Aphelion Issue 260, Volume 25
April 2021
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The Couple

by Nikhil Kshirsagar

5th March, 2021

Dear Diary,

Know those people who claim their phone is ‘listening’ to them? You think that’s the worst that can happen?

I’ve always been a little nervous about life in general, diary. I found it very strange and upsetting that nobody knew anything about anything, but people seemed to wake up everyday content and peaceful, enjoyed sunsets and shopping, and never let that giant big question mark staring them in the face bother them. Initially I thought everyone was secretly disturbed, but that is clearly false.

But in any case, I never let these phone related privacy issues bother me, it doesn’t matter to me if anyone is listening or not. If they have the means and wherewithal to actually go through all that just to eavesdrop on me and my sad little thoughts, then I think there’s very little I could do to prevent that in any case. More power to them! From time to time, I even take this for granted, diary, I put on a show to absolutely nobody, assuming someone’s watching, someone’s listening, someone’s entertained. I even tell jokes to empty rooms. I try to be funny. I sing in the shower, not to myself, but to those invisible observers, who no doubt are amused by my feigned recognition. They know I can never be sure, but they like me for going out on that limb.

And do you know that when you talk to someone on the phone, you’re not talking to the person at all?

It’s pure software, designed to sound like that person’s voice. Video calls too. Anything can be coded, it just needs suitable time and effort, right? Believe me, the voices you hear on phone calls, are not the ‘real’ people at all.

The ‘real’ people are out there (yes, out there!), somewhere, going about their business, doing anything but talking to you at that time. The software AI responds to you, and holds a conversation, and you keep thinking its people you are talking to! I know this because I fooled it once into making a mistake. It stumbled and blabbered and blundered on in response to my pointed investigation. That voice was my mothers. I asked all the right questions. When it flunked that Turing’s test, I knew my theory was correct. I immediately hung up. It called me back too. How clever.

I always suspected this, you know. But these things need to be investigated with great care because uncovering such huge secrets about life can be very dangerous. If there’s someone who has gone to such lengths to create such mystery, then someone uncovering it would not be in their interests, right?

And so, just like I call out and sing to empty rooms, I always would hold this assumption and speak to the voices on the phone accordingly. What talent I had, dear diary, to hold a conversation that would still be remembered as consistent later even if my suspicion turned out to be false!

But a few years ago, when I began to confirm this, I’d call my phone “contacts” and never give away what I knew. They’d answer the phone and perhaps ask me what I was doing. I immediately thought to myself, why would they ask me that? How would they use that information? How sophisticated the AI is, wow.

I would keep the conversation going, just asking random questions, more and more random, and the AI actually seemed to sound more and more puzzled. The effect was so real. Truly, one can’t but admire the ingenuity of it all. And sometimes they didn’t even sound like themselves! They claimed it was a cold they had. A few days later the software would be tweaked, fixed, and they’d sound like themselves again.

As for their motives, who can know? Can you know the motives of a universe full of whirling objects either? I have given up trying to find out why. All I know is this is how it is. You do not talk to real people.

Some time after my discovery, I realized they’d taken it a level further, and even their physical forms seemed to be in sync with the conversations you’d had with them on the phone. This was so awesome! Now I could actually begin to treat them as real people! Of course they couldn’t feel like I did, but then, does anyone except you feel anything at all?

But the real craziness was a few weeks ago, diary. I’d come to the point where I accepted the existence of these virtual creatures to the point where I was romantically involved with one of them. It happened this way. It called me by mistake, a wrong number, apparently. I immediately knew there can be no such thing. So I kept the conversation going!

Why did I do that? Well.. you know, even though I know it will go nowhere, I do still try to figure out motives of this thing. Perhaps one day I will find out why this entire framework exists, why someone would spend so much time and effort developing such a sophisticated artificial intelligence that can mimic voices of real people. So I kept talking, I didn’t let her hang up and call the “real” person she claimed she wanted to!

A few more days of phone calls and she claimed she found me “interesting”. Apparently, my knowledge about the non existence of this person as an actual individual seemed to serve to make me attractive to them. Obviously AI cannot love you. And of course I didn’t come out and say it outright. That’s not the game! You come out and tell someone they’re not real, and you get screwed, believe me. So you never voice it. You just assume so.

In any case, we met outside in the “real” world. She claimed she liked me. I said, do you, now.

Honestly, when I met ‘her’ the first time, I marveled at this thing. It remembered everything it had said on the phone, it even asked me about things I had said. What synchronization! Apparently she has a twin. So that’s how she explains the time I was talking with her on the phone, and watching her at the same time walking about in the neighborhood, definitely not using her phone! Fantastic.

Look just say you’re software, and nothing will change, okay? It’s just honesty I need here. They say a relationship’s foundation is honesty right? So be honest, reveal who (or what!) you are, and I’ll treat you with the same respect, maybe even more respect for all that went into making you look, sound and act like the person you fooled me into thinking you were. Deal?



5th March, 2021

Dear Diary,

I’ve met someone. He seems to like me for who I really am.


2021 Nikhil Kshirsagar

Nikhil Kshirsagar is a software engineer with a major IT firm. While he works mostly at night, he calls it his day job. In his spare time he writes short stories and strums a few chords. He also rapidly tires of writing about himself in the third person.

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