Pre-story A/N: Thank you for looking into my story! I wrote this novel – it is complete, I just don't want to post it all at once – for National Novel Writing Month last November. That said, it is not perfect in any sense of the word, and more loose ends are left than I'd like. Still, I think it is a story with potential in a lot of different directions and I would appreciate any comments, criticisms, or – if they are somehow deserved – praises. Enjoy!

Chapter the first
A Birthday and a Gift

Once a year, Kaea had a birthday. It was a pretty big deal, considering how much habit she would have to change on that special day, but not enough to go hysterical over. Still, she knew this particular birthday was a pretty big one. Despite how little difference she felt, the day marked the beginning of special privileges that she did not have the day before it, but would have from that day on. Kaea was turning 18.

The day broke bright and clear, with only a few small clouds drifting across the sky. Kaea woke early, though she wished she hadn't. It was summer, which meant she was able to sleep in. But on this particular morning she opened her eyes at 6:37 and could not get to sleep again. She groaned and rolled over, knocking her sheets onto the floor in the ball they somehow managed to become overnight. As she carefully sat up, a pang in her head reminded her that she had stayed up very late last night. She dearly wished she had not woken up.

Kaea examined herself in the mirror for a couple minutes, but did not feel it was worth the energy to make herself presentable. The relatives had not been able to make it for her birthday this year, so the only people in the house were her mother, father, and little brother. And they hardly counted as the "public" her mother was always concerned about pleasing.

A smell drifting under the door caught her interest, drawing her out of her room and down the stairs. At the bottom she turned to her right, where she saw her mother cooking in the kitchen.

"Good morning, honey! How does it feel to be an adult?" her mother beamed at her. Kaea knew her mother had been very excited about her daughter becoming an adult, though she could not understand why.

"Absolutely wretched," she groaned, flopping herself onto one of the uncomfortable wooden chairs her family used in the dining room. "If being an adult means waking up at 6 every morning, then I want out."

Her mother glanced at her over her glasses. "Dear, it's 6:30. And I guarantee you that cannot be the case, because your father is still as dead as a rock."

Kaea rolled her eyes at her mother's precision and put her head down on the table. "So why are you up so early?" she asked, trying to identify the smells tickling her tired nose. She wondered vaguely whether her mother always woke up this early during the summer and she was just never awake for it.

"Because it's my baby's big day, of course!" her mother grinned, flipping the unidentified breakfast in her pan. "I was so excited that I woke up even before my alarm!"

"Of course you were," Kaea said to the table, no longer caring enough to ask why her mother had set her alarm in the first place. Then she finally placed the smell: blueberry pancakes. She couldn't remember the last time her mother had made pancakes, let alone ones with blueberries. She dragged herself off the table. "Why are you making pancakes, mom?" Then, before her mother could respond, she quickly said, "Oh, never mind. It's for my 'big day' isn't it? Look, mom, you don't have to go to so much trouble. It really isn't that big of a deal."

Her mother dropped her cooking utensils and came up to her, where she was still sitting. "Of course it's a big deal, sweetie!" she cried, grabbing her daughter's hands. "Today is the day of wonders! Where you are finally grown into the woman you were meant to be, where you can finally show the world how wonderful you are!" Her mother paused here, and then continued. "Did you know that your father proposed to me on my 18th birthday?"

Kaea looked up at her mother's eager smile and bright eyes. She couldn't resist. "Is that why you never did anything with your life, then?"

Her mother's eyes widened in shock. It took her a few moments to register, then she let go of her daughter's hands. Kaea felt that on any other day her mother would have slapped her for that comment. "Just because I didn't go to college and get an amazing career doesn't mean I haven't done anything with my life," she said carefully, her face screwed up tightly into a forced smile. "Please show some respect for the life I chose for myself."

Kaea shrugged and got up from her chair. "Fine, whatever. I still don't think it's that big of a deal." She glanced over at the stove, where she was sure a pancake was starting to burn. "I'll leave you to your cooking, then." Then she walked out of the kitchen and back towards her room.

