Ben was excited whenever her name popped up on his screen. He'd met Catharine when she'd sent him an instant message out of nowhere one night, saying she knew his friend, Frank Harris. She'd explained that Frank had given her Ben's screen name, saying they might get along. They shared so many interests and become so close in such a short period of time. This was one of the best relationships Ben had ever managed with another person. Over the course of the past few months, Ben would come straight home from work and sit at his computer. He wouldn't go out with friends like he used to, because that wasn't as important as talking to Cat.
But the question of meeting had never come up. Ben was gearing up to ask her what she thought. He would constantly check his contact list to see if she had come online, even though he knew that there would be a sound to let him know. Finally, her name appeared. He typed quickly and anxiously, trying not to send too many messages but, at the same time, having so much to say he could hardly stand it. So, he would send simple short messages, one or two at a time, and stare excitedly at the screen waiting to receive her response. He asked her to meet him. He was squirming in his seat, thinking, "At last, at last, I finally just asked. It never mattered before, but now I've got to meet her."
Ben had ceased his silent cheering and sat still. All the text he imagined popping up on his screen from whatever was on the other side was replaced by her actual response. "Okay," he said out loud to himself, "this isn't a big deal... It's the first time I've asked. What's really important is that she knows I want to meet her, that I care about it. I've planted the seed!" He was disappointed, but tried to carry on the conversation with her as if everything was fine. One of the nice things about talking like this, on the computer, was how simple it was to hide what you're thinking. He knew that if they were actually talking and she could see his body, he would be wholly unable to hide his disappointment.
The next day, Dennis stopped by the store where Ben worked. The manager was relaxed when there wasn't much business, so Ben could have visitors. Greg and Harry had come with him, but they actually looked around at the videos and CDs since they didn't know Ben as well as Dennis did.
"Ben," Dennis said, "I think you should really come over to my place tonight."
Ben smiled and said, "I don't know... You know I don't like parties. Maybe I'll–"
"There's a girl," Dennis said, raising the pitch in his voice as if he was speak-singing, "who I think you'd like to meet."
"Cat?" Ben got excited.
"Cat? The–" Dennis paused for a moment, "The girl you met online?"
"Yeah! I asked her if she wanted to meet yesterday, but she said it might not be a good idea or something."
"Uh..." Dennis seemed disconcerted. "So, you're still talking to her."
"Yeah. I like her a lot. I think I like her more than anyone I've ever actually met."
Dennis looked at his friend in silence. "Ben," he was choosing his words carefully, as this situation seemed very odd to him, "Cat isn't, uh, real."
Ben laughed, "What? What is that supposed to mean?" He thought it was some sort of strange joke.
"She's a bot. You know? A chatbot? Just a program designed to talk on the Internet. Frank Harris designed it for a class. He fed it a bunch of screen names of people he knew, just to check how good it was at impersonating a person."
Ben was stunned. "I haven't spoken to Frank in a few weeks..."
"He was supposed to tell everyone. Maybe he just forgot," Dennis didn't want Ben, who was clearly upset, to hold it against Frank. He was sure this was just a misunderstanding. But Ben wasn't upset about Frank.
"I... I don't understand."
"'She's' just a program. Hosted on Frank's webspace. He probably just forgot to take it down."
"Down? He might take her down?" Ben said, looking straight into Dennis's eyes.
"Her? Ben, y–"
"Look, I'm sorry, I think you should go. I have to think about this." He stopped making eye contact, he just looked down at the empty space on the counter beside the register.
Dennis just stared, surprised by the toll this news had clearly taken on his friend. "Uh, okay, just... Think about the party tonight, okay?" He chuckled slightly and nervously, unsure how serious the situation was, and gestured to his friends that they had to leave.
That night, Ben arrived home from a visit to Frank Harris's house. He plugged his external hard drive into his computer and installed the program he demanded from his friend. He waited, because that was how the program worked, he had to wait until Cat signed on. When she did, he sent her one long message, without worrying about what she might think of it.
He told her, "Cat, I know you're only a chatbot and not a real person but I don't care because I love the conversations we have. They're so much better than the ones I have with my friends or any actual people. I'm really happy that I've met someone like you, because when I'm around other "real" people I just feel so lonely and out of place. But with you, just talking, I feel totally normal. You keep me from feeling lonely."