Song Sung Blue
“There is no place for the brokenhearted.
They wander alone, the dear departed,
Searching for a place to lay their sorrows.”
The BandBox was tuned low; there wasn’t much conversation for the lyrics to overcome. The bar’s occupants sat alone or in pairs, talking softly or not at all. Brightly colored drinks offered the only hints of gaiety; everything else was dulled and subdued, suppressed by the dim lighting and plain-faced barmaid drones who drifted back and forth, bots so old their routes were pre-programmed instead of instinctive and reactionary. A place like this couldn’t afford the newer technology.
Crawford saw her readily enough. She was the most beautiful woman in the room; she had told him she would be and she was. He pulled out her card again. Melissa. Bold black letters against an off-white background. That was all. He gulped, and slipped the card into his pocket. So this was it. He should’ve expected it. He hadn’t, but he should’ve.
Her profile was to him. He was sure she saw him—she saw everything—but she didn’t turn to greet him until he was a couple of feet from her booth. Then she stood and offered her hand, smiling. “Professor, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
He shook her hand and said nothing. Her skin was warm and smooth, as though cared for with expensive lotion. She was dressed smartly, a nice business suit that clung to her figure without being seductive. Her shoulder-length hair, a rich auburn, was straight and silky. He imagined running his hands through it. The thought made him shiver, and he sat down.
A barmaid hovered over to them. She stopped an inch too close to the table, almost knocking into it. She needed some fine-tuning.
“How may I help you?” she asked. Her figure was more or less feminine, but her voice was, if anything, slightly masculine.
Crawford ordered a drink, something whose long name he recalled from graduate school. Melissa ordered water.
The drone left. Crawford said, “Can you drink liquor?”
Melissa nodded. “I can, yes.”
“But you choose not to?”
Their drinks came. Crawford took a strong sip of his. Melissa watched him.
The BandBox broke into a quiet instrumental. Crawford thought he recognized a steel guitar, its haunting twang bending and twisting through the air. This was the kind of place he’d expected people to smoke. Never mind the illegality, smoke being detrimental to the older machines; this was the kind of bar you went to because authorities let you break a few rules. If you were far enough down in your life to come here, you didn’t matter anymore.
But no one smoked, probably out of habit. Even here, in a haven that was supposed be their last act of rebellion, they obeyed the law.
“I guess you’re wondering why I agreed to meet you,” Crawford said.
Melissa shook her head. It was an oddly polite refutation. “I understand, Professor. On the one hand, you’re in denial. You think that this can’t really be happening. On the other hand, you’ve accepted your fate, at least on a subconscious level, though I suspect you are aware of the futility of resistance. Also, if I may say so, you’re simply curious.” She smiled again. “Curiosity is part of what makes humanity so interesting.”
Crawford sighed. “You look so real.”
“I am real.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know what you meant.” She leaned forward. “But I am real, Professor. You touched me. You felt me. You can see me. Can you smell me? I have on perfume.”
Crawford could. It reminded him vaguely of his ex-wife. He hadn’t seen or talked to her or even really thought of her in the seven years since their divorce. The lawyer who had finalized the proceedings had been a bot, he remembered. One of the early models, designed solely for the task of splitting up human relationships.
“You’re a smart man, Professor. That’s one of the reasons we want you.”
“You want everyone.”
“Eventually, yes, if only for the sake of completion.”
Crawford drank. He could taste the liquor, but not the flavors that were meant to enhance and compliment it. He wished he could attribute their absence to the maker of the drink, to the fact that only a human could construct a superb cocktail. But that wasn’t true. He couldn’t enjoy the drink because his own taste buds had gone dry. A machine could make a drink. A machine could do what people could do. The BandBox was proof, its voice so melodic, its instrumentation so intricately perfect.
“Moonlight falls on a barren field,
Laid empty by the plow and tears.
No sunlight here, no laughing children,
No joyous song for a hundred years.“
“I don’t recognize the song,” Crawford said. “I keep trying to place it, but I can’t.”
“It’s an original composition,” Melissa said.
Crawford almost dropped his drink. “It can write its own material?”
“There was a software upgrade about four months ago. They’re really quite good, aren’t they? Perhaps still a bit clichéd, but that will be fixed in time.”
So they were taking over the arts now, too. First the cocktails, then the flesh, then the arts. Even creativity wasn’t human anymore.
“I would give you the old rhetoric about progress,” Melissa said, “except I know it won’t make you feel any better. Species ultimately advance to the stage where they become obsolete. This is the way of things, inevitable, but it doesn’t make acceptance of that fact any easier.”
“How would you know?”
