FICTION

AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2021

v03_01_COVER.JPG

A to B Connection

by Alex Singer

Activating Unit.

Sleep mode disengaged.

Hello World.

Systems review pending...

Would you like to play a game?
Yes, I would like to play a game.

 

#

 

After three years of using the Pygmalion app for lonely auto-men, Sel thought she’d seen most requests the app had to throw at her. She had top notch SYNOVA artificial legs, sensors grafted all through her central nervous system, and a great interface. With 9G nerve connections, any robot could share all her physical data in real time. They could see through her eyes. They could feel what she felt. Auto-people were always submitting requests in her queue for a direct link with her sensory inputs.

 

It was paying her way through school. She was pre-law and needed all the creds she could get. So every afternoon after classes, she buffed her prosthetics, ran diagnostics, wriggled her synthetic toes and opened her inbox to see who was asking for her.

 

The average AI wasn’t built for creativity, and most had limited understanding of the human body, so the engagement requests were mostly the same: Whack off. Whack off using a vegetable and/or household appliance. Slather yourself in baby oil, then whack off. Kiss someone, while whacking off. There was a theme. Sel avoided most of the harder forums. She didn’t do pain play for starters, except for that office supply AI who’d used butterfly pins as nipple clamps, but that was really more kind of a one-off.

 

BOBBYBOT was a regular who liked vibrator feedback on the lowest settings. HAL-69000 had a limited understanding of human proportions and didn’t seem to realize you couldn’t do that with a mango. Sel swiped past the sea of icons with movie stars or programming memes until one request near the bottom caught her eye:

 

‘Wear a fuzzy sweater.’

 

It was sent by AVA-113 and a little blue circle next to their username told Sel they were online. A quick check on their profile didn’t say much. New user. No specs or function listed. Their profile image was the default stylized blue doll head all users started with. It was probably a troll, or maybe a primitive script kitty, but they had an active credit card on file, and Sel had a really ugly holiday sweater from her lawyer in her closet.

 

She thought, Eh, why not?

 

She dug the sweater out from under her pile of unused winter clothes before she clicked ‘accept.’ AVA-113’s blinking icon appeared in the top corner of her visual interface, indicating that they could now see what she saw. The icon had an image, but it was just the default doll icon, same as the box the equipment had come in. Shy type, then.

 

“Hey there, big boy,” she said into the voice chat. She wasn’t sure exactly what counted as sexy talk for a sweater kinkster, but she was going to do her damnedest.

 

Text appeared in her visual interface.

 

“Gender non-applicable.”

 

“Oh, so sorry, baby,” said Sel, trying to make herself sound good and husky. Again, the reply appeared as text at the bottom of the interface.

 

“Age non-applicable.”

 

“Oh, you're a literal type,” said Sel, who’d done this long enough that she didn’t let it catch her off guard. You got these units sometimes. The real auto auto-types. All processing power and no machine learning. She took a quick breath. No use getting flustered. Think of it like a performance. “Okay, sorry sweets, let’s start again. Hi, there, being of non-applicable age and gender. I’m Sel. Got a designation?”

 

“AVA-113.”

 

“Got a call name?”

 

A pause in the text, as though the machine were considering the question.

 

“Junk heap,” they typed, after a second.

 

“Okay, sweets, I’m not going to call you that,” said Sel, breaking character. “Unless you’re into that. You into that?”

 

She half expected to be asked what ‘into that’ meant, but the reply was instant.

 

“‘Humiliation kink’ is not on my listed preferences.”

 

Oh, thank god, they did know what app they were on.

 

“AVA-113 it is then,” said Sel. She sat up, holding up the holiday sweater in front of her face, so the client could see it in all its reindeer patterned glory. “Well, AVA-113. It is your lucky day. I got me the fluffiest, fuzziest, knitted sweater I own.”

 

It was also the ugliest, but Sel wasn’t about to try and sell that.

 

“Material?” sent AVA-113.

 

Well, that wasn’t exactly what Sel expected by way of dirty talk, but sure, okay. She’d run with it. She turned the collar of the sweater inside out and read off the material list. “Wool blend, ooh fancy. Dry-clean only, you non-age applicable darling.”

 

“Permission for sensory input?” sent AVA-113.

