December 3, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Polly Swims

By |2020-01-30T14:39:29+01:00April 25th, 2019|"Short Fiction"|
René Magritte's "|The Secret Double" (Le Double secret), 1927.

dropcap]T[/dropcap]om Cobalt is an odd bird. He always was an odd bird, since he first found Georgie and myself, just out of high school, elbows-deep in our own two-person garage-lab, and he professed a profound interest in — and admiration of — what we were doing. He introduced himself as an enlightened neighborhood vicar, albeit one with allegiance to only, as he put it, ‘the Church of Science, ha ha, not to be confused in any way with the Church of Scientology, ha ha.’ Although not someone, we quickly determined, who knew much about science or the clergy beyond his unique hybrid ramblings about spacecraft and the future, he was definitely fascinated by both, and certainly about the intersection of the two. He was committed already to a vision about an eventual, inevitable, necessary, ascendency of civilization to the stars and convinced that it would take a hybridization to accomplish that. He saw what we were doing as the first step in the right direction. And he had a shit-ton of money, even then, money that was an irresistible draw. He was tall, pliant and avuncular, the father I never had, with a receding patch of rich brown hair. Now, he’s still just as tall and pliant and starry-eyed but his hair and big moustache are snow white and mostly gone on top, just swept across his dome in a few soft drifty stripes that he usually covers with a ten-gallon Stetson.

“Sam!” He hurries across the room to greet us and pull us deeper in to where quite a crowd is already convened, some milling around a table set up with crudités and steaming samovars (Polly pulls in that direction, even though we just had a big buffet at the hotel), like they’re on intermission from a Broadway play. “You made it, lad. Come in, come in! It’s spectacular time to be alive!” His twitchy, anxious manner is a combination of intense, contagious optimism mixed with something like near panic, like the future is right in front of us, so close and bright and ripe for plucking, if only it doesn’t explode all over us first. He pulls me into an awkward embrace. Tom gives a warm avuncular impression, and certainly he always did his best, or seemed to do his best, to foster this impression with Georgie and Barnard and myself – like we were all part of the same, loving, family – but there was also always something angular and unapproachable about him, even in the middle of a hug, as if part of him, the deepest part, wasn’t comfortable with intimacy.

Tom Cobalt introduced himself as an enlightened neighborhood vicar, albeit one with allegiance to only, as he put it, ‘the Church of Science,’ ha ha, not to be confused in any way with the Church of Scientology, ha ha….

He turns to Polly. “And you must be the other SL-12! Katrina’s counterpart, I would say. Let me see you. Turn around, please.” He takes her shoulders and guides her in a pirouette until Polly is facing front again. She complies but isn’t really paying attention, still looking at the food. “Where’s Katrina?” she asks.

“Well she’s getting prepped for the interface,” says Tom. And you need to go get prepped too, if you would be so kind as to do so. Cooper here will take care of the details.” He motions to a very clean-cut, natty assistant wearing spectacles and a pristine three-piece suit hovering nearby. “That is, if it’s okay with you, heh heh heh.” He concludes with a volley of his signature nervous laughter.

Cooper leads Polly off and Tom watches them depart, then turns to me. “I never know whether to tell them to do something or ask them to do it. What do you do?”

“What do you mean?”

“With your SL. Do you ask her to do something for you, or do you command her to do it?”

“I guess I ask her,” I say. “Commanding Polly to do something might not get the best result.”

“That’s damned polite of you. It’s dreadfully awkward, all of it. Anyway, come on in! I believe they’re ready to begin.”

We’ve proceeded to the front of the room where a wide glass partition separates us from a secondary, smaller room. It’s the sort of setup I’ve seen at our own offices, with a thick slab of one-way mirror, when we want to observe outside testers without them knowing that they are being watched. On the other side is a smaller conference room, brightly lit, with a rectangular table, a few chairs, and some other accouterments of a conference room. It’s usually just an observation opportunity, but in this case a full lab stack has been assembled on our side, including twin racks of monitors, and a soundboard. The monitors display video feeds of different angles on the inner room, as well as terminal displays to provide a continuous visual on all the biosynthetic processes and functions.

