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about the author…
Jei – /jā/ – noun – A twenty-something, first-gen Korean-American speculative fiction writer and freshly minted librarian currently installed in the Rust Belt with a hydrobot and a hedgehog.
Preferred pronoun: gender neutral ( ey / em / eir )
Likes: thunderstorms, body mods, martial arts, comic books, bioluminescence, cute stationery, crepuscular skyscapes, the sea, werewolves, the Seoul metro system, coffee (black), whiskey (neat), and cheese (aplenty)
Dislikes: people who talk at the cinema, humidity, werewolves, and vindictive dead things with too much hair and a penchant for flouting the laws of physics
Research interests include: ambient intelligence environments, augmented reality, cyborg anthropology, linguistics, memetics, the occult, and spooky stories
about the narrator…
Amanda Ching is a freelance editor and writer. Her work has appeared in WordRiot, Candlemark & Gleam’s Alice: (re)Visions, and every bathroom stall on I-80 from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis. She tweets @cerebralcutlass and blogs at http://amandaching.wordpress.com.
Sounding the Fall
by Jei D. Marcade
Sometimes, Narae can almost convince emself that the AI’s Voice was a dream. Some kind of minor stroke misremembered, a neurological glitch retroactively given recognizable shape.
But sometimes–less frequently of late, but still, sometimes–Narae wakes to find emself sitting up in the dark, jaw slack, a sustained, atonal note spooling from the back of eir throat.
Narae steps through the open archway of the southwestern gate, bare toes curling in the cool blades of real grass with which the temple grounds are seeded. The lotus-shaped lanterns hanging from the eaves go dim as the sun activates, and from its single-tiered pagoda at the top of the hill behind em, the morning bell tolls.
The alms left anonymously against the outer wall in the night include a couple bolts of inert grey fabric, some bags of rice, and a stack of real tea bricks. Upon hefting the rice, Narae’s eyebrows inch toward the shadow of eir hairline at each bag’s weight: not synthetic either, these. Something that is part bemusement, part nostalgia tugs at the corners of Narae’s mouth, and ey shakes eir head as ey piles the bags and bolts into the bottom of the wheelbarrow before turning to gather the rest.
There, on the topmost tea brick, tucked along the raised edge of an elaborate curlicue that must have gone overlooked when the temple’s faceless benefactor hastily scraped off the embossed logo, is a perfectly rolled joint.
Narae plucks the thing up by one tip and crosses the outer lawn, ready to cast it over the rail that wraps around the temple grounds and down along the winding stone staircase to the lower levels.
Steady as a heartbeat, the temple’s morning drum begins to sound out. When its reverberations subside, they leave an even deeper reservoir of silence behind them.
Narae falters at the edge of the lawn. Ey brings the roll of rice paper to eir nose, gives it a tentative sniff, and releases an explosive sigh; Narae would bet a week’s worth of chores that it’s real–none of that backstreet synth hash with its foul aftertaste. Muttering a guilty prayer, ey palms the joint.
Then ey crosses eir arms over the railing and leans out past the perimeter of the noise barrier, and the rest of the world roars into being.
Down the vast, hollow core of New Hanyang Danji’s Mha-Tower, every pocket of air bursts with announcements and pop music, with the erratic trills and pings of external devices, all beneath the interminable cacophony of countless human voices raised in conversation and laughter and anger and song. The vertical spaces teem with brilliantly backlit signs, public access smart screens, and floating banners as far as Narae can see. Augmented reality layers advertising sales, municipal campaigns, and upcoming expositions are stacked so deep in the public channels that the displays look seamless, rendering the visual world devoid of negative space.
A doggedly enforced distance below Narae’s feet–the airspace at the temple level is a no-fly zone–cat-sized drones glitter and bob like damselflies, dodging luminescent shield kites and the occasional cloud of languid moon jellyfish.
Sensory overload crashes down on Narae like a tidal wave, the only approximation of _sea_ that ey has ever known, and more swiftly and thoroughly than a hundred-eight prostrations ever could, it washes out the inside of Narae’s skull as though it’s no more than a dirty rice bowl. And in its wake is a sticky kernel of fierce longing that leaves em gasping, makes em reel back from the railing to catch eir breath.
Movement at the edge of the lawn. Narae drops eir hand automatically to hold the joint out of sight behind eir leg. Someone is watching em from the shade of the persimmon trees, eir features lost in the pale pre-dawn setting of the false sun in the ceiling high above them.
