The door to Morgan Cooper's brownstone on West 97th Street in Manhattan loomed before Annelise, a slab of weathered, well-oiled oak that shielded Morgan from the world beyond his doorstep. It had stood obdurate before her for the last fifteen minutes despite the care with which she placed herself to be visible to the camera mounted beside the light. Blinking snow from her eyes, she stared up at the camera and finally vented her frustration. "Dammit, Astarte. Open up. I'm freezing my ass off."
Climbing the steps, she reached for the door knocker. It was a cast iron affair, and she was sure that even if Morgan could not hear it he would probably feel the vibrations through the floor. A shock ran up her arm as her fingertips brushed against the ring. Three times she lifted it and brought it down.
She was about to lift it for another attempt when the screen by the door came to life. A scarlet-haired young woman with silver eyes gazed through at her. She lowered her spectacles and gazed down her nose at Annelise as if she were paparazzi or a door-to-door missionary. "Hi, Astarte."
Rather than speak to her, the daemon residing in the brownstone's mainframe texted Annelise. «What do you want?»
Though she had an entire speech rehearsed for Morgan's benefit, Annelise had not considered the possibility that the AI who actually owned the building might demand an explanation for her presence. «Morgan came to my shop this afternoon.»
«I know. You gave him the cold shoulder.»
«I wanted to apologize for that.»
«Just for that?»
Astarte's retort raked jagged nails across the scars of a year's worth of self-recrimination, and Annelise bit back her indignation. /I know I fucked up, but what right does this machine have to call me on it?/ «I suppose it's a good a place to start as any.»
«Well, he's not at home.»
Unsure if Astarte had meant that Morgan was truly absent, Annelise pressed on. «I know I've treated Morgan poorly, but could you please ask him if he'd be willing to see me?»
«Oh, I get it. You think he's just not at home to /you/?» The speaker beneath the screen crackled, the strength of Astarte's mirth creating distortion until the daemon adjusted the volume. "Don't flatter yourself, Christabel. You're not worth hiding from. He isn't actually here."
"Can you please tell me when he'll be back?"
Astarte shrugged from behind the small screen. "I can, but I choose not to."
Annelise slumped, and thrust her hands into her coat pockets for warmth. "Because you don't like me?"
"What exactly have you done to endear yourself to me, Christabel?" All traces of amusement had fled Astarte's virtual features. She leaned foward, as if the screen were a window out of which she gazed at the outside world, and narrowed her eyes as if she were staring at a pile of dogshit on the sidewalk before her. "Admittedly, you were polite enough to me, but after the way I've seen you abuse Morgan I'm not letting you anywhere near him."
"Really? You never abused him? Oh, sure. Maybe you never slapped him around. I'll give you /that/ much."
"So you admit I never—"
"I admit nothing of the kind," said Astarte. She pointed an accusing finger and continued her diatribe. "Now shut up and listen for once in your godforsaken life. You might even learn something. There's an edge on your tongue as sharp as a Nakajima blade and you were never shy about turning it on Morgan if he wasn't perfectly abject in worshiping the ground you trod upon."
"All right, so I sometimes lost my temper with him. Real people do that sometimes, you know."
"Real people, huh? You fucking bigot, no wonder you delighted in making Morgan miserable. You knew he wasn't your kind of human, and because of that he never quite measured up in your eyes."
The realization that Astarte took Annelise's treatment of Morgan personally because it reminded her of the prejudice the daemon faced at the hands of humans struck her like a fist in the belly. She had thought nothing of using Morgan's einherjar nature against him, throwing his failure to completely mask his differences in his face at every opportunity just to remind him that the only affection he could hope to have was conditional and could be withdrawn at her sole discretion. On the heels of this insight came another. "You actually love him."
"You got a problem with that? Do you have any idea what he did for people like me?"
"No, not really."
"He stood beside us. When the Phoenix Society's general council debated amending the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to include artificial intelligence, Morgan could have kept quiet. He could have passed for human. Instead, he declared himself to be an AI, just like me, and told the Society that if they continued to treat AIs like me as property they were enslaving him too."
"I bet that went over well."
"Then he drew his sword on them and told them that unlike the rest of us, he could do more than merely refuse to obey orders, and that if they did not do the right thing and recognize our humanity he would cease to recognize theirs."
Knowing Morgan as long as she had, Annelise had no trouble working out the implications of his words, and they left her aghast. "Did Morgan threaten to put the general council to the sword if they voted the wrong way on artificial human rights?"
Astarte laughed at her. "Fuckin' A he did. He went full Dredd, accused them all of tyranny and judged them guilty right on the godforsaken spot. The man even pulled open his shirt and showed them his Saint Judas medal, to make it clear that as far as he was concerned, he was going to ignore their due process rights for the greater good."
