Pairing: None, really
Disclaimer: This is a fictional situation.
Summary: This is very loosely inspired by the movie A.I. Ohno and Jun are robots, prototypes for an experiment to see if robots can live with people as friends and roommates, eventually as members of society. Aiba is part of the development and experiment team. Sho is an ordinary man chosen to take part in the experiment. And Nino is Sho’s... nosy friend.
Notes: This is officially the longest fic I've ever written. XD Just shy of 12,000 words! Thank you impynymph for inadvertently giving me the idea and araanaz9 for the cheerleading. ♥
Friendship does not always come wrapped in a neat package.
But sometimes, Aiba thinks, it might. The package on his doorstep is only slightly taller than he is, and inside of the box is a man. Not a real man, but a mechanical man. One that Aiba is going to let live in his house for one month while he studies how it behaves. A roommate. Of sorts. Aiba couldn’t turn down the opportunity.
His name is Satoshi. Ohno Satoshi. That’s what the men from Companion Robotics told him when he signed on for the project. The names are generated randomly, and each robot has a different name and a different face.
They can think. In a sense. And they can feel. A robot brain wired like a human one - responding to stimuli and reacting to the environment around it. But these men don’t know exactly how it will respond and react and if it will be able to develop its own consciousness. That’s the problem with these things.
The problem with things that come in packages.
They’re supposed to be predictable. But this is nothing like any technology that’s existed before.
So Aiba takes Ohno Satoshi out of his box and sits him down on the sofa in the living room of his two bedroom Tokyo apartment.
“On,” he says, pressing a small button at the base of Satoshi’s hairline at the nape of his neck. And that’s when Satoshi comes alive.
There are certain procedures to be followed, but Aiba switches him on before he’s really read through the instruction manual. This isn’t a robot. Not just a robot, anyway. The purpose of CompaniBots is to act like a person, like a friend. More than that, like a functioning member of society. They can have jobs, they can have lives, just like any other person.
They can have feelings.
Well, this part is debatable, and the purpose of Aiba’s part in this experiment. Can they have feelings? Can the electronic impulses in their electronic brains create an original thought outside of the map of the programming? That’s why Aiba doesn’t read the instruction manual.
“Hello,” Aiba says.
“Hello,” Satoshi replies. “I’m Satoshi.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Nino finds the envelope on his officemate Sho’s desk. It’s a large, brown envelope packed with papers and a vague company seal on the outside.
“CR?” Nino asks when Sho returns from a meeting. “What’s that? Why didn’t I get one?”
“I have no idea,” Sho says. “You can look at it if you want.”
“But it’s not mine,” Nino says. “It’s yours.”
“It’s probably someone trying to sell me something,” Sho says. “I don’t care. You can take it.”
“You’re not even curious?”
Sho turns around, giving Nino a severe look. They work together in the same department and have been sharing an office for the last two years. Advertising department for J Electronics, a company that sells household equipment and boasts that their equipment Can Do Anything. Or so that’s what Sho and Nino are to make the public believe.
Considering his job, Sho knows an advertisement when he sees one, so he picks up the envelope and puts it in Nino’s hands.
“Open it,” he says. “They’re trying to sell me something.”
Nino takes a letter opener off of his desk and slides it across the top. The envelope is so packed with papers that it feels solid as a brick.
“We here at CompaniBot,” Nino reads, clearing his throat. “Believe that everyone should be given a chance for a fulfilling life.”
“See?” Sho says.
Nino clears his throat again. “In this modern world, many people feel alone and isolated. The world caters to our personal needs, but only in the most superficial ways. These days, it’s hard to find a companion, a best friend, someone who is always there for you. And that is what we, at CompaniBot (Companion Robotics), hope to provide.”
“Uh,” Sho says.
“Should I go on?” Nino asks. “Because this sounds like a lot of fucking crazy talk.”
“Where is this from anyway?”
“We’ve chosen you,” Nino goes on. “To take part in an experiment. If you choose to participate, one of our Companions will come to live with you for a period of two weeks. In that time, you’ll get to know them just like you would a new friend. You’ll share hobbies and interests and hopefully have some fun. CompaniBot will provide funds for trips and outings with your new friend. At the end of the trial period, we’ll collect data that will help us in our future endeavors. We plan to bring these fully on the market within the next five years, but we need your help. We can’t do it alone.”
Sho doesn’t say anything, just watches Nino, waiting for him to conclude.
