Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 17

It was almost midnight when Liam and I finished talking, and we only stopped then because I could hardly keep my eyes open. After the revelations about Andy on my side, and his brother Brian on his, somehow the floodgates just opened. We swapped childhood stories. Liam told me about old girlfriends and adventures he’d been on. I told him all about my favorite memories with my friends from back home, and about my parents when I was growing up. It was as if we’d burst through a barrier of some kind—previously, there was a layer of awkwardness and formality between us that was just gone now. He knew my secrets, and I knew his.

Well. Almost.

After my third yawn in two minutes, Liam stood up. “All right, I’m calling it,” he announced, and made like he was going to hoist me to my feet by my elbows when Larissa stumbled in the sliding hotel doors, humming to herself. Liam raised his eyebrows at me with his lips pursed in a suppressed smile.

“Have a good night?” he called to her.

She hadn’t seen us, but she looked up when she found that she wasn’t alone. Her face broke into a grin.

“Yes!” she staggered toward us, declaring, “Francis is sooo delicious.”

I couldn’t suppress a giggle, and Liam laughed out loud too.

“I’ve heard a lot of colorful language used to describe Francis before, but I’m pretty sure that’s a first.”

“Maybe I should help you up to your room,” I offered, noticing how unsteady she was on her feet. I slipped an arm under her elbow, with an amused glance back at Liam.

“Good night,” Liam mouthed at me with a wave, grinning.

Larissa prattled all about Francis, and how attentive he was to her—but even with her imagination, I wasn’t sure how she’d interpreted Francis’s behavior as attentive. From what I’d seen before Liam and I had left, Francis would have been perfectly happy to sit aloof from the others with his drink, amusing himself with his inappropriate deductions about every passerby… but Larissa was persistent. He’d taken as little notice of her as if she’d been a gnat at first—having already laid bare the secrets of her soul, presumably he found her dull now. But she had very little competition for his attentions (shocking, I thought), and as the hours passed, according to her, she’d worn him down. He’d even given her a compliment—“He said if I did my hair differently and wore different clothes and changed my makeup, I might even be pretty!”

I made a little choking sound to stop myself from commenting on this. “Oh! Um. That’s—” I couldn’t think of any way to finish that sentence. “You don’t think he might be a little…”

“Socially awkward?” she piped without reservation, and shrugged. “Sure, but… what programmer isn’t? I certainly am. And I’ve never seen a mind like his before… it’s so sexy!” She giggled.

I guffawed once, involuntarily.

“And you and Liam, huh?” she said loudly, gesturing behind us. “About time!” Fortunately we were already to the elevators, so I hoped he didn’t overhear.

“Shh!” I hissed instinctively, feeling my cheeks redden for the hundredth time that night. “It’s not like that. We were just talking.”

“I know Francis says you’re not into him, or at least you think you’re not,” she waved me off. “But even everybody in the lab can see the way he looks at you.”

I opened my mouth, and closed it again, caught off guard by this. I’d only admitted Liam’s feelings to myself earlier that evening… it never occurred to me that everyone else had already known. “Really?”

“Oh. So obvious. Francis thinks so too,” she declared dramatically. “And like Nilesh said, what woman’s gonna resist Liam? When you two went off on this little adventure together, we all took bets in the lab on how long it would take you to hook up!”

“What?” I gasped, mortified.

But she went on as if she hadn’t heard me, “Nilesh guessed within the week, but I said no way. You’re such an uptight perfectionist, it’ll take Liam at least a month to loosen you up.”

The elevator door opened, and I guided Larissa to her room without speaking for a minute, trying to identify the emotion I felt. Finally I decided it was indignation.

“‘Uptight perfectionist’?” I echoed, unable to keep the affront from my tone.

“Of course! You’re Little Miss Pleaser, soooo ‘by the book’!” Larissa burst out with a giggle, totally missing my offense. “That’s what Francis said, anyway. He says you need someone like Liam to lighten you up, if only you knew it!”

“Well, you can tell Francis to mind his own business!” I snapped, as we stopped in front of her door. “Liam and I are just friends, and that’s all we’re going to be. You and Nilesh both lose. Thumb here.” I grabbed her hand and thrust her thumb at the scanner, and the door clicked open.

“Then you’re an idiot,” Larissa informed me, in a singsong voice. Then she waggled her fingers at me. “Good night!”

