Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 25

I read the entire conversation to Madeline as soon as it was over.

“Where are you going?” she demanded as I packed up my netscreen, my journal, my notebook, and the Bronte novel I was currently reading in my satchel.

“Gonna try to find the park in the light at least,” I told her. “It’s only a couple hours until sunset, and I don’t think I’ll be able to concentrate on research anyway—”

“At least tell Liam where you’re going!”

“Why? He’ll just forbid it…” I said, but I knew she was right. If I told him something at least, he might be slightly less angry with me later. I also couldn’t have Liam showing up at the park and scaring off John Doe before I could talk to him, though. So I sent Liam a comm saying, “I have something to tell you the next time I see you, but I don’t think I should put it in a comm.” That way he couldn’t pull the ‘but you promised to tell me the next time he contacts you!’ card later. Then I added, “I’m going out for a bit. Just around our hotel.”

He wrote back almost immediately. “No. Stay where you are. Please.”

My mouth twitched. “I’ll be just fine, Dad. It’s broad daylight, and I’m not going far.”

Liam’s reply came half a beat later. “Never call me Dad again. Creepiest thing ever.”

“Then stop acting like one!”

There was a pause, and then he wrote, “Fine, I’ll come join you.”

I closed my eyes, irritated with Madeline for making me tell him anything. “Want me to call you Dad again?”

Another pause. “At least tell me where you’re going.”

“Promise not to be there waiting when I get there?” I rejoined.

“Damn,” he wrote.

I laughed aloud. “You’re so predictable.”

He wrote, “Fine, fine, I promise.”

I inhaled, and held it, staring at his words. My question had been rhetorical, but he did promise. Had Liam ever broken a promise to me? I couldn’t think of a time, but if ever he’d have inducement to do so, it would be now. So instead, I wrote, “I’ll meet you in the lobby of the hotel at 7:15.” That should give John Doe plenty of time to tell me whatever he intended to say.

“Where are you going???”

“Liam, I will be fine. Trust me.”

The park took up an entire block. A few vagrants slept on benches with hats covering their faces, but it was otherwise deserted, despite the bustle of the city surrounding it. I chose a spot facing a lake, with a few swans swimming nearby. It was under the shade of a weeping willow tree, and something in my soul expanded at the sight of it. I just breathed for a few minutes, watching the swans as they swam.

I’d intended to call Mom this afternoon about quitting school… but this time tomorrow, I might be back in school after all, depending on how the meeting with John Doe went. Why put myself through an unnecessary confrontation? Besides, then I’d also find myself in the potentially difficult position of trying to explain why I’d changed my mind a day later, without telling Mom whatever John Doe told me.

So instead, I just sat there, my mind flitting from one topic to the next. I was unable to stay with one idea for long enough to make any progress before giving in to its competition.

I decided the best thing to do would be to ignore all possible topics pertaining to my actual life. I’d work on my novel instead. It had been weeks, but it felt like months since I’d touched it.

I pulled out the notebook where I’d been writing, long-hand, the story of Elizabeth the maid, and Prince Nikolai. I reread the ten pages leading up to where I’d left off, but I found I had to reread entire paragraphs multiple times before the comprehension of the words sank in—which was pretty sad, considering I wrote them.

Thinking maybe the problem was trying to write something new (creativity requires a lot of brainpower, after all,) I stuffed the notebook back in my satchel and pulled out “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” by Anne Bronte. I loved everything written by the Bronte sisters, although I’d had a bit harder time getting into this one, since it was told from the male protagonist’s perspective. But again, every few sentences, my mind wandered—to the meeting tomorrow. To John Doe’s text. To Madeline and Yolanda’s false family emergency. To what Madeline had said about Andy, and about Liam. To humanoid bots being built in secret by the most powerful men in the world…

I stuffed the novel back into my satchel, pulling out my journal instead. Not knowing which topic to pursue at first, I just updated it on the De Vries breakthrough for emotion, and our current search for how to program morality into the bots, including my disheartening discussion with Professor Willit earlier that day. Then I added, “I have one more reason to stay… and I suspect that will be over in a few hours, too. If not tonight, then probably tomorrow afternoon, when Liam, Francis, and I will be meeting with Halpert and his advisory board. How in the heck did that happen? At least Liam feels at home in that environment. I would just keep my mouth shut and let him do all the talking, except that the whole reason he’s letting me go is to explain what we know about the neuroscience of morality. To the most powerful men in the world.

Maybe I should write out what I would say. But depending on what John Doe told me, I wouldn’t be at the meeting, anyway.

I considered writing about John Doe and all my suspicions… but for some reason, I feared writing it down. I didn’t know how that could be used against me, but it just didn’t seem smart to keep any written evidence.