“...And neither can you,” Nino reads. “Because a Companion is what everyone needs.”
“Huh...” Sho says. “I would have used a different slogan...”
“Creepy,” Nino replies. “Are you going to do it?”
Each robot is built to have its own particular look. Because they’re supposed to be individuals, they are crafted that way. Sometimes they come out resembling the men and women who built them. But sometimes they look like something else. Maybe a combination of faces seen on trains or one of those people who shows up in a dream that you swear you’ve never seen before.
The robot they name Matsumoto Jun is one that doesn’t resemble anyone on the engineering staff. But they’re satisfied with his unique look when he comes out finished. He’s given a code of authenticity - an original creation belonging to the CompaniBot company. The same code that will follow him through the trial and after, if there is an after.
There are fourteen people participating in the trial the Tokyo area. Fifty requests were sent out, but fourteen people replied as being interested. Eight men, six women. The participants complete interviews before they can continue with the trial. There are risks involved, but the same kinds of risks as inviting a new roommate into your home. You might not get along. You might not have anything in common. You might not be able to start a friendship.
Four days before the trial is to take place, they receive a call from Sakurai Sho.
“Um, is this Yokoyama?” he asks. “There was an envelope... Your company sent me an envelope.”
“Ah,” Yokoyama replies. “Thank you for calling.”
Because Aiba is a special case, he’s given the first CompaniBot completed by the manufacturer. Aiba is part of the development team, but his job is at the tail end of the process - to monitor and test creations after completion. To ask all of the questions that no one else thinks to ask.
Satoshi is actually Satoshi-1, because he’s the first. But because they are meant to be as human as possible, a separate serial number is created. One that is tucked away in a file that Aiba keeps in his office drawer. Along with the instruction manual, that he’s still yet to read.
But he does call Yokoyama within moments after he’s opened the package.
“What am I supposed to do with him?” Aiba asks.
“Did you read the instruction manual?”
“No you didn’t.”
“Okay, I didn’t, but--”
“I’m going to hang up on you.”
“No wait!” Aiba says. “Listen. You want me to treat him like a human, so that’s what I’m doing. Humans don’t have instruction manuals.”
“Then what’s the problem?” Yokoyama asks.
“He’s not talking to me...”
Aiba can hear Yokoyama chuckling into the phone. He scowls a little. “Did you make him mad?”
“No, just...” Aiba starts. “Did you program anything into him? Interests or anything?”
“He’s a blank slate,” Yokoyama says, proudly.
“But that’s the problem.”
Aiba opened the package, he pressed the on button and Satoshi came to life, then he introduced himself and asked Satoshi about what he likes and Satoshi went blank. No response, other than his blinking eyes.
“If we want him to have an original personality,” Yokoyama says. “We can’t just give him one.”
“But there’s nothing there, nothing to start with.”
“Introduce him to the things you like.”
“Then he’d just be copying me.”
“Then introduce him to things you don’t like.”
“You want me to show him everything? Everything in the world?”
“You’re really annoying, you know that?” Yokoyama says.
“I’m pretty sure that’s why you hired me,” Aiba says, smiling against the phone receiver.
Sho takes two weeks off of work, suddenly and unexpectedly. Nino gets a memo telling him as much, and it doesn’t take long to put the pieces together. A two week trial and a two week vacation. Sho just has years worth of vacation days saved up now since he never takes one.
The first thing Nino does is call him at home.
“You did it, didn’t you,” Nino says.
Then there isn’t a response because some kind of static interference pushes through the phone line. Nino hears something that sounds like Sho’s voice, but it’s too distant to make out any words.
Nino hangs up and sends a text message instead.
“So you’re a pervert then?” he writes.
Ten seconds later, he gets an incoming call from Sho’s cell phone.
“It’s not that kind of a robot,” Sho says.
“Are you sure about that?” Nino chuckles. “Secret envelopes and whatnot...”
“I know I know,” Sho says. “It’s weird right? Do you want to come by and meet him?”
“You know... the robot.”
“Is he there?”
“Not yet,” Sho says.
Nino reaches over to Sho’s desk where he only left one single remnant from the envelope. A business card with a sleek logo. “Companion Robots” reads so that the C and R are connected to each other like circuits. Even the surface of the card is silver and looks mechanical, until Nino folds over the corner and confirms that despite appearances, it’s just paper.
“Yeah, I’ll meet him,” Nino says. At first this was all a source of amusement, but now a nervous feeling is welling up inside of him. Something about this is just off. “When will he arrive?”
