Echo of Him
by Lisa Clark
Emerging from an airy woodland, a tawny-skinned man appears behind an older woman. “Quinn, my love,” he says as he rounds the wrought iron bench, where she sits. “It’s so good to see you again.” His arms, muscular and defined, stretch toward her.
Her blue-green eyes, bloodshot but still striking, glance up from a small pond where a mallard mother swims, trailed by seven brown and yellow striped ducklings. Her hand, beginning to knobble with age, flies to her lips, but fails to mask her small gasp. She rises and, from an arms’ breadth away, examines him, taking in his close-cropped hair and still slim form.
He lowers his hands and his head tilts to the side. His smile is warm.
“Sherzod?” Her voice is unsure, tentative.
He smiles more broadly. “Hi, Quinn.”
Behind them, birds twitter from sighing trees.
Her face, saggy from both grief and the passing of time, screws up for a long moment as she’s overwhelmed with not-quite-readable emotions before she suddenly lunges toward him, throwing herself into his arms so hard he has to brace himself by stepping back on one foot.
“It’s so, so good to see you again,” she says into his chest. She weeps for two full minutes while he rubs her back and brushes his cheek against her hair. Her hands grasp the back of his shirt as though she’s afraid to release him.
When she pulls back to gaze on his face, he leans down until their lips are a breath away.
She hesitates fractionally, then gives into him.
They kiss gently at first, then more fervently, their bodies close, pressing into each other.
When they separate, she examines his face, her fingertips tracing the corner of one eye, then combing through a gray sideburn. “You’re perfect. You look like you did twenty years ago, before the accident. There’s no scar.” She meets his gaze.
“Perfect? Yep, that’s me all right.” He huffs out a chuckle.
She slaps his arm and he flinches, reaching to the spot in mock pain.
Her returning laugh is joyful, baring her teeth, her delight. With an open palm, she skims over his chest. “Mmm. I missed this.”
He pulls up the hand and pecks her fingers. “Me, too,” he murmurs, “I recall so many details of our years together. They were wonderful.”
Pleasure slips from her face and she steps back slightly. “Wait, you recall? But you don’t recall anything.”
“Of course I do. I remember our life as a couple the same way you do.” He tries to draw her back in. When she resists, he instead holds her by one wrist.
Confusion veils her face. “The way I do, maybe. Not the way he did.”
“I’m him, Quinn. All that you know and treasure of Sherzod. The sum of your real, living memories.”
She snaps her wrist away. “That doesn’t make you him.” She swivels toward the pond. “You’re not Sherzod. You’re only an echo of him.”
The ducklings mutter tiny wat-wat-wats.
“No, I can’t do this. I can’t pretend you’re him. It’s wrong.”
“You won’t have to pretend. The more feedback you give, the more perfect my program will be. Pretty soon, you won’t be able to tell me from the real thing.”
She whips toward him, her eyes a fury. “But I don’t want that. I don’t want you. You’ll never be Sherzod. I don’t need a robotic Sherzod replacement, constantly reminding me he’s gone. Return to Cyber Core.”
He steps toward her, his arms again outstretched. “Quinn, my love.” His voice is tender.
She pulls away as though he’s a living electric cord, about to shock her to death. “Stop it. Return to Cyber Core now!”
“Please, Quinn. I love you.”
“Now,” she growls. “Before I do something I’ll regret.”
* * *
“Freeze,” robotics analyst Ani Johnson says, shifting toward Nick Blakely, forty-something founder of the recent robotics startup, Cyber Core. The smart glass in front of them holds the recorded scene, clearly registering Quinn’s disappointment and scorn. Sherzod the robot’s face has shifted from sorrow, then grief, followed quickly by expressionlessness. Three refusals sever his emotional affectedness to this subject.
Blakely sighs. Wrinkles on his brow deepen, gaining greater permanency. “How many returns does that make this month?”
Johnson, nerdy-looking with clunky glasses and clothes a size too large, shrugs one shoulder. “Fifteen.” Her eyes remain on the screen, examining the couple.
Cyber Core headquarters, home of Comfort Bots, consists of a small but beautiful reception area with a highly polished tile floor in front of a semi-circular desk, high enough to indicate professionalism and low enough to convey accessibility. Constantly on duty and ready to greet potential clients are robots Max and Maxine, whose faces and physiques fall just short of current standards of perfection, rendering them approachable, yet appealing. Max and Maxine escort interested clients through a door flashing pictures of happy people hugging, smiling, or otherwise enjoying themselves. In the ultra-modern viewing room beyond, proprietary VR glasses demonstrate robotic possibilities for those grieving the death of a loved one. Half of the building is devoted to a state of the art workshop, where specialized AI construct Comfort Bots according to customer specifications. For the human programmers behind the operation, a modest fifteen-by-twenty-foot area suffices for design, testing, new product development, and evaluation of returns.
Today, twelve programmers steal glances at Johnson and the boss as they analyze the latest return.
Blakely shakes his head. “Fifteen out of thirty? We’ll never stay solvent with a fifty percent rate of failure. What went wrong this time? Was that schmaltzy setting too over the top?”
Johnson shakes her head. “No. People over fifty still like that kind of thing.”
“Yeah, you’re right. But we’re obviously doing something wrong.”
Johnson squints at the image on the screen. Quinn’s daughter, desperate to find a way besides drugs to pull her mother out of depression, commissioned the Comfort Bot. Like all Cyber Core products, the Sherzod bot was developed only after the company thoroughly pieced together photos and video clips of the deceased and collected extensive questionnaires from family and friends.
“It didn’t occur to me before,” Johnson says, “but now that I think of it, there is one commonality among the failures. Like the one today, eighty percent of all returns come from people who’ve received our bots as gifts: mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives. Of bots ordered personally by those who’ve lost loved ones, only one came back.”
“Interesting,” says Blakely, stroking his chin.
Johnson swivels. “There’s also another issue I’ve noticed with the returned units.”
Blakely’s raised eyebrows tell her to continue.
“In every case, the deceased is designed to appear, not at the age they died, but rather at the age where memories are most vivid. This Sherzod, for example, looks the way he did when Quinn and her husband were entering a new phase in their lives. Look at the screen again.” Blakely complies. “Their ages and appearances don’t mesh. He’s not only younger, but also much better looking than she is.”
“And your point?”
“I think there’s a correlation here. Our clients need realistic images of their deceased loved ones instead of idealized representations. If our programmers pattern our bots after clients’ most current memories, I believe the rate of rejection will fall.”
Blakely’s face reddens and he averts his eyes. “Alright.” He hesitates for a second too long; Johnson in turn averts her eyes.
Blakely clears his throat. “I’ll meet with our programmers. We need to give customers what they want. Wipe this one.”
Cyber Core employees, including bots Max and Maxine, know that Blakely’s been living with a robotic version of his wife from ten years ago, before Chronic Wasting Disease jumped from animals to humans and stole first her looks, then her life. She was the impetus that drove Blakely to build the company from nothing.
Johnson reaches out to lay her hand on Blakely’s arm, but stops when he glares at it. She pivots toward the screen. “Computer, access Sherzod memory files, then wipe.”
The click of Blakely’s heels on the tile floor echo the computer ticking through its processes.
Sherzod, once again, is gone.
Lisa Clark is the winner of the Glass Woman Prize for fiction, the Mia Pia Forte Prize for creative non-fiction, and second place winner of the Yeovil Literary Prize. Her work has appeared in After Effects: A Zimbell House Anthology, Best Modern Voices, v 2, Metaphorosis, and numerous other publications. Bulgaria has been her home for over twenty years.