81. LabNeil liked being in the lab at night. It was quiet, and no one expected anything from him.

It wasn’t that he didn’t belong; his test scores put him at the top of his class. The work didn’t challenge him. It was the people that he had no clue about.

Mary’s work in laser optimization was interesting, but the way she got along with everyone amazed him. She acted like she had never met a stranger, except when she met Neil. It wasn’t for lack of trying on her part. Neil just didn’t know how to respond.

Darin’s work in narrow-field data transmission was groundbreaking, but he could also tell a story that could keep a group spellbound, leaning forward in their seats, to hear what came next that much sooner. That astonished Neil.

It wasn’t a new situation for him. School had been a minefield of social awkwardness, but he had hoped that somehow, magically, his life after school would be different. The only difference was that he was no longer surrounded by only people his own age, but of various generations, which was just another complicating factor. He had no clue on how to treat older people like peers.

As he compiled his latest attempts at the linguistic subroutine, he reflected on the irony of the least social of his group was working on making the project’s interface more “human.”

“Hello, Neil,” the computer said as he launched the program.

At least I have you, he thought.