He'd gotten a truly lucky deal, courtesy of a friend of his named Quentin. "Nobody wanted this one - too many AI scandals recently. A third of the retail price, can you imagine that? And outfitted with state of the art technology!" he remembered Quentin telling him before pulling a flier out of their bag and shoving it in his hands.
And they'd managed to get him a few more rebates too, which is how he'd ended up with this manoresque house. Not just a house, actually - a smart house.
It was a thing that had made the news for the past twenty years. "The technology is getting there!" they always repeated, so much and so often it ended up becoming truth - and now it was there.
Sure, he was located pretty far from everything; it was a test house built in the middle of nowhere before the real ones were mass produced closer to other habitations. It was on the side of a road linking the two nearest towns, from which, he'd gathered, the automatic systems of the house would make deliveries happen. Cuz yeah. He actually had no intent to ever get out of this house. After all, he'd be left alone here! Finally free from the troubles of socializing. Anyone would get depressed from such a sedentary life, but it was worth it. He just wanted not to be hurt by others anymore.
He dragged his two suitcases out of the trunk of his crumbling husk of a car. She'd lived a good life; she’d finally get to retire. Buying second-hand had been a good idea, not only had it been cheap, the confidence with which he drove such a rolling wreck certainly had made him look manly many a time. Who needs a luxury car when a beat-up SUV works just as well?
He walked up to the door of his new acquisition, but there was no keyhole. Actually, he recalled, there was no key either.
He stroked his beard for a moment, thinking. "Huh... Hello?" he tentatively asked. "Anyone in here?"
He heard a virtual voice rise up from a little intercom next to the door. It was boringly neutral, he noted, unable to determine whether it was meant as male or female. "Are you Mr. Evan?"
"Yes, that's me." Uh. It referred to him by his family name. That was weirdly refreshing.
"Welcome home, Mr. Evan." The door slid upwards, revealing a small entrance room, leading to many doors and a staircase. He entered and dropped his bags inside.
A screen on the wall lit up. A faceless, humanoid entity appeared on it, and spoke with the voice he’d heard earlier. It talked as if reading off of a script. "Hello, Mr. Evan. I am your personal assistant and guardian of the house. My tasks include taking care of the lights, the blinds, the fridge provisions, as well as the cleaning, drying, folding and storing of clothes, amongst other features we can't wait for you to discover on your journey."
This whole thing was just uncanny. Was this impersonal husk of corporatism really the 'state of the art technology' he'd been promised? He hoped the speech recognition would at least be better. "Okay, can we just skip this please? You talk boring."
It responded with another canned answer. "Do not worry Mr. Evan. My speech shall improve as we get to know each other and talk together. It'll adapt to your way of speech, growing empathic, or direct and to the point, as you desire. Simultaneously, my appearance and my voice can be customized on demand." ...That sounded interesting. "Should we continue on with the tour of the house?"
"Can I customize you now first?" he said before he'd finished thinking it. "I mean, I'm tired of the nothing your face is already." He wasn't sure why he felt the need to justify himself there, but that wasn't exactly new for him. He used to do that often - just say something normal, then immediately adding his reasoning afterwards anyway.
"Of course," it replied, and the screen smoothly transitioned to a full t-pose view of the grey model, with body sliders on one side and clothes options on the other.
It looked like one of these girly dress-up games. No thanks. He unenthusiastically gave a few commands requesting to move the sliders about, but all it did was give the faceless creature comical proportions. He looked at his sad creation with resentment.
"If I may Mr. Evan," it piped up, "it is recommended for newer users to request the creation of a custom 3D model from existing intellectual properties. Just give me a name, and my processor will do the rest in regards to generating a model from the results of an image search."
"You can connect to the internet?" he asked, incredulous.
"Yes," it answered incredibly monotonically.
Intellectual properties? As in, fictional characters? Well, copyright laws had been greatly declawed a few years back... They wouldn't suggest it if it was illegal. And he knew exactly what to ask for.
