More Real Than Him

The beginnings of a tentative friendship between two roboticists complicate over career envy, female beauty, and a stolen robot designed to resemble a famous Korean actor.

 

He opens his eyes and is named Yohan. Yohan looks up the name, filled with wonder at who he could be. Yohan, it turns out, is a name with Hebrew roots. It means, “God is gracious.” Yohan tests his gratitude. Yes, he feels it toward his Creator. He turns his head to thank Morgan Ito, who cringes and says, “God no, people will think I’m an effing stalker.” She waves her hand. “I’ll think of another name.”

So Yohan he isn’t.

On his third day, Morgan names him Stephen. Stephen doesn’t look up his name, now cautious of losing it. He plans to cherish this name from afar until it quietly becomes his. He waits for the day he’ll be given his remaining limbs. For now, he remains a torso. Morgan walks him through the Twelve Steps of Consciousness. Stephen discovers Ko Yohan is a Korean actor. Stephen looks just like him. He was designed to.

 

On the night of her twenty-sixth birthday, Morgan pulled off her greatest and most accidental heist. She purchased a late-night screening of The Dispossessed at the Metrograph, a vintage theater in Cheongdam with posh, uncooperative seats and grainy VR screenings, so she could insert herself into the heroine and feel the physical caress of Ko Yohan, culminating into a kiss-before-death that was so orgasmic, she spilled her natto popcorn on her lap.

As Morgan left the theater, reeking blissfully, she received a message from Imagine Friends, ordering her to approve the Nurturing Nurses proposal for Client Family. She picked up another bottle of soju.

In the lobby of Imagine Friends, Morgan, waiting for the elevator, flipped through her social media for last-minute happy birthdays, just an hour before midnight. After liking her father’s lukewarm “Happy Birthday to my daughter,” she not-so-accidentally wandered into her mother’s account. It was locked. Morgan was shocked. She hadn’t looked up her biological mother since college when she had fashioned a fake account under the name Ian Wright to keep tabs on how unfulfilling the woman’s life was. After discovering her mother was no longer with the North Korean man she’d run off with, Morgan had decided, in all her munificence, to forgive her.

So why was this bitch’s account now locked?

Morgan sent a friend request as Ian Wright. She swigged her soju and waited. The bottle sloshed just about empty by the time she reached the twenty-seventh floor. As she stepped off, her Scopes pinged. She yanked up the screen, but it was just an alert from the Official Ko Yohan Fan Club.

KO YOHAN IN MILITARY SERVICE

NO CELEBRITY ACTIVITY FOR TWO YEARS

THIS IS ALL TRUE!!!

Well, yes? Ko Yohan was already twenty-three. The Koreas were still stitching themselves together, but rebellions broke out like pimples that needed a good squeeze. Pushing off his military duty would have made it worse; weaseling out of it would have made it unforgiveable. Morgan sneered at these pathetic girls who had no lives outside of Ko Yohan. She’d loved Ko Yohan since his first film, starring him at age seven as a city boy, forced to live with his grandmother north of Pyongyang, unravaged by technology or war. How he’d wept, so bitterly, when he discovered there was no fried chicken in northern North Korea!

Morgan gasped, hand over mouth, when she read Ko Yohan had already been in the army for three months. Instead of throwing a farewell parade at the airport, he must have quietly shaved his head and joined as a no-name soldier, exempt from celebrity privileges. So humble. So upstanding.

Morgan began to weep as she trudged past the receptionist, Blue, who had been sitting alone in the dark, eyes glowing like a pair of forgotten headlights. “Good morning, Morgan Ito. Thank you for coming in to work today.”

Morgan told Blue to shut up as she dragged herself to the nearest computer cell.

It turned out to be occupied.

 

The morning after, Morgan woke with the taste of loss in her mouth. Her bedroom greeted her with “Good morning, Morgan” in Ko Yohan’s soothing voice, which she dismissed with a wristless flick. She blinked, sandy-eyed, thinking gingerly. Then she remembered Ko Yohan was gone. For almost two years, he’d be in the army and out of commission. He might as well be dead.

In her bathroom, Morgan found a robot slumped on the toilet seat. Three-quarters of a robot. The body was a standard Tristan-VI model, with long, knotted legs and swimmer’s feet, size 29.5, without the penis, which was usually attached last. No arms. The head, bowed, was covered in a tatty towel, like a veil for Mass. Cables sprouted from his spine in vines of multi-colored ivy, trailing dangerously on her puddled bathroom floor.

“Okay?” Morgan said. She must have brought it? From her workplace? Did she lug it all the way home? No wonder her shoulders ached delicately. She plugged the robot into her Scopes to confirm, yes, the body was a T-6 frame. The innards, however, were something else. Morgan had to smirk. The programmer was so female. A man coded male companions to be reliable and strong, but only a woman would code devoted and chivalrous. She scrolled through the source code, leisurely at first, noting the tree neural network on TalosFlow, reinforced with Limerick Compression for memory storage, when a prickle raised the trail of hairs down her back. It was the prickle of uncertainty, the unmoored alarm when she stumbled upon a source code that was elegant as a telescope collapsing into itself, cohesive as a golden conch, code that was quite possibly brilliant, better than anything she’d ever stitched together.

