Uncanny Valley

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Chapter 8

Julie met me at the Quantum Track around ten am the next morning, double-fisting two take-out coffee cups.

“Hey girl!” she cried, running up gingerly so as not to spill. I hugged her before relieving her of one of them.

“Thanks.” I sipped mine with a slurp to avoid burning my tongue.

Julie tilted her head to one side, inspecting me. “You seem distracted.”

I looked up, surprised. “Oh—no, I’m fine.” It wasn’t entirely true. I shook my head and gave a forced laugh. “It was just this thing that happened in the lab yesterday. Or I found out about it in the lab.” I dropped my voice, just in case, and told her about Liam’s black-listed locus on the labyrinth as we boarded the Quantum Track and sat down. Then I told her that all of his conspiracy theory friends’ loci vanished also.

Julie blinked at me. “That sucks for them, but…” she reeled her hand, like trying to get me to the point. Clearly this wasn’t point enough for her.

“It just seems strange, doesn’t it? All of them posted stuff about Halpert’s challenge and how this could lead to superintelligent bots and the end of the world and all that. I always just rolled my eyes when I heard about it all, but the fact that they got black-listed almost implies they were on to something. Or at least that Halpert and the others want to silence all dissenting opinions, which goes against everything the Republic is supposed to stand for. And besides, why wouldn’t Halpert want to safeguard against that very thing? What could his motive be in suppressing those opinions?”

“Becca. Listen to yourself.” She gave me that deadpan look of hers, dropping her chin so her eyes bored straight into mine.

I obliged her with a half smile, to show I wasn’t totally serious either. “Do you think it would be that bad if Halpert succeeds? I mean, if bots become super creative and intelligent and all that?”

“Uh, no!” Julie declared. “It would mean we’d all be free to do stuff like this all the time,” she gestured to the compartment we were in, “and we’d never have to work! It would be amazing! You could do nothing but perform and write your novels all the time…”

“I know, that’s what I think too,” I admitted. “Everybody in my hometown hates being unemployed, though. They don’t know what to do with themselves.”

“Hey. Look at me.” She gestured from my eyeballs to hers. “You and I? Will never have that problem.”

“I know,” I said again, resting my head against the glass.

“They should just get counseling or something! Figure out what they want to be when they grow up. Becca, throughout human history, people have been striving for exactly this kind of freedom!”

“Have they?” I challenged. “You’re a woman’s studies major, didn’t women fight to get back into the work force in the Second Era? Why would they do that if working was so bad?”

“Ugh, do we have to talk about something this heavy on a Saturday?” Julie complained, rolling her eyes. “That was never about work per se, it was about equality. If everybody equally isn’t working, we’ll have the chance to redefine our lives by something other than our careers for the first time since like the Stone Age! And that’s the end of this conversation. Tell me updates about Andy.”

A horrible fear suddenly struck me, and I declared, “You are not allowed to say anything about Andy to Jake!”

“Why not?”

“Because they’re best friends, and Jake would tell him!”

“Uhh, are you sure that’s such a bad thing? Haven’t you said yourself that maybe Andy just isn’t confident enough to pursue you without knowing for sure that he won’t get shot down?”

“Yes, but—” I closed my eyes. “Just, please don’t say anything in front of Jake. Okay?”

“All right, all right!” Julie held up her one coffee-free hand as the Quantum Track picked up speed. “Even though I really think you should tell Andy yourself, but it’s your life…”

Julie chatted about boys and gossip and music as our tube track skimmed the top of the ocean. Come rain or shine, the Quantum Track zipped through the tube with the force of compressed air, let the seas do what they might. It was much too fast to see any detail—I couldn’t watch the dolphins or anything like that. But still, it was pretty cool.

When we arrived, Jake met up with us in the Quantum Track station in London. He looked expertly disheveled as always, like he couldn’t care less, but somehow still managed to roll out of bed looking like a rock star. I heard Julie suck in a breath beside me and I suppressed a grin.

Jake ambled over and hugged me first, and without a moment’s hesitation hugged Julie too, even though it was the first time they’d met.

