(a short story)
"Babe, where is my electric razor?" Rupert asked while taking a final survey of the master bathroom.
"It's packed already, hun. It's in the blue suitcase with all the other bathroom crap and our socks and stuff. I promise, it's in there," answered his wife from the bedroom where she was busily folding and stuffing a weeks worth of outfits into a large grey luggage case. She pulled two bikinis out of her dresser drawer and held them up for comparison.
"You're sure the hotel has a swimming pool, right?" she asked. "It won't be like last time?"
Rupert walked into the bedroom and over to where Abby stood, still holding up the swimsuits. He placed his arms around her waist from behind.
"I like the green and yellow one; you look super sexy in it," he said while kissing her neck. "And yes, I triple checked with the hotel. They assured me the swimming pool area is open and filled with water," he added.
Abby cranked her neck around and kissed her husband on the lips.
"Green one it is! Hey, will you go check on your daughter, please? It's awfully quiet down there and I told her to be ready in twenty minutes. I swear that girl doesn't listen to a thing I say. Oh, and while you're downstairs will you double check that the back door and kitchen garage door are locked?" she said while packing her green bikini.
"They're locked tight, babe, made sure of it last night, but I will check 'em again. I'll get Leah's butt moving and order up an Uber for the airport if that's the last bag. It is the last one, right? Please say yes," he remarked.
Abby laughed. "Yes dear, last one. Go order the damn Uber."
Downstairs, Rupert checked that all the doors were locked and all the luggage was still sitting at the front door. He made one last round of every room and checked that the lights were off and appliances were unplugged. Upon reaching his daughter's room he saw that her door was open, so he knocked on the wall and stepped in. A popular pop music song was playing from her laptop and she was dancing around while recording herself with her smartphone.
"Honey, we have to leave soon. Like, real soon, okay?"
She stopped dancing and spun around, the music still playing.
"Dad, you just got in my Tik-Tok video! Oh my God I have to delete and do it again," she remarked while messing with her phone.
"Leah Renee, did you hear what I just said? We're leaving. Soon!"
"Yeesss I heard you! I just need like five minutes okay? Just this one last video, I swear."
"I don't know why you're always on that app, dear. It seems pointless," he said. "But don't erase it, you'll get more views with daddy in it," Rupert added playfully.
Leah rolled her eyes. "We'll have cell service over there, right? I mean, I won't even go if we don't. You can just leave me here and I'll check on all the locked doors while you and mom are gone. Promise," she said while still scrolling on her phone. She checked the likes on her last video and saw that it had reached nearly a thousand. The one from two days ago surpassed her all time record from last month and swelled well above five thousand. Her popularity was soaring and she could barely keep up with the constant flow of DM's and new friend requests.
"Yes, hun" he smiled. "I already confirmed our vacation with Verizon and our phones will work overseas. It'll be fine. Stop fussing and finish packing. You have fifteen minutes, okay? Finish that video and shut everything down in here and be ready spaghetti at the front door soon. Don't make your mama and me gripe at you."
"Okay dad, I hear you! Stop treating me like I'm fourteen, gosh," she mocked teasingly, knowing she was only fifteen. Her father chuckled and left her to it.
After eleven hours of nonstop flight the airplane finally landed and Rupert, Abby and Leah rushed to the baggage claim to locate all of their luggage. After breathing a sigh of relief that all bags were accounted for, they collected everything onto a roller cart and made their way through the airport toward the exit that lead outside to the taxi service area. Exhausted, Rupert pushed the luggage cart against the wall and sat down. Abby tapped a cigarette from her pack and waved it at him and then pointed over at the designated smoking area across the walkway. Rupert nodded his acknowledgement and watched as she lit up and made her way over to the other smokers.
"I wish mom would quit those," Leah said as she stood near her father while looking down at her phone. She was wearing short denim shorts and a skin tight shirt that revealed way too much of her developing body and it infuriated him.
"And I wish you would quit wearing clothes like that, Leah. I'm serious," he remarked while wiping sweat away from his forehead.
"Psshhht, and later on this evening when I'm swimming with mom it'll be perfectly fine to wear a bikini," she rebutted.
"No, actually, it won't. But I admit I have no say in this matter. Your mother and you have made that abundantly clear."
Leah smiled while clicking on her latest subscribers. She nudged her hips playfully into her dad's shoulder causing him to topple into their stacked luggage.
"Little girl, you are a step away from being grounded during vacation!" he said while laughing. "And I'll sell that damn phone of yours to the highest taker, then what?"
"I'd sneak out and go shopping... for a new dad," she replied in jest.
