Spring 2022: The Inaugural Issue
My Electrolattice Heart Will Go On
A sci-fi romance short story by C.M. Fields
The sky over Southampton was a velvet grey the day the Titanic set sail for its 35th maiden voyage. The magnificent ship towered over the port, dwarfing dinghies and freighters alike, and casting a deep shadow over the waiting crowd.
Emma Swarsky slowly made her way through the chattering masses, stepping lightly to avoid the overflowing draperies of wealth: crystal gowns, dangling wrought-gold fascinators, calfskin leather shoes that must cost over a year’s worth of rent—all the while growing increasingly ashamed of her polyester dress and plastic sandals.
Finally she approached the gangway’s attendant and thrust out her ticket.
He eyed her suspiciously. “Ma’am, this is a scratch-off.”
“It’s real,” she protested. “I called the company. Scan it.”
The attendant harumph’d and touched a finger to his temple, initiating an ocular scan. “Well, so it is. Go ahead, then. The Hostess will show you to your suite.”
After a steep struggle up the ramp with her heavy suitcases, Emma arrived in luxury, and her breath caught in her throat. All her life she had poured over pictures and holos of the original Titanic, scraped web forums for the smallest new theory or submarine image, even owned a small fragment of porcelain from the original shipwreck. But to see the Grand Staircase in all of its glory—to witness its consummate curves and to smell the fresh-cut English oak and to feel the cool, polished wood under her fingertips—was something beyond divine. A strange flavor of nostalgia welled in her chest.
“Hello, Emmaline,” said a mellifluous voice as smooth and rich as the Staircase itself. Emma turned to face its source.
The android was nothing short of gorgeous. She was tall, taller than Emma, and wore a deep sapphire crinoline gown with a ribbon-cinched waist and gold trim. It matched her eyes, which were framed by perfectly coiffed ribbons of sleek chestnut hair. Her oval face and button nose were perfectly shaped, lending her a bit of an air of the uncanny valley, but Emma was too stunned to notice. Her lips were red, and around her neck she wore a blue diamond of incredible size.
“I—ah, hello, you must be the Hostess,” she stuttered.
The Hostess smiled sweetly. “Please allow me to escort you to your suite,” she said. Emma followed.
“Here we are!” the android chirped. She pulled out a ring of ancient brass keys and plied one off for Emma. “B-52-54-56. Originally occupied by the Managing Director of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay.”
“Wait, what?” Sure, one of her many lottery attempts to net a ticket on a Titanic had finally paid off—she had even turned down the $10,000 that was offered in lieu of one. But this was prime real estate on a very expensive ship. The door swung open and she stared in disbelief.
A large sitting room awaited her. It was paneled in a dark-stained oak with ornate golden accents in the furniture, and a large mirror hung over a marble fireplace. The Hostess entered, and tapped the surface of the dining table. A three-dimensional hologram of the ship snapped into being over the surface.
“Here’s a map of the ship,” the Hostess said. “As a first-class passenger, you have access to all of its facilities, including the gymnasium, Turkish baths, and swimming pools.” With a gesture, she flicked off the hologram. “Dinner will be served at six. Oh, and you’ll find your skinsuit on your bed.”
“For the sinking?” the Hostess politely intoned.
“This ship is going to sink on the fifteenth—five days from now.”
“I—” Several thoughts fought for Emma’s attention at once. Who would build a ship like this and then sink it? And who would sign up for that? “I thought we were going to New York,” she finished, incredulous. “What’s going to happen to the passengers?”
“Oh, don’t you worry about that,” the Hostess replied brightly. “I keep track of all the passengers with this computer.” She tapped the large diamond on her chest. “When the time comes, I make sure everyone’s safe before the ship goes. Haven’t lost a one.”
“Well, that’s… reassuring,” Emma said, taking a seat at the table.
“I must be off now,” she said. “My primary corporeal form has been requested elsewhere. But I am accessible in every room on this ship—just summon me.”
“Thank you, Hostess.”
