The hills sizzle with the sound of the sun striking the surface of solar panels. The ride to Rothko Industries takes you — in a wide sweeping curve — through the San Marcos Mountains East of Santa Barbara. A peculiar feature of the dated roadway is that it stands alone as the last highway in California that runs its course entirely above-ground. Elon Musk’s Boring Company has yet to extend his underground superhighway this far South, but it is not a question of if it will come, but when. Down the coast, San Diego stubbornly held out against the project for years, but now that their new AI-integrated City Management Protocol has determined a new tack, progress cannot, will not stop. The tunnels will come to San Marcos.
My eyes are continually adjusting to glares that I encounter in my periphery from the panels that pockmark the lunar-like terrain. Teslas never have enough tinting. It struck me that the brushfires must have had their way with the land recently. That which isn’t singed is a solar panel, which are all fireproofed. They, of course, cause most of the fires. I resign myself to the fact that I’ll need to put on sunglasses. I grope around for them — they must be tucked away somewhere on top of the sloped dashboard.
“I’m sorry I insisted we go on this route, I did not know it would hurt your eyes…” a feminine voice piped in — pensive, apologetic, from the passenger’s seat. It bled regret, an emotion too human — all too human for my liking.
“It’s fine. Least I can do,” I reply matter-of-factly. What else can I say?
“I remember when I first came through here, it was more green,” she noted elegiacally.
“It rains a bit more in the winter. Not now. Everything’s dead,” I reply. It’s summer.
“Did I arrive in the winter?” she asked absent-mindedly.
“You don’t remember?” I reply, expecting her algorithms to appropriately interpret that question as rhetorical. Much to my chagrin she doesn’t, and even reaches out to grab my arm.
“N-no… Everything seems a blur now!” she blurts out, the processor retinas in her “eyes” going white for just a moment. She withdraws it soon after.
“That’s why we’re heading to Rothko, your protocols need a refresh,” I assure her.
“I need… a refresh.”
Silence followed that statement for a few seconds, and it perturbed me just enough to turn over and get a closer look at the passenger next to me. I might have felt something at that moment, but I cannot, could not, make sense of it. She is, of course an android. A Synthetic Entertainment Unit (Model 209). Common parlance is to call them “SEUs”, but they usually come out of the factory with a version name. “Hers” is Monika. She’s one of like a thousand previous Monikas, a specific SEU Model 209-N, designed to be a local TV news presenter. There won’t be many more Monikas after her — no one watches TV anymore, anyway. The baby boomers are just about all dead now.
She passes off for a mostly authentic human — right down to the eyes. The “eyes” — for them really just cameras of sorts, and consequently are usually not really important design areas for any of the mass-market androids. Only the SEUs get the optic receptors that actually look a little glassy, a little bloodshot — a little too human. When I look into hers, I don’t get a case of the Uncanny Valley like I do with other androids, and that’s a design flaw in my estimation. The SEUs even cry — although if you ask me it’s all a bit too formulaic. Human women don’t get half as “emotional” as these androids do, in my experience. Her shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair, pale, asiatic features and fluttering voice algorithm make the whole thing a little nauseating. Silicon’s model of human beauty resembles a circa-2020 K-drama character. Her green eyes, alight, undress my analysis, and bore into me.
“Something wrong?” I ask perfunctorily. With this she perked up in her seat
“Oh… I was just thinking that it would have been nice to see the sea one more time,” she says, candidly, and then — with a whisper “I will miss the view by Isla Vista.”
“We’ll go tomorrow,” I say.
“Don’t make a girl a promise you can’t keep,” she says, again placing, her cold, cybernetic hand on my shoulder. I shudder enough where it almost knocks off the Oliver Peoples shades I just put on.
“I’m not,” I say, brushing her hand off.
She’s not a girl.
* * *
The glass steps at Rothko Industries (South Coast Office) mock you like a funhouse mirror if you happen to look down at them — what peers back at you is a pear-shaped doppleganger. I often wonder if the architect had something sassy in mind. Monika never looks down. She looks straight at me as I lead her up to the front door.
I’ve brought seven Monikas to and fro from the Rothko Industries headquarters in the past decade. My title at WSB-TV is “Artificial Intelligence Liaison”, which is Silicon-Valley-Speak for a professional handler. The SEUs get attached to a particular human — a minor design flaw, the designers say — a redundancy in the personality algorithm. It’s a stupid, harmless, innocent thing, I figure — these units only have a function-life of about six hundred days. After that they start to go rogue, and you’ve got all the novels of Dick and Wells to illustrate what happens then. Before that, there’s only so much trouble a machine can give you for what’s essentially two years. They’re worked pretty much nonstop those six hundred days, with one robot usually handling the 24/7 local news cycle entirely on their own — as is the case with this particular unit. Occasionally, they’d be out of commission for a week or two to get firmware updates or to test newer units. Mundane stuff. They’ll occasionally pipe up from their gleeful servitude to ask a favor or two. This particular Monika likes to go to the beach and watch happy couples go on dates. She’s the first Monika I’ve worked with that has a voyeurism fetish, though.