“Tomorrow,” Sho says. “Around ten. But you’ll be at work, so come by tomorrow night.”
A joke is on the tip of Nino’s tongue, but he bites it back. He doesn’t understand this, he doesn’t know if he wants to understand it. But he definitely wants to see.
“Alright,” he says. “I’ll be there.”
“What do you like?” Aiba asks Satoshi.
“What do you hate?”
“Can you ask me a question?”
“What do you like?” Satoshi asks, in a disturbingly similar tone.
“Hmm,” Aiba thinks about the conversation he just had with Yokoyama. If he tells Satoshi too much about him, he might just become a copy. “What if I don’t want to tell you?”
“Then I can’t know.”
“Do you want to know?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you want?”
“Well, let’s start with the basics then,” Aiba says. “Do you eat or drink?”
“No,” Satoshi says. “But I do need to be recharged at night.”
“Is it like sleeping?”
“Then me too,” Aiba says, a smile spreading across his face. “I need to be recharged at night, too.”
“But I do eat and drink.”
“I don’t mind,” Satoshi says.
“So... is there anything you think you like?”
“Anything you think you hate?” Aiba asks, pointlessly.
“Well it’s late, so...” Aiba says. “Let’s recharge. And tomorrow we’ll go out.”
“Okay,” Satoshi says.
Aiba shows him to the guest room where he can stay. There is a bed, a desk and a chair. A TV and an air conditioner. And an outlet with a practically industrial sized power strip where Satoshi can plug himself in. These CompaniBots are self sufficient. The only thing they can’t do on their own is turn on or off.
Or understand what they like and don’t like, Aiba thinks, but they’re going to try another experiment tomorrow.
It’s hard for Sho to sleep, knowing what’s going to arrive at his place the next morning. All he’s received so far is an email with instructions for when the CompaniBot arrives, but everything is a little vague after that. They’ll send an instruction manual so he knows where to begin. Also he’s given a list of names and phone numbers of people he can contact if there are any problems. He’s to provide a spare bedroom for the CompaniBot to stay in, and he’s spent most of the evening cleaning his second bedroom out.
But now there are so many books in his own room that they’re spilling out of the bookshelves. He doesn’t know what a CompaniBot needs, so he sets the room up with the basics - a place to sleep and a place to sit. An empty closet so that he can keep his things there. Does he have any things? An adjoining bathroom, but does he...?
It’s probably not too late to back out. Sho could call Yokoyama and tell him it’s off, he doesn’t want to do it anymore. It would probably be fine. But it’s just for two weeks. And it’s not something that Sho wants to admit, but... maybe it is a little quiet in his apartment. He’s in central Tokyo, surrounded by a large part of the population of Japan. But it’s easy to feel alone in this sea of people. Maybe a friend does sound nice...
It isn’t late, only around ten at night, but Sho still isn’t expecting a phone call. And especially isn’t expecting it to be Yokoyama. It’s strange hearing his voice on the phone when Sho can’t picture a face to go along with it. Like something big and huge and lifechanging is about to show up on his doorstep, but the person who brings it about is just this detached voice. A voice is sending in the mail a man who isn’t really a man. There isn’t anything about this that makes any kind of real sense.
“Sakurai-san,” Yokoyama says, gently. “I know we’ve gone over the procedure for tomorrow, but I’m wondering if we can make a small change.”
“Sure,” Sho says, not sure why he agrees so quickly. But he’s not the expert here.
“First of all, we’re sending you a special CompaniBot,” he says. “One that’s just been completed and we’d really like to give him a chance. His name is Matsumoto Jun.”
“Alright...” Sho says. It doesn’t make a difference, one mechanical man or another. Does it?
“Also,” Yokoyama continues. “One of our specialists would like to... work closely with this model. He already has a CompaniBot staying at his home, and we don’t want to interrupt the procedure by adding another one. But we do want to test simultaneously, so we’re wondering...”
“We’d like him to be your contact,” Yokoyama says. “It’s not a big change to the procedure, but we’d like you to speak with him at the end of every day and give him a report of what’s gone on. You know, just normal things. What you talked about with Matsumoto, what you did together, that sort of thing.”
“Actually,” Sho says. “That’s kind of a relief... I mean. This is a little intimidating...”
“We know,” Yokoyama says. And Sho thinks the “we” is a little oddly misplaced there. How many detached voices are there? “That’s why we’re going to connect you with him tonight, so that you can discuss any questions before Matsumoto arrives. He’s a bit different from the other models.”