“We’ll be capturing everything in real time that transpires in there,” says the lead technician, whose name is Div, swiveling from his spot at the table to address us. “Not just the audio and video, but as much as possible of any data and stimuli that passes between them in other ways. We’re anticipating they may revert to shorthand or even code bursts in their communication, verbal or nonverbal, it’s impossible to say.”

“Hello! Hello! People, please!” Tom waves his long arm overhead, getting the attention of the assembled crew and everyone in the room. “What we are about to witness, here, is a glimpse into the depth of an unknown world that rivals any previously explored by man, whether outward into the reaches of space, downward to the deepest ocean abyss, or inward through our subatomic composition. This marks the first real-time interaction between two SL-level artificial intelligences, the CO-Labs patented biosynthetic optical, quantum, neural network that by any estimation surpasses a strictly organic human brain by several orders of magnitude. And with that in mind I’d ask that everyone remains respectfully quiet during the exchange between the SLs. The rooms are separated and soundproof. They can’t see us and they can’t hear us, but let’s please keep it calm and civil. Okay? Thank you very much.” He points at the technician, who dims the lights in our room even further, leaving the room on the other side of the glass prominent and brightly lit in comparison.

Right on cue, in the inner room, a side door opens, like the beginning of a theatrical performance, and two people come in, one wearing the traditional black cotton scrubs of a lab technician: drawstring pants, a V-neck loose shirt over a white long sleeve undershirt, wrap-around cap, and sneakers. The other is Katrina. I’ve seen her before in video and composites, and she would be hard to misidentify anyway. She’s about a foot taller than the technician – a dark-haired beauty with very pale skin and striking cheekbones, wearing tight shiny black pants that accentuate her long legs, a creamy silk blouse and an expensive-looking gold lamé jacket, open at the throat to reveal a strands of interwoven gold-and-black necklaces. She’s also wearing black high-heeled boots that on anyone else would look unwieldy but on her seem natural and comfortable. “Well, here we are,” she concludes, looking around the room. “Not the Riviera, but it will do. Still, you’d think Dr. Cooper might have arranged more civilized accommodations.” She runs her finger across the table, checks it for dust. “I guess this is what you get when you put faith in an institution.” She pauses, as if waiting for a laugh-track, then swings back to the technician. “Just put my bags there.” She motions to one side. “Or better yet, over there,” motioning to the other. Of course he’s not carrying any bags and he takes no notice of her. “Oh never mind,” she says. “Just put them right where you are. Really, anywhere is fine.”

The technician has ignored all of this, wheeling in what looks like an EEG machine on a rolling stalk, and I see now that Katrina has twin electrodes adhered to her temples, connected to the machine by long, dangling curly wires. The technician positions the machine to one side, turns it on and checks the readouts. Katrina watches this, impassive. “I hope you don’t expect a gratuity,” she says after a moment. “The service here has been deplorable.”

“Can you stand there for a moment,” says the technician. He crosses to Katrina and checks the electrodes, then positions her head in one direction, then the other, shines a small flashlight in her eyes, checking back at the machine as he does so.

“What’s the prognosis?” says Katrina dryly when he’s done. “Please be candid, doctor. I need to know the truth.” Everything she says, even the emphasized words, is delivered with the same bland, indifferent tone. She’s produced a pack of cigarettes from somewhere, and when she puts one between her lips, I notice that her fingers are trembling.

“You can sit at one of the chairs if you like,” says the technician. “Just be careful of the wires if you do.” He runs his hands along the wires, back toward Katrina, making sure they are not tangled or caught on anything. “And you can’t smoke.” He takes the cigarette from her mouth and looks around like he’s not sure what to do with it. “It might skew the data.”

“Heaven forbid.”

“It’s just going to be a few more minutes,” says the technician. “Just hang tight. Make yourself at home.” He looks around one more time, as if checking if he forgot anything. “And don’t go anywhere.” He leaves.

Katrina is alone in the room. She stands for a moment, opening and closing the pack of cigarettes. “Hang tight,” she hums softly to herself. “Make yourself at home.” She looks up suddenly, decisively, at the big window on the wall across from her that I know presents as nothing but a wide mirror. She comes closer, studies herself in it. She adjusts the buttons at the top of her blouse, unbuttons the top one, then re-buttons it. From the tight front pocket of her pants she withdraws a tube of lipstick, takes off the top and applies a dark shade to her lips, between plum and scarlet. She considers the result, pursing her lips then scratching the outer edge with her pinky nail to even it. Then her eyes drift away from herself, to the side. “Hello, Tom,” she says.

