Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 16

After Liam left, I commed Julie on her way to the beach with the rest of my friends. I told her about Ivan’s mystery comm, just to make sure it hadn’t been her—she had told me multiple times to just tell Andy how I felt about him, after all. But she seemed as baffled as I was about it. Then we quickly moved on to the subject of Andy and Yolanda. Since she couldn’t tell me that she didn’t think he liked her, she focused instead on flattering me at Yolanda’s expense. “She seems like a bimbo, he can’t possibly respect her, you’re a much better catch, you’re so much prettier, Becca…” that kind of thing. It didn’t make me feel any better—actually it made me feel worse in a way, because there was nothing I could do about it. If she was objectively better than I was in any measurable way, then I could… what? Try harder? Probably that’s exactly what I would do. But if I already beat her in every category and Andy still picked her, there was nothing I could change.

At last I tossed my handheld aside, trying to force Andy and Yolanda out of my mind. But it was immediately replaced by guilt for disappointing Liam. That, at least, I could do something about. Even though I didn’t want to, I ran a comb through my hair and threw on the closest thing I’d brought to “going out” clothes: a purple sheath dress and a pair of black ballet flats. It was just a little too cold for a sheath dress by itself, so I threw on a black athletic jacket on top of it, which didn’t go at all. My hair still stuck up in a few places, so I finally tossed it up in a clip. Doesn’t matter how I look, anyway, I thought, comparing my reflection to Yolanda’s voluptuous curves. Stop it, I commanded myself fiercely.

“We’re at the Tikki Cantina a block from Francis’s pub,” Liam wrote when I asked where they’d gone. “Wait for me, I’ll come back and get you!”

I rolled my eyes. “Don’t bother, I can find it.”

“Rebecca, please stay where you are and wait for me.”

“On my way,” was my reply. I wasn’t in the mood to indulge this nonsense.

Liam met me halfway to the cantina, glowering. “It’s not safe for you to be out here on your own. You’re taking stupid risks for absolutely no gain!”

“Oh, this from the guy who wants to rent an arena and preach to hundreds of thousands of people?”

“That’s different!”

“How is that different?” I demanded.

“Because it’s me!”

We stared at each other for a minute before Liam sighed, conceding, “Look, you probably are completely safe for now, you’re right. But please don’t make a habit of wandering off by yourself around here, all right? Especially not as things ramp up.” He offered me his arm, and I took it, rather unwillingly.

“I appreciate that you’re trying to keep me safe. But I’m a big girl, Liam. I can take care of myself.”

We walked in silence for a moment before he said at last, “I wish that were true, Rebecca. But you have no idea what could happen to you.”

John Doe’s words rang in my ears: “The same secret Liam’s brother knew.

I would have asked him about his brother right then. But we rounded the corner and the loud cantina that was our destination came into view, pulsing with live music and a crowd of 20-somethings beneath the thatched roof who didn’t give us a second glance. Liam ushered me into the little outdoor patio.

“Tonight is a night off,” he shouted over the music. “No more ‘shop’ talk allowed, just enjoy yourself. Can I buy you a drink?”

I let him order a margarita for me, slipping into the seat beside Larissa. She was the only other female in the group, amid a sea of young male Renegades. A swarm of men vied for her attention—probably a first for Larissa, who certainly was not beautiful—but it was clear that she only had eyes for Francis.

Francis didn’t appear to notice. He did notice me, though.

“You’ve been crying,” he observed flatly.

“Thanks for that astute assessment.” No point in denying it; I’d figured out that much.

He tilted his head to one side, then glanced at Liam, across the room ordering my margarita. “You weren’t crying over him, clearly,” Francis commented. “And your hand keeps twitching toward your jacket pocket. I assume that must be where you keep your handheld, because you’ve disabled your A.E. retinal chip. You’re hoping someone who isn’t here will comm you. Must have been someone who was at the meeting earlier, then—”

“Not everything is about a guy!” I snapped.

“Noooo, but this is,” Francis returned, smug. “I can tell by the way you’re blushing right now—”

“Ugh! You’re insufferable!” I shoved myself away from their table and stalked off to the other side of the group.

Liam, who had been en route with my drink, followed me to the other side of the cantina, a smirk on his face.

“Getting along famously with Francis, I see.”

What does she see in him?” I couldn’t stop myself from saying.

“Who, Larissa?” Liam turned to observe them together, and after a long moment said thoughtfully, “Huh. There’s someone for everyone, I guess…”

Liam got roped into conversation with a programmer named Rob after that, on something technical and boring, despite his rule about ‘no shop talk.’ Nilesh was there too, and he made smalltalk with me for a bit, but I guess I wasn’t interesting enough for him tonight. He soon lost interest and moved on. After that, I fought off about five single Renegades at once. Liam caught my eye and smirked at my clearly awkward body language on more than one occasion, and I narrowed my eyes back at him.