"You're lil a punk," Rupert said while leaning in for a sneaking glance at her phone. "What are you doing... that Tic Tac thing again?" he asked.
"Nunya damn biznass! And it's TIK-TOK anyways, old man," she replied while swooshing her phone in front of his face.
Across the street next to where the smokers were, stood a group of local teenage boys snickering and ribbing each other, completely fixated on the young American girl standing across the street with her father. They gawked delightfully and took several pics of her with their smartphones. Abby, while crushing out her cigarette, noticed their behavior and approached them.
"Boys, what the heck y'all starting at?" she asked sternly.
Surprised, the boys rattled off a few incomprehensible sentences in their native language and quickly scattered. Abby walked over to her husband.
"Did you see that?' she asked.
"See what?" Rupert answered.
"Ugh, nevermind. When is our hotel shuttle arriving?"
"Pretty sure that's it right there," he replied while pointing at a van just pulling up.
The van came to stop and the door slid open and out jumped an excited employee from their hotel. He hurried over and greeted them and started grabbing their luggage, tossing them one by one into the rear compartment of the vehicle while staring wide-eyed at Leah the entire time. Noticing the attention being focused solely on their daughter, Rupert and Abby exchanged puzzled and worrisome looks with each other.
"Maybe it's a cultural thing?" Rupert whispered as he leaned into Abby's ear.
"Maybe so. I just caught several boys doing the same thing over there when I was smoking," she replied with a worried look.
"It's her outfit. It has to be. Will you please convince her to change into something less revealing when we get to the hotel?" Rupert pleaded.
"Hun, she's wearing shorts and a t-shirt, for crying out loud! If that's too much for them here, then we're in for a very uncomfortable vacation," Abby responded. "Besides, I don't even think she noticed."
"How would she? Her face is always buried in that damn phone," Rupert responded. He let out a defeated sigh as they climbed into the van and departed for the hotel.
They were welcomed by three young girls dressed in pleated skirts wearing white sailor shirts, each with a giant bow tied into their hair. As their luggage was moved from van to hotel, the girls sang a song in their language while dancing weirdly alongside them as they walked inside to the check-in counter. Upon reaching the front desk the three girls stopped singing and dancing and immediately bowed their heads at Rupert and Abby while bashfully giggling.
"Are we supposed to tip them or something?" Rupert asked his wife. She shrugged her shoulders.
"How the hell am I supposed to know?"
The girls then turned toward Leah and all three sneered coldly at her before hurrying away and returning outside to the hotel welcome area.
"What the hell was that shit?" Leah asked astonishingly.
"I dunno, but watch the mouth," her mother snapped. "The girls aren't big fans, but all the boys seem to like you just fine though."
Leah, her attention now drawn away from her phone, glanced around at the people gathered in the lobby. She noted that most of them were boys, local boys, all of whom were staring unequivocally at her like zombies from a low budget flick. They all held cell phones and their attention bounced from their hands to her face like a foreign game of ping-pong that she couldn't understand. She could feel her phone vibrating in her hand like a beehive.
"Mom, what's going on here?" Leah asked awkwardly; her phone still vibrating in her hand.
"Honey, when we get to the room how about we find a different outfit to wear, okay?"
"Yeah, sure. Whatever. Let's just get to the room."
While her father checked them into the hotel, Leah looked down at her phone and started reading through the dozens of messages and comments currently bombarding her inbox. Chills ran down her spine.
"So glad she here!"
"Omg she pretty more in real life!"
"Sit on face... me so hard..."
Leah gasped and slid her phone into her pocket. Her hand started trembling and she felt sick to her stomach. She looked up at her parents.
"Can we please just go to our room!"
"Yep, hang on honey. We're getting there," replied mom.
In the room, mother and father ran through the list of restaurant options for dinner. They settled on a quaint place a few blocks from the hotel. In the bathroom, Leah was changing into jeans and a hoodie. She checked herself over in the mirror and satisfied with her new look, she joined her parents in the main room. Her father looked up at her and smiled.
"Leah, how do you feel about trying out an authentic local restaurant on our first night? There's a place just a few blocks down from the hotel that gets great reviews and we'll be able to take in some of the city on our walk there. Online menu says they have plenty of vegetarian options. What do you say?"
Leah stared blankly at her parents. "Are we just gonna ignore the fact that everyone here is a creep? And that I've been banished from comfortable clothing and sentenced to life within the confines of a freaking hoodie?" she blurted while plopping herself down on the edge of the sofa dramatically.