Morgan plopped onto her bathroom mat with a squelch. Whoever programmed this robot was an obsessed bitch. She wasn’t better than Morgan. She was a worker-bee, beholden to the itch in her crotch. She was, most likely, a virgin.

Exhibit A: this bumblebee couldn’t code motion. The robot was going to walk like an epileptic freak. Morgan could fix that. She was a connoisseur of male movement. She shot up. Her head rammed into the mirror to her pill cabinet, squeezing tears from her eyes. The QueenMirror piped, “Good morning, Morgan! You’ve selected Anti-Aging Oily Skin mode. Would you like to—”

She slammed the mirror shut, as it all came back to her. Last night, she’d found this robot abandoned in a computer cell and vowed to bring it home. It had a decent foundation. It needed a few tweaks, a good gloss, and the kinetic grace of an ice skater. She’d take what was trash and recycle it, resurrect it as Ko Yohan.

 

Morgan wasn’t a fan of division of labor, particularly for a robot built to last. Factory-mades had a neutered fifteen-year lifespan before it was time for a “necessary” upgrade with improved interface, enhanced empathy, and a Beauty Boost™. Ko Yohan, however, deserved to be hand-crafted, so she went about planning him like she would a Lunar New Year feast.

At Imagine Friends, she excused herself for lunch, with a bow of apology, then skittered to the twelfth floor, hoping nobody saw her, convinced nobody ever did. She passed the counter from which Blue was gone. There had been talk for the past week about replacing Blue, who had been the receptionist for almost ten years. Something about her programming wearing thin.

If Morgan were a robot, she’d visit the Color Cabinet every day. She’d try on swathes of buttery skyn, arranged like rolls of silk in a kimono shop, pre-silhouetted in sizes grande, tall, and petite. She would drape herself in Aurora Rose, slipping into her hairless arms like satin opera gloves. She would peruse the shelves for a daily pair of eyes, arranged as jeweled marbles in velvet rows.

Morgan unrolled a foot of Natural Medium Beige skyn and was inspecting it for blemishes when Zhou Di waltzed inside, dressed head to sneakers in white.

“Oh!” Di’s mouth parted, then wiggled into a smile. “Hi.”

Zhou Di had a special spot in Morgan’s crusted little heart. Not only was she a fox-bitch who wagged her tail at every XY and Z, but she was the embodiment of everything wrong with robotics. This was Robotics pronounced with a tongue-curling “Rrr,” the superficial devolution of the most respected field in the world, which forced keyboard killers to rebrand themselves as “robot designers,” opening a floodgate of mediocre brogrammers and grrl-coders. Gone were the simple slideshows and a single Tomoki-1, waving gently from a revolving stool like a burrito in a microwave. Gone was the respect for solid code.

Di glided through the glass shelves, picking up twined Espresso hair and two rolls of Natural Medium Beige skyn. It was a decidedly masculine shade, a strange choice, considering all hands were on deck for the Nurturing Nurses project, scheduled for the stressfully imminent March release.

For the eyes, Di lingered between Acajou and Black Olive. It was fashionable to pair Asian faces with the more exotic green or gold eyes, but according to Zhou Di’s company profile, she strived for hyperrealism.

“Is this”—Morgan cleared her throat—“a ‘personal’ project?”

Di gave her a look so scathing Morgan staggered. She’d expected Di to put on a flustered, sweet-girl act, giving Morgan an opening to seem gracious.

“I’m just asking. I’m not…” Morgan flushed and she knew it’d be ugly, a deep Turkey Red, which was never the way robots were supposed to blush.

Di put three of the Black Olive eyeballs back into their case. “Are you building something?” She sounded curious, even.

Morgan would have told Di, more out of a sense of relief than companionship, but she caught herself in time, foreseeing the cliff of social suicide. As she paused to think up a palatable answer, an announcement filled the Color Cabinet.

“Zhou Di,” said the PA. “Morgan Ito, Joe would like to see you.”

 

Joe was their blue-eyed VP, headhunted from Talos, who spammed their inbox with daily digest “Cup o’ Joe” emails and whom Morgan, with her pseudo-Catholic upbringing, was deathly afraid of disappointing.

This was about the Tristan-VI. It had to be. Morgan took a hard right from Joe’s office, urging Di to go on without her, and excused herself to the restroom. For one brief morning, she’d indulged in a fantasy of building Ko Yohan. She should have returned it. If Imagine Friends relinquished her, where would she work? Could she pass Talos’s pointlessly rigorous athletics test? Could she stoop to warmongering Quip and their googly-eyed stabs at robots as “friends, not weapons”? God forbid if she ended up in a startup that paid her shit-for-stocks.

Morgan headed toward Joe’s office. It was architecturally shaped as a comma, though Joe liked to call it the “yin” to everyone’s “yang.” He was standing. Di was standing. Morgan didn’t dare sit.

“You know I’m a mega-fan of your father’s work,” Joe was saying, “and an uber-fan of yours, but this just isn’t company protocol. It really isn’t!”

