Okay, this story gets a little weird. Just bear with me because I think it will make sense, maybe, if I start at the beginning. I hope. I mean, where else would I start? Just give it a chance, okay? Okay.
Or maybe I should say give her a chance, her being Kelly. Kelly Suttle, twenty-nine, Californian, valedictorian, whatever sign goes with an April 24th birthday. A good girl, maybe a little too good. If Kelly’s friends (or acquaintances, mostly) could describe her in one word, most of them would probably say “smart.” She had been reading Ender’s Game while her classmates were still on Beezus and Ramona, a series she never had much patience for anyways, because seriously, who names a child “Beezus?” The humanity! (Incidentally, shouldn’t it be “the inhumanity”?)
Growing up, Kelly had always been more popular with the teachers than with the other students. She had been what some might call “a giant nerd.” I’m not talking geek chic, fashionable glasses, goes to Comic-Con for the Marvel presentations nerd. Kelly was a nerd back when being a nerd meant something, before it was popular, before it was easy. Sure, she hadn’t been pushing her glasses up her nose with her middle finger and blurting out the quadratic equation, but she had always been decidedly, stubbornly, irredeemably uncool.
Being a giant nerd well into adulthood was, however, what had landed her a job at AHI, Automated Human Industries, which is where we find her now at the aforementioned beginning that I mentioned at the beginning of whatever this is.
Picture a room filled with children’s toys, for boys and girls, all ages, a cheap train set in primary colored-plastic snaking across one part of the tiled floor, a stuffed green dinosaur with purple spikes sitting on another, other toys and books stacked neatly on white plastic shelves. A broad rectangular window looked into this room, and on this particular day Kelly was on the other side of it, watching the only person in the room: Jones, an eight-year-old with an unfortunate bowl haircut and a little quiet mouth that pulled together like a drawstring.
Jones couldn’t see Kelly because his side of the window was a screen, which at the moment was showing a man. This man was innocuous, clean-cut, sporting combed blonde hair, a small-check plaid shirt, and a welcoming smile, but there was something a little off about him. Something not quite human. But hey, not bad-looking in a youth-minister-you-want-to-defile kind of way.
“Tell me what Marshall called you,” Mister Rogers’ hot younger brother was saying.
Jones looked down as he answered. “He called me a poop with eyes. Like the emoji.”
“And how did that make you feel?”
Jones just pulled his little lips in, like a dimple in the middle of his round face.
On the window side of the window, Kelly bit her own lips. “What do I do? Should I ask him another way?”
The man she was speaking to smiled, which angled up the corners of his black eyes in a very attractive way that Kelly would have seen if she weren’t nervously avoiding those eyes. Dr. Masden was good at his job, but come on, why did they have to bring in the hottest child psychologist in Los Angeles County? Kelly’s work was hard enough without such unnecessary – and, quite frankly, inconsiderate – distractions.
“Exactly,” Dr. Masden said. “You have good instincts with kids.”
Kelly focused on the control panel in front of her. “I’m going to try…” Her words trailed off as she clicked a few buttons and typed in a prompt. On the small screen in the middle of the panel, showing the same feed as in the adjacent play room, the eyes of the Boy Scout who grew up to be hot morphed subtly, a smooth fluxing into a faintly rounder, more sympathetic expression. He spoke.
“What did you want to do when Marshall said that?”
Jones pursed and unpursed his mouth like a guppy before speaking. “I wanted to shove him into a volcano.”
Kelly’s brow furrowed. “Well that got dark,” she said.
“That’s good,” Dr. Masden assured her. “He’s being open.” He reached out and rested a hand on her knee. “You’ve made him feel comfortable.”
The last thing Kelly was feeling was comfortable. Instinctively, she jerked her knee away and crossed it. Dr. Masden looked taken aback as he abruptly withdrew his hand.
“Sorry, I –”
“I prefer kids with antisocial tendencies.” Shit. Why did she just say that? Why couldn’t she think normal thoughts, or at least keep the abnormal ones to herself, like all the normal people did? She was making everything worse. Dr. Masden’s eyes were very confused and also very deep and black and olive-shaped –
“I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable just now. I never want our work environment to be less than professional,” he said.
Oh, come on. Did they really have to talk about this? Any decent human would suppress his emotions and sweep them under the rug with the rest of the debris. How dare he address the situation directly, thereby, by the cruel dictates of social convention, forcing her to address it too? He thought she hated him. She wanted to hide. Why was there never a convenient volcano around when she needed one to shove people into, or better yet, to hop in herself?
“I’m not comfortable. I mean uncomfortable.”