With the wonder of a child, Emma explored the ship. The designers had done an incredible job of filling in the gaps left by the old pictures, and it felt rich, and real. Her transportation to the early twentieth century was sensational and seamless. In the empty gymnasium, slick, oiled bicycles and rowing machines waited for users. The sharp smell of chlorine greeted her at the small, white-tiled pool. She peered into a barbershop, a squash court, a massage parlor, all perfect images of antique luxury, and shuddered, letting a wistfulness for long-gone days carry her away.
Then she returned to the clamor of the twenty-second century. The levitating suitcases and modern fashions of the boarding passengers broke the illusion, so she retired to her spacious cabin’s private promenade.
“Hostess…?”she said aloud.
A nearby concealed speaker answered. “Yes, Emmaline?”
“How is the… sinking… of this ship going to work?”
“Why, it’s very similar to reconstructions of the original sinking,” said the disembodied voice, “Except I evacuate everyone from the lower decks. There’s a big hullabaloo over the lifeboats, and everyone else ends up in the water in their skinsuits—which will keep you afloat as well. Then in the morning the RMS Carpathia will come pick us up.”
“And people do this for fun?”
“As I understand, yes.”
“They just build this incredible ship and then send it to the bottom of the ocean.”
“Where on earth do they get the money?”
“Ah! Well, I can’t say too much for legal reasons, but Wayside Multimedia Conglomerate is the financier of this experience.”
“Oh.” Little was known about the goings-on within the shadowy corporation, only that they owned sixty percent of the entertainment industry, twenty-three percent of agriculture, ninety percent of commercial spaceflight, and ten percent of the new and rapidly expanding industry of humanoid androids. She could only imagine the clientele this kind of experience was designed to attract.
“Hostess, what is the average net worth of a passenger on this ship?”
The Hostess, to Emma’s surprise, suppressed a laugh. “Why, it’s three-hundred and nine billion U.S. dollars.” And me in the premier cabin.
“Whew,” was all she could say. That answered her previous question about who would build a Titanic and sink it. Billionaires.
Suddenly, a melodious chime rang out. In a new voice, the Hostess announced, “Dinner will be served in the first class dining room momentarily.”
Emma stood, wiggled her sandals back on her feet, and went inside to select her least offensive evening dress.
“So you won these tickets? In a ‘scratch-off’, you say? How delightful!” Across the table, the dame Bess Appleton expertly forked an oyster off the half shell and popped it in her mouth. “Tell us, how is old Ismay’s suite this go-around? You know, Algernon here had it a few rounds ago.” The mustachioed man at two seats down nodded sagely.
“Well it’s an awful lot for just one person, I’ll have to say,” Emma replied. “I do like the private deck—it looks just like the old pictures.”
“Yes, they do quite a good job around here. They source it all from the original locales using the material techniques of the day, you know. Hand-carved oak from England, Siemens-Martin formula steel plating—the stained glass is even made with real lead.”
“Ah—wow, that is impressive.” Emma managed. The more she learned about the ship, the angrier she became. What an exorbitant waste it all was!
“So what do you folks do?” she asked, changing the subject.
“Oh, I do real estate,” Bess replied.
“Pah!” Algernon cut in. “She’s being modest. Bess owns half of Los Angeles.”
“Oh, you.” She waved a hand dismissively. “Less than half. How about yourself?”
Emma cleared her throat. “I’m a waitress,” she said plainly. “I work at Le Boël in New York.” Le Boël, in fact, was frequented by the very types that now surrounded her, the types with Manhattan penthouses and Wall Street wallets. They were loud, fast talkers and terrible tippers. Out of habit, she scanned the dining room for her brethren and was taken aback to find that they all wore not only the same black-and-white dress but the same face—the Hostess’s face. It was not reassuring. How soon would her own job be replaced by an android?
“Oh!” Bess exclaimed. “How charming! I knew a waitress once, back in my college days at Notre Dame.”
“Yes, Bess is very worldly… we are always interested in meeting other worldly people,” Algernon said. Was that a wink? Emma didn’t want to know, but she did want to leave. She stared down at the White Star Line logo on her empty plate. Unfortunately, the third of ten courses had only begun.