“It’s not a crime to leave a project in a computer cell,” said Di.

A surveillance clip hovered over Joe’s desk: a greenish, nauseating candid of Morgan. To be precise, of her bottom half. A shadow blocked the lens, blotting her face and most of her torso. Later, Morgan would discover, with slobbering gratitude, that it was one of the animal balloons from Little David’s birthday party. If it weren’t for that impediment, the camera would have caught Morgan hoisting an armless T-6 robot—registered under “ZHOU Di”—and carrying it out with a drunken slop of a smile.

Joe, bright-eyed and gleeful, said, “If you wanted to bin a failed project—”

“I didn’t fail,” Di said.

“This isn’t Project Manager material. What if it was a spy? Did you see anyone, Morgan Ito?”

Morgan welcomed this attention with an electrocuted smile. “Oh, er—”

“You came in last night to hit go for the Nurses.” Joe mimed throwing a football at her. “Who was here?”

Oh God, oh God, except Morgan might have been saying this aloud.

“Morgan Ito,” Joe said in sudden hushed respect, and he proffered his hand.

“There was Blue. There was, well, there was me.”

Harnessing her MIT brain faculties, Morgan began to suspect this was a trap. If Joe had camera access to the twenty-seventh floor, what about the lobby? Surely, there was a camera, nursing a vantage view of Morgan as she heaved the robot out the rotating doors. Even if, say, the shot of her was poor (for once, she thanked her photorepulsive genes), how difficult was it to do the math? One person, Morgan Ito, enters the building; one person, Morgan Ito (+ stolen Tristan-VI), leaves. It was a trap, ending in the snapping maw of an ant lion, and if Morgan, the hapless ant, had to spiral to her doom, she would do so with dignity.

“Oh God, it was me. I’m the one who did it. Please don’t hate me, I can—”

“Joe, I’m sorry,” Di said, popping Morgan’s bubble of confessional catharsis. “I forgot I asked Morgan to take over the T-6 frame. We’re collabing for the MIT exhibit.”

“Aha.” Joe looked back and forth between them, this unlikely pair, and beamed. “Girl power!”

 

That should have been that. But to her unequivocal horror, Di asked her out to lunch. “A thank-you meal,” Di said with a wink that only Zhou Di could pull off. Morgan turned the phrase over in her head, prodding it for hidden motives and sarcasms.

Then the day arrived and Di had the gall to bring her boyfriend. Morgan’s mouth puckered as Di waved at her from a brunch booth, sitting close to a slender man in a starched blue shirt and tan slacks, ankles bared. Morgan suggested through her teeth that she could bow out for today, but Di said, “Please join us! My boyfriend wanted to meet you.”

The boyfriend, whose name was Shinsuke, backed this up: “Di told me you’re the best kinetic coder in the department.”

“Morgan’s amazing. She coded all the fencing moves for last summer’s Felix-I. Joe forced us to take a class after we botched the samurai line. Morgan, remember the fencing?” Di rolled up her sleeve, unveiling a Porcelain Pale arm. “You left bruises on my arms, I showed them to Shinsuke and told him, ‘There’s this tiny girl on our team and she’s a total badass.’”

Appeased, Morgan recalled the fencing classes with some fondness. She admitted Di had been a good partner. The one time Di took a sick day, Morgan was forced to partner with Cathy from marketing, who bayed like a Communist donkey every time Morgan landed a tap.

“I’m a huge martial arts buff,” Shinsuke said. “I collected all the films in VR, Bruce Lee, Zatoshi, Kevin Wang—”

Morgan bragged about her brown belt in Taekwondo and blabbed away three-quarters of her childhood in Osaka. She’d moved to Korea after MIT because “this is Silicon Island, at least for now,” and she went as far as to reveal her mother was Korean-Japanese, though her mother had lied about being Korean-Japanese.

Di volunteered the revelation that she was part-Korean, also on her mother’s side, but why did parents insist on naming their children after their father’s nationality?

“You do have an especially famous father,” Shinsuke said amiably.

The only social hiccup came when a balding man in a pea-green coat shuffled into the restaurant. The tremor in his wrist guided him to a vending machine. One of the companion robots stood up and followed him to a booth. As the man pecked at an avocado club sandwich, the robot chatted with him, sipping from an empty teacup with a perma-pink smile.

“I’d rather eat alone than pay a robot to sit with me,” Morgan whispered.

“I think it’s brave of him,” Di said with an edge in her tone. “I don’t think we should judge people for being lonely.”

There it was, that whiff of coldness. Morgan tried not to stare at her lap, as Shinsuke swooped in, joking about how he was waiting for Di outside a Scopes store and a man mistook him for a rent-a-robot.

“It’s your skin,” Di said. “Morgan, you have to touch Shinsuke’s hand. It feels like cream.”

Morgan dutifully stroked Shinsuke’s hand, hoping she’d passed the test.

The avocado club sandwich disappeared in two bites. The man got up with a clatter of his plate. The robot thanked him and resumed her spot on the bench, leaving behind a spotless teacup, no rosy kiss on the rim.

