Uncanny Valley

All Rights Reserved ©

Chapter 4

When I arrived in the lab the next day, I deposited my backpack on the floor beside me and sank down into my chair, staring at the black top table without really seeing it. This was the main lab, where Liam and Dr. Yin and everybody under them worked. Towering bookshelves topped most of the desks for storage, and most of the shelves overflowed with cables and wires and various obsolete gadgets I couldn’t identify.

I hadn’t slept much the night before. I’d powered Madeline down for the night a little earlier than usual, because I just didn’t want her comfort anymore.

Her fake comfort, I thought. I just needed to think.

I started when I felt a presence, and looked up to see Liam standing there, watching me. He raised his eyebrows in that classic probing-yet-not-quite-serious way of his. It felt like perpetual ridicule.

“What?” I asked, not caring if I came off rude.

“You look like you just found out unicorns are imaginary.”

“Shut up, Liam,” I said heavily, pushing myself off the edge of the desk to go get some tea. I didn’t really want any, I just thought it might end the conversation. Liam seemed to have the idea that I was innocent to the point of naïveté. Sometimes I liked that, truth be told—I suppose I thought it might make me seem endearing. But just now, it irritated me.

Alas. He followed me to the tea kettle in the little office. “No, really,” he pressed. “Did you get stood up for a date last night or something?”

“No,” I gave him a pointed look, hoping to communicate that this conversation was over. “I was thinking, though. Companion bots imitate their masters already, even though they don’t have real emotion yet—so at the moment, it’s not true empathy. But once bots have a limbic system of their own, all we’d have to do is take whatever analog of mirror neurons they already have and hook them up to the synthetic limbic system somehow. Wouldn’t that essentially give them empathy, same as we have? And once they have that, then they’ll theoretically follow a moral code, too—at least as well as we do. Right?”

Instead of responding, Liam narrowed his eyes, inspecting my face.

“Would you stop doing that?” I turned away from him on purpose as I put a chai tea bag in my mug and poured hot water over it.

“How do you know that?” he asked.

“What?” I lingered with my back to him, dipping my chai in the hot water.

“About how companion bots operate. I mean, you’re right, they do have primitive mirror neurons, and they do use them to imitate humans, but it sounds… a little… personal. Like maybe you had a conversation with one since yesterday.” Liam crossed the little kitchenette to lean on the counter beside me as he said this, so that I could no longer hide my face.

My heart beat faster, and I turned away from him again, heading back to my desk with my mug. I knew this was exactly the wrong strategy with Liam: acting too secretive would only make him more determined, but I didn’t know what else to do.

Nobody hates bots like Liam does. I couldn’t tell him about Madeline. I just couldn’t.

“I have to do some research,” I told him, pulling an interface towards me. But he sat down beside me, pulling up a stool from a nearby lab bench.

“Aw, no,” Liam declared, pushing the interface away again. Then he asked me, point blank, “Are you holding out on me? Are you an heiress or something?”

I snorted. “Certainly not!” I tried to act nonchalant, though I was starting to feel really frightened.

“Because only the super wealthy have companion bots,” Liam went on, like I hadn’t replied. “And I took it as a foregone conclusion that anybody doing research to stop the advancement of the bots wouldn’t actually own one herself…”

I forced myself to face him. The contrast between his pupils and the blue of his eyes could be piercing when he wanted it to be, but I would not be intimidated. Or at least I wouldn’t let him see that I was. “Liam. Would you please let me get back to work?”

“Oh, look at the time!” Liam declared, making a show of stretching out his wrist as if he had a watch there, even though nobody had worn watches since the Second Age. “It’s half ten.” He knew this from the A.E. chip in his temple, of course. Half ten was the coffee break time for all the labs; everyone generally gathered in a room downstairs to socialize for half an hour over coffee, tea, or biscuits.

“I’ll stay and work, I got here late—” I began. But Liam took hold of my elbow, lifting me up and forcing me to follow him.

“I think you and I should take this one at Lavazza,” he declared. “It’s time for us to get to know each other a little better.” He steered me by my elbow so firmly, and I suddenly felt so out of control that once we were in the hall, I burst into tears.

Liam let go of me immediately, blurting, “I’m sorry! Geez!”

I buried my face in my hands once I had both of them at my own disposal again, feeling like a big ball of fear for Madeline, devastation about last night, frustration that Liam wouldn’t just leave me alone, and humiliation that all of this had driven me to cry in front of him. Of all people.

When I finally got ahold of myself, I forced myself to look at Liam. He just stood there, staring at me, like he wasn’t sure what to do with his arms and legs. At last he mumbled, “See, this is why I want you to do the research on emotion, and not me.”

I sniffed. “Why, because you have none?” I added a tiny smile as I said this, to show that I wasn’t serious.

“Because—I’m certainly out of my element with them.” He bit his lip, this time offering me his arm tentatively. “Can we still go to Lavazza? Please? Let me buy you a coffee?”

I sighed. I would have preferred to stay in the lab and skip the break altogether, but I also felt the need to smooth things over after my embarrassing outburst. I looped my arm through his, and he took a deep breath, looking immensely relieved.

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.