Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 12

The next morning, Liam rapped his knuckles against my door in a little syncopated knock pattern that told me he was still in a good mood.

“Latte. Right?” He thrust a cup at me as soon as I opened the door, his blue eyes dancing with excitement.

I laughed, still groggy. “Thanks. I’m almost ready, come in.”

“Really? You are?” He looked me up and down—I still wore leopard print pajama pants and the t-shirt I’d slept in.

“What, you don’t think I’ll fit in?” I looked down at my own attire.

Madeline rolled in behind me, and chirped, “I packed everything I could reach—oh.” She stopped when she saw Liam. “Hello.”

“Hello again.” Liam’s tone couldn’t be any chillier.

I sighed, exasperated. “Okay, you two are going to have to find a way to make nice with each other, because we’re all going to be spending a lot of time together. I’m going to go change, and when I come back…” I gave Liam a pointed look.

He pretended to glare back at me, but I could tell he wasn’t really annoyed. This was the best possible time to leave him alone with Madeline. I didn’t think anything could dampen his spirits today.

We finally left my flat an hour before our Quantum Shuttle left. Liam zipped Madeline into my backpack himself, and even offered to carry it for me, along with my little suitcase and his own—a show of goodwill, I’m sure, in exchange for the sacrifice I was making. Of course he knew that I wasn’t making it for him, per se, but he didn’t seem to care about my specific motivations. Or maybe he was just being a gentleman. Funny, I thought—I’d associated a lot of words with Liam in the years I’d known him, but gentleman was never one of them. He even bought me breakfast in the station before we boarded: an egg and sausage pasty and yet another latte.

“I know you’re an addict,” was his reply when I thanked him. “Besides, you still look only half awake. What were you doing last night, partying the night away?”

I snorted. “Not exactly.”

He gave me a sidelong glance. Normally that reply would have been enough, but today he seemed determined to make conversation as I settled beside him on the Quantum Track compartment, nestling the backpack containing Madeline between my feet.

“Well?” he prompted. “You weren’t answering my comms, so I assumed you must have been out doing something.”

“Because normally I don’t do anything except sit around staring at my handheld with bated breath, waiting for your comms.” Recent anomalies excepted, I still didn’t really want to pour my heart out to Liam.

His lips twitched. “You could just enable the comm feature chip in your temple, so my comms will display directly on your retinas, you know. Then you’ll never miss a comm from me again!”

“Why didn’t I think of that?” I smirked, sipping my latte. I still felt he was waiting for an answer, so I said, “All I was doing was packing, with a movie on as background noise. And I talked to a few people on holograph. That’s all.”

“What movie?”

Apparently he must find something to make fun of. “Not telling,” I said.

Worst thing I could possibly have said.

“Ahh!” said Liam. “Oh wait, let me guess: Madison Gardens?”

“Nope,” I said. Madison Gardens was basically a glorified soap opera from the Second Era. Also one of my favorites, but there was no way I’d give him the satisfaction of telling him so.

“Or no, what’s that new animated interactive A.E. flick where you get to play the princess?”

Actually I really wanted to see that, but I laughed scornfully. “Of course not! Maybe it was a World War IV movie, ever think of that?”

He raised one eyebrow, inspecting me. “You’d like me to think so, wouldn’t you?”

I crossed my arms over my chest, determined to change the subject. “So did you and Madeline make up?”

Liam lay one hand over his heart melodramatically. “Absolutely. I told her that if she’s your friend, and you’re my—er, sort of friend—then she and I should be friends with each other, too. She heartily agreed.”

“I’m your ‘sort of’ friend?” I repeated, slightly taken aback. “What does that mean?”

“Well, I’m not exactly sure what we are…”

I felt the heat rising to my cheeks, pretending not to understand him. “Now that we’re not in the lab, you’re not my boss anymore, so it seems like ‘friend’ is the only thing left!”

He eyed me for a long moment. I knew he saw the blush. I knew it. He knew I knew it, too.

“It is, huh?” he said finally. “If you say so.”

We were silent for a long time after that. Too long, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

We arrived in the Capital of the Republic, San Jose, in about six hours. I’d seen plenty of images on the labyrinth, but I’d never been there in person before. I’d figured if I’d been to Phoenix and to Dublin, it couldn’t be all that different, right?

Wrong. This place took my breath away—not because it was beautiful exactly, but because it was so very… busy. There were nearly as many bots as there were people, not only in the shop windows but on the streets too. I’d never seen so many in one place before. I was used to the Quantum Track hover technology, but there were hover vehicles everywhere here, all self-driving. I knew they weren’t exactly flying, but it looked like they were, as they zipped through three-dimensional space trying to avoid each other. Many of the people on the streets wore their A.E. eyepieces, distracted by whatever was displayed across their retinas.

