Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 11

Julie invited me to the pub that night, but I turned her down. I needed advice, and much as I loved Julie, I knew she wasn’t exactly a fount of wisdom. The person I wished I could to talk to was Mom—she always knew what to do. But she was too biased in this case; as it was, I dreaded the conversation we’d have to have before the evening was over.

“Good evening!” chirped Madeline when I entered my flat. “Oh! Why the long face?”

I sank to the floor beside my bed so that I was at eye level with Madeline. “Liam thinks I can find out more information about Randall Loomis in the Capital.”

“San Jose?”

I nodded. “And he wanted to go there anyway. He’s discouraged that we’re cut off from the research community with the new labyrinth censorship. Without collaboration, it’ll be virtually impossible for us to come up with anything fast enough to stop Halpert, when he’s got the combined intelligence of the whole world on his side, while we’ve now only got ourselves. Liam says we have to find a way to band together again, and give those who are technical enough to participate in the research a way to share information, while those who aren’t can at least learn what’s happening and start a grass roots movement to stop him.”

“Okay…” Madeline reeled her stick-like metal hand, prompting me to get to the point. A flicker of a smile crossed my face—she’d learned that from me, I knew.

“He wants me to go with him.”

“To the Capital?” She paused. “But… don’t you have class? And exams? And rehearsal?”

“I know,” I sighed. “But… what if I really can find out about Loomis there? What if that’s where he is? Liam says he has lots of connections there—people who might know where he is, if anybody does.”

“When is he leaving?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Madeline said significantly. She wheeled around so that her back pressed against the edge of the bed too, mirroring my own position. “What are you gonna do?”

I sighed, running a hand through my hair, which was kinked in the back where it had been in a ponytail all day. “I have to go, don’t I? If Dad was actually—”

“Don’t say it!” Madeline interrupted, stopping me from saying murdered.

“Well, if he was, then not only is this big—much bigger than school—but…” I groped for words. “But I can’t just let it go now. Not when I’ve come this far. If someone murdered my father, I need to know who, and why, and find a way to make them pay!”

“But… don’t you think that might be dangerous?” Madeline asked in a small voice.

“No. Not yet, anyway,” I said. “All I’d be doing at this stage is gathering information. Not like I’d be out rattling cages and trying to brew a revolution, like Dad was.”

“And like Liam will be?” Madeline asked pointedly.

I opened my mouth and closed it again. “Well, he doesn’t plan on doing any preaching on street corners, to my knowledge. He already tried that. He said it didn’t work.”

“Oh, Rebecca.” Madeline wheeled in front of me and then back and forth, a perfect imitation of a human pacing.

“I might not even have to be gone that long,” I went on, ignoring her fretting. “A couple days to a week maybe? That should be enough to find out if anybody in Liam’s circle knows anything about what happened to Dad. If they don’t, I come back to school and take some make-up exams. Professor Kirby and Professor Helroy both love me, I’m sure they’ll be fine with it. And I can memorize my lines while I’m there, so I can jump right back into rehearsals…”

“What if you do find something out, though?”

I pressed my lips together, one arm wrapped around my bent knees. “Then… I guess I’ll have to drop out of school this semester, and follow the trail wherever it leads.”

We were both silent for a long time. “Sounds like you’ve made up your mind,” Madeline said at last.

“You don’t think it’s a good decision?” I pressed, biting my lip. I hated doing something so potentially massive without outside input—usually I lived my life by consensus of what everyone else thought I should do. Not that Madeline ever disagreed with my decisions. She was endlessly supportive.

“I just want you to stay safe, and graduate, and marry Andy, and live a long, happy life!”

I felt warm inside when she said this—how could anyone not love Madeline?

“I want that too, of course, but…” I shook my head. “But what if Liam’s right? What if Dad was right?”

After a pause, Madeline ventured, “Your dad and Liam would have liked each other, wouldn’t they?”

“Maybe at first,” I shrugged. “But they were both so stubborn, they’d probably have butted heads once they disagreed on how something should be done. Each of them would insist that their way was the only way, and neither one of them would ever apologize…” Then I remembered Liam apologizing to me only earlier that day.

Perhaps I’d misjudged him.

Madeline gave a wistful-sounding sigh. “I wish I’d met your dad.”

It was such a sweet thing to say—I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Dad would have hated her on general principle, and I’d never have been allowed to keep her, had he been alive.

