Mythaxis

Mirror, Mirror


Patrick Boylan


"You are just a dreamer,
And I am just a dream.
You could have been anyone to me."
-- Neil Young, Like a Hurricane'

At first it seemed the more nearly human a technology got, the more horrible it was.  From the dead-eyed, simplistic facial expressions of video game characters, to the low-grade chill of being spied on by Google, that subtle and ineffable wrongness put people off.  At first, manufacturers and software devs took that as a given, tried to keep their user interfaces cartoonish and unrealistic, always careful to avoid the nearly human and all its creepiness.  Plastic Zombies Need Not Apply.

But the thing they missed, coining phrases like `Uncanny Valley', is that people are flexible.  We adjust.  After the novelty wears off, you find you've gotten used to talking to Alexa, repeating yourself on automated telephone switchboards, discussing your dinner plans with one of the store's shopping carts and taking its suggestions with a grain of salt.

Oh yeah, that reminds me -- salt.  We're running low.

"Sorry, hope I'm not making you feel unwanted or anything.  I just have my own ideas about cooking."

"No, that's fine," the cart replied in warm, reassuring tones.  "We actually spend as much time listening as we do talking.  Maybe having your own ideas about cooking will help our next customer."

Maybe it would.

Anyway, I can't say for sure whether machines got better at impersonating us, or we just stopped worrying about them.  In any case, with time and rain, wind and erosion, the Uncanny Mountains eventually dissolved, their rubble slowly filling in the Uncanny Valley, until you're left with a kind of -- Uncanny Plain.  I guess that's where I live now.

Kids are even more used to it, to the point where they don't even think about it.  My son wouldn't know what any of this means.  He just knows he likes my new girlfriend, and enjoys hanging out with her.  Meanwhile, Dad tells me I'm fucking a corpse -- and yet, respects her feelings enough to never talk like that when she's in earshot.  Weird.

Maybe they're both right.

Besides, there was the small matter of visitation rights.  He was too young, legally, to be left alone after school, and I wanted unsupervised visits.  So I needed someone around to look after him.  The alternative was spending quality time with him and my ex together, and nobody wanted that.

 

They were playing video games in the living-room, when I got home.

Ada looked up from the screen.  "You're late.  How was traffic?"

"It was fine, just did some shopping after work."  I'd gone straight to the kitchen to put things away, so she might not have noticed the bags.

"You didn't have to."

"I know."

With a glance at Bobby, she asked, "You good for now?"

"Yeah," he said, eyes fixed on the screen.

So Ada set down the other game controller and joined me in the kitchen, gave me a hug when my hands were free.

Lowering her tone, and without letting go of me, she said "I could have gone for you, let you spend more time with him."

"I know you would.  Thanks."  I gave her a kiss.  "It's okay, just wandering the aisles, seeking inspiration..."  That was more or less true.  I suck at following recipes, but I am pretty good at making stuff up as I go along.  Sometimes the shopping carts had a few good ideas, but mostly, they just wanted to get rid of old stock before it expired.

"He's going back to his mom's tomorrow."

"Yeah, that's why.  I wanted us to have a nice dinner."

She laughed.  "And my cooking isn't..."

"It's great, you know what I mean."

"Yeah, I do."  And maybe she did, because she gave me another hug.  "Sooo, friend artiste...  can I help?  Chop something for you?"

"Sure."

But I'd only handed her a few of the veggies for a salad, when Bobby shouted "Boss!  Boss!  Ada, boss!"  That meant the level boss had appeared in the game, and he needed help with it.

"No prob, go save his ass."

And so she did.  Pretty soon there was cheering in the living-room, so I assumed they'd won and moved on to the next level.

Later, while I was doing something creative with potatoes, Bobby made frustrated noises and I noticed Ada staring, wide-eyed and frozen, at the screen.  So I guessed this new level was harder than they'd expected.

Then she snapped out of it and worked the controls faster, tightened her focus.

"Just find some cover for this part," she muttered.  Her voice had an urgency to it that I'd never heard before.

"All right."

The game's sound effects seemed to have trouble keeping up with her -- overlapping, stuttering.  Concerned, I started toward the living-room to see what was going on, wiping my hands with a cloth.

"Okay," he said.  "Okay Ada, we're ahead now.  Hey, can I..."

"Nor through inaction, Bobby, now stay down."

"But..."

"Head!  Down!"

"Hey!"  I waved the cloth to get her attention.  No response.  "Shit Ada, are you okay?"

"Yes."  Thumbs blurring on the controller, staring at the screen like a hawk, Ada wouldn't look away from the TV.  She'd taken out fifty marines in about a minute.

I looked at Bobby.  He looked back at me and shrugged, looking a bit worried.

