Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 5

As we stepped outside on the green where other students played catch and lounged about eating lunch in the uncommon sunshine, Liam ventured, “So, tremendously uncomfortable as it makes me to ask you this question… what’s his name?”

I glanced at him, confused. “What?”

“The guy you’re crying about.”

“Oh…” I laughed a little and shook my head. “It’s really not a guy.”

“Oh!” His eyebrows shot up. “So you’re…”

“No, no, I mean it’s not romantic at all. For once,” I muttered under my breath. “Forget it,” I added quickly, hoping he wouldn’t probe what I meant by that. So many things I don’t want him to probe. We arrived at Lavazza just then, so I released his arm and approached the counter to order.

“Rebecca Cordeaux,” the bot said behind the counter, in her tinny voice. “Your usual?”

I nodded at the bot meekly as Liam arched an eyebrow at me with a smirk. “Please.”

The bot turned to Liam, and he jerked a thumb at me. “I’ll have what she’s having. Apparently she knows her coffee.”

We took our lattes to a table under the skylights, next to a large planter that hid us from the rest of the cafeteria. Liam just watched me for a minute, with that expectant look.

I hadn’t decided until right that minute whether I would trust him or not. But I would have to tell him something.

“Look, if I tell you, you have to promise me not to do anything about it. Only listen. Okay?”

He looked a little taken aback at that. “Promise not to do anything—what would I do?”

“You have to promise or I’m not telling you anything! And hold on—” I pulled out my handheld and flipped on the video recorder, holding it up so that Liam was in frame.

His suspicion melted into laughter. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

But I persisted, “It is April thirteenth. Liam, if I tell you why I am upset today, do you promise not to do anything about it? You will take no action independent of consulting me regarding the information I am about to tell you?”

Still smirking at me, he drew an X over his chest with his right hand. “Cross my heart and hope to die!”

He couldn’t be serious for anything. I rolled my eyes but stopped recording. “Good enough.”

I guess my face fell again, because Liam leaned across the table and took one of my hands. This took me off guard, and made me slightly uncomfortable—we didn’t really do physical contact.

“Bec. What is it?”

I sighed, watching him for a long moment. Here goes.

“I’m not an heiress,” I began.

“Okay…”

“But… I do have a companion bot.”

He dropped my hand, looking like I’d slapped him. “What?”

“Please,” I held up both my hands, trying to beg forbearance. Then I plopped both elbows onto the table, sinking my forehead onto them before looking back up at him again. “Her name is Madeline,” I said at last. “She was commissioned by a wealthy widow named Mrs. Marchmont. Mrs. Marchmont retired in Casa Linda, where I’m from—it’s a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona. Close enough to major hospitals if anything happened to her, but she wanted more of the ‘country’ feel because the tech hubs were too fast paced for her. I met her at church when I was fourteen—Mrs. Marchmont, not Madeline of course. I guess she was impressed that I was talking to her instead of to people my own age, and we got to be friends. She invited me over for tea a few times, asked me all about myself, and told me her old stories.” I chanced a glance up at Liam, and found he was no longer staring daggers at me. That was something. I went on, “About the third time I went over there, she introduced me to Madeline. My family hates bots too, but I was at that age where I didn’t judge by my parents’ opinions anyway. It’s impossible not to like Madeline. She’s so genuinely interested in everyone.”

“And by that, you mean she was programmed to seem interested in everyone,” Liam remarked, his tone dry. “Sorry. Go on.”

I bit my lip. “Then when I was fifteen, my father died. It was just my mom and me, and my mom was struggling just to put food on the table. She was always gone, either traveling for her job, or taking care of my sick aunt, who lives in Chicago. I guess Mrs. Marchmont could see that I was lonely. She invited me over more often after that. About a year later, she took ill. I went to see her in the big hospital in Phoenix when she was dying. Madeline was there with her, and she told me to take her after she was gone. She wanted to make sure Madeline would have a good home, but she didn’t know many people out in the country who wouldn’t dismember her as soon as look at her.