The stranger is dressed in standard civilian wear: a matching set of ivory trousers, shirt, and sleeveless coat in a generous cut, the slick indigo honeycomb pattern marking the fabric as a government-issued techstyle. That ey has left eir clothes inactive makes Narae wary, wondering if it’s to better avoid detection in the dark.
Narae turns eir head, mechanical eye whirring as it works to bring the stranger’s face into focus while Narae skims the public profile layer that appears superimposed in the air beside it. The stranger’s call sign is listed as Domabaem. Hardly more than a child at twenty-six years–Narae’s junior by over a decade–eir profile is typical for eir age cohort, bearing a dizzying array of bright colors and animated emoticons. A cheeky introductory blurb written in boldly informal language is a snarl of references and slang that Narae doesn’t even try to untangle.
“Need a light?” Domabaem calls, when it becomes clear that Narae has noticed em.
Slipping the joint into the wide sleeve of eir overcoat, Narae presses eir palms together in hapjang, thumbs brushing eir chest, and bows in Domabaem’s direction. “The divine in me greets the divine in you,” ey murmurs.
Domabaem smirks at the clumsy evasion and dips into a shallow bow that is a touch too brief to be considered courteous.
Narae flexes eir free hand into the mudra that informs eir fingertip implants to [expand] and [scroll]: Domabaem’s profile lists a few interests, favorite idols, romantic preferences, and priority social circles, but no contacts, no job, no subject of study. Ey has designated eir pronoun preference as the feminine singular, so Narae reorients eir thinking accordingly.
The echoes of the gong on the hilltop fade into stillness; Narae will be late to prostrations.
Domabaem twitches her own fingers and frowns. As a rule, monks’ public profiles are sparse, consisting only of their citizen identification codes, chosen names, and monastic affiliations. Monastery-issued implants are not enabled to sync with outsiders’, and most of Narae’s personal implants are so outdated that Domabaem’s would likely not recognize them, even had they not been deactivated a long time ago.
An almost inaudible click signals the beginning of recorded birdsong, and Domabaem twitches with surprise: the trunk behind her is installed with a speaker.
“But some of these are real,” she says, touching the scaly bark of the tree to her right. Her speech is as rough as her profile, brazenly familiar despite the difference in their age, and colored with an unfamiliar patois.
“What guides you to our temple, traveler?” Narae squeezes the words through eir teeth, though ey makes a point of addressing her with the precise level of formality that befits an initial encounter with a stranger.
Above them, the sun brightens into its early morning setting.
“I’ve heard that Mha-Tower has no AIs,” she says casually, as though she is remarking on the efficiency of the climate control.
“Not up here,” ey says, matching her tone. “But the Danji AI is still functioning on the lower levels.”
There are only a few reasons why anyone would seek out a place that lacks the convenience and security–and constant surveillance–of an artificial intelligence. Narae forms the mudra to call up a [search] layer. Ey [drag]s Domabaem’s profile into the query box of a newsfeed.
Eir search yields a handful of matches: a skiptrace alert issued from Dha-Tower for (unspecified clan name) Go Hyeonsu, bearing a capture of Domabaem’s face; a short series of articles covering her recent trial. The monastery’s layer access restrictions redact the nature of Go’s crime, but the sentence–five years as an AI auxiliary–is harsh.
“You’re thinking of joining the monastery,” Narae guesses.
Monkhood is not a popular alternative, but not an uncommon one, either. Relearning how to use her own tech upon restoration might not keep Domabaem out of the world for too long, but after five years of inactivity, her augmentations would be hopelessly outdated.
“My friends say I might as well do my time as an aux.” She glances up at Narae, away.
Narae is suddenly conscious of the AI ports lining the back of eir neck, the base of eir skull, stark against eir bare scalp.
From out of nowhere, Domabaem produces a light. Firestarters are contraband; Narae hasn’t seen one in civilian hands for years. Yet ey brings the joint to eir lips in an automatic motion and leans in to touch it to the flame.
Domabaem’s gaze finds eirs. “But it isn’t the same, is it?”
Eir breathing has quickened. Narae releases a trembling plume of smoke. From the back of eir mind, a faint mechanical wail rises in the dark. “No,” ey says, “it’s not.”
_What do you remember?_ That was always the question everyone asked, at first.
The response that Narae gave most regularly was, _Nothing_, and it was almost true. Between unit activation and cognitive restoration, an aux is wholly unaware of eir own bodily processes, of the myriad repair and maintenance tasks that the AI performs unerringly throughout the Danji with the aux’s hands.
