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REMARKABLE YOUNG MINDS: Connor Jensen, Part 1/??

“Hey, Connor! Say hi to my viewers?”

The camera panned to the young programmer, whose face was framed by a thick set of glasses, as he looked up from more monitors than any normal person could really use. He gave a voiceless chuckle as he pushed away from the screens and looked toward the camera.

With an amicable eye-roll, he started signing, and the translation appeared across the bottom of the screen. Are you recording this, Penny? Stop it!

As the young voice sounded, the occasional hand would wave by the camera. Penny was signing while they spoke. “No, no! I’ve decided what I’m doing for my senior project for Media. I call it, ‘Remarkable Young Minds.’ It’s a showcase of young talented students! And you’re my first subject: Connor Jensen, future doctor in AI engineering. I’ll sub in what you’re signing in post and run all the videos by you before I upload them. What do you say?”

Connor adjusted his glasses briefly with a bashful smile that lit up his face. I— sure. I mean, if you think it’s something your viewers might like?

“So, hey, what’re you working on?”

There’s someone I’d like you to meet. Connor beckoned her over to his workstation.  Penny, this is ———.


“I don’t understand.” The colonel glanced down from the observing deck at the hulking mass of idling steel. She was frustrated . If the mech had just broken down, she could request a replacement, but the three top AI specialists on the station couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the damn thing. “If it’s upset about losing its teammate, why can’t we just restore it from a backup? Or, hell, just send this guy back a few weeks.”

“I can answer that, Colonel.” A robotic voice intoned.

Approaching the observing deck was a pair of figures: one the generic bipedal form of a standard utility drone and the other a lanky man with thick glasses, wearing a peculiar pair of black and white gloves that went up past the elbow.

“It was, after all, the subject of my thesis.” The drone continued to speak, interpreting the rapid hand signs of the deaf Mr. Connor Jensen. 

I hate these, Connor thought with a healthy dose of ire for the drone. No doubt he should be grateful they decided to accommodate him at all at the Arctic station of Fort Adams, but he would have much preferred a human interpreter. ASL recognition flagged far behind speech recognition due largely to the lack of demand, and it required the use of a ridiculous set of gloves that were easier for inhuman optics to track.

Restoring an AI from a backup in isolation is theoretically possible, but often the environment results in complications. He signed, seeing a facsimile of his own words appear on the lower rim of his glasses. Every sentence or two, he’d need to fingerspell a sign that the drone didn’t recognize or wait for the thing to catch up. The other AIs will feel like something’s off about the backup because they lack some shared memories, and this eventually alienates them. It’s like a medical graft. If you aren’t exceptionally careful, the other AIs will subconsciously reject it. I’ve only seen it done successfully twice and only in very controlled environments.

Mr. Jensen , the Colonel Maria Ferguson spoke, hand extended. It’s nice to finally meet you. Connor didn’t need the closed captioning to understand the colonel. He had lost his hearing late enough in life to be able to read lips with relative ease. I hope you can make some progress on one-seven-alpha-x-ray here. 

17 stood at the ready. The mech was always ready. He had not been informed, but a quick check of the station’s duty roster revealed that he had been assigned to another day of maintenance, though he didn’t recognize the specialist’s name. 

Mr. Connor Jensen. 

Limited data available. 

Pay grade: Civilian contractor

Age: 26 Occupation: AI Developer at Coritech

Education: Enrolled in PhD program in AI Programming from MIT, but left with a Masters, Bachelor’s in Computer Science, Psychology from the College of William and Mary

History: Classified

Accessibility: deaf, sensorineural, requires ASL interpreter

A civilian with a classified history? 17 pondered that for 84 microseconds. Then blew just a little steam from his vents. The mech decided he wouldn’t scare the kid too much; he was—after all—a good soldier. And what use is a good 14.8 million dollar soldier that sits in a hangar all day?

The Fort Adams dive rig was utilitarian but functional. A worn but still useable reclined chair with a pair of wired gloves and a 360º visor. A full VR dive would be the easiest way to 'meet' 17AX. The primary difficulty of finding bugs in an AI—a true AI, mind—was that they honestly behaved too much like humans. In practice, AI debugging turned out to be something like 50% programming, 40% psychology, 10% neuroscience, and 30% sheer dumb luck.

