Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 18

I woke up to a knock at my door the next morning: not syncopated, and a little timid. Not Liam then.

“Rebecca?” The voice belonged to Dr. Yin.

“Just a minute!” I gasped my first conscious breath, feeling that my eyes were still bloodshot before I saw them. I rushed around the room, splashing water on my face and tossing my messy auburn hair into a high ponytail before opening the door a crack. Dr. Yin was alone, so I admitted her. “Sorry, I guess I overslept…”

“Yes, you did, it’s almost nine!” she said, with a hint of reproach. “The Quantum Track leaves at ten fifteen.”

“Quantum Track?” my eyebrows contracted. “You mean for us to see you off?”

“No, for you too, I thought. I got a comm that you were to be on board with us,” she frowned.

“You—” my mind spun, trying to make sense of this. “Who sent it?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know, it was anonymous, but—”

“Why are all these people getting anonymous comms about my life!” I burst out. When I saw the shocked look on Dr. Yin’s face, I flushed. “I’m sorry. That… wasn’t supposed to be out loud.”

She stopped, peering over my shoulder. “What is that?”

I felt a stone drop into the pit of my stomach. Madeline. She was still plugged in and charging, but I’d completely forgotten about her when I’d opened the door. It didn’t matter in the Capital so much, but I’d always tried to keep her secret from everyone else in my life.

“Ah…” I stammered, but my mind went blank.

“You have a companion bot?” Dr. Yin gaped.

There was nothing to do but tell the truth now—the evidence was right there. “Please don’t spread that around,” I said meekly. “It’s a long story.”

“Does Liam know?” She said the words forcefully, like Madeline’s very existence constituted a betrayal.

“Yes, of course he knows. I told him before we came. They’ve made friends.”

Dr. Yin gave a short laugh. “Liam made friends with a companion bot?” She shook her head. “Wow. Okay. He must be really fond of you.” She turned to leave before I could reply to this. “Well, we’re having breakfast downstairs. If you don’t need to pack, then join us at your leisure, I suppose.”

Liam waved me over to their table when he saw me, pulling out a chair beside him. I smiled, a little self-conscious. I wasn’t quite sure how to act around him now, since the dynamic of our relationship had changed so dramatically in the last twenty-four hours.

“I’ve decided to stay, too!” Larissa announced to me brightly as soon as I sat down. I guessed in her mind, our conversation last night had been more bonding than insulting. Well, she admitted she was socially awkward, I thought. She dropped her voice and added, as if I’d asked, “I’m going to help Francis and Liam build the Commune. They’re going to need my help here more than in Dublin!”

“Although Rebecca will be more use to us in Dublin,” Dr. Yin said to me pointedly. “You’ll have far more resources there for your morality and free will research, don’t you think?”

Liam sighed, and glanced at me, reluctant. “I think she’s right, Bec. In Dublin you’ll be able to collaborate with the psych and theoretical physics departments, and whoever else you need. We won’t come in the picture on your project until later, anyway. Besides, I’ll rest easier knowing you’re safe.”

I opened my mouth to tell him that I wasn’t going anywhere and he wasn’t getting rid of me. But just then, the lights in the hotel dimmed and a track light above a little platform lit up, like a stage at the front of the cafe. Then a holograph appeared: William Halpert.

“This can’t be good,” murmured Nilesh, as holographic Halpert extended his arms.

“Greetings, everyone,” he said. “Senate Leader Halpert here, with an update on the challenge I presented to you weeks ago. My team has confirmed a major breakthrough in Amsterdam: robotics engineer and biochemist Kathleen De Vries and her research team appear to have developed synthetic emotion. They have essentially created an analog of the human limbic system, the system responsible for emotion in the human brain, and verified that electrical responses match their predictions based upon crude markers of pleasure, pain, and fear. De Vries’ team is now working closely with General Specs, developing robotic prototypes to prove that this synthetic emotion will, in fact, lead to synthetic creativity.”

Liam swore, and sank his head into his hands. I put a hand on his back, trying to comfort even though I knew there was nothing I could do. General Specs was his company, or would have been. Despite everything that had happened, it must have felt a bit like a betrayal. And now there was nothing he could do to stop them.

“This may very well be the breakthrough we have all been waiting for!” Halpert went on. “Again, this challenge is not a competition so much as a collaboration across the globe for the advancement of our species. General Specs has agreed to take no remuneration for their involvement: there will be no patents, and all blueprints are freely available on the labyrinth. Anyone else who wishes to simultaneously create similar bots using the De Vries team’s system can do so, and we ask only that you share your progress with the worldwide community. I will keep you posted on the results of the prototypes! Thank you all for your kind attention. This is a day to celebrate!”

The overhead lights brightened, the stage dimmed again, and Halpert’s holograph disappeared. The cafe burst into applause.

Once the applause died down, the chatter in the cafe resumed. But our table sat in silent mourning. Liam did not move, still staring at where Halpert’s holograph had been.

“Liam?”

He turned around to face the rest of us. I expected a haunted expression, but instead his jaw was set. His eyes, alight with determination, sought Dr. Yin’s and then mine.

“Are you guys thinking what I’m thinking?”

Dr. Yin nodded. “Definitely. We’ll use their blueprints and collaborate with robotics back home to create a few prototypes as fast as possible. Then we’ll get to work on iterations of Rebecca’s synthetic morality idea, as soon as she has one…”

“Put a call out for collaboration for synthetic morality on the labyrinth, too. See if it gets pulled,” Liam cut her off. Nilesh raised his eyebrows and glanced at Dr. Yin—technically she was his boss, not the other way around—but Dr. Yin didn’t seem to notice. She nodded, as Liam went on, “We haven’t tried open sourcing that yet. If they pull it, and I’m pretty sure they will—well, we should have the Commune up in a few days anyway. I’m going to try to set up a meeting with Halpert directly.”

