Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 31

Liam leveled his gaze at Youssef. “We know you created Halpert and his entire board,” he said.

Youssef sipped his scotch and looked out over the Alps for so long that I wondered if he was planning to answer.

Did you create them?” I demanded.

Youssef glanced at me and murmured, his face impassive, “Sorry, who are you?”

“Rebecca Cordeaux,” I told him through gritted teeth. “My father was Quentin Cordeaux. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?

Youssef raised his eyebrows, unimpressed. “Nope.”

“Really?” I snapped. “Because your creations are the reason he died!”

“Youssef doesn’t know anything about the Renegades,” Liam murmured to me. “Why would he?”

“I don’t know, maybe because we only exist because of what he made?” I shot back. Then I jabbed a finger in Liam’s direction, still facing Youssef. “If you don’t know my name, clearly you know the name Kelly! His brother died because of your bots too, did you know that? And many more besides!”

“Rebecca,” Liam said in a low voice, tightening his hand on my shoulder just slightly. I knew he meant it as a warning. I looked away from them both, breathing hard and trying to get myself under control.

Liam turned back to Youssef. “Do you deny you made them?”

Youssef sipped. Blinked. Then replied, “Why don’t you say what you came all this way to say. Unless that was it.” He gestured at me.

I saw Liam grit his teeth out of the corner of my eye. “I understand that you feel the need to protect yourself, but we’re not here to cause any trouble for you. We just want to understand how they work, their abilities and limitations, what their ultimate goals are, and how many of them there are. With your help, we might be able to figure out how to stop them.”

Youssef sipped again. “You can’t stop them. They’ve already won.”

My blood ran cold. “What do you mean? What have they won?”

“The allegiance of the masses,” Youssef said simply. “The public acceptance of their technology. You know, Mr. Kelly—the world is already overrun with bots. All it takes is one software upgrade to make them all like Halpert and his board. Given foundational creativity, if even one has the core purpose of making itself smarter and distributing that technology to other bots once it’s available…”

“Then why didn’t you create that twenty years ago?” I interjected.

“He didn’t know how,” said a voice from behind, and we spun around to see Francis approaching, his overcoat flapping at his calves. I wondered how he’d known Youssef was up here—had he watched him follow us? Francis went on, “Twenty years ago, nobody had a clue how creativity worked in humans, including him. Humanoid and human level Synthetic Reasoning was a hot political issue, and those who believed it would lead to destruction were greater than those who believed it would lead to utopia. He was on the losing side. But instead of obeying the law and abandoning his research, he just moved it underground. He thought he’d prove he was correct by doing it, and then when his utopian vision came to fruition, everyone would beg his forgiveness. But since he didn’t know how creativity worked, the best he could do was simulate human creativity, like tracing a drawing. Isn’t that right, Youssef?”

“Who the hell is this guy?” Youssef demanded.

Francis ignored the question and went on, “You literally copied the brain of someone who had died in that first iteration, didn’t you? With detailed VMI imaging slices, you basically just traced the human synaptic connections with silicon, and what you got was a replica of the dead person. Was it Halpert? Was he the first?”

Youssef stood up, his scotch forgotten on the arm of his chair. “I don’t know how you think you know all this…”

“But he wasn’t quite like the dead man had been, was he?” Francis went on. “Something was missing. What was it?”

“His soul,” I breathed, looking back at Youssef for confirmation.

Youssef glared at all three of us, eyes shifting from Francis to me, and something in his face relented. “My colleague and business partner knew he was dying. It was his idea. He wanted to be immortal, and he thought if we could copy his brain, he’d just wake up in a new synthetic body.”

“Did he?” I asked again, breathless.

Youssef shook his head, glancing at me briefly before attending again to Francis. “His memories were there, and all his factual knowledge and intellectual abilities—he still reasoned the same as he had before. He was quite charismatic and likable in life, and that much did translate to his synthetic form. But he wasn’t him. Bill was dry and funny. He got excited about intellectual challenges. He appreciated good art from the Second Era. He cared about people. He cared about social justice.”

“So his personality and emotions were gone,” Liam concluded.

“And his morals, too,” I added, and Youssef hesitated before nodding.

“We couldn’t recreate neurotransmitters and hormones, which likely explains the lack of emotions, even though he has an intact limbic system. Bill’s recreated brain runs entirely on silicon and electrical impulses.”

“Bill… William,” said Francis. “So the first one was Halpert.”

Youssef nodded again. “Yes. We chose the name William for consistency, since his implanted memories of himself were all under that name. But like I said, he’s not Bill, not in personality or in looks, so we created a fake back story. Ironically, Bill and I had already created the humanoid shell together, before he died—”

“Based on human biochemistry of ATP, yes, yes, we know,” Francis waved him off impatiently. “We figured that part out already.”

Youssef glanced at Francis with an expression that was at once taken aback and impressed. “Right. Also, because of the limitations of the recreated brain, we still had to give him a core purpose, like any other bot. We borrowed from Bill’s personal obsession in life, since it was already imprinted on his brain and required little enhancement: that was, advancing the cause of Synthetic Reasoning, except through administration. We programmed him to keep peace, as well, of course. We couldn’t have him declaring all-out war to advance his purpose.”

“Except that meant he interpreted anyone who opposed his goals as a threat to the peace,” I cut in, “and he eliminated those who tried to rebel!”

Youssef bowed his head. “An unfortunate side effect.”

“A predictable side effect, once you consider the fact that all bots deal with any opposition to their purposes in the most efficient way possible!” I retorted.

“And of course,” Francis added, his tone cold, “they also thought the most efficient way to deal with powerful loci such as mine and Liam’s was to quietly dismantle them, once they attracted enough attention to pose a threat.”

“I don’t know anything about what they are doing these days,” said Youssef. “I’ve been retired for nearly a decade.”

“So that was Halpert,” said Liam, with forced calm. “What about the others? Did they come from dead men too?”

“Of course they did,” said Francis. “He wouldn’t have known how to create them any other way.”

Youssef did not contradict this.

“Why did you stop building them, then?” Liam asked. “At what point did you figure out that your experiment was a failure?”

I thought Youssef would take issue with this, but he did not. Instead, he looked off into the distance as he said, “I began to see it long ago, but I didn’t want to see it. What makes them dangerous is inherent in what they are: it is in their very perfection. As the head of the medical community, Rasputin believes nothing short of perfect human health should be his goal, and so he kills all those whom he cannot cure. This prevents contagious diseases from spreading and eliminates long-term illnesses from dragging the economy down. It is efficient. As the head of the justice community, Wallenberg condemns all who so much as err on their tax returns in the name of the good of society. Etcetera.” He sank back into his chair. “But I couldn’t stop what had already been set in motion. I knew I couldn’t.”

“So you just fled and changed your name,” I accused. “Like a coward.”

Youssef met my eyes, steady and unflinching.

“Did the work stop when you retired?” Liam asked. “Did your colleagues stop after creating those six?”

We all knew the answer as soon as he asked the question.

“No,” Youssef said at last.

Liam hesitated before he asked with dread, “How many?”

Youssef shook his head, and opened his mouth to reply. Then his breath caught, his eyes bulged, and blood blossomed across his forehead.

I didn’t understand, until Liam threw his arms around me, shoving me to the ground.

“Get down!” he shouted.

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