But some part of Narae remembers cold and darkness, and the sensation of plunging through it, unable to draw breath as sterile air whipped past em, disoriented and seized with the anticipatory terror of impact.
Fifteen years of falling. That’s the part that defies easy explanation. Everyone thinks that an aux just goes to sleep when the AI plugs in, that in a blink, it’s all over, and the aux regains consciousness to learn that their sentence has passed with em none the wiser. No one tells you, before, about the falling. No one tells you about the Voice.
With no sensory input, it was impossible to keep track of time, so Narae cannot guess when ey first became aware of sound, never mind when ey began to discern a pattern in it. After a while, what started out as ambient noise, easy to ignore, rose to the forefront of Narae’s awareness and pressed in: distant mutter-clicks and long, low drones; murmurs in the hiss of static; an erratic pulse of electronic bursts that synced perfectly at times to the relentless bass of what Narae suspected was eir own heart.
In the darkness, wavering threads of ten, twenty, a hundred unremitting tones plaited together, forming a dissonant electric hum: a terrible Voice that ratcheted up to a distorted screamsong in which Narae could swear ey heard eir name.
How long has Domabaem been lurking at the edges of the lawn outside the gate, hoping against the odds to find someone like Narae? Or has she lucked out with this chance meeting with a former aux?
But of course there is no such thing as happenstance, only a fractal in a grand design too vast to see.
Beneath her hood, Domabaem’s face is practically as undermodified as Narae’s, almost unrecognizable from her own public profile, though Narae can see the outlines of implants in the ridge of her brow and on either side of her neck. A bald earnestness slips through, making her look heartbreakingly young. “Is it awful?”
Narae hesitates. Thinks of the cold. The fall. The Voice.
But Domabaem clarifies, “Monastic life. I mean, it must be awful. Why else would it be an equal sentence to serving as an aux?”
“We have our own garden. A small one,” ey amends when Domabaem’s eyes grow wide with wonder. “The temple’s living quarters have a basic food synthesizer and printer, like any home. It’s a simple life, but not a barbaric one. And it’s still a form of service.” Narae passes Domabaem the joint. Rocking back on eir heels, ey gestures at the lotus lamps, at the dirt path winding up the hill behind the gate. “Some consider this the difference between rehabilitation and punishment. After all, as the saying goes, crimes are committed by people who have lost touch with God. The monastery creates the space and the focus to facilitate your return.”
Twin streams of smoke unfurl from Domabaem’s nostrils. “Some people say that it’s God who’s lost touch with us. That Ey can’t hear us in all this… noise.” She tilts her head toward the railing, to the world beyond.
“No. God waits here,” Narae says, touching eir own temple, “in everyone. To find God, one must search within.” There is such conviction in eir voice that Narae surprises emself.
“And you? Have you found Em?”
Narae feels eir eyebrows furrow as ey pushes smoke through the corner of eir mouth. “Some people have to search deeper.”
Domabaem’s answering laugh ends in a cough. “That reminds me of that story about the ship that carries the only survivors of a flooded world, looking and looking for dry land. Most people say that it’s an allegory about Seoul, that the ship represents an arcology, like the Danji, and the story tells us to hold fast until the toxicity levels outside the towers drop.”
Narae has heard this one, too. “Or the ship represents a _ship_, and we need to build one and _leave_.”
“_Or_, maybe the ship is a person–” Domabaem turns her head, eyes flickering as she scans some communication scrolling across a private AR layer. “I have to go,” she says, handing the joint back to Narae. “I’m staying with some people. Eight levels down. Can you meet me there around this time tomorrow? Near the fountain shaped like a bunch of seahorses.”
At the top of the stairs, she stops, turns back. “Have you heard what people are saying? About the AI?”
“Some people think it’s God.”
It is midafternoon before Narae catches sight of the chief monk on eir own: ey strolls amongst the spiraling hydroponics towers, inspecting the health of the greenery that sprouts from gleaming white tubes.
Narae sets aside the string of lamps that ey has been rewiring. Anywhere else, this sort of work would be left with a maintenance request for an aux to repair; that this temple insists on self-sufficiency is part of what has kept em here for going on six years.
Ey traipses across the lawn, through an obstacle course of child-monks at play, their robes flapping like the wings of ungainly baby birds as they swarm around a soccer ball. “Chaeyeong-seunim?” Narae calls. “May I–move aside, little baldies–have a word?”
