Lena and the Robot Ch. 01

Author’s note:

This is a work of fiction. No characters, places, or situations depicted here are real, intended to be real, or imagined to be real. If you were expecting Shakespeare or Shelley, I kicked them out of the building before I started. If these type of situations disturb you, or if you’re underage in the country of your residence, stop reading now and go elsewhere. For everyone else: enjoy!

Chapter 1

“Hey, Simi, can you help me with this question?” Lena pushed open the door to Simi’s room, holding open her textbook as she strode in, and suddenly stopped; Simi stood, straight and still, in the center of her bedroom, facing away from her.

“Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to bug you,” Lena said, backing out slowly. She half-closed the door, then paused; Simi hadn’t moved. Lena frowned, puzzled. Simi was dressed in a gray bodysuit that covered her from the neck down, leaving only her head and hands exposed. It glittered softly, like metal. She was facing the desk opposite the door.

“Simi, are you okay?” Lena asked but got no response. “Simi?” She moved back into the room, looking at her housemate. “Simi, what’s going on?” Nothing.

Lena stepped closer, coming around to Simi’s front to see if she was wearing headphones. She wasn’t, but there was still no indication she heard Lena at all; she didn’t turn, blink, or fidget; it was as if she were frozen in place. Was she even breathing? Yes, Lena could see her chest expanding and contracting, but very, very slowly, in a perfectly even rhythm.

“What the-?” Lena stared into Simi’s eyes. Her deep blue eyes were completely unfocused and empty, as though she saw nothing around her. Lena waved her hand in front of Simi’s face, but again got no sense that Simi was aware of her at all.

The suit caught Lena’s attention again. It appeared to be an elastic material made of pure silver, a metallic mesh that sparkled. She wasn’t imagining it; thousands of tiny lights danced across the fabric, coursing along hidden pathways like circuits just beneath the surface, with a pattern that pulsed in waves from the neck down. Was this some kind of electronic material? A row of white LEDs flickered within the collar beneath Simi’s chin, indicating some sort of circuitry. The collar was thicker than the rest of the suit’s material, and had several protruding bumps, hidden squares and rectangles sandwiched inside the neckband. And beneath Simi’s shoulder-length dark blonde hair, from the back of the collar, a cable was attached to a small port. Lena followed its path down between Simi’s shoulder blades, hanging along her left side and leg, across the floor, and up to the active computer on the desk in front of her, where it was mated to a USB slot.

Lena’s eyes widened; Simi was plugged into the computer.

A shifting green pattern scrolled across the computer monitor, with overlaying lines floating in and out like a screen saver. Lena watched it for a few seconds, but it made no sense to her. There was a progress bar across the bottom showing the transfer of data; information was either being uploaded or downloaded into the suit.Or worse, Lena realized,directly into Simi. Panicking, Lena spun back to Simi, reached behind her to grasp the thin cord, and pulled it free from the collar.

A thin alarm tone sounded from the computer, causing Lena to turn to the desktop. Instantly the screen flashed red, and the pattern froze. The words “TRANSFER INTERRUPTED” appeared, stark white against the crimson, and a computerized voice sounded the words from the speakers. But at the same time, Simi repeated the words in a voice that chilled Lena to the bone. Her voice was flat, devoid of emotion, like those emulated in computer programs; that was not what Simi sounded like at all! The two voices, from the speaker and Simi’s mouth, overlapped, echoing each other.

A moment later Simi blinked rapidly, and the suit’s shimmering lights winked out. Her posture changed, relaxed, and she breathed out, focusing on Lena. “You shouldn’t have done that, Lena.” Simi’s voice was back to normal, but to Lena it held just a hint of menace.

“I’m sorry!” Lena cried, scrambling for the exit. She ran down the hallway for her own room and slammed the door. Heart racing, she jammed a chair under the handle to prevent entry and curled up on her bed. Wrapping a blanket around her shaking body she glared at the door in horror, waiting. Her mind screamed in a disorganized jumble; she was far too confused and disturbed to think clearly. Long minutes passed before her breathing slowed, and her heart rate began to fall. What had she just seen? Was Simi a robot? Android? Cyborg? What was what going on?

More than an hour later, the knock Lena was expecting finally came; a soft, almost apologetic pair of taps, and instantly her panic spiked again. She wasn’t sure if she should respond, or how; horror at what she had seen, anxiety for her friend, and curiosity all warred within her.

“Lena, can we talk?” Simi’s muffled voice penetrated through the door. “I’m sorry if I scared you.”

Minutes went by before Lena found her voice. “I…I don’t know. I’ll be out in a bit.”

