Lena and the Robot Ch. 02

Chapter 2

Though she fretted about the exchange, Lena had no desire to continue the conversation when Simi returned from class that afternoon, earning a shrug from Simi as she went back to her room. Days went by before they spoke of it again. Lena kept to her room, avoiding Simi, except at mealtimes. She tried to keep their conversations light and frivolous, only discussing household chores and their classes, and Lena was careful never to let their eyes meet.

A week passed before Simi finally broached the taboo topic. “Lena?” It was dinnertime, tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Lena was almost done, but Simi set down her spoon and made sure she held Lena’s attention before proceeding. “I’m going to use the suit tonight. I have some…updates I have to do.”

Lena’s spoon clattered into the nearly empty bowl.

Simi continued. “I’ve been putting it off, because I wanted to ask: do you… want to watch?” She asked shyly.

All the suppressed anxiety flooded back into Lena at once. “I don’t…you’re okay with that?”

Simi nodded. “Actually,I want you to see it. I think you’ll understand better if you do.”

“Now?”

“Give me a few minutes after we finish up, okay? To get the suit on.”

The suit. “S…sure.” After Simi left for her room, Lena scooped the dishes into the sink and tried to calm her racing heart. Scrubbing the bowls and quickly setting them in the dishwasher, Lena took a few deep breaths, and let the warm water from the faucet bathe her shaking hands. Simi was in her room, putting on the silver suit… Lena was overwhelmed but couldn’t tell which emotion was strongest. Was she scared? Excited? Nervous? Anxious? All of the above? The feeling was overwhelming, like knowing the term paper was due tomorrow, and she hadn’t finished it; or the first time she’d invited a boy to spend the night with her…

The last thought drew her up short; of all the myriad emotions she was experiencing, how had arousal crept in? Or was it simply the excitement of doing something forbidden? She squashed it mentally before shutting off the water and drying her hands. Surveying the kitchen to be sure she was finished, Lena slapped the light switch and went down the hall, rapping a knuckle on Simi’s door to inform her of her presence.

Simi was waiting; she sat at her desk, facing Lena as she came in. She was wearing the suit once again, her body wrapped in silver cloth and invisible circuitry. Her desktop computer was booted up, an unfamiliar program window open on the monitor. “Are you ready?” At Lena’s nod, she spun her chair to the computer, and began typing. She seemed far less apprehensive than Lena was. “I have six programs on the schedule tonight, shouldn’t take long, maybe a few minutes. Just a few apps that need updating.”

Lena moved to the bed and sat down, watching. “Apps? Like on your phone?”

“Yep,” Simi affirmed, turning her chair to Lena. “Here’s the best way I can think of to explain it. My mind is like a computer, and I’m the OS, the operating system,” she tapped her head. “The human brain is a huge hard drive, with a massive amount of space for files. My system’s up here, taking up a good part of the space, but the rest is empty; most people never fill it in their lifetimes, but with the suit, I can plug in new information whenever I want. And there are programs I can install, like apps, to let me perform specific functions in more efficient ways.”

“Like what?” Lena asked. What apps had Simi already installed? Where any already running now?

Simi shrugged. “There’s reading prioritization, memorization, math optimization, room cleaning efficiency, and one for that French poetry catalog.” She frowned, fingers still moving over the keyboard. “I didn’t want it, but I needed it to pass that required Freshman language class. Now I can’t bring myself to uninstall it. Sometimes I leave it on as I’m shutting down; it helps me sleep.” She tapped a final key, and a message appeared on the screen, prompting her to “Insert connection cable.”

Simi stood and picked up the end of a long black cable; Lena recognized it from before. “Last chance,” she waved the jack at Lena, who nodded hesitantly. “Okay. Once I plug it in, everything’s automatic. You don’t have to do anything, just wait. I left the vocalizations on, so you’ll know what’s happening.” She faced the computer, lifted her hair aside, and proceeded to push the cable jack into the port on the back of her collar. “Here goes!” The monitor went dark, then filled with a kaleidoscopic pattern, pulsing geometric shapes in multi-colored hues, shifting, spiraling, scrolling…

With a soft electronicbeep! the silver suit lit up. Glittering lights danced across the fabric, a line of orange dots glowed on the collar, and Simi’s entire demeanor changed. Her arms dropped to her sides, she pulled herself up straight, her face relaxed into a blank mask, and her eyes lost focus. She stood rigidly at attention.

“Connection established. Unit E27 online.” The dual voices issued simultaneously from the speakers and Simi’s mouth.