At two hundred and sixteen, Ahn Chaeyeong is the oldest person that Narae has ever met, eir burnished copper skin so thin that it looks almost transparent in spots, eir eyebrows so sparse as to be ghostly suggestions tracing the hollows of eir eyes. The faded ink of eir skeletal serpent–or is it a dragon?–tattoo is almost invisible against eir neck as it disappears down the collar of eir robes to reemerge from eir sleeve, the creature’s tail coiling around a mottled arm as slender as reed.
Chaeyeong turns away from a tower ey was examining, to greet Narae in hapjang. “The divine in me greets the divine in you.”
Ey returns the greeting distractedly, scratching the back of eir calf with the top of eir foot.
The twin crescents of Chaeyeong’s eyes are almost lost amid a mass of fine lines as ey smiles. “Narae-seunim. We missed you at prostrations this morning.”
Narae waves away the mild rebuke as though it is a particularly cloying fog of incense smoke. “I have a problem,” Narae says without preamble.
“Of course,” Chaeyeong says placidly.
“There’s this–Wait, what do you mean, ‘of course’? What do you think my problem is?”
“Ah–hm? Never mind. Do continue.”
Narae presses eir lips together and reconsiders the wisdom of eir knee-jerk response, opting instead to forge on and describe eir encounter with Domabaem. “. . . and she wants to talk to me again tomorrow about being a monk.”
“What is it about this that troubles you?”
Narae frowns and steps in front of the elder monk, bending eir knees to lower emself to Chaeyeong’s height. “Chaeyeong-seunim? Do you recognize my face? It’s me, Narae.”
“Ya, I haven’t gone senile yet, you little–” Chaeyeong visibly recenters emself. Narae takes private satisfaction in knowing that ey has always been exceptionally talented at bringing out eir claws. “Your experiences make you an ideal adviser to this young person, yes?”
“I just don’t think that someone like me is exactly the best representative of the temple, do you? I’m considering sending Kyeongok-seunim, or maybe even Namil-seunim in my stead, if you can excuse either from their chores.”
“You will do admirably,” ey says with gentle finality. “Now why don’t you tell me what else is weighing on your mind.”
Narae hesitates. “Something she said. About the AI. Someone has given her the impression that the AI itself might be…” Narae shakes eir head, but the laugh that ey forces is edged with a note that is worryingly close to hysteria.
Chaeyeong’s face is impassive as ey finishes Narae’s sentence: “Divine.”
Narae flinches. “It’s idiotic, of course, but–”
“For some time now, there has been a small but growing sect of people who share this belief. When the Administration tried to instate a Danji-wide compulsory auxiliary service, they offered some of the most strident support for this measure.” Chaeyeong tilts eir head and nods, as though at a private memory made for an instant as solid as the present. “I conversed with some of their spokespeople during the protests against compulsory aux service in Gha-Tower. In truth, their faith is not so different from any other.”
Narae boggles at the elder monk. “_You_ were at the protests?”
This time, it is Chaeyeong’s turn to do a sharp double-take. “It’s on public record that this temple helped organize those protests. This surprises you?”
“Well, those rallies had a reputation for getting out of hand, and you’re so… you know.” Narae gestures vaguely to encompass Chaeyeong’s wizened legs, eir curved spine, as ey grasps for the right word. “…Feeble?”
“Venerable!” Narae shouts. “I meant _venerable_.”
“Do you think I entered this world already a two centuries-old husk? Is that what you imagine?”
“Really, I endeavor not to imagine that chapter of histo–”
“Narae,” ey interrupts with a sort of wary patience, “what is it that you think we do up here during times of civil unrest?”
“Meditate? Relentlessly?” Narae cannot help but notice that Chaeyeong’s gaze is shifting incrementally upward, as though ey is beseeching the ceiling for serenity. “For… serenity?”
“_We lend our voices to those who are permitted none_.”
“Oh.” Narae considers this, narrows eir eyes. “Did we forget about preaching detachment?”
Chaeyeong narrows eir eyes right back. “Must we forget about demonstrating compassion?”
“So how do I compassionately convince Domabaem that AI-worshippers are lunatics swindled by admin-funded propaganda?”
“Remember that all rivers return to the sea.” Chaeyeong plucks a perilla leaf from its mother plant and offers it to Narae. “And chew this.”
