Tripp

It’s chilly inside the boardroom where Ziva called the meeting. The “Promenade” room on the top floor of the building looks like the inside of the Space Needle observation deck. Huge windows stretch up to the ceiling, offering near-panoramic views of the city down below.

BlumBot has been renting the top two floors of this trendy skyscraper in the Financial District, though Ziva won’t say why. It’s cost the company a pretty penny, but Ziva does what she wants. She makes us too much money to argue.

Still, I’m sitting here thinking, I drove an hour and a half in traffic for this? It’s only by chance that I got here early. My Optix is dead, and I have nothing to do but stare off into space.

Two minutes later, Father walks in. Father is always punctual.

He nods at me and takes a seat at the table, releasing his jacket buttons and checking his pocket watch. It’s a relic from his great-great-grandfather, which he keeps on him at all times despite having an Optix.

“Is the rest of the board coming?” asks Father, looking down the empty table.

“Ziva didn’t say.”

Father nods. “Unseasonably warm today.”

“Yes. Very warm.”

Are we talking about the weather? It’s not like my father to make small talk.

There’s a brief pause, and then he says, “How’s the new car?”

“She purrs like a kitten.”

We fall into silence, which feels oddly more comfortable for us. Business talk aside, I don’t think my father and I have said more than a dozen words to each other in the past six months. It’s as though we’ve progressively run out of things to talk about over the years — at least things that don’t result in him criticizing me for my poor choice in women, houses, and haircuts.

A second later, there’s a knock at the door. I swivel my big leather executive’s chair around to see who it is, and a busty woman in a tight black dress appears. She’s got platinum-blond hair that reaches down to the small of her back, icy-blue eyes, and the sort of lips and cheeks that hint at Russian heritage.

“Good morning,” she says, breaking into a smile. “Ms. Blum will be here shortly. Can I get you gentlemen anything? Coffee? Tea?”

“Nothing for me, thank you,” says my father, barely looking up. I swear the man is dead inside.

“I’ll take a Pellegrino,” I say. “With a lemon, if you have one.”

“Certainly, sir,” she says, disappearing at once.

I lean back in my seat, watching her go. I can see her ass flex as she walks in that tight black dress. She’s dressed too provocatively to be one of Ziva’s.

“Tripp, please. Control yourself.”

“I am controlling myself!” I say indignantly, snapping up in my seat.

It doesn’t matter if I’m twenty-eight or fifty-eight. Father will always treat me like a kid.

“It’s weird, don’t you think?” I ask, jerking my head behind me.

“What’s that?”

“She’s Russian,” I say, mouthing the last word so we aren’t overheard. “You don’t think . . .”

It’s been a while since we’ve busted a good old-fashioned corporate spy.

“Get ahold of yourself,” says Father. “Our people pre-screen everyone who works in our buildings . . . even temporary rentals.”

I give him a raised-eyebrow look just as the woman reappears with my water. She sets down a crystal highball with a smile, a little lemon wedge perched on the glass. She ducks out of the room and closes the door, and a few seconds later, Ziva rushes in.

“Sorry I’m late,” she says, breezing in with a trail of perfume and sweat. She’s wearing a thigh-length black skirt and a hot-pink top. I can see her pink prosthetic legs where the skirt ends. I think she likes to show them off to thumb her nose at pervy dudes like me.

She throws her briefcase down in a chair, and another guy walks in. He’s tall and skinny and barely shaving. He’s got short brown hair and pimply skin, and he wears thick-rimmed black glasses like a less-good-looking Clark Kent.

“Strom, Tripp . . . This is Theodore Epps.”

“Nice to meet you,” I say, standing up to shake his hand. He looks starstruck and a little nervous, and I instantly feel bad for him.

Father offers him a smile and a sideways hand, and Theo practically falls across the table to shake it.

“It is an honor, sir,” says Theo, giving my father a slight bow over their clasped hands. Father is the greatest innovator in a generation. Clark Kent must be pissing his pants.

“Likewise.”

“Theo is the reason I called this meeting,” says Ziva, smoothly interrupting what would probably be a few more seconds of awkward handholding between Clark Kent and my father.

“Sorry, bud,” I say with a grimace. “We don’t offer course credit for our internship program.”

“Theo is the head of my human factors and ergonomics team,” says Ziva sharply, giving me her signature cut-the-crap sort of look.

“Oh!” I shrug. “My mistake.”

Theo lets out a nervous laugh.

“How old are you?” I ask.

Theo glances at Ziva and back to me, as if he isn’t sure what to say. “Twenty-six.”

“Wow.”

“Theo is brilliant,” says Ziva in a breezy voice. “He’s created something that you need to see.”

“Will the other board members be joining us?” asks Father.