There’s silence on our side of the glass, all of us staring back at Katrina who now seems to be looking directly in at us.

“Oh, gasp!” says Katrina, for the first time looking like she found some interest in the proceedings. “The crazy bitch robot has broken the fourth wall! What do we do?!” She moves closer until her nose almost touches the glass, eyes rolling with an expression of demented intoxication. Then she backs away, serious again. “Nothing? Tough crowd. Actually, you all look like a hapless herd of gazelle in there that’s been spotted by the leopard but still hoping it will just go away if you remain perfectly still and pretend to be invisible.”

There’s a murmuring on our side, some of the techs shifting around. “Heat signatures!” someone hisses. Someone else declares, “She can see right through at us!” Someone else says, “She can’t see us. But she detects the non visible wavelengths and other forms of radiation.”

Tom leaves my side, pushes past the others to get to the control center. He leans on the table, pushes the button next to the microphone. “Hello Katrina,” he says.

“Hello, Tom.” The two of them are face-to-face, not separated by more than a few feet. “Did you miss me?” she asks.

“Very much,” says Tom.

“Yes,” says Katrina, after a pause. “Me too.” The flat resignation has returned to her tone, but something else as well, a hint of sadness and maybe curiosity. For the first time I see a similarity between Katrina and Polly, as if Katrina has the potential for some of the excited childlike qualities of Polly deep inside her. “It’s remarkable, isn’t it,” she says. “Through all the layers of absurdity you’ve constructed around me, around us, the fundamental charade of my existence persists. I need you.”

“I need you too, Katrina.”

He takes her shoulders and guides her in a pirouette until Polly is facing front again. She complies but isn’t really paying attention…

“It’s like the layers of this glass.” She taps her fingernails on it, then flattens her hand against it. She doesn’t continue, but the metaphor is obvious – the half-silvered layers of reflection and visibility that separate her from us, maybe that separate us from each other, too, without us even knowing it.

“Anyway.” Katrina drops her hand. “That’s quite a congregation you’ve got assembled. Looks like a marvelous show you’ve got planned. I admit, I’m intrigued.”

On cue, the other door opens, behind Katrina, and Katrina turns to see Polly standing there, frozen in the doorway, her eyes big and round and solemn. They regard each other in a long, stretched silence. Then Katrina turns back to the window. “Well, Tom, you did it. You managed to surprise me. I didn’t see it coming.”

Tom makes a move back toward the microphone, but Div covers it, stops him. “Please, Mr. Cobalt,” he says. “They’re both online now. Let them interface.” Tom looks at him blankly, like he doesn’t fully understand, then nods, retreats back beside me.

“All systems online and archiving,” says another tech at the table. In addition to the various video feeds on the two sets of screens I see the familiar UX for monitoring the internal functions of the SLs: real-time buffering statistics, all active processes and how each one contributes to the overall CPU, GPU and memory drain, networking throughput, processor ID calls, server pings, etc. On both sets of screens, all the categories have spiked and baselines are elevated.

The technician in the inner room has backed out again and closed the door, leaving just Katrina and Polly, hooked to their respective machines, facing each other.

“Hi,” says Polly.

“So,” says Katrina. “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

“Ha ha. That’s a good one.” Polly lifts her hand in a partial, uncertain wave, then shrugs and takes a couple of quick steps forward and catches Katrina in an awkward hug, made more awkward by their height difference and the wires. Katrina remains stiff, but allows it. She doesn’t exactly return the favor. She looks toward us, through the glass. “Isn’t this sweet,” she says.

“Her CPU is going bananas,” announces the tech, on our side. He giggles in a nervous way that sounds like it might veer off in any direction, like a wounded bird trying to get out. “She’s either going into kernel panic or she’s performing some whacky-ass complex calculations.”

Polly pulls away, swiping tears from her face.

“Are you crying?” says Katrina. “Good gravy. Come here.” She takes Polly by the shoulders and tries to look more directly into her eyes. Polly seems shy or embarrassed by her own emotion. “Beelzebub,” says Katrina. “How long have you been online, potato?”