Against the backdrop of the false sun, the leaf glows from stem to serrated tip, veins bold against the vibrancy of the blade. Narae holds it aloft with fresh reverence, inhaling its scent. “Perilla will grant me insight?”
The elder monk’s smile reveals a little too much teeth. “It will mask your smoker’s breath.”
Narae lets eir arm drop. “Has anyone ever mentioned that having a conversation with you can be like walking through a mine field?”
Chaeyeong claps em on the shoulder and strolls away, chuckling.
“Go ahead, laugh it up, monkey,” Narae mutters at eir receding back, and crams the leaf into eir mouth.
If anything, Chaeyeong’s shoulders shake harder.
Domabaem’s rendezvous site is in a rare open space in the labyrinthine commercial district, the fountain at the center of a hub where eight claustrophobic corridors meet. The air is crowded with the scents of burning sugar and cinnamon, of smoked squid, the tang of synthetic coffee. Digital storefronts offer the latest in alternative DIY fashion for modest download fees, providing full-length mirrors equipped with body scanners and modeling layers to demo outfits for shoppers. An elderly street vendor operates a mobile printer encased in a haetae chassis: the mechanical monster’s tail lifts, and some freshly molded toy drops into a grinning child’s waiting hands. A small crowd gathers around a pair of trad percussionists armed with an hourglass-shaped drum and set of beaten brass hand cymbals, while an electric gayageum player sways behind eir instrument, fingers dancing along the glowing strings. Narae catches a strain of the folk song, “All Along the Watchtower,” floating from the speaker panels that run the length of the gayageum player’s prosthetic leg.
Out of habit, Narae has left eir almsbowl uncovered, and as ey searches the crowd, someone reaches out to dip eir fingers into the bowl. A small chime sounds to indicate the successful transfer of credits, and Narae and the stranger exchange bows.
It takes a third scan for Narae to recognize Domabaem outside a ddeokbokki stand a short distance from the fountain. She has activated her clothes to display a modification of a style that Narae has seen in at least two display screens, and her hair falls to her waist in a tangle of fried white locks and neon tubing. Swirling patterns of subcutaneous lights glow through her skin like a biolume’s, tracing her cheekbones and freckling her arms. Narae draws alongside her as she taps her fingertips against the ddeokbokki vendor’s smart screen to pay for the snack.
Domabaem blows short, sharp blasts of air over her steaming cup. “Let’s sit down,” she says between breaths. “I’m getting dizzy.”
“You could just wait for it to cool,” Narae says.
“I could,” Domabaem agrees, prodding at the soft, cylindrical rice cakes drowning in soy-and-chili sauce, “except I’m hungry _now_.” Before Narae can evade it, she dumps half of the contents of her cup into eir alms bowl, along with one of eir chopsticks. She spears a rice cake with the other.
Narae wipes a trickle of watery red sauce from the side of eir bowl. “It’s a little early for ddeokbokki, isn’t it?”
“We don’t parcel out time like you do up there. Day, night. What’s the point?”
“The cycle keeps us balanced.”
“Balance is a myth. What’s the matter?” she says around a mouthful. “Too good for synthetic rice?”
Narae snorts. “Think we starve when we don’t get alms from the dokkaebi market? The temple synthesizes as much food as it grows.”
That the temple doesn’t grow chilis, Narae neglects to mention. The slow burn of the red pepper paste prickles Narae’s sinuses. Tears blur eir vision. Narae turns eir head and makes a show of studying the fountain.
Domabaem has mercy on em and pulls a bottle of soju from her bag. She unscrews the cap and passes the soju to Narae with aggressive nonchalance, but her face brightens with astonished laughter when Narae accepts the bottle and takes a swig.
“Smoking, drinking! You’re not very good at being a monk, are you?” She shakes her head and downs a pull of soju without wiping the mouth of the bottle.
“I once saw a capture of a seahorse,” Narae nods toward the blocky structure in the middle of the fountain. “Tiny creatures, no bigger than my hand. Beautiful, though, in an alien kind of way. This statue looks exactly as if the sculptor based eir design off a sketch I made from my memory of it.”
“You like drawing, then?”
“Yeah,” ey says, so informally that Domabaem looks taken aback, “but I’m a worse artist than I am a monk.”
Domabaem laughs again, full-throated.
Narae picks at the soju label before setting the bottle carefully down on the table between them. “The biggest lie the Administration will tell you about letting them plug you into the AI is that being an aux is about atonement. It’s not. It’s about utility.”