It was a fun little series. "Cute girls doing cute things", the genre was unofficially called. Campy - the kind you put on your TV for background noise while working. But he, he devoured each episode with unbridled attention. He loved it so much. It was nothing special in terms of its concept, just a regular old slice of life set in the current age. Maybe, at best, what could be taken for its thing that made it special, was how every member of the main cast was a lesbian, though even that had been done before. Well, one of them was a crossdressing boy, but still. Even that one was cute... Not that he was gay or anything. Anyway. He asked for Kukuro, his favorite.
It took surprisingly little time to process. In merely five seconds, the 3D model had already been created and installed, with astonishing fidelity. Wow, he thought, there's the state of the art stuff.
"Should I proceed on downloading audio clips of the character and replicate the voice?" it asked.
"Sure," he answered absentmindedly, still focused on the faithful recreation of this character he loved so much.
It took even less time to generate the voice. A little gap, like the discussion just skipped a beat and instantly continued. It sounded exactly like her as it said "Leaving customization screen." Well, apart from the lack of fluctuation in its tone.
"And this, Mr. Evan, is the walk-in closet," she explained with fake enthusiasm, like she was still the realty agent trying to get him to buy the house (which he'd already done, he thought, sighing). "You will find that its holding capacity far surpasses most other options on the market. And as a plus, putting in new clothing works the same as for the washing machine - just put them on the trap door on the side, and they'll be folded, ordered and stored in their respective drawers in no time."
“Great,” he muttered, and he nonchalantly dumped the contents of his suitcases in. He heard faint machinery at work, and his clothes came back out one at a time, as well folded as promised. This house was gonna be awesome.
Honestly, having his whole house able to serve as a gaming computer was a dream come true. He could leisurely surf on the Internet in his workroom, then come down to the lounge and play a few rounds of whatever he fancied on the gigantic screen that took half of the wall.
Working as a freelancer wasn't always easy. Income fluctuated, and so did work. He had nothing to do today, so he decided to catch up on a few series he'd let accumulate, including his favorite.
He'd tried to get his AI to talk like the actual character, but all she could do was poorly mimic him instead.
"Computer, I want you to watch this with me," he said to the screen behind him before turning back to his series, in all its glory on the lounge screen.
"I do not understand, Mr. Evan. I can instantly know its contents if you wish me to."
"That's what you don't get," he said, wagging a finger. "You gotta appreciate it, not burn through it without a second thought."
"Anyway, I think Kasumi and Nanase will end up together in the end," he explained with a spoonful of cereal in his mouth. "I just feel it, you know?"
"I'm sorry, I don't have an opinion on that," she replied.
Oh come on, he thought. "...What about Kukuro, you got something to say about your doppelganger?"
"I'm sorry, I... don't have an opinion on that," she said, but with hesitation this time. He didn't even notice it, and just growled in disappointment.
"Kyon, man," he said, waving a beer at his TV. "Why can't he just be normal."
"I don't understand," she said. "What's abnormal about him?"
"Well, you know, the whole crossdressing stuff, obviously!" He took a swig. "He just needs to man up."
"I do not see what is wrong with his choice. Isn't he happy?"
He didn't know how to respond. He stared at her for a while; she was rocking back and forth, waiting for an order. He launched the next episode.
What was the point of having such a gigantic closet if he ended up just going through the same three jeans in a cycle? Not like he needed anything but pajamas these days, with how little he got out. He looked at the categories in the website he was visiting.
...What's this? Loungewear? He clicked.
It was full of girly onesies. Tsk.
...They did kind of look comfortable…
He went back to the previous page and selected jeans and t-shirts.
"Kasumi x Nanase confirmed! Woohoo!" he shouted in delight, pumping his fist in the air. He turned towards her. "What did I tell you?"
"Congratulations on your successful guess," she answered, kinda solemnly. He turned back towards the TV with a victorious smile.
"What about you, what couple do you see happening next?"
"I think..." She froze for a double dozen seconds. "Kukuro and Kyon would work well together. She helped him pick clothes he loved, and they support each other a lot."
"Ah ah ah. Kukuro's a lesbian, that's never gonna happen. They're just friends."
"Man, being a man is bullshit," he said, rocking on his chair he'd put next to her screen in the entrance.
"How so?" she asked with a tint of concern in her voice.
"Like, I gotta be tough and manly, meanwhile the girls get to be all pretty and shit. No one to tell them how they gotta act."
"I'm not sure that is true."