“Well...” Yokoyama says. “Aiba can explain it to you.” At least, Sho thinks, this second detached voice has a name.
“Okay,” Sho agrees.
“We’re putting you through to him now,” Yokoyama says. There is that “we” again.
Then before Sho can consider it any further, another voice is on the line.
“Can we meet?” Sho asks.
“Please,” Sho says.
Yokoyama doesn’t work in the operations directly, but as the head of this project he has the final say on what goes out the door. They’re sending fifteen CompaniBots out the next day, and when Yokoyama goes down to the shipping department, he sees fifteen boxes all standing in a line.
“They’re all ready to go,” the shipping manager informs him. “You can check them yourself, whatever you want to do. Then we’ll just need you to sign off on it...”
“Alright,” Yokoyama says. “Let’s see...”
He takes an elevator down to the warehouse floor. The boxes are closed and opaque so he can’t see what’s inside of them. They all stand at the same height, and it feels like he might be invading their privacy to look inside.
On the outside of each box, there are papers documenting the status of each machine. The mechanical elements are all documented - materials used, date finished, electronic frequencies needed. Then on a second sheet, the other stats - 32 years old, brown hair, kind face.
Yokoyama looks at each one individually and gives his approval in the end. He doesn’t want to open the box and he doesn’t want to pry further than is necessary. But he trusts the team who put them together.
Now to send them out. Activate them. See what happens.
Aiba agrees to meet Sho at a cafe near Sho’s apartment. He had intended on giving the information over the phone, but Sho was insistent on meeting. And if Aiba’s being honest... maybe he wants to meet Sho, too. See what kind of a person one of their CompaniBots will be staying with.
“Thank you for meeting me,” Sho says, bowing formally.
“Woah, it’s okay,” Aiba says, smiling. “You can relax.”
They take a seat in the corner, far away from the door. Sho orders tea and Aiba orders juice and a slice of cake.
“So you have one too, right?” Sho asks.
“I’d rather say... he’s staying with me,” Aiba says, taking a drink.
“I guess that’s the way to look at it...” Sho says.
“It’s probably the way you should,” Aiba says. “Especially with Matsumoto... or from what I’ve heard, anyway.”
“You’ve never seen it?”
“Him,” Aiba corrects. “And no, not yet. But he’s what everyone is talking about.”
“What’s the one staying with you like?” Sho asks.
Aiba looks down at the table for a moment. He traces the lines of his face on the reflection of the table’s surface. “Do you want to slow down? Get together everything you want to ask me?”
“Well you’re the expert,” Sho says. “If anyone knows what I should be told, it’s you...”
“I’m learning, too,” Aiba says, gently. “The one staying with me is Satoshi. But I don’t know anything about him yet.”
Sho opens his mouth, and Aiba can already anticipate the question that’s about to come out.
“We’re just getting to know each other,” Aiba says.
“So that’s how it’ll be with Matsumoto?” Sho asks.
“Ah, well,” Aiba leans back in his chair. “Matsumoto’s... different. Maybe.”
Matsumoto was activated for a test run at the facility, like all of them are. He was switched on, and asked some orienting questions. Where are you, what are you, what is your name. He answered them, but then he asked a question too.
Am I alive?
It’s not something that has an easy answer, and it was an unexpected question. A highly philosophical question generated inside of Matsumoto’s brain. It could have been placed there, but no one could track the data back to an origin. It just seemed to come from nowhere.
“We think he might have had an original thought,” Aiba says.
Sho nods slowly. “Then... that’s the answer right?” Sho asks. “To the question. If you’re wondering if they can have original thoughts then the answer is yes... right?”
“It’s not that simple,” Aiba says. “So... we want to see if it will happen again. That’s why I want to be in contact with you.”
“Do you want to meet him?”
Aiba’s eyes grow wide and he looks like a kid that’s just been offered a truckload of candy. “Really?”
“Yeah.” Sho shrugs. “You can come to my place and meet him. I’ll give you my address.”
“I have it,” Aiba says. “You know... Company records.”
“I see,” Sho says. A look passes over his face and Aiba wonders if he can read it. It looks like something heavy, a thought that’s too big to think.
“Do you have any more questions?” Aiba asks.
“Um...” Sho starts. “Can I meet Satoshi?”
