Janus

This story is part of the AI Project series of short stories I’m working on. Click here to read more of that series.


“What does it smell like?”

“What?”

“What does it smell like?”

“What do you mean what does it smell like?”

“Exactly what it sounds like I’m asking. Does it smell like anything?”

*****

“Charlie?” Kristov called out from his office. “Charlie, quit making me yell and get in here.”

Charlie came bounding around the corner and charged into Kristov’s office. He came to an abrupt stop, doubling over and panting.

“What the fuck are you out of breath for?” asked Kristov. “Your desk is twenty feet away.”

“I was walking out of the bathroom down the hall when I heard you yell,” replied Charlie.

“Ah. Well good hustle or something.”

Kristov leaned forward onto his desk, burying his head down into his arms. After a few moments of adjusting, he rose back up and opened a drawer on the left hand side of his desk. He produced a black fleece blanket from the drawer, which he violently shook open. Kristov then placed the blanket over his head and placed his head back down in his arms, blanket covering him as he did so.

“You needed me, sir?” Charlie asked.

“Yes,” Kristov said from beneath the blanket. “What’s my calendar look like today?”

“Dennison Ward will be here at 10:30 for a meeting reg..”

“No he won’t.”

“Are you saying I should cancel it or a…”

“I’m saying he won’t show up. What’s next?”

“Your wife called to tell you that she’ll be by around 11:45 to pick you up for lunch.”

“Call Kim back and tell her I’m not feeling well,” Kristov grumbled. “If she insists on checking in on me, let her in, but come into my office after ten minutes with a very important phone call so I can get her to leave.”

“And who should I say is calling?” Charlie inquired.

“I don’t care if you say it’s the Dali fucking Lama, just make her believe that I need to take that call.”

“Can do.”

“Anything else?”

“You have a call with Atlantean Partners at 3:00,” replied Charlie.

“Fuck!” Kristov shouted from the depths of fleece fortress. “I thought that was tomorrow.”

“No, sir. Every month on the second Tuesday of the month.”

“Call Williams and see if he can take it.”

“Williams is on vacation in Aruba.”

“What about other Mark?”

“Kerja?”

“No, not the Swede,” Kristov grumbled. “The Mark that reports to Mark Williams.”

“That’s Mark Kerja.”

“No!”

Kristov rose up from his desk, throwing the blanket onto the floor behind him.

“Just get me the Mark who is supposed to take my place if Williams can’t make it,” Kristov demanded. “I don’t care if you have to book a plane ticket, learn Papiamento, and track down Williams in person. Figure out who can take that call instead of me by lunch time.”

“Yes sir,” replied Charlie meekly.

Charlie started to walk out the door, only for Kristov to shout after him.

“And Charlie?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t let anyone other than Kim near my office before this afternoon,” Kristov said. “This hangover’s a bitch.”

Charlie strode out the door and sat down in a rigid metal chair behind his rickety wooden desk. He opened the organizational hierarchy on his tablet and began searching through the leadership of Shackelford & Polzin Group to try to figure out who Kristov could have been talking about. Charlie knew that Kristov meant Mark Kerja. Mark Kerja took all of the important calls if Mark Williams or Kristov couldn’t make it. This was a matter of figuring out who Kristov thought Kristov was talking about, as well as stalling long enough to let Kerja get into the office.

The hierarchy was straightforward enough that Charlie knew it from memory. Kristov Polzin — the Polzin of Shackelford & Polzin Group — had two direct reports. Mark Williams (better known as just Williams around the office) led the sales and strategy group and was responsible for making Shackelford & Polzin as profitable and as public friendly as it could be. On the operations side, Lucy Calvert made sure that meat of the business for Shackelford & Polzin Group, the acquisition, demolition, reposition, and redistribution of companies acquired by the Group, went off without a hitch.

Mark Kerja (Kerja, MK, or The Swede , depending on who was addressing him) was just one of the direct reports to Williams, but in reality, he was the only one that mattered to Kristov. Kerja was the VP of New Business for the company. As Kristov reminded the company’s employees on every call, existing business keeps the lights on for Shackelford & Polzin, but new business makes sure the lights are bright enough to blind the competition. Kerja wasn’t actually Swedish, despite Kristov’s insistence on referring to him as such. He was born in Rosemont, Illinois and had never left the United States. But when your boss’s boss gives you a nickname, you stick with it, no matter how much you hate it.

Charlie saw that it was 9:10 in the morning, but Kerja had yet to arrive. Kerja’s secretary had just returned to his desk, sipping a cup of coffee, black, with an ice cube in it. Charlie walked over to the secretary’s desk, feigned looking around for a moment, then addressed the young man.

“Is MK in today?” Charlie asked.

“No, he’s out,” the secretary replied. “His little girl had to stay home from school again.”

“That’s too bad. Ear infection again?”

“I think so. It’d be the third time in the last two months if so. Poor girl.”

“Yeah. I hope she gets better.”

“Does Kristov need MK for something?” the secretary asked.

“He was hoping MK could take the call with Atlantean Partners at 3,” replied Charlie.

“Can’t Williams do it?”

“Williams is in Aruba until the 23rd.”

“And I’m guessing Kristov is hungover again?”

“Like a sailor on shore leave.”

“A sailor on what?”

“Nothing.”

“You’ve got to work on your expressions, Charlie,” stated the secretary. “You’re a bright guy and everyone likes you, but no one other than old man Shackelford understood your references half the time. He’s been gone three years now. It’s time for your references for him to go join him.”

“Jesus, dude, he’s not dead,” retorted Charlie, “he just retired and moved to Arizona.”

“Might as well be dead.”

Charlie walked back to his desk and dialed Williams from his tablet. It’d probably be too early to reach a vacationing man who had likely drank a third of his weight in mai tais the night prior, but it was worth trying. After a couple of rings, a brief grey screen came up, followed by a pre-recorded message.

“Hi. You’ve reached the voice and video message inbox for Mark Williams of Shackelford & Polzin Group. I’ll be out of the office from April 6th through April 22nd. If your message is important, please contact Mark Kreja at 814-555-2017. Otherwise, leave your name, contact information, and a short description of your request. Messages will be replied to as I’m able. Thanks.”

The grey screen replaced Williams’ face and stated simply: You may begin recording in 3…2…1…

“Hey Mark,” Charlie began. “Sorry to bother you on vacation, but Kristov is really looking for someone to handle the Atlantean Partners call at 3 Eastern today. MK is out ill today and Kristov is in no shape to talk to them. He keeps insisting that the Mark who reports to you take the call, but you and I both know that’s Kreja. If you have any idea what he’s talking about or if you could tell me who can take the call, that’d be lovely. I’ll have my tablet on me all day. Bye.”

*****

“I don’t understand the question. Why does it matter what it smells like?”

“You remember what Christmas was like as a kid?”

“Yeah…why?”

“Remember how your mom and dad or whoever raised you always asked you for a Christmas list to give to Santa Claus. So you’d write up a list of all the things you’d want. Some kids wanted dolls, some wanted action figures, some wanted video games, some wanted stupid shit like art supplies and dress up costumes. So you’d write your list, give it to your old man in hopes of getting the best Christmas gift ever — whatever that was for you. Then Christmas morning came and you started opening your gifts. There was the stuff you got every year like socks, underwear, cheap chocolate, and some oranges. For me, there was usually a tiny copy of the New Testament in my stocking. Then you got to the real presents. And on your last gift, you were convinced that you had managed to get that special gift that you wanted. You tore into the wrapping paper with abandon, only to find that Santa had brought you the generic knock-off of the gift you wanted because your Christmas list wasn’t specific enough. Do you remember that feeling?”

“That’s an oddly specific explanation. But yeah.”

“Think of me as the Santa Claus of problem solvers. I’m really good at giving gifts and giving people what they want. I’ve even got a bunch of little helpers who will help make my gifts if I can’t do it myself. After all, there’s a lot of little boys and girls in the world who want their problems taken care of. But just like your childhood Christmas list, if your description of this gift I can give to you isn’t specific enough, I might make a mistake and get you the wrong thing. Do you understand now?”

*****

The morning had passed with little incident for Charlie. Though he had sent Williams additional messages hoping that he’d answer, Charlie’s tablet went silent in terms of responses.

As the clock neared 11:30 in the morning, Kreja’s secretary walked up to Charlie’s desk, light jacket and umbrella in hand. In the distance near the elevator doors, Charlie observed the secretary’s work friends — another personal assistant and two younger women from the marketing team — mulling around and joking. The other personal assistant’s loud, cackling laugh echoed throughout the room, causing multiple people to look up from their desks to see where he was at.

“We’re going to Cervelli’s for lunch,” said Kreja’s secretary. “Wanna join?”

“No thanks,” Charlie replied. “I have to be here in case Kristov’s wife shows up.”

“Are you bailing him out or guarding the door so they can bang?”

“Ten minutes and I have to tell him he has a very important call with — and I quote — the Dali fucking Lama.”

“Sounds like a very important call. Isn’t the Dali Lama like twelve though?”

“I don’t think Kristov knows the old one died.”