“Eep!” Lena’s hands slapped over her mouth to suppress her involuntary outburst. She’d heard Simi’s robot voice before, but it still shocked her; while the computer audio sounded synthetic, Simi’s voice had overtones of the woman Lena knew; not monotone, but different; it sounded… colder, deeper, with no inflection. She had mentioned leaving the vocalizations on, but Lena had half-expected the commands would only come from the computer speaker, not from both the speaker and Simi’s own mouth. The butterflies in Lena’s stomach beat their wings uncontrollably, reaching a nearly painful peak, as she tried to process the substance of the message. E27, Simi had said; she had anumber. This wasn’t Simi anymore, this was Unit E27.

The orange LEDs in her collar flickered to white one by one, and the monitor pattern changed, confirming the connection. “Unit E27 is ready to receive programming.”

A progress bar appeared on the screen, and Lena read the caption: ‘Downloading 1 of 6 updates.’ White marks began to fill the bar as information flowed through the cable into the suit. Waves of tiny sparks pulsed in regular intervals down Simi’s suit, from the collar to her extremities, following the concealed wires. Simi’s voice, echoing from the computer speakers, punctuated and emphasized each pulse: “Downloading…downloading…downloading…”

Lena’s eyes were still frozen wide, listening and watching as the computer…updated her friend. Even though she had briefly glimpsed it before, and Simi had told her what to expect, it still was something Lena couldn’t comprehend; it was an utterly alien experience, Simi’s body and mind completely under the computer’s control. Simi was being rewritten, changed, programmed, right in front of her; Simi was an I/O device for the machine, a programmable extension. Was she even aware of externalities like Lena’s presence?

“S…Simi?” Lena squeaked. “Simi, are you there? Can you hear me?”

Just as before, there was no response. Simi’s face was expressionless, her body straight, still, and silent. The minutes dragged out as the progress bar filled, punctuated by Simi’s robotic voice: “downloading…downloading…” and Lena’s heavy, anxious breathing.

After a few short minutes that stretched into eternity for Lena, Simi pronounced: “Download complete. Applying updates.” Lena checked the monitor; the progress bar was full, reading 100%. “Completion in four minutes, twelve seconds.” The screen darkened as Simi and the computer fell silent.

“Simi?” Lena repeated, waiting. Then she considered; maybe Simi hadn’t reacted because she was in this… robot mode. What was that number again? “Unit… E27?”

“Acknowledged.” The voices pronounced from their twin sources.

“You can hear me?” Lena whispered, surprised.

“Affirmative. Presence of housemate:Lena is confirmed.” While the voices still sounded flat, Lena thought she sensed a note of surprise.

“Are…are you finished?”

“Negative. This unit is currently applying updates, completion is expected in two minutes, five seconds. Do you wish to pause?”

“No, no, keep going,” Lena didn’t want to interrupt. But Simi was apparently still able to converse in this mode. Curiosity got the better of her; “you’re… Unit E27?”

“That is this unit’s designation.”

“You’re…not Simi?” She asked hesitantly.

“The active functions of program:Simi are suspended during the update, and will be reactivated in one minute, twenty-three seconds.”

Lena frowned. ‘Program Simi’ was… suspended? But Simi said she was the operating system; shouldn’t that always remain running? “How long have you been like this?”

“This unit has been in operation for twelve minutes and zero seconds.”

“No, I mean…when were you…when was Unit E27 created?”

“This unit was first activated one year, four months, and eleven days ago.”

Over a year, Lena thought. Simi was twenty-one; she was right, she’d been this way long before they’d known each other.

The… unit… had said something about pausing; a moment of twisted curiosity overcame Lena’s better judgment. “What happens if I pause you?”

“The current update will remain incomplete until the unpause command is issued. The information will be deleted if the update is not completed within twenty-four hours.”

“How long will Simi remain suspended?”

“Security protocols dictate that program:Simi be automatically reactivated after sixty-two minutes.”

“What happens if I unplug you?”

“Forcibly terminating the connection will result in immediate reactivation of program:Simi.”

Okay, that’s enough, Lena’s conscience reasserted itself. As crazy as this all seemed, tampering with her friend that way was obviously wrong. Lena let the invisible timer run out.

“Update complete.” Simi turned to face Lena, staring at her with blank, empty blue eyes. She tilted her head slightly, as if curious. “This unit looks forward to interacting with you again, housemate:Lena.” Then the rigid pose returned. “Connection terminated. Unit E27 offline.” She reached up behind her, tugging, and Lena heard a pop as the cord came out. The suit lights winked out.

Lena held her breath, watching as Simi blinked rapidly, then closed her eyes, her posture relaxing. When her eyes opened again, Lena could see they were focused and bright once more.

“Well, there you have it,” Simi said in a normal tone; the computer speakers on the desk remained silent, the second source of sound gone. Then she cocked her head at Lena. “Were you thinking about pausing me?”