“Yeah... yeah sure!” Aiba says, happy to oblige because this guy seemed like he might be scared off at first. But if he’s taking more of an interest, Aiba isn’t going to discourage him. “Maybe we should wait a few days... just so Satoshi and I can get to know each other a little more. And you and Matsumoto...”
“Sure,” Sho says. Then he looks up, like something’s just occurred to him. “Can they... uh. Can they meet each other?”
“Hmm.” Yes or no, Aiba doesn’t know. It wasn’t in the plan. But Aiba can’t ever help himself with these things... It’s exciting to think. If they meet, will they recognize each other? Will they know they came from the same place? That they’re the same type of being?
“Yeah,” Aiba says, even though he knows he really shouldn't. “Definitely yes.”
Just like they told him it would, a large box appears at Sho’s apartment exactly at ten o’clock. Well, it doesn’t appear, so much as some guys bring it in a large truck, then carry it up the stairs and ring the doorbell. Sho has to sign for the package, but it’s just like any other package. Like he’s ordered a new end table.
“Thanks,” Sho says, awkwardly. He doesn’t know if these guys are from CR or not, but they look like ordinary delivery guys to him. Maybe they don’t know that inside of the box there is a man.
The box stands upright in the middle of Sho’s living room and he walks around it a couple of times.
Just open it, he thinks. Just open it and see what’s inside because not knowing what’s inside is even weirder than just looking, and seeing, and then his phone goes off in his pocket and he jumps about twelve feet in the air, then manages to drive his knee straight into the corner of the living room table.
“Fuck... hello?” Sho says. “Sorry. I mean. Hello?”
“Is it there?” Nino asks.
“Just got here,” Sho says, moving his hand along the plane of the box. Just a brown cardboard box. No markings or words. Blank.
“Still in the box,” Sho says.
“You said I could come over tonight, right?” Nino asks.
“Yeah,” Sho says. “You can if you want but... you have to treat him like you would anyone, okay?”
“You think I don’t know how to act around a robot?”
“Just treat him like you would any guy,” Sho says. “Okay?”
“Yeah, alright,” Nino says. “You don’t have to worry about me or anything. I’ll be nice to your friend.”
“He’s not my friend yet...”
“This is all seriously weirding me out, but... I have to see it,” Nino says.
“Sorry,” Nino says. “Him.”
Am I alive? Sho can’t stop hearing those words in his mind. What’s he going to do if Matsumoto asks him that when he opens the box? What would the answer be?
“I’m going to take him out of the box now so... I’ll see you later?”
“See you later,” Nino says. “I’ll be working all day to pick up your slack, by the way!”
“Have fun,” Sho says, sweetly. But he really shouldn’t because it’s not like Nino needs much encouragement...
“I’ll remember that,” Nino says.
Sho flips his phone closed, tosses it on the sofa and steels himself in front of the box.
“I’m going to do it,” he says, out loud. “Quick. Like a bandaid.”
He rips off one piece of tape, and then another.
Am I alive?
He pushes the cardboard and opens up the front, it opens like a door. And there, suspended in some soft, white styrofoam is a man. Taller than himself, with a strong face and distinct features. He has long legs and a broad frame. Dark hair that nearly reaches his shoulders, one side tucked behind his ear. And Sho wonders for a moment if Matsumoto styled it that way or if someone else pushed his hair behind his ear just before they packed him into a box.
“Okay,” Sho says. “Okay.”
A small piece of paper about the same size as a receipt drifts out from inside the box and lands next to his foot. Sho picks it up and only one sentence is written there.
Back of the neck. On switch.
“Okay,” Sho says, one more time. Then reaches around Matsumoto’s neck and feels for the switch.
He presses it.
Matsumoto opens his eyes.
“Do you like... music?” Aiba asks.
“Do you like movies?”
“Do you like parks?” Aiba asks, and they pass right by a large park, but Satoshi doesn’t seem interested in taking that path.
“Why do you want to know what I like?” Satoshi asks.
“Because, well...” Aiba says. “I want to know what makes you... you!”
Satoshi shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says.
“Well,” Aiba says. “That’s what we’re going to find out.”
“Did you make me?”
“No...” Aiba says. “But you know who made you, right?”
They’re supposed to be programmed with that knowledge, at least. Three basic pieces of information - who they are, where they are, and who made them. That Satoshi would ask means that something is wrong, Aiba thinks. Something to make a note of when they get back--
“Oh,” Satoshi says. “I remember.”