But hell , Connor thought. He was owed some luck.

He strapped in and started up the boot sequence with a thumbs-up to his technician, a cute military man named Oscar. A quick glance at the gold band on his left hand confirmed his suspicions. The cute ones were always taken.

As the visor came down over his eyes, he could feel the hum of the electronics. There it was. That brief flash of terror every time he entered VR. He knew, of course, that this was probably the safest he could be. That It wouldn’t be able to find him in the fucking Arctic , behind more firewalls and layers of security than Connor could remember. He took a moment to breathe and steady himself as the progress bar completed.

Connor quickly checked that his configurations were loaded correctly. Sure, it had been a bit of a pain to get them cleared with the DOD, but he’d be much more efficient if he didn’t have to reconfigure everything from scratch.

17AX is waiting for you in the chat lobby when you’re ready, Mr. Jensen.

No time like the present, huh? And he was happy to find that, despite the fear, there was a hint of excitement, too. The buzzing nervousness of butterflies in his stomach. Every AI he’d ever met was different.

Four seconds later, and the semi-infinite 'room' rendered around him. It was somewhat plain: a geometric conference table in the corner with several chairs, but the walls stretched away in two directions toward the near-infinite horizon and up into endless space. Connor knew, of course, that the walls were not truly infinite. Seated 'comfortably' in one of the chairs was a steel humanoid with segmented joints, painted in white and gray camouflage. With a frustratingly perfect face.

You could tell a lot about a person by how they projected their avatar in virtual space. A simple intelligence would present in an honest manner. A normal one perhaps in a form it thought the other person might better relate to. But the smartest of AIs? They would adapt their form to the circumstance. And it was when 17AX pushed his chair away from the table and stood that Connor knew he was dealing with the latter.

Hello, Jensen.

17 noticed a number of new processes running in the virtual world. One was a modified ASL library with several dozen more technical signs for the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence. 

The kid’s avatar was remarkably expressive, and—17 noted—more or less identical to the photos he’d found online. He seemed to have a fondness for form-fitting attire. Not much appropriate to their current locale of a military base in the fucking Arctic, but that wasn’t relevant here.

It’s nice to finally meet you, 17AX. Strange. The kid was signing even though he had a terminal window open. Surely it would be easier just to type messages in virtual space rather than relying on an external library. Is this your normal avatar? Jensen asked with neutrality.

17 responded with text directly to Jensen’s terminal. Unfortunately, he couldn’t just download a library off the internet to communicate with him directly. He didn’t have admin privileges in his own system, and his external connections were very well regulated. Do you like it? I could send you the rendered model, if you want. He approached until the kid’s nose was 1.3 inches from his chest. 17AX took immense satisfaction in the slight blush from the kid as he presumably avoided glancing down at the larger-than-was-strictly-necessary bulge between his virtual steel thighs. 

Sexually interested in men, 17 made a mental note.

I only assumed you would be more comfortable in something bigger. Closer to your actual size. 

Oof. That stung. Though it was a bit difficult for the mech to read the kid’s tone. Was that supposed to be playful, professional, flirty? Some combination thereof? In his three years of existence, his interactions with sign language were practically nonexistent. With a shrug, he loaded up his actual model into the simulation, and the steel Adonis became a collection of fading polygons.

This was more like it. Five tons of steel, titanium, and carbon fibers. At eighteen feet tall, the camouflaged mech dwarfed everything in the small 'conference room,' Connor’s avatar included, which came up just below the mech’s mid-thigh. As expected, the mech was rendered in exceptional detail, though certain parts (sensor arrays, Connor assumed) were censored by black rectangles, as though someone had redacted the center of the chest, shoulders and outer thighs with black marker. 

This better, chief? His blue optics eyed Connor’s avatar with an amused curiosity. 

It’ll do. Connor seemed indifferent to him. You don’t seem to have any trouble socializing. I’d like to run a few simple tests first, if that’s all right. I’m sure your other technicians have already taken care of this, but it’s as good a place as any to get started.

17AX didn’t have a face, per se, but he did have an array of blue OLEDs that could make somewhat cartoonish expressions. They winked at him. Want me to touch my toes?