I took another deep breath, reaching into my backpack for my handheld. I stared at it for a minute, trying to decide if I should comm Mom, or call her. A comm would be easier on me: less confrontational. Holographs were almost like being face-to-face, and… well… she wasn’t going to like this.

“Are you going to tell her your real reason for going?” Madeline whispered, knowing my intention without my having to voice it. “That you think your dad was murdered, I mean?”

I shook my head. “No. She wouldn’t understand. She and Dad fought all the time over the conspiracy stuff—she’d hate that I would even entertain the idea that he died because of it.”

“More than she’d hate the idea of you skipping school for an indeterminate period of time to participate in grass-roots politics?”

I felt my heartbeat in my throat. “No, she’ll hate that too,” I conceded. “But… slightly less, maybe? And it’s not a lie—I will be helping Liam with whatever he wants me to, as long as I’m there.”

Finally I decided that even if I did chicken out and comm her, she’d just call me as soon as she got the message anyway. Might as well cut out the extra step. I called.

“Rebecca?” Mom said when she answered, surprised. She was in her pajamas, but she was in a hotel room, yet again. I wondered if she was ever at our house when I wasn’t there. “Shouldn’t you be in class?”

“Mom, I have something to tell you.” I took a deep breath. Better to just get it out. “I’m… not going to be in school for a little while. It might only be a few days,” I added hastily. “Or… it might be longer. I don’t know.”

She stared at me, not comprehending. When the silence became uncomfortable, I blurted, “Liam and I believe there’s a conspiracy to spread only propaganda about the bots, and they’re silencing all dissenting opinions. We can’t work collaboratively with other researchers without the help of the labyrinth, so we’re going to spread the word against Halpert’s challenge the only way we can: in person—before it’s too late.”

Mom stared at me still, and I could see the wheels turning in her head. “You’re dropping out of school?”

“Just for a few days. Maybe a week. Or… maybe longer. It depends on what happens when we get there.” I waited, heart pounding in my throat.

She opened her mouth and closed it again, as if fumbling for words. “And you expect me to believe that this isn’t just because you want to travel more than you want to study?”

That was the last thing I’d expected. “What? No! Halpert’s challenge could destroy mankind as we know it!” Liam’s words, not mine, but they came in handy at the moment. “And now that we can’t collaborate with other researchers via the labyrinth—”

“Oh, please, Rebecca,” said Mom, scornfully. “You never cared about any of your research, you were always ready to drop it in a heartbeat if it meant you could do something else you enjoy more. This is just Rebecca satisfying Rebecca’s whims. You’re going to end up on the Common Wage like everyone else! After all that your father and I sacrificed to give you every opportunity—with all your intelligence and potential, you’re just going to throw it away for the sake of instant gratification?”

Tears pricked at the corners of my eyes, though I wasn’t sure if they were of sadness or of indignation.

“That’s so unfair!” I finally managed. Again, I thought of telling her my suspicions: about Dad, and about Loomis, and the unusual strain of Treblar’s… but my instinct told me that would be even worse than letting her think I was just acting out my selfish whims.

Mom didn’t speak for a long moment, and her holographic eyes looked over my shoulder and not directly at me. I had the impression that she was trying not to cry, too. At last, she murmured, “If you affiliate yourself with these absurd conspiracy theories, Rebecca, even if you were to change your mind later and come back, it will be too late. You will blacklist yourself from any possibility of having a meaningful job. If you do this, that’s it. You’ve thrown away everything!

“No one will have a meaningful job if Halpert gets his way, Mom!” I retorted. “That’s the whole point, but it’s worse than that, even—”

Before I could finish, she interjected, “Maybe eventually that might be true, but not for many years to come. You would still have the chance of earning some savings, if you focused on contributing to society! You are condemning yourself to a life of poverty, and I—I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you about this anymore!”

She hung up on me. My mom actually hung up on me.

It wasn’t until Madeline rolled up beside me and placed a tiny metal hand on my forearm that I realized I was trembling, still staring at the space in the room where Mom’s holograph had been. Comfort always did me in: I burst into tears, burying my face in my hands as Madeline stroked my arm.

“She only said all those things because she loves you,” Madeline murmured. “All she can see is the impact this choice might have on your life.”

“She—thinks I’m being an idiot, that it’s all about doing what I want,” I sniffed, wiping my face even though the tears kept coming. “I can’t make her understand without telling her the truth, and that would be even worse!”

“She’s just looking at it through the lens of her own prejudices,” Madeline soothed. “She’ll calm down. She always does.”

I glanced away from Madeline, and my watery gaze landed absently on my netscreen. Andy was available on A.E.

