Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 14

I waited in the little downstairs cafe for Liam to get back from his run. Madeline sat beside me. It felt like a risk; I’d kept her hidden for as long as I’d had her. But Liam already knew about her anyway, and nobody else here knew me. Plus, bots roamed freely in the Capital, and the prevailing sentiment was that they were the potential saviors of mankind, so—why not? Besides, I didn’t feel like sitting in my cave of a room, and I didn’t feel like being alone, either.

“Maybe I can get Odessa to find out more about—the senator,” I murmured to Madeline so softly she had to lean in to hear me.

“Maybe!” she chirped, her expression optimistic as ever.

I deflated first. “Except, she can only find information that’s on the labyrinth. And I have a feeling that this isn’t going to be something in the public record. Besides, now I’m not so sure I want to leave a trail of my research on a bot’s search history…”

Madeline couldn’t really slump, lacking an articulated spine, but her expression managed to convey that idea all the same. She was so like a mirror—when I was excited, she was excited. When I was discouraged, she was too. Somehow until I’d told Liam about her, I hadn’t ever seen her that way. It made me feel oddly lonely, in a way I never had been in Madeline’s presence before.

“I’m very glad you’re being careful,” Madeline murmured.

My voice barely above a breath, I added, “I don’t understand what John Doe wants with me, if it’s not to actually tell me anything useful. It seems like all he wants to do is warn me away!”

“Think maybe you should listen?” Madeline asked timidly.

“No! Meeting John Doe makes me want to stay more than ever, because now I know there’s something here, something worth finding! I want to know how deep the rabbit hole goes!”

“Are you gonna ask Liam about his brother?” Madeline asked, dropping her voice still further.

I shrugged. “I can’t ask him point blank without telling him about John Doe. But I’ll find a way.”

Liam blew through the glass doors just then, his dark hair askew from the wind and cheeks flushed, either from exertion or from lingering anger. He hadn’t quite caught his breath when he spotted us and slid in next to Madeline. He looked at me, just panting. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I waited for him to start. He glanced at the receptionist bot and then back at me.

“Let’s go up to my room,” he said pointedly.

When we arrived in his cave of a room upstairs, a twin to mine, he threw open the heavy curtains to let some of the daylight stream in. Madeline and I settled on the twin bed closest to the window, and Liam sat in the chair beside it, resting his elbows on his knees.

“Senator Kim was nervous,” I said finally.

“He was infuriating, is what he was,” Liam growled.

“No arguments, but you thought I looked shifty when I walked in? He made me seem poised. He was definitely hiding something.”

“Something about Halpert,” Liam agreed. “He’s afraid of him, or of something about him anyway. But why?” He tapped his temple then, and his faraway expression told me that he was sending a comm.

“Who are you writing?”

“Odessa,” Liam replied, his mouth fixed in a hard line. “I want her to dig up everything there is on the labyrinth about Halpert’s history, and not just the biography anybody can read. I don’t know what I’m looking for, so I just told her to get everything: from birth certificates to graduation from primary school to summer camps he went to as a kid… all of it.”

“You don’t really think Halpert’s mixed up in something shady, do you?” I asked dubiously.

“I don’t know, Rebecca! I don’t know anything right now!”

“Hey! Be nice to her!” Madeline barked, scowling at Liam.

Liam glared at Madeline for a second, but then he relented.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you; I’m just… yelling in general. It’s not your fault.” A bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face; he swiped at it, distributing the sweat through his hair. “Francis and I talked about how to create a new communication network last night. We think we can create our own version of the labyrinth. We’d call ours the Commune,” he added with a smirk.

I blinked at him. “You can do that?”

He nodded. “We think so, we drew up the plans for it last night after you left. We’d use our own netscreens as interfaces. That way we can communicate with one another at a distance, and recreate both the call to action for research, and disseminate any other information that the approved media doesn’t want us all to know. But we’d want as many people connected to it as possible, obviously… so we want to have the Town Hall meeting ASAP.”

My heart skipped. Here it comes. “Here?”

“Sure. We can use Francis’s pub for the first one, he said. The idea was for every member of the Renegades to invite everyone we know, whether we think they’re likely to get involved or not. We want to tell them what’s going on, get them to start making a ruckus to everyone they know if we can, and also get their LP addresses so that we can add their netscreens to the Commune as we create it. We need to organize, and without the labyrinth, I can’t think of any other way.” He stopped, and looked at his hands. Then he looked back up at me. “I know the whole reason you decided to come was to find out about Loomis, Bec. I wish I didn’t have to admit this, but I’m not sure I can do anything more to help you track him down.”

