Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 15

Dr Yin, Nilesh, and Larissa were the first to arrive in the afternoon, before the meeting officially started. I sat in the corner of the pub, watching as Liam greeted them. They waved at me, but everybody knew that he was the star of this show. I smiled a little to myself, watching Liam’s wide eyes sparkle and his hands gesticulate as he spoke. He reminded me of a little kid in the extremes of his emotions, and the way he wore them on his sleeve. One minute he was so angry he couldn’t speak, needing to physically burn off his fury, and then in less than twenty-four hours, it was like it had never happened. He was irrepressible.

Larissa skipped over to me, her eyes wide behind her glasses and hair pulled severely back from her face. She did a little spin, splaying her arms out to the sides like she was three.

“Isn’t this exciting?” she asked me, but evidently the question was rhetorical. “We’re here for a secret meeting, and we’re all spies in the Renegades! I’ve dreamt of this sort of thing, but it’s so delicious that it’s actually happening, isn’t it? I love never knowing what’s about to happen…”

“I can hardly contain myself,” I agreed, deadpan.

As I said this, out of the corner of my eye I saw Francis come up the stairs from his apartment down below. He wore all black, emphasizing his expressionless, angular features. His long black hair was tied with an elastic at the nape of his neck. Larissa’s eyes appraised him quickly, and she caught her breath.

“Who is that?”

I chuckled—the very idea of Larissa, who somehow reminded me of a fairy, being attracted to Francis of all people was almost painfully ridiculous. “That’s Francis. He’s the owner of this pub, and one of the leaders of the Renegades. Also, one of the rudest people you will ever meet. Don’t get too attached.”

But my words seemed to have the opposite effect—Larissa’s face softened like a sigh, and she clutched my arm all at once.

“Can you introduce me?”

Larissa would be the type to believe in ‘love at first sight.’ I grimaced. I had very little desire to interact with Francis again, but she looked so hopeful. “All right, but if he says something horrible, it’s on you…”

Larissa practically skipped behind me as I approached Francis, growing more reluctant with each step. A few paces away, Francis glanced back at us, his expression still bored as he appraised first me, then her, with a flick of his eyes.

“Cordeaux,” he announced. “What’s the matter with you? You look a little green. You’re not the one who has to give the presentation.”

I gritted my teeth. “I didn’t know you ever had to ask anybody what was wrong with them. I thought you could just peel them open like an onion and announce their inmost feelings to the world. That’s not an invitation,” I added sharply, holding up my hand as I saw him open his mouth presumably to do just that, if only to prove that he could. I gestured at Larissa, who ogled him openly like a starry-eyed puppy. “This is Larissa. She works in our lab in Dublin. Larissa, Francis. There. My work here is done.”

Francis studied her almost clinically, his mouth turned down at the edges. Then he murmured, “Hmm. Surprising.”

“What’s surprising?” Larissa asked, breathless.

“Only child, with presumably a severe parent whom you wanted desperately to impress, so you simultaneously decided you’d be very good at something he or she—most likely he, your father—would respect. But you didn’t have any friends—and probably still don’t—so you spent the rest of your time reading and pretending you were somebody else. Most of the fantasies probably centered around impressing your father, because even though you’re an excellent programmer, he still never noticed you. So imagination was the only recourse you had left.”

My mouth fell open in empathic horror as Francis rattled this off, monotone as ever. At last I dared a glance at Larissa, wondering if Francis had been as accurate with her as he had been with me.

“How… do you know all that?” she whispered.

Was it my imagination, or did Francis seem a little pleased by the question? He gestured at her various physical clues in turn as he explained, “The vacant expression, the little twirl, and the skipping all indicate that your emotional maturation abruptly stopped somewhere in your childhood years, perhaps ten to twelve. That only happens from some form of trauma, and generally the escape involves the only thing under the control of a child, which is imagination. Only a programmer slumps the way you do, and the severity of the slump even though you can’t be more than twenty-four indicates that you’ve spent quite a lot of hours in front of a netscreen, which implies that on some level you must actually enjoy your job. Nobody enjoys anything they’re bad at, and Liam invited you here, so you must be good. Plus the glasses, the hair, no makeup, and the ill-fitting clothing all indicate that you’ve self-identified as a programmer and you even feel proud to be one of the few females in the profession—which is rather an elite position, I must admit. But the skipping and the twirling implies a personality that would have sought out adventure, not a sedentary profession like programming, suggesting that the initial impetus to pursue it lay not in inherent interest, but in desire to impress. There is only one person whom a little girl desires to impress above all others, and that would be her father. And there you are.”