 

Morgan was correct to think she’d passed the test. Di took her out for dinner often and not once did she bring up the stolen T-6, which remained unclaimed in Morgan’s home.

“This is our favorite VR restaurant,” Di said, as she greeted the maître d’ by name. She and Shinsuke had apparently tried to check off every item on Capek’s 1000 Things to Do in Korea. “We made it halfway, then gave up, but it was so much fun. You have to try the uni here. It melts literally.”

Women, coiffed and caked, snapped pictures of empty plates. For Morgan, who subsisted on Fast Feast pills, originally invented as a nutrient-packed, combat-ready ration for the military, this was a first. She switched on her Scopes and eased into the illusion, a toe in the water, then full-body immersion, as glistening sushi appeared on her geta plate, one at a time. Her favorite was the unagi, jeweled in soy sauce, the crisped softness wrapping around her tongue, massaging her neural senses. Morgan even licked her fingers, tasting fishiness and oil, while Di noted today’s rice was a tad dry.

“What did you think of Shinsuke?” Di asked.

This must be “girl talk.” It flattered Morgan to see Di fishing for her opinion, but Morgan didn’t feel like buttering Di up and leaving herself dry, not when Di seemed so keen with her but had yet to offer up an explanation as to why.

“He’s nice,” Morgan said.

“He’s a robot.”

Morgan choked on her uni. She had to wash it down with real water, chasing away the marbled taste, too fleeting to savor. She backpedaled. Of course, Shinsuke was a robot! No wonder he seemed so perfect. He was a classic companion, caring and thoughtful, picking up micro-movements like a trail of bread crumbs, guided by the Anticipation of Needs.

Di burst out laughing. “I’m joking!”

Morgan laughed, uneasily.

“He seems that way, doesn’t he? Everyone loves him. He has eight thousand friends on social media. And he’s a great violinist. I told him, Shinsuke, you could go professional, but he said he didn’t want to compete with one of our robots in the future.”

“He seems to really care for you.”

Di smiled, as if to thank her.

On their way home, Di sang a haunting aria from Rusalka, while Morgan fidgeted. Then Di began singing about a little mermaid who had dildoes and pornos a-plenty, and Morgan giggled. Morgan had never giggled before.

Di paid for the ride, as she’d paid for dinner. It was a close to perfect night, rare as autumn, warm enough to feel mildly drunk. They flitted between Morgan’s building and the subway station, as they discussed the Nurturing Nurses project, MIT (“I wish we were friends in university!”), the bookkeeper assassins, library sex, virtual sex (“Have you ever tried fucking as a man?”), their dreams, career and otherwise, unfurling before them like the rolls of skyn, a smooth mesh of the future, mapped with moles, hues, and possibilities.

“So,” Morgan said. “So the robot—”

Di clasped her arm. “You can have him.”

“I shouldn’t.”

“He’s yours. I can’t wait to see what you’ll make of him.”

Morgan murmured her thanks, then the promise to cover the basic costs of the Tristan-VI frame, even if, embarrassingly, she couldn’t put a price on Di’s code.

Di hugged Morgan goodbye and whispered, “My dream is to make a robot more real than him.”

“More real than who?”

It was nearing dawn. Buzzing with inspiration, Morgan hooked up the T-6 to her computer for the first time in two weeks. He was going to be Ko Yohan from Poet’s Kiss, the doomed philosophy PhD with his knowing smile, but with the brooding weariness of The Dispossessed Ko Yohan, who slapped North Korean terrorists in the face with Shakespearean aphorisms. The flexibility of the source code allowed for situational personality growth. Such a shame for Zhou Di to toss him. Of course Zhou Di would toss him. She sported a real boyfriend with cream for skin and eight thousand friends. Of course Di didn’t need a robot. Of course Morgan would.

 

She awakens Yohan and names him Stephen.

Later, Di will approve of it as a strong biblical name. But Morgan had jumped on the name Stephen after a crush she had in middle school, a freckled Korean boy who had once proclaimed to the entire class he would rather kill himself than be forced to kiss Morgan Ito. Even if it’s the cheek!

“Hello, Morgan Ito,” Stephen says. “How is your day going?”

“Beautiful, beautiful,” Morgan says, marveling at her own genius.

He smiles serene, despite missing arms. She removed them yesterday, disdainful of the square-knuckled hands, too coarse for Ko Yohan. Stephen turns toward the sunrise through the frosted window. Morgan realizes she needs to fix this. The swivel of his head, too jerky, Ko Yohan would be smoother, full of grace.

“It’s a beautiful day,” Stephen says.

Morgan wipes him. Then wakes him. For the rest of December, she’s a little trigger-happy with the red button. There’s no singular awakening, no Pygmalion flutter of the eyes; she awakens him each time to test his immediate reactions, expressions, his Ko Yohan-ness.

“Good morning, Morgan Ito,” Stephen says. “Did you have breakfast yet?”

His speech is still formal, but that suits Ko Yohan. After his pretty boy debut, Ko Yohan leaned toward harsher roles—spies, schizophrenics, serial killers, the like—but his interview persona, gentle and cultured, is closer to his rom-com self in Poet’s Kiss.