So instead, I defaulted to my usual journal topic: Andy. “I haven’t heard from him since Liam’s meeting when he brought Yolanda, nor have I attempted to contact him.” I tapped the pen on the paper for a minute before adding, “I haven’t even wanted to talk to him, truth be told. I feel like something shifted in me. When I think of Andy with Yolanda now—and I know he’s probably back at school and hanging out with her even as I write this—I don’t have the same sense of utter despair I used to have when I thought of him with Brittany, and with Jennifer, and with that one girl he hooked up with for a weekend whose name I never even knew… and especially him with Sarah. Now… I see him differently somehow. He’s not the Nikolai to my Elizabeth anymore. It’s like a spell was broken. I mean, I still love him, of course! I’m not so flighty as that. But now, for the first time… I wish I didn’t. I feel like he’s not worthy of me, as arrogant as that sounds. But it’s as if I’ve been cursed to love him and only him anyway, whether he deserves it or not.”

I hesitated to put this next bit on paper also, but for an entirely different reason. If I wrote about what Madeline said about Liam, I was afraid it would make it true somehow. Externally processing my feelings about what she’d said would dignify the idea, would make it real… and I didn’t want it to be real.

But I could say a few things without running that risk… a few incontrovertible facts.

“I also figured out since being here that Liam likes me,” I wrote. “And I told him I was in love with Andy. I thought telling him that would make him safe, but then he told me he thought I was only in love with Andy because of what happened to Dad. He almost seems…” I searched for the right word, before finally settling on, “undaunted. Like he thinks he still has a chance with me, even after I told him I want someone else.” What did I want to say about that? The fact that he still seemed so confident made me feel… what?

I had no idea. And I didn’t want to know, either.

“Madeline wants me to like Liam instead of Andy,” I wrote instead. Yet here was another topic I couldn’t put down in so many words—what was it I suspected her of? And if I wrote about it, would I start to see her through the lens of suspicion? Would it change our relationship? It was absurd, that I should even entertain such thoughts about my best friend.

Since when did I start to censor myself so heavily when speaking to my own journal, anyway?

No sooner did this thought cross my mind, I heard a gasp behind me, pulling me back into the present.

“Bec! Thank God!”

I whirled around to see Liam hurrying toward me. “What are you doing?” I cried, my eyes darting to the sky—it would be sunset within about ten minutes. “You have to get out of here!”

He didn’t slow his stride, but I saw the confusion pass over his face as he closed the distance between us. “Madeline told me where you were, but she didn’t tell me why, she just said you’d been here all afternoon!”

“I said I’d meet you in the hotel lobby at 7:15, and I will!” I pleaded, “Now please go away!”

“And leave you here after dark?” he demanded. “Why can’t you come with me now?”

“Because I can’t!” I hissed, holding up my handheld with an expression that I hoped conveyed my meaning.

Understanding dawned on his face now, and then his features relaxed into a scowl. “You promised you would tell me the next time…”

“And I was going to, but not in a comm, and you were gone! I’ll tell you tonight, but he made me promise to meet him here alone!”

“I’ll bet he did!” Liam’s eyes flashed, and he crossed his arms over his chest, sitting on the rock beside mine stubbornly.

A wave of desperation rolled over me, and I sank down to my own rock so that our eyes were on level.

“What do I have to do to make you leave?” I begged.

His eyes narrowed at me. “Tell me why you want me to so badly.”

“Because he promised to tell me the secret my father died for!” I hissed, “And your brother! But if you’re here, he might not come at all!”

Liam’s eyes darted across my face, as if searching for clues to my sincerity. I didn’t see how he could possibly doubt it; I’d never been so serious in my life.

“Fine,” he said at last. “I’ll wait across the street. If you need me—”

“I’ll scream bloody murder. Yes.”

“Not funny right now,” he growled, snatching my handheld out of my fist. I grasped for it too late, and he turned his shoulder to obstruct my reach.

“What are you doing?” I demanded.

“Programming myself under ‘Emergency Contacts.’”

“Oh, Liam!”

I only halfheartedly attempted to take it back again, already knowing he wouldn’t let me until he’d accomplished his intention. My heart thundered in my chest as I watched the horizon: the sun had just disappeared, and the sky was streaked with red and orange.

Liam showed me my own handheld screen when he’d finished, holding it just out of my reach. “You press the center button, and it dials me automatically and sends me your location,” he said. “Which I hope I won’t need, since I plan to keep you in eyesight, but just in case.” He thrust it back to me at last, his expression dark.

He’d be mad at me later for sure. Well, it was mutual.

Without another word, he turned and crossed the street.

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