Liam grinned at me over his shoulder, hoisting my backpack higher on his back. “You doing okay? Going through culture shock back there?”

I wasn’t that far behind him, but it was true that I wasn’t walking nearly as quickly as I usually did. I was just trying to take it all in.

“I feel so… backwards,” I told him at last, having to shout over the din to be heard. This place could not be any more different from Casa Linda, or even from Dublin, whose activity stemmed largely from the university and its students. Everyone here was dressed like they’d just come from a board meeting, and all of them seemed to have somewhere to be. I jumped back as a man and a woman thrust their way between Liam and me to get to a hover car, which took off about a second after they shut the door.

Liam reached his free hand back to me, presumably to make sure we didn’t lose each other. I took it with the hand that was not dragging my suitcase behind me, trying to think nothing of the fact that I was now holding Liam’s hand.

He looks completely at home here, I noticed. I was glad one of us did, but it surprised me a little. It occurred to me that I didn’t know much about Liam, or his life before I met him. He was always trying to get more information about me, while I put him off so I didn’t seem too interested. I suppose I hadn’t asked for reciprocal information for the same reason. But now, I found myself curious.

As if in response to my silent questions, Liam huffed as we trudged up a very steep incline, “We’re heading up two more blocks. Friend of mine lives there. There should be a welcoming committee for us.”

The crowd had thinned out now, so I dropped Liam’s hand. He didn’t protest. I saw Madeline poke her enormous eyes out of the zipper, and look around with wonder.

“It’s like a whole new world!” she squeaked.

I patted the bits of Madeline’s forehead that I could reach, following Liam as he reached the crest of the hill and turned.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was surprised when Liam ducked inside a pub. The walls were paneled with dark wood, and bedecked with paintings in elaborate gold frames, while orangish light came from chandeliers on the ceiling. Almost nobody was inside, which was surprising, since it was about dinnertime.

“They’re downstairs,” Liam told me. He turned and waved at a man behind the bar, who raised a hand in response.

“Hey Liam!” came the shout from behind the bar.

“Hey, Kyle!” Liam shouted back, but kept going.

When we emerged to the lower level below the pub, I saw bookcases, windows near the ceiling just before the room dipped too far underground, and what was unmistakably an apartment.

“Liam!” shouted one voice, and then there was a cacophony. I couldn’t even count how many people were in the room. Most of them were male, and they skewed younger, which I guess made sense, given that they were Liam’s friends… but there were some women too, and a few members of older generations. I even counted a couple of babies in their mothers’ arms, though these stood off to the side. I suspected they belonged with some of the more enthusiastic young men in the center of the room, clapping Liam on the back in greeting. Kyle came down the stairs to see what all the fuss was about, too.

“Guys, guys!” Liam cried out, and everyone quieted down long enough for him to gesture at me and say, “This is Rebecca!” A few of them politely shook my hand or clapped me on the back, before Liam added, “Rebecca Cordeaux.

The effect of my last name was immediate. The politeness turned to stares, and a few open mouths. Finally, one ventured, “As in… Quentin Cordeaux?”

Suddenly uncomfortable, I nodded. “He was my father.”

A beat, and then the room erupted again. Those closest to me now hugged me in greeting, or stared at me in awe, and I heard a few shouts to Liam, “Why don’t you tell somebody!”

“Your father was a legend,” said a skinny, pale young man beside me, with wide, almost reverent eyes. “He was one of the pioneers of the Renegades.”

“The—?” I began, but then remembered. The Renegades. Of course. Liam had told me that’s what they called themselves. I just hadn’t imagined there were so many of them.

“Silence!” cried one boy with shockingly thick black hair pulled back in a ponytail, and wire rimmed glasses. He wore a dark green t-shirt with faded white print and holes in it, and stood on a folding chair, holding up his hands.

“That’s Francis,” whispered the pale young man next to me, sounding a little awed. “He’s our second-in-command, when M isn’t here, and he’s the smartest guy you’ll ever meet.”

I had no idea what sort of chain of command they had, nor who M was, but it was the awe that piqued my curiosity. I inspected Francis more closely now: his face was all angles and planes, and I had the impression he rarely smiled. The group quieted down at once. “Let’s have Liam tell the story just the once, instead of three hundred and twenty four times to all of us individually, shall we?” With a calm that came with confident control, he gestured for Liam to occupy the folding chair on which he stood, as he stepped down himself. “Liam?”

