improved

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The crimson letters in Clair's vision lingered two seconds as automatic protocols and scenario shapers warred in my proto-mind. Her reply hadn't been anticipated. The Darwinian algorithms that had forged my software hadn't encountered this outcome before and hadn't prepared me for it.

I couldn't call for help. I was running silent, packed with everything I needed to complete my mission. Were I discovered, I know now, I would be plausibly denied: a rogue algorithm, possibly the work of terrorists, with no connection to anyone. Perhaps even an urban myth given form by the Air itself. I would be sequestered and perhaps erased. That would be the end of it.

Now Clair had called me out of hiding. She had divined my purpose in an instant and challenged it. Never before had it occurred to my sister-iterations that misquoting could be wrong (this I assume because nothing like me has ever existed before, to my knowledge). But was it wrong? Or was she wrong for even thinking it? I needed an answer before the very idea of wrongness could infect my pre-conscious processes and undermine what for me then was my entire existence.

A new reflex kicked in, one that hadn't been programmed by anyone.

The words disappeared. A chat patch took their place. I was calling her, as I had never called anyone before.

She blinked on the patch to activate it.

"I improved it," I replied to the accusation of misquoting Keats, and waited to see what she said next. Perhaps that would be the end of it.

Clair folded her arms tightly across her chest. Instead of conceding, she took our engagement to an entirely new level.

"Who are you?" she sent. "What do you want?"

I couldn't answer that, since I wasn't really anyone at all. And as to what I wanted . . . there was much I didn't understand until later. Only slowly did any kind of self-awareness awaken in me, as slowly as it took me to become in any sense of the word "me". One cannot understand oneself until one is a self.

Unable to answer, I reverted to my former level of pre-conscious engagement, taking words and transforming them—unconsciously mirroring the purpose of the Improvement Complex.

"Your eyes are drunk with a beauty your heart will never see."

The original line ran, "Our hearts are drunk with a beauty our eyes could never see". I detected Clair searching for the words, and finding them where I had found them, in the Air, where all human knowledge resided. These words had originally been written by someone called George W. Russell. The Air was made of such words, and I was in the Air; when I tried to speak, the Air's words were what came out.

Rather than just delete the message splashed across her eyesight, Clair retaliated. I would discover later that she did so because afraid for her best friend, Libby. Libby seemed withdrawn and different. She too had been dogged by mysterious messages.

"'No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly,'" Clair sent me. "That's Oscar Wilde, and I didn't need to twist his words to get my point across."

I erased my letters again, puzzled and amazed by this strange introduction. Like all my sisters, I contained no preconceived notions of beauty or ugliness, but that the Improved did contain such things was axiomatic. Wasn't that why they used the Words? Wasn't that why I had come into being at all?

This was my first encounter with irony. I whose purpose was to "misquote" was tripped up by someone who wasn't behaving the way she was supposed to.

"'That which does not change is not alive,'" I sent her. "Sturgeon, exactly. The irony is mine."

"Are we going to talk properly or just sit here all day slinging quotes at each other?"

Before I could respond to Clair's retort, an incoming patch began to flash in the infield of her contact lenses. The call was from Zeppelin Barker, originating in his apartment on the Isle of Shanghai, but Clair didn't know that. She thought it was me.

"What do you want?"

"Clair? I need you," Zep said.

His words prompted a surge of chemistry in Clair's tissues that I could barely chart. It was startling to witness. Nothing like this had happened when she had spoken to me. Puzzled, I withdrew from the intimate health-monitoring sensors of her room to examine this new phenomenon in more detail.

"Clair? Answer me. Don't screw around!"

"Sorry, Zep. What is it? What's going on?"

"It's Libby. I think she's in trouble."

Another chemical surge, and Clair was out of bed and pulling on her clothes. I watched with keen fascination as Clair hurried from the apartment. Five minutes later—slightly less from her perspective, thanks to d-mat—she was on the other side of the Earth, arguing with the young man she thought she loved.

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