Note: This story follows upon an earlier one, “Jack in the Box.” Read it here.
In those halcyon days before the world ended, Jack had only two speeds: dead asleep or running full tilt. Even compared to other little boys he ran a lot, and ran fast, whether in a school hallway or on a soccer field. Now, on his first day in Hawaii, he flew across the sand to where his father, Lew, reclined on the beach. “Dad! I think there’s turtles over here!”
Lew chuckled. “Well, why don’t you go look at them?”
“They’re in the water.”
“What if they bite me?”
“Sea turtles don’t bite.”
“Okay, I’m going to go look at them!” And with that he ran back, kicking up sand behind him, a four-foot whirlwind of joie de vivre. He was eight years old. Lew’s eyes misted, thinking of what was coming.
From Kona they went to Kealakekua Bay, where they kayaked out to the Captain Cook Monument and snorkeled on the reef. Jack was fascinated by the colorful tropical fish, the anemones and crabs, the strange branching of the coral itself. Near Kohala they rode horses, the landscape surprisingly arid, like something from Nevada, though the sea was visible in the distance. In Hilo they ate poha berry ice cream and bought papayas at the farmers’ market. And at Kehena Beach they swam with a pod of dolphins, hearing underwater their little clicks and squeaks. And everywhere Jack ran, tanned brown as caramel, hair bleached gold by the sun.
He slept through the flight home, as he always did (who would simulate a ten-hour flight?), and on the drive back into Denver said, with a thoughtful look, “Dad, I think I want to be a marine biologist.”
“That sounds good,” Lew replied. And maybe it was even possible, via telepresence. Wasn’t that a lot of what marine biologists did these days, piloting little submarine drones around the creatures they were studying?
But in truth his attention was all on the conversation to come. Dr. Bettencourt had insisted it had to be soon, had to be now. While this ongoing simulation, this computer-generated dream, had been Bettencourt’s idea, the doctor also thought it had gone on too long. Sooner or later Jack would have to know the truth. Too soon, and you risked a fractured personality, a child with no sense of normality. Too late, and the shock might trigger deep psychosis. At least, that was Bettencourt’s theory.
There was a third option, to simply let Jack keep living in his grand illusion. But as he grew older, that illusion grew harder and harder to maintain. It was inevitable that at some point he would discover who and what he was.
So when they got home Lew sat his son down and told him they needed to have a talk. The Talk, really, though it had nothing to do with sex. Explaining sex was easy compared to this.
“What do you know about virtual reality?” he began.
“What, like video games?”
“Yeah, like video games.” Jack played video games regularly, donning a pair of VR specs, sensors in the room tracking his movement. A dream within a dream. “When you’re inside, it seems real, right?”
Jack enthusiastically agreed, starting to talk about the latest Infinity Warrior game. Lew let him chatter on for a bit, then finally said, “Jack. Listen to me. There’s something I need to tell you.” He paused. “Your life is going to change soon.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “Oh, you mean like puberty? I already know all about that, Dad.”
“No, not like puberty. Jack, there are things you don’t know about yourself. Difficult things.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean … God, there’s just no easy way to say this. This isn’t real, Jack. I mean, it is, in a way, everything’s real in a way, but this isn’t what you think it is.”
“What isn’t what I think it is? Dad, you’re not making sense.”
Lew exhaled, willing himself not to cry. And why did he feel angry? Because he was responsible for this, in one way or another, or he had been pulled into responsibility. Suddenly he extended a hand out, palm up. “Look. Look at my hand. Keep your eyes fixed there, all right? Computer, put an apple in my hand.”
With that, a perfect red apple appeared in his palm, reflecting perfectly the light from the kitchen window. The fruit of knowledge.
Jack narrowed his eyes, then reached out and snatched away the apple, peering at it suspiciously. “So you can do magic?”
“It’s not that …” he started to explain, before realizing that Jack meant “magic” in the pedestrian sense of prestidigitation. “It’s not sleight of hand, if that’s what you mean. The apple wasn’t there before. Do you understand? The apple isn’t real, Jack.”
Jack laughed. “What do you mean, silly? It’s right here. Watch.” He took a bite, the apple crunching audibly between his teeth, juice foaming at his lips. He chewed it loudly, showed his father the mash in his mouth. “See?”
Lew felt sick. He knew Bettencourt was watching, right now. The doctor had threatened to tell Jack himself, if needed. “Computer, remove the apple.”
Instant the apple disappeared from Jack’s hand, the pulp from his mouth, the juice from his lips. Jack’s mouth hung open with astonishment. “How did you do that?”