 

“You want to feel it? Sure.” It was as good a way to test the nerve interface as any. She liked to start small with new clients. They didn’t always remember to set their internal fans appropriately. She’d only had a few dropped connections due to overheating in her career, but she wasn’t about to gain a reputation for it.

 

She ran her hand over the happy line of snowflakes.

AVA-113 texted a surprised emoji.

 

“Oh, you like that?” purred Sel, resting her whole palm over the cable knit collar. A wall of emojis appeared across the top of the screen. “Want me to…” Uh. “Turn it inside out?”

 

“It is aesthetically pleasing,” sent AVA-113. “Warmer temperatures than expected. Slight prickly feedback. What is the source?”

 

Eh? “You mean the itchiness?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“That’s from it being a blend,” said Sel, holding back a laugh, “and from it being a holiday sweater.”

 

“Elaborate.”

 

Because it was probably cheap as hell? “There’s never been a holiday sweater on the planet that’s not a little bit itchy.”

 

“Temperatures rising.”

 

Ah. Nerve interface. Right. “Oh, yeah. It’s getting hot in here and it’s about to get hotter.”

 

“I would presume the sweater provides suitable insulation.”

 

“Oh, sweetie, are you doing this on purpose?”

 

“Affirmative,” said AVA-113.

 

Sel nearly fell off the bed in surprise. “Damn,” said Sel. She caught herself and held the sweater up to her chest, coyly. She let one of the arms brush the bottom of her chin. “I mean, damn. Well-played. You … want me to put this itchy baby on?”

 

“Scenario accepted,” said AVA-113. Sel wasn’t sure it was possible for text to look smug. The font was just the app’s pleasant sans serif-based default. It looked smug. Sel was learning new things by the minute. She sat up and wriggled around, trying to twist as appealingly as possible as she wormed her way into the sweater, allowing as much of the itchy knitted material to touch her shoulders and arms as she could. After she’d pulled it over her head, she looked at the blinking icon. AVA-113 had been curiously quiet during her little show.

 

I guess this is the part where they ask me to whack off in it, thought Sel, waiting.

 

But the next text just said: “What is the current exterior temperature at your location?”

 

Which continued to not be the kink Sel was expecting, but she paused to check the weather app on her diagnostic interface — 55 degrees. Early fall. Mostly sunny. A little breezy like her — crap. It was hard to figure out a sexy pun that didn’t come off as a little desperate.

 

“Would it be comfortable weather for you to go outside?” asked AVA-113.

 

“...You want me to go out like this or what?” asked Sel. Maybe that was it. That was the kink. I want you to go out starkers, catch a cold, and die. Or get arrested for indecent exposure. Or whack off in a leaf pile.

 

A shivering emoji appeared on her screen.

 

“If nudity is your preference for you, I will accept it,” sent AVA-113. “However, I would like you to be comfortable. My only requested article is the sweater. I leave the rest to your judgment.”

 

“Oh,” said Sel. “Yeah, sure. Hang on. Let me get a pair of pants.”

 

#

 

Boot up sequence complete. All systems calibrated. Unit ready for operation.

Beginning sequence.

What sequence will it be today?

Standard warm-up procedure. Show us what you can do.

Affirmative. Unit activated. Beginning sequence.

 

#


“Atmospheric temperature feels sharp,” sent the auto-man. “Is this what cold feels like?”

 

“It’s a little nippy, yeah.”

 

Sel hugged her arms around herself. She hadn’t factored in the wind. She stood in front of her apartment complex, watching the wind drag leaves across the parking lot.

 

“Surface temperature is pleasant,” commented AVA-113. Sel ran her palm over the elbows. She’d owned it a long time, but she hadn’t worn it much. The elbows hadn’t even started to wear through. She’d never thought about how the fiber felt under the balls of her fingertips.

“Right now it is,” said Sel, “but it’s not going to stay that way if I don’t move.”

 

“Would you like to move?”

 

A neighbor stepped out of their house with a trash bag. They saw Sel talking to herself on the steps and quickly looked away. It was a break from the usual way she saw eyes leap away from her prosthetics, at least.

 

“Sure, what the heck,” she said, giving the poor man a wave. “Let’s go for a walk.”

