Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 22

It took me only a few minutes to find Liam, Francis, and Larissa in the library, in the glass conference room like Liam had told me. Liam’s eyes flashed when he caught sight of me.

“I was just about to go looking for you! How hard is it to comm me and just tell me where you are?”

“You’d think you were his stray teenage daughter or something,” Larissa commented, resting her chin on her fist and blinking up at me placidly.

Liam shot her a sour look. “I’ll thank you to never make that reference again.”

Francis narrowed his eyes at me while Liam and Larissa had this exchange, and I was just about to reply to Liam and beg exasperated forgiveness yet again when Francis’s stare became so annoying I could no longer ignore it.

“What?” I demanded.

“On a scale of one to ten, how important would you rate what you’ve found out so far?”

To our mission, or to me personally? I thought but did not say. What I said was, “It was important, but not helpful, really.” I sighed, and turned to Liam, just about to summarize my conversations when Francis cut me off.

“Okay, then I go first. Mine is an eight.” He pulled out a chair next to him, indicating that I should sit. I gave an incredulous little harrumph, but did as I was told, glancing at Liam as I did so. His lips twitched in amusement, his irritation evidently forgotten. At least there was that.

“Liam told me about the salt and sulfuric acid purchase,” Francis said, showing me his netscreen.

“Wait, I thought you guys were working on the Commune?”

“Francis is phenomenal at multitasking,” sighed Larissa. “I think intense concentration on just one subject would bore him to tears.”

Francis nodded, very seriously. “That’s true, unless the one subject is a mystery in need of solving, in which case I can concentrate for up to twelve hours at a time with hardly a bathroom break. Although very few subjects warrant such attention. I solve most dilemmas long before they reach even two hours, let alone twelve—”

Oh my goodness,” I said, widening my eyes at him. “Get to the point!”

Francis, for once, did as he was bid. “Salt and sulfuric acid produce hydrochloric acid.”

“I already figured that out.”

“I know you did, that’s not the discovery, if you would just wait a minute,” Francis sai impatiently. “Some decades ago, there was a theory that a weak acid like hydrochloric might be able to artificially produce ATP…”

I shook my head. “What’s ATP?”

Francis gave a superior little snort. “I forget, you don’t know biochemistry. ATP, Adenosine Tri-Phosphate. It’s your body’s energy currency, produced by mitochondria in all of your cells. In our bodies we need protons in order to drive its production. A weak acid like hydrochloric would have protons that could be stripped relatively easily. Way back before the Council of Synthetic Reason, before it became illegal, everybody was trying to produce humanoid bots. The assumption was that if they looked human, they would have to be a combination of silicon and wires and biochemistry like ours—essentially like a cyborg.”

“So Halpert is building, or he’s helping someone else to build, illegal humanoid robots!” Larissa finished for him. “The weak acids are essentially its food!”

I blinked at her, not understanding. “But why would Halpert be building illegal bots? What would be the point?”

“I have a theory,” murmured Francis. “It’s a good one.”

“Oh, that’s a given,” I rolled my eyes. “Fine. Let’s have it.”

“I’m not ready to share until I have more evidence,” he declared placidly. “Liam has your Odessa researching a few things for me to see if it bears up.”

“All right, Rebecca’s turn,” said Liam, turning to me. “What did you find out?”

I sighed, ticking off my discouraging findings on my fingers as I related them. “One: according to physics, there’s no such thing as free will. Not even for us. No, no, I amend: it’s possible that we could do something completely independent of all our previous experiences and external influences, but it is so unlikely as to be essentially impossible, for all intents and purposes.”

“I could’ve told you that,” Francis muttered, not even looking at me. He was already apparently engrossed in an A.E. search, on to some other more interesting task. I shot him a scathing look that he didn’t even see.

“Was the physics professor a bot?” Liam asked.

“Yeah. How did you know?”

“Only a bot would reason like that,” he shrugged. “It’s a deductive approach to what ought to be an inductive question. Humans know we have free will, because we experience it. A human would start with the conclusion in mind and work backwards, to try to explain it. But a bot can’t do that, because free will is a subjective experience that it does not share. So instead, it will try to use laws of physics to determine whether free will is possible.”

“Francis,” I turned to him, deadpan. “Are you a bot?”

He arched an eyebrow at me. “Ha, ha. I meant I could have told you that is the conclusion you’d arrive at purely from the standpoint of physics.”

I exchanged a nettled smile with Liam, and told him, “Well, I’m glad you feel that way, because it freaked me out a little, honestly. So I went to see a dual philosophy and psych professor after that…”

“Ah, was that where you were when you were ignoring my last comm?” Liam asked pointedly.

I rolled my eyes and went on, “Professor Willit was a human, thankfully. He said that free will just means an agent has a choice between this or that, and is not coerced by any external force to choose either. Even if his choice is predictable based upon his past experiences, that makes him no less free to make it. He agreed that giving bots emotion will set up a dichotomy between the machine’s programming and its desires.” I thought about mentioning what he’d said about companion bots. But vocalizing it would somehow make it seem more real, and I didn’t want it to be real.

“So basically he said giving bots emotion will create free will, but there’s nothing we can do about it,” Francis summarized, now scrolling through his netscreen like I was boring him to tears.

“Yes, I said it wasn’t helpful, didn’t I? What are you doing?”

Francis turned his screen to show me, and my heart skipped a beat. A photograph filled the screen of a large group of people, most of whom I did not recognize. But dead center was my dad.

I shook my head at Francis, not wanting him to see that he’d unnerved me. “Why are you showing me—?”

He pointed at the screen again, but his finger landed on an image beside my dad’s. “That is Randall Loomis.”

It took me a second to comprehend this. When I did, I pulled Francis’s netscreen toward me, and enlarged the picture. This photo had been taken probably ten years ago, judging by my dad’s features, so I’d have to account for some aging, of course. But Randall Loomis was a young man, not much older than my dad had been. He was rather handsome too, with a crop of dark hair and laughing hazel eyes.

“That’s not John Doe,” Liam guessed.

I shook my head slowly, meeting Liam’s eyes and feeling a knot in the pit of my stomach, like I’d swallowed a stone.

“No,” I said at last. “It isn’t.”

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