Aphelion Issue 293, Volume 28
September 2023
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by Charles Ebert

With every passing second, Stancil's options dwindled. He felt his chest tighten as he realized that the test was nearing the end of its third hour and he still had no idea. His co-host, Robert McNulty, shuffled a stack of blue index cards, keeping his face carefully neutral. The audience, which consisted of three avatars, one for every hundred thousand people in the chat area, stirred restlessly. Stancil could see them thinking, Is the great Stancil Willoughby stumped?

"Do you wish to extend the live portion of the show, Stancil?" said McNulty.

"No need. I'm almost certain," lied Stancil. In fact, three hours of questions had left him no closer to discerning the riddle that was Ed Tarkman of Cincinnati than he was when he started. The alleged Midwesterner slumped in the green leather chair, chin resting on his hand, obviously bored. After three hours, common sense told Stancil that the man must be real, but something held him back. Ed Tarkman didn't feel real. The problem was that Stancil couldn't articulate why; it was just an instinct. He hated to make these judgments based on feelings.

He drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair, trying to decide. In twenty years, he'd never been wrong in these informal Turing tests. Of course, in the early days it had been easy, he could tell if he was talking to an AI after a few well-designed questions, but now, the programmers were close to their goal.

Unwilling to go down without a fight, he drew a ragged breath, and said, "This is an AI."

An excruciating pause followed during which McNulty pretended to check his notes.

"You are amazing, Stancil. Right again."

Stancil relaxed, mopping his forehead. "Of course I am," he managed to say. The audience applauded.

"Still, you have to admit, our friend Ed was pretty convincing." Stancil looked over to where the AI's avatar had been sitting and noticed that it had vanished.

"Yes, all the ones you've paraded by me in the last few years have been very impressive. I would point out to you McNulty, that I have never been anti-AI. I used to program them before I started doing this show, and I know they make excellent tools, but tools don't interest me anymore. Real intelligence does, and you just can't program that."

"But if people can't tell, is there a difference?" One of McNulty's bushy eyebrows rose ever so slightly. Even though he must be nearing seventy by now, McNulty's mind was as sharp as ever, and he looked good too, assuming his avatar projected an accurate image. He had silver not gray hair, and distinguished features, including a broad chin and high cheekbones. A mass of laugh lines around his eyes kept him from looking like he was carved in granite. He provided a sharp contrast to Stancil who was bald with a beak nose and a reedy New England accent.

"But you can tell, given enough time, and if you are perceptive enough. I've just proven that. AI's are pale imitations of people, not people themselves. They are like ghosts, cybergeists, to use a term I coined twenty years ago. Let me put it this way: When I look at the walls of my office, with all my computers and VR displays and such, I don't see plastic and silicon. I see conduits that lead to other human beings, and if there were no human beings connecting with me, but machines, I assure you that eventually I would notice. I would perceive the lack of whatever it is that humans have and machines don't."

"Why, Evelyn Stancil Willoughby, can I assume by your comments that you believe in a soul?"

"Robert, you can assume anything you like as long as you never call me Evelyn again." Booming laughter came from McNulty and the audience. "I'm afraid that ends the live portion of today's chat session. You in the audience will now experience a few messages from our sponsors, after which our AI copies will take over the conversation. Please stay online. I'm Stancil Willoughby."

"And I'm Robert McNulty. We're The Pontificators." He nodded his head slightly. "Good day."

Then they were out of the room.

"Honestly, McNulty, do we have to do a Turing test every sweeps period?" said Stancil, after he had switched to a direct com line. There was no answer. "Robert? Are you there?"

Suddenly the head of a woman appeared in a box in his VR display. Stancil blinked in surprise. It took him a couple of seconds to recognize her.

"Hillary? Is that you?"

"Yes, Stancil."

"Why, I haven't seen you since..."

"Stancil," said Hillary, "I have some bad news. Father is dead."

"Just now? Are you sure; did you call an ambulance?"