“Okay. I’ll be in the front room. Don’t forget, I have class in an hour.” She sounded perfectly normal to Lena. Was it even Simi? Would it even be safe to question her? It? There were too many questions, and Lena wasn’t sure she wanted the answers, but slowly she gathered her courage, stood, and opened the door.

As promised, Simi was in the front room, sitting with her feet up on the big brown couch, nonchalantly flipping through the latest edition ofWinterwear, a fashion magazine. The gray bodysuit was gone or hidden; she wore a casual red blouse and tan lounge pants. Spying Lena, she smiled reassuringly. “C’mon, sit down, there’s a lot to explain.” She flipped her legs off the cushions and patted the space beside her.

Lena opted for the smaller armchair; she wanted to keep the coffee table between them and hoped Simi wouldn’t notice how nervous she was. She wanted to take the initiative and lead the discussion, but it was hard; Simi had been her friend and housemate for months. She was organized, clean, sociable, and funny; Lena had liked her from the start. They didn’t share the same classes, but they studied together often, and Simi always got perfect grades. Lena hadnever suspected Simi wasn’t human.

“So…you’re a robot?”

Simi leaned towards her, smiling, trying to project friendliness. “I’m still me, Lena, the same girl you’ve been living with for months now, nothing’s changed.” She laughed lightly. “Well, I guess it has now, hasn’t it? But not for me. I want you to know that.”

“Whatare you, Simi?”

“I’m notactually a robot, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Simi motioned to her body. “No gears and wires, I’m still flesh and blood.” She pinched her arm, blanching the skin. “Everything works a little differently now though. Sometimes I don’t think of myself as human anymore; the technical term would be ‘augmented humanoid’.”

Lena frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I’ve been modified a little bit.” Simi steepled her hands in front of her lips, preparing to explain. “Not surgically or anything, I’ve just sort of…rewired myself. Look, human beings are machines, just really complex organic ones, and we can do amazing things. But with a little modification, things can be so much easier. Moving, learning, remembering, all that. What really makes us different from regular machines is the programming.” She tapped the side of her head with a finger. “I’ve just made a few changes to my software, that’s all.”

“I thought you were studying architecture. What’s with all this computer stuff?”

“I was actually accessing the architecture lesson for next week when you interrupted me.” Simi ducked her head. “I was trying to get ahead on the assignment. I wasn’t quite finished with that chapter when you disconnected me, but I’ve finished it now.”

“Disconnected…So you were what, downloading it?” Lena asked.

“Yes. By interfacing with my computer and the school’s internet, I can download information directly into my brain.” Seeing Lena speechless, Simi tapped her head. “We have a lot of extra space up here; this lets me fill and organize it faster.”

Lena wasn’t a scientist either, she was majoring in English, but some of what Simi was saying meshed with her high-school science and computer classes. “So, you’re, like, reprogramming yourself?”

“Yep!” Simi smiled broadly. “Once I download something, I never forget it. It makes classes so much easier, among other things.”

“How is that even possible?” Lena sputtered. It sounded like science fiction, but something like this couldn’t happen in real life, could it? “You don’t have microchips in your head or anything, do you?”

Simi laughed. “I don’t need them, just the suit and the computer. I just put it on, and plug it in, like you saw; the suit takes care of the rest. I have the computer input what I want to learn, and voila! Instant upgrade.”

Lena didn’t think she would ever get that image out of her head. It was disturbing and unnerving, but fascinating at the same time. Was this even something shewanted to learn more about? Curiosity got the better of her. “Can… can you show me?”

Simi shook her head. “I have to get ready for class, remember? It would take too long to put the suit on, but I can let you see it.” Simi stood, motioned for Lena to follow. “C’mon.”

Hesitant, Lena got up and went after, and they returned to Simi’s room.

“Take a look.” Simi reached into her closet, pushing other clothing aside to grasp the hangar carefully concealed against the wall, where it could not easily be found. She withdrew the silver bodysuit and held it up for Lena to inspect.

Lena vacillated, then touched the shiny metallic fabric with a finger. It was slightly stretchy, resembling Spandex or Lycra, but thicker. It was one piece, made to cover the entire body, including the feet, leaving the hands and head free, just as Lena saw when Simi had it on earlier. The collar was high, coming right up to the jawline. A zipper ran down the back, concealed behind an excess fold of the material. “The fold is magnetic,” Simi explained, “so when I’m wearing it, the zipper is completely hidden.”

“Looks uncomfortable,” Lena observed. She thought she’d seen people wearing full bodysuits like this at basketball games and other sporting events at the college, but those were usually bright green and covered the head too. “Where’d you get this thing?”

“That’s a secret,” Simi said with a taunting smile.

“How does it work?”

