Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 2

When I arrived in my flat, I dropped my coat and hat on my twin bed. I had another hour to kill after the experiment finished and before my Creative Writing class, and probably should have started working on Liam’s new project. But impossible requests breed apathy (I think I read that on a plaque somewhere once), so I didn’t feel especially motivated to try. Plus, I wanted to show Madeline the video of the performance from last night—or at least the parts when I was on stage. She had been my main study partner to help me learn my lines, as always, and I wanted her to appreciate the final product.

Madeline was plugged into the charging station and powered down. She was about a foot tall, so I could easily transport her in my backpack, and made of a lightweight aluminum alloy. Her face was metal, too, and yet humanoid—but with eyes that took up about half her face. I pressed the power button behind her neck, and her eyes lit up.

“How did it go?” she burst out when she saw me.

“Come here and I’ll show you.” I pulled up my netscreen and pressed the play button with a flourish of anticipation. Since all of us (humans and bots alike) could access the labyrinth via our A.E. chips, the only legitimate purpose remaining for netscreens was for sharing a mutual experience, such as watching a film or a video, or sharing information from the labyrinth with someone else. I used my A.E. chip as little as possible, but then, I was odd.

“Oh Becca,” Madeline breathed when I stopped the recording, her digital eyes shining with the most perfect admiration I could possibly ask for. “You were absolutely incredible!”

“Thanks,” I grinned, dispensing with the necessary false humility that I would have employed with anyone else. With Madeline, I could just admit that I knew I was good.

“When do rehearsals start for The Tempest?” she asked me eagerly. I had been cast as Miranda--my third leading role in a row.

“Next week is the first one,” I told her. “This will be my first weekend off in awhile—I was thinking of asking Julie to come with me to London to meet Jake.” Jake was one of my best friends from Casa Linda, practically like a brother to me. We had gone to high school together, and had been part of the same group of friends for the last five years now. I’d met that whole group shortly after my dad’s death. Including Andy.

Madeline knew where my mind went next; I’d become predictable, I suppose. “Are you gonna try to get Andy to go too?”

“I’ll ask him,” I murmured, blushing. “He won’t go, though. Quantum Track tickets are a lot more expensive from New York to London than they are from Dublin.”

“He’s got student loans too!” Madeline pointed out. “Besides, ever since last summer, I keep expecting him to show up at your doorstep one day, and sweep you into his arms, and tell you he can’t live without you…”

I giggled, delighted, but with a tinge of chagrin. Madeline was the only one who still indulged such fantasies with me. It was true that last summer, Andy commed me almost nonstop while we were home in Casa Linda for the summer, between hangout sessions with our friends. He told me all kinds of leading things--like, “I don’t know why such a beautiful girl would think such-and-such” (clearly implying he meant me,) or, “You know guys are super intimidated by you, right?” Which I of course took as the reason why he hadn’t come right out and directly told me how he felt about me yet, nor did he ever ask to hang out with me alone: he was too shy. I just had to be more encouraging; then he’d come around.

Maybe he’d convinced himself that I was out of his league or something. Maybe that was why he’d basically stopped talking to me this semester.

Unfortunately, Madeline was the only “person” besides me who could believe that. Which made her pretty much the only one I could talk to about Andy at all, at this point.

“I’ll invite him,” I reiterated. “But I’ve gotta ask Julie first. I’m meeting her for lunch after Creative Writing.”

Julie and I met for lunch in the Buttery, the little cafe on the Dublin University campus. Neither of us much liked the vibe there—it was bright and too open, all geometric, with square chairs and round tables. The stark whiteness with track lighting made me feel like I was living in somebody’s idea of a futuristic kitsch cartoon. Julie waved at me in line, all her features wide in enthusiastic greeting. Julie never grinned like a normal person, she always opened her mouth as wide as it would go, as if silently shouting. She was tall, broad, and built like an athlete, even though she wasn’t one.

“There’s my superstar!” she cried once I was in earshot, and she started miming a microphone and singing a rendition of one of my solos the night before, karaoke-style.

“Shh!” I laughed, embarrassed.

Julie gasped and leaned forward in a mock whisper as we inched forward in line. “Was Liam there? In the audience?”

“No way. I refused to tell him when or where the performances were.”

“Why not? He wanted to come support you, and that man…” she tilted her head to the side and roved her eyes up and down as if he were standing in front of her.

I shook my head and rolled my eyes. “Because one, he’s incapable of being anything but sarcastic unless he’s talking about Synthetic Reasoning, and two,” I ticked the reasons off on my fingers, “I’d have been so self-conscious if he were in the audience, I wouldn’t have been able to perform at all. He’d have made fun of me for-ev-er.

“All right, all right, fine. I’m just saying, that man…”

“I know,” I patted Julie on the shoulder. “Speaking of attractive and available men, are you free this weekend?”