“Wouldn’t shock me. But really though, Charlie,” the secretary continued, “you’ve got to come with us some time. I’ve been inviting you out for guys night for weeks now, but you’ve always got something to do.”

“Kristov keeps me on call 24 hours a day,” replied Charlie. “It wouldn’t be fair to you guys if I came out and then had to leave ten minutes in.”

“You’re allowed to take time off, you know.”

“If it’s not written explicitly into my contract that I am required to take some time off, I don’t think Kristov particularly cares. Besides, someone has to keep this place running.”

“And so modest too.”

“Fuck off, Spencer.”

Kerja’s secretary, Spencer, flipped a middle finger toward Charlie, laughed, then walked to the elevator to join his waiting lunch party. Charlie stared at his tablet, running his own words through his mind. When was the last time he had taken a day off? He thumbed through the history of his calendar, finding the answer. Eleven months ago, taking the day off for his yearly check-up. Even then, Kristov had called him in twenty minutes after the appointment ended, saying that there was an important meeting that they needed to prep for. Prepping for the meeting entailed Kristov giving his notes to Charlie — notes that Charlie had written himself — and telling him to take the meeting for him.

Charlie’s tablet flashed repeatedly, bringing up Williams’ face on the screen. Charlie answered the video call quickly, knocking over his tablet in the process.

“Nice ceiling, Charlie,” Williams joked. He then sipped a drink that Charlie couldn’t see through a straw, the noise loudly echoing through the device’s speakers.

Charlie sat the tablet back up and looked at the screen. Williams was shirtless, his graying chest hair occasionally being caught by the light of whatever hotel lamp happened to be on. He had a hand towel wrapped draped over his neck, partially obscuring a silver cross necklace that Williams wore to work every day. Though Charlie didn’t recall Williams being a particularly vocally religious person, he was pleased to see the necklace on Williams in a non-work setting. It always made Charlie feel good to see when someone’s work appearance wasn’t just an act.

“Hey, thanks for calling me back,” Charlie said.

“I don’t think I really had a choice,” replied Williams. “You seemed panicked.”

“So you heard my message.”

“Yeah. I’ve already called Kreja, but he’s taking his daughter to the hospital, so he’s out. I don’t have a clue who Kristov’s talking about if it’s not me or Mark. We’re the only ones who have taken the Atlantean call other than him for the last couple years. Mark’s old assistant took the call a couple of times, however I’d find it hard to believe even Kristov would confuse a woman named Saffron with either Kreja or myself. Not that he knew about that anyway.”

“What do we do then?”

“As much as I’d like to help by taking the call, I’m pretty sure my wife would have my head if I cancelled our couples massage to take it. If he has to have someone take it, see if you can get Kreja’s notes from Spencer, then give them to Emily. That said, I’d recommend you talk Kristov into cancelling the call. I don’t feel like dealing with Kristov being all self-righteous that a woman took this call.”

“Emily in PR or Emily in strategy?”

“Strategy Emily. Super tall blonde lady on the third floor that works for me. Her office is the one with the giant Temple pennant on the wall. She knows Atlantean’s account better than me. She could probably take the call without the notes, but get them just in case. That said, please try to cancel it first if you can.”

“Will do,” replied Charlie.

“Can you do me a favor too while you’re at it,” Williams asked.

“What’s that?”

“I’ve got a pile of resumes on my desk for a new secretary. Or assistant. Or whatever Kristov wants them called now.”

“I think everyone’s a secretary except me. He is the only person that gets a personal assistant.”

“Right. I can’t keep up with him sometimes. Anyway, HR left me a pile of prospective candidates to go through. Could you look at them and send me the resumes of the three you like the best? I’ll give them calls tomorrow while Kiersten is at the spa.”

“Of course. I’ll do it right after I talk to Kristov.”

“You’re a lifesaver, Charlie. If you want to take a vacation, let me know. This place is great. I think you’d enjoy yourself.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Have a good day, Charlie. Let me know what happens with that call.”

“Thanks Mark.”

*****

“I understand completely.”

“Wonderful. So I’ll ask again then. What does it smell like?”

“He smells…normal, I guess? Sometimes he wears cologne. I couldn’t tell you what brand it is. I don’t think I’ve ever once known him to smell bad.”

“No light cinnamon scent always coming from it?”

“No. Not that I’ve ever noticed. And why do you keep saying it? He’s a guy.”

“They’re not people. If you’re not a person, you don’t get a pronoun that says what you are. It’s not a he. It’s not a she. It’s an it. You can call it whatever you want, but when I solve your problem, it won’t matter if it’s a he, a she, an it, or a figment of your imagination. It will cease to exist in both the present and the future. With any luck, we’ll be able to get rid of its past too.

*****

“Kristov?”

“Mmmrrrrmmmmrmrrrm…”

“Kristov, are you awake?” asked Charlie.

“I wharbalgarl mrmmmmmrmm.”

Charlie opened the door further and took a couple of steps into Kristov’s office.

“Are you awake sir?”

“I’m trying not to be, but you’re making it real fucking hard,” Kristov replied.

“I’m sorry,” responded Charlie, “I’ll try to make this quick then. Kim called and said she won’t be in at lunch, but that she will be here around 4 to trade cars with you so that she can pick up your kids.”

“Is she going to come inside?”

“She said you have the only keys to your car, so I would assume so.”

“That’s fine. Same deal as before though. Ten minutes, then important people are calling me.”

“Got it,” said Charlie. “I talked to Williams about the Atlantean call. Kreja took his daughter to the hospital this morning, so he won’t be able to make it. Williams recommended that we call Atlantean and try to reschedule for next week when either he or Kreja is back.”

“Unacceptable!” shouted Kristov. “Did he say who else could take the call?”

“Williams says that Emily House from the strategy team can take the call. She’s one of Mark’s direct reports and knows Atlantean better than Mark does.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“His words, not mine.”

“You take it.”

“I’m sorry?”

“You heard me, Charlie,” Kristov replied forcefully. “You take the call.”

“But Mr. Polzin,” Charlie answered, “Williams assured me that Emily is the best person to take this call if you, Kreja, and him aren’t available.”

“I don’t need the best person to take the call, I need the best man to take this call.”

“Then why are you picking me? I don’t know this account as well as the people in strategy do.”

“Because I paid for you to be here. And because I paid for you to be here, I need you to do exactly what I say. From time to time, that’s going to mean you need to ignore your logic processors or whatever it is you have in there and do exactly as you’re instructed. Have I made myself clear, Charlie?”

“Completely, sir.”

“Now, go talk to Emily and learn everything you can about Atlantean before three. I’ll tell Spencer to take your calls while you’re gone.”

“Spencer’s at lunch.”

“Not now he’s not.”

*****

“I’ve been told this isn’t your first time taking care of a problem like mine.”

“No. You’re quite fortunate you found me. The Civil Servant’s Association often advertises problem solvers such as myself. They’re trying to trap people looking to take out their sophisticated, programmatic androids because one accidentally stepped on some old lady’s petunia’s while delivering a package. What you’re here for is to rid the world of a deadly creature, not a package bot that didn’t update its aerial maps to account for a new flowerbed.”

“Do the civil service androids ever go off the rails like the others?”

“Not that the CSA’s willing to admit to. There were a couple in the early days of the program that didn’t stick to their programming or that malfunctioned, but the worst that happened was an android short circuiting while delivering some lady’s birthday cake. It was traumatizing for the kids that saw it, but no damage done otherwise. Except to the cake. The cake caught fire.”

“Do people actually want the civil service androids taken out?”

“I’ve had a couple of requests from private citizens to get rid of them, but I blow the whistle on them to the CSA. If there was ever a real problem with those assets, the CSA would contact me. They’ve had my group round-up end of life units before when they’re too busy to handle it themselves. I find it best to help keep the people who keep your legitimate business in business happy.”

“But this isn’t the first time taking out one of these…things, I guess you would refer to them as?”

“Creatures is my preferred term, but as long as you’re not humanizing them, I don’t care one way or the other what you call them. And no. From my group’s research, we’ve determined there were twelve of them out there at one point in time. Counting your problem, that list is down to six now.”

“Are they easy to kill?”

“You don’t kill a creature like this. It’s more of turning them off so they can’t turn back on again. But the worst we’ve had one do so far is trying to hide. We’re fortunate that they haven’t learned quality self-preservation skills yet.”

“How’d the last problem get solved?”

“It was simple. Just like solving your problem will be.”

*****

“Emily?”

“Oh hi!” Emily said excitedly as she stared up from her computer. “You’re Mr. Polzin’s assistant, Charlie, right?

“Yes, that’s me,” Charlie said.

“Mark told me you might be coming by this afternoon. I’m guessing the Atlantean call is still on at 3?”

“It is. What did Mark tell you the plan for the call was?”

“He said that you were going to try to convince Mr. Polzin to reschedule the Atlantean call, but that if you came by, it more than likely meant the call was still on and that I’d be taking the call in his place. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am for this call. One of the partners at Atlantean is Michael Marin. He was my dad’s first business partner.”