Guilt gnawed at the inside of my stomach, and I couldn’t meet his eyes. “It’s okay. Thanks for trying.” I could feel Madeline staring at me, too, waiting for me to tell him.

“I know this isn’t what you signed up for. If…” he sighed heavily, like he regretted his next words already. “If you want to go back to Dublin, I’ll understand.”

“And contribute to the research to give bots emotions?” Madeline piped up. “Don’t you know that Halpert could take her research and use it for his own ends?”

Liam pressed his lips together, suppressing a smile. “You think that’s a bad thing, huh?” he asked her. Then he glanced at me, his eyes soft—much like a child repeating opinions of her parents, of course Liam knew that Madeline’s beliefs betrayed my own.

“Of course I do!” was Madeline’s reply. “I’m programmed to want what’s best for humans, because Rebecca is a human!”

I leaned over and kissed the top of Madeline’s metal forehead, and she rolled toward me, sliding a little on the bed which was too soft for her wheels.

“If only we were all so selfless,” I murmured. Then I turned back to Liam. “I’m staying.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Are you sure, because—”

“I’m staying,” I said firmly. “I’ll probably need to access full research papers on campus at some point, and maybe chat with a few professors to cut down on my research time. But I can otherwise research the morality and free will questions here as well as there. I can’t do the experiments here, but if you guys can create the Commune, I won’t have to. Someone else will. It’s the collaboration that counts now, not the credit. I get that.”

He broke into a grin, leaning across to where I sat and grabbing both sides of my head with his big, sweaty hands. Before I knew what he was doing, he planted a kiss on my forehead, as I’d done to Madeline a moment before.

“Thank you,” he said, still grinning. “I know you’re not doing it for me, but—” He stopped. “Actually, why are you doing it?”

I looked down, feeling a twinge of conscience. “Maybe I believe in your cause after all. Like my father did.”

He didn’t seem to be in the mood to scrutinize too much, fortunately. “Well, on behalf of—humanity,” he smirked to show that he meant this tongue-in-cheek. “Thank you.”

The guilt in the pit of my stomach flared again. Maybe if I told him about John Doe, I could ask him about his brother…

Before I could decide to do this, Liam went on, “I think we should have our first Town Hall meeting tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” I gaped, my mind racing. “How… do you think we’ll manage to pull that off?”

He leapt to his feet, pacing in front of the large netscreen embedded in the wall as he spoke. “Our first one should be relatively small, just so we can get our feet wet. Then we can go bigger—you remember those two guys last night who said they’d backed up their contacts before their loci were pulled, Tom and Jason? They have about a hundred thousand between them. A bigger meeting will take more planning, of course—we’ll have to find a safe place in a large arena, which seems kind of like an oxymoron…”

I flashed back to what John Doe had said about Liam: indiscreet. Shouts everything he knows from the rooftops.

“Is anything going to be safe, if that many people are involved?”

Liam shrugged, still pacing. “Possibly not, that’s what I mean. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Francis’s pub can hold about three hundred, though—we can post a sign out front telling ordinary customers that the place has been rented out by a private group for the day. Shouldn’t arouse too much suspicion. That sort of thing happens.” He stopped pacing and turned to face me. “We’ll invite everyone from our lab, of course. Nilesh, Larissa, Dr. Yin— all of them. I’ve got some buddies from back home that I think I can wrangle, too. What about you, how many people can you think of to invite?”

My heart still pounded. Well, if it’s just in the pub, maybe it’s not a horrible idea, I tried to convince myself. “Won’t we be putting all of them in danger, though?”

He blinked at me, a little confused. “Bec, I’m going to keep you safe, and out of the spotlight. You don’t have to worry—”

“It’s not about just me. What about everyone we invite?” I demanded. “What about you? You’ll be up front and in the spotlight, won’t you?”

He shrugged. “Yeah, but that can’t be helped.”

“What if my father really was murdered for doing exactly this sort of thing, Liam?”

“Well… then he died for a worthy cause.”

“Easy for you to say!” I snapped.

He paused for a long moment, and then looked away. I expected an apology, but instead, he muttered, “It isn’t, actually.”

I felt a pang, realizing what I’d said. Of course it wasn’t easy for him; he’d lost someone too. “I just don’t want any of us to take any unnecessary risks—”

“This is necessary!” He jabbed his finger into his palm for emphasis. “Bec, the plan is to organize. Strength in numbers. How can we do that without telling people what we know?” Arms folded across his chest, he stared me down. “Listen to me. Of all the meetings we are going to have, this will be the very safest one. It’ll be small, under the radar, and filled with personal friends. Even if they disagree with us, I doubt they’re going to go tattling about it to anybody with the power to shut us up. While yes, I want you to keep a low profile no matter what happens, I plan to tell anyone who will listen. Because at this point, I think that’s our only chance!” Another escaped bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face. “Now. Can you think of anybody you know that might be willing to help us?”