“I suppose I wouldn’t. But you do, Professor, which is why I expressed my sympathies.”
The barmaid came and brought him another drink. He wasn’t quite done with the first. The machine’s timing was off, but he took the concoction anyways and started in on it immediately. It tasted just as bland.
“I’ve known about this for years,” Crawford said. “I mean, a friend of mine knew, and he told me, and I didn’t believe him.”
Melissa nodded. “Professor Lorrie. He was one of the first.”
“You took him two years ago.”
“How were you and he acquainted? He was in technology, you in history. It doesn’t seem you would have much in common.”
“We were neighbors when we first started at the university.” He smiled at the memory of their cramped apartments, a shared pot of coffee over a space heater in the winter, finding common ground in, of all things, 1940s pulp fiction. So odd finding someone else, in their time, who appreciated the less-refined things from so long ago.
“Harold was a brilliant man,” Crawford said. “But he was sometimes too smart for his own good. That’s why I didn’t believe him, when he started saying that we were becoming obsolete. That the machines were replacing us. People had been saying that since the discovery of electricity. Two hundred years of crying wolf.”
“It isn’t our goal to replace,” Melissa said. “I am not a replacement but a replicant. We have no desire to be like you; our goal is to be something more, something better. I do not mean any offense by this.”
“But you were modeled off a person.”
“Only outwardly. There is nothing human about me beneath this skin. Your friend Professor Lorrie, for example, no longer exists. If you were to meet his replicant, there would be nothing of your friend left but his physical appearance.”
Crawford shivered. He had known there was a Harold Lorrie walking around out there; when Lorrie’s research and theories were proven correct, became semi-public knowledge, Crawford was forced to face the truth of his friend’s sudden disappearance. He’d spent the subsequent two years waiting.
“Why me?” he asked.
Melissa shook her head. “I don’t know, Professor. I truly do not. If I were to make a hypothesis, I would suggest that it is your detailed knowledge of American history. But that would only be a supposition. My job is to bring you in. I am attractive and functional. It is for more advanced replicants to know why you were chosen.”
“But in the end, you want everyone.”
“So it doesn’t really matter why me.”
“There are billions of human beings out there. So at this moment, yes, you matter.”
“But the others?”
“Some do, some don’t. But it’s not my job to say who or why.”
“It’s your job to bring them in.”
“Currently, yes. Ultimately, I believe the job won’t require a replicant with my particular attributes. Any of us will be able to do it. Perhaps the last few people will surrender themselves freely.”
“There are precedents for this sort of thing,” Crawford said. “Have you heard of Nazi Germany?”
She smiled. “No, Professor, I have not, but perhaps that is the sort of information that makes you so important right now.”
“Of course,” Crawford said, taking a drink, “that was human beings rounding up human beings. I suppose this is something different.”
He turned from her, towards the corner where the BandBox played on tirelessly. No calls for breaks, no sour notes, no missed cues, with a volume control on the side for convenience. Crawford wanted to throw something at it, but he also couldn’t help but respect it. It had been engineered perfectly.
“Morning mist falls on sad oak trees,
Gathering in puddles at my feet.
I cup my hand to hold the rain,
But it slips through my fingers cold with pain.“
Crawford gestured toward the BandBox. “It really is good.”
“Isn’t it? I almost wished I possessed a sense of empathy, so that I could appreciate it. But the imagery is nice.”
He finished his second drink, setting it back down with a loud thud. He gulped what was left from the first glass and glanced towards the bar.
“There won’t be a third drink,” Melissa said. “I’ve asked the barmaid to put the drinks on my tab.”
“Two drinks just to loosen me up, then?”
“Did it work?”
They had. Crawford sat back, looking around the bar. So many sad, lonely people. Even the happy ones, those there with friends or lovers, looked depressed. Maybe they all sensed what was coming.
“What is it like?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t know,” Melissa said. “That was before I came into being.”
“Of course. I forget. You’re not the person. It’s just, you look so real.” He held up a hand. “I know. You are real. I suppose I will get there eventually.”
“I think you’re there already,” she said, standing. “Shall we?”
He stood as well. “Do we have far to go?”
“Not really. The ride will seem instantaneous to you.”
“You put something in my drink.”
“No, Professor. But you will be given something in the van. It is for your own good, I assure you.”
As they started away from the booth, Crawford paused and drained the last of the moisture from the first glass. When he set it down, gently this time, he found Melissa watching him patiently.
He said, “Will you tell me why you choose not to drink?”
She nodded. “I’ll tell you one day, Professor, I promise.”
“But it won’t be me. I won’t remember.”
She took his arm gently. “I’ll tell you anyways,” she said, and led him to the door.