Trying to Fill the Void
All morning Peter fought with the feeling that he would be physically ill and so didn’t take breakfast with the family, preferring to sip on endless mugs of tea, instead. Just before heading to the “public parlor” (as Alex liked to call) it for the press conference, he reloaded his Moreau-Walter Amalgamated travel mug with tea (a light, bright ceylon) and glanced at himself in an antique mirror hanging in the hall. Peter Moreau-Walter IV was tall (as most of his family was) and slim, his eyes were so dark as to be nearly black, and his hair was blue-black like his elder sister’s. He kept it short but had been thinking about growing it out a little. His father wouldn’t like that. Peter frowned and sighed at his reflection. “Can’t help it. Gotta do what you gotta do,” he whispered. “Lilah, would you be proud of me?” Only the stillness answered.
He entered the bustling parlor slowly and tried not to look at the faces of the dozen or so reporters who had gathered and were seated in various caned chairs lined up in rows on the oriental rug in the center of the room. Alex stood at an intricately carved podium and tapped his notes to straighten them. To his left was an empty chair and to his right a CRT monitor stood on a Victorian plant stand. There were no obvious cables leading to or from it and its form was simple and sleek with no buttons or logos save the letters MWA on the top of its pale silver case. “Peter, good of you to join us,” Alex said and a ripple of soft laughter rolled across the room.
His stomach turned and he looked in panic at his watch. “I’m five minutes early…” he whispered and frowned at his father.
“Did I say you were late?”
Alex smiled to the crowd. “Well good, we can begin, then.”
Peter took his seat and faced the audience of reporters. Many had notepads or tape recorders and some had brought video cameras and lighting equipment. All of them were looking directly at him. The world skewed. He could hear his father speaking as if he were under water. Peter gripped his mug of tea tightly and tried to relax, hoping his outward appearance didn’t belie his fear. So far, the reporters seemed to be focused on Alex’s words. He directed their attention to the monitor and using a small remote control played Lilah’s short message. When it was over, Alex spoke again and fortunately when he said “and so I present to you the new Vice President of Moreau-Walter Amalgamated, my son, Peter Alexander Moreau-Walter IV.” he heard him loud and clear as if his ears had popped.
Still clutching his tea as if it were all that was keeping him afloat, Peter stood and nodded to the audience. “Hello,” he said, startled by the confident tone of his voice. “Thanks for coming. I, er, I’ll do my best to fill my sister’s shoes. I thank my father for having confidence in me and I look forward to the future.” The rehearsed lines fell from his lips as if they were his own. He nodded again and sat back down on cue.
Alex also thanked the reporters for coming and the room practically erupted with questions. “Dr. Moreau-Walter, is it true that your daughter lost her mind?” “Dr. Moreau-Walter, do you really think an eighteen-year-old is fit to…” “Was the incident at Lollapalooza part of MWA’s feud with...?” “What does the MWA board have to say about...?” “Do you have any comment on the civil suit against MWA filed last week...?” “Peter, are you going to...?” “Peter, are you single or…”
His father ignored them and touched Peter’s shoulder. “Let’s go. This is over.”
“But…?” Peter asked, falling back into a daze again. As if in answer, three security guards wearing MWA uniforms stepped between them and the reporters accosting them, allowing them to slip out of the parlor. The largest of the guards boomed that the reporters were welcome to leave now and the questions stopped.
“I… I have to go to the bathroom,” Peter said, broke off from his father and headed to the nearest facility--a large guest-bath just a few doors down. It was made of white marble with features not updated since the 1920s. The new vice-president’s sigh echoed in the expansive chamber as the door shut behind him. He put the travel mug down on a shelf above a large mirror and studied his reflection for a moment. Gilt light fixtures filled the room with bright, crisp light giving him the appearance of a human burnt matchstick. Just as he was turning to relieve himself the door opened and two young women in white suits entered. One was short and Asian, the other of average height and dark skin tone. They wore fairly polite smiles for two women interrupting a young man about to use a toilet. Peter’s hand had only just touched his zipper. He spun around to confront them.
The Asian woman spoke first. “We’re sorry to intrude, Mr. Moreau-Walter, but your father won’t talk to us so we’ve taken advantage of the press’ invitation to your home.”