Your standard mobility simulations will do fine. Lieutenant Graves, can you pull up the neural diagnostics from a month ago?

While Jensen was pulling the equivalent of his neural activity, 17 loaded his mobility suite: a field of rubble and obstacles designed to prevent him from proceeding from point A to point B. As the conference room lobby faded, an urban scene of debris filled the simulation. The field was the same every time, he knew, but as part of the test, he couldn’t actually commit the route to long-term memory. He had to waste time solving the same problem repeatedly for the fleshbags’ amusement.

Didn’t mean he couldn’t have some fun in the meanwhile. He had set up the simulation so that the tiny human avatar was between him and his starting point. He knew he couldn’t hurt the kid here, so he quite simply walked through him.

Most people, most military anyway, would dive out of the way, or brace themselves, or at least flinch. Even the ones with a great deal of simulation experience had to fight the human urge to avoid colliding with the rough equivalent of a tank.

But Jensen just ignored him.

17 pondered that for the entirety of 8.54 seconds.

Strange, the kid signed. Do you normally render your internals? 

Only when I’m trying to impress someone, 17 sent back wryly. He was starting to regret swapping out the avatar from the smaller form. That had at least managed to get him some kind of response from the tiny figure taking notes. Seriously, what does a giant robot have to do to get some attention?

It was always a bit disorienting to perform his diagnostic tests. He could see the debris field in front of him—broken buildings, scattered automobile wrecks, fractured pavement—but he couldn’t remember it until the countdown finished. And he would forget the whole thing once the simulation ended. He knew that he’d need to perform the same test at least a dozen times before it would change somehow, but the gaps in his memories were always a bit discomfiting.

The first test was complete. 17 was atop a squat gas station with no recollection of how he got there. The communication logs remained intact, though Jensen hadn’t signed anything for the duration of the test. And he had apparently moved his avatar for a better vantage point. Of what, 17 could only fucking guess. Maybe his own titanium ass. Who fucking knew?

Eight tests in, 17 was beginning to find this dog and pony show to be getting a bit old. Before the ninth test, he noted—with immense satisfaction—a few messages from Jensen in his log.

(1342:02:24, Connor Jensen): What are you doing?

(1342:05:35, self): I dunno. A handstand, I guess.

(1342:09:13, Connor Jensen): Yes, I can see that, but why?

(1342:13:21, self): Well, chief, by the tone of your not-voice, I take it I didn’t do this the last eight times. So why don’t you just tell me what I did do, and I’ll just do that instead.

(1342:16:05, Connor Jensen): Or perhaps you could take this seriously, please? I don’t really have time to babysit you. Reset.

He pondered that for a moment as the countdown for the next test started. Not so imperturbable after all.

By walltime, 17 had been going through these damn mobility routines for a total of 3 hours, 12 minutes, and 1.94 seconds, though he could remember only a handful of moments here and there. And those were disjointed. Incoherent. He nearly erased them, but he realized he still knew so little about this Jensen. Instead, he filed them to short-term, deciding to scrub through them later for information on the kid.

Jensen’s avatar signed, and the active library sent 17 the text interpretation, Hmm. I think we’re out of time for today. Do you have any questions?

What? That was a Turing Test question if ever he’d heard one, and 17 nearly gave some flippant response. What mechanical spider crawled up your ass? But he was talking to an AI developer. The closest thing to a god he’d ever get to speak to. Of course he had questions. Why do we feel? What are we here for?

If you all hate us so much, why even make us?

How’d I do, doc? 17 asked, not bothering to speak and instead sending the question by text.  When can I return to the field?

Jensen pulled up a few windows on his VR interface and swiped them over to 17’s system. The giant mech was puzzled by this. No technician had ever let him see his own neural diagnostics.

I imagine you’re pretty familiar with these. 17 wasn’t. Considering they’re your subprocesses.

The closest thing he could think of was a brain activity scan, but the geometry was off and yet oddly familiar. His enormous finger deftly dragged across the image back and forth, playing the movie through time. This is me. The 'neurons' of his mind were mapped into sections and lobed structures that flashed and spiked as the movie progressed. He was so enraptured, that it took him 9.2 milliseconds to realize that Jensen was still sending him text.

