Amy Peterson is a von Neumann machine, a self-replicating humanoid robot.
For the past five years, she has been grown slowly as part of a mixed organic/synthetic family. She knows very little about her android mother's past, so when her grandmother arrives and attacks her mother, little Amy wastes no time: she eats her alive.
Now Amy carries her malfunctioning granny as a partition on her memory drive, and she's learning impossible things about her clade's history and about herself – like the fact that the internal failsafe that stops all robots from harming humans has failed… Which means that everyone wants a piece of her, some to use her as a weapon, others to destroy her.
I've known Madelaine for about a dozen years, meeting up with her at SF conventions and readings as well as a few parties. But my most memorable meeting has to be when I ran into her on the street in Toronto, about an hour after she and David Nickle (another fine writer) had decided to get married. She was so happy and excited she blurted out her news and then swore my wife and I to secrecy because she hadn't even told her family yet. Madelaine has always impressed with her intellect and passion and both are reflected in her first novel, vN. – Hayden Trenholm
"Ashby's debut is a fantastic adventure story that carries a sly philosophical payload about power and privilege, gender and race. It is often profound, and it is never boring."– Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing
"vN is a strikingly fresh work of mind-expanding science fiction."– Charlie Jane Anders, author of All the Birds in the Sky
"VN is a clever book with a wonderful ending by a writer who is well versed in AI technology, who can evoke sympathy with a few well-turned phrases and tells a satisfyingly complex story."– Eric Brown, The Guardian
1: THE UGLY PARTS
Amy woke on the floor of a cage that hummed. She tried moving her legs and kicked the fencing nearest her feet, igniting a spark that jolted up from her toes to her teeth and left her so rigid even her eyes couldn't move. She hated being more conductive than organic people.
"Careful," someone said from outside the cage. "It's rigged."
The man wore a blue uniform and held a scroll-style reader between the thumb and first finger of each hand. Its anonymous blue glow made his expression hard to read. He looked organic; she could see his pores and the patchiness of his hair. Other clades had advanced plugins for differentiating humans. They used thermoptics or gait recognition or pheromone detection. Amy just looked for the ugly parts.
"Where am I?"
He didn't even bother putting down the scroll. "You're being detained."
Amy tried moving again. She had to do so carefully; her limbs were grown-up limbs now, and they were much longer and clumsier than the ones she remembered. Finally she sat with her knees to her chest and looked around. She sat in a kennel like at an animal shelter, a rectangle of white linoleum bordered by black chain-link. Across the room was another set of kennels stacked two rows high. In the centre aisle sat an empty cage, shaped more like a cube. Its floor was black.
In games, Amy had escaped far more challenging environments than this. In fact, she could have easily designed a more intimidating space, given the time and the tools. She checked for laser turrets or acid sprinklers, but found none. Maybe the whole room had a mutable magnetic field. It would certainly explain how they'd kept her asleep, and why they bothered with an organic guard. Without a helmet, he'd be vulnerable to the field and start seeing things. Did that mean the field generator was being reset? Were there other vulnerabilities in the system?
She decided to take stock of other resources. She wore a bright green jumpsuit. It didn't seem particularly sturdy, much less fire- or acid-proof. Far at the end of the kennels was another person in the same jumpsuit. She couldn't tell if it was a boy or girl just by looking, but it had a very big shape over which the fabric stretched tightly. It wasn't moving.
"Where are my parents?" She tried to think of something more intelligent to say. "They should be here. I'm a minor."
This time the scroll did fall, and a hand strayed toward his taser. The guard's eyes had the dead, blank look of someone watching late-night shows. "I don't know how it is in Oakland, but where I come from, minors know how to behave themselves."
Amy had nothing to say to that. She looked at her new prison slippers. She had never thought of her mother's feet as big, but now that she was wearing them, Amy wondered how her mom got around without tripping. How had she never noticed details like this before? Where was her mother now? Was she still repairing the damage to her body?
"May I please call my parents? I think I get a phone call. People who get arrested get a phone call, right?"
Now the guard stood. He lumbered over to the kennel and leaned close without really touching it. This close his humanity was more obvious: burst capillaries in his nose, silver hairs sprouting from a mole below his left ear, sweat stains blackening the blue of his shirt. "I think you're failing to grasp the enormity of the shit you're in. Now if you know what's good for you, you'll sit tight and wait. It won't be long, now."