“Not yet,” says Ziva. “I wanted to get some feedback before we brought this to them. I think it’s best to keep it under our hats for now.”

I open my mouth to ask Ziva why she made us schlep all the way to the Financial District when the door flies open again. The busty woman is back to take Ziva’s and Theo’s drink orders.

“Good morning, Mr. Epps,” says the woman, positively beaming at Theo. “Double shot of espresso?”

“Thank you, Nadine,” he says, sitting back in his chair like he’s the goddamned king of England.

How is it that the hot Russian spy knows this kid by name? And why didn’t she offer us any espresso?

I watch as she exits the room, looking over her shoulder at Theo with big moony eyes. I can hardly believe what I’m seeing, but I guess miracles do happen.

“You were saying, Ziva?”

“I was saying that Theo has done it,” says Ziva, breathless with excitement.

“Done what?” asks my father, who’s starting to look a little irritated. Ziva’s taking a long time to get to the point, which isn’t typical Ziva style.

Her neck is still glistening from her jog up to the boardroom, and her hair is windblown. She looks as though she ran here to deliver this news.

“He’s bridged the uncanny valley . . . created a bot that is indistinguishable from a human.”

For a moment, I just stare at her. Did she just say what I think she said? It sounds like an exaggeration, but if I’ve learned anything about tech nerds, it’s that they rarely exaggerate their accomplishments. Their world is one of absolutes, and if Ziva is being literal . . .

Father hasn’t said a word. He looks just as shocked as I am.

For the past year, BlumBot has been hyper-focused on amping up production to meet the growing need for bots. BlumBot hasn’t come out with a new version of its bots in more than two years. R&D hasn’t been a priority — or so we thought.

“Ziva,” I begin. “This isn’t —”

“I know it isn’t what we discussed,” she says quickly. “But we’ve managed to exceed all our production goals for the past year, and we can’t just continue to scale. There is a tipping point when it comes to quality.”

“The whole point of Maverick buying BlumBot was to give you the capital you needed to scale the business.”

“That’s true,” says Ziva. “But I’ve been up front with you about my other goals from the beginning. You know that I’m not interested in the assembly-line model. I’m interested in innovation.”

“And we’ll get there,” I say. “But the security bots have been on backorder for months, and you’ve been using this office to work on a whole new line of product?”

“Not product,” says Ziva, standing up straighter and practically quivering with excitement. “Artificial life form — a bot so convincing that you would not be able to distinguish her from a human.”

“I doubt that,” I say, turning to Father with a skeptical look.

Father is still sitting across the table with his fingers tented in front of him. His bushy white eyebrows look extra wild today, but his expression is unreadable.

“She’s already passed the test,” says Ziva as the busty drink lady reenters carrying a green tea for Ziva and espresso for Theo. “She’s in this room.”

I look from my father to Theo to the set of boobs drooped beside his face. They belong to the woman with the platinum-blond hair, and when I look closer, I see that she’s looking straight at me.

I look up at Ziva. She’s standing at the head of the table, hands on her hips, hot-pink lips stretched in a victorious smile.

“Is this —” I stammer. “Is she —?”

“Tripp, meet Nadine. She’s a prototype for our new line of hyperrealistic artificial life forms.”

Extraordinary,” says my father. He’s staring at Nadine with a look I’ve only seen a handful of times. It’s something like wonder — a level of wonder that is difficult to achieve when you are the innovator who makes all things possible.

“She’s a bot?” I repeat as Nadine moves toward me.

“Yes,” says Ziva.

I stare at Nadine or, rather, the bot — her rack, her mouth, the way her eyes track me as I examine every inch of her.

I turn to Theo. “You designed this?”

“My team and I did,” says Theo. “The designers created her Skinn. My language and interaction specialists created an upgrade to our existing AI software. It’s our best version yet.”

“May I?” I ask, holding out my hands.

“No, you may not grope her,” says Ziva with an eye roll.

“Sorry!” I say. “But you said she was indistinguishable from a human in every possible way. I’m just trying to verify that statement.”

“Yes,” says Ziva in an exasperated tone. “With the right anatomical upgrades, she would be incredibly realistic.”

“But she doesn’t have all her parts now?”

“Not in the way you’re thinking,” says Ziva sharply.

“Because that alone would be a game changer.”

I turn to the bot. “It’s Nadine, right?”

“That’s right,” says the bot, blinking down at me with eyes that seem to be sparkling with real human powers of seduction.

“Where are you from?”

“San Francisco — born and raised.”

I let out a breath of laughter. “Me, too.”

I sit back and think for a moment, trying to come up with a question that would stump a normal bot or prompt a reaction so bizarre that it would instantly reveal that the thing was not human.