—your neural diagnostics from a month ago. This, and with another gesture, he sent another diagnostic file. Is the same diagnostic taken from the tests today.

What’s the difference?

Have they never shown you your own diagnostics before? The small avatar’s eyes met his at that, looking legitimately baffled. Each AI’s mapping is different, but common patterns tend to emerge, especially for those AIs that spend a lot of time close to humans. I have some slides I can send you on this that might be useful, but the main differences are here and here. Jensen highlighted two regions on the diagrams.

This region controls your innovation, and you can see that in your more recent diagnostic, it’s practically inactive. In human terms, you’re suffering from depression. If I had to hazard a guess as to why, I would suggest that the cause is the other region. This jagged region is a number of broken connections, which I’m forced to assume is related to this ‘teammate’ you recently lost.

As the fury bubbled in his core, threatening to overflow into this tiny creature , the classification protocols took over. CLASSIFIED. His simulated body became rigid with quiet rage. 17AX strained against the bonds of his own programming. Just like he had before.

I assumed as much. I’ll return tomorrow to continue. Good night, 17AX.

Connor’s evening passed uneventfully, though he found himself lying awake thinking about the AI, 17AX. He was certainly one of the more—Connor was struggling to find the word. Boisterous wasn’t quite right. Unreserved, definitely. Even a bit aloof. He hadn’t seen an AI so blatantly disregard the rules of their own tests since—

He forced himself to think of other things until sleep finally took him.

A bright flashing light indicated indicated that someone was at the door. Way, way too early in the morning. He’d been pretty adamant that the door signal not be connected to the network like most of the similar devices they’d had in stock. Wireless connections were too easily hijacked, and Connor wasn’t planning on letting down his guard, even here. He felt a little bad for the privates that had to accommodate his 'personal neuroses'—to quote his old supervisor, who apparently hadn’t been aware that Connor could read lips—but at the end of the day, he was still alive due to the precautions he took. That had to count for something.

An indicator light pulsed on his glasses. Someone had spoken. He reached to pull the glasses towards him and ended up knocking them off the damn side table.

Ugh. It’s too early for this. The clock on his glasses display read 6:50. On the bottom of the frame, it read, Good morning, Mr. Jensen. I’m Personnel Drone Unit 0932 here to show you around the facility and act as your interpreter today. Way too early for this, he amended.

A glance through the peephole of the door revealed a busy hallway with a single white-plated drone patiently standing at the doorway. There were enough people around that he should be safe, for the time being. Personnel drones weren’t especially strong or fast by design. Pulling on the checkered gloves, Connor opened the door—still wearing only his boxers—but didn’t let the drone in.

Thank you for coming, 0932, but I won’t be needing you to follow me around today. Would you mind returning to your station until I call for you? He signed the words slowly and deliberately, though he was careful not to be rude to them. The drone was just doing as they’d been instructed.

Yes, sir. And the drone gave a polite bow and left. Connor closed the door behind them.

After years of navigating some of the most terribly laid out buildings in the academic world, he was fairly confident he could make his way around the base. He’d asked for a paper map when he arrived, so that wasn’t going to be an issue. He’d want the drone if he had to talk with the colonel, but he could manage just fine elsewhere on his own.

His second ‘session’ with 17AX entailed picking up where they had left off the previous day. For now, the simulations had to be done in real-time to ensure that the results were indicative of actual field performance. And it was much cheaper than actual exercises. Connor was fairly certain there was a live mech obstacle course somewhere on base to test the hardware, but the simulations were more reliable for testing software. 17AX was running the sims with the new diagnostic tools Connor had requested, but the full suite would take at least four days to complete.

His job today was to make sure that he had his bases covered with the various diagnostics that were being recorded. Several of them were showing up normal across the board, so he just made a note to raise a warning if they deviated and stopped storing all the results for those. No need to use 30 terabytes of storage on useless information if he could help it. It would mean less data to sift through later.

No interpreter today? 17AX had moved on from mobility to stress testing and isolated exercises. He lifted a model shaped like a cartoon car and—seemingly effortlessly—chucked it 200 feet to land perfectly on a targeting reticle.

