The Need for Air

By Lettie Prell

A mother. A son. A virtual world they both share where each could live forever and achieve their fullest potential. Until one of them decides that isn’t enough for life.

The noon sun was programmed to perfection—warming but not scorching—and the light breeze refreshed as it rearranged Lake’s hair. The black sand beach was soft to the feet, containing the right amount of exquisitely shaped shells planted in a manner that drew Jared down the beach, exploring. Lake had brought her son here because of the nature setting. He seemed to be enjoying himself, yet she watched with a wary eye, jaw and shoulders tight with anxiety. Her eyes darted restlessly to the endless scroll of must-haves to the right of her main view: spa getaways, mood boosters (completely safe!), and the latest fashions. At the upper right of her view were the icons for her own settings, as well as the parental access to her son’s space. Knowing she could always check his whereabouts should be reassuring, but it couldn’t warn her in advance, and that was the issue.

A small group had gathered a short distance away: two young men, three women in burkinis, and four children, all apparently older than Jared. Lake reached for her cover-up and slipped it over her head. She knew it wasn’t necessary, but still, the modesty wear made her self-conscious. Instantly, burkinis began scrolling through her feed, informing her brightly that they’re for anyone! She almost laughed.

One of the older girls, wearing a purple and black burkini, spotted Jared and ran up to him. They exchanged words, and then the girl threw back her head and laughed. Jared flung out his arms, theatrically, like his father used to when he was about to accomplish some minor feat like opening a stubborn jam jar. These small reminders always stabbed Lake with sweet daggers.

Having broadcast his intentions for greatness, Jared turned and did a cartwheel in the sand. His new friend clapped, and then did a handstand while Jared stared. The girl lowered expertly onto her feet again, and then gestured for Jared to try it. It took him a few tries to get his feet up high enough for her to catch them and help him balance.

Lake looked over at the rest of the group. Two of the women were watching the acrobatics, and one looked over at her and waved. Lake waved back. She dared to hope she could leave Jared with them while she went to her job. Even an hour in beta testing would earn her enough money to keep them both going for several more days. Only a small percentage of the fully instantiated opted for that type of work, and never the sequestered, until she’d come around. Most people didn’t want to be reminded of where they were. It was disorienting, but it paid well, and expenses here were minimal. Maybe Lake could sweeten the pot by offering the girl credits for babysitting.

All the children were at the shore now, playing. They’d made their way closer to where Lake sat. She waved at the girl who’d helped Jared with his handstand. The girl smiled and returned the gesture shyly. She had such a pretty smile.

Jared tapped his new friend on her arm to regain her attention. “Hey, look, Aminah! Look what else I can do!” His form suddenly slumped.

No. Lake sprang to her feet in alarm, but it was too late. Jared deflated like a popped balloon and then he was gone.

The girl gasped, and then stared wide-eyed at Lake.

Lake’s face grew hot with embarrassment. “I’m so sorry,” she shouted, to be heard above the waves. “He’s only eight. He…thinks it’s funny.”

But Aminah had started to back away. “Oh. That’s okay. Bye!” She took off running, and the other children followed. Lake watched as Aminah spoke to one of the women, and then pointed at Lake. The other children kept running down the beach, increasing their distance.

So much for the idea of babysitting. Lake burst into tears, which she quickly quelled. She closed her eyes and concentrated. Clap your hands, she told herself. Clap.

She succeeded. The physical clapping brought her into awareness of her body. She sat up, fumbled with her hood and pulled it off. The bed ceased undulating. She blinked repeatedly as her eyes adjusted to the soft security lighting. There were no windows here, only undecorated cream-colored walls and the long rows of black-clad forms on their beds. The place reeked of body odors and cleaning fluid. She yanked the tubes out of her suit and swung her heavy legs over the side of the bed. It was becoming easier to do this, and that was a bad sign. She pounded the bed with her fist, and then, leaving her hood behind, rose and stumbled down the long rows of anonymous black-clad near-corpses. She should be like them, learning to forget their bodies, not feeling the slick coolness of the laminate floor through the thin soles of her suit as she chased down her wayward child.

The door at the end of the room swept open as she approached. She stepped into the softly lit hallway, and across to the children’s ward.

The door opened at the touch of her palm scan. Everything here was the same as the other room, but in miniature. Something tugged at her heart at the sight of all the small, still bodies. She’d been told they took better to the transition than adults. Their entire brief lives had led them to this.