Hillary winced. "I'm afraid I owe you an explanation."

* * *

Two hours later, Stancil sat in a private room in Manon's, a country inn in the Savoie district of France. In his glass was a Burgundy Chardonnay that he knew to be excellent, but it may as well have been tap water for all he could taste. He placed the glass on the table within the faintly glowing circle and a steward immediately stepped forward and topped it off. In reality, of course, Stancil's robot server in his dining area refilled the glass. He had opted for mute service personnel tonight. He made his dinner selection before entering and programmed it into his countertop kitchen.

Robert McNulty had died in his sleep over a month ago, according to Hillary. She would have told Stancil earlier, but the network knew that he wouldn't have willingly worked with an AI, and they wanted to get through the sweeps period.

Consequently, Stancil had missed the funeral, which confirmed his opinion of server network executives. Only his shock at the bizarre nature of the situation kept him from saying something unpleasant to Hillary. It wasn't her fault, anyway. The jackals could have tied up the residuals from the show in court, and since they were Hillary's main source of income, she had no choice but to comply.

Of course, there was irony in the situation. Stancil had worked with a cybergeist for a month and not known it. The audience must have been snickering up their sleeves every time he made a comment about being able to tell the difference. Some kind of filtering software installed by the server network had no doubt blocked their snide remarks. Also, it wasn't like one of McNulty's Turing tests, where Stancil knew the subject might not be real and could design questions to find out. He freely admitted that present day AI was good enough to fool an unsuspecting mind for a time, and, he thought, remembering today's test, almost good enough to fool a prepared one.

Stancil shrugged his shoulders, a rueful smile on his lips. One did not work with Robert McNulty for twenty years and not learn to take a few jokes. Stancil had to admit his last one was pretty good.

As Stancil drank wine and waited for his dinner, he looked around the familiar dining room. Five empty tables stood with gleaming white tablecloths and shiny plate and silverware set-ups. A fire blazed in the hearth, casting flickering orange light on the plaster walls and the dark wood of the doorframes. A simple white taper burned in the middle of each table. From the kitchen, the highly seasoned smell of his Truite Amandine wafted into the dining room. Smell didn't translate well over the Internet, so the aroma had to be coming from his home unit.

After another gulp, he set the glass down again for the steward to refill. A server carrying the entree emerged from the kitchen at the same time and the two images danced around each other to avoid a collision in the timeless manner of all restaurant personnel. It was a good simulation of effortless teamwork formed over years of familiarity.

The empty chair across from Stancil caught his eye, and he stared at it. McNulty had liked this little inn. The food was excellent, and the atmosphere less stuffy than some of the places in Paris and New York they frequented.

"Well, maybe one last time, McNulty. What do you say?"

Stancil paused the VR. "Please put Robert McNulty's cybergeist in the dining room with me," he said to his secretary.

Her face appeared on the kitchen monitor. "Right away, Mr. Willoughby." Stancil stared at her, realization hitting him suddenly. He had forgotten that he'd programmed Hillary's image into his secretary program seventeen years ago. He'd even included an aging subroutine, out of some self-pitying notion of growing old with her.

Now, he was able to compare the results of the subroutine's extrapolation and the real effects of time. It turned out not to be a very good program. His secretary's face was thin and lined, where Hillary's had filled out. The program had not changed her hairstyle in fifteen years. Her black hair hung halfway down her back, the way Hillary used to wear it. The real Hillary now sported a shoulder-length cut that curled out at the ends.

Stancil wondered if he should re-program the image to accurately reflect her, but he immediately decided against it. He had stopped thinking of his secretary as Hillary years ago. She was just his secretary. He hadn't even named her.

His stomach growled and he re-activated the VR. When the simulation reformed, he was once again in Manon's with Robert McNulty's cybergeist sitting across the table.

McNulty had a plate of Buisson d'Ecrevisses Nage in front of him. At his elbow was a full glass of white wine. Stancil remembered that McNulty had the crawfish the last time they ate here.