Still, it’s something that Aiba writes down when they get back to the apartment. Satoshi has a quirky kind of personality. He seems like he’s not paying attention, but there is a sharp look in his eye that Aiba catches sometimes. He’s watching everything very closely. When Aiba asks him questions about the park, Satoshi will count how many trees he sees inside of it. He’ll point out a girl playing with a frisbee and an older man walking a dog.
He observes everything around it, but doesn’t give opinions about it. He hasn’t expressed his own feelings. He’ll point out the dog, but won’t say whether it’s cute. He’ll point out the frisbee, but won’t say if it seems fun. All of these notes go into Aiba’s file documenting everything that Satoshi has done and said since Aiba brought him home. The hard copy rests next to the still as of yet unread instruction manual.
“I like curry rice,” Aiba says. He knows Satoshi won’t copy that one, since Satoshi doesn’t have the capability to eat.
“Hmm,” Satoshi says, looking in a shop window at the plastic facsimile of what a plate of curry rice should look like. “Does it taste good?”
“Really good,” Aiba says.
“I can't eat it,” Satoshi says.
“Then let’s find a way for you to do that,” Aiba says.
Nino rings the doorbell impatiently. All he wants to see is the robot. Or Sho’s new roommate. Or however he’s supposed to address this machine, this thing, this guy.
“Jun,” Sho says when he comes to the door. He pokes his head out through a small space, clearly not ready to let Nino inside yet. “His name is Matsumoto Jun, but he wants us to call him Jun. He’s... nice. Kind of quiet. So far, he likes to read...”
“Can you let me in?”
“Oh!” Sho says. “Yeah. Yes. Sure.”
“You don’t have to be so nervous,” Nino says. “I’ll be on my best behavior, I promise.”
Nino pushes in the door and Sho nearly stumbles back. It’s funny, so Nino laughs, but when Sho hunches over, Nino can see a figure behind him, long legs stretched out in front of him on the couch.
He’s reading a magazine, and looks up over the top of it when Nino comes in the door.
“Hello,” he says. “I’m Jun.”
“I’m Nino,” Nino says, staring.
“Don’t stare,” Sho whispers.
“It’s okay,” Jun says. “He’s probably just curious, right?”
“This is so cool,” Nino says.
Sho sighs loudly. “I told you, Nino. Just treat him like anyone else!”
“It’s alright,” Jun says. “I don’t mind.”
“See?” Nino says. “He doesn’t mind.”
“Fine,” Sho says. “I’ll make some tea or something...”
“Do you drink?” Nino asks Jun.
“No,” Jun says. “I don’t eat or drink. But I do sleep.”
“This is so cool...” Nino repeats.
“I’m like a human,” Jun says. “But slightly more efficient. I can see why that might be fascinating to someone like you.”
“Someone like me?”
Jun shrugs, looks down at his magazine.
“Are you being cocky?” Nino asks, amused.
“Of course not,” Jun says, looking back at his magazine and turning the page, casually.
“I like your new friend,” Nino yells so Sho can hear him in the kitchen. Then he turns back to Jun. “Have you ever seen a magic trick?”
“No,” Jun says.
“Do you know what one is?” Nino asks.
“I’m mechanical,” Jun says. “I’m not stupid.”
“Well I don’t know what you know,” Nino says. “How old are you?”
“Four days,” Jun says.
Nino sighs a labored sigh. “Then I am much more mature than you are,” he says.
He brandishes a deck of cards from the back pocket of his jeans. Sho comes back into the living room with a tray and two cups of tea.
“Seriously,” Sho says. “You brought those with you?”
“I always bring them with me, Sho-chan," Nino says. “Pick a card, Jun-kun." Nino fans the cards out, holding them so they’re just within Jun’s reach. “Memorize it and then put it back.”
Jun picks a card, glances at it for a moment, then slides it back inside the deck.
Nino can tell that Sho isn’t watching. Or, he’s half watching, but really he’s focused on Jun. Nino doesn’t blame him too much. Besides, he knows Sho has seen this trick before. But the most interesting part of Sho’s living room right now is the guy sitting on his sofa.
And he really does look like that. Just some guy. A tall guy and a handsome guy. He almost looks like a celebrity. In appearance, and in the way he handles himself. If Nino passed him on the street, he might turn and wonder who he was or if he’d seen him in any recent dramas. It’s just this aura about him.
If Nino didn’t know he wasn’t real, he wouldn’t think twice about it. He’s shaped exactly like he should be. Even when his fingers brush against Nino’s when he’s putting his card back into the deck, they feel exactly like fingers should feel. His skin feels exactly how skin should feel. It’s fascinating, and when Nino looks over at him, he can tell Sho is thinking exactly the same.