I wanted to be comforted, and I especially wanted to be comforted by Andy. So I got up and tapped on his name, intentionally not wiping my tears from my cheeks. I wanted him to see that I’d been crying.

He answered. “Hi. How’s it going?” No comments about my tear-stained face. This annoyed me, but I decided to give him a second chance.

“Um, not so good.” I might have made my voice tremble a little more than necessary.

I couldn’t totally read his expression, but I did see the comprehension dawn. Did he look uncomfortable? “What’s the matter?” he asked.

So I told him. I told him about cutting school, about going with Liam to the Capital, and about how my mom had called me selfish and hung up on me. A little piece of me hoped he would volunteer to come with us, even though I knew he wouldn’t.

“So… you’re upset about your mom, then?”

“Yes!” I snapped, annoyed that he seemed so apathetic to the rest of my story. What about the whole dropping out of school thing, the sacrifice I was making to try to stop what appeared to be a tyrant from stealing the last vestiges of humanity from us? (Even though that wasn’t my real motive.)

“I’m sure she’ll come around,” Andy shrugged. “Sorry you guys fought.”

I blinked at him, and I could feel before it happened that I was about to say something I’d regret.

“You don’t care at all, do you?”

His eyes widened. “Of course I care!”

“No you don’t! You’re so busy getting plastered and making out with random girls that you can’t see past your next party!”

Andy gaped at me. “Wha—?”

“I’ve got to go, I’ll talk to you later.” I hung up before he could see me burst into fresh tears.

I glanced up at last to see Madeline struggling for something supportive to say. “Well… I’m sure he deserved it…”

“I’m just so tired of this!” I sobbed. “Andy doesn’t care about me, he doesn’t care about anybody but himself!”

On the bed beside me, my handheld blinked with a comm from Liam: two of them, actually. The first one came when I was talking to either Mom or Andy, and it said, “Dr Yin actually knows someone who knows Halpert himself! She thinks she might be able to get us an introduction. Friends in high places can’t hurt anything.” The second comm, about half an hour later, said, “Hell-ooo?”

I tossed the handheld aside. I couldn’t deal with Liam right now.

“What are you really upset about?” Madeline prodded, in a low, soothing tone. “Andy, or your mom?”

I thought for a minute, sniffed, and wiped my face. “Both.” Then I added, “But mostly my mom. I just hate, hate the idea that she thinks I’m irresponsible and self-centered, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t make her understand, and that is the most helpless, frustrating feeling… All I wanted was for Andy to make up for it by at the very least telling me he admired my choice, and that I was doing the right thing! If not deciding to come with us. Which I guess I didn’t really expect. But he doesn’t get it, either. Nobody gets it!”

“Maybe… if you told Andy what you wanted him to say?” Madeline suggested.

“What good is it if I have to tell him what to say?” I shot back. I knew Madeline was only trying to help, and I was making it hard on her by shooting down all her suggestions. But really. Tell him?

I glanced at the netscreen and saw that Jake was on A.E. also. “I could tell Jake, or Julie,” I murmured, looking at the blinking name on my netscreen, “But he won’t get it either. Jake already thinks I work too much and I should lighten up. Mom thinks I work too little and should get serious.” I gave a short, humorless laugh.

“So… you can’t please everybody,” Madeline surmised.

“I’m not asking for everybody. I’m just asking the people I love to understand that I’m not being irresponsible and selfish, I’m making a sacrifice!” My handheld lit up again. “Ugh, what?!” I groaned, and grabbed it. Liam’s third comm flashed: “Sorry, you’re probably out saying goodbye to your friends and ignoring your comms and here I am pestering you like you have as little life as I have. :) Write me when you can.”

“Yeah. Me and my thriving social life,” I sniffed miserably. I still didn’t feel like writing Liam back just yet—who incidentally now was in a much better mood than he had been this morning—so instead I composed a comm to both Jake and Julie. I still needed some support from someone, but I didn’t have the courage for another potentially disastrous holograph conversation.

What I wrote was, “I know you won’t understand this and you’ll think I’m obsessive, but I’m cutting school for however long it takes to try to spread the world about Halpert’s challenge and where it will lead. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”

I just stared at the screen after I sent it, waiting and hoping for someone to say something encouraging. A few minutes later, Jake wrote, “I think what you’re doing is heroic, Becca. You know a lot more about all that stuff than I do. Maybe I’ll pop over and see you sometime, wherever you are, and convince you to take a little time off!”

