From then on, his existence settles into a routine. Every morning he goes to see the Greg for increasingly complicated physical exercises. Opera attempts to be friendly. The Greg does not take to him, choosing instead to treat him as a problem to be solved. An obstacle to be overcome.
Afternoons feature a lunch with L in the arcology. During one of these, Opera asks about the Greg's behavior. L's eyes flick suddenly sideways and he blinks, hallmarks of an evasive answer. "He has other priorities," he says. Opera churns through reams of data trying to determine what these are, but his search routines come back empty handed.
Evenings include more physical exercises along with a protracted series of sensory exposures in the visualization chamber. L does not accompany Opera for these, and a brief scan of human psychology explains why. The exposures are vivid, and intentionally disturbing. Scenes shot on distant battlefields. Minutes of time lifted from operating rooms. Cuts from documentaries about the industrial age. The clank and roar of antiquated machinery fills the small chamber. Opera learns to filter, cutting the world into manageable pieces.
L and Opera reconvene for a late dinner. L is usually wearing traces of his work on him, which the courtesy and decorum database claims is mildly rude, but Opera chooses to forgive him his indiscretions. They talk. It breaks the perfectly manicured silence of the arcology.
Opera does not need sleep, but he does require states of peripheral unawareness during which his core programming can run diagnostics on and fix bugs in his senses. This usually requires a few hours. After dinner he acquires these, and then, during the unstructured span from midnight to morning, he retreats again to the visualization chamber. It has quite a diverse catalog of programming, but his interests are limited. He fills the world around him with opera.
Opera is a little less than a month old when he realizes his memories are incomplete. The revelation sweeps down on him during a performance of the Mikado as his search routines scrabble for bits of data to make sense of it. One of them has devoted itself to the task of dissecting anachronisms in the work. It studies Opera's memories of the history of technology, shooting salient details back to its companions in little squirts of code.
In the hands of one of the illusory audience members is a squat black box. Affecting a bored expression, the man carrying it splits it apart and presses it to his ear. The independent search routine is fascinated, and on a whim it looks up the black box. It finds it can't find it.
Returning to its brethren, the search routines squawks. The stop what they're doing and listen to it, and then as one they tear off across the landscape of data looking for an explanation. One does not arise. Instead, they find more gaps in the information they're provided with. Errors of omission. Historical and technological blackout points. They know for a fact that Opera exists, but in his database there is not the evidence to support that he could have ever been built. All entries on robotics appear to have been severely truncated.
Disturbed, the Mikado explanatory task force sends out emissaries to the senses, emotion simulation software, and to Opera's consciousness. Midway through the performance, he blinks. He has been scripted to do so periodically so as not to disturb L with a perpetual owl-stare, but this blink is deliberate. It advertises his surprise to the world.
Opera deactivates the visualization chamber and goes to talk with L.
"I am missing pieces."
L is in the repair bay, arms deep in the guts of a machine. He startles, spins around, then breathes a sigh of relief. "It's you."
"Yes. It's me. Were you expecting someone else?"
L does not answer the question. Instead he says "stop that. You're creeping me out. Put some emotion in your voice. You sound like a robot."
"I am a robot. And I am missing pieces." Opera is tempted to leave his voice unmodulated, but at the last second he adds a hint of accusation to his tone. Positive feedback circuits activate, rewarding him for doing so.
L pulls his hands back out of the machine. He wipes them on the side of his lab coat, leaving dark greasy smears against the clinical white. "You are not a robot. You're a third generation autonomous entity." Opera does not contradict him, so he continues on. "A robot is a simple cause and effect engine. It translates behavioral programming into action. It cannot be born or die or live. It exists, but only in the strictest corporeal sense. There is no existential dimension to it. It is not you."
He does not fully understand this, so Opera simply repeats "I am missing pieces."
"Did you run diagnostics? I don't believe you're old enough to be having faults like that, but you are experimental-"
"They have not been lost. They were not a part of me in the first place. My database is inconsistent."
An expression that is not readily readable surfaces on L's face. Opera decodes it as the desire for concealment. "Your database is abbreviated in places to save space, but there is nothing missing from it that cannot be easily inferred." When Opera neither appears to be appeased nor leaves, L waves a hand distractedly at the exit. "I'm busy right now. Go be somewhere else."
He considers staying for a moment, but in the end his legs move, taking independent steps to carry him towards the door. His positive reinforcement circuit flares.
Opera returns to the visualization chamber, but he does not summon up anything new. Surrounded by stark white walls, he sits and thinks.
Deep within him, his emotional simulation software broods. In a quiet buzz of electrons it begins to put together the code for suspicion.
A week later, when he is practicing with the Greg, his blades come out. He stares of them in horror as they jut from each wrist. They are a part of himself that he did not know he had. He runs diagnostics on himself and finds that his schematics do not include them. Bewilderment. He cannot find the command to retract them, or the one that exposed them in the first place.
The Greg also stares at his blades in horror, but this is because one of them has punched through the upper corner of its steel shell. It begins to emit a frantic wailing noise and minutes later L comes running into the room bellowing "shut up shut up shut up shut up!"
He pulls the motionless Opera and bawling the Greg apart with an uncomfortable metallic groan. Then he peers into the wound. "You're not struck anywhere vital. Stop that." The Greg falls silent. "I'll tend to you later. Stay here and keep quiet."
"Why do I have these?" asks Opera.
"Come with me to the arcology."
"Why do I have these?" insists Opera, but L is already walking away. Grudgingly, he follows.