“It’s just that you seemed a little uncomfortable when I put my hand on your knee, just now," he continued. "I didn’t mean anything by it, I just express myself physically. I’m a very open person, but I realize it’s unfair to make assumptions about you since we’ve only been working on this simulation together for a few weeks.”
“Well, I’ve been working on it for eight months, and it was a lot easier before you got here!” Kelly could feel her face heating from inside. Why was he still talking about this? What was he trying to do? She’d been quite happy developing the Confibot simulation first on her own, then with Jones. Then this thick-haired prick had to come and get his big manly hands all over it, and her. Not manly. Rude. Coarse.
In the other room, Jones was looking at the still, silent simulation on the screen with concern. “Did you die?” he asked it. But Kelly and Dr. Masden weren’t listening.
The doctor pulled back in his chair. “I wasn’t aware that you felt that way.”
“I guess you weren’t paying attention, were you?” Kelly was in it now. There was no going back. Whatever, she liked working alone better anyway. She was plunging in like a contestant on The Amazing Race, and she wasn’t there to make friends.
But now Dr. Masden didn’t look confused. Now he looked insulted. “I’m a psychologist. Not to flatter myself, but I pay pretty close attention to people’s behavior.”
“Then stop! You’re here to help develop the simulation, not analyze me.”
“Oh, I haven’t analyzed you. If I analyzed you, you would know it. You would feel it.”
Kelly laughed. “Ha! Not deeply, I bet.” What the heck? She didn’t even think things like that, how did they come out of her mouth?
“All right, then, here you go. Normally I charge two hundred dollars an hour for this, but you’re so special, you’re about to get it free of charge.” Kelly’s face was definitely bright red as the doctor leveled his searching gaze on her. Definitely red and stupid-looking. That thing about spontaneous combustion, where people’s heads just erupted in flames, was that true? Why didn’t she get to die in a nursing home, like everyone else?
“You’re a control freak.”
“Is that the clinical term?” Kelly tried to sound amused, above it, but he just kept going. He was serious.
“You’re smart and you’re good at this job and you know it. But part of why you’re good at it is you’re a perfectionist. Any unknown variables that are introduced might mess up your perfect little world. And another human being is an unknown and unknowable variable, and in this case I’m the lucky one pissing you off. For the first couple weeks I thought you were just a little shy, but now I can see that you’re constantly on edge. Any suggestion of friendliness is enough to upset you. Who knows what kind of crazy, frightening, fun, sad, unpredictable things could happen if you made a friend or, God forbid, more than a friend, so why not just cut it off before it even starts? Better to have people think you want nothing to do with them and leave you alone than for them to find out everything that’s wrong with you.”
Kelly’s brain, make that her entire being, froze. All coherent thoughts, reactions, motor skills, were wiped clean in favor of pure emotion, and she wasn’t even quite sure what the emotion was. She would have to make a new word for it. Fazzleflurb. Arangudeen. Mossmorsion. Jalawala –
“I’m sorry. That was way out of line.”
Kelly’s eyes focused to realize Dr. Masden was looking at her, his own face flushed, though it only made his black eyes stand out more brilliantly, damn him.
“Yeah, well, when you spend all day picking apart other people’s flaws instead of acknowledging your own, I guess it comes naturally.”
His sympathy seemed to melt. He shook his head and pushed himself up from the chair.
“Good luck, Kelly.” And with a slam of the control room’s back door, he was gone.
Kelly swiveled back to the control panel, kneading her hands. What would happen to the project? Would the company find a replacement psychologist? Would they pull the simulation entirely? Was Kelly really that much of an asshole? No, wait, forget that – what about the project?
Suddenly her eyes caught on a camera feed on the control panel, showing Jones peering and poking at the simulation screen, trying to wake Mr. Hunky Mormon from his unexplained stupor. Shit. She’d forgotten all about the kid.
In the fish-eye view of the camera lens, Jones’s oddly proportioned face was all eyes beneath a flop of brown hair. Kelly sighed. “Poor boy. He really does look like a poop with eyes.”
Being a good girl (remember?), Kelly had never made a trip to the principal’s office, but she imagined now that this was what it must feel like. The airy prism in which she waited for her boss, however, was considerably more posh than a public school office. Sculptures of fluid silver filaments were scattered with careless grace amongst awards, books, and photos on the white oak shelves, and a broad desk, arched like a ship’s bow, speared into a sweeping view of Los Angeles. Through the frosted glass of the door, Kelly could read in reverse the letters “Anita Riveras, CEO.”