When her door clicked shut, I shuddered and let out a whisper-grunt of disgust before heading up to my own room.

“How was it?” Madeline asked when I got back to my room, perky as ever.

“Shh!” I told her, wincing at the shrillness of her voice. I was already moving into that space between waking and dreams, half asleep on my feet. “It was… interesting.” I slipped out of my shoes, shrugged out of my light jacket and changed into pajamas as I told her that Liam and I had left the others and had been downstairs talking for the last several hours.

“He told me what happened to his brother,” I informed Madeline.

Her digital eyes widened. “What did happen to his brother?”

“His dad is the CEO of General Specs, believe it or not. Liam used to be the Head of Operations there himself—he actually built and programmed robots for a living, and he would have taken over as CEO if his brother hadn’t found the Renegades and disappeared five years ago!”

Madeline took this in with less shock than I had. “Poor Liam,” she murmured. “But—disappeared? Like the way Randall Loomis did?”

“I guess,” I shrugged, brushing my hair as I sat down on the bed. “But nobody else disappeared in the Renegades, at least not that we know of—just them. I’m pretty sure that his brother must have discovered something, and it must have been the same thing my father and his friends knew too. And probably Loomis. But if all these years in the Renegades haven’t helped Liam discover their secret, I don’t see how I can either…”

Suddenly I felt the mattress vibrate: my handheld, still inside the pocket of my discarded jacket, alerted me to a comm. I pulled it out.

“You must go back to Dublin with your colleagues tomorrow, and resume your normal life,” it read. “Leave the Renegades behind, Rebecca.”

It was anonymous.

“What?” Madeline rolled up to the edge of the bed, seeing my expression.

I wrote back, “Why should I go back? What would happen if I stay?” But when I tried to send it, the screen read, “Message failed.”

“Arrgh!” I said aloud, and Madeline wheeled against the bed frame, since she couldn’t come any closer.

“What? What?” she demanded.

“John Doe! Loomis, whoever!” I tossed the handheld away from me in disgust. “He’s got no intention of telling me the secret that my dad died for and Liam’s brother disappeared for. All he wants to do is warn me away!”

After a pause, Madeline ventured, “Do you think he made some kind of a promise to your dad to keep you safe?”

I looked up—this hadn’t occurred to me, actually, but it should have. It didn’t matter though. I wouldn’t rest until I knew the secret, and I knew Liam wouldn’t either. Not when we were this close.

“I wonder if I should tell Liam about John Doe after all,” I mused.

“But John Doe told you not to, for Liam’s own good!”

“I know, and before, I didn’t feel like I had to,” I agreed, “but that was before tonight. Now he’s suddenly confiding in me, and he thinks I’m confiding in him too… and I was, about everything else…” I sighed. “An omission this large feels like a betrayal of trust somehow.”

“Did you even tell him about Andy?” Madeline gasped.

I had to laugh—that shocked her, yet nothing else I’d said so far had. “I did.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he thinks Andy is… wussy.” I bit my lip, trying not to be amused at Andy’s expense, even though it was kind of amusing. “Basically he says he thinks I can do better.”

“Everybody thinks that,” Madeline said, matter-of-factly. “But you still want him to break up with Yolanda so he can come back to you anyway.”

“I do,” I admitted. “Even though I don’t think ‘break up’ is the right word because at least according to Ivan, they’re not officially together.”

As I swung my legs around and stuffed them under the sheets, Madeline said, “So… are you going to tell Liam then? About John Doe?”

I flipped the lights off, all except the one right next to my bed. “I don’t know,” I yawned. “Maybe… maybe I’ll tell him I have something to confess, but make him promise to do nothing with the information before I say anything.”

“You think he’ll go for that?” Madeline asked, skeptical.

I shrugged, leaning over the edge of the bed to grab the plug for Madeline, and inserting it into the back of her neck. Her eyes brightened just a bit with the initial surge of power. “That’s what I did before I told him about you.”

“And he promised?” she asked, surprised.

I thought for a minute, remembering Liam’s mocking, “Cross my heart and hope to die!”

“Well,” I amended, “He sarcastically promised. I don’t know if that counts. I’ll make him really promise before telling him about John Doe, though. He’ll give me his word, or I won’t say anything.”

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