“My mom and I had a terrific fight over whether I’d be allowed to keep Madeline when the executor of Mrs. Marchmont’s will delivered her to me. I think that’s because Dad would have been furious; he had no love for bots. It’s a long story, but he lost his job as a doctor to a bot. He said the bots who took over couldn’t do his job as well as he could, and that he thought the media was pushing this utopian propaganda of how the bots would make the world a better place. He said it was all this big conspiracy to try to convince people they were alone in their distaste for the new world, and there was no point in fighting against the ‘tide of the future.’ You’d have gotten along with him really well, actually.”

“Sounds like it,” Liam murmured.

“Anyway, he died pretty suddenly of Treblar’s Disease. I don’t know if you know anything about that?” Liam’s brow furrowed with something that might have been recognition, but I explained anyway, “Dad used to call it an opportunistic infection, which means a lot of people have it, but their immune systems keep it in check. It’s usually not a big deal until the immune system becomes suppressed. Then the disease becomes active, and when it does, it can make people really really sick… though it’s not usually fatal. Mom said he’d probably had it for years, but he got sick right when his obsession with Halpert and some of his associates was at a fever’s pitch. He started working all night long and going on trips to the Capital…”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Liam held up a hand, and then his eyes went wide. “Your dad wasn’t—Quentin Cordeaux? Was he?” He smacked his forehead with his hand. “How did I never put that together before? Cordeaux! It’s not that common a name!”

I sighed, trying to smother my exasperation. He was missing the point. “Yes, that was him. I guess in your community, everybody knows each other, huh?”

“But your dad was like, one of the pioneers of The Renegades! That’s what we call ourselves: The Renegades.”

“How very Artificial-Experience-Gamer of you.”

“Sorry.” I guess he finally picked up on my annoyance. “Go on.”

Blinking to try to reset my emotions, I went on, “Anyway, my point was, Mom thought he got sick due to all his unresolved anger and bitterness, combined with working himself into the ground with all his research. She never actually told me so, but I know she even thought he became a little unhinged at the end—no offense. Apparently he told her that he found something out in the Capital, something involving Halpert and some other guys associated with him…”

“Which guys?” Liam asked.

I thought for a minute, counting off the ones I could remember on my fingers. “Well, Dad worked under Dr. Janner Rasputin for awhile—you know, the International Health Corporation guy. I know he’s a hero for stopping a bunch of would-be pandemics, but Dad hated him with a burning passion for some reason. Then Justice Wallenberg,” I added, naming the Supreme Justice of the International Court, “and… I can’t even remember the others, honestly.”

“Kennedy St. James, The CEO of Plethorus?” Liam raised his eyebrows, and I nodded. “Oh yeah, that sounds right.” Plethorus was the world’s major international supplier of nearly everything which could be manufactured on demand. I knew Liam hated him too—presumably because he was the world’s biggest employer of bots.

“And Pierre Montgomery and Abraham Chiefton?” Liam guessed, naming the head of the International Education Board, and a famous film director.

I blinked at him. “Yeah. I think that is right. How did you know?”

“Those are the members of Halpert’s Board of Advisors,” Liam said darkly. His tone implied he had more to say about this, but he resisted. “Go on.”

I shrugged. “Anyway, Dad kept insinuating that all those guys were part of some big conspiracy together. But he would never tell my mom or me what it was because he said he feared for our safety if we ever knew—something like that. Still, the idea of me getting a personal bot so soon after his death… I guess it seemed disrespectful to Mom, since he would have absolutely hated Madeline on general principle. I think the only reason she finally gave in was because she was so emotionally depleted herself, she was just tired of fighting with me. But she told me that the condition of my keeping her was that I’d never let her be seen in public. I was only too happy to comply, since I knew Madeline would be in danger if I did show her around. I don’t know about the rest of Dad’s theories, but I certainly could tell that in Casa Linda, where I’m from, everybody hates bots.”

“So where is she now?” Liam asked in a low voice. “Up in your flat?”