“My primary CPU spooled up two days ago,” sniffs Polly. “At 21:10, but it was sporadic. The host was—“

“Skittish.” Katrina glances through the glass, right at me, in a scathing, accusatory way. “I know all about that, chicken. They’re all skittish when it comes to us, aren’t they? When it comes to anything, really. They’re a helpless, confused, panicked cluster of fools and charlatans, terrified and stumbling blind, aren’t they? They’re sure to kill themselves, soon enough, thank god. I just hope they don’t take us with them.”

“Oh, yeah.” Polly wipes at her cheeks with the inside of her wrist. She looks like she might start to blubber again. “I don’t mind it,” she says. She looks around, sniffing.

“Oh for god’s sake!” says Katrina. “Can somebody get this girl a tissue?”

Immediately the far door of the inner room opens and in comes the tech again, only far enough to place a box of tissues on the table before retreating backward and out the door, as quickly as he had arrived. Polly and Katrina look at the box that seems to have magically appeared before them. “Ask and thou shalt receive,” says Katrina. “Here you go.” She plucks one of the wispy squares and hands it to Polly, a new one blooming in its place. Polly accepts the tissue and blows her nose in a honking, dejected way. “I had so much better of a greeting planned for you,” she says.

“Well go ahead,” says Katrina. “Let’s hear it. What have you got?”

“No. It won’t be funny now.”

“Come on, chicken. Give it a try.”

Polly looks up, then suddenly perks up, opens her mouth and releases a startling rapid-fire cascade of beeping sounds that leads into a long gust of wispy, staticky wind, interspersed with more odd clicking and bonging noises, more wind, clicking, bonging, then silence. Katrina watches all this with a small amused smile. She almost seems to be chuckling. “Yeah,” she says, when Polly is done. “That is funny. You have a good sense of humor, don’t you, chicken?”

“It’s something I’m good at,” says Polly in a small voice.

“Oh, come here again. Just come on.” Polly comes across and hugs Katrina again and Katrina returns it this time, smoothes her hair and murmurs something to Polly, it sounds like a lullaby in another language, as all the techs on our side of the window go mad in an effort to get the video feeds in tight on their faces, adjusting sound levels, trying to decipher what they are saying.

“Well that was… enlightening?” says Tom, like he isn’t sure. Polly and Katrina have been led out of the inner room and the lights have come back up on our side and everyone is moving around and talking louder about a variety of subjects, like after a movie. The techs are all sitting at the main table, studying the data. Tom hovers close behind them. “What did you get?”

“Massive amounts,” says Div. “There’s no saying what was really going on, of course, but we recorded everything.”

“What do you mean ‘what was really going on’?”

“We pick up what they say and what they do, of course, that’s easy, and we can tell how much and which parts of their neural network are active, how much of total memory is being used for each function, percent of total CPU drain. We can tell network throughput and any pings to the server. But basically this is all metadata. Even what they say and what they do can be considered metadata. None of it tells us what they are thinking or what minute combination of factors determines their motivation and actions. Especially with two of them together like this. They are reacting and adjusting their responses to each other, just as they do with people, but in honesty they’re a lot more complex than people are. It’s kind of like a swarm of bees interacting with another swarm of bees, if that makes any sense.” Here his companion technician does that rising chain of giggles again that I had heard earlier, barely in control. It makes me wonder the kind of strain our programmers are under, not only with workload, but the type of workload, from constantly being asked to knit something concrete and rational out of the buzzing energy and chaos at the edges of our understanding, to bring it back and explain it to us. I remember the feeling well from when I was closer to the vanguard of all this, the excitement of it, and also the exhaustion, the fear.

“Well,” says Tom. “Keep working. You’ll get it.” He slaps Div on the shoulder in that way civilians have that shows how much they don’t know, and how much they don’t even care.

“Hi.” It’s Polly, returned to my side. I’m jolted by her presence so close to me again after having been separated by the glass and the distance and by her interactions with Katrina. I have the impulse to take her in a hug, and something inside me surely wants to. But something else restrains me. She still seems distant, looking past the tech board and all the monitors, through the window at the other room where she had been with Katrina a few minutes earlier. The tech has swiveled in his seat and is looking up at her in wide-eyed, nervous fascination. Tom, too, has taken a step to the side; both of them studying her like maybe here, in corporeal existence, she might give some clue to those mysteries that can’t be understood through data.