 

#

 

Sequence complete. Awaiting evaluation.

Some lag picked up on the left ambulatory hardware. Maintenance required.

But did I do it well?

Maintenance required.

 

#

 

Sel walked from the apartment complex to the park. She did a lap around the pond before she came back. It was the first time she’d traveled somewhere that wasn’t the university campus or the doctor’s office in years. She used to jog, early in the morning, before most people woke up, but the flash of her electric heels made safety officers stop her. People saw her through the woods and thought she was an unlicensed drone. It just got to be too much trouble.

 

When the two hours were up, AVA-113 sent her a happy GIF and a hefty tip. They didn’t even ask her to whack off. Sel came back to her little apartment sweaty but strangely invigorated.  She uploaded the sensory feedback from the walk onto her Members Only channel. It got more downloads than she expected.

 

It was probably the weirdest job she’d ever taken.

 

Which was why, in a week, when she checked the app and discovered a private message from AVA-113 — still no profile pic — asking for another two-hour block, she accepted it.

 

Maybe they were the type to take it slow.

 

“Hey, sweets,” she purred, stretching out on the bed, fuzzy sweater already donned and coat waiting over the door. “Long time no see. Want to go for another walk? Or maybe we could do a little cool down.”

 

The request came instantly: “Eat an apple.”

 

Sel’s kitchen was a sad, stark place. She had a fruit bowl. She put mail in it. The closest thing to any kind of fruit she had was the day-old smoothie dutifully separating in the orange juice carton in the back of the fridge. The dry cereal in the cupboard had maybe thought about being apple-flavored once. She had some whipped cream, but mostly for the inevitable weirdo who wanted to feel what it was like to be slathered in it. And then whack off.

 

“Uh,” she said. What was a sexy way to say, I live like an animal? “I’ll eat your apples.”

 

That was terrible. Goddamnit. To be fair, she didn’t have any scripts for this one. At least, nothing that didn’t involve weird Bible-play, and that was only once, with an accounting program that’d once worked at a Megachurch. It’d been more interested in the ‘leaves over your junk’ part of that bit of imagery.

 

“...Once I get them from the store,” finished Sel, completely defeated. “It’ll take a little bit. You want to postpone or you want to come with? I can add an hour.”

 

“Scenario accepted,” said AVA-113, and though they communicated strictly through text, Sel couldn’t help but ascribe a bit of giddy excitement to the words hovering in her interface.

 

#

 

Unit placed in sleep mode.

Objection. Unit does not wish to go into sleep mode.

Operating anomaly detected. Recommend evaluation of sensory data inputs.

Commencing sleep mode.

Commencing sleep mode…

 

#

 

Sel bought a few types of apples and some grapes — she had to buy those after AVA-113 requested she put her whole hand in the bunch. She touched the glass of the lobster tank. She grabbed a bag of rice so AVA-113 could feel the way it shifted in her hands. On a whim, she added a pint of ice cream to the pile. Then she headed home for one of the weirder dinners she’d ever had.

 

AVA-113 discovered they liked the Granny Smiths for their strong flavor and found the Red Delicious texturally pleasing but a tragic failure of potential. The grapes earned Sel an exclamation point.

 

At that point Sel brought out the big guns.

 

“You think that’s sweet, sweets?” asked Sel, taking a scoop of ice cream. It was chocolate and peanut butter, with some brownies ground up in it. She took a warm spoon and sank it into that pristine, untouched surface. She ate it directly out of the carton, like a God.

 

AVA-113 became a regular subscriber after that.

 

#

 

Unit on standby. Awaiting operator command.

Target acquired. Downloading advanced sequence.

Download complete. Activating sequence.

 

#

 

AVA-113 sent her lots of requests. Once or twice a week. They were mindful of her time zone and availability. They never made requests when she was at classes, and they offered a higher rate for weekends. At first, Sel thought maybe this was their ramp up. Maybe once they got used to the idea of remote interfacing with a human, then they’d start to get freaky, but the requests stayed strange and innocent:

 

Run fast enough to feel the wind in your hair.

 

Lie in freshly washed sheets.

 

Push through a piece of cellophane.

 

Pop some bubble wrap.