“Thought we could get breakfast first. Or, breakfast-slash-lunch I guess. You girls hungry?”

I wanted to laugh at the suave put-on Jake assumed whenever he was in the presence of a new girl he found attractive. He seemed excessively aware of his persona, controlling it down to his tone of voice. I should find a way to give them some alone time, I thought.

At breakfast which was really lunch, Jake and Julie swapped life stories, occasionally applying to me to fill in details and say things like, “Jake, you and Julie both love music by the Heavy French,” or “Julie, you and Jake both spent a summer in Bali!” I smiled absently, watching them both light up at these little tidbits of information, pleased with myself for my matchmaking success. Julie gestured with her hands and all her features even more than usual, and I noted that by the end of the meal, Jake had dropped his affected aloofness, too captivated with her to consciously maintain it. I tuned back in just as they were talking about the contrast between their hometowns and travel.

“…depressing to be back home, you know?” Julie was saying. “The tech hubs couldn’t be more different than rural middle-of-nowheresville. In Dublin I feel alive. I feel like everybody’s alive. At home, everyone’s just…. biding their time until they die.”

“And we’ll join them, once we graduate!” Jake laughed. “C’est la vie.” He raised his water glass as if making a toast.

“So you dislike the idea of the bots taking over?” I asked Jake. I knew Julie’s answer already.

Jake shrugged. “Doesn’t everyone?”

I looked at Julie with a pointed smile. Jake turned to look at her, and she seemed to squirm a little.

“I just… try to make the best of things,” she said, clearly not wanting to disagree with Jake.

“Julie’s very ‘in-the-moment,’” I told Jake, knowing he’d find this attractive. Sure enough, he grinned and high-fived her.

“Only way to live!” he declared.

After breakfast, we wandered through the streets of London, not really going anywhere in particular. The sidewalks were narrow, so I trailed behind them as they discussed travel and wine.

It was definitely not politically correct to have a negative view of Halpert’s challenge, I mused, and I would never say anything against it to a stranger for fear of starting an argument. It was almost like there was some kind of massive worldwide peer pressure that made everyone think the challenge was a great idea, even if no one really knew why.

But Jake certainly had a negative impression of the bots taking over. So did everyone I knew in Casa Linda who had dared to volunteer their opinions... With the possible exception of Mom, I thought. I had no idea what she thought about it, but I suspected she was in favor and didn’t want to say so for the sake of Dad’s memory. But still, that was a lot of people who were against it. So how could there be nothing on the entire labyrinth except positive views on the subject? Especially since the rulings of the Council for Synthetic Reason had tried to block this very thing for the past twenty years, until Halpert overruled it now for ‘economic reasons’. At least twenty years ago, people had a very different view of things. How could no one else take the same view now?

I enabled the A.E. chip in my temple, and thought, “Search negative reactions to Halpert’s Challenge.”

I selected the top hit, which said, “Of course there are a few ignorant wing nuts who believe bots’ development of creativity will lead to an Armageddon-style downfall of humanity, but those arguments deny the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They simply ignore the plain facts. It’s impossible to reason with people like that, and best not to try.”

The article never said what the evidence was, I noticed. Instead, it merely took for granted that the reader already knew it, implying that anyone who did not know it was one of the “ignorant wing nuts.” How many would have the courage to challenge such an implicit assertion?

I searched again: “People’s reaction to bots.” Opinion pieces flooded the search results: “Bots Make the World a Better Place,” and “Bots free us up to be human,” and “Bots: the most efficient workers a company could ever ask for.”

Again, all glowing.

I tried another: “Who controls the labyrinth?” I realized it was a little meta, searching the labyrinth for who controls the labyrinth. I found an article on labyrinth censorship and skimmed, reading about formerly independent states before globalization was completed, and how those states would create firewalls to block loci containing posts that they did not want their people to know about.

I searched for Liam’s locus: “Locus Not Found.”

I took a deep breath, my heart pounding. Then I searched, “Quentin Cordeaux.”