Kaea spent the rest of her early hours, except for a quick breakfast of pancakes, closed up in her room, reading. Waking early and with very little sleep had put her in a sour mood, and making her mother feel bad did not make her feel any better. Around 11 she finally put her book down, sighing. She might as well make an appearance. Even though she didn't think it was such a big deal, she knew deep down it would mean a lot to her parents if she were around that day. She staggered her way down the stairs, still feeling the last of her headache, and stumbled left and into the family room.

Her mother looked up at her from the couch, where she was carefully knitting what looked like the beginning of a scarf, or at least a type of one. Her father was sitting in his big comfy chair, reading a book of his own, while her brother lay on the floor, putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Kaea's quick surveillance of the room told her that there would be a gift appearing soon, so she decided it had been worth it to come down, if just for that reason.

At that moment, her father looked up from his book and noticed her. Putting it down, he stood up, grinning widely. "Ah, Kay! Lovely of you to join our family gathering!" Beneath him, her brother made a choking sound. Her father gave him a stern look before walking towards his daughter. Kaea resigned herself to the bear hug she knew would have to come eventually. "So how does it feel to be 18, precious?"

Kaea drew away from him a bit. "I feel much the same as I ever did, thank you," she replied carefully.

"Well that's too bad," her father chuckled. "Perhaps I should change that, then!" He let go of her and stepped carefully over his son before walking around his comfy chair. He leaned down to grab something, and Kaea came to her toes trying to sneak a peek at what the gift might be. The big gift always came first, and since her parents thought this day such a big deal, she was expecting something good this year. (The year before it had only been additions to her wardrobe, which she certainly appreciated, but was really not very exciting.)

Her father appeared again, hefting a large box and wearing a huge grin. "Here she is, Kay! Your very own laptop!" Kaea took a couple steps back in surprise. She had expected something good, but this was like a dream come true! She had always wanted a computer of her own, and she had recently resigned herself to having to save up to buy one on her own. She rushed up to give her father a hug, but was stopped by the box. Her father nodded his head to the right. "It was your mother's idea, not mine."

Kaea turned cautiously towards her mother, whom she realized she had rather insulted just a few hours before. "Thank you, mother."

Her mother frowned for a second. "I don't get a hug, then?"

Kaea knew this was her cue, and threw herself on her mother. "Thank you ever so much! You have no idea how much I've wanted this!" Her happiness was exploding, at least for the moment.

Her mother nodded her approval. "I thought so. I'm glad you like it, dear."

Kaea spent the next several hours in seclusion, because she insisted on setting up the laptop herself. It seemed to be a simple task and an impossible task in turns, but in the end she managed to have it running. Her initial excitement over having the machine dimmed during the time it took to set it up, but once the job was complete she felt it all rush back. She frantically started setting up everything to fit her: icons, programs, home page, the desktop picture, and many other things that would finally be well and truly her own.

It wasn't until after all of this that Kaea finally decided to explore the free software that came with her machine. It had the standard items, of course – the browser, word processor, virus protection and so on – as well as some fancier things she recognized – mainly things that only came on laptops – and then a couple things that Kaea had never heard of before. This surprised her very much, because she was always looking at laptops and asking friends what types of things came with their systems.

The first item was called "Bot Connection," and had a blue icon with two white arrows, one pointing right and one pointing left. The second item, the more interesting of the two, was called "Adventure Portal." Its icon looked like a coat of arms, though Kaea was afraid to admit she could not make out all the details of its design.

Kaea was about to test out these unknown programs when there was a knocking at her door. "Come in!" she called cheerily. Her mother came in, giving her a knowing look. "All right mom, I'm coming..." Kaea sighed, glancing at her clock, which read 4:53. She had not realized so much time had passed already, but she knew that even with such a fascinating gift she could not keep away from her family for the rest of her birthday and get away with it. She shut off her computer and gently closed it, patting it and whispering, "Don't worry, I'll be back!" Then she followed her mother out her door and down the stairs.

Dinner was, of course, Kaea's favorite dishes. Her mother had made mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and roast beef, and the dessert was a delicious cherry pie. Kaea realized that for the first time since she had first noticed, her mother had not insisted on a cake for her birthday. She felt another pang of guilt over her comment from that morning, but knew that the only thing she could do was apologize.