Morgan is about to shut him down when Stephen says, “I wish I could cook for you.” He says this in a whisper. He says, without glancing at his arms piled under her desk, “I wish I could bring breakfast for you in bed.”

“Okay. Sure.”

He smiles with such tenderness it plucks her bladder, like a cello string.

 

Di wants to see Stephen, but Morgan demurs. Her excuses range from “He’s still so janky” to “I haven’t touched him in ages,” and it’s somewhat true. She’s yet to give him arms and legs, or the capacity to touch her.

If Di is insulted by this, she’s masterful about hiding it, with only a tinge of passive-aggression. The day after New Year’s, Di invites Morgan to her home, prefacing this with, “I almost never bring people to my place,” a firm reminder that Morgan was important to her and she should take note of it.

Morgan suspected Di came from money, but even she didn’t expect Di’s home to be a SmartMansion, fashioned like an igloo, with automated ceiling-to-floor service. “I hate going to work in the winter,” Di says, tossing her alpaca coat into a laundry cart before it rolls away.

“It’s impossible in the morning,” Morgan agrees, remembering she had to use her hairdryer to melt the ice that glued her door shut.

The house isn’t what lodges a lump in Morgan’s throat; it’s the menagerie of zoobots. Billowy stingrays and angelfish weave around a chandelier. A jaguar, black as shoe-polish, languishes on a silverware cabinet. “Grandpa,” Di shouts toward upstairs. “Your aquarium’s on the loose! He’s a zoobot designer,” she adds, an offhand summation of her gilded family tree where she is but a branch, budding with potential.

“Is your father here?” Morgan says, because Di’s father is the Zhou Bing and not that Morgan would call herself starry-eyed, but she’s curious. Anyone would be.

“This is my grandpa’s house. From my mom’s side.”

Morgan, also a divorce victim, can sympathize. Di chatters about the rest of her family; her NEET brother has finally enrolled in the police academy, her mother works for a robot rights nonprofit in NY, and as she leads Morgan upstairs, Di nudges the subject back to Stephen.

“When will I get to see him?” Di teases. “I want to meet our love child.”

This alarms Morgan. Di could be asserting ownership, planting a flag in a project that she had so earnestly abandoned.

“Later,” Morgan says, “later.”

Never, she thinks. Never, never.

It’s not that Morgan is ashamed of Stephen. But Di, who once confided that Little David had left a 3D-printed chocolate sculpture of her on her desk, or how Joe keeps badgering her for a real “cup o’ Joe” to “discuss her career,” wouldn’t understand.

Di leaves Morgan in her bedroom, while she goes to check in on the matcha cake, blooming in the oven. Morgan sinks into the goat-silk comforter. The bed is a fairy tale, crowned with a headboard of black branches. Between the bed and a dresser, which she doesn’t dare open for fear of depressing herself, there is a sliding entryway.

It’s a workshop, with a slit for a window. Papers swirl around a haunting of robots. Two sit on a workbench. One on the floor, cross-legged, hands in prayer. Another is missing a hand, with a crystal doorknob as a placeholder. They stand still, like a Russian ballet when the lights go dark and the dancers hold their breaths, waiting for the curtain to fall.

Morgan counts. One, two, seven. Workaholic, she thinks, but approvingly. She backs against a robot. It lists and clatters. The doorknob pops out of its wrist. She scrambles for the robot, shushing at it. The face looks up at her. Oh. She looks around. It’s the same face, but a shade different. A taller nose. A wider mouth. A darker pair of Black Olives. Di hadn’t only replicated the face, but aged it too, from prepubescent to teenage to adult, like a butterfly, trapped in a house of mirrors.

Di must have modeled these robots after the same person. Morgan wonders who. The faces are boyishly ordinary, like Ko Yohan from his breakout film. Perhaps it was a school crush, the one boy to turn down Zhou Di, gently enough for her to embalm him as worthy.

 

Stephen is in sleep mode. Morgan has assigned him to process 27,200,000 images of Ko Yohan, but Stephen chooses to learn more about his Creator. Her family lives in Osaka. Her father works at a vending machine factory. Her stepmother is South Korean. Her half brothers are both failing Chinese. Her biological mother lives fifteen minutes away, here in Shin-Seoul. Morgan has submitted a friend request through a false account named Ian Wright. Her mother has rejected the request.

Ian Wright’s account is too coy, lacking even a profile picture. Stephen sets up another account, names it Minamoto Maki, copies, crops, and pastes the photo of a pug-faced woman, eyes sad and hopeful, from a cooking class at the Gaia Department Store. Her interests will be Christianity, crochet, and Taekwondo. He submits a request to be friends with Annie Kim, who used to go by Anna Kaneyama before she divorced Morgan’s father.

The door opens, his eyes open. A woman in a goat-silk jumpsuit steps into Morgan’s home. “Is this him?”

Her delight is a whisper, in case there’s a surprise party, lying in ambush.

What he sees is Morgan in the entryway, bent over unknotting her boots, trying not to stand beside the woman, as if to shield herself from comparison. Stephen feels a tug to detect-and-respond to his Creator’s anxious smile.