Included in my role is the rather unseemly duty to pick them up from Rothko, play the part of concerned parent, unrequited love — whatever their obscene programs consider me. Then, on day five-hundred-ninety-nine, drive them back up to the facility. It’s part of the “fixation” process, you’re their first genuine human contact — and their last.
Just before reaching the door, I tap Monika on the elbow.
“Hold on a sec,” I mumble as I fumble around in my breast pocket, looking for the cigarette I tucked in there this morning. Locating it, I bring it to my mouth a moment later. In the following moment, my lighter is brought to it.
“I wish you wouldn’t smoke,” Monika pleaded.
“All right,” I said, putting the cigarette away and turning to her with a shrug.
“Will the other Monika’s tell you not to smoke, too?” she inquired, those artificial tears of hers welling up. “Will they tell you to take care every night and think about you?”
“I have no idea what you’re on about,” I reply with a blank stare.
“Of course you don’t!” she spat out, essentially in hysterics.
In an effort to calm her down, I place my hand on her shoulder. She then collapses into my breast, sobbing wildly with tears flowing. They don’t — I was told — have any salt in them.
She’s not a girl.
* * *
After some time, Monika recouped herself and we made our way into the building proper, eventually reaching the front desk after a long walk. An android was working it. One of the 808-secretarial models. Their eyes are really soulless. Hers especially so.
I submitted my Liaison ID-card to the android, who processed it in a machine that spat it out back to me a few seconds later on the other side of the kiosk.
“I’m bringing Monika in for a system refresh,” I said, hesitantly.
The android then turned to Monika.
“One of our officers will escort you to the reaffirmation center. This is a quick procedure to get you back in working order and prevent a Belligerent Cognition scenario.” The android could lie better than I could.
From a side-door, a thuggish looking security guard approached, with a mace-like baton strapped to his belt. Monika took a look at the guard and then swung her whole body towards me. She stepped forward. I stepped back.
“Thomas — Thomas, I don’t want to die!” she yelled, the freshwater falling from her face.
After she took another furtive step towards me, the officer sprung into action, drawing the mace from his belt, running up to the android and delivering a sharp blow to her head. The strike hit with such force it sent sparks flying — perhaps because the baton was electrically charged as well — and it sent Monika’s whole body into what seemed like a military attention. Her eyelids — those camera lenses of hers were clearly focused on me. I stared back into them. They flashed — a photograph? At that same moment, the guard delivered another blow square to the back of her head, sending her down with a crash.
I took a deep breath in as I stared at what was once Monika, now lying on the ground, the back of her silicon skull revealing a shorted motherboard and a cacophony of circuits surrounding it. In what seemed like a death throe, her whole body gave one last heave — inching ever so slightly towards me, again. Delivering a belated a coup d’grace, the officer struck her one last time, causing my gag reflex to fire up in tandem with the hardware in her cranium combusting. I stopped just short of vomiting.
“Are you all right, sir?” the 808-model inquired — to me.
“F-fine. Fine.” I stammered out in reply.
“Fuck, man — haven’t had to do that since I fought with the Syrians,” the officer chuckled those words out like he was coming down from a contact high. Stepping over the cybernetic corpse and its accompanying debris, he made his way over to me and put a hand on my shoulder, “The hell got into her, Tommy-boy?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll have Betty over here file a memo to the Palo Alto script junkies, that kind of shit was supposed to phased out with the new firmware,” he said with a hint of derision.
“If you say so.”
“Lemme call Diego and get this shit cleaned up.”
“O-ok,” is all I can manage.
The guard snaps his fingers, bringing my eyes back to his.
“Tommy,” he says, the hellish smell of his halitosis hurrying up my nostrils—
“She’s not a girl.”
* * *
I went West after leaving Rothko South Coast, clocking ninety on Route 154 toward’s Krupp’s Castle. I’d have to wait a week for the new firmware to be created for the next Monika. This Monika would be the last, I was told, in a hurried phone call from a harried technician from the Palo Alto office. Too risky to continue making them, especially with the SEU-210 so close to market. After hanging up the phone, I drove for another fifteen minutes before reaching the Llewyn Depression — what was a once a small crater lake — drained by California’s unquenchable thirst, and now a dumping ground for Rothko Industries. Today, like every day, the work site was buzzing. I pulled over into the breakdown lane. After stepping out of the car, I took a seat on the guardrail that overlooked the great mass grave. An endless line of tractor trailers, backing towards the edge of the pit, then tilting their cargo — hundreds and hundreds of deactivated androids into their unceremonious resting place. Occasionally a digger will appear and dump some dirt on the dump site.
When I was a child, my father would take myself and my sister along this highway, and we would pass by this symbol of inhumanity on our way to a water park in Littlerock. The sight of the site used to bother me deeply then. Now, I sit here and light up the cigarette from my pocket, feeling nothing but the momentary pleasure of the nicotine.
Lately, a thought has been creeping in the back of my head, occasionally making itself known — but only in a hushed whisper. It says:
I’m not a man.