“What? No!” Lena cried, waving her hands in denial. “I wouldn’t… Wait, you heard? I thought it said you were… suspended?”

Simi nodded. “Well sure, but I’m still conscious and aware. When I’m connected, it’s like watching a movie with VR glasses; I can see and hear everything, even feel it, but I can’t control it.” She sat in the desk chair, wiggled the mouse to awaken the computer, and shut down the program. “There we go, all finished for tonight.” She reached up and opened the fold in the back of her collar to expose the zipper, pulling it down an inch. Then she turned back to Lena, and a slow smile crept over her face. “You know, I think she was fascinated by you,” she said. “E27. She’s never had the chance to talk to someone else before. That was a new experience for her.”

“Me too,” Lena admitted, “You sounded so…” she struggled for the right words. “Like a completely different person.”

Simihmphed at her in amusement. “I’m joking, Lena, it’s just me. She’s just another part of my program; a basic interface so that I can keep communicating while the updates are going on.”

“Oh,” Lena apprehensively looked down at the floor. “Hearing you talk from the speakers at the same time really threw me off.”

“I suppose it would,” Simi remarked. “I can fix that next time, if you want.”

Next time? Lena continued staring at the carpet, remembering the imposing, but curious gaze Simi had in her robot mode. “Can we…do this again?” She asked shyly.

“We’ll see. I usually do updates once a week in the morning, but I can push it back to evening. I’ll let you know. Okay now, out. I have to take this off,” Simi motioned towards the suit. “Oh, remember, please keep this between us?”

“Sure,” Lena stood, nervously brushing off her clothes with her palms. “Good night.” Waving a hand, she headed for the door.

“G’night,” Simi’s voice followed her down the hall.

Safely back in her room, Lena collapsed on her own bed, shivering. She was stressed, pretending to be calm in front of Simi, while her insides screamed. The whole experience was crazy; watching Simi interface with a computer, get reprogrammed? And she had asked Simi if she could watch it again? She closed her hands tight into fists to stop them from quivering, then turned to her closet. She kept her pajamas on a hook inside the closet door. Quickly she shucked her regular clothes and held the p.j.s in front of her. Bending over so she could put her foot into the soft material, she paused suddenly. What would it feel like, putting on the silver suit? She drew the fabric up slowly, imagining the sensation of the wires and nodes pulling up over her leg, connecting with her skin, reading the sensations…controlling her.

Shivering, she fought off the sudden rush of…what? It wasn’t apprehension, or anxiety; it almost felt like shewanted it, that sense of forbidden temptation, as if…

Looking down, she realized she had only drawn her pajamas up as far as her crotch; she could feel the soft material brushing her thighs. A sensuous thought wormed its way into her racing mind: were there sensors, stimulators, in the suit’s nether regions? Imagine being programmed,ordered to…? Unable to resist as her own body obeyed, her hands complying with automated directions to pleasure herself…

Arousal again?

“Disgusting, Lena, get a grip!”

She yanked on the clothes and got into bed, then reached for her phone, lying on the nightstand; some soft ambient music would definitely help her sleep tonight. As she plugged it in, she hesitated briefly. Simi was like that now, a device that needed to be plugged in, recharged; a living human being, crossed with a computer. Shaking her head to try and clear it, she brought up the music app. Simi had apps too. Would she let Lena watch as she ran one? She brought up a quiet tune, and let it play, listening to the gentle droning sound.

Suddenly she realized what she was doing: programming herself to fall asleep. She began imagining subliminal commands buried in the music, hidden electronic tones that whispered thoughts into her mind, of obedience, of emptiness, of sleep. She pictured herself lying there on the bed, wearing the silver suit as the lights flowed down her body; with a cord snaking out the back of her head to the phone, a vacant expression on her face as the device fed commands into her open, compliant mind…

It took over an hour of counting wrinkles in the ceiling paint, an hour of random thoughts and comparisons between machines, computers, and household devices and the person she was sharing an apartment with, before Lena’s pounding heart relaxed, her breathing slowed, and the shaking stopped. The soft, droning music took its time, but sleep finally claimed her. Her dreams were haunted by Simi’s blanked-out robot face, with empty blue eyes that saw nothing and yet stared deep into her soul, and that unnerving, twin-sourced robotic voice.

——————–

Be still.

Unit H38 still breathed; her body was organic and required air. Every respiration was measured, exact, absorbing the necessary amount of oxygen. It filtered through her lungs into her bloodstream. Her heart beat in a precise rhythm, mechanically pumping the liquid through her body, her arms, legs, fingers, toes, her skin itself. Her bodythrobbed with its cadence; the program recorded it, calculating. Excess motion was not required; the constant, minute changes to her balance cancelled out all other movement.

Unit H38 was still.

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