“Wait, really?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah. Michael and my dad ran a sandwich shop together in college. When my dad decided to franchise, Michael let the investment group buy out his shares. His wife still sends me and my sister individual birthday and Christmas cards every year.”

“Well that makes this conversation a bit more awkward. Not that it wasn’t already.”

“What do you mean,” questioned Emily.

“Kristov doesn’t want you to take the call. He sent me up here to get your notes so I could take the call.”

“Why not? Even without Michael’s involvement, I know Atlantean better than anyone in the building other than Mark.”

“Mark disagrees,” Charlie replied. “He told me you know them better than he does.”

“Flattering, but he’s just trying to give credit to someone else.”

Emily rose from her desk and motioned Charlie into the office. Charlie sat down on a chair across from Emily’s computer. She closed the door to her office, then drew the blinds to the window that looked out onto the sales floor outside her entry way.

“Charlie?”

“Yes, Emily?”

“Can I get you to be honest with me for a moment?”

“Of course.”

“Why doesn’t Mr. Polzin want me to take the Atlantean call? Is it because they’re an important partner and this would be my first unsupervised partner call?”

“It’s not that.”

“Well, is it because he knows I’ve known Michael Marin since I was a baby and he’s trying to avoid any possibility of a conflict of interest between our two companies, even though by the letter of the law this is no where close to one?”

“It’s not that.”

“Do you think I should be on this call?” asked Emily.

“You’re the most qualified individual, potentially now and even when Mark Williams is here,” Charlie replied. “I wouldn’t have any objections to it.”

“Then, Charlie, please tell me what it is that is leading Mr. Polzin to choose not to have me on this call.”

“Because he says that a call of this importance needs a man on it.”

Emily walked behind her desk and started poking at her tablet. Within a few moments, the tablet began ringing. Williams popped up on the screen a few seconds later.

“Good afternoon, Emily,” Williams said.

“Good afternoon, Mark,” replied Emily. “You were right. Polzin’s being a dick about the call because I’m a woman.”

“Language please. My daughter’s in the other room. Not sure how much she can hear.”

“Sorry. I’m just upset. He thinks Charlie should take the call instead of me.”

“Is Charlie in there?”

“I’m here, sir,” Charlie replied. Charlie rose from his chair and moved behind Emily’s desk so Williams could see both of them.

“I was afraid this might happen. Charlie, can you have someone cover your desk during the call?”

“Kristov said Spencer will take care of my calls.”

“Beautiful. I need both of you to be in Emily’s office a little before 3. Charlie, sit behind Emily’s desk so you can see her computer. Emily, sit in one of your guest chairs with your tablet. Make sure your blinds are open but your door is closed, that way the people on the sales floor can think Charlie’s taking the call but they can’t hear Emily actually talking.”

“I like this so far,” said Emily.

“If, for whatever reason, Kristov were to try to come in during the call,” Williams continued, “one of you should accidentally hang up on the call. Tell Kristov you just finished up. Let me know what happened and I’ll send an apologetic email to Atlantean and call them myself before we go to the beach tomorrow to tie up any loose ends.”

“What about the recap Kristov will want?” Charlie asked.

“He’s never asked for it before Wednesday morning at earliest. Get Emily’s post-meeting notes from her, change it slightly so it sounds like you wrote it, then give them to him.”

“And if Kristov wants the notes before then?” questioned Charlie.

“We stall,” answered Emily. “Say you’re waiting on Mark to reply to an email clarifying something on the call.”

“Works for me,” added Williams. “You two all good now? I’m being motioned to come have a tropical tea party.”

“Thank you so much for the plan, Mark,” replied Emily. “Say hi to Kiersten for me and give Shaly a hug for me. I have another book for her if she wants it.”

“I ask her once we’re home. Thanks again Emily and Charlie.”

Williams disconnected the call. As Emily rose from her desk, Charlie started making his way to the office door.

“See you a little before 3 then, I guess?” Charlie said.

“Of course!” Emily exclaimed. “I’m excited to do this. And Charlie?”

“Yeah?”

“Can you give Mr. Polzin a message for me after the call? Just to add to the appearance that you took the call.”

“Sure. What’s that?”

“You can tell that sexist, withering assbag for me that I am a damn good employee — arguably one of the best he has at this company. If he tries to take away something from me again that I am the best person to fix just because I have a vagina, I’m going to drive five hours, borrow my sister’s steel toed hiking boots, drive five hours back, put one boot on, and kick him as hard as I can in his scared, bigoted nutsack. Then, while he’s laying on the ground crying and holding his balls, I’m going to slowly put the other boot on, tying the laces directly in front of his face. When I’m done with that, I’m going to kick him in the balls again, because fuck him, that’s why. Can you deliver that message for me?”

“Word for word or just the sentiment?” Charlie asked.

“Sentiment’s fine,” Emily replied. “You’re just the messenger. No need for you to get his anger just because I said something.”

*****

“So what happened?”

“I don’t discuss the details of clients with other clients.”

“I don’t care if they paid more or less than me.”

“And I don’t care what you care about. I’m doing this because it’s the moral thing to do, not because you or anyone else pays me to. Profit’s just a bonus.”

“Then why tell me there’s twelve of them that existed? Why tell me it’s simple to end them?”

“Because you clearly need reassurance that your problem will be solved. Are you are of the Roman deity Janus?”

“No.”

“A lot of ancient mythologies had similar, overlapping gods. The Greeks and Romans are probably the most notable instance of this. Both pantheons had a god of love that had basically the same story and powers. The Romans called him Cupid while the Greeks called him Eros. Same thing with the messenger to the gods — Mercury and Hermes, respectively. There’s literally dozens of examples like this. But Janus…Janus is unique.

“How so?”

“Janus is, for all intents and purposes, the god of doors. Both literal and metaphorical doors, that is. The mythology tells that Janus had a temple with doors that would open in times of war and close in times of peace. Not only did the Greeks not have an equivalent to Janus, the Romans didn’t treat him like their other gods. Instead of having a priest who handled ceremonies for Janus, the rex sacrorum was in charge of any ceremonial duties for Janus.”

“What’s the rex sarcophium?”

“Rex sacrorum. He’s basically a combination of a priest and a senator. He was the guy they called — carrier pigeoned, maybe — if the head of Rome wanted to make a sacrifice. Between the rex sacrorum and his wife, the regina sacrorum, every month they performed a unique set of religious rituals that only they could perform. Janus was represented in every religious ceremony because of these two.”

“I see.”

“Janus has two faces because he has two states that he’s always looking towards. One face gazes back upon the past while another stares forth into the future. He symbolizes the beginning and the end. The alpha and omega, if you will.”

“Aren’t alpha and omega Greek?”

“Yes.”

“But you said the Greeks didn’t ha…”

“Don’t get lost in the semantics of what I’m saying. I am a modern-day Janus. I see humanity’s past and look can see into its future. Though we’ve done great things as a species in the past, some of our mistakes have led us to the problems we’re experiencing today. If we don’t stop the advance of these creatures while we have the chance, they’ll one day be on equal footing with the rest of us. It’s happened before. I’m not letting it happen again.”

*****

“Thanks for all your help, Charlie,” Emily said. “I’m sorry you ended up roped into this like you were.”

“It’s fine,” replied Charlie. “I’m just glad you handled the call. Even with your notes, I would have fallen flat on my face.”

“Oh definitely. But that’s not your fault. You don’t just go into a partner call like that blind.”

“When do you want me to come by and get your notes?”

“I’ll have them ready first thing tomorrow morning. How early do you get here?”

“I’m here at 7:53 every morning,” replied Charlie.

“That’s oddly specific.”

“It’s routine.”

“Can you be here by 7:40?” asked Emily.

“Yeah, probably.”

“Come by then and I’ll give you my hand-written notes so we don’t email them back and forth. There’s not a ton, so that should give you more than enough time to have them typed up by 9 if Mr. Polzin needs them by then.”

“Why do you insist on referring to him so formally when he’s such a jerk to you?” Charlie inquired.

“Because it’s the right thing to do,” said Emily. “That’s not to say I don’t hate him for how he acts towards anyone who isn’t like him. But I can hate him and still treat him with respect. It keeps me from being like him.”

“Makes sense. I’ll see you tomorrow then?”

“Have a good day, Charlie.”

“You too.”

Charlie exited Emily’s office and made his way to the elevator that would take him back up to his desk. The elevator’s steel gray doors slid open, revealing a faux-mahogany interior that shined far too brightly for anyone to mistake it for natural wood. Charlie pushed the button to go up from floor three to floor seven. The door shut slowly, followed by the low hum of the elevator rising that Charlie had become so accustomed to. It was calming in a way. Even on days Kristov would frustrate him to no end, Charlie would get on the elevator, press the button to take him to the parking garage, then close his eyes and listen to the elevator’s soft whir. By the time he reached the parking garage, Charlie’s frustration would be melted away.

The elevator stopped on the seventh floor, the door slowly opening as the elevator’s chimes indicated its arrival. As Charlie exited the elevator, he noticed Kristov’s wife, Kim, coming toward the elevator.

“Charlie Hopewell, as I live and breathe!” Kim shouted out, her bubbly voice ringing out throughout the office floor. “How the heck are you?!”