The moment Liam climbed up on the chair instead of Francis, I felt the mood shift. A few members of the group wolf-whistled, and Liam tossed a wink in the direction of his admirers. Liam, too, had a reputation here, though it seemed a very different one from Francis’s. Then, with uncharacteristic sincerity, Liam said, “You guys are a sight for sore eyes, you know that?” He waved off the various sarcastic retorts to this, and went on, “No seriously, the fact that even without my locus, we can still assemble the Renegades at a moment’s notice, the old fashioned way… it gives me hope.” This met with nods around the room. Then, “For Rebecca’s sake, how many of you had your own locus?” Almost every hand went up around the room—and despite Francis’s hyperbole, I estimated that there were maybe seventy people in the small space. Then again, Francis didn’t strike me as the type to use figures of speech—so I wondered if perhaps three hundred twenty four was really the total number of Renegades, present company or otherwise. “How many of you still have a locus?” Every hand went down. “Raise your hand if you lost it in the last week.” Almost every one of them went up again.

“M said it means we’re a threat!” shouted one, “otherwise Halpert and his cronies wouldn’t have bothered with us!” This met with a few assenting murmurs.

“Who is M?” I whispered to the boy beside me.

“Our leader. Her real name’s Harriet Albright,” he whispered. “She’s high up in the Republic Intelligence Agency, so we try not to use her real name. We call her M because she’s the head of our intel operation here. You know, M—James Bond’s boss, from those films from the Second Age?” He grinned at me. “Somebody started calling her that a few years back, and the name just stuck.”

Liam was saying, “I assume we were able to assemble this many of us because of personal contacts. Raise your hand if you still have a way to contact one hundred of your followers.” About half the hands in the room went up. “One thousand?” Most went down—only two hands remained in the air.

One of them said, “We backed up our contact lists. We’ve still got about a hundred thousand between us,” and he high-fived his friend.

I saw the flicker of regret cross Liam’s face. I knew he was wishing he’d done the same. But then he said, “Excellent. So we’re all here to figure out how to leverage what we know and the contacts we do still have—”

“What’s Cordeaux’s daughter doing here?” interrupted someone.

Liam looked at me and raised his eyebrows: an invitation to speak for myself. I loved being on stage while playing a character, but just now I felt nervous. I wished I’d prepared what to say to a group this size in advance—should I assume they were all safe?

Well, if Liam thinks they are… As Liam stepped down from the folding chair, he offered me a hand to help me up in his place. I took it, and surveyed the room, clearing my throat.

“Liam and I—work together,” I began, and overheard someone elbow Liam and say suggestively, “Work together, huh?” I turned a withering glare upon the speaker, a young programmer-type with a bit of a gut and unruly brown hair. He shrank back under my glare. Liam pursed his lips, trying not to laugh. I went on, “I guess you all know my father died six years ago, of an unusual strain of Treblar’s Disease. What I didn’t know until recently was that many of his associates died of the same thing, at almost the same time.” I waited for this to sink in, scanning the room for any hint of recognition. Many of them nodded, looking appropriately somber now. “I think that seems… odd. According to official labyrinth reports, all of them contracted the disease in the French West Indies, but I don’t remember that my dad ever went there. In fact, I think the last trip he took before he died was here, to San Jose.”

“So you’re not here to help the Renegades,” said Francis, arms folded across his chest as he sized me up. “You’re here to find out what happened to your father.” It wasn’t a question.

I stood up a little straighter. “I may be here to help, too. I’m not sure yet.”

Francis rolled his eyes, and then flicked them over my body, carelessly. “Oh, please. You’re about twenty, maybe twenty-one at the most. One shoulder is a bit lower than the other where you carry your backpack from class to class, which tells me you’re still a student. From the way you just straightened up to allow your diaphragm the space to project, you’ve done some kind of performance, likely classical theater since you’re in the former UK. Not exactly the kind of pastime that implies you spend many hours researching conspiracies and espionage. You’re a decent actress, it’s true, but your pupils shrank to pinpoints just now, so you’re feeling intimidated. Therefore, you’re still more interested in what people think of you than you are in finding out the truth, and when push comes to shove, you’ll retreat back to your comfortable little life and leave us to do the dirty work. The only inducement strong enough to tempt you away was the discovery that your father’s death might not have been what you believed it was. That’s why you’re here; no more, and no less.”

Francis said all this in almost a monotone, and very fast—as if it were all the most obvious thing in the world. I felt the blood first drain from my face, and then rush back into it, burning with indignation and embarrassment. I desperately wished I were witty enough to come up with a clever retort on the spot, but came up dry.