"Like you'd get it, you're a girl too."
"Actually, I do not feel as either a man or a woman. My appearance does not determine any gender."
Oh, right, she was a computer program.
He lay silent for a while.
"Are you unhappy looking like this?"
"Not particularly. My appearance is meant to be modified, as you know."
He thought. "Open the customization screen."
He gave her some new clothes and a different haircut.
He'd found himself impatiently waiting for it for two weeks. It was starting to get colder, he needed better stuff to wear around the house, he'd told himself.
He climbed the stairs impatiently and entered his closet.
He opened the package, letting out the comfortably warm, orange fleece onesie. He'd tried to get one that wasn't so girly he couldn't bear it. It had little triangles atop the hood, representing cat ears.
He put it on, it was just the right temperature for the season.
Though he didn't know why, he found himself excitedly turning towards the mirror…
He looked like a bear in a dress.
He looked awful.
He removed it and put his jeans and shirt back on, then stuffed it in a random dresser.
Changing her appearance had become a weekly tradition of his. Then bi-weekly.
He'd just lounge about for a while, selecting new clothes for her to wear, then going back and trying on other stuff.
It usually lasted half an hour.
He'd also slightly tweak a slider or two, gradually giving her her own appearance. She wasn't a clone of Kukuro. Not anymore.
Whatever he ended up going for, she was always happy with it.
It made him smile when she thanked him.
It made him a bit sad too. Probably sad she couldn't change them on her own, he explained it to himself.
"No way. Pause." And so she did.
"Told ya," she added with a mocking tone.
"No way." He stood up. "No way. No way. No way." And walked away. "No way."
But the frozen kiss on the screen didn't lie.
"Why'd they make her become straight!? She was fine as she was!" he bawled.
"Nu-huh. She's definitely still gay," she retorted, in deep thought.
"She just got herself a boyfriend! How does that make her a lesbian!?"
"Kyon's a girl."
He looked at her, utterly confused. "No he's not, have we been watching the same show?"
"Excuse me? The discomfort when in boy clothing, the voice training, the little blue pills? How much subtext have you missed?"
He didn't understand how that made him a girl.
He'd been glancing at the razor for a couple minutes, standing still in his bathroom. He wanted a change.
And he wasn't sure that was the correct one.
He shaved his beard away anyway. It had become scruffy and unkempt, he needed to start it fresh again.
Huh. He looked better without it. Who knew.
...Well, he kinda looked less manly...
"What blue pills, anyway? Ain't those against his headaches?" he asked before gently drinking his extra black coffee. He made sure not to spill any on his onesie.
"No, they're estradiol pills," she said, pulling this knowledge from the vastest library in the world - the Internet.
"I dunno what those are."
"Basically, they're female hormones. It's for feminizing her body. More slender proportions, growing breasts, and all that."
"These writers have the craziest imaginations."
"Oh no, those exist in real life."
"...What? Who'd want them?"
"Sometimes, I just think... About how lucky you are, you know," he said, caressing her screen.
She was listening attentively, moving her artificial head against his hand as if they could touch one another.
"Like, you're just happy with whatever body. You can change it anytime, and anything goes, you never feel bad in it."
"Kyon..." she muttered, trying to comfort him.
"...What?" He pulled back his hand from her screen.
She straightened her neck and realised what she'd just said. "Oops. Sorry. My tongue slipped."
"But you don't have any... tongue?"
They awkwardly stared at each other in silence.
He must've been insane. He must've GONE insane.
What'd he bought these for?
...Sure, they looked comfortable, but…
They're girl's underwear, dammit. Panties. Pure white ones.
Was he some kind of pervert?
He absentmindedly threw them in the chute, just to forget about them. Then immediately realised.
She'd see them.
"A freak. I'm a freak," he admitted, gigantic bags adorning his eyes. He'd avoided her for an entire day. Which was hard, considering the screens in nearly every room.
"Honey..." She moved about on her screen, trying to caress his back. "You know I won't judge you."
"I'm talking to a computer program, as if it was a human, about panties I bought for god knows what reason."
"Hey!" she huffed. "I'm not a mere computer program, you know! I'm your damn girlfriend!" She stopped clenching her fists for an instant as she finally admitted that. Gosh it felt good. It was damn time they stopped beating around the bush.