The top hit was his obituary, six years ago. It was fairly brief, giving his basic biographic information, his former job as a primary care physician, death of Treblar’s Disease, and the “survived by” section, listing his wife, Karen Cordeaux, and daughter, Rebecca Cordeaux.

Didn’t Dad have a locus? I wondered. I knew he did, but I didn’t see it listed here either. That seemed odd; that should have been the top hit.

Jake peered over his shoulder at me. “Whatcha doin’ back there?”

I knew I probably looked a little strange, tapping my head and feeling for my way like a blind woman while I walked and read at the same time.

“Oh, um…” we turned the corner into Hyde Park, and Julie settled herself under a tree. “Just doing some research. Can you hold on a second?”

I could hear Jake tell Julie in a voice that suggested he was rolling his eyes, “I assume you’re used to this from her by now?”

I sent a comm to Odessa, the lab’s research bot. Normally we’re not allowed to use her for personal research, but it was Saturday and I figured she probably wasn’t already in use. I might be able to get away with it.

“Can you please find out when Quentin Cordeaux’s locus vanished from the labyrinth and why?” I wrote. It occurred to me as I sent this that she wouldn’t be able to answer the question, since, as Nilesh pointed out to me yesterday, Odessa only had access to information on the labyrinth. Then, heart pounding, I added, “Also, please search Quentin Cordeaux, The Renegades, and conspiracy theories. Tell me anything you can find out about what he believed.”

A few seconds later, Odessa wrote back, “Request received. Will respond within four hours.” I could hear her tinny voice in my head as I read her words.

After a nap in the park and joining an impromptu game of catch between a bunch of preteen boys (Jake joined first, and then Julie joined too, even though she wasn’t athletic and would have preferred to sun herself and watch under any other circumstances), we headed for dinner and drinks. By the time we got to drinks, Jake was already toying with Julie’s hand under the table—not quite holding it, but almost. We’d had a conversation about this once before, when Jake had explained his whole flirtation strategy to me in great detail. He was an unabashed ladies’ man. I winked at Julie, and she dropped her eyes, in a rare moment of bashfulness. Impressive was the man who could make Julie blush.

I’d just speared a piece of cheese and a grape on the same tiny fork and lifted it halfway to my mouth when Odessa commed back. Normally I turned off the comm feature in my A.E. feed so as to not interfere with my daily life, but I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t miss the handheld vibrating in my purse. The comm across my vision now said, “Found the information requested. Please see detailed report.”

I froze, fork halfway in the air, and selected the link mentally. It popped open.

“What?” Jake asked, “What’s wrong?”

But I couldn’t answer him—I was too busy reading. “…unusual strain of Treblar’s Disease… not usually fatal, nor so virulent. Typical Treblar’s victims live for years after diagnosis, becoming progressively more ill but eventually succumbing to something else. This strain, however, was fatal within weeks of exposure. Other fatalities include…” and here it listed a bunch of names I didn’t recognize, and the dates of contracting the disease as well as dates of death. They were all within about three weeks of my dad’s death. “All victims contracted the strain of Treblar’s after meeting together on a remote island in the West French Indies. Authorities believe the strain was local to the jungle there.”

“Becca?” asked Jake.

I remembered that Dad went somewhere two weeks before he died, but I didn’t remember an island in the West French Indies. Had he gone on vacation? Without Mom and me?

I flashed back, trying to recall what he’d said when he got home. I remembered the front door creaking; he wore a nylon blue coat, and the skin of his cheek felt cool from the night air when I’d hugged him. He had looked exhausted—maybe sick? Of course he was sick; he died two weeks later.

“How was it?” Mom had asked behind me. There was a strain between them—I remembered that, but not the details of Dad’s trip.

Dad had kissed the top of my head absently, shedding the coat and hanging it on the coat rack by the door. “You don’t really want me to tell you,” he accused his wife, crossing the foyer into the kitchen.

She took a deep breath. “I don’t want to hear about the conspiracies, no. I just meant in general, was everyone doing well? How was San Jose?”

San Jose. That’s what she’d said—it wasn’t an island in the West French Indies.

The official report was a lie.

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