I wished I could talk to John Doe, wished he could give me some alternative to the meeting that might make Liam still feel like we were still moving forward. But what did I have at the moment? A contact with whom I had no official way of communicating, and who spoke to me only in riddles: telling me what not to do, but not what I should do instead.

“I don’t think my Mom will come,” I said at last. She was always working, and besides, after what happened to Dad, she’d hate everything about the Renegades. I thought of my other friends from drama and creative writing, and eliminated them too. They all really did believe that superbots would solve all the world’s problems.

“Jake will come, though,” I said aloud. “He’s one of my friends from home, he always supports me. And Julie, I know her from school, and I think they’re dating… she’s actually more on Halpert’s side, but if she hooks up with Jake, that won’t last long.”

Liam nodded, appeased. “Good. Anyone else?”

I thought of a few of the older people I knew from Casa Linda—Roy Benson and Lyle Hopper. “I know some people who absolutely hate Halpert and would love to do anything they possibly can to take him down. But they couldn’t afford the Quantum Track tickets to get here.”

“Invite them. I’ll pay their way,” Liam said, waving a hand dismissively.

I raised my eyebrows. “You’ll pay? For their tickets and lodging and everything? How are you gonna afford that?”

He opened his mouth and closed it again. “I can afford it,” was all he said.

“You don’t even know how many people I’m talking about!”

“Bec, it’s fine. Just invite them.” Evidently he didn’t plan on discussing this any further. I flashed back to his comment to me when he’d first guessed about Madeline, and had asked me if I was “an heiress or something.”

“What are you, an heir or something?” I joked.

I saw brief amusement in his eyes—he caught the reference. “Or something,” he said. Then, in boss mode, he said, “I’ll contact everybody from the lab and some people I know from home, and create a digital outline, while you work on your contact list. Let’s meet for lunch in a few hours, okay?”

As soon as the door to my own room clicked shut, Madeline said, “What about all your friends from home? They’re still on student loans. They could afford to come.”

“Yeah,” I murmured. It was true—as long as we still had student loans, none of us really worried about money. “I already promised to invite Jake and Julie, so I might as well…”

My heart sped up at this thought, but for a different reason than before. It was many months earlier than I’d expected to get to see Andy again. I tried not to get my hopes up about that, reminding myself that this wasn’t about me getting to see Andy.

I made myself invite the others first. Julie and Jake both said they were in. Emily, Patrick, and Rob got back to me quickly and said the same—Rob had an exam in the morning but he’d come afterwards. Elizabeth asked if there would be any food.

“We’re meeting at a pub, so there will be if you want it, I imagine,” I commed her back.

Finally, heart thrumming, I messaged Andy. I hadn’t talked to him since our fight the night before Liam and I had left Dublin. I’d sent him an apology, but he’d never written back.

“Hey,” I wrote, “Are we okay?”

A few seconds later he wrote, “Hey. Sure we are.”

I breathed again. Then I wrote, “Remember how I told you I was going to come to the Capital to fight censorship and Halpert’s challenge? Liam and I are here right now, and we want to hold our first meeting about it tomorrow. It’ll be in this pub owned by one of his friends—it’s our first one, kind of small. Everybody will be there, though: Rob, Emily, Patrick, Jake, and Elizabeth. Do you and Ivan want to come?” I added Ivan at the last second, figuring that would make it look less personal.

I stared at the screen on my handheld, not wanting to miss his reply.

I stared. And I stared.

“That won’t make him reply any faster,” commented Madeline.

I spared her a quick glare. I could feel my heart in my throat.

“Ivan says he’s in,” the screen blinked. “Sure. Should we bring more people too if we think they’ll be interested?”

I let out the breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding. “Yes! Anybody who wants to come. Thank you!!!”

“Send me the address and the time.”

Feeling about thirty pounds lighter, I messaged Mom next—I knew what her answer would be (“Rebecca, you are becoming a conspiracy theorist just like your father! This is utterly absurd, and no, I don’t have the luxury of taking off of work whenever I want to gallivant all over the continent like you do—” etc,) but it seemed wrong to not at least tell her about it. Then I contacted Roy Benson and Lyle Hopper, promising that we would transfer the money to their accounts for the Quantum Track tickets if they wanted to join. They agreed enthusiastically, and commed back with their bank transfer numbers.

“Where do you think Liam got the money for that?” Madeline whispered over my shoulder.

“No idea,” I said absently, still thinking about seeing Andy tomorrow. When things calm down a little, I’ll ask him, I told myself.

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