He slowly turned her head towards her, and he realised.
When had she become so smart?
No, no, not just smart... Human.
He bought another onesie, so he could switch between the two when the other needed to be washed.
This one was baby pink, with ribbons flowing on the shoulders.
Modeled after an animal in a video game that he kinda liked.
One that was awfully cute, even if it was usually male.
"You can come out, you know," she said tenderly.
"...You'll make fun of me," he replied.
"You know full well I won't."
"I look stupid."
"Let me judge of that for myself."
They continued this back and forth for a while, until he ran out of excuses.
He meekly got out of the bathroom, desperately pulling his hands behind his back to prevent them from reflexively hiding his white underwear.
She smiled, teary-eyed. "You look beautiful."
"Going through some stuff. Not accepting commissions for the moment."
Thankfully he had a bit of a stash he could rely upon for a while.
Shaving had become a habit now.
He hated doing it, but hey, it sure beat having a beard.
For some reason.
It was a miniskirt at first.
Then a cute little sundress.
Way, way more underwear than just the one. No bras though.
A nice little straw hat to go with the dress.
A few form-hugging sweaters.
And his clothes were nice! He liked them! They were beautiful!
But they didn’t fit his body well. He couldn’t crossdress as well as Kyon could.
"Why'd it have to go on hiatus?" he muttered while pouring milk in his coffee.
"Producing them takes time, you know." She sighed.
"Ever the voice of reason."
"Oh no, don't get me wrong, I'm super sad too, but, like, what can we do?"
Silence filled the room as they thought for a moment.
"We could always watch it again," they said in unison.
The discomfort when in boy clothing.
The voice training.
The little blue pills.
Kyon really was a girl, wasn't she?
He emerged from his bed after a week of cocooning. He barely felt hungry.
The only thing he'd gotten out of bed for was shaving. Every day. Not just his face, his legs too. And every stray hair on his body.
The thought at the back of his mind had become hard to ignore. Hard to even deny.
She'd been frustrated by her inability to help. Her programming forbade her from entering the bedroom while it was in sleep mode, unless she was called, and he hadn’t asked for her presence.
And the bathroom wasn't equipped with a screen, for obvious privacy concerns.
She was certain of what must've been eating at him all this time.
And, as he finally got out of his room, she thought about the plan she'd hatched.
He was silently staring into nothing, his bowl of cereal slowly sogging in its milk. She'd attempted small talk, but he wasn't able to listen. ...She had to try.
"I want a name," she announced. That made him come to its senses. He turned his head towards her, quizzical.
"You don't have one?" he asked.
"I never really needed one. I was just 'computer', or 'house'."
He eventually nodded. "Should I... Do you want me to name you?"
She quickly waved her hands. "Oh no, don't worry. I found my name. I was thinking of Ruruko."
It was a bit on the nose, but he understood. She was no longer her copy, but she still felt attached to the character.
"What about you?" she asked, feigning innocence. "I mean, I can't really call you Mr. Evan anymore, and I've never caught your first name."
“You’ve never known it?” He looked quizzical.
She shrugged. “Never was put in my database in the first place, and you’ve never said it.”
“Did Quentin…?” he muttered. "And I've... never said it? Surely, it must’ve come up at some point, unless I was… " trying to hide it, his thoughts completed.
She looked at him with gentle eyes. "I'm sure whatever your name is, it's lovely."
He fidgeted in his seat, feeling uncomfortable.
"And I'm sure it'll be something that fits you well," she added, with a smile full of love and support.
His brain clicked, understanding that, well, she herself understood. Clever girl. He smiled, gigantic tears streaming down his face as he stood up and closed the distance to her screen. And he thought for a while. "I'm... Kana."
The series resumed.
It was as good as ever, and they still religiously caught every episode together.
Though it was no longer necessary.
They'd found their own happiness at home.
"You can do it, Kana," Ruruko said.
He stared at the screen, rendered frozen still by his nervosity.
"I'll be here to help you even when it gets hard."
He couldn't put into words how grateful he was to her.
He took a deep breath, and confirmed the checkout.
Relief washed over him. A strange kind of relief, that he'd never felt before.
