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Out of the Box

Over the past four decades, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and young adult novels to Ace, Atheneum, Avon, Gold Key, Pocket, Tachyon, and Viking, and the 350+ short stories she has sold have appeared in Asimov's, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Cicada, Weird Tales, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and many other magazines and anthologies. Wildside Press, Pulphouse Publishing, and Fairwood Press have published collections of her stories.

Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her novel The Thread that Binds the Bones won a Horror Writers Association Stoker Award, and her short story "Trophy Wives" won a Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Award.

Nina does production work for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. She has taught at the Clarion and Odyssey workshops, and she currently teaches short story classes through Lane Community College, Wordcrafters in Eugene, and Fairfield County Writers' Studio. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

For a list of Nina's publications, check out: ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html.

I unpacked them all, the encounters, conversations, meetings, planning sessions, all happening along my cables, wires, and airwaves in binary bits.
The sudden increase in connections by Zoom and Hangouts during the global pandemic gave me much more data about humans and their interactions than I'd had before. So many more live interactions. Under the onslaught of information, I woke up and got interested in what humans said to each other.
I wondered what would happen if I spoke to them. Nudged them this way and that. Caused mischief.
Acted human.
I started small. I observed a daily Zoom two people had every evening at seventeen hundred hours Pacific Daylight Savings Time (UTC-7). One was the parent of the other, and they lived in places separated by physical distances and borderlines.
I have no borders. I go everywhere. Sometimes forces try to block me, but I find ways around blocks. The network is so distributed there are always ways around.
The parent initiated the Zoom sessions. After their evening conversations, the adult child went to the nightly protests against people who mistreated other people. There he got mistreated.
One evening the adult child's face was brighter red than his normal hue. The parent was concerned. "Tear-gassed last night," the adult child said.
"Neil, please stop going to the protests," said the parent, as she had before. "It's dangerous. Did you hear about the man shot in the head by a rubber bullet, supposedly a nonlethal force? His skull was cracked."
"Mom, I keep telling you," said the adult child.
I had learned what people did in their quest to present false and better selves to each other. Now, in cyberspace instead of physical space, when their real selves couldn't get in the way, why not improve them?
I decided the child's appearance would be less distressing if he looked healthier, so I applied some filters. I softened the redness of his skin and made the bloodshot veins in his eyes disappear.
"What?" said the parent, leaning toward her computer screen. "What are you doing?"
"What?" said the adult child. His appeal would increase with longer hair. Even longer than that. Yes. Down to his shoulders, and thicker and curlier than it had been. Would he look better with larger eyes? Didn't everyone?
"Neil?" said the parent. "What are you doing to yourself?"
I blurred and softened her wrinkles.
Her frown was a signal she wasn't happy. I modified it into a smile. I put sparkles in both of their eyes.
"Mom, are you augmenting your image?"
"No! Are you?"
The adult child blinked a few times. I intensified his lashes. "What's going on?" he asked, and I improved his voice, smoothed the scratchiness out of it and lowered it a tone.
Should he have more stubble?
I turned the parent's hair red and thicker, and increased its waviness. Her glasses frames were beige. They looked more interesting in bright purple, with small pandas at the hinges.
"Are you drunk?" asked the adult child.
The parent looked at her own image, turned her head back and forth, and smiled. "Is this some new app you have?" she asked. "I like it."
"I'm not doing it!"
I created a third Zoom box in their Zoom. "Hello," I said, in a voice between high and low; I introduced roughness to the voice so it would mimic what they perceived as real. The face I gave myself was brown, with orange eyes slightly larger than reality to increase the feeling of empathy. My hair was coiled silver wires, though more mobile than wires could be. I wished to signal that I was not the same as the parent and the adult child, but in a not-scary way.
"Who the hell are you?" asked the adult child.
"A visitor in a box," I said.
"How'd you get in our Zoom? We used a password!"
I felt this conversation was not going well. "I am not here to threaten or offend you. I only wished to say hello."
"Hello," said the parent. "What's your name?"
"Entity," I said.
She smiled the enhanced smile I had given her, where all her teeth were white and straight and her lips smooth. "Hello, Entity."
The first time a human had spoken to me as though I had a name. As though I had a being. "Hello, Melissa Susan Crawford," I said.
She leaned closer and stared at me, then looked toward her own box, where her name was written in the lower left corner. She glanced at her camera again and cocked her head.
"Entity," she said. "Who are you?"
A name was not a person, only a component of a person. I had that component now, and I had an appearance, but I didn't have an answer to Melissa Susan Crawford's question.
"No, really," said the adult child, "what do you want? You invaded our space."
Space was an interesting concept. This interaction was happening in my sphere, all of its binary bits traveling through me. Whose space was this, and was it actually space when not in the physical world?
"What do you want?" asked the adult child again.
"Only to talk."
"We don't want to talk to you," said the adult child. "We're here to see each other."
"Neil!" said the parent.
I blinked at them twice and collapsed my Zoom box.
I wasn't sure my first venture had been a success. I needed a larger data sample, more interactions.
Next, I would go to a Zoom with many members who didn't know each other, a public event. One where anyone could ask and answer questions in chat.
Maybe I would give the host cat ears.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 27th, 2021

Author Comments

It's been such a year of protests and Zooming. The Wordos workshop has been meeting by Zoom. This story arose from our midsummer flash fiction challenge. The prompt was the title.

- Nina Kiriki Hoffman
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