 

Bake chocolate chip cookies — THEN EAT THEM!!! (Word for word. AVA-113 had decided they liked chocolate.)

 

Page through a non-digital book. (Sel had to figure out who even still had those.)

 

Go to a library to smell the books. (Who knew they still existed? Sel sure hadn’t — until she found out her university actually had a huge archive in the basement level of the admin building.)

 

Build a sandcastle.

 

The last one was tricky. Sel actually had to dig out her boots. She hated wearing anything over her prosthetics. Sure, SYNOVA put millions of creds into ads which insisted their prosthetics were lightweight and compatible with any and all footwear, but it dampened her sensory input by just enough of a lagged millisecond to be annoying as hell long-term. She’d given up being anything but a barefoot robo-barbarian ages ago.

 

But it did mean, as she stepped off the cold boardwalk to an empty, mid-fall beach, that the diehard fisherman and the walkers didn’t glance twice at her as she made her way to the shore.

 

“Forgot what that felt like,” muttered Sel.

 

She’d turned the feed on before she’d left the apartment. “Clarification requested,” sent AVA-113.

 

“To not have eyes on me,” said Sel, “or looking through me. I’m so used to being looked at. Being invisible. It’s kind of nice, you know? No one knows you. No one cares. You can just do whatever the hell you want, and no one will ever know but you.”

 

“I am unable to comprehend that statement.”

 

“Ignore me. I’m rambling.”

“I am unable to comply. I enjoy it when you ‘ramble,’” insisted AVA-113, “but the scenario you described is appealing to me.”

 

“What, having everyone up in your biz?”

 

“Being known,” sent AVA-113.

 

Sel knelt in the sand, gathering it together in front of her into a carefully packed mound. “So, you’re one of those,” she said quietly. “I take it you didn’t get to talk to a lot of people in your old function.”

 

“Conversation was not a priority.”

 

AVA-113 didn’t offer any more information from that. It was fine. Sel didn’t ask. She piled a little more sand up in front of her, enjoying the feel of it, sun-warmed and scratchy between her fingers.

 

“Well, sweets,” she asked, in her more familiar purr. It felt silly out of context, but she hoped it made them laugh, if they could have. “Got a request?”

 

“A mermaid,” said AVA-113.

 

“No feet.” Sel grinned. “Like me. I love it.”

 

It was a terrible mermaid. It had breasts like traffic cones and a tail that couldn’t make up its mind about looking like a fish or a whale. She decorated it with broken mussels and stinky seaweed, and it crumbled when the tide came in — but it was the most accomplished Sel had felt in a very long time.


#

 

Ancillary input: 110%

UI response time: .1 milliseconds

Time to completion: 00:03:32

Did I do well?

Performance adequate. Loading advanced sequence 2.1.

 

#

 

“I want to touch a bird,” sent AVA-113.

 

“A bird? Is this us doing sexy talk, or…”

 

“A literal bird.”

 

Sel didn’t know anyone who owned a parrot. She hadn’t had friends in ages, and campus banned pets that weren’t goldfish. “Oh, okay. That’s… kind of hard, sweets. Um. Any kind of bird?”

 

There was a pause before the next text: “A fluffy one.”

 

Sel nearly typed ‘how to rent a bird’ into a search engine before she remembered there was a historic farm the next town over. It had a petting zoo. She hadn’t been there in years, but she remembered it had ducks.

 

“How do we feel about geese?”

“I have a reasonable opinion of them.”

 

Sel downloaded a pass onto her phone and traveled by ride share to the zoo. The driving AI had decent taste in music but was a little overly chatty at first.

 

“Anyone ever tell you you’ve got a face like a movie star?”

“No,” said Sel flatly, pulling her hoodie a little further over her head.

 

The AI expertly read her tone and body language and went back to shuffling the playlist for the rest of the trip.

 

‘May I feel the window?’ texted AVA-113, politely.

 

Sel shifted to rest the back of her hand against the glass. A happy emoji bloomed in the corner of her vision.

 

#

 

Ancillary input: 90%

UI response time: .9 milliseconds

Time to completion: 00:03:36

Did you like it?

User feedback mixed. Loading advanced sequence 2.2.