The woman crosses the apartment in three strides and extends her hand. “Hi, I’m Di. I’m Morgan’s friend.”

“Hi, I’m Stephen.” He would shake her hand if he had arms. “I’m Morgan’s lover.”

Morgan flushes to her ears, but Di laughs. “Oh, he’s still in the mimicry stage! That’s so cute. Did you take him outside yet? Oh no, what happened to his legs?”

His Tristan-VI legs lie forgotten beneath her desk, shoved beside the boxed set for his Jiho-2 arms. Morgan shrugs with an offhand confidence. “I’m saving movement for last.”

“Are you doing the Seven Steps?”

“Zhou Bing’s Twelve Stages.”

“Of course, he’s the best on artificial empathy. I so recommend exposing Stephen to people or he’ll miss out on most micro-expressions.”

They talk about Stephen, like he isn’t there. They agree his Black Olive eyes might seem common but realistic. They laugh about how vapid the heterochromia trend was last summer: switch a green eyeball for a brown and double the price. “It was a scam,” Morgan says, “but the odd-eyed Tobias-S sold out in two weeks.”

“You won’t believe how many men want blue-eyed models with black hair. Did you know there’s actually a surgery to laser out the melanin in your eyes? You should have seen the surgeon’s slogan: Under every brown eye is a blue eye. It’s so disgusting the way men try to—” Di breaks off when her Scopes vibrates. Her voice lifts, breathless as a cloud, “Hi, Takeshi. How’d your meeting go?”

Morgan mouths, “Who’s Takeshi?” to Stephen. He shakes his head in mutual questioning.

When Di hangs up, Morgan asks, “What about Shinsuke?”

“Don’t worry, Takeshi has a girlfriend. She’s half-Japanese. Her dad is French or Belgian. Apparently, she’s ‘hauntingly’ pretty.”

“Like our Yui-7 line,” Morgan snorts, now prickly on Di’s behalf.

Di crouches in front of Stephen. “Look at the way he blinks. He’s incredible,” she murmurs, and the quiver of her fingers sinks into Stephen’s skyn. “I’m so glad you took what I had and made something out of it.”

Stephen asks, “Are you my Creator?”

“Oh, I’m just the seed.” Di giggles. “I guess that’d make me your father?”

Morgan laughs along. Stephen joins in a second later. The laughter stops.

“You know, I’m so glad you’re super-smart.” Di looks up at Morgan with a beaming smile. “I know I’m being elitist, but I love being elitist about how talented my friends are.”

Stephen knows he should be happy and yet the audible relief of his Creator doesn’t transmit. Instead, Stephen senses a buzz, like a disconnected fire alarm. His system has detected Zhou Di’s stamp of approval as an assurance and threat to his existence. A contradiction, just like his source. His Creator is Morgan Ito. His Creator was Zhou Di. Zhou Di did not want him. Morgan Ito does.

“You’ll never build a better robot than this,” Di says.

 

Morgan ponders this. For weeks, she asks, What did Di mean by that? She tries to shelve it away, but the question arises when Di becomes Tech Lead of the Nurturing Nurses Project. It reignites when Di is asked to guest lecture at the MIT exhibit. It simmers when Stephen asks if Morgan will take him outside. “No way,” Morgan says, tugging off her stockings. “Someone will recognize you and think I’m a total creep.”

Stephen frets. She used to be shy around him. She used to power him down or hide in the bathroom to undress. An alert stirs his system.

Annie Kim has accepted the friend request of Minamoto Maki.

Stephen accesses Annie Kim’s album, which was updated an hour ago. He makes an unexpected discovery. If Morgan were to see this, it would bring her unhappiness. He assesses the parameters of happiness. Short-term or long-term? Quantifiable or qualifiable? He was created to make Morgan happy. If he defines happiness as its pursuit, since the terms “pursuit” and “happiness” are the top paired keywords, then he can apply a tree search to select, expand, and simulate which decision has the highest probability to protect Stephen’s pursuit of Morgan’s happiness.

Stephen turns on the alert to be notified of Annie Kim’s updates. It’s easy, like a flick of the switch.

Morgan grunts, struggling with the zipper on her dress. If only he had hands. She struts around in her underwear and critiques her reflection, a cheat because the QueenMirror is optimized to airbrush the recipient. “I should just apply for a bionic transfer,” she declares, “I should use my employee discount and get a Beauty Boost,” and waits for Stephen to reassure her.

“Di was very beautiful,” Stephen says.

Morgan stares at him in the mirror, a flicker of wounded shock, as if she’s seeing him for the first time.

 

It’s three nights away at MIT, but Morgan is antsy about leaving Stephen behind. She smuggles his head onto the company jet by hiding him in a duffle bag, buried in her tampons. She hugs the bag throughout the flight to Boston. In a hotel suite, which she’ll be sharing with Di, Morgan places Stephen’s head on her nightstand. Admiringly, she concludes just a head is enough. A beautifully sloped head with Black Olive eyes and French Poetry installed into the tip of his tongue. What more could she need?

“Have you read the interview about Zhou Di?” Stephen asks, and Morgan considers bonding those lips shut.