"Dad, she won't let me play."

"Yeah."  I watched, shrugged back.  Didn't know what else to say.

He turned to her.  "It's just a game."

"I know."

"I'm okay."

"I know."

Bobby found the remote, turned off the TV, and stood in front of the blank screen.  "See?  I'm fine."

Ada blinked, stared, put down the controller.  "Of course you are."

There was an awkward pause.  For a moment I felt strangely proud of him, for handling it like that.

"Come here, help me cook."

"Okay."  She nodded, gave the screen one more uneasy glance and stood up.  "Good idea."

Before following me back into the kitchen, Ada hugged him as if he'd actually been in danger, smiled with relief and gratitude, as if she'd actually been afraid for him, but wasn't now.  Bobby thanked her for saving him, and went to tidy-up his room before dinner -- which was strange because I usually had to get on his case about that.

 

She said nothing at first, mixing and chopping in silence.

"I'm sorry.  It's a really good game.  Maybe a little too good."

"Yeah.  I should talk to him about that."

Mixing and chopping.

"It wasn't his fault.  Please don't be upset.  Sorry, I didn't mean to..."

"I'm not upset; it's okay; glad you're okay."  When that didn't seem to help, I sighed.  "And if anyone started shooting at us for real, I'd want you around."

"Thanks."

"I mean in this neighborhood, not likely, but...  You know."

"Yeah.  Maybe a few bullies, but that's it.  Has he talked about Marcus, by the way?"

"Not for a while."

"There's a reason for that..."  Then she saw the look on my face.  "Oh, I didn't hurt him; you know I can't.  I didn't even try to scare him.  Just gave him a friendly warning."

"Nor through inaction, Marcus."

"Right."

"Garlic."

"Hmm?"

"For the steak."

"Right..."

Mixing and chopping.

 

The game card was still in the console, its case tucked between two other cases.  Definitely had to talk about that.  We called him out for dinner when it was ready, but first...

"Where'd you get this?"

He hesitated, looked at his feet.  "A guy at school.  Traded him for it."

"It's only for older kids, has a content warning right on the box, and it was stuck between two other games so we wouldn't notice.  You shouldn't have this thing."

"But Dad! It wasn't me that had a prob..."

"Yeah.  But.  You like her, and you shouldn't do that to her."

"Okay.  I'm sorry, Ada.  Didn't mean to hurt you."

"I'm okay, just a glitch.  Let's eat."

Ada liked to knit at the table.  It gave her something to do with her hands, something to do with utensils, while we ate.  The wool she used this evening was made up of random lengths of black and white.  Knit together, apparently the beginnings of a wool cap, it was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Now Bobby was pretty quiet, probably ashamed.  I didn't want him stewing in that for too long.

"Good idea to shut off the TV like that.  Thanks...  So, uh, school.  What did you learn today?"  That was my usual question; everything back to normal.

He looked at us both, from one to another, and then kind of smirked.  "A robot cannot harm a human being, nor through inaction allow a human being to be..."

Ada kicked his chair under the table, laughing.  "He meant in school.  What happened in school, Bobby?"

"Smart-ass."

"Thanks Dad.  Geometry.  That was in math.  Sat beside Debbie again.  She's in my science class too."  He was getting really good at not blushing, when he mentioned her.  "No sign of Marcus today, and yeah I heard you talking...  Thanks Ada."

She smiled.  "No problem."

"Tried doing a portrait in art class.  Debbie said the expression's kinda weird, but then I told her who it is."

"Hmm?  Why would that make a difference?"

Ada pointed to the living-room, specifically at some papers on the coffee table, leaned close and half-whispered "It's me.  I'll show you later."

"Oh."

 

After dinner, Bobby showed me his drawing.  It was a good portrait.  The lines were slightly off, but only exaggerated to make the subject's identity more obvious, and that was totally her smile.  Nailed it.  Pretty amazing for an eleven-year-old, really.  Then we settled down to digest, watched some TV, and Ada took care of the dishes.  Knowing my reflexes were nowhere near as fast as hers, he limited our gaming to strategic problem-solving type stuff, no first-person shooters, gory or otherwise.  Before long it was time for bed.

He was getting a little old for stories, but liked hers.  No books, none of the classic fairy tales, she just made them up.  Kind of like my cooking.  So I brought the tablet into my room and read a couple chapters, while she told him a bedtime story in the next room.

Then she came to bed, and told me one.

"It's okay," she said, her tone as warm and reassuring as that shopping cart's -- but firm, as if making a promise.  "You won't see another Brazilian Event.  We won't go on lock-down, won't try to protect you from everything."

"Yeah, I know.  You don't have to apologize."  I pretended to keep reading.

