Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 10

My alarm made me suck in a gasp and sit up, the smooth cool surface of my netscreen sticking to my cheek. I blinked for a few seconds, disoriented, until I put together where I was: in my dorm room. On Monday morning. I’d still been researching Randall Loomis well into the night, as if I could find something Odessa couldn’t—just a clue of where he might be now. But she could find anything on the labyrinth… and the labyrinth was the only way I knew how to research anything. It was the only place information even existed anymore.

Which is exactly the problem, I reminded myself. If the labyrinth is the only source of information, and somebody controls the information on the labyrinth… how can we know if anything is true?

I splashed water on my face, threw on some clothes, brushed my teeth, and ran a comb through my hair—no time to shower. I didn’t even bother stopping for coffee or breakfast; I had a breakfast bar in my backpack and would make instant coffee in the lab. That would have to suffice; I’d be late as it was. That wasn’t usually a big deal—people rolled in whenever they wanted, as long as they got their work done. Still, I prayed nobody would see me slip in.

“What happened to you?” came Liam’s voice from the adjacent work bench to mine, as if he’d been waiting for me. I was not two steps over the threshold. I closed my eyes.

“Sorry, Liam. I overslept.”

“Again.”

He was not in a good mood. “I’m sorry,” I said again, only glancing at him once as I made my way to my work bench. I deposited my backpack on the floor beside it before heading for the kitchenette. Unfortunately he followed me.

“What have you come up with since Friday?”

I didn’t even know what he was talking about at first. I waited for him to give me a clue, stalling by filling up the kettle with water.

“On the experiment?” he prompted, quickly losing patience. “You said you were going to come up with an experiment on what happens when a person’s core programming and their morality come into conflict?”

“Oh!” I shouldn’t have let that little gasp of recognition escape, but it was out before I could stop it. “Right. Um, what if we use the classic example of finding a wallet full of money as an A.E. experience? We’ll just, um, hook volunteers up to a VMI so we can see what parts of the brain light up…” I was making it up on the fly, and we both knew it. Liam’s face darkened as I spoke.

“You didn’t think about it at all, did you.” It wasn’t even a question.

“No, I did! I went to London with my friends, and we were talking about it. I mean I was asking their opinions, and—”

“Ah, right. Over drinks at the pub?”

“No!” I protested, and then amended, “Well… yes, but it wasn’t like that…” I sighed, realizing I was making it worse. “I’m sorry, Liam. I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

His face was expressionless, which stung even more than the disappointment had. He shrugged. “You don’t have to make it up to me. It’s not like you’re under any obligation to work on weekends. I just thought you understood the magnitude of what we’re up against, and that might weigh more heavily with you than going out drinking with your friends in London. I’m sorry I was wrong.”

He turned and walked away before I had the chance to reply. I felt about a foot tall. I wished I could explain what I’d really been doing, but I didn’t know anything yet, and… I sighed.

I would make it up to him. I’d come up with an outstanding experiment by the end of the day, and he’d forget that I’d disappointed him.

I skipped the coffee break—I definitely didn’t feel like socializing, especially with Liam. I also wanted him to see how diligent I was. Liam skipped it too, but he stayed in his little cubby in the back of the lab and never spoke to me either. Larissa and Nilesh went back there to chat with him a few times in low voices; otherwise the only signs of life were the occasional rustling papers, and a cough or two.

My brainstorming and research for Liam’s experiment wasn’t my best work, despite all this. I was still too distracted with what I really cared about: where to start looking for Loomis? He was last seen in the Capital, but what were the chances he was still there now? Seemed like that would be the most dangerous place he could possibly be, if his friends really were murdered. But if he wasn’t there now, where would he have gone?

Dad would have known, I thought. But if Dad were around for me to ask, I wouldn’t need Loomis in the first place.

Or maybe I could go about it differently, and get a message to Loomis, I thought, try to convince him to come to me. Maybe I could find some way to contact him by going through Dad’s old things? Would any of his contact information still be relevant? Surely not…

It was almost the end of the work day when Liam passed by my desk. I thought he was on the way out and didn’t even expect him to look in my direction as further punishment for my earlier disappointment. But instead he pulled up a chair from the empty work bench beside mine, and sat down next to me with a heavy sigh.

I looked up at him and waited. I didn’t beg for forgiveness again, since clearly that had gotten me nowhere.

“Nobody’s interested,” he said at last, like a confession.

I shook my head. “Who’s not interested in what?”

He bit his lip, running a hand through his unkempt brown hair. It was only now that I realized that it was more unkempt than usual. “Over the weekend, while you were in London, I crossed the Atlantic. I went to three rural towns in the Americas, chosen because they were the ones hit the hardest in terms of job loss when the bots first took over. They’re living on the Common Wage now, and you know what that means. They’re surviving on the genetically modified chemically-laden frankenfood rations the government distributes, and are therefore riddled with chronic disease, which systematized robotic healthcare treats by pumping them full of symptom-suppressing drugs. They’re sick, depressed, and anxious—some just because of all the crap they’re putting in their bodies, but a lot of them just because they don’t have a reason to get up in the morning. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, right? We all need a purpose to live for, and these people have none—and no hope for anything to get better, either. Given all that, I figured they’d hate the bots more than anybody. I thought it would be easy to motivate them to fight with us—grass roots style, of course, since the labyrinth approach is evidently out.” He shook his head and looked away, haunted. “But I could hardly even get them angry. I guess I should have guessed it: in order to be willing to fight, you have to have hope. And they don’t. They all at least believe Halpert’s challenge will lead to even more lost jobs, if not a major existential crisis—but they don’t think they could do anything about it, even if they tried. They said they have a vote in name only. Their representatives only care about Big Business. It’s all about the dollars.” He rubbed his thumb and forefingers together to emphasize his last point, looking forlorn. “This old former shopkeeper told me that the labyrinth will never report it, but based on what they’ve seen in their community, they’re convinced the suicide rate is at least four times higher than it was before the bot takeover.” He sighed. “I’m more convinced than ever that those against are in greater numbers than those who are for Halpert’s challenge, but they won’t even bother to send a comm to their senators, let alone anything else.”

I’d never seen Liam look so defeated before. Cheerful, irrepressible Liam, who always seemed to bounce back. I bit my lip, not sure what to say to this.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you,” he said at last. “I was just upset that this weekend was such a flop, and then when I came back on the Quantum Track on Sunday night, I told myself, ’At least Rebecca’s working on a new strategy to protect us, in case we can’t stop Halpert. We’ll have a new idea soon.’ And then when you came in looking all hung over and like you couldn’t care less, I just… lost it.”

“I do care!” I insisted, indignant, “and I wasn’t hung over, I only had one drink! I’ve never even been drunk in my life.”

His eyes twinkled, but just a little. “Why am I not surprised.”

“If you must know, I fell asleep doing research last night because I found out my father might have been murdered!”

Now I had his full attention. “What?”

I probably shouldn’t have said anything, but it was out now. I thought about choosing my words carefully and telling him only bits and pieces, but what was the point? I knew he’d probe me until I told him the whole thing anyway. So I did: all about the oddly fatal strain of Treblar’s Disease and Randall Loomis, who according to my mom was one of his good friends, and according to Odessa, simply vanished. “I’ve been obsessed with finding him,” I confessed, “hoping he can either confirm or deny what really happened to my dad and all those men he knew. But I don’t even know where to start.”

After a long pause, Liam murmured, “I think I might.”

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