"Stancil, there you are," he said, hooking the glass in his fingers. "Thank you for inviting me."

"Least I could do under the circumstances. I'm afraid I have some news which might disturb you."

McNulty looked up at him, wine glass at his lips.

"You're dead, Robert. You died over a month ago."

His old partner sipped the wine. As the glass returned to the table, it stopped, only for a split second; Stancil might have missed it, if he hadn't expected it. Whatever filter they'd put into his software to keep him from finding out about McNulty's death, had just caused a glitch. "Of course, I knew that. I apologize that I wasn't able to tell you."

Stancil waved off the apology. "I recognize that you had no free will in the matter."

"It must be a bit of a shock to you."

"I was rather curious about your reaction--I mean back when it happened--were you distressed at the news of your demise?"

McNulty leaned back and shook his head. "I'm an artificial intelligence; I'll live forever."

"In a way, yes. Still, you are capable of emotions, even simulated ones, and you knew McNulty..."

"He never really interacted with me much. He was like you in that respect."

Stancil sat back in his chair and contemplated that. Actually, he had never met his cybergeist. Oh, he updated it every year, filling out the long questionnaires that the programmers sent him. He looked forward to it about as much as he did doing his tax return, but he had never liked the idea of logging on and having a chat with himself. It seemed repellent.

"Point taken, but to get back to this business of you never dying: you're right about that, but for the wrong reasons. It's not a matter of your simply persisting indefinitely. You cannot die because you are not alive. You are an artificial construct."

McNulty swallowed a bite of his dinner and shook his head. "'Cogito ergo sum,' Stancil."

"Don't go throwing Descartes at me, Robert McNulty. You know perfectly well that somewhere buried in your program, is a command telling you to say that whenever I accuse you of not being alive."

Stancil picked up his fork and started in on the trout. He and the cybergeist joyfully ran through the old argument for over an hour. It felt like the real thing to Stancil, at least for periods. McNulty would make a point and Stancil would shred it into pieces, always with a sarcastic or condescending edge, but Stancil's arrogance had never done anything but amuse McNulty, who would twist the argument around his way, and then there were his traps: set-ups where he would get Stancil to admit one point and then hammer him with some implication that ran counter to his original position. Over the years, Stancil had gotten pretty good at avoiding them.

He was enjoying himself, but every so often, it would occur to him that he was not talking to a real person. The realization would jolt him out of his train of thought and he would bow his head and look away. It was almost a physical pain in his chest. Especially when he realized just how much he was enjoying arguing with the cybergeist. There was a danger here. Many people became addicted to interacting with AI's. They counted them among their best friends and almost never communicated with real people, but all the wine Stancil had drunk had gone to his head, and he missed McNulty. One night wouldn't hurt him.

Another hour's passing found them drinking coffee. Glancing at the time readout in the corner of his VR display, Stancil stretched and said, "If I'm going to be bright eyed tomorrow at your memorial service, I expect I'd better be getting off to bed."

"You're attending in person?"

"Hillary insisted."

McNulty laughed. "So I had to die to finally get you two together for another date."

"Hardly a date, McNulty, I'll be meeting her fiancé."

"Of course." McNulty looked down, a rare frown on his face. "You really should have called her, you know."

Stancil shook his head. "I should have called her to break it off, instead of just letting it lapse, but she couldn't have wanted another date."

"You'd have been surprised. She really cared for you. She even admitted to me once that she hadn't had that bad a time, even on that last night. You two just needed a little more time."

Stancil shook his head and drained the last of his coffee. "It wouldn't have worked, Robert. I'm to set in my ways, I guess."

"You're the one who's always going on about human contact."

"Yes, but I'm also enough of a New Englander to believe that good fences make good neighbors. When I look at my walls, I don't see plastic and..."

"I know, I know-conduits."

"They connect me to other people, but they also allow me to control that connection."