I wanted to fall through the floor for Larissa. But when I finally dared to look at her, to my aCommunement, her face shone.

“You are… brilliant,” she breathed at last.

“Yes, I know,” he said, bored as ever. But he lifted his chin just a bit, and I saw him puff out his chest. He began to walk away then, but Larissa fell into step beside him, and he let her. I laughed, incredulous.

Who would have thought?

“Hey!” I felt the arms around me before I could identify their owners, and looked up to see Jake sliding in next to me. Julie stood behind him, hands in her pockets, watching Jake with a fond smile. “Is everybody else here yet?”

I shook my head, but just as I did, Rob, Patrick, and Emily walked in.

“Becca!” cried Emily, hugging me as Rob and Patrick clapped Jacob on the shoulder and shook Julie’s hand, a little awkwardly. “I can’t believe you, of all people, dropped out of school!”

“Well, I haven’t officially dropped out yet…” I started to explain.

Elizabeth joined us a few minutes later, and we formed two little clusters of conversation: the girls, and the boys plus Julie. I filled the girls in on what had happened so far to bring about this meeting, keeping one eye on the door every few seconds. Elizabeth was saying something about how gorgeous Liam was, and if I didn’t want him for myself, would I introduce her, when Ivan walked in the door. My heart stopped. I knew if Ivan was here, then…

Andy walked in next. And behind him, a voluptuous girl with long, glossy dark hair and very full lips. He was engrossed in conversation with her, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to stop.

Ivan spotted us, and broke into a grin.

Everything was a bit of a blur after that: there were hugs and handshakes, smalltalk and catching up that I didn’t really hear, even when I was the one speaking. The only part I caught for sure was that the girl they’d brought along was named Yolanda.

Yolanda. That’s her.

And while Andy wasn’t actually touching her, he paid far more attention to her than to anyone else. He was always leaning over to whisper to her, while she turned that sultry expression of hers toward him in reply to everything he said, batting her eyelashes and giggling.

I hated her.

The pub filled out with friends of Liam’s, or so I supposed them to be by the fact that they were about his age, and they clustered around him when they entered. Francis popped up eventually, and I recognized quite a few of the faces of the Renegades from our first meeting. I saw Roy and Lyle arrive, looking quite out of place and keeping to themselves. Kyle, Francis’s bartender, supplied wings and celery sticks and beer for anybody who wanted it, and presently Liam called the meeting to order.

“Thank you to everyone for coming,” Liam said, setting up his holograph machine on the bar. “Unfortunately our fearless leader was unavoidably detained tonight.”

“M!” shouted several of the renegades. Liam had told me that Harriet Albright couldn’t show her face, nor reveal her real name, in a gathering like this one. It would risk blowing her cover for her official position in government intelligence.

Liam nodded before he continued, “But my associates and I are most grateful that you could make it on such short notice.” Those in the room who knew me turned to look my way and smile, but I noticed that Liam did not say my name, nor did he point me out in the crowd. True to his word, he was trying to protect me. “If you’re here, I assume you agree that giving the bots emotion and creativity is a very dangerous thing, no matter what the media would have us believe.” Nods all around the room, as Liam’s holograph sharpened into an image beside him of Milan, leveled to the ground by a nuclear weapon at the end of World War IV, ending the Second Era. I assumed this was supposed to be a dramatic illustration of the kind of destruction that awaited all of us at the hands of superintelligence, and couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Liam. Melodramatic as ever.

Liam went on, “Many of us here are too young to have suffered personally from the loss of jobs due to the first wave of SR bots, although I know there are still some of you who have.” His holograph flicked to the image of a food line, just after the SR Revolution had put millions out of work. “Should Halpert’s open source challenge be answered, all of us will experience at least this tragedy, but likely far worse.” I glanced at Julie, who pursed her lips and gave me a guilty little smile before dropping her eyes. I gathered Jake still didn’t know her real position on this.

Andy and Yolanda still whispered to one another, their heads only inches apart. I felt ill.