“We’re from the Cavalcadium,” the other woman said quickly with a lilting African accent. She touched a blue gear-shaped pin on her lapel. “Perhaps you’ve heard of us? We mean no harm, just want to get your ear for a minute.”
“I have…” Peter said cautiously. His hands trembled from nerves and too much caffeine.
“Good. We are here to extend membership to you,” the Asian woman flipped a business card out from the inside of her sleeve and pointed it at him.
Her associate nodded. “We are not at liberty to say why, but suffice to tell you that certain events have played out that would make membership in our organization desirable to you. Should you care to find out more, contact us.”
Peter cautiously took the card into his shaking hand. “Ok…”
With that, the women smiled, nodded, turned on their heels and walked purposefully out of the restroom. Peter gaped for a moment then ran to the door but when he looked into the hallway there was no trace of either of them. Only his father stood against the wall and raised a brow at him.
“Did you just see… two…” Peter began, but no, he could not have seen them for how unfazed he appeared. He glanced down at the card in his hand that read simply ‘The Cavalcadium’ next to a graphic of a blue gear and quickly stuffed it into his pocket.
Alex rolled his eyes. “I think you need to stop drinking so much tea, Son. Now hurry along. We’ve got work to do.”
Deelia turned the television off and tossed the remote forcefully at the empty side of the couch and it bounced off the cushions and skittered across the floor. She pulled her legs up under her and folded her arms tightly against her chest. She was still dressed in her green-and-blue plaid flannel pajamas. Her blue hair was tied back in a short ponytail. Her burning gaze flicked from the black screen to a window to her right that looked out at the western horizon from the third floor lounge. A soft, mechanical squeaking coming from the doorway caught her attention and her head snapped to see what it was, drilling her eyes and vicious pout up to blast whoever was intruding on her solitude.
The pale-blue robot peeking in on her ducked out of sight then reappeared, apologizing for startling her.
“It’s fine. Whatever,” Deelia said in short, huffy breaths.
“You’re Miss Deelia, right?” the robot asked, not daring to enter the room.
“I’m Pi. Like the number, not the food.” Its life-like faceplates slid easily into a convincing smile.
“Yeah, I know. My sister built you.”
“Yes!” Pi chimed then deflated as it noted the disdain in her voice. “I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault.”
“Not yours, either.”
Pi raised its hands. “I meant that I know that your anger toward me isn’t because of something that I did, but instead reflects how you feel about Miss Delilah leaving.”
Deelia sat up straighter and glared at the automaton. “And just how do you know that?”
It glanced at the ceiling as if searching for an answer. “I listened to you.”
“I didn’t say anything!”
Pi smiled again. “That’s right.”
Deelia smoldered. She wished she had the remote to throw again, perhaps not at the robot, but just to throw. She wanted to heft it and watch it crash against the wall and maybe break into delicious pieces.
Its voice snapped her back to reality. “What would you like to do?”
“Do…?” Deelia asked dreamily. “Maybe I want to run away, too.”
She relaxed a little and leaned back on the couch. “No. Are you programmed to like me or something?”
“I’m sorry?” Pi tilted its head to one side.
“Why do you want to talk to me?”
“I guess because I’m new. I like talking to people, but Alex is so busy, and my siblings aren’t programmed to be as high-functioning as I am, and poor Pete is just exhausted all the time.”
“And my mother is crazy.”
“Mrs. Moreau-Walter is delicate,” it corrected her. “That’s for certain. She doesn’t care for automatons, either. It wouldn’t help if I spoke to her. I like to be helpful, not hurtful.”
“How do you know I don’t hate robots, too?”
“Oh!” Pi said and its shoulders raised a little. “Do you hate robots?”
Deelia was tempted to say yes. She was tempted to tell it all sorts of horrible things and thought again about throwing the remote at it but the image it made in her mind gave her a nauseous twist in her chest. “No one has time for you?” she asked.
“I suppose not. If you don’t as well, that would be everyone,” it said matter-of-factly.
Deelia unfolded her legs and crossed the room in front of Pi. She scooped the remote control up off the floor and tossed and caught it in her hand twice. Gripping it tightly, the teenager turned to the robot. “Wanna watch Animaniacs with me?”
Pi blinked a few times, its pale blue photoreceptors clicked almost imperceptibly. Unlike the Walter automatons, the Moreau-Walter 20th century robot made very little noise at all. “Sure!” it chimed and joined her on the couch.