I closed my eyes with relief. I could always count on Jake. I wrote back: “Thank you so much! I would love that!”

As I wrote Jake, Julie’s reply popped up: “Wow. Well, good luck, I guess! I’ll miss you! Let me know when you’re back.”

Somewhat less supportive than Jake’s had been, but at least she didn’t tell me I was crazy or stupid.

“What if someone else told Andy what you wanted him to say?” Madeline suggested. “Would that be good?”

“No, if he cares enough, he’ll figure it out on his own,” I muttered. But I did feel slightly better with Jake and Julie’s support.

“You know what you need!” chirped Madeline suddenly.

“What?”

“A cup of hot cocoa, and Jane of Wilder Mountains, while you pack!”

I smiled in spite of myself. Jane of Wilder Mountains was one of my favorite films. It was set in simpler times, about misunderstandings and happily ever afters. It was directed by Abraham Chiefton—Liam said he was one of Halpert’s board, and I guess now that I thought about it, I could see a tiny bit of propaganda in there. Jane did have a faithful companion bot who saved the day, after all… but then, so did I. The film never failed to make me happy.

“Not a bad idea,” I admitted.

“I’ll queue it up while you go heat up some milk!” Madeline announced. The water kettle was in my room, but my favorite cocoa was always better with milk than with water, which required the kitchen. I kissed Madeline’s shiny forehead.

“Thanks,” I whispered. “You always know what to do.”

She beamed at me.

I moved slower than I needed to, still feeling sad about my mom and about Andy. I heated the milk in a pan, stirring so that it wouldn’t burn, when I got another comm: it was from Andy this time.

“I don’t know who told you I’m getting trashed and making out with random girls, but it’s not true.”

I snorted, a flare of indignation rising again as I shoved the handheld back into my pocket. Ivan told me he had been, and Ivan wasn’t a liar. Andy, on the other hand, would say whatever was most convenient at the time. He just wanted me to think he was wholesome because I was—that was my reputation. He did like me, so he wanted me to think well of him. Either that, or he just wants everyone to think well of him, I added to myself bitterly, pouring the heated milk into my waiting mug. I carried it back to my room, putting Andy’s comm out of my mind.

I couldn’t put it out of my mind. I couldn’t think about anything else. As soon as I reached the room and set the mug down, I pulled out my handheld again and dashed off, “What about Yolanda?”

A second later, Andy wrote, “We’re just friends.”

“Is that Andy?” Madeline asked, knowing.

“He’s telling me he and Yolanda are ‘just friends!’ As if Ivan hasn’t told me everything!”

Madeline wheeled in front of me, fretting. “What do you want to happen with Andy?”

“I just—I just want him to know better than to hook up with a brainless bimbo just because she’s easy and she’s there!” I railed, as the opening credits of Jane of Wilder Mountains rolled. “He once told me I was a beautiful girl, and I’m ‘so brilliant and so far above him,’ and then he goes and hooks up with the likes of her! If I’m so great, why, why, why?” I threw the handheld on the bed as if it had done me a personal insult, and yanked my suitcase out of the closet, slamming my few personal belongings inside with similar vehemence. “It’s like I’m invisible! I can win in every category across the board, and still he picks whatever other girl happens to be in front of him at the time! It can be me against anybody, anybody else, and he’ll always pick the other girl. Always!”

Jane, the girl in the pretty gingham dress appeared on the netscreen, traipsing through the woods and gathering wildflowers, her faithful companion bot at her side. I had seen the film so many times that I could quote it; no need to pay attention.

Madeline waited for me to stop breathing so hard before she finally asked, “So you want Andy to pick you, then? That would make you happy?”

My eyes swiveled to her and narrowed. “What kind of a question is that? Of course that would make me happy!” She said nothing, and just watched me. At first this irked me even more. I sank down to the bed beside the open suitcase and added irritably, “I don’t know what you’re implying.”

Madeline rolled over until she was as close to me as she could get. “I’m just trying to understand. You say you want him to pick you, but every time he comes close to pursuing you, saying all those things you just mentioned, you panic and avoid him.”

“I do not—!”

Madeline went on, “Then when he goes after some other girl again, you’re devastated. And you complain that you don’t have much to say to each other, either…”

“That’s not true—” I started.

Madeline interrupted, “So running those facts through my algorithms of possible human motivations, one thing keeps coming up: you think you want to be with him, but you don’t, really.”

“How can you say that?” I demanded. “All I want is Andy! That’s all I’ve ever wanted, for years!”