I tuned out for awhile, letting Liam’s words wash over me. I already knew his arguments anyway, and I was too busy being miserable to really listen. The rest of the audience seemed to hang on his every word, though. After describing the existential threat posed by creative and potentially superintelligent bots, he went on to describe the Commune, the alternative labyrinth that the Renegades wanted to build. Then he collected sign-ups the old fashioned way—with paper—for everyone present who wanted to stay connected. Next to name and comm address, there was a slot for LP addresses, so they could be integrated into the first iteration of the Commune.

“This means you won’t be able to access the Commune from anything other than that one interface,” Liam pointed out. “It will be inaccessible from any chip that has not been manually entered by one of our creators, so you won’t be able to get there via your A.E. chip.”

At the end of the presentation, Liam invited Francis to join him up front, evidently expecting him to say a few words on behalf of the Renegades, or perhaps of his pub. Francis regarded the room with his usual surly disposition, though—not one for public speeches before strangers, apparently. Liam continued, perhaps to fill the awkward silence left by Francis, “This meeting is only the beginning. We’re stronger together than we are apart—that’s why Halpert has fragmented us, and tried to keep us from communicating with one another! We want to ask every one of you to consider hosting similar meetings in your own home towns. I will make this holograph presentation available to you, so that all you will have to do is present it. The goal is to get as many contacts on the Commune as possible, but also for each and every person to hound your representatives to stop Halpert’s challenge before it’s too late. The future is still unwritten!”

Here Liam nudged Francis. Francis gave him an irritated look, but called out to the room rather unwillingly, “Stay. Eat and drink.”

That signaled the official end of the meeting. I did my best just to get through the next few hours, plastering a smile on my face and politely answering questions about my research—many of those nearest me had noticed others glancing in my direction when Liam first started talking. I saw Liam speaking animatedly with Roy Benson from Casa Linda, but I didn’t pay much attention, truth be told.

Emily chatted with me about school, volleyball (she played for her school), and the guy she was seeing. I tried to look interested. A few of Liam’s friends came up and introduced themselves, and I did my best to attend to their conversations, though afterwards I don’t think I could recall any of their names. I was acutely aware of Andy and Yolanda the whole time, even though I rarely looked directly at them. I overheard snippets of Andy’s conversation, and her laughter, feeling like my intestines were being mashed together with a mortar and pestle.

“You look like you’ve had enough,” whispered Ivan, Andy’s roommate. I was slightly more interested in talking to him than to anyone else, mostly due to association.

I shrugged, and managed a fake smile. “Been a long few days.”

“So… what are you doing here again, though?” he asked. “You don’t seem that passionate about this, no offense.”

I smiled in spite of myself. Ivan was perceptive, I’d give him that. Finally I said, “This was something my dad was passionate about. I guess you could say I’m doing it for him. Carrying on the family tradition.” I didn’t think it wise to elaborate beyond that, but I didn’t have to. Ivan seemed satisfied. Then I gestured with my head to Yolanda, trying to keep my voice casual. “So are they together now, or what?”

Ivan rolled his eyes. “Who knows. Andy’s never straightforward about anything, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. They’re hanging out with each other all the time, though.”

I bit my lip. I will not cry. I will not cry.

Ivan studied my face. “So… do you like him or something? Andy?”

I looked up sharply, and felt all the blood rush to my face. “What? No, where did you get that idea?” It was out of my mouth before I could think about whether flat denial was smart or not. I couldn’t help it.

Ivan shrugged. “I didn’t think you did, but I got a weird comm about it from some unknown number.”

I blinked at him, willing the blush to fade and my heart rate to return to normal. “You… huh? What did it say?”

“It was just something like, ‘If Andy were to pursue Rebecca, he wouldn’t be refused.’ But when I tried to reply, it wouldn’t go through. It was weird. Any idea who sent it?”

“No,” I said, my mind racing through possibilities and rejecting them just as quickly. Julie and my mom and Madeline were the only ones who knew how I felt about Andy… and obviously none of them would have… Would Julie? I wondered. But how would she even have Ivan’s number? They’d never met before tonight.

“Andy and I are just friends. Really.” Again, it came out of my mouth without conscious intention—I felt desperate to convince Ivan in that moment, regardless of the long-term consequences.

“Yeah, it’s cool.” Ivan shrugged. “Anyway, we’re all taking off from school tomorrow too, and going to the beach, since we’re here. Want to come?”