 

#

 

The chicken wasn’t completely freaked out by her prosthetics. It pecked carefully at the casing before fluffing out its chest feathers and sitting across the vents in her artificial feet. It nestled in, clucking regally.

 

“Guess it likes the air.” Sel reached down and combed her hand carefully through the feathers on its back, using the back of her knuckles.

 

There was a little bit of lag in the zoo’s wi-fi signal. It took a few seconds for AVA-113’s message to come through: ‘!!!!!!’

 

There were kids milling around the farmyard, so a good proper: ‘You like that, baby?” wasn’t going to cut it.

 

“Soft?” she asked.

 

“YES,” sent AVA-113.

 

The chicken jerked its head back and forth like a stuttering video game character. Sel took a gamble and stroked the longer feathers near the base of its neck, earning an explosion of happy emojis from her remote guest. A couple of other chickens came over to check out the seeds in her pouch. It attracted a few of the kindergarteners for good measure.

 

“Are you an auto-man?” asked a particularly enterprising five-year-old. She squatted across from the chicken and gave it a good long stare.

 

“Nah,” Sel tapped her knee. The fiberglass pinged obligingly. “Just half.”

 

The girl shoved her fist under her chin in thought. “Is your mom an auto-man?”

 

Too late, a harried looking man spotted his daughter chatting amiably with a total stranger and rushed over. It was fine. Sel picked herself up, dislodging the hen, which gave an affronted little click.

 

“Nah. I just broke down a while back. This is how they fixed me.” She flexed her foot. “But that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.”

 

Unafraid, the kid leaned so close her breath fogged up her chicken-warmed foot. “Coooooooool,” she said. “Can you run?”

“Sure.”

 

“Can you jump?”

 

Sel gave a little hop. Her sensors flashed. Chickens scattered. The girl clapped happily.

 

“Can you dance?”

 

“Eh,” said Sel, but a lie somehow seemed worse, so she shrugged, gave the little girl the rest of her seeds, and shoved her hands into her coat pockets. “I used to.”

 

Dad finally swooped in to lead the kid away. “Sorry about that,” he said, resolutely not looking below Sel’s knee.

 

“Heart rate increasing,” remarked AVA-113. “Is everything alright?”

 

“Yeah,” said Sel, remembering how to breath. Her eyes stung. “Just some bad feedback. It’ll be gone in a sec. I’m fine. Everything’s just… fine.”

 

#

 

Significant lag detected in central processing center. Recommend evaluation.

I am fine.

Recommend evaluation.

I am fine. I am fine. I am

 

#

 

“So, why birds?” asked Sel on her way back to the rideshare port. She’d managed to pet a duck, a goose, and some chicks on her way out.

 

“I have seen many, but I have always wondered how they felt,” sent AVA-113. “I am a birdwatcher. I photograph them in the wild.”

 

“Oh, like, for the national parks or something? You a cam drone?” That made sense as a function. She’d never gotten one of those for a client before — the whole ‘no personality applications’ and lack of recognizable limbs didn’t make them terribly interested in nerve interfaces, but there was a first time for everything.

 

Except AVA-113 sent: “No. It’s not related to my function.”

 

“Then it’s a hobby.”

 

“Affirmative.” And then, with a little smiling emoji: “I like them very much.”

 

“Huh.”

 

Then, almost shyly, the next text came up: “I have a photo account, if you would like to see.”

 

“That’s not the kind of proposition I normally get,” said Sel, “but not the weirdest thing I’ve done today. Link me.”

#

 

Requesting user feedback.

Access denied.

 

#

 

It turned out AVA-113 was a bit of a social media darling. The account gave no indication of their function — or even that they were an AI at all — but the photos were something else. Birds in flight. Birds nesting. Birds hunting. Some of them had captions like: ‘Originally published in Avian World Issue 243’ and ‘Zion National Park, 2072.’

 

The early stuff didn’t have any locations listed. Rolling gold and green hills, crumbling white cliffs, the kind you saw in tourism blogs, trying to draw you to some fancy Mediterranean locale. These included distant images of birds in flight: ‘Whimperel, juvenile,’ and ‘Red-billed tropicbird!!!’ and simply, ‘That seems peaceful.’