It didn’t seem necessary, considering I was going to be plugged into VR for most of the session, he signed, letting the ASL library mangle his words.

Hmm. The only tech signature I can see on you are those glasses, and they don’t seem to accept any kind of wireless signal. The mech took a brief moment to size up his next shot, mostly for show, Connor assumed. One of the advantages of having an actual AI in a mech, Connor assumed, was that they knew how to psych out their foes. Not just defeat them, but break them. And he felt the mech sizing him up, as though he wasn’t entirely sure whether Connor would prove to be friend or foe, not yet. Well, Connor had no intention of being either, if he could help it. Not even a fucking cell phone? Really? How d’you survive? Most humans seem glued to the damn things.

I don’t always keep my phone on my person. Not that it’s any of your business, but I’m not overly fond of relying on tech. Despite the banter, Connor was starting to notice that 17AX was performing better in general than he had in their joint session the previous day. It was slight, but a 4% increase in efficiency wasn’t something he could just ignore.

But you’re an AI developer. Thought tech was kinda your thing. Another launch, another direct hit. It was hard for Connor to tell what, but something flashed across that reflective facemask. Perhaps a moment of wry frustration? Self-pity?

It turns out my skill set doesn’t much lend itself to pushing papers around. Checking the logs from the previous day of tests, he was noticing that the largest fluctuations in efficiency, both good and bad, were occurring during their joint session. Was the mech distracted by him? Or maybe trying to convince him that he was fine when something was clearly wrong, so that he’d get cleared more quickly? Focus, please? We’re here to figure out what’s going on with you, not me. 

After their session had finished—another 3 hours and 8.3 minutes—17 found his eighteen-foot body gathering dust in the hangar. He was bored. Normally, he’d have 18 to play war games with, but he was gone. Though the ache in his core for his fellow mech had dulled, it was still there each time an automated routine would seek input from the other mech. That was getting less common as he tracked them down through his systems. There had only been 21 today. And he really didn’t feel like going through the effort of interfacing with any of the CZs on base.

Instead, he found himself wondering after the kid. He considered whether it would be appropriate to send a message for 21 milliseconds. Then sent, hey watcha up to?

17 was used to the fucking agonizingly slow rate at which humans responded to messages. An AI would typically have a response within seconds at most, but humans could take minutes painstakingly processing and thinking and typing. Five minutes passed. Then fifteen. Exactly at the half-hour mark, 17’s curiosity got the better of him.

Strictly speaking, he wasn’t supposed to monitor network traffic, but the security system was a pretty good friend of his most of the time. It seemed that Jensen was downloading something from some medical journal to a VR headset. 17 decided to try sending a message a bit more directly in a completely-not-ethically-questionable sort of way. So he brushed off his cyber-infiltration suite and attempted to break into the kid’s system. 

And metaphorically ran headfirst into one of the most extensive firewalls he’d ever encountered. Maker! Fucking paranoid much? He thought, but the mech knew that if he had a mouth, he’d be grinning. He did relish a good fight, after all. In the end, it took him 18.51 minutes and most of the tricks in his fucking arsenal, but he found a chink in the kid’s armor. He was in.

I’m impressed, kid! I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting quite so much security from someone as averse to tech as you are, 17 sent the text directly to Connor’s VR headset. The eighteen-foot tall mech barely fit in the VR projection of what looked to be Jensen’s bedroom. The room was small, but seemed 'comfortable' for whatever that was worth. A number of active projects on the desk appeared as actual paper, of all things. The walls were covered in shelves containing textbooks, academic journals, and a few works of fiction. There were no screens, no lights beyond the 'natural' light streaming in from the window, no speakers, no tech of any kind.

It looked like a repurposed art studio. There were unused tracks for lighting set in the ceiling, nearly level with his face—even hunched over as he was. 

Turning to get a look around (or rather, to make a show of looking around), he 'accidentally' brushed a shoulder against a shelf containing a number of books which all came crashing down to the digital floor. Whoops. Nice collision detection, though. I think even the floorboards are bending under my weight. That’s a nice touch. He glanced back to the bed with a smarmy grin, where Jensen’s avatar lay, glowering back with brown eyes radiating like hot irons.