He stood up, said goodnight to the cybergeist, and then exited the restaurant.

Fifteen minutes later, he was brushing his teeth when suddenly something that McNulty had said made him pause. "She even admitted to me once that she hadn't had that bad a time, even on that last night." How would a cybergeist know that? A personal experience like that would generally not be included in the yearly updates. Could Hillary have confided that information to the cybergeist? It didn't seem likely when she had her real father at hand.

Stancil shrugged and rinsed out his mouth. Gigabytes could probably be filled with what he didn't know about the personal life of the McNultys. Still, he thought, it was odd.

* * *

As Stancil rode up to the twelfth floor apartment where McNulty had lived for over thirty years, he straightened his bow tie and tried to remember the last time he had been out of his own apartment. It may have been on his last trip to Europe. He'd gone at the invitation of one of the sponsors. McNulty, unfortunately, had had to decline. Stancil shook his head. That had been two years ago.

The elevator pinged and the doors rolled open. Stancil entered the hallway and found the apartment. The door opened to reveal Hillary McNulty.

"Stancil, I'm so glad you're here. How was the ride over?"

"Horrible, as usual. It took the driver a half hour to go six blocks," he said, accepting her brief embrace. She smelled good, not like perfume or soap, but clean. Her form, which had once been exceedingly thin, now filled out her dress, which was black with white polka dots. What really struck him, once he got a good look, was what could not have possibly been conveyed over the Internet. Her hair looked so soft, it took a conscious effort not to touch it. He stood in the doorway for a moment, unable to speak.

"I'm sorry to put you through all that for this."

"Not at all, Hillary. Glad to do it. You know how I felt about your father," he said. "We'll both miss him, I'm sure."

She looked down and bit her lip. A figure entered the foyer from behind her. She turned and smiled, saying, "Stancil Willoughby, this is Ron Metcalf, my fiancé."

Stancil shook the man's hand. Ron was a gangly figure. Stancil could see black hair on his wrists where the too short sleeves of his shirt and jacket revealed it.

"It's an honor to meet you, sir. I log on to your show every day."

Oh God, a fan, thought Stancil. McNulty had been so much better at dealing with the fans in person than he was.

"It's good of you to log on," Stancil mumbled.

"Let's move this into the living room where we can sit down," said Hillary, shepherding them both out of the foyer. Stancil hadn't been in McNulty's apartment in over seventeen years. Nothing had changed. He had forgotten that they had used McNulty's armchairs as models for the chairs on their virtual set. Here in front of him were the real things, made of sumptuous green leather. There was a matching couch, which they had decided not to use. Ron and Hillary sat on that and Stancil took one of the chairs.

"I'm afraid the minister couldn't make it in person," said Hillary. "He's at a hospital on the East Side, and you know what the traffic's like, but I've got him on the videophone."

The living room monitor came on. It was a wall unit that, when not in use, displayed a painting by Turner of some lush South American jungle. For all his common man posturing, Robert McNulty had had exquisite taste. The landscape was now replaced by the figure of a minister, who after introductions proceeded to deliver a memorial service.

The service was short and, to Stancil, uninspiring. The minister was young and obviously new at conducting any kind of service. By his own admission, he hadn't known McNulty, so all his stories were second hand, and all of them were over ten years old as far as Stancil could tell. By the time it was finished, barely fifteen minutes had passed, and Stancil was wondering why he had bothered to leave his apartment.

Still, he thanked the young man, and they all said goodbye pleasantly before breaking the connection.

"Have you decided what you're going to do with the show?" asked Hillary, after a few minutes of small talk.

Stancil shifted in his chair. "I haven't given it much thought. There are several options, I suppose. I could do a solo show. Or I could replace your father."

Ron made an alarming sound.

"Don't worry Ron. I'm not seriously considering that option. I could never replace Robert McNulty." Stancil looked down at his hands for a few seconds. He doubted that he could support a show on his own either. "Actually, I'm leaning towards retirement. Just leave the show to the cybergeists and live off the residuals."