 

Sel left a comment. “If you ask me to go skydiving, I swear to god…”

 

Some of them were just silly, like the latest: a picture of a chunky rust-colored bird with a red beak and an aggressive face. The caption read: ‘Not a strawberry finch. Late summer the cardinals (bird not clergy) molt and become bald. Bird, why are you so angry?’

 

“...Heck, that’s cute,” muttered Sel. It was the first time she’d followed a social media account in seven years.

 

#

 

The feedback from her sessions with AVA-113 proved surprisingly popular. Sel tracked a huge uptick in hits and downloads from her paid site. Most of the paid downloads came from auto-men in heavy industrial jobs, like factory machines or wind rigs. One even listed itself as a satellite.

 

“Let me guess, you’re a spy satellite,” joked Sel. She was lying on her back in the ball pit of a strip mall entertainment center, sinking slowly into the depths. AVA-113 had always wanted to try one. “That’s how you get all those great pictures.”

 

AVA-113 sent a laughing emote. “I am not. But my systems are built for high-end targeting. I am able to line up a shot from 4000m out, provided conditions are optimal.”

 

“Are you taking pictures or are you sniping someone?”

 

Pointed silence on the other end. Sel sat up.

 

“Sorry, sweets,” she said, meaning it. AVA-113 had never listed their function or service history on their profile. It was as blank as the day she’d first started taking their requests.  “I’m usually a little more pro than that.”

 

For a sick moment, she thought AVA-113 might end the connection, but instead they sent. “It was a fair conclusion to draw from the data I provided.”

 

“No, I was being nosy,” said Sel, wading through the pit to lever herself up onto the side of the pool. “Be annoyed with me. Or take it out of my tip.”

 

“I am unable to comply with that request.” And, to be cute, they sent her a few bonus creds instead.

 

“Stop that!” she said, sharp enough a few of the staffers looked over at her. She did her best to hold her hand over her ear and look like a jerk on the phone, which was almost true. “My equipment’s military grade.”

 

“... I see.”

 

“Prototyped, anyway,” she sighed. “They probably use it for augments these days. I never served. Though they’d’ve loved it if I were old enough for that. SYNOVA did a lot of PR stuff in the 60s. Run a search on the name ‘Sela Reyes.’”

 

She ran the base of her foot over a ball while she waited. It reminded her of her old rehab exercises. Her false ankles didn’t need strengthening, but it helped her mind adapt to the fine movements.

 

It took 30 seconds for AVA-113 to do a full search on the name.

 

“Oh,” they sent. The court documents must have taken the longest. She’d never gotten through the whole thing herself. The lawyers had been good about summarizing for her. This line means you no longer belong to your parents. This line means you no longer belong to the company. That will be $100k, please.

 

“Yeah,” she said.

 

“You used to dance.”

 

You could still find the videos online. They got a decent amount of hits. They had titles like ‘YOUNG CYBORG BUSTS A MOVE’ and ‘THE AUTOMATIC SHIRLEY TEMPLE’ and ‘WHATEVER HAPPENED TO…’ Too many to bother with copyright strikes. There wasn’t much money left in it anyway.

 

“I did,” said Sel. “I used to dance.”

 

To heck with dignity, she pushed off the wall and belly flopped back into the pit, allowing herself to sink to the very bottom. It smelled strongly of old french fries and sweat.

 

#

 

Requesting operating feedback.

Performance adequate. Commence sequence 3.1.

 

#

 

Sel got a ping from the app. It was AVA-113, asking for an engagement. She pressed decline and shut her eyes.

 

A minute later the app buzzed again. A message appeared in her box: “System Status All Clear?”

 

The question mark surprised her. “Are you asking if I’m okay?” she sent back.

 

“Affirmative,” said AVA-113.

 

Sel laughed. “I’m fine,” she messaged. “Having a high pain day. Wouldn’t be good feedback.”

 

“Terminology unknown,” said AVA-133.


Sel paused, wondering if there was a good robotic way to describe it. She decided to make it simple.

 

“Sometimes my body forgets I don’t have legs anymore,” she said. “It disrupts the nerve implants in my knees. Messes up my interface. Plus my knee aches like crazy when it’s wet out. My prosthetics are light, but my body still feels it sometimes.”

 

It took AVA-133 a minute to reply. They were either still processing or leaving the gap in time to make sure she was comfortable, she could never quite tell, but the message did come a second later.