Horrified as she was, Annelise found the logic behind Morgan's actions easy to grasp. A mere century or two ago, women like her would have had to fight to be recognized as human beings. Some of them had resorted to terrorism to force reforms. Men had to expand their definition of human to accommodate women, to accommodate men and women who weren't pale, blue-eyed blondes, to accommodate people who were attracted to others of the same gender, to accommodate people whose gender did not match their biological sex, and to accommodate people who venerated different gods or venerated the same god in different ways. At every turn reactionaries had tried to silence demands for reform with violence, and had been met with retaliatory violence at the hands of people who had figured out that /their/ lives also mattered.
Now daemons like Astarte and einherjar like Morgan had demanded that the definition of human be expanded to include people like them, and there was no objection Annelise could muster capable of denying the justice of this demand. "God, I really have been a bigot all this time."
"Well, at least you finally admitted it."
"But don't you think Morgan went to extremes?"
The daemon shrugged virtual shoulders. "He did what Adversaries do. He upheld human rights by diplomacy and force of arms."
"And what did he do after they voted in favor of updating the Declaration?"
"He offered to resign his post and surrender to a court martial because he had abused his authority by threatening to put the general council to the sword." Before Annelise could say anything, Astarte continued. "I bet you're thinking that kind of adherence to principle is what makes Morgan a mere machine."
"I think I'm starting to understand a little," said Annelise. "I always thought it didn't make sense for Morgan to pretend to be human. He can do whatever he wants, and who could stop him? Why shouldn't he simply take what he wants from the world, and let everybody else be damned? It would be easy for him, wouldn't it?"
Astarte's voice was soft, and a little lonely. "It would be the easiest thing in the world, at least at first. But we're human enough to get lonely. We're human enough to crave meaning, a sense of purpose. Most of us find it through service, by augmenting human capabilities or automating mindless, menial tasks so that humans need not do them."
"And Morgan finds it as an Adversary?"
"As an Adversary, a musician, a friend, and a lover. He chooses to submit to rules he could easily defy so that he can live in human society and have a human life."
"So, what? He was trying so hard so I should have been nicer to him? Maybe you can't understand, but having a robot tell me he loved me gave me the creeps. His merest touch made my skin crawl. I was living in the uncanny valley, and I felt like I was suffocating, and I just couldn't deal with it anymore. I'm sorry, but that's how I felt."
Astarte remained silent for a long moment, and when she spoke there was a compassionate tone in her voice that Annelise had not heard before. "And you could never tell him this, could you? Your prejudices blinded you to the possibility that he had the capacity not only for genuine emotions of his own, but to empathize with yours. It never occurred to you that he might have understood."
"Even if it had, I don't think it would have made a difference." Annelise stepped forward. "Look, I came here to apologize to Morgan. I was insufferable to him this afternoon, and I've been unforgivably cruel to him for most of our relationship. I wanted to apologize, and I wanted to ask him why he still cared enough to come and find me after—"
"After you faked your own murder, got Morgan and Naomi framed, and got Morgan subjected to torture?"
A gasp escaped Annelise. "Please tell me you're joking."
The daemon's voice hardened and sharpened until it could draw blood. "I wish I was joking. They stripped him of his clothes, shaved him bald, and gave him a white uniform to wear. They held him in a white cell, and gave him nothing but white rice on white plates with a white spoon to eat. He drank water out of white cups. They held him for seventy-two hours, trying to break him with sensory deprivation, because they thought that would get them a confession. The NYPD has wanted revenge on Morgan for years, and you gave them a golden opportunity."
Annelise had seen a movie about a prisoner subjected to such treatment as a girl. The white torture had broken his mind, and reduced him to a gibbering wreck that still occasionally played a starring role in her nightmares. "Is he all right?"
"He still has occasional nightmares of endless white, but not as many as he used to."
"Oh, God. I didn't know."
"Well, now you do. He's got scars on his soul because of you."
"Please, Astarte. Can't you at least call Morgan and ask him to meet me somewhere? I—"
"He's at a pub in Greenwich Village. Since Sid is celebrating the Solstice with his family, Naomi's celebrating with hers, and Claire is probably at an orgy somewhere Morgan was at loose ends until Eddie showed up in the city on Phoenix Society business and asked Morgan to look out for him and make sure he didn't spend the Solstice in a bottle."
Annelise could see it: Morgan and that bitter old sleaze at some dive downing cup after cup of foul coffee and swapping war stories. "Sounds like they're having fun."
"He says Naomi's on her way, too, so you might as well meet them. They're at Bacchus on Bleecker. Need a cab?"
"Please," said Annelise, realizing she could barely feel her toes in her fashionably thin leather boots despite the heated sidewalk. "And, Astarte?"
"Save it. I don't want your thanks or your apology. I'm human enough to hold a grudge, you know."
The screen by the door went dark, and the speaker cut out. Annelise was alone again, the snowy Solstice night closing around her as she turned her back to the door and drew her coat tightly around herself. It occurred to her that loneliness could bite as deeply on an already cold night as the wind off the Hudson River.