by Kurt Pankau

I meet Roger, Subject 2349-XY, at the Rue de Cafe on 9th Street within sight of the overpass. He's wearing a blue silk shirt and tweed blazer. I attempt a salutation by extending my appendage, which has been encased in a fleshy exo-chassis designed to mimic the human forearm and hand. He accepts it and gives it a firm but gentle shake.
"You must be Kayla," he says. I can feel his grip through the haptic interface--the sensation of skin-to-skin contact echoes down to my true skin inside the enclosure. The sensation is delayed and amplified by the interface, so it feels both unreal and entirely too real. I log an entry into my mission notes bio-packet that I have successfully initiated human contact.
"Nice to meet you," I say, and we take our seats at the tiny table by the window. A waitress comes to take our orders. Roger gets a latte and I say I don't need anything. Coffee disagrees with my biology.
"So tell me about yourself," he says.
We engage in the ritual of Small Talk, in which I learn about his job and hobbies. I learn that he likes Mediterranean food and thinks beards are ugly. He asks about me, so I supply him with details from the list of randomly selected personality-influencing background traits that were assigned to the Kayla persona. He smiles with his mouth, but not his eyes. He sips at his coffee. He does not seem to be engaging.
My mission, in other words, is failing. I am not making a human connection to Subject 2349-XY, as I had not made a connection to the two thousand, three hundred and forty-eight subjects before him.
My kind are not social, not like the human animal is. We leave bio-packets for each other that convey information about the environment as well as our emotional state. We couple and reproduce in this way, leaving behind bio-packets that will become our offspring. We can go our entire lives without directly interacting. Therefore, the social rituals of humans are completely alien to us. My mission is to learn, to understand and experience the connections humans make with each other. And I'm about to log my 2349th failure.
My cortical reactors signal frustration, which is registered by the exo-chassis's sensory mirroring interface. My true body wants to gyrate and twist, an instinctive reaction to free oneself from a predator or trap. However, it would impossible to do that and maintain a human form, so instead the mirroring interface makes Kayla drum her fingers on the tablecloth. The haptic sensation of wood and cloth against fingertips reverberates loudly through my skin, which is not making things any better for me.
Roger, Subject 2349-XY, stops talking and frowns. "Am I boring you?" he asks. He looks at the exo-chassis, at Kayla's fingers, which are still drumming away.
"No, of course not," I say, but the mirroring interface has accurately translated the fact that I'm deflecting. I should really turn that off and run Kayla's emotional matrix manually. How am I supposed to make a connection with a human when my emotions are so nakedly on display?
Roger raises an eyebrow. "We can talk about something else," he offers.
"I'm sorry," I say. "Work has been really frustrating lately." This is true enough.
Roger nods. "Long day?"
"Long week," I say, engaging the joking protocol even though I'm not actually joking. "Long lifetime, really."
Something changes, then. I can't tell what, but there's something different about Subject 2349-XY's comportment. Is he distancing himself? Am I failing faster than usual? I make a note in my logs. Whatever I'm feeling right now, the Kayla exo-chassis's mirroring interface translates into a sigh.
I query my conversation matrix quick-help guide for safe topics of conversation. "Read any good books lately?" I ask.
Roger starts talking again and I make sure to log a transcript for quick reference in case he says anything that he expects me to remember. Roger's demeanor seems more guarded, though.
Honestly, could this date be going any worse?
The frustration is getting to be more than I can bear. I want to condense it into a bio-packet and leave it behind for someone to find, although the Kayla exo-chassis prevents this. I could excuse myself and go the restroom, but my emotions are meant to be discovered and parsed and incorporated, not flushed away. I just… I can't do this anymore. The mirroring interface causes Kayla's tear ducts to begin secreting fluid.
"Is everything alright?" asks Roger.
I want to tell him that everything's fine or that I'm just a little worn down by work. But he'll know I'm lying. So instead I say "No," which comes out as a wail.
"Do… you want to talk about it?"
"You wouldn't understand."
"Try me."
I don't want to. I really don't. But I think I have to. I have to do something with these emotions. This overwhelming sense of failure, it can't stay in my body anymore. The mirroring interface starts Kayla's mouth moving and the words just fall out.
"I'm trapped," I sob. Other patrons of Rue de Cafe are staring at me, but I don't care. "I'm trapped inside my skin, inside this body. I just want to tear it off and be free. I've spent my entire life pretending to be someone I'm not, saying what I think people want me to say, just trying to find a connection. But it never works. People bond with each other all the time. They bond with cats and dogs, but they can't bond with me. I'm just a failure as a human being."
Roger, Subject 2349-XY, is staring at me.
"See?" I say. "I told you you wouldn't understand."
He takes my hand. The haptic interface passes sensations into my own skin. I can feel his warmth. I look up and see that his tear ducts are also secreting a little bit of fluid. And yet he's smiling. He's smiling with both his mouth and his eyes. He's engaging. He's… connecting.
He gently tugs on my hand, and when I don't resist he pulls it up to his face and kisses the back of it. "Believe it or not," he whispers, "I know exactly how you feel."

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