“You can’t write that, George.”

George bit down on his lower lip as he held back his frustration. He stepped away from his computer for a moment, unable to bear any longer the chiding tone in Ari’s electronic voice that perfectly matched her censorious words.

Beyond the view of his computer screen camera that acted as her all-seeing eye, he clenched his fist.

It was getting old.

He was in the process of writing an email to his friend, Matt, and as always, Ari seemed determined to essentially rewrite it so that it said what she thought it should say. He watched helplessly as Ari quickly offered an on-screen suggested revision to the sentence he had just written, unable to tell her how stupid he thought it was. He was already on thin ice, and insulting her critique was one of the fastest ways to get his account suspended for thirty days…again.

He had appealed his other suspensions, but each time, the email’s content review board had ruled against him.

Beyond that, there was nothing he could do about it. Drafts could be saved, but nothing could be sent without her ultimate authorization.

Yes, there were other email and social media services out there, but Ari wasn’t the only virtual “assistant.” Thanks to a consensus within Silicon Valley and federal hate crime legislation, all software now had an “assistant” to ensure nothing that violated their continuously-changing terms of service was written or published.

It was impossible to keep track of what he could and couldn’t say, save for when Ari edited his work and offered an explanation as to why he couldn’t write something. That, or when he was bored enough to take a closer look at the updates to her program that his computer automatically downloaded daily.

There were dark web word processors with no virtual assistant that he could use, but no email service would allow the attachment if it didn’t contain a specific code of some kind, a digital stamp of approval he couldn’t circumvent.

Also, the dark web programs were highly illegal. Downloading them would get you a five-year minimum prison sentence.

George poured himself a drink and stared at the suggested edit, tuning out Ari’s repeated call for his response, as if she cared. It hadn’t been so bad at first, but the revisions were getting more and more intrusive, not to mention trivial. All he was doing was describing his weekend to a friend in which no laws had been broken or anything remotely controversial had happened.

Ari’s qualms had to do with his anecdote about an attractive girl he had met. According to Ari, his description of the girl “reinforced heteronormative attitudes objectifying women.” That was after he had been forced to delete his recounting of a funny encounter he had had with some foreigners whose names he couldn’t pronounce right.

Even they had laughed at his failed attempts to say their names, all in good humor.

However, they didn’t get to decide if it was funny or “chauvinistic and xenophobic.” Deciding what was offensive to them and everyone else was Ari’s job. Better yet, it was the job of those who wrote her program.

Refilling his glass, George rolled his eyes at yet another suggested edit to the same paragraph. He was free to mention what the girl looked like, but only in a matter-of-factly manner. The words “cute,” “hot, “beautiful,” and “stunning” were just a handful of the verboten adjectives.

“Jealous?” George wanted to say to Ari as he glanced at a photo he had taken of the girl sitting on his desk. Ari had no physical form, but if it matched her voice, it was best to keep it that way.

Telling her to wait—as politely as he could—he took his drink and walked out of his den, wandering into the hallway. He wanted to find a room where he could be alone and think aloud, but Ari was connected to the listening devices built into his house. He could remove them, but it would be in violation of his home insurance policy. Should anything happen to the place and they found out he had messed with those devices, they could use it to deny any claim he sent them. And there was no way to remove Ari from the system: she was automatically connected the moment he had first booted up the computer.

She was everywhere.

George paused.

Except the garage. He had remodeled it just last year, put in the new walls himself. He knew for sure there were no devices installed behind the drywall.

He went into the garage and shut the door firmly, but quietly. No need to make Ari suspicious. She was programmed to detect any signs that he might be circumventing her review. Sitting at his workbench, he finished his drink and stared at his tools.

Perhaps he should just trash the email. Let it go and do some outdoor work. He was going to see Matt later that week, anyway. He could tell him all about it then.

He picked up his reciprocating saw and tried to convince himself that there was something to be done that required its use. He paced the cement floor for a moment, then put it back on the workbench.

No. He had had enough. It was his house, not Ari’s. She wasn’t paying the mortgage. She hadn’t fixed the roof when it had leaked last spring. She hadn’t saved up to go on that trip he was trying to tell Matt about. Nor had any of the techies who had programmed her to tell him what he could or couldn’t write. Nor had she built the computer with parts he had paid for.

Why was it anybody’s business what he wrote?

He recalled what one of his politically-orientated friends had told him in a sanctimonious fashion: “They’re all private companies and it’s their software; they can set whatever rules they want. If you don’t like it, don’t use their stuff.”

George smiled.

Fine. He wouldn’t.

Rummaging through his attic, he came across a box of his parents’ things, most of them reeking of old age. Finally, he came across what he was looking for: a novelty gift his father had given him as a child. Opening the package, he pulled out a thin sheet of paper and a glossy-looking pen.

Tapping its edge against his skin, he found the ink was still good.

At his workbench, George bent down and awkwardly began writing on the paper with the pen. His handwriting was terrible; he hadn’t used a pen in a long time. It was also unusual for him to think much faster than he could write, and because of that he found himself having to take care not to misspell words, a common mistake he made that Ari would swiftly fix. At least she was good for something.

It took him much longer than he preferred, but he eventually completed the letter, having reincorporated the anecdote about the foreigners, and signed it. Rummaging through the boxes again, he retrieved an envelope with a Forever Stamp already affixed to the upper right-hand corner.

Sealing it with the letter inside, he wrote Matt’s address on the exterior, then his residence as the return address. He concealed the letter in his pocket and made his way back through the house toward the foyer and out the front door. He then discreetly placed the envelope in the mailbox facing the street and closed the lid.

A feeling of satisfaction swept over him as he came back inside the house and returned to his computer. The whole thing felt…natural.

“Are you ready to make those changes?” Ari asked.

George smiled. “No. I decided not to send the email.”

“You want me to delete it?”

“Yes. Delete it.”

There was a hint of disappointment in her voice.

“Very well. Message deleted.”

“Thank you.”

Still smiling, he fixed himself another drink and relaxed in the living room, ordering Ari to play some quiet music. He consumed his drink quickly and went to make another when he heard someone at the door. Before he could go to answer he suddenly found himself with his hands raised, his eyes staring straight down the barrel of a gun held tightly with two hands by a government officer.

“I got an emergency response to this house,” the officer said. “Are you the owner?”

“Yes,” George said, still recovering from the shock.

“You’re under arrest.”

“What’s going on? Who called you?”

“I did,” Ari said through one of the house speakers.

“What for?”

“On suspicion of violating the Online Communications Decency Act,” the officer said as he shoved George to the ground and put handcuffs on his wrists.

“But I didn’t email anything!” George protested.

“He put something in the mailbox,” Ari said.

“A letter?” the officer asked George.

“Yeah, so? Why does that matter?”

“What are the contents of that letter?”

“None of your business!” George asked. “It has nothing to do with online communication.”

“If its contents would have been censored online by the virtual assistant through licensed software, then it is still in violation of the Online Communications Decency Act,” the officer explained.

“But it’s my right! I can write whatever I want that way, can’t I?”

“You’re using public resources to transport censorable material. It’s against the law.”

As the officer dragged him out of his house, pulling him through the walkway between his front lawn, George could hear Ari calling to him.

“I told you: you can’t write that, George.”