I thought for a second. Liam could spare me for one day, surely. I felt so wretched at the moment, though, and I wasn’t sure I could handle watching Andy and Yolanda carry on like that all day tomorrow too. Then again, if I spent another day around Andy, he might redeem himself: he might come talk to me and say something to make me think I still mattered to him more than she did, and then I’d feel more hopeful than if we parted on this note.

Was that possibility worth the chance that I might spend a whole day feeling like I did right now, or even worse?

Before I could answer Ivan, Liam made his way through the thinning crowd with a big smile on his face.

“Hey!” he said, sticking out a hand to Ivan. “Figured I’d come meet your friends. I’m Liam.”

“Ivan,” they shook, and I readjusted my face with a fake smile as I introduced Liam all around.

“This is Emily, Elizabeth, Patrick, Rob, Julie, Jake, Andy, and Yolanda,” I said, trying to give away nothing as I pronounced each name.

“All friends from high school?” Liam asked, and they nodded. “Except you,” he pointed to Julie, “I’ve seen you on campus.”

Julie widened her eyes at me, and I bit my lip to keep from smirking. I knew what that meant: He noticed me! She had Jake now, but that wouldn’t keep her from gloating that she’d caught the eye of another handsome man. Since Jake was the schmoozer, Liam and Jake fell into smalltalk conversation. Most of the others just listened, but Elizabeth competed for Liam’s attention. Andy and Yolanda still remained aloof, as if they were in a room by themselves.

Julie made her way over to me, though Ivan didn’t leave my side.

“You okay?” she asked pointedly.

I felt a rush of gratitude for her—at least I knew she understood.

“Of course,” I lied, turning up my fake smile to the point of parody. I could tell by the knowing look she gave me that she caught the implied sarcasm.

“You coming with us to the beach? We’re leaving right after this,” she asked, looking at Ivan. Then she dropped her voice and said sympathetically, “I’ll understand if you don’t want to.”

I felt the tears prick my eyes. Do not cry, I commanded myself furiously. Not here!

“I… think I’ll pass,” I said finally. “I’m sure Liam and I will have a lot to do. Thanks though.”

“No problem.” She squeezed my hand.

When the pub finally filtered out a few hours later, I slipped out, down the street and back to my room in the hotel while Liam’s back was turned. The second I entered the room, the tears came. I threw myself onto my bed, sobbing into my pillow.

Madeline wheeled over to me, patting the arm that dangled off the bed. She didn’t ask what was wrong. She knew—of course she knew. There was always only one thing.

“Why can’t I just get over him?” I sobbed. “Why?”

“What did he do this time?” she asked. “Or, what did he not do…”

“He showed up with Yolanda,” I practically spat the name. Then I admitted miserably, “And… she’s really pretty.”

Madeline patted my arm now in a rhythm, almost like playing the drums. “What would make you happy right now?”

I sniffled. “For him to stop hanging out with her. Obviously. At least I don’t want them spending all that romantic time at the beach together.” I wiped my face and added, “But what’s the point? Even if she left, it’s not like I’m there instead.”

“Would you have gone to the beach with them if she hadn’t been there?”

“Of course I would! Like I’d have passed that up!”

The syncopated knock at my door made me jump. I closed my eyes with a heavy sigh. Only Liam knocked like that.

“Just a minute!” I called, trying to keep my voice steady as I catapulted off the bed into the bathroom to splash water on my face. Couldn’t he just leave me alone for twenty minutes?

“Come back over!” Liam called through the door, “It was a raving success! Three people are already gonna give the same talk in their own towns, including your Roy Benson—”

“Liam, hold on!” I called, exasperated. I patted my face dry with a towel, and inspected it: no more tear stains, but the eyes were still bloodshot. Didn’t matter, though—clearly he wouldn’t wait. I opened the door, but stood firmly in the doorframe to keep him from coming inside.

A shadow of confusion marred the enormous grin he wore at first when he saw me. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing.” I fixed the plastic smile in place again. “So it went well, huh?”

“Yeah, I wanted you to come out with us to celebrate—really, are you okay?”

“I—just don’t feel that great, that’s all,” I said at last.

Liam tilted my chin up and scrutinized my face, frowning. I felt naked. After a long moment, his expression changed to one of resignation. I don’t know how, but I suddenly felt certain he knew exactly what was wrong with me.

“Fine,” he said shortly, releasing my face. “Come if you want.” Then he turned to go.

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