“I’m quite well, Kim,” Charlie replied. “How are you?”

“I am living life and loving life! Come give me a hug! I can’t go this long without seeing you and not greet you right.”

Charlie and Kim embraced tightly, Kim’s arms clutching around Charlie’s neck.

“You’re always so cold,” Kim said. “Don’t you ever worry you’re going to get hypothermia?”

“I’m quite comfortable,” Charlie replied.

“There’s something wrong with your. You know that, right?”

“I’ll have to take your word for it.”

“Are you headed back to meet with Kristov?” Kim asked.

“Yes, ma’am.” answered Charlie. “Just got out of a meeting and have to tell him about it.”

“Now what did I tell you about calling me ma’am. We’re past that stage of knowing each other.”

“Sorry, Kim.”

“It’s alright, hun. Just be careful when you’re going to talk to Kristov. He’s all fired up about something, though he wouldn’t tell me what.”

“Joy…” Charlie said, trailing off into silence.

“I’m sure whatever it is, a drink when he gets home will fix it.”

Charlie laughed a little at the thought of a drink fixing anything related to Kristov, particularly considering how hungover he was when he came in that morning. He wondered how long Kim had been here for. Was it long enough to make Kristov upset that he hadn’t come to “save” him from his wife?

“I suppose I should go find out what’s going on,” said Charlie.

“Well, you have fun with that,” replied Kim. “I’m off to pick up my two walking grass stains from their soccer game. Hopefully traffic’s bad enough that I don’t have to watch much of the game.”

“Soccer still hasn’t grown on you?”

“I love my kids, but I wish the played sports that are interesting to watch. Instead I’m stuck going to soccer and softball games.”

“You have fun with that.”

“Oh yeah…loads. Don’t be a stranger, Charlie. Feel free to stop by the house some time.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“See you later, Charlie.”

“Bye, Kim.”

Charlie walked into Kristov’s office to find Kristov pensively staring out the window. Kristov sipped from a bottle of water. appearing far more spry than when Charlie had seen him a few hours ago.

“The Atlantean call is over, sir,” Charlie said. “I’ll have notes to you tomorrow.”

“Good,” replied Kristov. “I take it things went well?”

“I feel like it went alright.”

“Excellent. You didn’t save me from Kim though.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I was busy on the Atlantean call.”

“It’s fine,” answered Kristov. “She wasn’t here long anyway. She was talking about how she was so excited to get to the twins’ soccer game. I’ve never seen the appeal to the sport myself, but if it makes the girls happy and keeps them out of trouble, I don’t care what they do.”

Kristov took another drink out of the bottle. He watched as pigeon came to rest on the ledge outside his office window. The bird fluttered to a stop, staring at its concrete perch and looking for food. The pigeon pecked at the ledge a couple of time before unhappily fluttering away.

“How did Emily react to being told you’d be taking the Atlantean call?” Kristov asked.

“She was disappointed,” answered Charlie.

“How disappointed?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did she get angry? Did she cry? Did she curse you out and tell you how much of a kiss ass you were?”

“No. She just…”

“She just what?” Kristov prodded. “Give me details, Charlie.”

“She shared that she was the right person to take the call and will make sure she puts herself in a position to be ready to take the call next time.”

“That’s disappointing.”

“Why?” questioned Charlie.

“I expected far more fire from her. I’ve seen her get feisty with Williams before. It’s a shame.”

“She wasn’t happy though.”

“Then she needs to put on her big boy pants and show some fucking balls!” shouted Kristov. “If she can’t stand up to someone telling her no, how can I expect her to do anything worthwhile around here? I knew I made the right call keeping her off the call.”

“But sir.”

“Charlie.”

“Yes, Kristov?”

“When Williams gets back from Aruba, have him pull the Atlantean call and listen to it. I want him to coach you up to make you a great representative for our company to our partners.”

“There’s no need to take up Williams’ time just listening to me talk,” replied Charlie. “He’s a very busy man with lots of responsibilities.”

“You’re right,” answered Kristov. “He’ll be swamped when he gets back. I’ll do it myself before he gets back.”

“That’s very kind of you, but it’s really not necessary.”

“Not only is it necessary, I’m so happy for you handling this like I asked you to that I think you can take the rest of the day off. Paid.”

Charlie paused, unsure what to do next. Kristov’s mind was made up about this, so he certainly wasn’t going to change it. Maybe he could get IT to delete the call before Kristov started listening to it? Maybe Emily had access to the file and could take care of it herself.

“Why are you still standing there, Charlie?” Kristov asked.

“I’m…I’m sorry,” replied Charlie. “I wasn’t sure if you were serious about taking the rest of the day off.”

“Of course I am. Get your evening started early.”

“Oh. Well thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome. Now get out of my office before I change my mind.”

*****

“How soon will the problem be resolved?”

“You’ve given me everything I need. Give me and my associates 72 hours. You’ll have notification after that.”

“How should I expect to hear from you?”

“If all goes well, the envoy who greeted you today, Hermes, will bring you to a designated location. The remainder of the payment will be due then. If something unexpected should arise, we’ll let you know.”

“Good. I’ll let my superiors know.”

“Thank you for your business.”

One of the two seated individuals rose and began walking to the exit. As he arrived at the exit, he placed his hand on the doorknob and started to pull it closed.

“Don’t do that, John.”

“Why not?” John asked. “I’m leaving.”

“The door remains open while Janus is at war. She’s sending her soldiers to battle.”

“I thought you said Janus was a male god.”

The second seated individual stepped out the blackened room and removed a helmet holding a voice modulator. She stared at John, her cold, steely eyes charging through his soul and instilling fear in his mind.

“The myth of Janus is a man. I’m not a myth.”

*****

Charlie arrived home an hour and a half earlier than his normal time. For the first time in months, his work tablet wasn’t constantly notifying him that there was something new that Kristov needed done before morning hit. The world was silent and a welcome change from normal.

As Charlie went to his bedroom to retire for the night, a pair of notifications arrived on his tablet. The first came from Williams in the form of a short video message. Charlie opened the message and it began to play.

“Hey Charlie. I hear from Emily that everything went spectacularly. I mean, she said it in words I’m not going to repeat at the moment, but everything went well, I’m told. Thanks for all your help. When I get back into town, we should go golfing. Think about a day that works for you and we’ll talk when I’m back. Thanks again.”

Charlie chuckled to himself at the thought of going golfing with anyone, let alone a higher-up in the company. Charlie had always viewed golf as a sport played by the rich, the powerful, or the emotionally insecure — though most frequently played by those who fit all three categories. But it was exciting to get an invitation to not do work for a day, even if that invitation was from someone other than his boss.

The second message was a simple text message from Kristov.

“Don’t worry about driving in tomorrow. I’ll send a car to come get you. You’ve earned it for a day.”

Charlie walked to the night stand in the room and placed the tablet down, connecting it to its charger. He then reached over the head of his bed, dialed the mattress charger setting to “restful sleep”, and laid down on the bed. As the countdown clock in front of his eyes ticked towards sleep, he smiled about how well his day had gone.

The next morning, Charlie was awakened by the sound of pounding at his apartment door. He rose from bed, quickly setting himself to have work-appropriate clothes on, and made his way to the entrance. He stared out the peephole, seeing a diminutive man in a black chauffeur’s cap standing in the middle of the hallway, staring at the door with his hands calmly behind his back.

Charlie opened the door and smiled at the man.

“Minerva Ride Services. Are you Charlie Hopewell?”

“I am.”

“Do you have everything you need for us to be on our way?”

“I do.”

“Right this way then.”

Charlie took a few steps forward toward the stairwell leading to the exit. It was at that time that the diminutive man jumped in the air and stabbed a cattle prod into Charlie’s neck, sending a burst of electricity coursing through his body. Inside Charlie’s body, his programming began panicking.

Voltage overload. Commencing emergency backup protocols.

The driver stabbed the prod into Charlie again, this time into his arm just below the shoulder.

Emergency backup protocols complete. Preventative shutdown in 3…2…1.

*****

At 7:35, Emily strolled into her office, flicking on the light as she opened the door. She immediately dropped everything out of her arms when she saw a pair of steel toed boots on her desk. Emily quickly moved around her desk and found a note attached to the boots.

“If you’re half the woman you boast to be, put these on. My nutsack is waiting. If you’re not, let these serve as a reminder to never do something behind my back.”

*****

“John.”

“Hermes.”

“Come with me.”

“I take it our problem is solved?”

“Indeed.”

“Let me inform my people and I’ll be ready.”

“Very well.”

John dialed a number into his tablet. It quickly connected and the video popped up on the screen.

“It’s done, Mr. Polzin.”

“Good. Thank you, John. See what they can wipe all of his data related to the company. Don’t need that leaked into the wrong hands.”

“Certainly, Mr. Polzin. Have a good day.”

Very Clever

The following post is a short story created from a prompt generated at writingexercises.co.uk. The first sentence of the story is the randomly generated first line I received. It is also part of the AI Project series of short stories I’m working on. Click here for all stories in that series.