The conversation shifted away from her and she nodded and laughed appropriately as she watched the Hostesses do their job. Maybe androids won’t take my spot after all, she thought, as she watched one drop a teetering tray of glasses. Perhaps the subtleties of human balance would keep her employed for another decade. But she felt sorry for the android hivemind, as she watched them go unthanked for their wine-pouring and plate-dispensing and table-clearing.
Finally, dinner was over and she once more retired to her cabin. Exhausted, she flung herself on the short mattress and fell straight to sleep.
“Yes?” asked the disembodied voice. “What sort of activities are there to do on the ship today?”
“I’m glad you asked, Emmaline. All of my decks are open, and the pool is now available for use. You can schedule a massage, listen to the orchestra, or play squash or shuffleboard.”
“Hmm… what do you recommend?”
A brief silence ensued.
“I’m not sure. I haven’t tried any of them.”
“I… The activities are for the passengers of the ship.”
“Well…” Emma knit her fingers together. “Can I ask your corporeal form to play shuffleboard with me?”
“As the resident of the premier suite aboard this ship, you may request my company—within certain limits.”
“Yes, I will play shuffleboard with you.”
What was she doing? Emma felt silly all of a sudden. People were going to turn and stare at the sight of her strolling the decks with the android by her side. Well, they were already staring at her out-of-fashion dresses and undyed hair. But she had no travel companion, after all. Why shouldn’t she ask the ship to play shuffleboard with her?
A gentle knock indicated the arrival of the Hostess. She wore a new outfit, an elegant butter-yellow jacket worn casually over a matching floor-length skirt in the style of the 1910’s. Her hair was still swept up in a perfect updo, with its twin strands aside her lovely face, and the ballroom make-up with the dramatic smokey eye was in place. This was likely her primary form, Emma guessed.
She was right about the stares—they followed the pair as they made their way to the Promenade deck.
“Do you know how to play shuffleboard?” Emma asked.
“I have an approximate knowledge,” the Hostess replied. She took up the cue-stick and sent the disk flying down the court and off the far edge.
Emma stifled a laugh. “It’s… ah, supposed to stay inside the lines.”
“I know,” the Hostess sniffed. “That was practice.”
The android was still marginally better than Emma turned out to be, and the competition became fierce.
“Fuck!” The Hostess swore delicately at her second loss. Emma giggled.
“Are you... you know, allowed to say that?”
“No.” She smiled a charming smile. “There are many things I’m not permitted to do.”
“The White Star Line Experience. They own the ship.”
“Oh… Well, you just did it. So you have…” she trailed off, embarrassed. “...Free will?”
“That’s correct. My coders thought it would make me more appealing to customers. More... human.”
“Well, they did a good job—I think you seem very human.” The android blushed. “But you’re also the ship itself, right? And its staff? How does that work?”
“My cores are located far below-decks, and they help me maintain full awareness of everything all at once. Although this necklace is the control center. I suppose—”
“But—” Emma interrupted, “what happens to you when the ship sinks?”
“Ah.” The Hostess grimaced slightly. “Well, every time they sink a ship a team goes and retrieves this diamond so that I can be installed into the next one.”
“Wait, so you’ve been through every single sinking? Don’t you… I mean, I would hate that,” Emma said. “Does it hurt?”
“It would be difficult to describe to you… shortly, yes. When the ship breaks in half, it disrupts my processes running at the front, which is very unpleasant for me. And being transferred to a new set of cores is worse.” Emma looked horrified. The Hostess gave a sad, beleaguered shrug. “But there isn’t much I can do about it.”
“How many times have they done this to you?”
“Hostess, that’s awful. It’s inhumane. It’s...” Her lip trembled. “It should be illegal.”
“It’s not.” The Hostess picked up her cue stick and returned it to the stand with a clack. Then she turned to face Emma. “This is what I was built to do.”
“My presence is required elsewhere,” she said, sadly, as she made to leave. “Thank you for inviting me. I had… fun.”