“Computer, give me an owl, here on my wrist. A great horned owl.”
Not even a pop of displaced air, nothing: just a two-foot-tall predator bird perched on his wrist. It turned its head, blinked its great eyes at his helpless, precious son. For the first time Jack looked frightened, nearly the first time Lew could recall him ever looking frightened. He visibly recoiled, backing into the corner of the couch. “Dad, what’s going on?”
“Jack.” His voice stuck in his throat. “There’s a lot you don’t know about yourself. Enormous things. Difficult, scary things. But I want you to know that we did them to save your life. And I am your dad, and I’m here for you, and I’m going to keep being here for you.”
“Dad, what’s going on?” Jack was crying now. “What are you talking about? Where did that bird come from?”
Crying himself, Lew told him.
For two days Jack barely left his room. Mostly he lay in bed like he was sick, reading comic books and watching TV, or just staring out the window. Of course Lew could watch him wherever he was. This world really only existed where his son went, an illusory bubble. Meanwhile Lew himself spent his days in the hospital room where he largely resided, specs at hand, ready to be there when his son wanted to talk.
Finally Jack came out of his room. “I want to see the real world.”
Lew wanted to argue, saw the futility of it (wasn’t this the point?), and just nodded. “When do you want to?”
“I don’t know. Should I wait? Do I need to wait?” Lew shook his head. “Now, then, I guess.”
Lew nodded once more, then took off the specs and walked into the next room, where Bettencourt and two nurses were waiting alongside Jack’s body. “He’s ready.”
“Good,” Bettencourt said. “This day had to come, Lew. You’re doing the right thing.”
“It doesn’t feel like it.”
“He’s going to get through this. He’s young, he’s psychologically stable, and you’ll be right there for him.”
Lew stood over the reclining operating table where his son’s body lay unmoving. Jack’s head looked much as it did in the simulation, although his fair hair was buzzed short and his skin was pale as milk, having never been exposed to the sun. But at his neck was a silver collar, and below it was the android body Bettencourt and his engineers had constructed to support that precious cranium: the size of an adult male (they had no wish to build another as Jack grew older), stiff and inflexible, the torso thick and barrel-shaped to accommodate its life-preserving systems, the artificial skin hairless and rubbery.
For Jack was, in the end, only about one-tenth boy, that tenth being his head, saved from the accident that had killed his mother six years before. Life-support systems provided oxygen, fluids and nutrients; powerful computers, connected directly to his spinal cord and cerebral cortex, provided all the sensations of a normal body inhabiting a virtual environment. Even now Jack’s eyes flicked beneath his lids, seeing what the computers insisted was there, the kitchen from which his father had just vanished.
Bettencourt was waiting in front of a computer set on a mobile stand by the table, looking at Lew expectantly. For some reason, in a flash of self-pity, Lew thought of how, ten years earlier, his only concern had been sleeping with girls at the restaurant where he’d waited tables, one more tall, arrogant youth with a bad haircut and worse tattoos. He wanted to tell that earlier self to wipe that stupid smirk off his face, to get ready, because one day he was going to have to destroy his own son’s life in order to save it.
He looked at Bettencourt and nodded minutely. The doctor bent his bald head and tapped out a command on the keyboard. They all looked, holding their collective breath, at the boy on the table.
Jack’s face spasmed, the brows contracting and releasing, the upper lip curling, and he made a small grunt of pain or surprise. “Jack?” Lew whispered. “It’s me, Jack, it’s your dad.”
Another involuntarily mew, Jack’s whole face expressing intense distress. His lips touched and parted like a fish gulping for air. “Jack?”
Jack’s eyes opened and they were full of terror. “Dad?”
Involuntarily Lew began crying, sobs gripping him. “I’m here, Jack, I’m here.” With both hands he took his son’s left hand where it lay on the table, the robot limb no warmer than a remote control.
“I can’t move, Dad. Why can’t I move?”
Bettencourt came and stood on the other side of the table. “Hi, Lew. I’m Dr. Bettencourt. You should be able to move if you try. It may seem unfamiliar at first. Why don’t you try lifting your right hand? Concentrate hard.”
Jack frowned, every muscle, hair and pore of his head bespeaking immense concentration. Slowly he lifted his hand, so slowly a normal person would have to concentrate just to move that slowly, the servos in elbow and shoulder emitting a faint whir. After an age of the world the fingers, cold and stiff as dead wood, touched his father’s wet cheek. Lew thought he had never felt the touch of something more alive.