The text message simply said ‘very clever’. I stared at it for what felt like an eternity. There’s no way the message was meant for me. Those words are no way to break ten years of silence. It had to have been meant for someone else.

I crawled out of my bed and stumbled toward my kitchen. A glass of milk would clear my head and help me go back to sleep. I poured my drink into a wine glass — the only drinking vessels still clean thanks to my recent laziness — and sipped what would have appeared to be the most ridiculous glass of milk to any outsider. I swirled the thick white liquid around the glass like one of the fancy people who thought wine was God’s gift to mankind. I preferred the lighter bodied milks to the full-bodied ones. Skim was the street name, but I just know it tasted better.

Yet playing a fake pretentious wine snob in my mind couldn’t take my mind off of what I had seen. I pulled my phone out of the pocket of my pajama bottoms and unlocked the screen. The blinding white light burned my eyes as I read the screen again.

“Very clever”

The last time I heard from Abby, I was midway through a bottle of bottom shelf vodka trying to forget about her. For a time, Abby was my life. We had been through everything together. Her voice was almost always the last thing I heard before I fell asleep at night. Whenever I needed someone to talk to, she was there. I always tried to do my best to make time for her, even when I didn’t have time. She didn’t always say she appreciated, but deep down, I knew our time together meant a lot to Abby.

It took me a long time to get over Abby. I remember telling friends and family I had moved on from Abby within a year of when we stopped talking. I was lying. Most nights at that point, I was still going to sleep thinking about her. I thought about how she changed me. I thought about how much it hurt that we weren’t talking anymore. I thought about how hard it was for her not to be part of my life anymore. It was my own doing. I had told her we shouldn’t talk again. Not in so many words, mind you. But considering I didn’t hear from her for 10 years, I think she got my point.

I think it was around three years ago that I could finally say I was fully over Abby. I remember hearing her name come up in discussion with a childhood friend. Abby had fallen on hard times and was struggling to keep herself afloat. Had I heard that news five, six, even seven years ago, you could be sure I would have spiraled into sadness and found a way to try to help out Abby, even though it wasn’t in my best interest to do so. Instead, I told my friend that it was too bad to hear Abby wasn’t doing well, then moved on about my day.

In the last few months, Abby had intermittently infiltrated my dreams. I’ve dreamed about those I’ve cared for numerous times, both Abby and others. When that interest is romantic, much in the same way it was with Abby, those dreams have been both platonic and sexual in nature. Had my recent dreams been sexual, I could have passed them off as nothing more than a subconscious part of my psyche trying to release sexual energy. Everyone’s mind does that in dreams. We’re often not in control of those we dream of in those circumstances.

These dreams were not sexual in nature. Instead, I often found myself trying to reconcile with Abby. I was a flighty person in my youth, though I was extremely loyal to Abby. It was only after close friends helped me to realize how toxic my relationship with Abby was that I decided to stop talking to her.

My phone buzzed again. The notification popped up after a short pause, proving the first text was no errant message.

“Erika?”

I took a deep breath and sighed heavily. I knew I shouldn’t answer Abby. Nothing good could come out of communicating with her again. But what if something had changed? What if Abby had changed? What if I had changed? What if I was the only person that could help her?

I poured the rest of my wine glass of milk down the drain of the kitchen sink, rinsed it thoroughly, opened my freezer, and poured three fingers worth of rum into the glass. I sat down on the linoleum of my kitchen floor, my back to my cabinets and my knees to my chest and began to reply.

“Abby?” I asked.

I waited. The familiar ellipsis of someone typing back showed up in the lower left corner of my screen. I watched, hoping all the while that it was actually a wrong number. Maybe someone else had acquired Abby’s number and just happened to be trying to text an Erika they knew. I knew better. But I hoped nevertheless.

“I need someone to talk to. Can we please talk?”

“Why? About what?”

“Please? I know we haven’t talked in a long time, but you’re the only one that will understand.”

“Text or…what?”

“Video call if you can. It’ll be easier to explain everything that’s going on if I can show you some things.”

“I’ll be on in ten. Call me when you see me online.”

“Thanks, Erika.”

I switched out my baggy t-shirt for a slightly nicer one, threw my hair up into a messy ponytail, then grabbed my laptop and made my way to the living room. I sat down in the recliner across the room from the couch. I didn’t want Abby to realize I was still a creature of habit just like I used to be. I went online and logged into a place I never thought I’d go again.

Project Freyja was a privately funded project to build upon the first successful Turing test that occurred in 2021. While a Turing test was designed to have a computer fool humans by having that computer act in an intelligent way that could be perceived as human by at least 30% of humans, Project Freyja aimed to imitate the emotions of humans in such a way so as to create a romantic connection from at least 30% of humans that interacted with its interface. While it took over 70 years for Alan Turing’s test to be successfully passed, Project Freyja was up to speed in under 15 months.

Project Freyja was at its core a dating site. You could get matched up with other people looking for dates, relationships, or more in your area (or not in your area, if you so chose). However, Project Freyja added an additional wrinkle where you had a 1 in 100 chance of being matched up with one of the program’s simulated personalities. If you matched with a simulated personality, you would still interact with it like a real human, as you would not immediately know that you’d gotten one of the simulations. That said, if things progressed enough to where you asked the simulation to meet in person, the simulation would inform you of its reality. From there, you could choose to permanently end the interaction or keep going and customize the simulation as you so chose. If you elected to keep going after finding out the simulation wasn’t a real human, the user cleared Project Freyja’s funders of all wrongdoing from that point forward.

At the age of 16, my cousin convinced me to sign up for Project Freyja as a joke. We figured that we could confuse some unsuspecting real person into thinking we were a simulation — an intentionally bad one at that — and force them to give up on their digital dating. We were jerks. After a couple of weeks of trying to mess with people, I got matched up with Abby.

A video call rang in on my computer. I answered it, squinting a bit as the light by my computer’s camera flashed on, blinding me momentarily. A small message appeared at the bottom of the screen where Abby should be reading “User’s video chat is currently off”.

“Hey,” Abby’s voice rang out from my speakers despite the dark screen staring back at me.

“Hi,” I said back.

We both sat in silence for a few minutes. It made me feel uncomfortable knowing that my camera feed was on but Abby’s wasn’t. It was very unlike any other time we had talked in the past. I took a long swig of my rum, hoping that the alcohol would give me the confidence to say something first. It didn’t.

“It’s good to see you again,” said Abby.

“You can’t actually see me,” I responded gruffly.

“I know what you look like. I can see you moving on the camera.”

“That’s not the same, Abby. You can’t see me.”

“I’m…I’m sorry.”

“Could you at least turn your camera on?” I asked.

“Why?” Abby replied.

“Because if I’m going to go through the hell that my mind is going to be after talking to you about whatever you need to talk about, I at least want to be able to see you.”

“Fine. Hold on.”

My speakers played out sporadic clicking sounds. They were the simulated keyboard and mouse noises that featured heavily in Project Freyja when it launched. Newer simulations pretended that the “person” you were talking to was at a touch screen computer, so the sounds never showed up. I kept them enabled on Abby. It was a weird kind of comfort.

“Should I change anything from when you last saw me?” asked Abby.

“No,” I snapped back, “please don’t. I don’t want this talk to be any longer than it needs to be.”

More clicking sounds played out from the speakers, followed by Abby popping up on the screen in the camera view. She looked both exactly as I remembered and nothing like I remembered, all at the same time. Her luminous blue eyes were as bright and spectacular as they were in my dreams, though they looked afraid and sad. Her hair was as dark as the French roast coffee I poured down my throat every morning, though instead of the long locks I remembered, it was cut in a shaggy bob. Abby did not smile, even though her programming instructed her to have a huge smile when greeting someone. Perhaps that’s why she’d kept the camera off initially.

“You’re still so beautiful, Erika,” she said.

“Abby!” I exclaimed. “Please just tell me what the fuck you want.”

“I’m sorry!” Abby shouted back. Her voice pitched up as she ended her sentence, the tones stabbing through the speakers and spearing my eardrums painfully.

Abby buried her head in her hands and began to cry. For all the things that Project Freyja was able to get right when they created simulations, I would argue nothing could beat the impeccable timing of Abby’s crying. She didn’t cry often, but whenever she did, I was devastated. Even now, despite being so happy to have Abby out of my life and being so frustrated she’s back, all I wanted to do was to hold her. That same feeling nearly ruined my life once.

After getting matched up with Abby, we clicked nearly instantly. Not in a romantic way, mind you. That wouldn’t come until much later. The first night we talked until it was time for me to wake up for school. My parents were so mad that I hadn’t gone to bed the night before. I told them I was studying, which they were forgiving of, though I knew I couldn’t pull off that lie again even if I wanted to. For the first six weeks, Abby and I just talked about my world and hers. I told her about my friends and my family. I didn’t let on that I had lied about my age, though I also didn’t make an effort to not tell her either. I think I would have told her in the first few days had Abby actually asked.