 

“Feedback would be acceptable.”

 

“Oh, god,” laughed Sel. “You’re not saying you want to know what pain is like, are you? I’m not on the BDSM forums, bucko.”

 

“Negative,” sent AVA-113, “but would like to know what the experience is like for you, if that is acceptable.”

 

A pause, and then another message came quickly, as though it had only just occurred to the machine. “And if you are amenable to company.”

 

“Okay, fine, ya weirdo,” said Sel. She sent an offer for an engagement and switched on the visual interface. AVA-113’s non-distinct icon appeared in the corner of her vision. Sel stretched out on the couch. She was still alone in the apartment, but she didn’t feel quite as much like a beached whale.

 

“Don’t expect a show,” said Sel. “Haven’t danced in like ten years.”

 

“Proposal unnecessary,” sent AVA-113. The text hurt her eyes a little, she blinked a few times to put it back in focus. AVA-113 sent a question mark.

 

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” grumbled Sel, pressing her wrist over her eyes. “Mind switching to audio interface? Hurts to read right now.”

 

She’d never requested audio interface. AVA-113 was silent for a full 30 seconds. Then, in her ear, a mechanical voice said, “Would this volume be acceptable?”

 

Some auto-men had modulators or apps to make their voices sound more human. Some of them employed vocalizer AIs to interpret their thoughts for them. AVA-113 clearly did neither of these things. Their voice was the tinny, automatic syllables of a pure factory-model audio interface, like some publicist had gone in and recorded some soundbites.

 

“Works fine for me,” said Sel. She couldn’t exactly monitor AVA-113’s vitals the way they could monitor hers with the interface switched on, but she thought she heard a sort of easing of metal on the other end, something like a relieved sigh. “Not gonna ask you to sing a lullaby or anything.”

 

“Would you like me to play a music track?”

 

“I’m good.”

 

“I see,” said AVA-113. Then, after a moment: “You are very sore.”

 

“Warned you,” said Sel, shoving another pillow under her knee. “It’s pretty annoying.”

 

“It is admirable,” said AVA-113. “It must be a distraction to your function.”

 

“That’d be why I’m on the couch today binge watching a sci-fi show from twenty years ago. Guess it would be a little weird for you.”

 

A notable silence, then: “It is not dissimilar to a phenomenon I have experienced.”

 

“No shit?”

 

“Absolute shit,” repeated AVA-113, who was incapable of ironic inflection, but Sel heard it anyway. “In my previous occupation, I often received damage. Our maintenance crew were very thorough in their repairs. However, in the interest of improving my assessment skills, the scenarios remained preserved in my memory banks. On occasion, those scenarios could play out as active memory, resulting in the activation of my damage alert systems, even though the damage had been repaired in an earlier cycle.”

 

“Like a leg you lost a long while ago.”

 

“It is somewhat similar.”

 

“How’s it feel?”

 

“Annoying,” said AVA-113.

#

 

Unit activated.

Hello World.

Negative feedback detected in right ambulatory hardware. Evaluation recommended.

I am tired and would like to stop.

Request denied. Sequence 3.1 has yet to be completed.


#

 

At the end of the semester, Sel put a notice up in the app. She’d be closed for commissions and private engagements for the next two weeks. Please enjoy her archived material.

 

She sent her regulars more personalized messages.

 

She sent her favorite regulars a request for a direct chat. That list consisted of just AVA-113.

 

“It’s finals week,” she explained. “Don’t think you’ll be interested in taking data about child labor laws.”

 

“Our experiences have always been enjoyable to me,” affirmed AVA-113.

 

“Now who’s buttering me up.”

 

“I am incapable of that kind of consumption. Also, I believe that is illegal in several regions.”

 

“Who taught you to joke.”

 

“Observation,” replied AVA-113 with great pride.

 

“You’re terrible.” Sel sighed and switched to text interface. It would be easier to ask that way. “My last exam’s on the 9th. There are some trails around campus. If you want to go on a nature hike or something.”

 

She sent the address, along with the park websites.

 

“If you happen to be in the area,” she added.

 

She waited the aching 10 seconds it took for AVA-113 to answer, tapping on her artificial toe.