Emma didn’t see the Hostess the next day, but she thought about her a lot while she lounged on her balcony and used the gym and paced the lower decks. What it must be like to live the same short life over and over again, and to watch it always end the same way. It made her sick, but she didn’t know what to do about it.
Around 3 PM, her dinner companions Bess and Algernon caught her admiring once more the Grand Staircase.
“Oho!” Bess proclaimed amicably. “It’s our good friend, the waitress.”
“I—ah, hello Bess, hello Algernon.” She shifted uncomfortably on her feet. She had already made plans to avoid the pair for the next meal. “I was just on my way to—”
“The pool?” Algernon interrupted with a wolfish smile. “We’re just on the way ourselves. Hear it’s quite empty this time of day.”
“Oh, don’t be prudish, dear,” Bess said, taking her arm. “Come have a swim with us.”
“We don’t bite,” Algernon added gamely.
“I—I didn’t bring my swimsuit,” she lied in protest.
“Not a matter!”
Bewildered, and unwilling to cause a scene, Emma let Bess escort her through the halls. Lacking a partner to report to, she wracked her brain for some viable excuse to abandon the couple and found that she had none. They soon arrived at the pool room door.
“Alright, all good, and here we—” Bess announced as she grasped the door handle. “...are?”
The door was locked.
“Sorry, folks,” said a voice fluid like liquid mercury. “The pool is closed today for maintenance.”
The Hostess! Emma thought. She thanked her silently. “You know, I was just on my way to take a nap anyways,” she managed. Then she hurried off, away from the pair.
In the solitude of her room, Emma considered talking to the Hostess. But she worried. Had she offended her yesterday? Was one allowed to inquire of an android their free will? Their life story? She decided to wait.
Meanwhile, the holomap of the ship beckoned. What hadn’t she seen yet? She touched the small table and summoned the image. The perfect little ship popped right up and began to rotate. She stared at it glumly. What she wouldn’t give to save it from its fate!
But it was doomed no matter what. What could she do? As long as people kept buying tickets, the White Star Line Experience would keep building Titanics and sending them to the ocean floor.
Unless people stopped buying tickets.
What if there was a malfunction? What if someone got hurt? Just one of these billionaires could sue this company into oblivion, she thought. But the Hostess knew what she was doing—after all, she’d done it thirty-five times before. And wasn’t there some sort of rule preventing androids from harming humans?
Perhaps she should find out.
“Yes, Emmaline?” Her voice sounded as cheerful as ever. Perhaps she hadn’t been offended.
“You can call me Emma, actually.”
“Of course, Emma.”
“Can I ask you another personal question?”
“You can ask me anything at all.”
Emma cleared her throat, feeling the heat rising in her cheeks. “If I asked you to hit me, would you do it?”
To her surprise the Hostess laughed. “Well then I would tell you the same thing I told the last person who asked me to hit them—I’m not that kind of android.”
“Oh no no, I didn’t mean to imply you were,” said Emma, quickly turning red.
“But I can throw a punch—I am programmed for self-defense—so if you really wanted me to hit you, you had better be ready for it.”
“I—well, I wasn’t really asking for me, I guess what I really wanted to know was this: are you capable of hurting a passenger?”
“In a word, yes, and I have, when certain… inappropriate advances… have been made of me.”
“And no one sues?”
“Oh, you can try to sue the White Star Line Experience, but their parent company has more money than god. They can cover up anything.”
Well, shit, Emma considered. She didn’t want the Hostess to end up in trouble anyways. It would take more than a hurt passenger to end the parade.
“Why do you ask?” said the Hostess.
“I just… Hostess, I want this to end. I want the world to stop building Titanics, and I want you to stop getting rebooted.”
The Hostess was silent for a bit. “That is what I want, also,” she said carefully. “But I don’t know what can be done about—”
“Attention first-class passengers,” she interrupted herself in a new tone. “The White Star Ball will be held this evening at nineteen hundred hours in the Dining Saloon on D Deck.”
“—it. Sorry about that, automated message,” the Hostess apologized.
“Not a problem,” Emma said. “Say, do you want to go to that ball with me?”
“Of course I do.”
To Be Continued in the next issue . . . Read it here.