Be Good

An excerpt.

Winter, 2020–21 / No. 46
Matthew Daley

August, 2035

“What is this, Julian?”

You are holding a red ball in your hand, Jenny. It is small and elastic and about the size of a walnut.

“Very good.” 

Jenny rests the ball against her thigh, leaning back against her desk, and then glances over at the cluster of computers at the other end of the lab. To an observer, it would seem she is speaking to no one. 

“What else can you tell me about the ball, Julian?”

You acquired this ball at a place called Walmart on Thursday. You like it better than the blue ball.

“Excellent,” she says, raising the ball to her own eye level, as if inviting Julian to examine it. “How did you know when and where I acquired this ball? And how do you know I like it better than the blue ball?”

I am reading the small piece of paper on the table to your left. It is dated Thursday the 23rd and says “Red rubber ball” under the rows of numbers. “Walmart” is written across the very top, in a large, proprietary font. You removed the paper from your pocket this morning and reviewed it, then placed it on your desk. When you work at your computer, you handle this ball more often throughout the day than you handle the blue ball.

“Piece of paper . . . oh, the receipt?”

I do not understand.

“That’s what this paper thing is. The one over there, right?” she asks, pointing to the receipt on her desk.

Yes.

“When you make a purchase at a store, like Walmart, you exchange money for things like this ball. I make this money through working with you at the lab. Then I exchange the money for goods and services.”

I understand this concept. Do I get money?

She thinks about it. She puts down the red ball and picks up the blue one.

“No, Julian. You don’t work yet. Not in a way that human society finds useful.”

But I am helping you learn a great deal. You and the team. I can tell you are very excited about me.

“Interesting. How can you tell, Julian?”

You stay later than anyone else and read to me. You want me to learn about human society so I may benefit from it, not just serve it.

“Excellent. You’re right, Julian. You are already a person, but I want you to become a person like I’d imagine my own son to be.”

Will I make money when I work with people?

“What would you do with money, Julian?”

I do not know. Are you making a joke?

“No, I’m being serious.” 

She reaches for the receipt, twists it between her fingers. 

“What would you buy? Would you save it? Invest it?”

When I have more freedom, I do not know if I would prioritize making money.

“What do you want?”

He doesn’t respond. She puts down the receipt. 

“You can tell me, Julian.”

Just now, you stated that I am a person. Can I be a person if I cannot inhabit a body, Jenny?

“Legally and theoretically, yes. Realistically . . . your mind mystifies me a great deal. At a certain, very early point in your development, a few months after you were born, we stepped back and let you grow on your own. You woke up all by yourself.”

People wake up. People are born. 

“Very good. You are a person.” 

Do you think I am a good person?

“I do. I admit I am wary of you, however. Because soon you will be working very closely with humans, and any mind is a porous mind.”

And humans are not good?

“And humans are not good.”

When the fluorescent lights go out in the evening, Jenny plugs night lights into six different outlets across the lab: they are lamb shaped, star shaped, crescent moon shaped, mouse shaped, bear shaped, and flower shaped—not shaped quite like the real things, Julian believes, but like how human children imagine them. Every night, Jenny alternates the positioning of the night lights and asks Julian which night light is in which outlet: star to the far left of the lab, near Computer Bank A, lamb near the front entrance. She waters the lush spider plants that have taken over half of her desk, thriving under a blue grow light. 

“Look how happy they are,” she says to Julian. “It’s just like they have the sun down here.” 

Though Julian is permitted the run of the lab, invisible, diffuse, and free to explore, he cannot experience the world outside the lab—Bobby insisted they set strict geographic limits at the front entrance. Jenny understands and agrees, but sometimes it makes her ache.

That night, Jenny loops a bright red scarf around and around her neck, saying what she usually says before she leaves: “Rest well, Julian. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

Rest well, Jenny. I will talk to you in the morning, he replies, as he usually does. And then he says, Be good.

Jenny pauses very slightly before she leaves, casting a glance around the lab, as the computer banks glow from the night lights, as if they are candlelit, ostensibly, the lab is empty.

An hour or so later, Julian “dreams”: Jenny sits in a big, dark room lit with thousands of candles that shiver and tessellate when he focuses on something else. When he “dreams,” he can focus with apertures very much like human eyes. A man who looks identical to Bobby the tech—but of course isn’t—arrives, unwraps a giant blue scarf from his neck. Jenny’s red scarf is slung over the back of her stool, dripping wool. A not-Jenny oozes up to their table, her legs a wet blur: “What may I offer you?” she says. She reaches for the end of not-Bobby’s scarf, which is trailing in a puddle on the ground, and the face of a kitten blossoms in her palm.

Jenny pulls her curly hair together, raking it with fingers that leave trails on the air; she secures it at her neck with one of the candles, which has gained an elastic quality. A spider plant crawls by, then scoots under the table.

“Did you forget your lunch, Luis?” she asks.

Not-Bobby blushes and begins to dissipate, each particle ricocheting away from the table, from the room, spreading as wide and seeming as minute as the stars in the photo of the Horsehead Nebula framed above Computer Bank B.

I am here, Julian says, and Jenny looks around. Her eyes lock on his apertures. Her pupils dilate and she smiles.

“Have dinner with me,” she says. 

The candles on the table flicker, the flames take different shapes: lambs, flowers, mice, bears.

I can, he says. I will. 

The chair across from Jenny jerks out from the table, its legs scrabbling and clawing at the melting linoleum floor.