"It won't be long until what?" Amy asked.
He straightened up and pulled his shirt down where it had bunched up over his curling waistband. He wore a yellow gold wedding ring. The skin around it was puffy and red. He must have started wearing it years ago, when his fingers were slimmer.
"You didn't have to tell me about being young," he said. "It's already on your record."
"So you know I just graduated kindergarten?"
He nodded slowly. "Yup. So I figure maybe you don't know that all you vN were designed by a bunch of Bible-thumpers."
Amy shook her head. "I know. They wanted us for after the Second Coming, or something. To take care of everybody God didn't like."
"That's right. That's why you've got all the right holes and such. So people can indulge themselves without sin."
Amy's attention scattered over several simulated outcomes to this conversation. It cohered on the one in which he opened the cage to touch her, and she wove around him and got away, somehow.
As though he had run the same simulations in his own mind, the guard shook his head. He held up one hand. "Don't worry, kiddo. I'm a grown man; I don't play with dolls." He leaned down a little. "What I'm saying is, I don't know if they left behind some piety programming or what, but if they did you had better make peace with your god."
Amy's body remained very still, but her mind raced. They were going to kill her. She didn't know why. She had been trying to help. Her granny had been hurting people and Amy had stopped it. Maybe that was the problem – maybe her granny belonged to somebody important, and Amy had eaten her. That wasn't her fault, either: she'd only meant to bite her, but Amy's diet left her so hungry all the time. When her jaws opened all the digestive fluid came up, a whole lifetime's worth, hot and bitter as angry tears. It ate the flesh off her granny's bones. By then, Amy couldn't stop. The smoke was too sweet. The bone dust was too crunchy. And the sensation of being full, really full, of her processes finally having enough energy to clock at full speed, was spectacular. Being hungry meant being slow. It meant being stupid. It felt like watching each packet of information fly across her consciousness on the wings of a carrier pigeon. But her granny tasted like Moore's Law made flesh.
"I didn't know it was so bad," Amy said. "I really didn't. I swear. I just couldn't stop myself."
"I know," the guard said. "I used to work corrections before I got this job, and that's what kids in your situation always say, organic or synthetic."
Amy hugged her knees. She supposed organic kids wanted to curl up in a little ball in this situation, too. "There won't be a trial, or anything?"
"Of a kind. Tests, probably. Lots of tests."
"Tests?" That was something. She had to be alive, if there were going to be tests. "I get to live?"
He looked her up and down. "Part of you does, I guess."
Amy pinched the skin of her arms. If you couldn't brag in the brig, where could you? "I've got fractal design memory in here. Even if I'm cut up, my body remembers how to repair itself perfectly. I'll come back in one piece, no matter what."
"Oh, believe me, dollface, I know. I've seen it happen. You put some vN shrapnel in the right culture, and it grows right back. Like cancer." He snorted. "But whether what grows back is actually you? With all the memories, and all the adaptations? That's like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin."
Amy imagined her skin sliced thin as ham, suspended in the shadowy clouds of vN growth medium. Maybe she wouldn't even miss her mom and dad. Never once seeing their faces or hearing their voices or feeling their arms around her would probably hurt a lot less, if she were smashed into a million pieces.
Red lights washed the kennels in a sudden cough syrup haze. "Shit," the guard said. He thumbed off his scroll, rolled it shut, and stuffed it in one shirt pocket. Then he pressed open a panel over his shoulder and retrieved a shotgun. Frowning, he snapped it open and sniffed the rounds. Apparently pleased, he marched down to the kennel holding the other person.
"This your doing?" he asked. "Your boys know where you are?"
"Yeah, same to you, pal. I know exactly what they're doing with you, later. They're gonna smoke your ass." He stared up at the ceiling. "Serial–"
Behind him, another door slammed open, knocking him forward. He stumbled, and the gun clattered to the floor. An alarm filled Amy's ears. She covered them. Now she watched three women walk in through the door. One aimed a can of spray paint at the guard; she misted him with it and he began to collapse. The woman caught him, and laid him down tenderly, arranging his limbs as though for sleep. It must have been some kind of drug in that can; Amy heard no screams and saw no blood. What she did see frightened her more.