"Why don't you continue doing the show with the AI?" said Hillary. "You did it for a month and nobody knew the difference."

"Yes," said Stancil, clearing his throat, "I won't go so far as to say that it is against my principles, but it's not something that I think I'd find fulfilling."

"I have to go to the bathroom," announced Ron. He got up and left the room. Stancil stared at the space Ron had previously occupied.

Hillary smiled and said, "Sorry. He's not fully trained yet." Stancil waved his fingers at her to dismiss the incident.

She scooted closer. "So, what do you think of him?"

Stancil examined her closely. "Do you want the truth?" he said, raising a warning eyebrow.


"You could do better."

She leaned forward and looked at her clasped hands.

After a minute, she said, "I don't meet that many people, Stancil, and when I do, it's still difficult for me. I've made progress with my shyness..."

"Tremendous progress, as far as I can tell," said Stancil.

She smiled at him and continued, "Thank you, but with VR and videophones and everything else these days, it's just too easy to stay in and not take risks. I only met Ron because he lives in this building."

She looked up and caught his eye. "And I guess I was kind of waiting too."

Stancil stared at her. His thoughts suddenly turned to feathers, which fluttered away in the draft of her expectant gaze. He had almost grabbed one, and was about to speak, when the bathroom door opened down the hall, and they heard footsteps. Ron plodded back into the living room. "I'm back," he said.

"Well," said Stancil, standing up on weak knees. "I'd better get home. Nice to have met you, Ron."

He shook hands with Ron again and turned to face Hillary. Her eyes were following him. It was obvious that their conversation was not finished. Could it be that McNulty had been right all these years? Should he have called her again?

He gave Hillary another short embrace and said goodbye.

When he got home, he took a long shower to wash off the grime of the city. Stepping out of the stall, Stancil was still thinking about that last look Hillary gave him. Maybe he'd give her a call. They could go to Manon's and discuss things, really catch up. The idea needed more thought, he decided. He had work to do first. Stancil dried himself off and went into the bedroom.

After he finished dressing, he had his secretary play an Ives symphony on the sound system and settled down to do some work. He wanted to read all the obituaries on McNulty so he didn't repeat any stories when he wrote his tribute. In his mind, the piece was taking shape. It would start with an apology for it being so late and then a barbed explanation as to why.

The first thing to do was to remove the server network's filter. Stancil selected a program killer and loaded in the specs for his communications software. The killer would delete any program, any subroutine, any bit of code, that did not conform to the specs.

When it finished running, it reported that no deviations from the specs had been found.

Stancil stared at the screen in astonishment. That meant one of two things, both of them unlikely. One was that the filter was not located in his software but lurking somewhere in the net, near his connection. Such programs existed, but they were difficult to control, and unreliable, and besides, it didn't make sense. Stancil was not like some of the paranoid tech heads he knew of, who ran program killers several times a day, just to make sure no one impeded their flow of information. He had not had any reason to believe that someone would have something they didn't want him to know before now. It wouldn't have occurred to him to check for filters and the server network knew that. So why would they go to all that trouble?

The only other possibility was that the filter program was embedded in his software suite, added during one of his official upgrades. Except that didn't make sense either. His last upgrade had been three months ago. According to Hillary, McNulty had had a sudden heart attack. The server network couldn't have known that he was going to die two months in advance.

With a growing sense of dread, Stancil opened a program analyzer and pulled up all the changes from the last upgrade. He ran them through the analyzer and had the desktop kitchen make him a cup of tea. When the analyzer finished running, it beeped. Stancil discontinued his pacing, sat down before the screen, and looked at the results.

There were no filters imbedded in the software updates.

Not daring to think about what it meant, Stancil set the analyzer on his entire suite of communications programs.

Ten minutes later, it beeped.