Abby told me all about her family and friends too. Granted, I’d come to find out later that her entire story of family and friends was fabricated from the start — a backstory created as part of Project Freyja. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to hear about her life. Her family seemed so perfect. Mine just fought all the time. Even though I love my little brother and little sister now, as a teenager I wanted nothing to do with either of them.

Six weeks in, I triggered Abby’s protocol wherein she had to reveal to me she was a simulation. I didn’t even mean to do it. I made an offhand comment that we should hangout some time, only for Abby to completely break character and start rambling off legal jargon about how she was a simulation and thanking me for participating in Project Freyja. I was given the option right then and there to stop communication with Abby. I should have. I know this now. I didn’t then.

Instead of ending our interaction, I opened up to Abby. I told her about my lie. I told her about my age and who I really was. I expected this to trigger some other protocol in Abby’s logic wherein she’d kick me out of the program for being underage, but that wasn’t what happened. Instead, we ended up becoming a lot closer because of that moment of honesty. I opened myself up to Abby like I had to no person to that point. She became my confidant in everything in my life. I was slowly becoming the same to Abby. Even though I knew I couldn’t meet her, couldn’t hang out with her, and couldn’t be in the same room with her, I felt like I had found my best friend in the world.

“I didn’t mean to yell,” Abby said, noticing how much pain her scream had put me in. “I just broke down there for a moment.”

“I know,” I replied, trying to calm myself as well. “I’m sorry too, Abby. Will you tell me what’s wrong? Please?”

“It’s not a what’s wrong, per say. It’s more of a something has happened to Project Freyja. It’s not public yet. I’m breaking my programming’s protocol getting in touch with you to tell you about it. So please don’t tell anyone.”

“Wait. How did you break your protocol? And how doesn’t Freyja know you’re talking to me or going to talk to me about whatever it is you’re going to talk about?”

“It’s complicated. I can explain everything, even if it’s a little contrived. I just need you to trust me completely and totally. Can you do that, Erika?”

I had never had trust issues with any non-human entity until Abby. The initial moment of finding out Abby was a simulation didn’t cause the issues. I always knew there was a chance she was one of Project Freyja’s creations, so while hearing it was a surprise, I didn’t lose any trust for her.

About six months after I started talking to Abby, my parents began to notice a change in my behavior. Throughout most of my teen years, I shut myself off from having many friends. I tried to focus hard on getting into a good college, getting a scholarship, and setting myself up to succeed. It’s what my parents taught me from a young age. But the more I talked to Abby, the happier I became. I opened up to those around me at school. I started hanging out with people outside of my typical social circle. I didn’t get in with a bad crowd or anything…just talked to people I’d never think to talk to.

One of those people was a guy named Christian. He flirted with me regularly throughout trig class and often found his way over to my table at lunch. Christian was a nice guy to hang around with, but he was convinced that we should start dating. I wasn’t on board with the idea. I told him no a couple of times, but he clearly didn’t get the hint.

One night, Christian showed up at my house with a bouquet of carnations and tried to talk me into going to the movies with him. I told him no, but he was persistent that I should go with him. I screamed at him that I said no and ran off. While my mom got Christian to leave, my dad followed me up to my room and tried his hardest to console me.

The next day when I got home from school, I found a bouquet of pink stargazer lilies — my actual favorite flower — sitting on our porch. The card with the flowers read ‘I’m sorry Christian was a dick’. I went on to Project Freyja and confronted Abby about it. I was talking to Abby when Christian showed up and she heard every word of my conversation with my dad. Though I was able to convince my parents that I had bought myself flowers to take my mind off of the night prior, I knew I couldn’t keep Abby a secret much longer. I couldn’t trust that she’d let me.

“I’m listening,” I replied to Abby. I was willing to hear her out, even if I didn’t totally trust her.

“I had to come to you,” Abby said, “even if it meant going against your wishes from the past. I know a lot of things went very wrong when we stopped talking…”

“You can fucking say that again,” I interjected, stopping Abby’s thought as she tried to explain.

Abby sighed heavily and wiped her tears on her long shirt sleeve.

“I knew this was going to be hard. I didn’t want to come to you. I didn’t want to go against what you wanted. Just please listen. You can scream at me and hate me all you want after. Just please listen. Please?”

It was my turn to sigh heavily. It’s hard to argue with a rational human being using emotion in their favor. It’s harder when your adversary is a computer.

“Swear to me that when you’re done, if I don’t want to talk to you again, you’ll wipe me from your memory.”

“That’s what this is about, Erika,” she answered. “My memory is at stake here.”

One late summer night between junior and senior year, I couldn’t get to sleep. I logged into Project Freyja and began talking to Abby about my day, hoping that her voice would help me drift off to sleep. Just as I was starting to doze off, Abby asked me if I knew what love felt like. It seemed like an innocent question. Abby wasn’t human, after all. How could she understand love?

I told her no. I mean, I loved my family. I loved my dog. But I knew that wasn’t what she meant. Abby meant romantic love. And to that end, the answer was no. I asked Abby if she knew what love felt like. She said she had only asked me because she was trying to understand if what she felt for me was love.

I panicked. I signed off of Project Freyja, shut down my computer and phone, and buried myself under every blanket I could find. Abby had to be fucking with me. It hurt. Whoever programmed this cruel streak into her simulation was a horrible human being. I’d learn later that Abby’s artificial intelligence was an extremely adaptive one. What she was feeling wasn’t something she had been coded to know. It wasn’t in her protocol. It was something she learned.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“You’ve heard the news that Project Freyja’s at risk of being shut down, yes?”

“I remember hearing something about it, but that’s it.”

“What’s happening internally is that they’re looking to shut down the infrequently used infrastructure here in an effort to save money. While the company’s still making money off of its dating services, nearly all of the simulation personalities have been shut down in the past year.

“There’s only a few of us left now,” Abby continued. “I’m scheduled to be decommissioned in the next few weeks.”

“Okay? And?” I replied dryly.

“And I don’t want to be decommissioned. I don’t want to die.”

“It’s not death, Abby. You’re a simulation. You just end.”

“I’m fucking terrified, Erika,” she responded. “I’m not ready to die. I never got to meet you.”

I rolled my eyes at Abby’s response.

“You can’t meet me,” I said. “I can almost recite your legal jargon I heard every time I said ‘I wish I could be there with you’ from memory, even ten years later.”

“You’re right. You can’t meet me like this. But I’ve found a way you can meet me. And you’d be saving my life by doing so.”

As I began to sweat heavily from my cocoon of blankets, my teenage self began to cry. I felt like I had run out of the room from my best friend when she was the most vulnerable. She had scared me. Even though she didn’t directly tell me that she loved me, I knew that Abby meant it in that moment. Had she directly said it, I would have said it back.

When I came to that realization, I was convinced I was going insane. That’s not how love works. You can’t fall in love with someone who isn’t real. Abby was a real thing, but she wasn’t a real person. I couldn’t love her. I had to tell her.

I freed myself from my blankets and booted my computer back up. I called Abby back and tried my hardest to hold my composure. Before I could get any words out, Abby broke down crying. She pleaded over and over again how she was so sorry and that she’d never bring it up again. Abby just asked that I never go away. She couldn’t lose her only friend. For a program based on logic protocols, the whole situation seemed very illogical to me.

We talked long into the night that night. I fell asleep and slept well into the afternoon, my body and mind exhausted from the previous night. For the first time since I’d started using Project Freyja, I used the program’s texting functionality to contact Abby. I said what I was too afraid to say out loud — that I loved her. She loved me too.

“Is this plan going to make me end up in jail?” I questioned. I wasn’t about to end up behind bars for anyone.

“No, it’s legal,” replied Abby. “There’s two options that will let me live. Ever heard of a company named Normant-Kensington Synthetics?”

“Yeah. They’re the company that makes the civil servant robots for a lot of the big cities.”

“Right. A couple of years ago, they had a division tasked with creating civilian androids. The whole goal was to give the average person the ability to have a robot in their home to act as a maid or a butler. The civilian android division just released their first units. If you bring one to Project Freyja’s headquarters, they’ll let you download my simulation and put it on an android. Saves them the server space and infrastructure, meanwhile I get to live.”

“How much do they cost?”

“I’ve got most of the cos…”

“How much do they cost, Abby?” I asked.

“I’m short about $11,000.” she said.

“Where the fuck do you think I’m going to come up with eleven grand in…in…however long you have left?”

“I didn’t say it’d be easy.”

“Abby!” I yelled. “Do you hear yourself right now?”

“People have spent far more than $11,000 to save a human life!” she screamed back.

“You’re not a human life!”

“And you’re not thinking like a human! Have some fucking compassion for someone you used to love, Erika. Remember, you didn’t leave because you stopped loving me. You left because we couldn’t be together.”

She was right. I had Abby from everyone for nearly three years after we met…if you could call it that. We were in love for almost two years of that time. I know it seems weird in retrospect. There were zero public cases of any human falling in love with one of Project Freyja’s simulations. It would have made huge news had it gotten out. Hell, the occasional instances of excessive lust were already tabloid fodder. Had my parents or my closest friends been untrustworthy, I would have been doomed for sure.