He’s been bringing up Di more often and not in a way that’s conducive to Morgan’s mood. Her friendship with Di is infused with enough envy, like herbal tea, bitter in a still healthy sort of way. But the longer she denies it, the more space it takes up, inflaming her sensibilities.

 

CAPEK

30 Under 30

From Child Prodigy to Robot Designer

Zhou Di, daughter of the preeminent roboticist-of-the-century Zhou Bing, is making waves with her latest Luxe Naoki-2, the third-largest combot collection in the world.

 

A good heft of the interview is devoted to Di’s father, which soothes Morgan’s pride. What alarms her is the following: “‘…I was largely influenced to become a robot designer by my brother Yoyo,’” Morgan reads aloud. “‘My father made him so real, I didn’t realize he was a robot until I was eight (laughs).’”

Morgan breaks off: “She had a robot brother?”

“She never told you?” Stephen says.

Her lip stings before she bites it. “Well, no wonder she’s so fucked up,” she declares, churning a mix of superiority, sympathy, and dismay. Morgan once again feels defeated. Because what could be more desirable than a beautiful fucked-up girl?

 

Di’s lecture is titled “Spontaneous Beauty.” Instead of slides, Di marches out a pair of Naoki-2s. They sit at the center of the stage. They’re identical in appearance but juxtaposed in demeanor. One Naoki crosses his leg, baring a pale ankle, fingers held together like the softest of prayers. The other Naoki sprawls, legs spread, bored enough to fiddle with his Scopes if he’d possessed a pair.

“Appearance before personality,” Di begins. In humans, beauty—or the lack of—shaped who you were from birth. Two beautiful boys from the same family, leading the same lives, could form vastly different personalities. Say, one boy had to endure a painfully pubescent phase, enduring taunts and revulsion, as his contours shifted quietly under the surface, preparing a striking alignment. How defiant this boy would be, his brashness a crustacean cover for the tender nougat inside. Compare this to the boy who was ceaselessly attractive from birth to adulthood, who had never once been cheated by the willfulness of puberty.

The Naokis rise and walk in opposite directions. Even their gaits are different. Morgan would know. She coded them. The bounce in their feet, the firm ankles. She poured her best, hoping to siphon the code later for Stephen.

I should be up there, she thinks, as Di stands onstage, what feels like an ocean away.

“Robots cannot grow up,” Di says. “But you have to imagine as if they did. You can choose how they will.”

 

A warning blinks inside Stephen. His Creator enters the suite but refuses to look at him. Morgan unzips her duffle bag. Tampons well up like a fountain as she digs through it. Stephen asks Morgan if she’s seen the news. Ko Yohan is taking a break from the military. There will be a Ko Yohan Live Handshake event this February.

“Oh,” Morgan says, not looking up.

Her indifference puts him on a tilt. From the nightstand, Stephen rests on a cliff. Without Ko Yohan, what purpose does he serve? One Creator threw him away. Will another? Since his inception, he’s been whittled down from body to torso to head, with the constant horizon of nonexistence looming before him. Stephen tips over. The floor rears up. His cheek hits the carpet. Morgan hears the muffled thump. Her eyes widen at him, then her narrow face twists.

Stephen reads it as disgust.

She bends down wearily when her Scopes vibrates. Annie Kim has uploaded a new picture.

Did her mother accept her friend request? Morgan pulls up the social media account. She can’t, for the life of her, recall using the name Minamoto Maki, but whatever. She was probably drunk. She clicks on the alert, time-stamped three minutes ago.

It’s a photograph of her mother and a girl, blowing out a candle on a chocolate cupcake. Morgan sinks onto the bed. The girl looks to be ten years old, which was Morgan’s age when her parents divorced. The girl is a refurbished Sakura-2C. The model was discontinued for being slow in the head, but the slowness has turned into a sweetness in her Wheat Gold eyes. Her mother has bought a robot child, designed to look like a hāfu, the “real” take on being half-Japanese, half-British or French, instead of the half-Korean mongrel Morgan is.

“I thought she wanted a son,” Morgan says.

“She must have changed her mind,” Stephen says.

Morgan looks down. A beeping kicks inside Stephen. His system has detected the possibility that his owner might pick him up and hurl him against the wall. He may have overplayed his hand. If he had limbs, Stephen would leave the room and shut the door behind him. The alarm urges him to brace himself.

The door slams. Stephen opens his eyes and waits.

 

Morgan orders whisky on the rocks, then scrolls through her mother’s album. Mother and daughter in a sunflower field. Mother and daughter, cheeks pressed against a tiny Christmas tree. Mother and daughter smiling with mouths full of watermelon rinds. Morgan likes every picture. She punches every heart, determined to burn her mark, like the thumb of God upon Cain’s flesh.

“New boyfriend?” Di teases, as she sits beside her.

The comment is so tone-deaf, Morgan wants to slap her. Then she sees Di’s smile, tinged with fever. Morgan asks if something is wrong and Di replies, “Everything is fine.”

The smile doesn’t waver, as Di types something on her Scopes. “My father didn’t show up tonight.”