We all gaped at him, and Nilesh started laughing incredulously. “Oh, just like that, huh? You’re just gonna call him and arrange a lunch meeting, you and the most powerful man in the world?”

Liam leveled Nilesh with a confident gaze that silenced him. “Yes I am, and Halpert will take it.”

“Why?” I asked what we all wanted to know.

He glanced back at me and said significantly, “I’ll just tell him Liam Kelly of General Specs wants to meet with him regarding the robotic prototypes they’re creating.”

“And… he’ll assume you’re your father!” I gasped, both impressed and a little frightened for him.

From the expressions around the table, I gathered no one else had known of Liam’s background, either.

“Your father?” Dr. Yin choked, and whispered, “Your father is the CEO of General Specs?”

“Yup.” It was evident that she wasn’t about to get nearly the explanation I’d had last night. Liam sat back, touching his A.E. chip on his temple, his expression faraway.

“What are you doing?” Larissa breathed. “Do you have Halpert’s direct contact information already?”

“No. I’m having Francis get it for me.” His focus returned to us then, and he shrugged. “I could find it myself, but we’d better get down to the Quantum Track pretty soon. And I should help Rebecca pack.” He glanced at me pointedly.

“I’m staying with you,” I said at once, before I could stop myself. They all turned to look at me, and I flushed. How could I explain my reaction? “I mean… I can… go to The Capitol University and scour the research, just as well as in Dublin. Maybe better, their uni is twice the size of ours. I’ll just pose as a graduate student there. It’ll be faster! I can’t set up clinical trials here, of course, but we probably only have weeks before the prototypes are approved and General Specs starts to mass produce them. There’s no time for human experiments anyway, so I’ll just pass along whatever I find out to you guys. You can collaborate on it with robotics in Dublin, until the Commune is up and running. Then hopefully we’ll have a bunch of researchers to help worldwide.”

I was glad I thought fast on my feet: I saw that I’d convinced them. I’d even mostly convinced myself. Dr. Yin shrugged.

“I guess that makes sense. Clinical trials take awhile. Probably too long.” Then she tapped her temple, presumably to look at the time, and looked at Larissa and Nilesh. “We’d better get down to the Quantum Track station.”

Liam, Larissa and I helped them all down with their luggage. With promises to keep in close contact, handshakes and hugs, they were gone.

“I’ll head back to Francis’s pub now!” Larissa announced, looking a little flushed. “I’ll see you guys later, I’m sure!”

Once she had gone, my heart started to pound in anticipation of what I knew I needed to do next. I turned to Liam with a determined expression. To my surprise, he met my gaze with equal expectation.

“All right. Out with it,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

My eyebrows shot up. “Out with what?” I hadn’t planned on the innocent act, but I really wasn’t sure what he was referring to.

“That was some pretty fast thinking in there. You almost convinced even me, but not quite.” He stared me down. “You were awfully quick and vehement about refusing to go back with them, and somehow I don’t think you were just being stubborn, although you are certainly that. Why? What are you hiding?”

Instead of agreeing or denying, I just said, “Not here.” I turned to walk back to the hotel, and Liam fell into step beside me. It was only about five minutes away, but we walked in prickly silence, and I composed my speech as we went.

After crossing the threshold of the glass doors in the lobby, I went straight up to my room. Liam followed me inside without waiting for an invitation.

As soon as the door clicked shut, I motioned to Madeline to stay out of the way. Eyes wide, she mimed a zipper across her lips and wheeled herself into a corner to give us privacy, her face turned toward the wall.

Then I said to Liam with a deep breath, “I have something to confess. But before I do,” I held up my hands to stop him from interrupting, “you have to promise not to do anything with what I am about to tell you. No one else can know, and I mean no one—not Francis, not the Renegades, not Dr. Yin—no one.”

He balked, arms still crossed over his chest. “I’m not sure what kind of arrangement you think we have here, but I’m not going to give you a blank check, Rebecca. No.”

I blinked, taken aback. “Then I won’t tell you anything!”

He closed the distance between us, eyes flashing. “How dare you keep secrets from me—of all people! I am the original conspirator here, do you understand that? This is my mission, it has been for years, and you didn’t even care about it until a few weeks ago! Now suddenly you presume to withhold information from me—?”

“You have a big mouth, Liam!” I shouted back. I wasn’t sure at what point we started shouting, but I was glad the walls were sound-proof. “You just shout everything you know from the rooftops, and if you’re not careful, you’re going to end up just like my dad, and your brother! I didn’t tell you because I was trying to keep you safe!”

He laughed—a short, incredulous sound, like he couldn’t believe my presumption—but he backed up a step before sinking down to sit on the edge of the bed. “You were trying to keep me safe?” he repeated, his tone still biting but no longer a shout. He ran a hand through his dark hair so that it stood up in every direction.

“Yes I was, believe it or not!” I rounded on him, hands on my hips. “You may be super cautious when it comes to me, but you don’t think about your own safety at all! The second you get a scrap of information, you want to tell anybody and everybody. Well, you can’t do that with this. All I’m asking is for you to promise me to think before announcing what I’m about to tell you to anyone who will listen, because this just might be the only ace up our sleeves that we’ve got. All right?”

He sighed, heavy and resigned. “Fine. Fine. I promise. What is this enormous secret of yours?”

We stared each other down for a few minutes, and I bit my lip before I said at last, “I think I found Randall Loomis.”

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