She knew where to look, and saw the empty bed. “Jared?” She cleared her throat, and tried a little louder. “Jared!”

Flashing lights warned her she’d exceeded the policy’s decibel limits. “Sorry,” she murmured, and exited quickly, her heart pounding with mounting panic. She stood in the corridor looking up and down, not knowing which way to go. She tried taking deeper, slower breaths. She had to calm herself so she could think, and act.

She’d seen him disappear twice before, in the ten days they’d been here, but she’d always found him in the ward, wandering up and down the rows of kids. “I wanted a glass of water,” he’d said the first time. Honey, she’d reminded him, you can drink all the water you want if you put your hood back on. He hadn’t seemed to hear her. He’d stared at the rest of kids on their beds and whispered, “Everyone looks weird, don’t they? It’s kind of spooky.”

The second time, he’d complained his suit itched, and his face was hot under the hood. “Can I go outside for some air?” he’d asked innocently. “It stinks in here.”

Now he was gone. Honestly, why did the ward allow a child out to wander around? “Jared!” The lights flashed again. Really? She was out in the hall. If they’d wanted to, they could’ve provided some soundproofing, or stuffed everyone’s ears with plugs or something. They could’ve done that.

Somewhere down the corridor, she heard a door closing. She burst into a mad sprint, ignoring her tortured lungs gasping for air almost immediately. She was quickly getting out of shape, being here. But of course she wasn’t supposed to be here. And neither was Jared.

She spotted the soft green light of an exit, its white figure in mid-stride, dutifully following the pointing arrow. She yanked open the door. There were stairs going up, and none going down. They were being kept in a basement? She was so disgusted she felt sick to her stomach. “Jared!” she called up the stairwell.

The silence gnawed at her gut. She hadn’t seen one person, not one robot, either. Clearly, this place was understaffed. Those flashing lights were on automatic sensors.

Somewhere above, a heavy door slammed, followed by a whirring noise that grew closer. Then she heard quiet sobbing. “I just wanted some air!”

“Jared!”

“Jared is found,” a calm male voice announced.

They came into view, a robot in descent mode with gliders extended, cradling the limp form of her son in its outstretched arms. Jared’s suit was made to leave his artificial legs uncovered, and they gleamed as they dangled, the same dark metal as the robot’s.

“Jared!” Her voice was stuck on that one word, but this time she uttered it with relief.

His head lolled toward her. “Mom?” His eyes struggled to focus as they reached the bottom step.

She rushed forward, tried to take him from the robot’s hands. “What’s wrong with him?”

The robot either didn’t understand she wanted to take him, or refused her wishes. “Jared is fine. A mild sedative has been administered. It was understood you wanted him returned, Ms. Lake Lipsman. You are his legal guardian.”

“I’m his mother,” she retorted.

The robot did not reply. Its gliders retracted, and it skated swiftly past her and down the hall toward the children’s ward. Lake followed. She moved as fast as she could, but there was no keeping up with the thing.

The robot was already pulling Jared’s hood on when she arrived at the door to the children’s ward, out of breath. She wished she could’ve seen her son’s face one last time.

“Do you wish there to be a child lock on the hood?” the robot asked softly as it finished its ministrations.

Her mouth was suddenly dry. “Child lock? I thought that was for the younger kids. You know, the ones too little to understand.” She took several steps toward Jared’s still form. “Why don’t you just keep him in the ward if he comes out again?”

The robot finished hooking Jared’s tubes up, and turned toward her. “This is Sequester. It is not a prison.”

Lake sucked in her breath. At last she said, “No hood lock on my son. Understand? I’ll keep him inside. He’ll adjust.”

The robot glided to the door, gesturing for her to follow. “They nearly always do.”

The door to the children’s ward slid closed behind her. Nearly always?

The door to the adult ward whispered open. “Would you like assistance with your own bed?” asked the robot.

She stomped past. “No. Just give me my son’s coordinates.”

“Gladly. You’ll be surfacing at your dwelling. He’ll be waking up.”

She watched Jared’s eyes flutter open. “Hi, honey! Did you have a nice nap?”

He raised himself onto his elbows and looked around, frowning. “Mom. I’m not four years old. I know what went down.”

Lake dropped her forced smile. “Fine. So you don’t want to be treated like a baby? Then let me tell you something. I’ve worked very, very hard so I can give you this. Don’t you like having your own room? