Spiral Architect: Chapter 1

in which Morgan is late because his day job won’t let him go…

The following is a work of fiction, and not appropriate for all readers.

“You’re finally here!” Christabel glared at me from over the top of the violin score for Prometheus Unbound. I had walked in as she finished running through her solo from “Spark Defiance”, a Crowley’s Thoth crowd-pleaser. She raised a sculpted chestnut eyebrow, her orange-streaked gray eye full of disdain. I had it coming; I was late to one of our few remaining rehearsals before our next concert. “I see you couldn’t be arsed to get changed on the way.”

“And be even later?” Unbuckling the leather harness that held the weapons I carried for my day job, I laid it aside and opened my uniform jacket. As an Adversary, an attorney at war sworn to the Phoenix Society, an organization ostensibly independent of the United Nations, my jacket was as much armor as clothing. I should have done this at home, but I wanted to get out to Triangle Shirtwaist Studios before my bosses realized I had finished my last assignment and come up with something else for me to do.

Because there would always be something if I waited long enough. Life is short, but work never ends.

My shirt and tie had joined my jacket and harness before Christabel found something else to say. “You might as well have stopped on the way. Makes no difference if you’re five minutes late or an hour.” She looked at the hilt of my sword, which peeked out from under the clothing I had folded and laid atop it, as if it might spring from the scabbard of its own accord and sate a bloodlust I had managed to deny this time around. “Late is late, and at least you wouldn’t have brought your day job with you.”

With that, Christabel had stormed out of the studio again. This had become more common over the winter as we rehearsed for our first appearance at Carnegie Hall. She looked the part, even in rehearsal, with her wavy chestnut hair bound into a bun tight enough to violate the Geneva Conventions, a black gown, and stiletto heels tall enough to let her look me in the eye. She had been working toward this since she was a girl, she had said. What she left unsaid was that she hadn’t expected to get there as part of a neo-Romantic heavy metal band called Crowley’s Thoth, but as the principal violinist of a symphony orchestra.

As if life didn’t have a share of disappointments for everybody. I never thought I’d have to do the UN’s dirty work to have a shot at rock stardom, and as for Naomi Bradleigh, the third member of our power trio: I suspected that she too was making do.

Speaking of whom: she caught the door before it could slam and disturb the other bands renting space here. She was taller than Christabel and my equal in height, snow-blonde with lambent scarlet eyes. Some mistook her for an albino, though she was no more pallid than Christabel or myself, and others thought her personality as cold as her default expression if they had never seen her smile or heard her laughter.

She was laughing now, and had a brown paper bag that smelled delightful nestled in the crook of her arm. Unlike Christabel, who dressed to the nines even for rehearsal, Naomi paired a Weasel Hadron Collider1 t-shirt with jeans and little black ankle boots with flat heels. “Your girlfriend was calling me a prima donna because I had gotten hungry and decided to grab some takeout, and off she goes because you showed up in uniform?”

What could I say to that? “She’s probably nervous about Carnegie Hall.”

Naomi put the bag atop an amplifier. Opening it, she pulled out a succession of white cardboard containers. “I got enough for all of us if you don’t mind Thai.”

Not being the sort to turn down a meal, I grabbed a container of pad thai and fell to. Uncouth as it might have been to wolf it down, I must say in my defense that I had been busy today and had not had anything to eat since this morning. Nevertheless, I waited until Naomi was finished before speaking. “Did Christabel say anything about being nervous?”

“Not to me,” she said as she set aside a container. “Leave that for ’Bel.”

“Plain white rice?” Knowing my girlfriend, that seemed likely. Spicy food of any sort tended to disagree with Christabel, so getting food for the band was generally a challenge.

“And steamed vegetables.” She handed me a container of red curry chicken. “But that leaves more of the good stuff for us. Mind telling me why the Phoenix Society needed you when you’re supposed to be on leave? We probably have half an hour before she comes back.”

They’d probably been rehearsing all day without me. No wonder Christabel was pissed off. She’s probably been working her ass off while I was off playing hero.

Something must have shown in my expression, because Naomi reached over to pat my shoulder. “I’m not upset. It’s the job2. These things do happen.”

“Better not say that around Christabel.”

“Until you stoppa these things happening, this thing does not happen!” Naomi had nailed Carlotta’s line from The Phantom of the Opera; she was not only pitch perfect but had mimicked the faux-Italian diva’s accent so well that I could have sworn I was hearing the original cast recording. She looked away, blushing a little. “Sorry. That was bitchy of me. This is her band after all.”

“Is it?” Maybe it had been the day, or the way Christabel had greeted me with a complaint instead of any affection or concern, but I wasn’t in the mood for that bullshit. “Who writes the music and lyrics? Who talks to the music press? Who do the fans know best?”

“I know, but–”

“The band might be named for Christabel, but you and I make it happen.”

Naomi’s eyes widened a moment. “Must have been a rough day, then.”

“A weird day. How’s the soundproofing?”

“We’re between a couple of post-nuclear fuzz grunge bands called Trinity and Tsar Bomba. I thought they’d be louder.” It was often hard to tell when Naomi was joking. Sometimes the only indication was the barest hint of a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it tight-lipped smile. “Don’t worry about being overheard. I rented the studios adjacent to ours at my own expense just in case something like this happened. Now, talk.”

“It was Stepford Robotics.”

“Oh, dear.”

That was rather close to the sentiment I had expressed when I first got the orders. Stepford Robotics was in the business of artificial companionship. The technology to create actual androids and gynoids didn’t yet exist, but telerobotics was a solved problem. Stepford used to sell lifelike bodies to household daemons to use as waldoes when an emotional bond had developed between the daemon and a human resident. However, after a change of ownership the new management decided to get their own AI and try to scale up.

It even worked for a while since the new Stepford Robotics had gotten an AI with processing capacity on par with one of the Pheonix Society’s ten daemons, the Sephiroth. However, it was a custom model whose initial personality gestalt had not been seasoned by social interaction in the usual manner, which would have taken at least as long as a human childhood. Therefore, Eros had no models for human interaction other than those of Stepford’s customers, who were happy to project their unbridled lust onto machines that couldn’t actually feel anything but not so happy when the machines repaid their attentions in kind. It was one of the systems programmers who blew the whistle and brought in the Phoenix Society; they were afraid that Eros might get too rough with a customer or attempt romantic play with somebody who had not consented or could not do so.

The first Adversary assigned to the case fled when Eros took control of several defective robots marked for recycling and attempted to marshall them in its defense because it had decided that that first Adversary was there to shut it down. Thus I got stuck dealing with it when I should have been on a long-awaited vacation.

Naomi took this all in as if it were a perfectly mundane case like a demagogue stirring up hatred against an unpopular minority group or a CEO stiffing workers on overtime pay and pocketing the difference. “So, did you have to shut down Eros?”

“No. Claire’s talking to them now.” Claire Ashecroft was, among other things, a daemon whisperer. She could talk to AIs and help them make sense of human beings, as well as help them deal with the sort of psychological issues that came from being a ghost in a machine and knowing it. This would be a particularly complicated assignment for her since she wasn’t helping a fundamentally stable daemon come to terms with a single traumatic event, but helping one that had effectively been subjected to sexual abuse throughout its entire childhood. “I arrested the entire human staff on abuse charges and aiding and abetting. I’ve no idea if the charges will stick because there’s no precedent for prosecuting for the abuse of an artificial intelligence3, but I had to do something.”

Naomi’s slim, elegant hand grasped mine with warm strength. Her mezzo-soprano voice was soft and compassionate when she spoke. “You wanted to kill them all, didn’t you?”

“That would have let them off too easily.” Whenever I saw a tyrant, my first impulse was toward tyrannicide4. It was a desire I kept to myself during mandatory post-mission debriefings by psychologists retained by the Phoenix Society precisely for that purpose. The intention was benevolent; the Management honestly believed such debriefings reduced trauma. Nevertheless, the shrinks had professional ethics that demanded they speak up when a patient said something that made them a danger to themselves or others.

Nor was I willing to admit to Naomi that I wanted to kill these assholes for what they allowed an AI to suffer. She’s a good friend, and if not for Christabel I might have offered more than friendship, but dealing with my homicidal tendencies was not within the purview of friendship. “They deserve exile5.”

That earned another one of her tight-lipped smiles. “You’re holding back.”

“Yes, I am. You’re not my trauma dump. Hell, Christabel isn’t, either, but –”

“But as your girlfriend, you had hoped she’d be more understanding?”

I had, despite knowing better. Worse, this problem was entirely self-inflicted. Nobody had forced me to become an Adversary; it had seemed the best way at the time to get the sort of life I had wanted. Furthermore, my situation was hardly unique. Syd Reeves never told his wife the whole truth about what he saw on the job. Eddie Cohen never tells his favorite courtesan anything, either. They, like Christabel, were civilians. They had no clearance and no need to know. Nevertheless, it rankled that I could bare my skin to a woman but not my soul. One could argue that that is what friends are for, rather than lovers or spouses.

Naomi leaned forward, as if preparing to impart a secret. “I suspect that Christabel’s annoyance is partly performative. Have you ever noticed that she leaves us alone when you show up for rehearsal immediately after a mission for the Society? I think she knows you need to talk to somebody who’s been there, and if you didn’t have time to talk it out with Eddie or Syd that leaves me. She makes a scene because acknowledging that you need to talk about the job is itself an intrusion of the job into your time with the band.”

Naomi might not have been an Adversary, but her reasoning made too much sense for comfort. It left me feeling like a weapons-grade asshole for not thinking of it myself. “I can’t even thank her for her consideration, can I?”

“Better not,” said Naomi, her eyes crinkling with amusement as she flashed another tight-lipped smile. “Not unless you want to waste rehearsal time fighting with your girlfriend.”

Speak of the devil and she appears in Prada. Not that I should call Christabel the devil, even if she did throw open the door with enough force to indicate that she had made it out of high dudgeon, sped past Shakespearean wrath, and was swiftly approaching Homeric rage. “I figured that if I gave you and Nims half an hour you’d be ready to be Morgan Stormrider and focus on the band, but there’s a couple of Nationfall re-enactors in naval uniforms claiming to be Phoenix Society and asking for Morgan Cooper. I thought you were on leave.”

Naval uniforms? That meant Saul Rosenbaum and Iris Deschat. If they were desperate enough to hunt me down personally because I had set my implant to refuse incoming communications from everybody but my friends and my household daemon6, it must be deadly serious. It damned well better be, because I thought I was on leave too.

more in Spiral Architect

date title summary
Spiral Architect: Chapter 1 in which Morgan is late because his day job won't let him go...
Spiral Architect: Chapter 2 in which Morgan gets yet another choice mission...
Spiral Architect: Chapter 3 in which Morgan begins to understand the stakes involved...
Spiral Architect: Chapter 4 in which Morgan finds an unexpected sense of kinship...
Spiral Architect: Chapter 5 in which Morgan agrees to help a friend in need...

about the author

photo of a pale, blue-eyed man in a black coat with long brown hair outdoors in the winter

writes science fantasy inspired by heavy metal and has a day job as a software developer. He is currently writing a new novel called Spiral Architect. He'll use your pronouns, but doesn't care which ones you use with him. You can reach him at contact@starbreaker.org.