The cybernetic owl person approached with measured steps. Dials around orange eyes spun out in shiny steel circles above a burnished face and curvy body of much more human-realistic flesh.

“May I?” The extended wing looked soft and plush, despite its mottled metallic tones.

I jolted back even as I wondered how the glowing feathers would feel with full haptic VR. “No. Your wings are beautiful, but no. Thanks.”

Lips not at all like a beak puckered forward in a sassy smile. “You looking for something special?”

Truly, if I wanted to be touched by a stranger, I’d have loved to sink into a hug surrounded by those wings. With the haptic net fitted to my body, it should feel as real as someone touching me — through a full body glove. “My mom paid for Ex Ed to help me figure out sex stuff, but I guess I don’t want to be touched by VR avatars either.”

The owl person swept an arm, not a wing, toward an alcove with a velvet couch. More diverse avatars representing a wider array of ages and body types were drifting in. The programming probably selected them based on my apparent interest in the cybernetic owl person. I’d heard stories about confused teens using Ex Ed to try out various sex stuff, but that wasn’t what I needed.

“Not my thing. I’m not confused. I just confuse some people.” Receiving only a blank look I asked, “Could I talk to a help bot?”

Metallic dials surrounding owl-eyes spun in what was probably a parody of rolling human eyes. All the owl person said before wandering away was, “Sure.”

One of the avatars at the edge of my vision subtly shifted. “Assistance is here. You are safe.” The help bot looked barely older than me, maybe sixteen. They were absolutely androgynous in a way few flesh and blood people could pull off, especially in what looked like a full body, blue rubber unitard.

I blurted, “What if sex doesn’t mean the same thing to me as to other people?”

“What do you believe it means?”

I wanted to smash the help bot for saying that while looking me calmly in the eye. I needed new ideas, not some ancient computer therapist script. “If I knew, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Have you ever woken up aroused from a dream?” They raised what would have been eyebrows except there wasn’t any hair on their perfectly smooth face.

“Yeah, last week. I dreamed I was squished between my best friends in the backseat of a driverless. Except the borders between us got sort of fuzzy. And warm. Our colors and textures blurred into each other. It was like we were avatars but less distinct. I thought maybe here — but I’m creeped out by anyone here touching me, too.” No sense holding back when talking to a confidentiality-locked algorithm. Help bots were easy to talk to.

“In what ways do you find the two friends you dreamed about to be similar?”

They must be a pretty robust algorithm to focus in like that. I loved my frills for what made them unique. But what did they have in common? One was a boy; one, enby. It would be hard to peg any of us by race. My mom said our town was mostly hybrids. (As a botanist, she considered that an advantage.)

“They’re just my frills: fierce and real. They’ll fight for the same things I will and understand what I really mean. They and my mom are the only ones I want to sit that close to and touch. Though I wouldn’t want to merge into mom that way.”

Before the help bot even answered — probably preset to wait as long as a standard human would — I realized whatever I felt about sex fit into how I felt about touch. I only wanted to be that close to a few people. I was also super finicky about having smooth sheets and cutting all the tags out of my clothing.

“Perhaps you are demisexual,” the help bot said, leaning forward and tilting their head in a clichéd attentive friend pose. “That would mean you experience sexual attraction only after you develop an emotional connection with someone.”

In the back of my mind, I thought I’d heard the term before. It was still useful to have the help bot point it out, but my mind had moved on. “Is there something like that for touch?”

The avatar tilted their head the other way. “No such terms are in my standard vocabulary. I have a singular reference: Perhaps the word demitactile would apply.”

Demitactile. It seemed like a word I might need. A word that might help others understand. Help me understand.

The session timer on the ceiling was running low, but I had new words to try out. I winked at the help bot and received an exaggerated wink in return. What they’d given me was better than sex — at least in VR with someone I didn’t feel emotionally connected to.

As I stripped out of the whole-body haptics, my mom came into the room. She smiled and gave me a hug that lasted long enough to relax into. “That was all private, right?” I asked her.

“Completely. No details are saved or shared in human accessible formats, only automated statistical adjustments. But the rates for your health insurance dropped by two percent.” She waved her phone. “As a mom, I’m guessing that means something good: lower risk for STDs or injuries, perhaps? But you don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to.”

I shook my head. Parents. I wondered how my mom’s generation ever sorted out who they were without help bots, haptics, or VR. When I was ready, I’d find a way to explain it to her.

Clara Ward lives in Silicon Valley on the border between reality and speculative fiction. When not using words to teach or tell stories, she uses felt or glass to make practical or completely impractical objects. More about her past and future writing, as well as occasional book reviews, can be found at Goodreads.