You could save me, you know, my expression told him.

His amusement replied, But it’s so much more fun watching you squirm.

When a blond, angular boy named Jimmy actually leaned in to try to kiss me, I got up and announced unceremoniously that I needed to use the restroom. I’d wanted to check my handheld for some time, anyway: I’d felt it vibrate several times in my pocket, and just couldn’t find a polite way to excuse myself from my admirers. I knew it wouldn’t be from Andy, but I just had to check. I caught a glimpse of Liam laughing as I squirmed away from Jimmy, and shot him a look of daggers.

When I got to the restroom, I saw Jake’s name on the handheld and deflated a little. “Hey Bec, Julie and I are taking surfing lessons tomorrow! Wish you could come!” Then, “P.S.: she’s kind of amazing.”

I wrote back something benign about missing them too, and then returned from the bathroom, considerably deflated. Still eager to avoid Jimmy, I continued to comm Jake in order to send the message that I was otherwise occupied. Unfortunately, Jake began to complain about how Andy was ignoring everyone else because he was so fixated on Yolanda. In a spurt of masochistic obsession, I pumped Jake for as much information as he would give. Did he really think Andy liked her? Did everyone else like her? Did he think they seemed serious?

Finally Jake said, “I gotta go, I’m being antisocial, sorry. Oh, and Emily says to tell you we’ll pick you up some genuine California studs at the farmer’s market tomorrow. :)”

I grinned in spite of myself. It was an inside joke—I’d said I was craving some local potatoes on a trip once, except I’d said ‘spuds.’ Emily thought I’d said ‘studs.’ Ever since, I’d had the dubious reputation of collecting attractive men at every city I visited. It was probably only funny because it was me.

I felt a pair of eyes on me and looked up as I put my handheld back in my pocket. Liam scowled at me across the room, looking away as soon as I caught him.

Annoyed, and slightly tipsy, I rejoined Larissa and her clique of admirers, even though there wasn’t really room. Since the cantina was so loud and she had her back to me, effectively I sat alone. Which was fine with me: it kept me from having to pretend I was okay when I wasn’t.

“Want to go for a walk?” said a voice in my ear. Liam hovered just behind me, taking me gently by the elbow. “Come on, you look like you could use some fresh air.”

I didn’t know whether I was glad to go with him or not. I was glad to escape the general merriment, but I really wanted to be alone. He kept his hand on my elbow lightly.

“Not having fun?” I asked him, once we were far enough away from the cantina that the voices died down.

He shrugged. “It’s all right.” His tone was cool: still giving me the cold shoulder, apparently. I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Then he added, “Who were you comming just now?”

I blinked at him, and for the first time it began to dawn on me. Is he… jealous? “One of the guys you met at the thing tonight.”

“Which one?”

He is jealous, I realized with aCommunement. “Jake,” I told him, a bit reluctantly. Some vain part of me wanted to see how he’d react if I’d said one of the others, who wasn’t obviously dating someone already. Although Andy certainly looked unavailable too, I added to myself bitterly.

Sure enough, Liam relaxed. “Oh. I liked Jake. Are they still around?”

“They all went to the beach for the next few days. They invited me to join them but I… told them I had other things to do.”

We walked in silence for a few minutes, as I turned over the revelation of Liam’s jealousy in my mind. I was not indifferent to the discovery; I had a strong reaction to it, in fact, but I couldn’t identify it by name. Suddenly I saw Liam’s overprotectiveness in a whole new light, though.

He likes me.

It’s not that I hadn’t known how Liam felt about me—on some level, I’d always known. But I’d been so busy trying to keep him at arm’s length, trying to keep it from being true, that I hadn’t ever faced it as a fact before. Because if it was a fact, I’d have to do something about it eventually.

No, I do not, I told myself firmly. Unless he said something outright, which I was determined to never let him do, I would never have to deal with it. I could just pretend I didn’t know, like I’d always done…

“All right, I just gotta know,” Liam said at last. “You’re obsessed with one of those guys who came to the talk tonight. Which one?”

I looked up at him, my heart leaping to my throat.

Without waiting for me to reply, he guessed, “Gotta be the skinny one who had that other girl with him, right? Is that what you’re so upset about? Is he an ex-boyfriend or something?”

After a long pause, during which I attempted to get my pulse under control with the mental directive, Calm down, calm down, I finally decided I might as well be direct. He certainly was.