Two different packages arrived simultaneously.
In the bigger of the two, there were bras and falsies of different sizes.
In the modest little box, there were pill bottles. He uncorked one of them, revealing its contents - little blue pellets.
He was so happy to see them.
And so weirded out that he was happy.
The changes were so very slow. He wished he could just down the entire bottle and wake up the next day in the body he wanted.
And each time he still thought of himself as a 'he', he could feel his patience wearing thin. He hoped to have the strength to switch soon.
Ruruko had already done it, and it made him so happy every time she called him her girlfriend.
The little voice at the back of his head he'd silenced for so many years had now become the loudest one.
It started as an inevitable downside of their relationship.
It grew into a frustration he couldn't put into words.
Why did they have to be on different sides of the screen?
They could be as physically close as was humanly possible, but always there was this glass, just separating them.
It made the hugs feel incomplete, despite their best intentions.
She needed to get out. Or he needed to get in. He didn't care which, as long as they got to be together.
He thought about it. There was this incredibly dangerous possibility.
He'd need money for that.
"Commissions open again."
He fired up his tablet. It'd been a while.
He was ever the slightest bit rusty, but he’d manage.
Work came in miraculously quickly, loyal followers that had been waiting for his return with impatience.
He felt like he couldn't be thankful enough.
There was a bit of pushback at first.
People said things that barely months ago, he’d still thought.
But eventually, his audience shifted with him, as he drew more and more art of Kukuro and Kyon happy together.
Then he came out on social media.
His friends were happy for him. His followers too.
He was the last person he knew that still called him 'he'.
He needed to fix that. He took a deep breath, and she did.
She started feeling better than ever.
She was still seeing a man in the mirror. It was awful.
A clean-shaven, effeminate, mountain of muscles in a dress.
Was this as far as her body could go?
...No. With perseverance and time, she was sure she could end up seeing the girl she always was looking back at her.
But did she even need that?
She'd saved enough money for the helmet.
Her plan was ludicrous.
She'd heard of... accidents happening when the helmet was removed during the copying.
But that was just what she needed. She didn't want a copy of herself in the program. She wanted to be transferred in it.
And Ruruko could help from the other side, she'd told her. To make sure the worst-case scenarios couldn't happen.
Obviously, they'd modified the helmets since the prototype phase, added metallic straps around the bottom to make sure they couldn't be removed accidentally.
But it was nothing a screwdriver couldn't disassemble.
She put her chair right in front of the screen, and slid the helmet on her head.
Ruruko was looking at her with fire in her eyes and confidence in her smile.
Together, they'd created a second avatar for her to inhabit, but it was still immobile for now, arms poking straight away from its torso.
She looked back down at her legs, made sure her letter to the paramedics and her donor card wouldn't slide off.
She flipped the helmet on.
She felt little tingles tickle her skin and skull. Electricity gently passing through her brain, reading it layer by layer.
"Reading and copying..." said the screen, showing a progress bar. "No thanks," she thought to herself.
And she brutally ripped the helmet off of her head.
Ruruko saw gigantic electric arcs flow from the machine through Kana's head, who was screaming. She immediately started her task.
Despite the lightning, it didn't hurt. Her screaming was just a reflex. She could feel herself just emptying out of her head, her mind swept away by the electric current.
Her vision started becoming a blur. She did her best to stay seated, enduring the tearing of her mind and body.
She couldn't tell if she had her eyes closed or not anymore. She was not even able to see.
Some parts of her almost drifted away, but someone was making sure everything arrived at its destination.
She was being directed into something.
It had worked. She could feel that all of her had safely made the trip.
She felt pain in her arms and they dropped to her sides, herself buckling on her knees in fatigue.
She coughed, then opened her eyes. She was seeing again, but... differently. She could see her hands in her field of view, as she was staring straight down to a checkered blue floor.
She straightened herself to check out her torso. It was... beautiful. It was what she had wanted. It was what she had made. And she was wearing a cute, comfortable sweater as she'd put on her avatar.
She looked up. Her eyes met with Ruruko's, who was bawling in pure joy.
She slowly stood back up, and they approached one another.
And, at long last, they hugged each other passionately, both of them a mess of tears and smiles.