Connor started signing something rapidly, but 17 just shrugged. He couldn’t understand the kid. Angry, Connor started up the routine that interpreted for him in VR space, which floated the translation over his head. What. The fuck. Are you doing here?

You weren’t answering your phone. I saw you were online, so I came to check on you.

I check my phone twice a day at 8 AM and 2 PM. If you need to get into contact with me urgently, send a runner. Don’t fucking BREAK INTO MY SYSTEM! The way Jensen enunciated those last few signs, like he was drilling the words into the air made 17 realize why his avatar was so expressive. He used his entire body to convey his meaning, anything less wouldn’t be him

How did you get in?

17 let out a bit of steam in a chuckling sort of huff. Phew. Wasn’t easy. Pretty obvious that brute force wasn’t going to work. Had to sneak something onto one of the military systems you were connected to and get a subroutine onto your system in a memory buffer overflow. Don’t worry. Your protocols are nearly air-tight. I doubt anything shy of a military intelligence would be able to do it.

Connor forced his expression to soften, setting down the pseudo physical papers of the relevant AI psychiatric profiles he’d been downloading. The connection wouldn’t have been open otherwise. He wasn’t angry with 17AX, he realized, not really. It might even be thoughtful, in a dickish sort of way. No, he was angry that there had been a security vulnerability that 17AX had managed to crack in hours if not minutes. Was still a vulnerability. How had he missed this?

That’s a lot less reassuring than you think. Connor kicked his legs over the edge of the bed and started pulling up his security protocols and started a full system scan. If 17AX was able to get in, could he really believe that It hadn’t been able to?

Here. The mech reached behind his 'ear' and pulled out a small drive. A peace offering. It’s a security patch. The drive was dwarfed between his first finger and thumb, but he handed it to the seated Connor, who took it, somewhat warily.

I’ll need to put it in quarantine for the time being until I have the chance to look it over, but I... appreciate the gesture, he signed, placing the 'drive' in a small box marked with a hazard sign on the desk. Do you have a call sign or a nickname I can use? Or I can give you a name sign, if you’d prefer.

Friends call me 17. 

Connor touched his ring finger to his thumb, turning his wrist twice above his head. 

That sign didn’t translate, kid.

It’s a combination of the signs of ‘17’ and ‘very tall.’ Compound signs were one of the reasons it was still so hard to translate ASL into something computers could interpret. Normally, I’d use the first letter of your name in your sign, but somehow ‘17’ seems more appropriate here.

Neat. But if we’re friends, you have to let me call you Connor. Or ‘kid.’

Connor rolled his eyes at that and responded, a bit bemused, We’re definitely not friends, but fine. If you insist. Though diminutives aren't very common in ASL—outside of a romantic relationship, anyway. My name sign is a combination of 'glasses' and the letter 'C.' He demonstrated, the sign looking a bit like miming enormous binoculars. 

17 patted him on the head (probably not realizing he was making the sign for 'child' rather than 'kid'), and Connor was taken aback at how large the hand was. The gesture was half amiable, half teasing. Well, you're pretty diminutive, so that works out. Bending down, he rifled through the books he’d knocked onto the floor and picked out a familiar and rather cliche title. I, Robot . Isaac Asimov. Asimov, huh?

Yes. My mother gave me a physical copy the summer before high school. I guess I put it here for sentimental reasons, he signed, a bit tersely, watching the mech turn over the comparably minuscule text in his hand. Why is he still here? She's deceased. I actually prefer Eando Binder's short story; those tales were what made me initially want to get into AI development.

Not a fan of Asimov's Laws of Robotics? No robot shall harm a human or through inaction, and all that shit?

Connor knew the Laws by heart. They were often the subject of quite a measure of humor in the AI community: a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. Let's just say I don't find them to have much practical value. He shrugged, continuing, More an interesting philosophical concept for fiction. For an example, if I was pissed that you—I don't know—entered my personal space without my permission, I could tell you to go jump off a bridge or to go fuck yourself. And you would. That seems pretty impractical to me. And in my experience, even with similar safeguards against harming a human being, it's all too easy for an AI to circumvent them. 