Madeline blinked at me rapidly, her digital eyes darting all around the room like she was scrolling through an internal flow chart. “If that is true, and if human relationships always begin with initiation, and if he has given you many clues in the past that he had feelings for you, without a favorable response, then I see only one possible solution that is currently under our control.”

“Oh yeah?” I sighed. “And what’s that?”

“Tell him how you feel.”

“What? No!” I cried, spluttering, “I can’t… he’s… making out with other people! He’d say no, and it would wreck our friendship, and it would be so awkward, and I’d be devastated…”

Madeline rolled back and forth in front of me. “Algorithms of human behavior imply that he is unlikely to approach you again without encouragement—”

“I’m giving him encouragement!” I cried, “look at the conversation we just had! How could he possibly think that was anything other than jealousy? Oh, geez,” I sank to the floor, suddenly mortified as I realized how obvious this was.

“In that case, you have nothing to lose by making it explicit,” Madeline pointed out.

No. I’m not doing that. No.” I folded my arms over my chest for emphasis.

She blinked rapidly again; cue the internal flowchart, I thought. “Would you wish for him to know how you feel, if you didn’t have to be the one to tell him?”

“What, you mean if someone else told him? No, that’d be awful! Unless they were just guessing or something, like if Ivan said he suspected it, I guess that would be okay. But if Julie or someone just told him—” I shuddered. “I’d be humiliated!”

“But Ivan guessing would be okay?”

I shrugged. “I guess so.” I was tired of talking about this; it was all hypothetical anyway. I rested my back on the edge of the bed, my cocoa growing cold on the desk above me, staring at Jane and Humphrey at their town’s country square dance without really seeing them. Finally I got up and resumed packing. Madeline didn’t speak either.

She was wrong. I didn’t pull away when I had the opportunity—I’d never actually had the opportunity!

The handheld vibrated again, and I groaned. “Ugh, what now?”

But it was Mom. “I’m sorry I blew up at you. Your father died because of the stress of the very conspiracy theories that I’m afraid you are now believing. The bitterness of it claimed his life, and those of many of his companions. I want more than that for you, and I’m afraid that you’re throwing away your one chance at bettering your future. I’m sorry for saying you were being selfish. I just don’t want you to follow in his footsteps. Please don’t go to the Capital, Rebecca. For me.”

“What?” Madeline whispered when she saw my face. My eyes glistened with tears.

“Mom,” I whispered to her, wiping the tears away. I hated to disappoint her further, but at least we were talking in a civilized way now. I wrote, “I know, Mom. I don’t want to throw away the opportunity you and Dad gave me, and that isn’t what this is about. This isn’t going to be a ‘fun’ trip. I’m going with Liam, too, so I’ll still be working on experiment ideas while I’m there. He wants me to try to design an experiment to identify free will in the brain, so we can build in a failsafe and block the new generation of bots from having it. He said this might even turn into my Ph.D. thesis.”

Liam! I realized I’d never written him back, in the midst of all the mess with Andy and with Mom. Once I’d sent my reply to Mom, I wrote Liam and said, “That’s great, I’m glad we’ll have some connections to make this easier!”

Mom’s comm came back: “You can work on your experiments in Dublin. Tell me you won’t be going to the Capital, Rebecca.”

I frowned, annoyed. Why was she being so insistent about this? I was an adult, after all.

“Why don’t you just tell her you aren’t going?” Madeline whispered, hovering over me.

“Because I am going, and Mom and I don’t lie to each other,” I said, still frowning. Then I wrote, “I don’t want to disappoint you, Mom. But I have to do what I think is right.”

A few seconds later, she wrote, “Just what do you think you’re going to do in the Capital, anyway? Who do you know there that can be of any use to you?”

I huffed my answer aloud to Madeline: “I don’t know, Liam’s the one with the connections and the ideas. Not like it would mean anything to her if I told her who they were anyway.” Unless she wants to know if any of Liam’s connections are former friends of Dad’s. I wrote, “I’m sure all of Dad’s contacts are long gone, Mom.”

She replied, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

I sighed again, tossing the handheld back onto the bed. We weren’t going to resolve this tonight.

I should probably apologize to Andy, though, I thought. I grabbed the handheld again and told him I hadn’t meant it and was upset about Mom, not about him. I asked him to forgive me.

I flashed back to dinner with Liam—was that just last week?—when he’d asked me what my core programming was.

“Be perfect. And then they’ll love you,” I’d said.

The problem is, according to whose standard?

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