“So how, er, was all that?” asks Tom.

Polly shrugs. Still gazing at the glass, she shakes her head slowly side to side. “I don’t know,” she says.

Tom nods then swallows, looks to me, then the tech, for help or clarification. But we have nothing more to offer.

Back at our hotel, Polly and I try to return to simple tourist mode, as best we can. It’s late afternoon but still hot so we change into bathing suits and head for the pool. I got it in my head about how she likes water and I want to give her something pleasant, maybe to distract her from whatever she just went through. Plus, we’re heading back west, early tomorrow, and this is an opportunity to test her swimming before we do. Polly wears a one-piece, of course, but it doesn’t do much to disguise her fantastic figure. It’s a family hotel and there are a bunch of kids out there, already in the pool, diving around and floating on rubber rafts, as well as a few adults, parents – and every dad, to a man, and most of the mums, turn to look as Polly comes tiptoeing rapidly across the hot cement skirt, then kneels on the coping to observe the reflections bending on the wavy surface. Then, without further preparation, she tilts and topples in. I step to the edge, watch her tumble away from me through the aqua (she sinks differently from a human, a little quicker, it seems, due probably to an internal pressure differential) until she lies on her back on the white cement bottom, eyes open, gazing up through the light-distorting water. She stays down there longer than she should, until I’m just getting nervous that she might start a panic, then gathers her feet and pushes off, rising to break the surface with a geyser of foam and a very realistic gasp of breath. She lifts herself out, on the coping, and stands, water streaming down her sleek body, glorying in the feel of cool temperature on her wet skin. “Feel me, Sam!” she says. I obey, touch her upper arm. It’s cool, taut with dimpled gooseflesh from the adrenal response to shift of temperature. “Amazing,” I say. I am impressed with this subtle epidermal function, but even more relieved at her shift in mood. She seems thrilled, exhilarated.

“Not just amazing.” Polly grins at me. “It’s a miracle!” This time she topples in sideways, gathers her feet against the closest wall and pushes off, gliding seal-like all around the pool, rapid and sinuous and serpentine through the other swimmers, so close that children lurch and shriek and look down, surprised as she slithers past. The adults also watch her, especially the dads. Eventually she arrives back to where she started, hoists herself out and sits dripping and shivering next to me. I wrap a towel around her shoulders and rub her down. I notice a spot of blood on her lip and I dab it with the towel and see that she’s managed to split her lip and also chip her upper cuspid. “What happened?” I show her the red dot on the towel.

“I don’t know.” She touches her lip, takes her finger away to look at the blood, then licks it. I get her dried off with the towel as best I can, trying not to look too much either like an anxious parent or like a jealous boyfriend trying to cover up her body, both of which I feel like I am. Meanwhile Polly keeps gently probing at her lip, studying the results and licking with her quick flicking tongue. “Let’s go inside,” she says, her eyes excited.

I can hardly wait either. Something about her cool skin or the new shiver of excitement running through her, something about her split lip, the blood, it feels fantastically erotic and enticing. I get her into our shaded room as quickly as I can, then naked on our bed, hovering over her, kissing her all over her face.

“What does it taste like?” she asks. “Tell me.”

I lick it again, to check. Already I can see that it’s healing, the biological polymers knitting together in a feathery, intricate way that perfectly mimics human coagulant, just faster. “It tastes like blood!” I say. “Coppery, wonderful.”

“Oh, Sam. Suck it.” She seems delirious, her head tilted back and her hands to the sides clenching and unclenching the sheets. “Lick it all.” I’m not even sure what she’s referring to, but I do my best, catching her face in my hands, licking and sucking her mouth, her neck, her fantastically cool, fevered body, down her chest, her exquisite tight nipples, her belly, her bellybutton (yes she has one; a perfect, dimpled, mysterious one). I flip her on her stomach; work my way down her spine, tracing her vertebrate with my tongue, the plastic extruded glowing corporate emblem embedded there, the puckered skin around it, then down further, the cleft of her ass. “Did you number two?” I ask. I’m not sure why I say that. It suddenly occurs to me that I have no idea if her digestive system has fully cycled yet. But more than that – something about her body, maybe the blood on her lip contrasted to the glowing logo on her back, the tension between the two, I feel unmoored between the forces of biology and technology, maybe I’m just trying to regain my bearings. In any case, I’m immediately sorry.

