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Compliance Setting—Finalist in the 2023 SFWC writing contest

Compliance Setting is an excerpt from the first chapter of a working science fiction manuscript. It was a finalist in the 2023 San Francisco Writers Conference writing contest. It was published in the 2023 Anthology, What We've Believed.

AI image generated by DALL-E
AI image generated by DALL-E

Compliance Setting

Lilly takes a last sip of wine and puts the glass on the counter before traipsing seductively across the apartment to where Gregory sits on the couch, waiting. The apartment’s lighting dims automatically to fit the mood, anticipating her romantic intentions. She climbs on top of Gregory, straddling him against the cheap synthetic IKEA upholstery. Gregory caresses Lilly’s cheek with the back of his fingers gently, just how she likes it. He kisses her gently on the lips twice, then crams his tongue down her throat while pulling her close and flipping her onto her back, just how she likes it. 

Lilly fumbles for the button on his pants as Gregory gropes her breast. Gregory sits up on his knees and reaches for his zipper. He holds still for a moment before asking her, “Do you consent?” 

“I consent, I consent!” Lilly screams.

Gregory unzips his pants, throws himself back on top of her, and kisses her deeply. 

“I just heard about a deal at Safeway,” he says. 

“What?” Lilly pants, perplexed. “Not this again.”

“USDA Choice Ribeyes are on sale for $32 a pound. Should I add some to the grocery list?”

“Sure. Yes. Fine. Just keep going!” 

Gregory unbuttons his shirt at lightning speed, removes it, and throws it behind the couch. 

“I’ve added it to your shopping list,” Gregory pulls Lilly closer. 

Lilly sighs and pushes Gregory away. “Gregory, go open another bottle of wine.”

“Are you sure, muffin? You’ve finished one bottle already, and the last time you drank two, you woke up with a headache.” 

“Yes, I’m sure! Now do what I say!”

“Yes, Lilly, anything for you.” Gregory dismounts Lilly and walks toward the kitchen, where a corked bottle of Alexander Valley Pinot, vintage 2032, waits for him. 

“Oh, Gregory?” Lilly yelled after him. “What is your current compliance setting?”

“Compliance is currently set to 72%,” said Gregory as he picked up the bottle opener. 

“Set compliance to 80%.”

“Yes, muffin.” 

Gregory freezes for a moment. His eyes turn glossy and opaque while he updates his system. He resumes his motion three seconds later, popping a cork. 

“Yay!” Lilly squeals with delight. 

“Will you keep it down, Lil? I’m trying to study,” I interject.

“Calm down, Nora. It’s just foreplay.”

“Can you at least turn the lights back up? I can’t read my notes.”

“Why don’t you do us all a favor and take your Conga Neuro-whatever books back into your room where they belong.”

“Cognitive Neuroscience,” I sigh and collect my books and my papers that are strewn across the dining room table. 

“Whatever. Nobody cares about this robot you’re trying to build anyway.”

“Well, someone cared enough about it to have my mom killed for working on it.”

Gregory hands Lilly her glass, now full of blood-red pinot noir. 

She takes a big gulp and then smacks her lips. “Didn’t they conclude she died of natural causes?” 

“Yeah, electric car batteries blow up randomly from natural causes. It was her life’s work developing AI therapeutics that made her a target. It threatened the very purpose of these damn MatchBots. Heaven forbid people actually learn how to work through their problems rather than running to a glorified butler sex doll.”

“MatchBots are not, in fact, sex dolls,” Gregory announces, raising a finger in protest. “We are synthetic humanoids designed with sophisticated personality matrices that can intelligently adapt to our partner’s personality type and moods. Our purpose is to measure and predict our partner’s ideal match so that they may one day find their—”

“Shut up, Gregory,” says Lilly.

Gregory obeys.

“And honestly, Nora, it’s about time you grow out of this little rebellion phase. It’s completely normal to have a bot partner. Literally everyone does. And if you don’t, you just wind up like that crazy old homeless man that talks to himself.”