“No. I never dated him,” I admitted.

“But you’re making yourself sick over him,” Liam observed.

I bristled, wanting to end this conversation. “I don’t expect you to understand.”

“Then help me to!” He stopped walking in front of a little park nearby, bordered by a wrought iron fence. “What is so great about this guy that he’s got you, of all people, pining over him?”

“What do you mean, me, ‘of all people’?” I demanded. “Why not me?”

Liam rolled his eyes. “Are you really fishing for compliments, Bec? Fine. You’re beautiful. You’re one of the smartest girls I’ve ever met. You’re curious and interested in everything, and totally un-self-conscious, which is extremely rare for beautiful girls. I know I’m not the one you want to hear this from,” he held up his hands as I reddened and dropped my eyes, “so just take it as an objective fact, all right? And here another one: from all outward appearances, there’s nothing special about that guy! He’s… wussy,” he finished at last, as if grasping for the right word.

Incredulous, but also flattered in spite of myself, I laughed. “Wussy?”

“Yes! He has this overly pleasing, passive air about him—”

“When did you take the time to observe all this?” I cut in.

He paused, and I had the impression he was considering whether or not to be honest. Finally he admitted, “I started paying attention to him as soon as I realized you were.”

I was grateful for the moonlight so that he couldn’t see the flame in my cheeks as he held my eyes. I’d hoped he wouldn’t come right out and say how he felt about me. This was pretty close.

When I didn’t reply, Liam took a step back, as if to acknowledge the significance of my silence. “I just want to know what you see in him. That’s all.”

I bit my lip, deciding whether or not I wanted to be honest. But he’d certainly put himself out there. I felt I at least owed him that much.

“He reminds me of my dad,” I said finally.

We walked back to the hotel, leaving the others to find their own way back. I found myself telling Liam things I never told anyone except Madeline: how I met Andy right after my dad had died, and—given my psychology training—I figured that the timing and my feelings for Andy probably weren’t a coincidence.

“Dad was quiet around people who didn’t know him,” I said, “but he’d open up to those who did. He was almost like a little kid, the way he’d get excited about knowledge for its own sake. He wore his heart on his sleeve. Andy is like that too. He doesn’t so much care what he does with the knowledge, he just loves learning new things. They were the same kind of quirky.”

We arrived back at the hotel, and Liam guided me into a booth in the little empty cafe downstairs, where we’d had breakfast. He ordered us two cups of tea. Once the waitress bot left I went on, “Sometimes Andy even has the same expressions my dad used to have. Once or twice, Andy said certain antiquated phrases to me that my dad used to tease me with, but I’d never heard from anyone else.”

“Like what?” Liam asked, as the bot delivered us our tea. He unwrapped his tea bag and dipped it into the hot water.

I laughed softly. “Like, you remember that old song from the early Second Age, the one that goes ‘school days, school days, dear old golden rule days’?” Liam shook his head no, and I went on, “Well anyway. After a break, when I was going back to class, my dad used to sing that song to tease me. Out of the blue one time, after a summer break in high school, Andy bust out with that song. I thought it was a sign or something.

“I fell in love with him so fast. I thought he felt the same way, but every time it looks like he’s about to pursue me, he never actually follows through. As soon as he gets close, suddenly he starts dating some other girl and stops talking to me almost completely. Then a few weeks or months later, he’ll break up with the other girl, come back, and repeat the cycle with me, all over again.” I sighed, running a hand through my hair. “For five years.”

Liam gagged on his tea. “Five years? Have you dated anyone else in all that time?”

“No,” I said, a little defensive. “How could I when I’m in love with Andy?”

He stared at me, deadpan. “So you’ve never dated.”

“Wouldn’t you think it would be wrong of me to date one person while wishing he was someone else?”

Liam sighed, and looked down, as if weighing his next words. “At the risk of stating the obvious—I mean, I know you’re the psychology queen, and not me—you do realize that even if you were dating Andy, you’d be wishing he was someone else, too. Right?”

I blinked. “Sorry?” I really couldn’t see how he reached that conclusion.

“You’ve as good as told me that this is all about your dad.”

I balked a little before spluttering, “Girls just like men who remind them of their fathers. That’s all!”

Liam shook his head, as if speaking to a child. “Rebecca, when he died, did you ever let yourself stop and be sad for awhile? Or did you just channel it all into this obsession with Andy?”

For some reason I couldn’t explain, I found myself simultaneously angry and wanting to cry. He didn’t understand. It wasn’t that at all.

“Please don’t psychoanalyze me,” I said at last.

Liam took my hand, and I felt a visceral swooping sensation in my stomach. I didn’t understand why, and it made me angry with my own body for its betrayal.