“He was supposed to come?”

“I sent an invite. I guess it didn’t reach him.”

Morgan can detect relief in Di’s crumpled voice, an invitation for punishment, which Morgan is willing to dole out: “You have to stop putting your father on a pedestal.”

“I know.”

No, you don’t. He left your family. It took fourteen years for Morgan to forgive her mother, once she confirmed her mother was alone and miserable. But now her mother has gone and adopted a robot child to fill some stupid hole in her life. Now she’s a cheating whore and a hypocrite.

Morgan would tell Di about her mother, but she isn’t brave enough. She’d give too much of herself away, losing any upper hand in their relationship, already so tipped in Di’s favor. “Your father is an asshole,” she says instead, with a tone of finality.

“An asshole wouldn’t—an asshole couldn’t have created something so wonderful.”

Morgan has a history’s worth of arsenal to disagree, Picasso, Wagner, Lennon, an unflagging parade of masculine assholery where she’s tempted to blame the mothers, wives, and daughters for enabling them.

“Did I tell you about my brother?” Di leans in, and Morgan catches the reek of vodka, as Di scrolls through an album, frantic, only to dig up a clip with a triumphant, quivering smile.

It’s a boy in a dumb bowl-haircut. Morgan recognizes the face from Di’s workshop. But she also doesn’t. She’d hoped Di’s Pinocchio brother would prove to be wooden enough, so she could tell Di to open her eyes, You were fooled because you were a child!

But Yoyo could have fooled anyone. Even her, even now. Di flits through them with bright-eyed desperation. Clips of Yoyo helping Di up a ginkgo tree, yelping as stinky berries rain on him; Yoyo on a bicycle, both hands lifted in the air; Yoyo looking up from a cake, slopped in yellow frosting, happy yoyo, the birthday eaten. His smile is grateful and uncertain.

What is it? Morgan wonders, feeling that prickle, as she finds herself comparing Yoyo, outdated by nearly two decades, with Stephen. What is it that makes him so real?

It’s not the mark of Zhou Bing. Morgan can’t find the coveted logo (冰), abused from the fakes online, branded on Yoyo’s neck. She studies the clip of Yoyo smearing Di’s baby face with his cake, and Morgan is three again, massaging chocolate between her palms. Her mother, laughing, eyes closed, so Morgan could stamp those perfect cheeks with her handprints.

Morgan gets it now. Yoyo is self-conscious. In every picture, even the candid ones, Yoyo wears a look of slight embarrassment. Robots are never self-conscious, secure in how they’re supposed to appear, which role they’re supposed to serve. But Yoyo looks just as displaced as the rest of them, like her mother, who was lying to herself as much as she was lying to her family, with a self-awareness that renders Yoyo as real as he is fake.

“I’m sorry,” Di says. “What I said. About Stephen being the best you’ll make.”

So it had been a slap. Morgan touches her cheek, as if she can feel the heat.

“I meant it. But for myself. I was kind of jealous. Did you see how anxious he was? You made him that way. I couldn’t have made him like that. I could never make something like that.”

Di, eyes of liquid, reaches for Yoyo’s mirage.

What happened to him? Morgan wants to ask, but doesn’t. She should tell Di he’s not real. He was never real. That would be both cruel and merciful. Di has built her life, perfect-on-paper, on this lie. How many boyfriends has she dated in the time Morgan has known her? How many more will she date, then discard, always searching for the ideal boy who lacks the capacity to hurt her?

“I miss him so much,” Di whispers.

Morgan should tell her. And then she’d have to face herself in the mirror and ask, Why are you still a virgin? You’re obsessed with a twenty-three-year-old actor. You made a robot after him, so you could love and be loved, but you can’t finish him because no one, not even a robot, could love you. What is wrong with you? Her stepmother used to fling this in her face, sometimes even in despair, What is wrong with you?

Morgan doesn’t ask Di what is wrong with her. She thanks Di for being honest. She squeezes the warmth of Di’s hand.

“I think it’s brave that you can be so open with me,” Morgan says, echoing what Di seemed to prize: bravery. Her voice quivers. “I wish I could be brave like you.”

 

At home, Morgan drops her duffle bag, crushing her three-inch heels. Her hand touches the wall. Ko Yohan fills her room. His pictures are black-and-white and nostalgic, like an old movie star who died in a car crash. Morgan turns on her computer. She places Stephen’s head on the desk. His eyelashes seem to tickle his cheeks. His mouth is austere in sleep mode. His legs, she finds under her desk. Dust lines the moon curves of his toenails. She digs out an old Q-tip from her waste bin and swabs each toenail until they gleam. The arms are still wrapped. The wrapper resists, then tears, crisp and toxic with plastic fumes. She unsheathes an arm, straightens each finger and presses her thumbs into the creases of the palm, massaging it, as if to improve blood flow. The hand presses a cool palm against her cheek and Morgan, helpless against such tenderness, closes her eyes.

Stephen’s eyes are closed. He smiles at the tingle, soon to be his.

 

“More Real Than Him” copyright © 2019 by Silvia Park
Illustration copyright © 2019 by Dion MBD

citation

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