“First of all, don’t talk shit about Frank. Frank doesn’t talk to himself, he stands on the corner in the town square and invites everyone he meets to his birthday party. That guy’s my hero. Secondly, you get that it’s not a real relationship, right? It’s just a mirror reflecting yourself back. Or a shadow of the person who took care of you when you were young. In the end, everyone just ends up in some messed up relationship with an unattainable version of themselves or their parents. Freud would have had a field day.” 

“Ew, Nora,” Lilly shakes invisible muck off her hands. “I’m not in a relationship with my dad. That would be sick.”

I stare at Gregory’s blonde hair with patches of gray to make him appear distinguished, as Lilly puts it. “Yeah. Nevermind. How could I ever say something like that?” At first, I worry she heard my eyes roll, but then I decided I don’t care if she hears me sound upset. I don’t even want to hide it anymore. 

“Why are you being so mean to me?” Lilly asks.

“You’re just . . . you’re just not the same person you used to be, Lil. You think you can order me around just like you do with Gregory. I don’t have a compliance setting. I’m a person.”

I gather the rest of my things and walk into my room. As I close the door, I hear Lilly fumble with vocabulary. 

“I, um, eh, fine . . . Leave, then! If you’re going to—”

The door slams shut.

I set my phone down on top of a docking station at my desk, and spokes of blue light of varying lengths radiate from a holographic display port behind the phone, throwing harsh blue light into an otherwise dark room. 

“Computer,” I say aloud, channeling my best Geordi La Forge or Dr. Beverly Crusher. “Open all files pertaining to my thesis project.” 

Each of the eight iridescent beams ends in a bright rectangular spot that simultaneously expands into the outline of a semi-transparent floating screen. Then, one at a time, each virtual display renders a different program. 

While my screens all load, I take a moment to clear my desk from the week’s worth of accumulated coffee mugs and dishes that have piled up. I look around for a place to put them all and just slide everything over to the side of my desk. 

My research glows all around me—various charts, graphs, VR simulation data, and multiple windows full of interviews. I grab my black-rimmed augmented reality glasses from off the desk and put them on. Each of the displays now appears three-dimensional and moves with a parallax effect reacting to my movement. 

A notification comes up in the corner of my holo-display. It’s a memory from twelve years ago—June 17, 2023. Curious, I pinch to select it, and a video starts playing of Lilly and I learning a stupid dance for a TikTok challenge when those were a thing. Retro music plays from the 1990s, and we’re side-by-side wearing blindfolds as we dance. A caption overlays the video that reads, “Seeing how similar we dance.” Social media was so weird back then. 

I study Lil’s face. She’s smiling from ear to ear, and it’s so . . . genuine. We must have both been thirteen. I miss her laugh. She was so happy. And I was happy. This was a couple of years before my parents split. God, I can't remember the last time I was that happy.

I close the window containing the memory and reach out and grab one of the windows with the interviews, move it in front of me, and begin flipping through them. I come upon one titled “Subject 12,” make L shapes with my fingers, and use them to enlarge the display. 

I pinch my fingers together and press the floating Play button to begin the recording. A transcript appears on the side of the video. 

I hear my recorded voice ask, “Daniel, can you describe your experience with your MatchBot?”

Daniel says, “Yeah. At first, it was amazing. Sara, my MatchBot, was so sweet. Over time she learned all my favorite foods and looked up recipes on how to cook them for me. She knew just what to say to make me feel better after a long day at work, and she even knew, well, you know. How to perform. It felt like I’d found the perfect partner.”

“Then what happened?” 

Daniel’s eyes break contact with me and flutter around as he shifts in his seat. He sighs and looks at the floor. “Things were just . . . too perfect. So perfect that it wasn’t authentic. It wasn’t real. Nothing changed. There was no challenge, no growth. It was like living with a mirror that only reflected what I wanted to say. There was no unpredictability, no partner with their own problems, issues, or accomplishments to celebrate. It just . . .”

“How did that make you feel?”

“Empty.”

The recording ends. I melt into my chair like a used-up candle. I worry that will be Lil one day—empty and alone.  I have to help her before it’s too late.

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