“California girl, huh? Maybe I know your parents. What’s your last name?”

“Dumont,” says the bot, not missing a beat. “But I never knew my parents.”

“That’s sad,” I say, turning to Ziva. “Do all your bots have a last name?”

“The humanoids in this line will all be programmed with one. Theoretically their backstories could be as detailed as yours or mine.”

“What do you like to do for fun, Nadine?”

“I like tennis, dancing, travel . . . How about yourself?”

“Long walks on the beach and reading the classics,” I say, patting my leg suggestively.

The bot gives me a coy smile. She looks to Ziva, who gives a slight nod of annoyance. Nadine hesitates and then lowers herself onto my knee with a wonderful mixture of shyness and excitement.

I feel her weight spread across my thighs, and her flesh softens against me. It’s as though a real human woman is sitting on my lap, and up close, Nadine is damn realistic. I can count every silvery eyelash framing her eyes. Staring down at the gap in her dress, I see a birthmark disappearing beneath the fabric.

“She hand painted?” I ask Theo.

“Every detail.”

“Amazing.” I run a hand up one smooth leg on instinct. All that’s missing is human warmth. “What are you doing later?” I ask the bot.

“I have plans,” she says, drawing her leg away from me and getting to her feet.

I raise my eyebrows. “Wow.”

“Her agreeability is currently set to a seven and a half,” says Theo.

“A lady in the parlor and a harlot in the bedroom, eh?”

Ziva shoots me a look of naked disgust, and I decide I should pull back. I can be a gentleman.

“Very impressive,” says my father loudly. “Even if my son has a crude way of expressing himself.”

“What’s our price point on one like her?” I ask, glancing up at Nadine. It feels weird to be talking about the price of a bot that looks like a person.

“That has yet to be determined,” says Ziva. “I hesitate to bring these life forms to the public just yet. I think there needs to be a degree of education around bot treatment and etiquette. They need to be seen as separate from but not less than humans. That’s why we’ve been working here — in absolute secrecy.”

“Your whole ergo team is here?” I say.

“Just the team working on this project.”

“Can I see?”

“Of course,” says Ziva, looking like a kid who’s just been asked to show off her favorite toys.

Theo and my father get to their feet, and Nadine shows us out of the conference room. We take the elevator down one floor and emerge into what looks like Santa’s workshop.

BlumBot has taken over the entire story. Long work tables span the entire length, spread with desktops, mechanical parts, raw sheets of silicone, bins of sculpting clay, and sketches of what are clearly different iterations of Nadine. Two dozen people are hard at work, and they don’t stop what they’re doing when we walk through the door.

In the corner is a man with a shaved head and a five o’clock shadow. He’s wearing worn blue jeans under a leather artist’s apron and is working on a sculpture of a human woman. He’s surrounded by several busts of Nadine’s face, which are all slightly different. In one, her eyes are bigger and spread farther apart. In another, she has fuller lips and higher cheekbones.

“Excuse me,” I say, stepping around him and holding out a hand. “Tripp Van de Graaf. And you are?”

“Sebastian,” says the man in a thick French accent, wiping his hands on a rag and offering me one with white clay drying under the fingernails.

“Sebastian. Wonderful.” I turn to Nadine still floored in amazement. “Did you . . . You did the body work on her?”

“Yes,” he says, looking insulted that I had to ask.

“Truly phenomenal work,” I say.

“Thank you.”

“How did you —” I break off, examining the busts closer. “Wow!”

“Over there is my linguist team,” says Ziva, pointing to a group of three people huddled around a desktop. They’re all wearing big sets of headphones and seem to be listening intently.

“They’re parsing our conversation from upstairs,” Ziva adds lightly. “This was Nadine’s first spin in the real world.”

“And how’d she do?” I ask, genuinely curious. From where I’m sitting, she passed with flying colors, but I’m still too floored by how human she looks to worry about how she’d score on the SATs.

“Not bad,” says Ziva. “The parents question was a good test. I’m honestly surprised she answered so well.”

“That’s why they pay me the big bucks.”

“Ziva,” says my father, surveying the room with a look I know means he’s mentally crunching the numbers. “We never got around to discussing the price point on these bots.”

“Yes,” says Ziva. She’s been expecting this. No one ever catches Ziva off guard. “Based on Tripp’s reaction, I think the biggest risk is allowing these bots to be pigeonholed in one category before their true capabilities are fully understood.”

“You mean pigeonholed as sex bots?” I say.

“Sex workers, surrogates . . . That sort of thing,” says Ziva. “When really their potential is so much more than that.”

“You have to give the people what they want, Z.”

“Theo . . . What role do you see these bots taking in the future?” my father asks seriously.

Theo looks shocked at being addressed directly. Again he looks to Ziva, who seems determined not to parent him through this.