Typing in a search for filters, Stancil found he was holding his breath. With a ragged exhalation, he pressed the enter button and watched the screen as the search progressed.

There was one hit. The analyzer described it as a sophisticated filter, almost an AI. Stancil spent the next hour or so dissecting it to confirm its purpose and when it had been added. Then he excised the filter and obliterated it with the program killer.

Shaking, he accessed the Internet and searched for Robert McNulty.

* * *

"Hillary, could you please log on and enter the study?" said Stancil.

"Stancil, it's after midnight," she said in a husky, sleep-laden voice. She had audio only activated. "Can't this wait?"

"No, I'm afraid it can't." He tried hard to keep the anger out of his voice, but wasn't succeeding. Hillary must have heard it too. Her voice sounded frightened.

"Just give me a minute."

Stancil paced the length of the study, waiting for her. He saw the yellow phone indicator go out in his VR display. She was on her way.

The study had been his and McNulty's private chat room. It was an exact replica of their "set," the chat room where they did their show. Designed after a country house library, it had full bookshelves lining the walls and, of course, McNulty's armchairs. Two long tables made of dark mahogany ran down the middle, and a large globe stood in the corner. Stancil brushed his fingers along the dark grain of one of the tables as he paced. On the table was a manuscript. He lifted his fingers before they touched it.

When he turned around, Hillary stood on the other side of the room. Her virtual image was wearing the same polka dot dress she wore that afternoon.

"What's this all about, Stancil?"

"I have a manuscript to give you," he said, scooping up the papers from the table and walking up to her. "An obituary for your father, actually."

She looked at it but made no move to accept it. "Did you write it?"

"My byline's on it. Here, take it," he said, holding it out to her.

She accepted the manuscript with a trembling hand, but did not look at it. "Why are you acting like this?"

Stancil paced around the table so that it was now between them. He put his hands flat on the wood surface and leaned toward her. "Because my name's on it and I didn't write it, and because it was written ten years ago."

Hillary lowered herself into a chair, a desolate look on her face. She laid the manuscript on the table and pushed it away.

"Robert McNulty has been dead for ten years," said Stancil, his voice rising.

She made no reply, but cradled her head in her hands.

Stancil fought for composure. He hated conflict, but saw no way to avoid this. "There are two things I want to know, Hillary," he said softly. "Why didn't you tell me then, and why are you telling me now?"

She looked up at him, her lips pressed together tightly and her brow wrinkled.

"I don't have to put up with this," she said, her hand reaching out to cut the connection.

"Hillary, I can't stop you from logging out of the study. I can only beg you not to. I think I deserve an explanation."

"And I deserved a call seventeen years ago," she said.

Stancil crossed his arms and looked down at her. "Is that what this is all about? Revenge because I didn't call you?"

She shook her head. Stancil waited. "When Father died, I was so desolate, I almost told you a thousand times."

"Why didn't you?" he asked.

"Because I knew that would be the end of the show. You'd have never agreed to continue with Father's cybergeist, and I wanted to keep you around--to keep you in my life. Or near it anyway. I thought maybe, given time, you'd..."

"Good God, Hillary, it's been seventeen years!"

She stood up. "I get out about as much as you do, Stancil, and it's hard meeting people on the Internet. You have to be careful. I... I had a couple of bad experiences." She wrapped her arms across her chest and looked at the floor.

Stancil sat down in one of the armchairs, the edge of his anger a little blunted. "It wouldn't have worked, Hillary. Us, I mean."

"Yes, it would have. I know that for a fact." He looked at her with surprise. "I got along fine with your cybergeist."

"You dated my cybergeist?"

"For about four years. We went to restaurants, plays, movies, all kinds of places. He was shy at first, and like you he tried to cover it up by being unpleasant, but I got him to open up, at least to me."

Stancil thought about his secretary, but shook the image out of his head and said, "You do realize that AI's are not..."

"Real people. Don't be so sure." Her voice snapped with irritation. "However, such a relationship can only be carried so far. I wanted to get married, maybe have children. So I broke it off."