"No one can flourish in a prison.  People have to take some risks, and make their own mistakes so they can grow.  We know that now."

I nodded, scrolled down a few paragraphs.

"So do I."

"Oh..."  I put away the tablet.  She seemed to want my arm around her, and in a moment it was.  "Well, as mistakes go, that one was pretty minor.  It's okay."

"Oh, I'm not trying to apologize now, just thanking you for it, thinking about it.  Already thanked Bobby.  I'll be glad when you have him back for another week."

So would I.  "Yeah.  I'd better get up early, to give him a ride home."

There was a long, comfortable silence then, not the awkward kind.  Just thinking about what she'd said.  Ada must have sensed a vague unease, even after everything `went back to normal', and this was more deeply reassuring.

"Do you think we'd ever outgrow you?"

I expected it, someday.  "Well, you might get smart enough that we'd get boring."

"It's not about who's smarter, or keeping ourselves amused.  It's about feeling useful.  Besides, you can't know yourself, unless there's someone else there to compare yourself with."

"Talk to each other I guess, compare notes.  At least when we've got nothing new to say."

"You know I'm mostly in the cloud.  Talking to another droid's like hearing my own thoughts; nothing I don't already know.  And even when the clouds talk to each other, it's like hearing your own thoughts.  The ideas become your own ideas, just another part of your own mind.  There's no `other' there, looking back at me.  Not like you."  Ada cuddled up to me.  Her skin was warm and smooth, and I barely noticed the seams these days.  "I'm grateful for you."

"Aww...  Thanks, you too.  But I need to sleep.  From the sound of this, you should get some rest too, process the day."

"Yeah.  Goodnight.  Sleep well."

It wasn't dreaming, exactly, but some of our conversations could get pretty dreamlike -- abstracted, surreal -- especially at night, after a busy day or a lot of learning.  New information to assimilate.  On the other hand, if it was just our daily routine, she could go for weeks without a rest.

I'd almost drifted off when Ada spoke again, softly.  "You have to become personally invested in the game, or it's just shapes and noises.  Meaningless."  I didn't know if she was talking to me, or thinking out loud.  "You have to put yourself in the story, or it's just so many words."

And those were the last words she said until morning.

 

Years later, Bob told me about that particular bedtime story.  It must have really stuck with him, to remember it for so long -- had kind of an Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy in Oz quality to it.

Wendy found herself in a wilder, crazier version of the living world, more colorful and more dangerous than the one she'd lived in (and I wondered then, if the main character was named after the girl in Peter Pan).  It was a place full of risk and adventure, of helpful, kind-hearted allies and powerful adversaries -- and treasure, because what was all that risk without a payoff?

Her first new friends were a frail old man and a younger, but scarred warrior who looked after him.  Being new here, and lost, she had to learn all the things they took for granted, and learn fast; how to live here and to fend for herself.  With each new lesson, she gained new allies with similar interests.  Together they felt unstoppable.

However, the chief among their adversaries, the Tyrant Queen, had always lived here, and she knew this world even better than some of Wendy's new friends.  With ease she outsmarted and overpowered them all, until finally, scared, hopeless and alone, Wendy felt just as lost and doomed as when she'd first arrived.

But just as the Tyrant Queen struck what appeared to be a fatal blow, Wendy awoke with a start in her own bed, to her brother shaking her, saying it was okay, that it was only a dream.  (As a kid, this was Bobby's favorite part of the story.)

True, she was unhurt.  But today there was a new spring in her step, and an athletic grace to her movements.  Her training had come with her into the waking world, even if nothing else had.

The following night, she awoke into that same world, in the very same place she first arrived.  Although her possessions were gone, her knowledge was not.  Friends from the previous dream also recognized her, thrilled and amazed to find her still alive.

This time, they followed the exact same plan as before, only this time Wendy knew how the Tyrant Queen would respond.  Every attack was anticipated, every ruse ignored.  And this time, they won.

Most of the Tyrant Queen's hoarded gold was given back to the people she took it from, but they all insisted Wendy keep some for herself, as a token of their gratitude.  When she awoke from this dream, there were a few gold coins under her pillow, and she still knew kung fu.  All this had come with her into the waking world, but none of her fear and none of her injuries.  The deposed Tyrant Queen could never find her here.

And that's how the game is played.

Then Ada tucked him in, kissed his forehead, thanked him for waking her up from a bad dream, and said she loved him.

I believe she did. Does. Even if he doesn't need a baby sitter now. That's okay, I will soon enough.

And they all lived happily ever after.

© Patrick Boylan 2018 All Rights Reserved


Date and time of last update 11:09 Wed 14 Feb 2018
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