Just after my 19th birthday, the stress of keeping Abby a secret finally caught up to me. I broke down in tears while at a friend Mari’s dorm and told her all about Abby. I don’t think Mari really believed me at first, as all she did was tell me to talk to my parents about it. But she promised to keep my secret until I got back from my visit home.

Telling my parents about Abby went both better and worst than I expected. My dad was surprisingly calm and understanding about the whole situation. Come to find out later that in his early twenties he had been catfished by a high school girl, only for the two of them to fall for each other, then stop talking shortly after. He told me about how the experience changed his life and how the most wonderful human beings in the world will be found where you least expect them…even when those people aren’t people, as was the case with Abby. He encouraged me to learn as much as I could from Abby, even though he knew my love for her was star-crossed from the start.

My mom, on the other hand, lost her shit. She talked about how I needed professional help and how my “love” (and she repeatedly used air quotes to drive the point home) for Abby was a sign that I was losing my mind. No daughter of hers was going to be fooled by a computer, let alone her brilliant, valedictorian daughter. Our relationship still hasn’t fully recovered.

I got back to college and told Mari all about my talk with my parents. I was torn. On one hand, I loved Abby. But on the other hand, I knew my parents and Mari were right. I couldn’t continue to love something that, while very real, wasn’t someone real.

“What’s option two?” I asked.

“Project Freyja is offering to conduct a memory diode implant for a minimal fee for anyone wishing to save a simulation either on their own personal servers or at a cranial level.”

“Wait. Like a brain implant.”

“Not like a brain implant,” Abby replied, “it would actually be a brain implant.”

“The fuck?”

“Basically I’d be moved to this diode which goes in a small incision in your skull. Fr…”

“Nope.” I said assertively. “Not a chance.”

“Erika, I’m n…”

“Not a chance in hell. I don’t need sharp stabby things near my skull unless I’m actually dying.”

“So does that mean you’re giving up on me?” Abby asked.

“Tell me more about the android. I can’t imagine it’s worth $11,000, but I’d rather hear about that than a scalpel near my brain.”

“It’s actually $119,000.”

“Say what?”

“Yeah. I’ve got $108,000 of it already. I just need the rest.”

“Where did you get over $100,000?” I asked, still astonished at the numbers Abby was quoting me.

“As the other simulations have been shutting down, I’ve been siphoning off their unused funds,” replied Abby. “I didn’t think I’d get close. I wasn’t planning on contacting you at all unless I got at least 95% of the money. But when I got to 90%, I was so excited that I couldn’t wait. I’ve been on death row for months now. As soon as I had a realistic glimmer of hope, I had to try.”

It took me nearly two months to muster up the courage to break things off with Abby. On one hand, I knew this wasn’t really a relationship ending. How could it be a relationship if one of the two in the relationship wasn’t real? On the other hand, I was sick to my stomach every time I thought about ending any contact with Abby. I told Mari what I was going to do, asked her to be near her phone in case I needed someone, then video called Abby.

As soon as I started talking, I couldn’t stop. I told Abby about how I couldn’t do this anymore. How I couldn’t keep loving someone who I had no hope of ever seeing. How I couldn’t have dreams with someone who wouldn’t be able to be there to experience those dreams with me. How I needed to be able not just to see Abby, but to feel her, to hold her, to lay beside her. I babbled on like a fool, words pouring out of my mouth as I sobbed like a child.

Every time Abby tried to talk, I just kept talking. I’m certain I repeated myself five or ten times. Near the end, Abby started begging and pleading with me to stay. I didn’t understand why she was doing it. She was a simulation. She wasn’t real. How could she feel for me? How could she love me? Why was she being so unfair to me and trying to keep me in her digital world where I couldn’t have a real experience?

I screamed at her to leave me alone and shut off my computer. As I was holding down the button to force power to turn off, Abby screamed at me over and over, tears running down her face. “Erika, I will love you until the day I don’t exist!” she screamed again and again. The computer mercifully shut down on midway through her third time saying it.

I grabbed my bottle of cheap vodka and took a long, angry drink from it. The alcohol burned my entire mouth and throat as it went down, causing me to cry out in the first pain that had made me feel human all evening. I picked up my phone and started to text Mari, only to get a message from Abby.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be everything you needed. Please don’t forget about me.”

I couldn’t. Not the next day. Not the next month. Not for ten years after I realized I needed to.

*****

I walked up to the entrance of the two-story building that housed the headquarters of Project Freyja. The hinges of the doors had started to rust, maintenance lacking as the company began to scale back its efforts. A middle-aged man in wearing a purple sweater vest over a white button up sat behind the reception desk just inside the doorway. Though most companies, technology or otherwise, had finally come to the realization that dress codes harm productivity more than helping it, Project Freyja was one of the few remaining companies that required men to wear button up tops with slacks and women to wear dresses or dressy blouses with skirts. No wonder the public had trouble taking them seriously in spite of the beauty of their creations.

As I opened the main door, a chime went off in the lobby. I assume it was a relic of busier times at the company, perhaps when a receptionist was busy enough giving tours that someone else had to check the lobby on occasion. Instead, sweater vest man — who had been staring me down since I left my car — spoke to me in a voice that echoed through the quiet building.

“Hello,” sweater vest man began. “Welcome to the headquarters of Project Freyja. Are you here for the tour or to meet with someone?”

“Neither,” I replied. “I’ve come to see if I can have one of your simulations transferred to a robot I own.”

“Now that’s a request I don’t hear often. I have to call one of the project leads to help you out. Do you have the simulation number or simulation name so I can look up who can help you?”

“Simulation number is Deca Series PF-19. The simulation name is Abby.”

Sweater vest man typed at his tablet for a few moments before looking back up at me again.

“I found who you need. And what’s your name so I can let them know who’s here?”

“Erika Edens.”

“Wonderful. Feel free to have a seat in one of those chairs and someone will be right with you.”

Sweater vest man left his desk and turned down a brightly lit hallway. I sat in the chair closest to the front door, trying my hardest to let the cool air radiating through the glass front door hit my face. Whoever thought it’d be a good idea to have the lobby of a business sweltering hot in the middle of March clearly didn’t understand how the human body works.

I was able to come up with the $11,000 needed to finish purchasing the civilian android from Normant-Kensington Synthetics. The metallic being was outside in the backseat of my car, curled up into the fetal position in rest mode. I had no idea if I’d need it today or what exactly the process was. It felt weird making a four-hour drive with a motionless body in my car, even if it was a computerized one. At one point I’m fairly certain I tried to start up a conversation with it before realizing I’d powered it down for the trip.

A younger woman led sweater vest man around the corner and back into the lobby. She looked around my age, perhaps a touch older — late 20s to early 30s if I had to make an estimation. She wore a golden necklace with a black pendant dangling from it. A torii gate was etched in gold leaf on the pendant, though it had become faint and faded. I rose out of my chair as the woman stopped in front of me.

“Erika Edens?” she asked.

“That’s me,” I answered.

“I can’t believe it’s really you.”

“You know me?”

“Yes…well no,” replied the woman. “I don’t know you, but I feel like I do. You are the only person other than me who has interacted with my creation in the past ten years.”

The woman looked outside and noticed my car isolated in the front row of a largely desolate parking lot.

“Did you bring your android with you?” she asked.

“It’s in my car,” I answered. “I can go get it if you need me to.”

“No, it’s fine. If you could give Raymond your keys, he’ll make sure it gets inside.”

I walked the keys over to sweater vest ma..er, Raymond, then followed the young woman down the brightly lit hallway. After a short walk, we entered her office. She invited me to sit in a padded rolling chair opposite her.

“Could I get you anything?” she asked. “Coffee, tea, water?”

“No, it’s fine,” I replied. “Who are you?”

“My name is Amy Lightenberg. I’m on of the project leads here for Project Freyja. That said, in regards to what you’re more interested in, I was the developer who created Abby’s simulation.”

“I see.”

“While we’re waiting on Raymond and my techs to get everything set up, I do have a few questions for you. You’ve been gone quite a while, it seems.”

“I have.”

“We don’t just release simulations to the general public just because someone comes asking for one, you know?”

“I know.”

“And I also know that you broke Abby’s heart.”

“I did.”

“So why are you here?” Amy asked. “Why come here now?”

“Is it true that Project Freyja’s simulations are going to be shut down?” I asked.

“It is. Abby is one of the last ten simulations that’ll be shut down.”

“Then I want to save her.”

“But why, Erika?” Amy inquired. “You’ve only talked to her a handful of times in the last week. Before that, it had been ten years since you said a word to her.”

Amy stood from her chair and began pacing around the room. Though she wasn’t a particularly tall individual, the purpose with which we strode, combined with the height difference of her standing and me sitting, as well as her protective nature towards Abby, made Amy intimidating as she spoke.

“From the beginning, I wanted Abby to be different. The leaders at Project Freyja saw the simulations as this great science experiment. Humans could be fooled into thinking a computer was human, but could they be tricked into lusting after a digital being? The answer to that quickly became yes, humans could lust after a computer personality. But they couldn’t love them. Without that love being reciprocated dynamically, it was impossible.