As Kelly studied Anita’s carefully selected photographs, she smoothed her already smooth blouse self-consciously. Even in miniature, Anita’s presence was formidable. The angles of her cheekbones, her sleek bobbed hair, even her offered handshake all somehow aligned into a careful geometric construction. What would Kelly look like with a bob? It would have to be tipped longer in the front, like that, otherwise it would look a little, I don’t know, middle-aged tennis-playing mom. Could she pull it off? Would people take her more seriously? No, it would never work on her. But she tried looping up the edges of her hair just to see.
The door swung open decisively and Kelly dropped her hair. Perfect timing. And of course she caught her foot a bit as she stood up too fast. But Anita swept to her high-backed chair like she didn’t see.
“Have a seat, Kelly.”
She fixed Kelly with a clear gaze. There was nothing visibly judgmental about it, but Kelly felt judged. Anita could do that. She let the silence hang for a moment. Her chair was a curve of pristine white leather. How did she look so at ease in a chair with no arms? Did she buy that chair just to show off?
“I’m sorry about what happened,” Kelly blurted out.
“What did happen, Kelly?”
“I just –” Kelly realized she had no idea. “It was a personal issue between myself and the doctor. It had nothing to do with the project.”
“But it does. Because you needed him to complete the project, and he’s no longer here.”
Kelly’s throat felt parched. “Are you – do you mean that I can’t complete the project?”
“It’s your project, Kelly. You tell me. Can you?”
There was a right answer to this. Kelly’s confidence rose. “Yes, I can. Please let me, you know how much Confibot means to me.”
“I don’t even know what Confibot means.”
“It’s a hybrid between confidante and robot –”
“More importantly, you say it means a lot to you, but from your performance, I have yet to see why.”
“There’s just so much we can do with it,” Kelly breathed, forgetting her nerves somewhat as her mind pivoted to her work. “If we can create a fully convincing android, with which people can interact as if it were a human, but which we can also control, down to opening its eyes a millimeter wider, just think of the research possibilities. We can test how autistic children respond to vocal intonations, expressions, gestures, and measure exactly what they’re responding to. We can quantify human interactions. This will simplify complicated dynamics into something that we can grasp and predict –”
“Sex robot,” Anita said triumphantly, straightening from the removed concentration she seemed to slip into as Kelly talked.
“I – I’m sorry?”
“Do you know how much consumers would pay for a believably human sex robot?” Anita queried.
“Upwards of five million in the first-tier market. I’ve done my research. There’s a lot of rich old fucks out there who would gladly trade their children’s inheritance for a woman with an off switch. It’s an incredible opportunity. We live in a golden world.” Anita gazed over the sunlit rooftops, truly at peace, dreaming of expensive women with rubber brains.
Kelly sensed that this was not the moment to express her views on women’s rights. She had considered the broader applications for Confibot’s technology – a human-like companion that people could entirely control had plenty of potential for companions, caretakers, assistants, educators, even romantic partners. But Anita seemed pretty clear on exactly what type of potential she was interested in. “So… like I said, I think Confibot has a lot of potential –”
“Exactly,” Anita beamed. “You’re right that the project is important. Not because it’s going to save the children, or whatever. I mean children are, I suppose, necessary. In their way.” Anita waved a hand tipped with bone-painted nails. “Your simulation and the subsequent model you hope to develop have much larger implications. The success of your project hinges on your ability to complete an android that can pass for human, and confidentially, I believe you’re the closest of our engineers to achieving that. And with that technology, we can go anywhere.”
Anita sat back. She looked pleasant, unhurried, yet still radiated an intensity like heat.
Kelly was confused. “So… I’m sorry, are we still trying to save the children?”
Anita fully considered Kelly for the first time in minutes. “Is that what motivates you?”
“Sure,” Kelly said. “I care about these kids. My best friend growing up had autism.”
“Oh dear. That explains a lot.” Anita exhaled. “Well, maybe it’s for the best. I could mandate that you dedicate your time directly to forming a more profitable version of your model. But I’m going to let you do it your way. Partly because I know that’s how I’ll get your best work. Partly because this sort of technology needs to be released strategically on the market: a research-oriented initial rollout will allow us to test the technology before introducing it on the consumer stage, and will be excellent for PR. And because I’m, you know, noble.” Anita smiled mildly. She was indeed satisfied with her nobility. The world was a good place, and she was one of its best parts.
“Okay. Well, that’s great.” Kelly thought this was great, but it was kind of hard to tell. “As long as I get a chance to do this, I’m really grateful. I won’t let you down.”
“No.” Anita looked at Kelly with a placid smile. “You won’t.”