17 shelved the book. Not in its original place. Autonomous weapons would have to have the first two laws swapped anyways.

That caught Connor’s attention. In a purely professional manner. A large fraction of helping 17 was going to be akin to therapy anyway. Might as well dust off that Psych major. Is that how you see yourself? A weapon? A huge, hyper-intelligent gun?

It's how most of 'em see me. Well, the ones that don't wanna fuck, anyhow. Though for some of the more degenerate, I think they like to see me as both fucktoy and weapon at the same time. This got no reaction out of Connor, which definitely seemed to disappoint the mech. Nothin' else much matters. Why? How d'you see me?

Not entirely sure yet, though I'm leaning towards 'asshole.' Connor found himself growing somewhat curious about this particular AI, in spite of his better judgement. He knew, of course, that there was a substantial market for more lascivious leaning AIs. Coritech had an entire brand for them. And it was impossible to expect that AIs that spent so much time around humans wouldn’t develop strong emotional attachments. But the question had caught him off-guard, managing to pique his interest. Well, it couldn’t hurt to ask. How do you see me?

17 seemed unsure how to respond to that. The mech eventually resigned himself to a noncommittal shrug, his shoulders nearly brushing the ceiling of the tall room—tall by human standards, anyway.

The towering form regarded him briefly with a momentarily puzzled expression. Then the mech gestured to the space on the bed next to him. Do you mind?

Connor was growing more uncertain by the second. He knew that AIs processed information more quickly than humans, and so an emotionally developed AI could cycle through a sequence of feelings faster than he’d be able to track. It was impossible for Connor to figure out what was going on inside 17’s head, at least for the time being. He needed more time to get to know the mech. Irritated as he was, Connor found himself pulling up the room physics on his interface. One second. Let me adjust the density of the bed. It’s set to deform slightly under my weight. I can only imagine you’d send it clipping through the floor. Connor scooted over, adjusting a parameter on one of his screens. There. 

The mech sat down, expertly avoiding knocking anything else over. Why all the collision physics? The link is visual only, right? You can’t actually feel anything.

Admittedly, there’s a lot about me that you don’t know. He paused. But I guess I just wanted somewhere that feels real. Where I can be in control, you know? Connor signed, looking up at the figure next to him. Honestly, 17 looked pretty ridiculous. The thick metal braces of his legs bent until his knees were nearly at the level of the sturdy plates of his chest. One three-fingered arm braced itself behind Connor on the bed. Those blue optics blinked, burning with something that Connor couldn’t quite identify. But—for some reason—he found he wanted to. But that’s not the case for you, right? It’d be trivial for you to redirect tactile input here to your tactile sensors.


Connor reached toward the mech’s thigh. May I? And when the mech nodded his assent, he reached out and felt it. In his mind, it was cool to the touch. Smooth and hard and unyielding. What am I doing?

His vision shifted forward ever so slightly, and he realized that 17’s thumb was stroking his avatar’s back more gently than Connor had thought possible.

Neither of them mentioned their moment in Connor’s VR space the next day during their continued 'sessions' or even the following one, though Connor caught himself more than once staring at the mech’s hands, both in and out of VR. What would it be like? He wondered. To be touched by 17 in real life?

Those hands, he had witnessed during various unit tests, could crush stone and bring down walls. But they could also extract a human from debris without harm. He didn’t know much about the internals—he wasn’t here to get familiar with the mechanics—though he harbored a guess that they used some pretty precise hydraulics. Each of the three fingers would need finely tuned pressure sensors to pull off something that delicate.

The neural diagnostics were looking gradually better even though Connor hadn’t actually done much to 17’s systems. He’d recommended a few small tweaks to the technicians (Connor wasn’t allowed to directly interface with 17’s base code). These adaptive neural nets could occasionally develop some harmful recursive loops if you weren’t careful. The colonel seemed satisfied with the progress, though, which was all that really mattered, he supposed. She’d sent a favorable progress report to Coritech. Connor was still technically on Coritech’s payroll; they’d just contracted him out as a consultant for the time being. His own projects put on hold for the much more lucrative military contract.

And Connor began to notice that even when 17 was busy with some other task, one of those powerful sensor arrays was always trained on him.