“There’s a small computer in the collar, which plugs into the desktop.” Simi fingered the hard bump on the back of the collar where the hidden processor was and pulled aside the flap to expose the small port Lena had seen before. “Also recharges it. It only lasts about an hour if it’s not plugged in. Here, see these?” She flipped the sides of the collar down, exposing the inside. Lena could see four metal bulges, like thick, rounded buttons, running parallel to either side of the zipper; they would straddle the spine of whoever wore the suit. “These transceivers coordinate directly with my nervous system, so the suit can ‘talk’ to my brain; that’s how I download and upload information. It works with actions and habits too; if I want to try something new, I only have to do it once. The suit can learn it for me and train my body to repeat it until my brain remembers.”

“How does it ‘train your body’?”

Simi held open the wrist cuff, pulling it back so Lena could see the thin wires on the inside, woven through the fabric. There were tiny bumps, nodes where the wires crossed, came together, or ended. “See those little dots? They’re sensors; they read information through my skin and send it through the wires back to the control chips in the collar. They can also receive signals from the collar and trigger my body to react in certain ways. They can speed up my reaction times, or stimulate muscle memory, even help develop muscle tone, like those TENS units they have in physical therapy.”

Lena looked at the suit, imagining what it would be like to beencased in this web of circuitry, reading every part of your body at once, relaying signals, stimulating muscles. “Wait, you’re saying this suit takes over your body, makes it move, and it can reprogram your brain?” That flustered feeling returned. “So, putting it on does turn you into a robot?”

“Not by itself,” Simi tried to reassure her. “The suit can synchronize with my body and stimulate it, but the reprogramming is only temporary, it can’t make any permanent changes. It has to be linked to the computer for serious mind and body conditioning, and like I said, the battery would only last an hour. I can’t stay plugged in all the time anyway; I still have classes, and work. And can you imagine bathroom breaks? Having to take this off and put it back on just to pee? Besides, I have to clean it, which takes time, and it has to be repaired once in a while. I mean, the circuits are pretty robust, but they can still break.”

“But the effects last after you take it off, right? It still controls you, makes you do things?” Lena said, confused. “How long does it take to wear off?”

“It doesn’t,” Simi shrugged. “What would be the point of reprogramming myself if it didn’t last?”

“That doesn’t sound safe at all, Simi. What if it programs you to do something wrong, or bad?”

“”It doesn’t work that way, Lena; there are safeguards, it only does what I want it to,” Simi reassured her. “Besides, you can’t be forced to do something you don’t want to do, the human brain prevents it. You can only do things you reallywant to do.”

“How can you be sure, Simi? What if someone…hacks into it or something? Makes you want it? You’d just have to do whatever they program you to do.” A quick, blissful look crossed Simi’s face; just a flicker, but Lena saw it.

Simi sighed, shaking her head. “You don’t get it. It’s perfectly safe; I control what the computer programs into me.” Suddenly she tilted her head slightly, listening to an alarm Lena couldn’t hear. “Anyway, it’s time for class. Listen, I have to go, we’ll talk more later, okay?” Carefully she replaced the high-tech silver suit in the back of the closet, and moved the other clothes back, concealing it. Then she reached for her backpack beside the computer desk and swept it up over one shoulder. “I promise, everything’s fine. I’ve been like this a long time now; I know what I’m doing. We’ll talk more about this later if you want.”

Speechless, Lena stepped aside and let her leave. With a final look at the closet, she exited the room and went back to her own.

‘Troubled’ did not begin to describe how Lena felt. Her housemate, her friend, the one she had shared so many things with, was…what? Reprogramming herself? Changing herself? What changes was she making? What had she already changed? What had she changed before Lena had even met her? Most importantly, why? Just to get ahead in class? There had to be more to it, for her to undergo such an alteration.

Lena could not excise the image of Simi being connected to the computer, the luminous silver suit, the blank, emotionless stare, the swirling pattern on the screen, and that empty voice. She wasn’t just afraid, this was something more; a deeply embedded uneasiness she could not define, born of both terror and excitement.

She didn’t dare ask any more questions.

She wanted to know everything.

——————–

Stand straight.

Unit H38 held her shoulders back, her head level. Her knees were slightly bent, to prevent locking, her feet shoulder width apart, her weight perfectly balanced. Her arms hung at her sides; fingers slightly curled in a relaxed position. She wasn’t relaxed though; a robot doesn’t relax; it maintains the proper position in perfect tension until the moment it its programming requires it to move. Slight muscle aches began to develop; her body kept trying to return to incorrect positions developed over years of bad posture. The program recorded it, calculated a response, made the proper adjustments.

Unit H38 stood straight.

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