“I just hate to see you this way,” he murmured, running his thumb down my hand.

There was plenty of light in the cafe; no hiding my blush this time. I gave his hand a quick, perfunctory squeeze before I let go, not meeting his eyes.

“I’ll be fine,” I said briskly. Then I added, my voice dry, “Not like this is the first time Andy’s shown up with some other girl.” I gave him a too-bright smile to signal the end of my vulnerability. “What about you, Liam? Since this is apparently a night for disclosures. You said when we were at Senator Kim’s office the first time that you grew up in high society. I don’t know anything about that.”

Liam looked down, giving me a resigned smile. “What is this, a first date, now? Have we resorted to those questions?”

The blush returned, but I belied it with another laugh. “Hardly, unless it’s standard practice on a first date to admit being in love with another guy.”

He laughed at this. “Fair enough.” Heaving a heavy sigh, he admitted like it cost him something, “My dad is the CEO of General Specs.”

I stared at him, not comprehending for a moment. General Specs was the largest technology company in the world, based out of London. It was also one of the biggest supporters of William Halpert’s legislation for the advancement of Synthetic Reasoning. CEO Liam Kelly, I recalled reading on a locus somewhere. Liam Kelly. Junior. My mouth fell open when it finally sank in. It had never occurred to me before that it was more than a coincidence…

“You’re joking,” I said aloud.

He shook his head. “Nope. Wish I was.” He took a deep breath, stirring the string attached to his tea bag absently in his cup. “I was the Golden Child all growing up. Prodigy with programming and Synthetic Reasoning development—not to brag,” he added with a smirk. “Dad wanted me to go into management, though. He’d started grooming me to eventually be his replacement when I was fifteen.

“Then there was my younger brother, Brian.”

My heart jolted a little, but Liam didn’t seem to notice. He wasn’t looking at me, still stirring the tea bag as he spoke. He went on, “Brian was the rebellious wild child, the ‘black sheep,’ if you will. I thought for the longest time that he was just jealous of me, and since he didn’t think he could compete, he decided to go to the other extreme instead.” Liam gave a hollow laugh. “Brian of course thought General Specs had made a deal with the devil, producing so many of the robots that put everyone else out of work. He and Dad fought about it all the time—I mean, screaming matches every time they were together. It was horrible.”

“But you were actually working for General Specs?” I clarified. “You built and programmed robots?”

“It was worse than that,” Liam said with a bitter smile. “I was Head of Operations. At twenty.” Sighing again, he said, “Eventually Dad and Brian had a complete rift. They didn’t speak to each other for about six months, and I didn’t see Brian for most of that time either. It turned out, he’d joined the Renegades before I did, though I didn’t know that until much later.” He took a sip of his tea and looked up at me briefly before looking back down at his cup again, like he couldn’t bear to hold my gaze.

“Brian vanished five years ago.”

He said it with finality, like that was the end of the story.

I blinked. A year after my father. “Vanished?” I repeated. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, poof. All traces of him, gone. The best hackers and private detectives and even research robots in the world could find neither hide nor hair of him. The trail ended in San Jose, so once I realized that something was wrong, I came looking.”

“And you found the Renegades yourself,” I finished.

Liam nodded. “I also found out Brian had been right all along.”

“That’s when you started your locus,” I guessed.

He nodded again.

“What did you tell your father?”

“All of it,” Liam pursed his lips, looking around the room as if he’d gone back in time. “What I knew, anyway. I told him about the level of unrest among the people we’d put out of work, and the fact that the media purposely didn’t report that there even was another side to the progress our company had helped to achieve. They didn’t want that information out there, for some reason. The fact that I met so many other members of the Renegades who were apparently unharmed suggested to me that my brother had made himself dangerous somehow. He knew something he wasn’t supposed to know. I was determined to find out what it was.

“My father didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t want to deal with the implication of his guilt. I think he felt betrayed by me. He fired me and I quit in the same fight, so I’m not sure who actually got the last word there.”

“That’s when you went back for your Ph.D,” I concluded. I hated how Liam wore that smile as he told the story, like a mask to hide the pain.

He nodded, turning up the brightness a notch, and joked, “Might as well use my powers for good and not for evil!”

I looked down at my cup. “Have you spoken to your father since?”

Liam shrugged. “Christmases, birthdays… we try. It’s not the same, but I’m the only son he has left.”

I wanted to do something to comfort him, but considering our earlier conversation, I dared not reach out physically. So I just said, “I’m so sorry, Liam.”

“So you see,” he concluded as if he hadn’t heard me, still wearing that tight smile, “it’s personal for both of us.”

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