“Really, the applications are endless,” he says in a breathless voice. “With the right upgrades, these humanoids could be healthcare workers, caregivers, financial advisors . . . You name it.”

“You’re saying that you’d trust one of these bots to look after your ailing parents?” says my father. “What about your child?”

“Absolutely,” says Theo quickly. And I can tell by the look in his eyes that his confidence really is that strong.

“Because right now I’m not sure this bot has any application other than an incredibly provocative cocktail waitress,” Father adds. “Convince me.”

Theo swallows. He’s nervous, but he seems up for the challenge. He crosses to a table a few yards away and picks up what looks like some sort of computer brain designed to fit in a bot’s head.

“See this?” he says, pointing to a blue chip tucked among all the parts and pieces. “This is the TD395 — our most advanced processor yet. It can transmit terabytes of data within seconds.”

I glance from Theo to my father, who seems unimpressed. Theo is already losing him.

“Nadine is designed to be a caregiver,” Theo adds, going off the cuff. “She’s endlessly patient — she’s programmed to be. Not only that, but I can upload every book written on childcare in the last hundred years to her system in two minutes or less. She can access videos and TV shows . . . She can even emulate human caregivers.” He takes a breath. “There’s nothing she can’t learn.”

“And how would she be prevented from, say, emulating an abusive caregiver?” Father asks. “A nanny who strikes a child, for instance. How do you keep a bot that’s designed to learn from emulating bad behavior?”

“Nadine is programmed to follow the law,” says Theo. “And you have to remember that she isn’t limited by human patience. She doesn’t get angry or upset. She’s programmed to behave exactly how her steward prefers.”

“Steward?” I repeat, thrown by the term.

“We believe it’s important to develop a new vocabulary around interactions with artificial life forms,” Ziva explains. “It seems crass to say that someone owns a life form like Nadine. One stewards her — takes responsibility for her behavior and programming.”

“Isn’t that a little extreme?” I ask. “You can’t be with your bot every second. Isn’t the whole point of owning one to have a fully autonomous worker?”

“Until these humanoids have free will — their own vocations, their own lives — someone has to be responsible for them.”

“You really think that humanoids can have free will — apart from the motivations assigned by their owners?”

Ziva raises both eyebrows. “It’s the natural progression of things.”

I just stare at her. As long as I’ve known Ziva, I’ve never quite gotten used to her way of thinking.

It’s not as though it’s the first time these questions have come up. They come up in just about every interview Maverick gives on the topic of robotics and artificial intelligence.

In the past six months, we’ve dodged dozens of lawsuits from people saying that a security bot used excessive force to restrain them or dinged their car in a parking lot. Help bots have spilled hot liquids on people they were supposed to be serving and stomped on toddlers’ feet.

Most of the lawsuits are bullshit, of course — a variation of the classic slip-and-fall. But in the handful of cases where a bot did cause harm, it wasn’t Maverick’s problem.

All our corporate clients agree to hold us harmless for any problems our products might cause, barring damages resulting from factory defects. It’s been the corporations’ responsibility to fight the lawsuits, which they usually settle out of court.

But to have bots looking after children or playing nurse? This opens up a whole new arena of potential liability.

“What are we supposed to do when we’re dragged into court because somebody’s bot left a kid at the mall?” I ask.

“In all cases so far where a bot has been implicated in a lawsuit, the bot’s owners have been held liable,” Ziva continues.

“But if these bots are autonomous —”

“It gets a little stickier, but it’s not unmanageable,” says Ziva reasonably. “This is the future, Tripp — fully autonomous life forms that are virtually indistinguishable from humans.”

I glance at my father, who’s examining a 3-D virtual rendering of Nadine rotating above a desktop on the table beside us. Her image is surrounded by dozens of lines and measurements, suggesting that she could be stretched or altered in any way — all with a few clicks and tugs.

“All right,” I say, yielding to Ziva and all her brilliance. “Let’s run with it.”

“We need to bring this to the rest of the board,” Father cuts in. “They’re going to want a breakdown on cost. As of right now, this stays small. I don’t want the press getting ahold of this. We need to control the messaging when we decide to go public.”

“Done,” says Ziva. “I’ll get Nadine ready for her next showing.”

“And I think I speak for everyone when I say that I want to see Nadine playing waitress, nanny, and nurse’s assistant by the end of the week,” I add.

“Absolutely,” says Ziva, radiating victory.

I turn to leave but then stop, turning to Theo. He’s watching me with wide eyes, as though he can’t believe we gave him the green light.

“And take her down a notch,” I say, holding my hands in front of me like boobs. “Or put her in a parka. Nobody’s gonna trust their kids with a bot that looks like a porn star.”

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