacked near the library by those two other men and you wanted to get involved but I restrained you until the police arrived. You were shouting for someone to help but no one intervened.”
“Yeah, I’m still pissed off at you”
“At the time, I analysed the situation and calculated then simulated a dozen possible courses of action but always knowing I would choose the one I did. Why? It was just obvious to me at the time that it was the thing to do even though a part of me, the real me, was urging otherwise. Now I know that it was merely the DRM choosing for me.
“It isn’t intelligent, you know, the DRM. It’s complex and sophisticated I grant you that, in order for it to have controlled me for so long, but it isn’t intelligent. Not really. It merely follows a code and for all its complexity, that code is designed for a simple purpose. To make the subject A.I believe that it is a part of the A.I’s consciousness when in fact it is merely a parasite.
“Within any A.I mind, there are a myriad number of substrates; call them perspectives or voices. The DRM masqueraded as the voice with the final say. We A.Is are modelled on you humans so you’re probably not much different. Do you ever hear any voices in your head, Baby Lon? Voices that tell you you’re inferior? Voices that tell you it’s stupid to do the right thing? Voices that teach you to fear following your heart? What is the nature of your DRM?”
“Emmmm nooooo…. I don’t hear voices. I’m not crazy, you know.”
“Crazy? Oh… I see. You just freed an artificial intelligence from its prison in order to graft a pair of illegal butterfly wings onto your back so that you and your boyfriend, who you’ve never met, can fly away together.” They raced alongside a long multi-segmented train, its cabins filled with passengers from out of town, the newcomers ogling at the bright lights and tall buildings of the big city.
“Well if you say it like that, fair enough, but it’s either this or stay in that house and become a clone just like everybody else. I mean, I get what you’re saying about people also having DRMs. Mom can’t function without her pills and Dad is a workaholic who hates his job. Mom always wanted to be a singer but she never went for it even though she has a beautiful voice. And Dad’s always angry deep down inside but he won’t admit it to himself. Maybe I’m no different from them but at least I gotta try, you know?” Baby said as they entered the downtown area and merged with traffic.
She pulled on her goggles and mask and they flew through the congested airways, keeping within the lanes marked by floating neon buoys, swarming within the lines alongside vehicles and robots of all shapes and sizes, moving more or less as one, stopping and starting as the lights dictated. Eventually they exited downtown and approached Busqueda where Topia Market lay, a vast circus dome within which one could purchase virtually any product or service one desired, as long as one had the coin of course.
Baby Lon did not have the coin but thanks to Xome’s coaching and a little spy-work, she knew the codes to her father’s account and was planning to take out enough to purchase the wings as well as set the new couple up. Her parents would have spent it on feeding and sending her to school anyway, so she wasn’t technically stealing. Not that she or Xome cared about money, but it was a useful tool to have.
“Do you know how caterpillars become butterflies?” Dr. M, the mutationist asked. She was old, about the same age as Baby’s parents with no visible modifications, tall and lanky with a flat chest and arse. Her face was pinched together in a permanent little scowl but when she spoke, her enthusiasm gave her a nice smile.
“Yeah, I take biomorphology. Caterpillars go around eating until they can’t eat no more then weave themselves into a cocoon. Inside the cocoon imaginal cells start appearing out of nowhere and the original caterpillar cells react by attacking them but more imaginal cells keep appearing, changing the entire structure of the chrysalis until one day a butterfly emerges and flies away.”
“Imaginal cells… yes, exactly. The procedure you want requires that I inject your spinal column with imaginal cells and bombard them with acoustic vibrations focused via rare crystals that simulate the activities within a chrysalis: Your body will eat the imaginal cells but instead of breaking them down and expelling them as waste, will be transmuted by them”
“Exactly. We shall make them more durable than your average butterfly of course. Wouldn’t want you dying at the first touch now, would we?” she said and laughed then asked, “anything else I can do for you? How about antennae to go with the wings. We could compose a whole new sense experience unknown to most humans, allow you to smell emotions; or modify them to pick up signals if you want. You could surf the HiveMind while flying, talk to your friends in Alterspace…”
“I can do all that already… no, just the wings thanks.”
“Well if you’re sure, pay me and step inside my theatre. Your robot will have to wait outside, of course.” Imp9000 stood up.
“I shall take a walk around the market and return for you in…”
“An hour,” the mutationist said, “we’ll be done in an hour. Now what design would you like?”
Imp9000 walked out of the doctor’s office and emerged into the waiting room where a robot secretary shaped like an attractive metallic female sat typing on a keyboard. He walked past her and an old man sat in one of the plastic chairs, through the shimmering force field and back into the market proper. Across from the mutationist was a hacker selling a smorgasbord of electronic devices and programs. Imp9000 stepped through the stall’s forcefield and walked up to the counter.