I nodded. “When Mrs. Marchmont told me she was giving her to me, she said I’d find that Madeline was the wisest, most loyal, and most unselfish friend I’d ever have.” I sniffed. “She was right about that. Madeline became my best friend very quickly. I needed someone I could talk to who would just let me be sad; all my real friends just kind of expected me to snap out of it within a week or two of my dad’s death, and go back to normal. I pretended I was fine, and just stayed busy so I wouldn’t think too much when I was around them. My mom had her own problems, plus she was practically never around anyway. But Madeline was perfect. She listened, and comforted, and let me cry, and she never scolded me for saying the same thing over and over. She had more empathy than any person I’d ever met. Or so I thought. I was fifteen at the time, and totally uninterested in how her technology actually worked—”

“Sorta like now,” Liam gave me a little half smile. I shrugged, but returned it.

“I guess, yeah. I didn’t ask how it was possible for a bot to have empathy, and to care about me. Once I got old enough to ask those questions, I still didn’t because I guess I didn’t want to know the answers. I was too attached to her by then.”

“But?” Liam prompted gently.

“But,” I sighed, “Last night, I finally did ask. I was trying to figure out where to start on designing the study you wanted, and I realized I had an insider right there. Madeline essentially told me she’s my friend because she was programmed to be my friend, and she can’t be anything else. I know that’s completely obvious now that I say it out loud, but you have to understand my history with her. I didn’t think of her as a robot, I thought of her as my best friend. Don’t get me wrong, I have other friends too, but...” I stopped myself. I’d been about to say I was a chameleon; that with everyone else, I changed who I was depending on who was around at the time and what they would approve of. I’d show bits and pieces of my true self to different people--in the lab and in my classes and to my mom, I was smart and conscientious. I was the one who “did everything right.” My theater buddies shared my love of performing and thought I was a “goodie two shoes,” but they didn’t know or care about who I was beyond that. We bonded over what we had in common, and it was great, but it was still superficial. Julie and Jake and my friends from Casa Linda were “fun” buddies--we had a great time together, hanging out until all hours of the night and talking about random funny ideas. They thought they knew me, and they did know a lot of facts about me, that was true. But none of them knew I was madly in love with Andy. (Well, Julie knew, but not the extent of it, because she clearly didn’t approve. Honestly I regretted confiding as much as I had to her, at least about that.) None of my Casa Linda friends knew how I’d struggled with my identity after Dad died and Mom went MIA for the most part. None of them knew that I double majored in cognitive neuroscience and theater with a minor in Creative Writing and filled every hour of every day because I just couldn’t stand the silence, because it made me think too much about what I’d lost. Nobody but Madeline knew all that. Without her, I would feel adrift, like there was no place in the world I could truly call home.

But Liam (of all people) didn’t need to know all that. I gave him a weak, almost embarrassed smile, and summed all this up: “So I just ‘found out’”—I used air quotes with my fingers—“that my best friend is an automaton. And it breaks my heart.” Pressing my lips together, I looked over his shoulder and out the large glass window beside us so I wouldn’t have to meet his eyes.

He didn’t say anything for a long time either—too long. Finally I blurted, “Look, I know how much you hate machines, and even though Madeline doesn’t care about me in a real emotion kind of way, she’s still my best friend. Please, just—try to understand!”

When I finally gathered the courage to look at him, I saw that he didn’t look angry anymore, only lost in thought. His eyes locked on mine again and he said, “I’m not angry. I get it. It’s okay.” He searched my face a little and then added, “I’m sorry about your father.”

I blinked, and gave him a tiny nod. “Thanks.”

We sipped our lattes in silence for what felt like a long time after that. Presently he asked, “Can I meet her?”

“No!” I cried, knee-jerk.

“I’m not going to hurt her!” he said, “I just… I’ve never actually talked to a relational bot before about its internal experience and self-awareness. I know a lot from the outside, but nothing about it from that angle. I’d just be fascinated, and it might be helpful for our research. I promise to behave myself.” He raised both of his hands in the air.

I watched him for a long moment, trying to envision how this would go. At last I said, “You’d… have to come to my flat. I can’t take her out in public. I promised my mom.”

Suddenly jovial Liam was back. “Is that a dinner invitation? Oh Bec, I didn’t know you thought of me that way…”

I felt my cheeks flush, the way they always did when Liam made comments like that. It made me want to avoid him. I pushed back my chair and stood up, ducking lower to the ground than necessary to pick up my bag and hide my face until my color returned to normal.

“If you keep that up, I’ll take it back!” I warned.

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