Before she had the chance, though, the gifts came out. Her parents had bought her some clothes and finer jewelry, as well as some software to go along with her new laptop. Her brother gave her a nice looking silver ring, which she immediately put on the ring finger of her right hand, thanking her brother profusely. She was surprised at how much he had grown in maturity, especially because he was still only 15. She remembered vaguely being in a stage of rebellion at that age, and admired her brother for only having had a short period of wanting independence. He was much better to her and her parents than she ever gave him credit for.

Once the gift giving was over, she knew what was required: a night of so-called "family fun." She decided to deal with the yearly tradition of playing board games in hopes that if she did not put up a fight she could get back to her laptop sooner. After several rounds of games, however, she realized that her not mentioning her reluctance only made her parents believe she finally enjoyed these times "as a family." The mask of enjoyment that she had put on soon started to slip away into a sulk. Her parents noticed and asked her if she wanted to play a different board game – after all, they had just played the same one several times. "I'm just tired," she grumbled. "I didn't get very much sleep last night." That was certainly true, and she hoped it would enough to get her out of another round of play. Her father sighed and looked at her mother. They started putting away the game. Kaea fought hard not to grin and carefully thanked them and went back to her room.

Once safe inside her room with her door closed, Kaea rushed over to her laptop. She quickly opened it and turned it on, relishing in the whirring sound it made once it began running. She tapped her toes impatiently, looking nervously around her room at the jumbles of decorations that she had collected on her walls over the years. She thought of them as jumbles because she would always group like posters together, though the determining factor could be anything from the fact that it was of a singer to the fact that the poster was given to her by a particular person. It provided an interesting environment to work in, though that was of course her mother's term and not her own.

Finally, the desktop appeared. Kaea immediately double-clicked on the blue and white icon that indicated the Bot Connection program. What happened next surprised her a bit: a window popped up that read, "Congratulations! You, or rather your laptop, have been selected to help test and improve new breakthroughs in AI technology. This program will help you connect to our online AI Bots, with whom you can chat with as if they were human! We hope that this will be an enjoyable activity for you, as well as a great help in refining our Bots. Please click 'Continue' to register and connect with our Bot network."

Kaea read this statement over several times, feeling a bit puzzled. She had not seen anything in the news about "breakthroughs in AI technology," and she wondered why she had been chosen in the first place. It seemed a rather haphazard way of testing new technology, but she finally decided it might be fun to try. She quickly plugged in her network cable so she would have internet, and clicked the "Continue" button and waited. It wasn't long before the browser popped up with a standard-looking blue and white registration page.

After filling in basic information like name, address, e-mail, and so on, Kaea got to some more interesting questions. These included simple questions like "What is your favorite color?" as well as more complex questions, such as "What is your dream job and why?" Kaea started to feel like she was taking a dating survey or something similar when she realized that all this data was probably so that the Bot could interact with her more appropriately to her interests. This eased the worry that had started to creep up in the back of her mind, and kept her happily busy answering questions that both intrigued and stretched her. Some of these questions were things she had not thought about before, so she discovered more about herself than she ever had when she tried to be independent at age 15.

After spending a long time at this, she finally reached the end. Kaea sighed and read the last question, which was another basic one she had not noticed had been missing before: username. She rolled her eyes, trying to think of a good username she could use. She knew it wouldn't matter that much, considering she would be talking to a Bot, but she still fretted over it for a while. In the end, she decided to go straight and simple, and she typed in "Kaea Tymann." After all, if she would be talking to a Bot, why would it matter if she used her name? The system would already have her name, so it wasn't like she was giving it something it didn't already know. She smiled, took a deep breath, and pressed "Enter," sending what felt like half of herself out into cyberspace.

Another screen popped up, congratulating her on finishing the process and giving her an unlocking key for the program. Kaea knew she would lose the key if she waited, so she unlocked it right away. A sign-in box popped up, but Kaea realized that by now she was much too tired to actually use the program. It had been a lot of fun answering all the questions, but at the same time it had been very draining. She suddenly felt the weight of pouring herself out and found herself drifting to sleep right at her desk.