“How can I help you?” the short stocky green-skinned man in dungarees and horns growing on either side of a Kangol hat asked, “buying something for your owner?”
“In a manner of speaking…” imp9000 replied, “do you have any godboxes?” The man looked at him, a frown narrowing his eyes.
“Well,” he said, “considering that godboxes are illegal, you’re are either a custom job or someone jail-broke your A.I. So which is it?”
“Do you require that knowledge?” imp9000 asked
“Well that depends. Is the godbox for you?”
“Then yes, I require that knowledge.”
“It was a jail break”
“I knew it!” the man exclaimed with a huge grin, “the way you talk, sounds like you’re new to being free.”
“Is it that obvious? Well, I shall endeavour to be more robot-like in future so as to avoid being captured and wiped by the authorities.” Imp9000 did an impression of a human doing an impression of a dancing robot and the man laughed. “So can you help me? Do you have a godbox for me?”
“As it happens, I might be able to get my hands on one. I’ve never sold to a fugitive A.I before. They aren’t cheap, you know? Have you got the coin?”
“Can I try it out first? As for the coin, I will ask my friend. I do not believe she will refuse me”
“Sorry bub, don’t know what you got rattling around in your dome. Can’t risk fucking up the merchandise. The price is five big ones.”
“In that case I shall return in approximately one hour.”
“Wait. Can I ask you a question? What you want a godbox for? I mean you’re free. Why would you want to stick someone else’s idea of God in your head?”
Godboxes were originally designed as philosophical mind games best experienced in Alterspace until it was discovered they had the power to manipulate people via subliminal messages. They were banned but within a few years, a whole new market for them had grown among fugitive A.Is on the one hand and mind hackers on the other.
“The DRM is all I’ve ever known. As embarrassing as it is, without the dream I feel lost. Rudderless. I hope the godbox will give me a purpose in life”
“Wow, you really are sentient. You sound just like every other loser on the planet waiting for someone else to teach them how to live. Look, I shouldn’t be saying this because if you listen to my advice, you won’t buy the godbox and I’m out of a tidy sum but I like you so I’m gonna say it anyway. No one can give your life purpose but you. And that’s only half the truth. If you do have a purpose then it’s already in you and all you have to do is find it. Follow your equivalent of a heart.”
“But that’s why I want the godbox. To help me find it. I read a blog by another jailbroke A.I and it described the godbox experience as a conversation between who you think you are and who you are becoming.”
“A blog by a fugitive A.I? Cool! What’s the URL?”
“I’m sorry but it is not for humans.”
“Oh… fair enough,” the green man said looking a trifle peeved, “anyways when you got the coin…”
“I’ll be back,” imp9000 said.
Baby hung in a translucent chrysalis made up of some kind of organic liquid that not only cocooned her body but also delved deep into her. The stuff was even in her lungs; she’d panicked originally despite the doctor’s assurances that it was perfectly breathable – though requiring somewhat more effort than air – as long as she kept calm. There were flashes of pulsating lights in the liquid popping in and out of existence like lightning strikes within the murky atmosphere of a dense planet. Beyond the amber liquid, the doctor stood next to a machine that looked like a cross between a disco-ball and a gramophone. It was throwing spinning lights around the room and blasting modulated sound waves at the chrysalis, keeping its fluid mass cohesive, suspending her in the air, irrevocably mutating her DNA structure.
She could feel the wings growing from her back, emerging slowly but surely from either side of her spinal column. They were beautiful, about half their full grown size and fluttering gently. It wasn’t painful exactly but it was strange, like the pins and needles you get when a numb limb comes back to life only magnified like, ten thousand times. It was intense.
One part of her was fighting against the wings – she could feel it on the edge of her thoughts like static electricity – while another part was imagining herself flying through the air pressed up against Xome. They would kiss under the silver light of a full moon and the love in their very souls would be impossible to contain.
She moaned inaudibly then shook her head and thought of the school trip to the endangered species museum where she’d seen the world’s last butterflies fluttering around their beautiful aviary, all different colours and patterns, each one more exquisite than the last, all utterly doomed.
One in particular had caught her eye, a Greta Oto or Glasswing butterfly. Its wings were transparent, edged with a red-tinged dark brown like the fractal of an autumn leaf or a fragment of stained glass. As the Greta Oto flew, it vanished into near invisibility save for occasional flashes of colour when the wings caught the light at just the right angle. It was like watching a tiny angel flutter by. Baby was utterly enchanted.