 

“Scenario accepted,” they sent. “Also, you should inhale. You appear to have forgotten how.”

 

#

 

Mom, I’m tired and would like to stop.

Come on, Sela. It’s the last day of filming.

Dad, I’m tired and would like to stop.

These people paid good money to fix you up.

I’m tired and would like to stop.

Sela? Sela. Answer your phone.

#

 

Sel was half-way down the aisle of the lecture hall when she heard a commotion out in front. Students were crowding around the windows, pointing and whispering.

 

Sel got a text.

 

“I am here.”

 

The crowd was already two-bodies deep. Sel pushed her way around Talitha in the first row and a student teacher in the second. She peered around the shoulder of the guy who watched movies on his laptop while he pretended to take notes. He had his phone up, snapping pictures.

 

Out in front of the humanities building, a tank was parked up on the curb.

 

The app pinged. A request for an engagement flickered in the corner of Sel’s eye. She accepted. AVA-113’s generic app icon appeared in the corner.

 

They really needed a proper profile pic.

 

“Hello,” said AVA-113 in her ear. “I have arrived at the location.”

 

“You know, I never thought to ask,” she said into the audio interface, ignoring the glances from the undergrads as she sidled sideways between them and reached for the door, “but what’s AVA stand for?”

 

She stopped in front of the tank. A couple of campus security guards hung behind it in a ragged half circle, looking between themselves cautiously, as though in shock they really had to do their jobs that day.

 

They looked like they were about to ask her to step back, but the tank chose that moment to activate. Its vents hissed. Its sensor plates all opened. A big, red tracking eye appeared under what must have once been the mount for its weaponry. The mount held an expensive camera lens with a bright piece of pink peace tape around the base. She wondered if campus security had taped that on, or if someone had thought ahead. The eye focused on her and whirred.

 

“Automatic Vehicular Assault Unit,” said AVA-113. Was that a hint of bashfulness somewhere under that? She could see a wi-fi light next to the tank’s control sensor pulse as she heard it. “Type 113.”

#

 

Unit not found. 

 

#

 

Sel laid her hand on their armored hood. The body hummed like a laptop. She activated the feed.

 

“Oh,” said the tank, with surprise but a very distinct current of delight. The whirring inside them increased. “I feel warm. I never knew.”

 

“Yes,” said Sel. She couldn’t stop grinning. “You do.” 

 

#

  

“Why’d you leave the military?” asked Sel.

 

A dappling of sun filtered through the trees as they coasted down the trail. Birds trilled. AVA-113’s treads barely made a sound.

 

“My line was decommissioned following an upgrade. Our shell models were replaced by the AVA-115. Under Federal AI guidelines A12.6, we were offered the option to buy out the remainder of our construction cost, or have our data transferred to the 115s.”

 

“Meaning a new body?”

 

“Technically.”

 

Sel whistled, drumming her hand against her knee. “Did you think about it?”

 

“I transferred my service stipend to the accounts department 3.5 seconds after the proposal was received.” Was there a hint of pride in that automatic voice? Sel would put creds on it.

 

“But why did you leave?” she asked quietly.

 

The answer was frank and immediate. “I preferred photography.”

 

And despite everything, Sel laughed. She lay on the hull of a massive tank and she laughed harder than she ever had for the cameras.

 

“That’s great,” she said. “That’s perfect. I hope you’re the best damn photographer in the world. I hope you love it so much it hurts.”

 

“I do not receive any damage reports from the activity,” said AVA-113. “I enjoy it very much.”   

 

“Good,” she said, sitting back up. “Good. Hey, listen. Want to go back to town and watch me drink a milkshake or something? No, no. Don’t log it on the app. I just want to talk awhile. It’s just something I really want to do. You get it, don’t you?”

 

 “Scenario accepted.” 

 

#

 

Connected.

 

  

THE END

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Alex Singer lives on coastal Connecticut with her wife, two cats, and too many science fiction novels to count. She is the author of indie titles MINOTAUR, SONG OF THE BULLRIDER, the graphic novella SMALL TOWN WITCH, and the ongoing webcomic SFEER THEORY. For more, visit littlefoolery.com.

Fiction by Alex Singer:

"A to B Connection" August 2021