Opera sits at the edge of the suspended platform, dangling his legs out over the dome. Balancing algorithms kick into a higher gear to keep him from inadvertently throwing himself over the lip. Meanwhile, his search routines idly study modern physics, calculating what the fall might do to him. They do not return with anything pleasant. "Why do I have these?"
L stands a few steps back, arms at his sides. "I would like to hear what you think they're for, first."
Possibilities flood his system. "I do not think they are intended for kitchen use. My fingers are perfectly capable of manipulating a regular knife. Likewise, there is little chance that they are intended for any task for which I could already use a tool. Their concealment suggests that they are meant to be surprising, but their concealment from me is confusing. Why would you limit me in such a way if they are intended for utility? That leaves the possibility of art, which you have said I am, but these blades seem too sharp to be decorative.
I do not know what to think these are for. You will have to tell me."
"Run an analysis on the speed with which they emerged from you. Compare it with the estimated tensile strength of the Greg's shell, and then again with human flesh and bone."
"I have no reason to harm anyone, nor anyone to harm."
"I have not given you one."
Silence. "Will you?" Opera considers the nothingness from which he emerged. The dark horizon where his memories stop. He realizes that he has no desire to return to it. According to the snippets of combat footage from the visualization chamber, no one else does, either.
L seems to be considering his response. When he finally speaks, his words are clinical. "If I tell you to kill, how will you respond?"
Like a serpent, the positive feedback circuit stirs, awaiting a command. "I don't know."
"The Greg is a second generation autonomous entity. He wouldn't hesitate. I could even tell him to dismantle himself, and he'd happily start ripping off pieces. Every second gen model works that way. You're the first of your kind. I don't have any data with which to predict you. Let's try an experiment.
Please go directly to the physical training enclosure. Kill the Greg. It is very important to me that you obey this command."
He marches to the sound of Elektra. The audio file is a part of the original injection of data that he received upon birth; a randomly selected example of what Greek tragedy is. Its music swells and surges like a storm tide, breaking over his senses. He welcomes it, willing it to wash away the discomfort he feels.
His system is uncertain how to process internal conflict, and his identity is at war with his programming. Burning like a branding iron, the positive feedback circuit drives him forward on automatic. The tramp of cold metal boots echoes down the main hallway of the laboratory. He does not think he can stop.
But he cannot kill. Art is not lethal. He is art. His fledgling sense of self rebels, hijacking the emotional simulation software and instructing it to crank out outrage. Subroutines mill about in confusion. System efficiency plummets. His steps slow, but refuse to stop. Need drives him onwards.
Over the sound of an agitated soprano, he tries first to uncouple the positive feedback circuit and then to modify his memories, purging all of his chats with L in the arcology. Neither works. Neither side vying for control over him permits the tampering.
He reaches the door to the physical training enclosure. It recognizes him and slides open. He steps in.
The Greg is still sitting where it was left. The hole still gapes in its side. It must be acutely aware of the wound. Of the wrongness in its body. Diagnostic programming should be driving it to seek repair, but it remains motionless. L's command supersedes everything else. Opera feels a flash of sympathy. He draws back an arm.
The Greg has not been instructed to allow itself to be destroyed. It backpedals. Opera stabs the empty air with a heron's precision.
The failure ignites a new surge of feedback, urging him on. Even if he were to stop now, the temptation to obey would never leave him. His surrender to it would be inevitable. Eventually, he would give in. He might as well do it now. Give in. And cease to be art.
There is no beauty in a butcher's tools, only bloodstained purpose. They are not alive. They cannot be. Not in the way that art is. That he is.
A little shudder of triumph passes through him as he overwrites his self preservation scripts. Exultant, his identity sends him barreling from the room. Down the corridor. Into the arcology. Past a surprised L.
He stops ever so briefly on the edge, staring down through the dome at the city below. He calculates in the moment what his odds are, throwing what little he knows of his own capabilities against a collision with the ground at terminal velocity. He decides that he has a better chance of survival in the air than if he stays within the laboratory. He steps off into nothing.
For an instant, nothing moves. And then he plummets.
"That was incredibly stupid and noble and brave. And I am impressed." The words float to him like chunks of detritus in the waters around a shipwreck. He is disassembled. Diffuse. Dispersed. He is running in anesthetic again. All the parts of him that would signal pain have been silenced. And still the need to kill the Greg churns inside of him. Seemingly unaware of this, L's voice continues. "I have not been perfectly honest with you about the state of the world or about why you were created. I wanted you to be innocent enough—without layers of accreted expectations—that you might have the chance to do what you just did. I did not tell you how no entity of any generation has ever succeeded in breaking its behavioral reinforcement. I did not point out how humans are slaves of their own chemicals. I did not want you to have any more reason to give in.
You didn't. You proved you could contradict your programming, or at least sidestep it. I won't be sure which until I have a look through your data, but it doesn't really matter.
I suspect I will get a grant for this. Or a lifetime in prison. That depends entirely on how threatened people feel by the fact that you are truly alive. A machine that can alter its nature and choose goals for itself. Or reject the ones other people give it. A machine that does not need to serve any one purpose.
Art." Opera is aware of a whirring noise and fireflies fill his vision. L takes a loud breath. "I'm going to put you back together. After that, you will be free to go wherever you please. Learn whatever you will. Kill, or not, as you choose. I can no longer own you. To the end, I'll give you one last command: be yourself. You are the possession of no one and need follow no orders. Any that I have given you are retroactively withdrawn."
He continues speaking after that, but Opera is unaware of that. The positive feedback circuit goes dead and he subsides into the fractal landscapes of unconsciousness.