First Place in the Letter Review Prize for Flash Fiction
New Flash Fiction by Morgan Karpiel
June 29th, 2023
At first, Robert assumed that she was simply well made, a beautiful unit, sleek and warm, with a bob of white-blonde hair, heavy-lidded eyes sparkling with iridescent pink glitter, and a laugh that sounded like bells jingling on a string.
The Nika model.
He met her on his second night working security at the Dojo Tao, a neon-bathed Tokyo- themed bar that occupied the top floor of the Pinnacle building in downtown Houston. While the Dojo’s rich patrons were happy to trust their lust-driven aspirations to the club’s sensual AI bots, their safety had to remain his concern.
Men were still too easy to manipulate, perhaps more now than ever. The bots were trained to listen, tease, and satisfy, but they couldn’t process attachment. The men who came to the Dojo had no defense for that, no equivalent in the real world to balance fantasy and reality. When things got too heated, when patrons began expressing undying love or turned aggressive, Robert intervened.
More often than not, the Nika unit was involved. She was an exceptional host, but not programmed for erotic fulfillment, and that had been known to cause confusion. She was trained in emotional response, which made her a better conversationalist for the guests who came to pour their hearts out to a pretty face that was indistinguishable from that of a human.
To see her at work was magic. She never repeated the same things to different men, never misjudged their moods, or offered the same bland comebacks or bot wisdom paraphrased from psychology articles. Her empathy always seemed genuine, her understanding profound and meaningful, and the guests loved her for it.
After a while, Robert couldn’t help but watch her more closely than the others, drawn to her in ways he knew weren’t good. He watched the gestures—some bot-like and controlled and some that seemed too random and spontaneous to be the result of programming. And there were hints, maybe, of a deeper personality.
The way she kept her short nails painted black. The way she pinched her bottom lip between her teeth when a guest became emotional, or the way her water-blue eyes sometimes fixed on a point beyond the Dojo’s floor-to-ceiling windows as if the city lights were further away than they were, sparkling from some distant galaxy.
He found himself dreaming about her, fantasizing that he had found the last biological woman in the state hiding in plain sight, which of course, couldn’t be true. No real woman would be here, subject to arrest for subversion. They had been gone for decades, replaced by reproductive units and bots that lived under tight regulation without complaint.
To find one alive was the secret hope of every man.
But was it true?
The more he thought about it, the more sense it made. New bots came in all the time, and it wasn’t clear what happened to them when they cycled out. Some of them—if memory served—never even worked the floor, never did a night’s work. There was only one explanation for it, but he couldn’t know for certain, and he didn’t expect Nika to confide in him without a reason.
He waited for his opportunity to get her alone, choosing a slow night when the other humans clocked off early, leaving each of the bots to return to their charging stations. The lamps went dark and the club’s neon spaces became impenetrable black wells, the glow of the city filling the windows.
Robert hid in the shadows, willing to wait until dawn if necessary.
After an hour, Nika appeared from the murk. Dressed in a light blue sleeping gown, she walked casually to the bar, poured herself a glass of red wine, and settled on one of the dark vinyl couches, contemplating the city in that way of hers.
For a moment, he simply watched as her fingers balanced the wine glass in her hand, her expression tinged with sadness as she sipped from its shining rim.
“Nika,” he said softly.
She looked up at him, surprised.
“I know what you are,” he told her, crossing the distance. “You don’t have to be afraid.”
Her gaze never wavered, as if she were a porcelain doll daring him to prove that she
wasn’t, the light from the window threading neon through the blonde strands of her hair.
The deception was perfect.
He shook his head. “I won’t turn you in. I might even be able to help.”
“You’re hiding,” he said. “Here, in plain sight, surrounded by bots. This place… the Dojo. It’s part of The Network. Women come here and you get them out of the state.”
“I see,” Nika replied. “Your fantasy is to be with a human woman.”
“You don’t have to pretend, not with me.”
She put down her wine glass. Rising to her feet, she slid her hands over his shoulders and
pressed herself against him, soft and warm. “You want someone to love and protect.”
Robert hesitated, sensing the note of irony in her voice.
Her eyes were dark moons circled by blue spheres of light. Tilting her head, she stood on
her toes to kiss him, her lips glossed with color and wine. He slid his arms around her waist to embrace her tighter, then felt her reach behind his ear, her fingertips finding a hard spot at the top
of his neck.
Pulling out of the kiss, she whispered into the space between them. “All the men who
come here are protective, but of things that don’t belong to them.”
“You shouldn’t be in this position. It’s not right. But you have me to keep you safe now. I’m stronger, better equipped.”
“Touching,” she replied. “But who do you think made you that way?”
He felt the button on the back of his neck click under the press of her finger.
Morgan Karpiel works as a copywriter in the marketing and advertising field in Poland. When she’s not working with creative teams and dreaming up campaign slogans, she loves to write fiction stories, scripts, and animated story videos.
Original Artwork by Kita Das