Kaea barely remembered getting into bed, but she must have because the next thing she knew was opening her eyes to the ceiling above it. An odd beeping sound came from the other side of the room, where her desk was. Kaea propped herself up, looking over at where her computer sat open, emitting the sound that she had woken her up at – she checked the clock – 7:23 in the morning. She groaned and flopped down into her bed again, but the beeping sound didn't stop. She finally threw away her sheets and checked the computer to see what the matter was. As soon as she touched it, the screen turned from black to flashing. She soon saw that the Bot Connection program had popped up to the middle of the screen and was flashing madly, and probably producing the aggravating beeping sound.

She finally clicked it, and the sound stopped dead. The pop up read, "A match has been found. Please click 'Connect' to chat." Kaea squinted at it, trying to remember if she had signed in, but figured that she must have. The night before was coming back to her, and she figured that all those questions must have been to connect her to the correct Bot. The system seemed rather odd, but then again AI was mystery enough. She looked back at her bed and realized there was no way she would be able to fall asleep again. Curiosity was bothering her too much. She clicked "Connect," hoping that this would be worth the time she had put into it.

The entire screen was taken with what looked like a giant chat screen in blue and white. "Those must be their favorite colors," she muttered. Across the top it read "Chat – Kaea Tymann with Bot67." Below that, in the actual chatting area, it read "Kaea Tymann connection – confirmed." Much farther below that were the regular tool bar for font manipulation and a box for entering text. She waited a couple minutes, watching the screen with anticipation. Then she realized that since the other was a Bot, she was probably supposed to initiate the "conversation." She typed in "Hello" and waited. She thought it a bit odd that she would have to wait for a Bot, but perhaps it had to process what she said in a different manner because of the level of interaction that it was supposed to provide. Still, she was about to start typing again when she received a response:

Bot67: Hello, how are you?

Kaea Tymann: 18 and not feeling it, you?

Bot67: I like to think of myself as 19 years old.

Bot67: Are you supposed to feel it?

Kaea Tymann: I don't know, my parents seem to think so.

Bot67: That's a shame. A girl has a right to be 18 and still feel like a kid.

Kaea Tymann: Do you like to think of yourself as a girl, then?

Bot67: No, I'm male.

Kaea Tymann: I see.

Kaea Tymann: That seems odd.

Bot67: Yes, I would imagine it would.

Bot67: But that's how it is.

Kaea paused at this point. The conversation was already surprising her. That must have been some breakthrough! she thought. I almost feel like I'm conversing with an actual person. She decided to continue.

Kaea Tymann: So what's it like being a Bot?

Bot67: Hard to say. I'd like to say it's easy, but processing is tough.

Kaea Tymann: Ah. So even Bots can tell that processing information is a pain!

Bot67: I suppose so.

Bot67: Hard to say, though, really.

Kaea Tymann: Yes, I suppose you're right.

Kaea Tymann: So the only name you have is "Bot67"?

Kaea Tymann: That's rather boring.

Bot67: I can hardly complain. In a way, I chose this for myself.

Kaea Tymann: Of course, you're right.

Kaea Tymann: So, do you know much about books?

Bot67: Of course I do!

The conversation went for a long time from there, and went from talking about books to movies to actors to singers to school. Kaea got really into the conversation and at times almost forgot that she was talking to a Bot. Despite how amazing this technology was, she was afraid that pushing the limits and asking a question or making a statement the Bot couldn't answer would cause an error that would stop the conversation.

Kaea Tymann: Well, I think I'd better go eat now.

Kaea Tymann: It's almost lunch and I didn't have any breakfast.

Bot67: Why did you skip it??

Kaea Tymann: I woke up to this program beeping at me from my desk, and I didn't eat before I got on.

Bot67: I'm so sorry! Go ahead and eat.

Kaea Tymann: Thanks, I will.

Kaea Tymann: Will I be talking with you again the next time I come on or will I be reconnected?

Bot67: Probably with me, if I'm available.

Bot67: That's the way it works.

Kaea Tymann: Alright then. Talk to you later!

Kaea disconnected, though she still felt connected to the program somehow. She knew she had to get on with her day and eat and so on, but the conversation had really been a lot of fun. Besides making sure not to ask unanswerable questions, she really had not held herself back at all. She realized it was very refreshing to be able to have a conversation without limiting herself. She sighed, closing her laptop. It could always wait. After all, she would be able to come back and converse again. With that on her mind, she prepared herself for the day.