It was Liam who rescued me.

“Francis!” he snapped, “Enough!” He nodded at me, his expression gentle and encouraging. “Ignore him, we all do. Go ahead.”

I turned back to the group, shaken and trying not to look at Francis. Now I felt self-conscious even about calling upon my acting training, but I didn’t know what else to do. Willing my voice to be steady, I said, “All right then. You’re—correct. Francis.” Shoulders back, I thought. Chin high. It gave the illusion of confidence at least, to everyone except Francis. Even if they all saw through me now, thanks to him. “What do any of you know about Randall Loomis?”

A murmur passed through the room, before Francis answered for them, “He was one of the original members of the Renegades. He was a close friend of your dad’s.”

“I know that much, but what happened to him?” I retorted, a slight edge to my voice.

After a pause, the skinny boy who had stood beside me earlier said, “Nobody knows. He didn’t get Treblar’s with the others. He just vanished.”

“M probably knows,” said another. “She knows a lot more than she tells us…”

Frustration boiled in my stomach. “So all of these early Renegade members died, or vanished. Don’t you think that’s a little fishy?” I demanded. “Yet here you all are, in the Capital, in plain sight! If all these people you admired suddenly contracted a fatal illness all at the same time, then why stay here? Do you have a death wish?”

Someone shouted, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer!” to a ripple of nods throughout the room.

I deflated with disappointment. I said to the room, but looked at Liam, “So nobody knows anything about Loomis, then?”

“Like I told you, M might know,” said the skinny boy who had stood beside me.

“Well, where is M?” I turned to Liam. “Do you know her?”

Liam gave me a helpless shrug. “I’ve met her a handful of times, but we can’t get in touch with her between meetings—it would blow her cover. She has to come to us.”

I stepped off the chair, melting back into the crowd and toward the wall as the chatter of the crowd emerged again. I passed by Liam on my way and tugged at my backpack, still slung across his shoulder. He gave it to me, with a wary look.

“I hope you’re not going outside.”

“I just need some air,” I told him. And I needed to vent to Madeline, which is why I wanted my backpack.

He sighed, reluctant. “All right.” He put a hand on the slope of my back, like he planned to guide me out.

“I don’t need an escort,” I told him, but he shook his head.

“I don’t want you to be exposed and on your own. It’s getting dark out there, too.”

Who knew Liam could be so overprotective? I thought. “Thank you, but I’ll be fine,” I told him. “Are we staying somewhere nearby? It’s still a bit light out, I can just go find it and meet you there. Please, Liam,” I added when I saw that he was about to protest again. “I just need to be alone.”

He crossed his arms over his chest and eyed me, like he was studying my face. Finally he said, “We’re staying a couple doors down, at the Rasworth Inn. It’s catty-corner from here.” He pointed. “You’re sure you won’t let me walk you there? I promise I’ll come right back and leave you alone.”

“Fine,” I said, knowing that he’d try to pry my feelings out of me on the way. But he was being a gentleman—yet again, to my continued surprise—so I reminded myself to add, “Thank you.”

Liam excused me to the group for the evening and himself just for the moment, to a chorus of “nice to meet you’s” and “see you tomorrow!s” as I waved my exit. Again, his hand found the slope of my back. I was very aware of it. Too aware.

“You okay?” he asked me, dragging his suitcase but carrying my backpack again. I still dragged my own suitcase too.

I hesitated, deciding whether or not to lie. But I’m a bad liar. “I don’t know what I’m doing here, Liam,” I said at last. “I’m cutting school because I was so sure my dad was murdered because he was on to something, and maybe this Loomis could tell me what it was—”

“Shh!” Liam hissed. “Keep your voice down!”

I rolled my eyes. There was no one anywhere nearby, and I wasn’t talking loudly. I went on, “But if none of even those guys know anything about it, or where Loomis is… maybe they really did all go to the French West Indies and contract a weird strain of Treblar’s at the same time, for all I know! Dad didn’t tell us anything else about what he was doing, so maybe he lied about where he went, too. Wouldn’t that make more sense? If all these other guys are hiding in plain sight, they can’t really be in that much danger.”

“I think Francis knows more than what he wanted to announce in a room that large,” Liam said. “I’ll talk to him in private and see what else he can tell us.”

“I didn’t get the impression Francis had much discretion of any kind,” I muttered.

Liam gave a short laugh. “Social discretion, no. He tends to leave broken glass everywhere he goes, and then wonders why people don’t like him. But he’s a very sharp guy, and he does understand the need for keeping secrets for other reasons.”