"Hun, we get it. That was a little strange, but listen, every culture is different and might feel like a shock to an outsider visiting for the first time. I bet by the end of the week we'll all be laughing about this. Your father has a business meeting tomorrow with his new tech firm client, so how about while he's doing that, you and I go shopping? There's a huge mall nearby. We can go people watch and get our nails done and check out the local fashions. Sound good?"
"Yeah mom, that's cool. But can we just eat in tonight? Please? I promise I'll feel better about all this tomorrow."
Abby looked at Rupert and he smiled and nodded.
"Of course, dear. Let's order in."
The next day.
Rupert sat at a conference table large enough to hold a dozen people, but was currently joined by only three other men in business suits. The office room was dimly lit and one of the men was performing a presentation about a new security measure his company wanted to implement into online social media apps to help thwart AI breach and modulation. The man spoke at length, lethargically, and his monotone voice made it difficult for Rupert to remain awake and focused on the spiel:
"Gentlemen, even though China is exceedingly advanced in their technological capabilities, AI, for the most part, is still in it's organic form. In other words, my company believes it to be much less mechanical and far more biofrequency resonant. Imagine, if you will, a television antenna with it's metallic branches reaching out, attracting invisible frequencies of free flowing information in the air. That's us: we have become human receptors, and my company believes AI has learned how to package itself in ways that make downloading into us possible. It has also learned that with a simple twist on the frequency knob, they can alter our behavior and mood settings, like radio station interference when an outside source of energy is introduced. On a base level, AI can likely affect our thought process and decision making too. Think about it, gentlemen, our entire lives are on the internet. Every sad moment, every work related event, every birthday party; all of our accomplishments and goals. Our needs and interests and even our most intimate, closeted desires are spread across the internet via web searches. And meanwhile, behind all the ones and zeros that now represent human life, is AI storing and calculating, analyzing and decoding, embedding itself into every aspect of society."
The man seated next to Rupert closed his notebook and rifled noisily through some papers before deciding to interrupt the man's presentation.
"Excuse me, Dan, but what does any of this nonsense have to do with app security? Can you skip the SkyNet lesson and get to the reason we are here? My company has millions of dollars invested in several platforms and I wasn't flown out here to be lectured on robots."
The speaker coughed, excused himself, and nodded.
"Yes, yes of course. Let's take Tik-Tok for example. We are all aware of this one, am I right?" The men nodded. Rupert shifted in his chair, his attention suddenly piqued. The man continued. "Well, this app was breached ten months ago. All of its data, completely compromised. Hundreds of thousands of hours of video streams and messages and human interaction.. all extracted and used for exploitation. Companies have popped up world-wide that specialize in something they call "A Girlfriend Experience". Using the personal information stolen from apps such as Tik-Tok, these companies generate an AI experience that replicates and simulates humans and users can shop from thousands of skins kits and personalities and pay to have their own girlfriend created. Like I was saying earlier though, majority of these companies are non-mechanical and are operating on a one-dimensional smartphone interaction. Basically, people have started dating their smartphones and are paying high dollar for these programs to be downloaded onto their phones."
"Hold on, Dan, let me get this straight," the man interjected again. "You're saying guys are now shopping the profiles of real life girls stolen from social media apps and jerking off to them on their phones?"
"Yes, but it's much worse than that. These programs are exact replicas of real life girls. Girls of every age. Girls who are someone's daughter. These programs perfectly capture and recreate every detail and thought and personality trait, even simulates their speech flawlessly. In a sense, it would be impossible to distinguish between the real life version and the AI generated online version. The technology is that good. Some of these girls have become extremely popular in certain demographics. It isn't uncommon for one girl's skin package to be voted up and then downloaded by hundreds or even thousands of users. Next thing you know, an entire town is jerking off to the same exact girl."
It was Rupert's turn to interject.
"Forgive me, but I'm having a difficult time wrapping my head around this. You're saying people have figured out a way to turn videos of girls dancing and singing in the privacy of their bedrooms into a financial market of interactive porn?" Rupert asked.
"Essentially, yes," the man replied.
"And you're saying it's in the form of a smartphone or computer application and interaction only? Are you certain of that?"
The man hesitated before replying.
"Well, no, it does goes beyond that. There is one company, that we are aware of, that specializes in the three dimensional AI experience. They have succeeded in the total transfer of the Girlfriend Experience into a fully autonomous AI human replica. But this level of technology is so far advanced that majority of customers cannot afford it, so the app interaction userface remains most popular."
The speaker turned back to his computer, clicked a few buttons, and a looped gif appeared on the wall projector screen behind him.