Julie opened her mouth, widened her eyes, and spread all her fingers apart, excited before she even knew the reason. “Yes! Why?”

“Want to go to London?” I grinned. “I want you to meet my friend Jake, he goes to school there.” I’d had an idea that the two of them might hit it off, and had been hoping to introduce them for awhile.

“I haven’t been to London in six months. Let’s do it! Did you message him yet?”

I told her no, but I pulled out my handheld right there in line and sent him a comm, just as Julie began her order. I could have used the A.E. chip in my temple and mentally dictated the comm, but that always kind of creeped me out. I preferred to avoid labyrinth connections in my head if I could help it. Besides, people were always teasing me about my ancient handheld. I kind of liked being different.

My handheld vibrated within minutes with Jake’s reply: “Sure! Just tell me when and where!”

“See, this is what I love about school,” Julie said over her shoulder as the bots behind the counter put her meal together. “Back home, it’s this depressing ‘real world’ where nobody can afford anything, and they’re all out of work. But here, money is for spending! Everybody’s up for new experiences!”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling a twinge of guilt as I pictured my mom’s face, had she heard that speech. London would require a Quantum Track ticket, of course… which would mean dipping into school loans. I made a little money in the lab, but I spent all of that on groceries and coffee and local transportation. At least London and Dublin were only about a 20 minute Quantum Track ride. I thought all this as I ordered my own lunch from the polite little bot behind the counter. “I should work a little extra to pay for all of it, though,” I added, thinking about the new project Liam wanted me to design. A shadow crossed my face, and Julie must have seen it.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

I opened my mouth and closed it again, trying to decide how much to answer. Julie wasn’t particularly interested in my research, I knew. At last I settled on, “Did you see Halpert’s address?”

Julie snorted. “What, at like four in the morning? Uh, no.” She took a bite of her sandwich. “Why, was it important?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. My mom and Liam both think so. It’s a call for worldwide collaboration to help bots develop emotion and creativity.”

Julie picked up her lunch tray as the bot delivered it, gesturing at an empty table with her head. “Isn’t that what your thesis is about?”

“Kind of. My thesis is on the possible neuropeptide of human desire. Liam wants me to ‘pivot,’ as he puts it, and design a different experiment that I have no idea how to…” I trailed off. I’d just had an idea, actually. Totally outside the box, but still…

“What?” she pressed. But I shook my head—this wasn’t an idea I could explain, even to Julie. Nobody could know about Madeline. That was the deal I’d made Mom when she allowed me to take her.

“Nothing,” I stopped, and smiled. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll figure it out.” The bot delivered my lunch too, and I picked up my tray and followed Julie to the table she’d indicated.

Julie shrugged, satisfied. “So, tell me about Jake! Is he cute? And if so, why haven’t you dated him yourself? Oh, oh, I know why, because he’s not Andy, right?”

I colored. “Because I’m not into Jake, and yes—because he’s not Andy.”

“Has Andy talked to you recently?”

I stirred my soup, not meeting her eyes. “Well, he sent me a comm on my birthday,” I murmured. “And I’ve talked to him four times on A.E. this semester. But I always have to call him.” I thought about my promise to Madeline to invite him to London with us, but somehow that just felt too vulnerable at the moment. Maybe I’d convince Jake to invite him… except if I did that, I couldn’t seem too eager about it, or Jake might get suspicious.

Julie nodded, trying to be supportive. “Maybe you should… date someone else? Just to make him jealous?”

“Not Jake,” I insisted, more firmly than I’d intended. “Dating Jake would not be a fling. We’ve been friends for way too long.” Even though Jake had flings constantly. But still, I would be different. Everyone would practically expect us to announce our engagement within the month.

“Okay, what about Liam?”

“No!” I rotated my head up and looked at the ceiling as I said this, trying to punctuate the absurdity of the proposition. “Just—no!”

“All right, all right,” Julie held up her hands, “I’m just saying, you have no shortage of good options!”

“I know who I want, and it wouldn’t be fair of me to date someone else just to use him for experience,” I insisted.

“Even though you have no experience,” Julie leaned across the table to emphasize this. “Guys aren’t as fragile as you think they are, Becca. Just get out there and make eyes at some random dude if nothing else! Go on a couple dates, and let it slip to Andy that you’re doing it. I bet he might change his tune if he knows you’re not just sitting there waiting for him…”

“Ugh,” I said. I was so tired of people giving me that advice, and the idea of going out with someone I didn’t like just because I should sounded repugnant. “Can we just talk about this weekend, please?”

“Fine, fine!” Julie shrugged. “I’m just saying, if you flipped off that ‘go away’ signal you’ve got on full blast all the time, you might be surprised at the response!”

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