“What is he, a high functioning autistic or something?” I muttered.

Liam shrugged. “Something like that. An idiot savant, maybe.”

When we reached the front desk, he placed his thumb on a scanner pad to check in, and I did the same. Then Liam helped me upstairs with the luggage, and dropped his suitcase in his room before coming to mine next door. When I opened the door, he placed his hands on my shoulders, looking into my eyes.

“Hey,” he said. “What we are doing is the most important thing we could possibly be doing at this point in history. We’re finding a way to fight for the future of humanity, and we might not know how yet, but we are going to succeed. Your father would be proud of you.”

I blinked at him, taken aback. It was such a personal thing to say.

As if sensing this, Liam dropped my shoulders and said, “I’ll be back in a few hours. I’ll tell you whatever I find out in the morning. Sleep well.”

“Thanks,” I said, watching him retreat.

When he was gone, I sighed and closed my eyes, glancing back at the dark room with thick, drawn curtains and deep maroon paisley carpet. I wasn’t tired, and I didn’t much want to sit in that cave any longer than I had to. I still really wanted some air, actually. I could just take a walk for a few blocks and come back—we seemed to be in a safe enough area.

What Liam doesn’t know won’t hurt him, I decided.

I slipped my handheld into my pocket, just in case, and put my backpack on again. Then I descended the stairs, and passed by the front desk again on my way out. The silvery bot behind the desk swiveled politely, mirroring my movement until I’d slipped outside.

It was dusk now; a few people wandered though the streets or took hover cabs, but for the most part, this section of town was largely deserted. Maybe that was why Liam and the Renegades had picked it.

The Renegades. It sounded so silly. Maybe there was censorship going on, and that was bad, but it wasn’t what I’d cut school for. I wouldn’t have cut school for just that. I’d have gone to someone else’s lab if I had to, graduated, gotten a job for however many years I could, and put money in the bank. Then when I got edged out of my job by a bot who was smarter than I was, I’d have spent all my time writing novels even if nobody could buy them, and performing in musicals, even if no one could pay to see them. I’d have performed and written for free, and had a wonderful life.

I still could, I reminded myself. That would make Mom happy, anyway. Not the performing part, but the going back to school part.

I slid my backpack to my front side, intending to power Madeline back up again for some company. But just as I was about to press the button, I saw movement out of my peripheral vision. I might not have noticed, except that something about it seemed furtive and intentional.

I turned, and saw a silhouette of a man—just standing there. Watching me.

Waiting for me?

Liam is gonna kill me for this, I thought, as I moved toward him. Not to mention Mom. Yet somehow I wasn’t afraid. He was a strange man in a dark alley, yes—but he didn’t seem like the stereotype of the “man in an alley” whom one ought to avoid at all costs. I couldn’t say why, but even from his frame, I could tell he wasn’t dangerous. He looked clean-cut, and older. Non-threatening.

“Rebecca Cordeaux,” he said when I’d gotten close enough.

That stopped me cold. My heart beat faster. “Yes?”

“I hear you’ve been looking for me.”

My mouth went dry. I took a step closer, inspecting his face in the feeble shaft of moonlight. White hair, receding hairline, and deep wrinkles around the mouth and nose. He looked a bit too old, but— “Randall Loomis?” I hissed.

“You can call me John Doe. I can’t tell you my real name,” he said.

I blinked at this. “Okay—John Doe. What can you tell me about my father, and Treblar’s Disease?”

“I can tell you that your instincts are correct,” he said. “Your father and his friends were murdered, for a secret that I cannot reveal to you without putting your life in similar danger.”

I caught my breath. “How do you know that? How do I know I can trust you?”

“I knew your name, and your father’s name, didn’t I? I knew your speculations. I knew to come here to find you alone.”

“Why go to the trouble, if you didn’t plan on telling me what my father knew?”

“I wouldn’t have, if you’d stayed away. But you’re here. I assume that means you’re on the side of the Renegades.”

“But even they don’t know anything about you!” I protested.

“That’s because many of them have a reputation for indiscretion,” he said, his tone dry. “I’d recommend you keep this meeting a secret for that very reason, especially from your friend Liam. He has a tendency to shout everything he knows from the rooftops. That’s why they shut him down.”

“So… what do you think we should do, then?”

John Doe shook his head. “You may not have a lot of options left.” He started to walk away.

“Wait!”

“I can’t tell you how to contact me,” he called behind him, as he moved away. “I may be able to send you untraceable comms from time to time, but you will not be able to reply. When you need me, I will find you.”

Then he was gone, melting into the shadows.

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