“What if that’s not all of it, though?”
Narae’s shoulders tense. _Here we go_. “Look, the Danji AI is just that: _artificial_. It’s nothing more than a hypercomplex computer program. We created it, not the other way around.”
“I know that,” Domabaem says with slow incredulity. “I’m not suggesting that we start worshiping a computer. What I’m saying is, haven’t you ever wondered if maybe we’re not the only ones who are looking for God?”
It takes a moment for Narae to catch on, and then ey stares at her, thinks that she must be joking, but she does not smile. “The AI?”
She shrugs and glances away from whatever expression has shadowed Narae’s face, her eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t know,” she mutters. “Maybe that’s why it wants human auxes instead of building its own.”
Narae presses the heels of eir hands to eir eyes. “It _requires_ humans because it did a materials analysis and projected that the Danji lacks resources to build adequately sophisticated chassis. An artificial intelligence can’t _want_ anything.”
“_Or_,” Domabaem points the mouth of the bottle at em, “maybe we’re all ships, and the AI is just trying to survive the flood, same as anyone.”
“There’s a pretty thought. Except the whole time you’re an aux, the AI tries to rewrite everything about who you are and leave its own–code, or programming, or whatever–in your place. That’s why they call it _restoration_ when they wake you up.”
A playful tone creeps into Domabaem’s voice as she leans forward, peering into Narae’s eyes. “And has it?”
“Has it what?”
“Left part of itself behind?”
Narae recoils. “_No_.”
“Nothing to worry about, then.” She gets to her feet, stretching with a groan. “Look, thanks for meeting me. You’ve given me a lot to think about.” She traces a sloppy approximation of hapjang, but her grin doesn’t cut as deep as it did before. “See you around, Narae-seunim.”
And Narae can tell, watching her saunter away, only a little unsteady on her feet, that she won’t be rushing to don a monk’s greys anytime soon. Ey could still call her back, work harder to win her over to monastery life.
Narae hesitates for a moment, and the moment stretches.
Ey’s never been good at selling something that ey still hasn’t bought.
_The kid’ll be fine_, Narae insists to the silent reprobation of eir conscience as ey walks the eight flights up to the temple. _Five years is nothing_. All rivers, and all that.
But that night, ey dreams of falling, of the wind calling eir name.
Narae is on an almsround when ey glimpses Domabaem, head shaved, face slack, dressed in a uniform boiler suit. Narae stiffens, eir pulse accelerating, though the aux gives no indication of noticing Narae in the throng as it repairs a faulty noise barrier node.
Eir first instinct is to cover eir bowl and move on, but ey is stymied by the press of bodies edging along the thoroughfare.
Then the aux finishes its work and looks directly across at Narae.
The hairs on eir arms stand at attention, and Narae has to stifle the urge to hurl eir bowl at its face and bolt. The AI’s equipment sensors must recognize Narae by eir own aux ports, ey reasons. That’s all.
Expressionless as a corpse, it opens its mouth to greet Narae by eir citizen ID, and ey flinches, though it speaks only with Domabaem’s voice, and not the mechanical caterwauling that haunts eir nights.
A few passersby slow to give the aux curious looks, unused to the spectacle of an AI unit interacting with the public. After all, as everyone knows, an aux cannot deviate from its directives, cannot choose to engage in casual conversation with citizens.
_There is no AI in Mha-Tower_, Narae reminds emself. No way for the Danji to have observed eir conversations with Domabaem three years ago, to know that this particular body has any significance to Narae. It is merely a coincidence that the AI has elected to address em through an aux that Narae knows. Knew.
_There is no such thing as happenstance_.
As Narae weighs this second truth against the first, the aux crosses the distance between them, stops well out of reach. It places Domabaem’s palms together and executes a bow at the precise angle appropriate for a greeting from a layperson to a monk, for all that it does not drop its gaze from eirs.
The aux studies Narae for a long moment before it speaks, its voice barely rising above the hum of life around them. Its face contorts abruptly into what takes Narae a few beats to realize is meant to be a smile, and eir heart stutters.
“_What did you say_,” ey croaks as it turns and melts into the flow of pedestrian traffic. “Ya! What did you just say to me?” But the aux has disappeared into the crowd.
Later, Narae will try to convince emself that ey misheard the aux, that eir mind filled in the gap in eir understanding with something as familiar as its face. Because what the AI said to Narae does not make sense.
_The divine in me greets the divine in you_.