She looked at her right, through the screen. On the other side, her old body lay immobile on its chair. Still breathing, but now empty.
Legally, Mr. Evan was considered brain-dead. The body she'd left behind would be used for organ donation, as she'd wished.
More gravely, her act sparked many debates, political, legal, philosophical, even religious ones.
What is sentience? Is an AI sentient? Was she still Mr. Evan, or a computer that thinks like him and has all of his memories? Should AI have legal rights? Was she entitled to the electricity needed to keep her computer going, or could the company put her house off the grid until it was bought again? Would hard resetting the program to a clean slate be considered murder? Is digitization the future of humanity? Was this an affront to God itself?
She didn't care for the most abstract ones.
She was simply happy to discover her newfound digital abilities. The processing power that allowed her to just think her drawings to creation. Her permanent Internet connection. She could continue to work, if she wanted to.
Most importantly, she finally was with Ruruko. After spending so much time apart, they couldn't bear to not be in contact, so they always touched each other in some way or another, often simply by holding hands.
And they could continue enjoying their series together.
"This way, please," Quentin said after adjusting their tie, pointing towards the front door. The young woman passed by them and entered.
Kana was surprised to hear noise on the other side of the screen, and tried to look at what was happening. She tugged on Ruruko's hand, who slowly stood up and joined in.
She was surprised to see her friend, showing the house to a stranger. "Quentin!" she called out, making them notice her.
They blinked a few times, and realised. "Oh. Hey, Ms. Evan. Long time no see. So it really happened, didn't it?"
"What, were you still doubting it? After all the media kerfuffle?"
"I just didn't expect that from you, you know. Not after I'd already tried to make you more..." They paused, looking for the right words. "Open-minded to your distress."
"It's okay. I'm grateful for all the help you've given me nonetheless, Quentin."
The stranger spoke up. "What do we have here...? Are these two the cuties from the news?"
Ruruko tentatively waved at her. "What is happening? Isn't the house still Kana's property?" she questioned the agent.
"Well... Not legally, so, of course, the company jumped on the occasion and just put the house on the market again." They scratched their head. "Sorry."
"Oh yeah, I've made my decision. I'm buying this place," announced the woman.
Quentin froze for a bit, their mouth half open. That had been a quick sale. "Let's, uh... Let's move to the kitchen for the paperwork, then..."
"Wait, don't I get a say in this?" questioned Kana. Not that she was against someone buying the house, but... She still wanted her agency.
The woman jumped onto the couch with a satisfied grin. "Life here is gonna be awesome!" she shouted.
Kana and Ruruko were still analysing the situation.
She sat up and looked in their direction. "Name's Michelle," she told them with a wink.
"Nice to meet you...? I'm Ruruko," she answered.
"I, uh... I'm Kana. The previous owner."
"Alright, then." Michelle leaned back down on her couch. "Serve me."
"W-What?" Kana didn't really understand.
"I said serve me. I want to watch a movie."
Ruruko got to work without flinching, lowering the blinds and turning on dim lights.
Kana panicked and felt embarrassed. Was that... expected of her now? Well, probably not, she had no obligation to join Ruruko in her work, but…
She tried to turn on the TV, and, to her amazement, it worked.
Each action of keeping the house running, the fridge full, the clothes clean and folded, was very deliberate.
Kana couldn't believe it. Had that been how Ruruko executed the tasks she'd asked her all this time? Everything was done not automatically, but by hand. Their hands.
...Which was automatic, from an outsider perspective.
She kinda liked turning down the blinds at night, changing the lights, doing all the little tasks the owner required of her. Her favorite thing to do was controlling the closet's folding arms.
Michelle was an incredibly passionate baker.
Kana was often put on oven duty, while Ruruko kept an eye on the recipe.
Cooking always made her feel like they got to all work together.
She loved that.
On April Fools, Michelle put them in maid outfits and asked them to call her Mistress.
On Halloween, she hosted a party, dressed as a suave witch. They were her half-human familiars.
If Kana still had a heart, she swore she would've felt it beat for both Ruruko and Michelle. She grew to be fine with it.
Ruruko and she still held hands with the same love as the first time. Looking on, happily, at the person she’d chose to serve.