April 7, 2019

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.

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 Stephenafter 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.

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