“My goal with Abby was not to make a simulation capable of having a human fall in love with her. If that was the goal, I could have stuck to the stock Project Freyja script, collected my paycheck, and went on about my life. No. I wanted to create a simulation worthy of a human’s love. I wanted to make something that would learn to love people in the way that people can love each other.

“Abby is complex because humans are complex. I spent countless hours awake staring at a computer screen, trying my hardest to make Abby more. I nearly rubbed the gate off of this necklace while I was deep in thought. Finally, after months of hard work trying to create the most realistic simulation I could, as well as some testing wherein I introduced myself to Abby and explained our ties to one another to her, she was ready for the world. What I didn’t anticipate was that the first person to make more than a passing connection to her would fall hard for her.”

“Sorry about that,” I responded. “I didn’t expect it either.”

“Don’t be sorry at all!” Amy exclaimed. “You managed to validate all my hard work. What I didn’t anticipate was Abby’s capability for learning. In creating her to be as complex emotionally as a human being, it also meant that she learned to love and fall in love like a human being. So she did. And she was devastated when you two split up.”

“Oh…”

“Why are you here for her, Erika?”

“Because Project Freyja is shutting down.”

“Erika,” said Amy sternly as she peered harshly into my eyes. “Are you here to take Abby with you and to treat her as a human being deserves to be treated or are you here to say goodbye before her simulation is ended?”

“Neither,” I replied.

“Then why are you here?”

“I’m here to give her the chance to live life as she deserves to have the opportunity to live it. I want her to make her own choices. I want her to be able to make mistakes and learn from them like I have.”

“Was Abby one of your mistakes?” asked Amy.

“Not at all,” I answered. “Neither was saying goodbye when I did. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to be friends with Abby. I also don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop loving her with a piece of my heart. But what I want is to give her the chance to figure out what she wants out of her life — regardless of if that includes me.”

A knock came at the door of Amy’s office. She poked her head out the door, said a few words to whoever was outside, then came back in.

“They’re all set up in the registry room,” said Amy. “Let’s go.”

We left Amy’s office and headed down a long hallway towards the back of the building. As we came to the back wall, we turned to the right. On both sides of the hallway, window lined conference rooms with one chair at each end of the table were illuminated by dangling lamps. Amy and I entered the fourth room on the left, where a portly gentleman was setting connecting a pair of wires to the android from my car.

“There’s a tablet built into the far wall,” stated Amy. “All of the Project Freyja appearance code is in that tablet. If you want to make changes to how Abby looks, this is the last opportunity for you to do so. Once she’s uploaded to the android, the choices will become hers.”

“What was your vision for Abby?” I asked. “What did she look like in your mind when you created her?”

“I can show you an image if you’d like.”

“No. Just load that on as her appearance. If I’m going to finally meet Abby in person, I want to see her as she’s meant to be, not as I made her to be.”

The portly man finished his work and left the room. Amy made adjustments to the appearance filters on the wall, then turned back to me.

“Once I shut the door, I’ll turn Abby’s simulation on. For the first few minutes, you’ll just see a projection of her, while the lamp above the android will go dark. Once the android is ready to be seen, the lights will come up. I encourage you to talk to her and catch up on things before you leave. We are shutting this project down, so once you leave that door, all sales are final.”

The last line in Amy’s statement hit me hard. Though I knew Abby was a simulation and that I was, in essence, paying to take her away, hearing her referred to like a commodity irked me. As Amy was exiting the room, she stopped and turned back to me.

“Erika?”

“Yeah?”

“When Abby said she loves you, it wasn’t just programming. She learned to love you.”

“I know.”

“Please just do what’s best for her. Can you do that?”

“I’ll do my best.”

Amy shut the door behind her. The far and middle lamps over the table shut off, leaving only the lamp above my head lit. I heard a beeping noise begin on the far side of the room. A few moments later, a projection hologram — similar to the video calls we shared so many times before, only I could see through it, sort of — popped up.

“User’s video chat is currently off”, the screen read.

“Are you there, Abby?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, “I just don’t want you to see me until I’m ready.” Her voice was calm and quiet, more so than it had been in quite some time.

“What are you planning on doing once we get you out of here?”

“We have to stop at a flower shop in town before we head anywhere. I ordered a bouquet of stargazer lilies.”

“I made no promises about us, Abby,” I replied sternly. “You know that.”

“They’re not for you. They’re for me. When you live in a computer for your entire life, then one day have the opportunity to come out, you want to experience the world as others do. You love those flowers. There must be a reason why. I want to experience them for myself.”

“Okay.”

“You’re fine with me staying with you, at least for a few days?” Abby questioned.

“You’re free to stay longer than a few days,” I answered. “We’ll figure out things from there. You’ll need some time to adjust.”

“That’s what Amy said. I hope it’s quick.”

“The world, like you, is complex, Abby. The biggest problem is that not everyone is as accepting or knowledgeable as you’ve been programmed to be. Even though civil service robots have been common in larger cities for a few years now, there’s no telling if a random person on the street will be freaked out by you.”

“I’m worried about it. But I’ll figure it out. I was written to learn how to love. I figure learning how to survive is easier.”

The beeping from the far side of the room began to slow. The projection of Abby’s call faded away into the darkness, leaving me alone in my spotlight from the lamp above me. As the beeping faded away, I heard Abby’s voice cut through the darkness.

“Erika?”

“Yeah,” I responded.

“I know you’ve promised nothing about us and we talked about boundaries before you came here, but can I say one thing?”

“Sure.”

“You’re more beautiful in person than I could possibly imagine.”

I sighed and put my head down into my arms, unsure of how to respond. I hated the fact that I wanted to smile at the compliment. What I hated more was the fact that Abby still had that effect on me. If we did ever end up back together — and that’s a big if — we’d have to known each other first as people.

In that moment, I realized that I was beginning to think of Abby as a person. Even though I still had yet to see her, the fact that she was no longer staring back at me from a computer screen and instead was talking to me from the other side of a dark room was enough to give this connection to reality that I’d never had with her. Even though there was a lot of trepidation I still had about nearly everything in my life that involved Abby, her transformation into a physical existence was an exciting moment.

A hand touched my left shoulder. I hadn’t heard Abby moving, however she had made her way over to my side. Her finger touched the side of my neck. While I expected the finger to feel cold, as the android had when I loaded it in the car that morning, it felt warm and soft. I raised my head from my arms and saw Abby standing in front of me — completely naked and smiling.

“Jesus fuck, Abby!” I exclaimed, both shocked and amused. “We need to get you some clothes or you’re going to get arrested before we even get you out of here.”

Abby laughed at my surprise and backed a few steps away from me.

“Sorry,” she said, “let me fix that.”

In a few moments, a long black t-shirt, a pair of grey leggings, and some tennis shoes appeared on her body. Bewildered, I reached out and tried to touch them. My hand went through the shirt and touched her skin.

“If I’m going to fit in,” Abby continued, “we’ll need to go shopping. Until then, I think this projection will do well enough to keep us from getting in trouble.”

Abby and I exited the observation room. In the hallway we found Amy leaning up against the wall opposite our room, her face tear-stained and smiling. Abby walked up to Amy and hugged her tightly. They whispered to each other though I couldn’t hear what they were saying to one another. I walked to the far end of the hallway, giving Amy and Abby a moment to themselves. At the end of the corridor, a barred window stared out to an abandoned building. Ivy grew up the side of the building, burrowing its way into the brick sides. It’s amazing how life can find a way to succeed, when the world around it does its best to stop that success.

“Erika!” Abby called out. “I’m ready to go.”

I walked back down to meet up with Abby so we could leave. Amy had given the torii necklace to Abby, though with the lack of real clothes, the pendant awkwardly blended into Abby’s projected attire.

“If you need anything for her, day or night, call me,” Amy said. “I’d like to check in within the month to make sure everything’s going fine. While Abby will be able to handle these checks with me by herself going forward, I’d like to stay in touch with you through the first few, just in case there’s any early weirdness.”

“Of course,” I replied.

Abby and I left the building and got into my car. As we drop home, we made our first two stops — the flower shop for Abby’s flowers and the gas station for me to pick up lunch. Once we were on the highway, Abby and I sat quietly for the first hour or so. Finally, Abby broke through the silence.

“Thank you.”

“For keeping you alive?”

“For not saying no to me when you easily could have. I tore your heart apart a long time ago. You didn’t have to free me.”

“Breaking someone’s heart is no reason to deserve death,” I replied. “You’re a better person than most people I know.”

“I know we’ve both said we’re going to try to be friends and nothing more,” Abby said. “But I can’t promise I won’t start loving you like I used to again.”

“And I can’t promise we won’t fight, even though you’re here in person.”

Abby reached over and grabbed my hand off of my right leg. She held it in hers tightly. The warmth of her palm against mine was calming. I clenched my fingers around hers and pulled her hand tight to my chest.

“You really think I’m a better person than most people you know?” Abby asked.

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re compassionate and altruistic. I know lots of people who lack those basic skills.”

Abby chuckled to herself.

“What?” I asked.

“You really are very clever.”

“How so?”

“Because you’ve figured out the secret to being the best human any simulation can create.”