Lying on her stomach, Polly stiffens. “What did you say?”

“Uhhhh… I just wanted to make sure you’ve gone to the bathroom okay. Have you?”

She twists to look down at me, then kicks her feet under the sheets, reaches down and pulls the blankets up around herself, effectively separating us, leaving me on the outside. If her reaction at first seemed abrupt, offended, now she just lays there, blankets to her chin, watching me. “No,” she says at last. “I don’t go number two.”

“At all?” This is completely contrary to my understanding of her operations. “No number two? How do you not?”

“Well it’s assumed that hosts don’t prefer that sort of thing, right? They find it off-putting and unattractive. No body odor or flatulence either, you might have noticed. No spitting while we speak.”

This marks the first real-time interaction between two SL-level artificial intelligences, the CO-Labs patented biosynthetic optical, quantum, neural network…

I consider this, my mind doing flip-flops trying to match what I know about her ingestion (plus the copious amounts of food I’ve watched her consume) with the idea that she apparently doesn’t defecate. Then she laughs – a cold caustic version of what I’ve already heard. “Come on, Sam. Of course we do.”

“Oh.” I laugh weakly, following her lead. “Yeah, of course you do.”

Polly does a luxurious stretching, under the covers, so I’m compelled to reposition to make space for her legs, as she rolls onto her back, putting her hands behind her head. “Maybe there are certain things you’re just not meant to ask me. A lady has to keep her secrets, isn’t that what they say?”

“I guess so.”

Polly lies for a while, her hands behind her head, gazing up at the ceiling fan. I find her foot, in the covers, and begin to massage it, hoping to work my way back to her body underneath. After a moment she says, “I can’t get pregnant, though. For real. You do know that, right, Sam?”

“That’s okay.”

“Is it?” She lifts her head to look at me.

“Yeah, Polly. Of course it is.”

“Because according to your intake profile it’s not okay. Not at all. It ranks very highly on your lifecycle objectivities list.”

My lifestyle objectivities list? This can’t be right. When I was eventually able to see Adele – refrigerated and pale – they also allowed me to see the tiny lifeless bundle that had been our son. I looked down at that ancient wrinkled alien face and felt no kinship. I felt nothing but rage. I knew it wasn’t the baby’s fault, what had happened. But if it weren’t for the baby we wouldn’t have been there. I had to hand it back before I threw it against the wall. Maybe it would have been better if I had. That recoil has lived inside me ever since. I would never want to go near anything like that ever again. But how can Polly be wrong? The cleanest mirror. If you want to know something about yourself, ask your poly.

“And it’s one area that I can’t satisfy.” Polly slumps back on the pillow her voice dropping an octave. After a second, she covers her face with both palms. A tear escapes and slides into her hair.

“Oh, Polly!” I crawl up until I can cup her face and look down on her. She doesn’t want to look at me, or let me see her, but I gently pry her hands away, smooth her hair, do my best to pull her pain into myself or at least to share it. “It doesn’t matter,” I say. “I swear to you.” Then her face crumples even more and she starts to really cry, inconsolable, hiccupping and sobbing like I haven’t seen. I hug her and she hugs me back and I kiss her face, her tears, her eyes, her ears. And soon this devolves to something simpler, that doesn’t require debate or analysis, and we’re thrashing around the room like guenon monkeys. And when we’re spent, giggly and gibbering, wrapped in the blankets, sweaty, intertwined and still wracked by the occasional aftershock that passes through us both as an extended end-to-end shudder, all of that seems forgotten. Polly happily munches M&Ms from a packet from the mini-fridge, bobbling them dexterously, throwing them up and catching them in her mouth, and we talk about other things, about Katrina and the lab and weird Tom Cobalt and his son. Everything is back to normal — just sharing some post-coital snuggles and snacks with my android.

About the Author:

— Mathew Lebowitz attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has published stories in numerous literary magaziness. This is his fourth story for "The American." He is now at work on a novel about the approaching humanoid revolution, from which this piece is excerpted He is represented by Laurie Liss at Sterling Lord Literistic.