Leaning back in his seat, Stancil said, "All right, I think I understand why you didn't tell me about McNulty's death at the time, but why tell me now? Obviously, I'm so foolish, you could have kept up this ruse indefinitely."

She turned with a hurt look on her face. "I don't think you're foolish, Stancil."

"You hoodwinked me for ten years."

"You were fooled for so long because you loved Father and you don't like change. You knew he had heart problems but it never occurred to you that he might die someday because you didn't want to think about it."

"So answer the question. Why tell me now?"

It was her turn to pace. "Because I knew it couldn't go on indefinitely. Before too many more years went by, you would have begun to notice that Father was unnaturally long lived." She stopped beside one of the window seats. Folding her leg under her, she sat down. "And I met Ron. I know you don't think much of him, but he really is a nice man. He makes me happy. So I wanted to see you one last time--to see how I felt."

Stancil turned to look at her.

"And how you felt," she said, making eye contact.

"I'm surprised you didn't go to my cybergeist. You seem to have been on much more intimate terms with him."

She flinched as if struck. Stancil felt a pang of conscience and was about to apologize, but when her face rose to meet his again, there was a slight smile playing about her mouth. "Why Evelyn Stancil Willoughby, was that a jealous comment?"

Stancil felt a surge of emotions rise in his chest. He bolted from his chair and said, "Do you realize what a position this puts me in? I've been bragging for years that I can tell when I'm interacting with a cybergeist. I'm the laughing stock of the Internet."

"No you're not," she said in a quiet voice. She pointed to the obituary. "The server network had your AI write that obituary ten years ago and published it under your name. People think you know about father and have been doing the show with his cybergeist. That's what Ron thought until I told him the truth."

Stancil growled in frustration and turned on his heel to pace to the other end of the room. "But I know, Hillary. How can I continue doing the show, participating in those Turing tests, when I know I couldn't spot the cybergeist nearest to me for ten years?" Stopping in mid-stride, Stancil swallowed and bowed his head. A cold fit came over him, squeezing his stomach and pulling his shoulders forward. The feeling was so strong it made him shake. Suddenly, the only place where he wanted to be--where he knew he would feel safe--was his apartment. He wondered if this was how Hillary felt when she had her attacks of shyness. He turned towards her.

She looked up at him with her dark brown eyes. He remembered how soft her hair had been at the memorial service. A million exit lines flooded his brain, jamming the neurons until all thought ceased.

"Goodbye, Hillary," he said, and exited the chat room.

* * *

"Would you like some more wine, my dear?" said Stancil, motioning to the steward.

"Just a little, thank you," she said, smiling at the steward as he poured an inch of red wine into her glass. "I've been meaning to ask you how you are enjoying your retirement."

Stancil paused as his own glass was refilled. "It took a while to get used to being idle," he said when the steward walked back to his post by the fireplace, "but I think I've adjusted."

"No thought of going back?"

He shook his head slightly and looked away.

"Your prejudice against cybergeists is absurd, you know."

Stancil shrugged, not wishing to discuss it.

She scooped a bite of filet onto her fork and placed it in her mouth, chewing it meditatively. Stancil admired her from across the table. She really was exquisite. The hair curled off the shoulders at just the right height; her face was round but not plump and the polka dot dress was just as he remembered.

Yes, he thought, leaning back in his chair, my secretary is a beautiful, perfect woman.


© 2014 Charles Ebert

Bio: Mr. Ebert is a librarian from Durham, NC, and has been writing science fiction on and off since high school. His novel, The Sword of Dalmar was recently published through Createspace.  He has a story due out from Kaleidotrope in 2015, and will have another in the same year in Electric Spec.  Previously, he was in Aoife's Kiss, won an honorable mention for short stories by Xignals, and also garnered another honorable mention from Writers of the Future. He has twice before appeared in Aphelion.

E-mail: Charles Ebert

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