“That’s your card,” Nino says. “Isn’t it?” After some flourishing, Nino lets Jun turn over a card and watches his eyes widen in surprise.
“Wow,” Jun says. “That was cool.”
“I’m pretty efficient, too,” Nino says, smugly.
He shuffles the deck again and looks over at Sho. They have an entire conversation without saying a word. This is okay. Nino is okay with this. Sho is okay. Even if he looks like a bundle of frayed nerves.
“Your turn,” Nino says, fanning the deck of cards out in front of Sho.
“He’s really... not like I expected,” Sho says into the phone. Aiba doesn’t say much during the conversation other than some “uh-huh”s and “I see”s. Sho can hear him frantically typing as if each word he says is important.
“He’s relaxed, but he’s... well he’s not shy about the fact that he’s a machine,” Sho says, which sounds weird to him even when he says it. “He spent most of the day reading, we watched TV for a little while and talked...”
“Go on,” Aiba says, still typing at lightening speed.
I invited one of my friends over because he wanted to meet him,” Sho continues. “They got along really well...”
“Oh?” Aiba says. “Most people doing this experiment are keeping pretty isolated. Or if they invite others over, they don’t tell them the truth. This is still pretty experimental...”
“Trust me,” Sho says. “Even if he didn’t know, he would have figured it out.”
“I doubt it,” Aiba says. “They’re built to be exact replicas of humans.”
“No, I mean...” Sho says, sheepishly. “Me. I suck at keeping anything from him. Or anyone.”
“I see,” Aiba chuckles. “Anything else?”
“Do you still want to come by and meet him?”
“Yeah!” Aiba says, nearly jumping in his seat. He wants to. Really, really wants to, but it hasn’t been approved by the team in charge of the trial. It’s not something that Aiba wants to tell them about because they might just make him sign a lot of papers in order to do it. Just a formality, but it will take time pushing those papers through twenty different departments and it’s not really necessary to wait...
“And you’ll bring Satoshi?” Sho asks. “I’m just... curious. Jun wasn’t anything like I expected him to be and I’d really like to meet Satoshi, too...”
Aiba swallows. Because... no. No he really shouldn’t. However many papers will need to be signed before he can meet Jun... well, it would be about twice as many before they’d allow Jun to meet Satoshi.
But what if it was by chance? What if none of this was planned and they all just happened to meet? What if that’s what the report ends up saying?
“I’ll bring him,” Aiba says, bubbling with excitement. “What time?”
“Do you like this type of weather?” Aiba asks. It’s a beautiful, sunny day. Anyone should be able to say yes to that. So Aiba thinks.
“Do you like rainy days?”
“Will you get tired of asking me those questions?” Satoshi asks. It’s something that might sound sarcastic out of context, but it’s not his intent. It’s true, Aiba is still trying to find out his personality. Even more after talking to Sho and hearing about how easy it was for him to discover Jun’s.
“Probably not,” Aiba says. “I’m persistent.”
They walk to the train station, transfer twice and then walk beside a long park on the way to Sho’s apartment. The walk runs along a riverside with trees that aren’t anything special right now, but by the end of the autumn will be amazingly beautiful. Aiba wonders if Satoshi will like them. Maybe by the time it’s autumn, Satoshi will like them.
For now, Aiba doesn’t say anything, just studying the hand-drawn map in his hand as Satoshi walks beside him. They walk two buildings too far and have to back up, but Satoshi doesn’t say anything because he never seems to be in a hurry.
“I... think this is it,” Aiba says, holding the map upsidedown, then turning it sideways, then deciding that this looks like the place.
Jun answers the door.
“Oh!” Sho calls from behind him. “Sorry I was on the phone but--”
It all happens too fast, but there he is, face to face with Matsumoto. The one no one can stop talking about.
“Nice to meet you,” Aiba says, trying to stay calm even though he’s smiling so hard his face hurts. He bows about halfway and Jun returns the gesture.
“Nice to meet you too,” Jun says. “And you.” He turns to Satoshi.
Aiba has to fight the urge to pull out a notepad and document everything about this moment. He wants to pick apart everything about this encounter, every look, every second. Because while CompaniBots have been programmed with basic knowledge - encyclopedias, dictionaries, anything that a person of their apparent age should know - they aren’t programmed to recognize another CompaniBot for what he or she is.