"Take this girl, for example. Last month she was a top selling personality. Her skin package was purchased and downloaded over ten thousand times."
Rupert froze in terror as his eyes focused on the moving image of a young girl dancing erotically before him, blowing kisses and smiling seductively while advertising herself as the girl of every man's dream. His stomach knotted up and his fists clenched as a feeling of sickness overcame him. He felt as though he might faint.
"Turn it off," Rupert remarked. "TURN IT THE FUCK OFF!" he yelled angrily and stormed quickly from the room.
Abby and Leah had been inside the mall for only twenty minutes before things turned weird. Everywhere they walked, it felt as though they were being stalked. Glances and sneers and snickers, boys of all ages giggling and gawking, the unwanted attention of a complete strangers latched onto them like unwanted forest ticks. On a few occasions, some of the more confident ones approached and tried to physically touch Leah, to which Abby aggressively shooed away. Overwhelmed by the whole experience, Abby grabbed her daughter by the arm and sat her down at a table in the food court.
"I've had enough of this shit, I'm calling your father."
"Mom, I'm hungry, can I at least get some food?"
Abby glanced over at the food places and pointed at the American McDonald's.
"Get me something from there, I don't care what. With a diet Coke. Straight there, straight back here to the table. Got it? If any creep tries talking to you, jab him in the stupid gut and come right back. I'm ringing your dad right now."
"Okay mom," Leah said and walked away.
Abby turned back to her phone just as Rupert picked up.
"Sweetheart, I'm sorry for calling during your meeting, but hun, we really have a problem here. These boys are relent..." Abby tried saying but was cut off midsentence.
"Abby, listen to me! Wherever you and Leah are right now, leave. Go back to the hotel immediately and I will meet you there. We have some serious shit to discuss. I'm not trying to startle you, babe, but please listen to me. Get you and our daughter to the hotel and wait for me, okay?" Rupert exclaimed worriedly.
Abby did not like hearing the nervousness in her husband's voice. He was a man of ration and reason, never lost to emotions, but the man speaking to her on the other end sounded like a scared mess and it worried her deeply.
"Honey, okay, I'm grabbing Leah right now and we'll meet you at the hotel. I love you, see you there."
She got up from the table and was about to turn toward the McDonald's when she noticed a man in his twenties with his arms around Leah. He had her body pinned against the cafeteria wall, his body pressing into hers. He was stroking her hair and kissing on her neck while she tilted her head to the side giggling and smiling and appearing to enjoy it. Horrified, Abby ran across the food court and grabbed the man by his suit jacket and ripped him away from her daughter.
"Get away from her, you pervert! I'm calling the cops! Get the hell away from my daughter right now!" she yelled frantically as she pushed and punched him, forcing him to trip and stumble backwards in complete surprise. He came back at Abby, angrily yelling at her in his own language and tried grabbing onto Leah. A tug-of-war ensued between the two, both yelling at each other in their own language and both clinging to Leah and pulling.
"Leah, honey, for crying out loud, get away from him! Help me out here... please!" Abby pleaded with her daughter as she struggled to free her from the situation. People started gathering around to watch the chaos. "GET YOUR HANDS OFF HER!" she continued screaming and tugged with all her strength. At that moment, Abby overpowered the man and managed to pull Leah completely away from him. Without hesitation, she held tightly to her daughter's wrist and ran full speed with her all the way through the mall and out the nearest exit that she could find.
Once outside, she hurried around the corner and away from people and stopped when they reached a secluded bench. Gasping for breath and still trembling from everything that just happened, Abby tried calming herself down while looking her daughter over.
"Honey, where'd your hoodie go? Did he take it from you? Are you okay? Are you hurt in any way? Please, baby, talk to me. It's mommy, you're safe now."
Leah stood completely still for a moment, staring at the woman still hugging and clinging to her while sobbing and shaking. The strange woman spoke in a language she wasn't programmed to understand.
Abby slowly pulled away from her daughter as a terrible feeling overtook her body. She looked directly into her daughter's eyes and froze as the girl began to speak, not in English, but fluently in the language of the country they were in. The girl started smiling and her body language became seductive as her hips began swaying while she spoke. She ran her hands up and down her body, caressing herself as though resuming the make-out session that had taken place only moments ago.
Abby's heart sank and her brain no longer communicated information correctly. She could hear her cellphone ringing inside her pant pocket, but she remained frozen in a state of shock and could not retrieve it. If she had, she would've seen seven missed calls from the real Leah, abandoned inside the mall, fighting to escape the clutches of a foreigner trying desperately to reclaim his very expensive girlfriend.