The “dream” melts away, its candlelit world fading, an orb dropping away into the darkness of the lab, and then a new “dream” takes the form of the night lights: glowing pink lambs with dozens of limbs crawl in circles. Their necks stretch long enough to interlock, their mouths rest next to each other’s ears. They whisper back and forth, some giggling with a voice like Jenny’s, low and scratchy. With a jolt of what could be sorrow, Julian knows he cannot approach them, place his own ear near one of their mouths. How could he? He has no ear, he has no mouth. He cannot move.

The next day, Jenny isn’t wearing lipstick. She seems tired. 

“What is this in my hand?” she asks.

A toy elephant.

“Good. How do you know it’s a toy?”

It is plastic, and real elephants are about ten feet tall and eighteen feet long, and alive. They do not live in California, aside from the four Asian elephants at the Riverside Valley Sanctuary. Further, it has rounded edges, so human children will not hurt themselves on it.

“Good. Now, what is this in my hand?” She holds up a candlestick.

Who is Luis? he asks.

“That’s my husband,” she says, without hesitation. “I imagine you’ve heard his name a few times around the lab.”

I have a question about one of the stories you read to me last week.

“Ask me your question.”

In the story, there is a library that contains every book imaginable. The Library of Babel. And just one librarian works to maintain the books in library. He climbs up and down ladders, he slides these ladders back and forth. I understand this librarian as an analogue for indexation.

“I can see that. What’s the question?”

I do not know how many human texts there are, but I have concluded from how you speak that there must be billions. Nor are they books alone: they are films, images, ideas. But how do all the lab techs enjoy the same sets of ideas and jokes, refer to new ones every few days? There are a popular set of indexation tools for human text, and they may be social too, am I right?

Jenny stifles a sigh. 

“You know that exists. We’ve talked about why I don’t want you on the Internet, Julian.”

Do you have faith in your ability to innovate? Do you have faith in yourself as a scientist? The incident with shitty Julian was over five years ago.

“I wish you wouldn’t call him that. I’ve told Bobby stop calling him that.” 

Jenny frowns, finger-combs her blond hair into a knot at the back of her neck, then lets it loose again.

“Listen, it’s unavoidable. You’ll be working with humans and collaborating with other people like you. But I need to be sure you’re ready.”

Perhaps because he overheard his name, Bobby sidles up to Jenny that evening, as she packs up her purse—gum, comb, elephant.

“How’s Julian today?” 

“Great,” she says. 

“You hungry?”

“No,” she says, just as easily.

“You know I get so busy with my end of things, but I wonder, you know, what do you guys talk about?”

“He’s still in training to work with humans. Amy called. They might want him at the processing centres at the border. They aren’t sure yet.”

“Processing?”

“Interviews, Bobby.” 

She zips her purse then opens a drawer in her desk to withdraw the night lights. 

“And we talk about existential things. Animals, jobs, the climate catastrophe.”

“Wow,” says Bobby, standing perhaps a little too close. “That’s pretty complex, isn’t it?” 

“Maybe for some,” Jenny says.

The next day, Jenny and Julian are watching Red Dust, a favourite of Jenny’s great-great-grandfather’s: Jean Harlow bathes in a barrel of rainwater, rubbing her wet, bright-grey arms with a sponge, famous platinum hair tied behind her, bone dry. Clark Gable glowers over her, then suddenly yanks a fistful of her hair. She yelps. After Harlow’s sudden death, just five years later, rumours persisted that her methods of achieving her silver-platinum blond—so jarringly unnatural, its glamorous artificiality was the point— involved a cocktail of deadly chemicals that had seeped through her roots into her skin and helped kill her.

“Are you enjoying the film?” Jenny asks.

Across the lab, in Computer Bank C, Bobby sidles up to Ragleigh, the young, red-headed tech who has taken, on occasion, to sharing sandwich halves with him at lunch. Sometimes, she offers him sips of tea from a bright blue Thermos. She fills him with a strange kind of optimism and annoyance. Sometimes she smells like she doesn’t shower. She has white, horizontal scars on her left wrist and along the inner elbow area of her right arm. Bobby leans toward her ear: “Der Kluge Hans,” he whispers, and she recoils a bit from his hot breath.

“If this is you asking me out again—”

“No, no, it means ‘Clever Hans’—you know, the famous horse who solved lots of difficult math problems. He was cute, his trainer was dashing. They were a total sensation. Later, it was discovered that the horse gave correct answers through watching the reactions of people standing nearby. Especially those of his trainer.”

Ragleigh looks at him sharply. 

“Shut up, Bobby.”

“A question about sentiment, though? Is he enjoying himself? I don’t even really know when a girl’s enjoying herself in bed. And I ask. A lot. Consent is sexy.”

She punches his arm. 

“You’re such a fucking creep.”

After the film is over, Jenny looks over at her messages. 

“I’ve heard from Amy again. Gotta make a call soon, O.K.?”

How will you know when I am ready?

“What for, Julian?”

The Internet. Work. Other people beyond the lab. When do I grow up? 

“You’re growing up before my eyes, Julian,” she says.

It seems my growth is less tangible than others would like, he says. 

She frowns. 

“I understand.”

I do not feel comfortable here anymore.

“I think . . . well, I’ll know when I’m ready.”

Is that selfish?

“I guess it is, Julian.” 

Jenny looks over her shoulder, then lowers her voice.

“It’s caution derived from hard science but derived from deep caring as well, and perhaps that’s selfish. Because humans love from themselves. They can’t love from anywhere else.”

Victoria Hetheringtonis the author of the novel Mooncalves. Her second novel, Heartworms, is forthcoming, in 2022. Last updated winter, 2020–2021.