They lock eyes and Aiba can feel some kind of excitement building from his toes all the way up. Whatever it is, it’s a discovery. And he can’t get enough of those.
“Come in,” Sho says, breaking right through the moment, but Aiba’s already seen the beginning of something fascinating.
They all sit in the living room. Aiba, Jun and Sho sit together on the large sofa and Sho pulls up a chair. The atmosphere is a little tense, but Jun is the first to speak.
“He’s a CompaniBot, too,” Jun says.
Aiba nearly leaps out of his seat.
“How did you know!” he asks, drumming on his knees.
“Because you’re acting really weird,” he says. “And I know who you are. I saw your picture at the lab.”
Aiba deflates immediately. Sho starts laughing.
“I’ll make tea,” Sho says.
Jun informs Aiba that it’s creepy when he sits there staring at him and Satoshi, waiting for them to talk. So instead Aiba starts talking about food, which is an even worse subject, considering that neither of them eat.
The atmosphere becomes more and more heavy, but Aiba wonders if maybe he’s looking at this wrong. He keeps seeing everything through the eyes of an observer, but he might be missing the point of the trial. The participants were told repeatedly that they’re to treat the CompaniBot as a friend. A guest in the house. To Aiba it’s been about poking and prodding and seeing what might happen.
He leans back against the couch. No one is speaking, so there is still an awkwardness hanging in the air. But he turns quickly to Jun.
“So...” Aiba says. “Nice weather today.”
“It was nice,” Jun says. “Nicer than yesterday. But I think I prefer when it’s a little cloudy.”
“Ah,” Aiba says. “Me too.” And he tries not to act so giddy when Jun specifies a preference.
Satoshi is seated on the other side, just listening to the conversation. Sho comes back with only two cups of tea, which looks a little lonely considering that four seats are being used. But that can’t be helped.
Sho has just sat down and made himself comfortable when the doorbell rings again.
“I’ll get it,” Jun says, and the fact that Jun seems to prefer to answer the door is another thing Aiba files away mentally.
“Hey!” comes a voice from the doorway and Jun greets him in kind.
“I’ll get another cup,” Sho says. “That’s my friend Nino. Who was not really expected, but...”
“Oh?” Nino says, when he enters the room. He turns to Jun. “Your friends?”
“Sort of,” Jun says. He points to each of them as he says their names. “This is Aiba. And Satoshi.”
The look between Nino and Satoshi is even more interesting than the one Aiba observed between Satoshi and Jun.
“He’s like me,” Jun says.
“Yeah,” Nino says. “I thought so...”
“You did?” Aiba asks.
“Well, no...” Nino says. “But it would be pretty awesome if I could tell.”
He appears fascinated by Satoshi all the same. Even coming closer to the sofa and kneeling in front of him so that they’re eye level. Satoshi just looks right back at him, not breaking the gaze.
“He did this to me, too,” Jun says. “I didn’t mind.”
“I don’t mind,” Satoshi says. So Nino seems to take it as permission to take a closer look.
He looks at Satoshi for a long time, but stays about an arms length away. He walks around to the other side of the sofa and looks at the back of Satoshi’s head for a while. Then he comes back around to the front and sits on the floor again.
Sho comes back with another cup of tea.
“I told you to treat them like people,” Sho says.
“I am,” Nino replies.
“Okay,” Sho says to Aiba. “He does sometimes treat people like this...”
“Remember when we were first in the same office together?” Nino says to Sho, but he doesn’t take his eyes off of Satoshi.
“Yeah I remember that!” Sho says. “Did you think I was a machine too?”
“You know,” Nino says. “I still wonder sometimes...”
“Actually no,” Nino says. “Because I’m still doing all of your work and I think machines would be a little more efficient than that.”
They stay for a couple of hours and Aiba forgets where he is. Forgets that he’s supposed to be studying and observing, but instead laughs when Sho tries to make jokes, marvels at Nino’s impromptu magic tricks. Somehow Sho and Jun get into a discussion about politics and Nino excuses himself to use the bathroom.
Satoshi doesn’t say anything. He hasn’t said anything for most of the night, but he’s been there the whole time, like a presence that belongs in the room somehow.
So Aiba doesn’t really expect him to speak. Maybe that’s his personality. The strong, silent type.
“I like him,” Satoshi says, pulling Aiba jarringly out of his thoughts.
“What?” Aiba asks.
“That guy,” Satoshi says. “Nino. I like him.”