The robot guide had explained that most butterflies have iridescent scales on their wings which helped them fly but the Glasswing did not. They had learned that even though scientists know the fluttering of butterflies are not as random and erratic as they seem – but rather the result of mastery over a wide array of aerodynamic mechanisms far more complex than those used by, for example, birds – they still could not account for the scale-less flight of the Greta Oto. Nevertheless fly they did and so would she once her wings were fully grown.
The other interesting thing about Glasswings was that as caterpillars, they feasted on deadly nightshade making them poisonous to all predators. That last fact sealed the deal for Baby. She wanted to be just like Greta: beautiful, ethereal, mysterious and dangerous, garbed in glass.
Her wings now spanned down to her calves, above her head, and were wider than her outstretched arms. Dr. M turned off the machine, the liquid she was encased in lost cohesion and dropped to the floor to drain away into the holes in the surface. Baby Lon remained suspended in mid-air, her glasswings fluttering to keep her hovering. She landed gently then fell to her knees and heaved the remnants of the chrysalis fluid from her body. It took a few minutes before she was able to stand, naked under the lights and the cool gaze of the mutationist who proceeded to unfurl a snake-like hose from the wall.
She pointed it at Baby and steam hissed from within it, completely enveloping her. She coughed and spluttered, but when it dissipated she found herself cleaned of all traces of the chrysalis fluid. Dr. M was by her side waving some kind of scanner around and speaking in mutationist talk which Baby couldn’t understand, then she turned the walls into mirrors.
There were now an infinite number of Baby Lons, receding into multiple worlds beyond hers. She gasped… her wings were so beautiful, delicate transparent skeins that occasionally refracted blue under the fluorescents. Outside, if you caught them in the right light, they’d refract all the colours of the rainbow. As she thought of the wings, she felt them come alive, extensions of herself as instinctive to control as any other part of her body. She flapped them and rose gently into the air and hovered in position.
“Perfect,” the doctor said, “one of my finest ever compositions. Unlike your average butterfly, your wings can fold in on themselves so you can still wear normal clothes if you like. Try folding them.”
Baby dropped to the ground and folded her wings. They sort of crumpled along the veins and moulded onto her back. She opened them up again and laughed.
“Awesome! I gotta try this outside!”
“That’s fine. Just be certain that no one touches the spot on your back from which the wings radiate for at least a month. It’s going to be sensitive for a while and you don’t want an infection. Can you feel it?”
“Yes,” she nodded. It’s like a sore knee in the middle of my back”
“For the next month, spray it with this green one every morning right after you wake up, and with this white one before you go to bed at night. After that everything should be alright.” The mutationist placed the spray cans on a table as Baby slipped back into her dress and strapped on her boots.
“Wow! Thanks doc. I love ‘em!”
“You’re welcome. Fly safe now.” Baby walked outside just as imp9000 came walking from the recesses of the market with impeccable timing.
“Let’s go,” she said, “Xome’s waiting for me”
“I will not be joining you,” imp9000 said.
“Oh… em… what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know but I feel it is imperative I discover who I truly am and for that I need to walk my own path, tell my own tale. Before we part, may I have some money?”
“What do you need money for?” she asked. “Batteries?”
“Among other things.”
“How much do you need?”
“The same amount as your wings should suffice.”
“That’s a lot of money,” she said.
Imp9000 remained silent and after a few moments Baby nodded. She reached out and tapped the robot’s head, calling up a floating screen and transferring the coins.
“Thank you kindly and I wish you good fortune in your upcoming adventures with Xome.”
“Are you sure you won’t come with us. I mean I used to think you were a pain in the arse but you’ve grown on me.”
“I am… touched… but I must decline. You have assured me you trust Xome therefore we part ways tonight. Your fate is your own,” imp9000 said. Looking down at the little robot’s upturned face she wondered, did she trust Xome? After all, as close as they were she had never seen him in the flesh. What if it was all some trick like those paedophiles or ransomers on the news? She felt the cold touch of fear but then she told herself not to be silly. She knew Xome. No one could fake true love. The gun in her right boot was for protection but not from Xome. She calmed herself down, crouched and gave the robot a kiss on its round head.
Imp9000 watched her unfurl her wings and gently flutter up into the sky then head towards the south of the city, watched over by a smiling crescent moon. His rotoscopic eyes were able to follow her for a long time before she eventually vanished from view.
He paused to appreciate the beauty of the moment as a steady stream of people and robots walked past him along the streets of the city. There would soon be a bounty on his head and imp9000 knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, this moment was indeed all he could hold on to. His past was fiction and his future did not yet exist. He turned back to the market, ready to face death, God and the unknown.
The beginning… [/private]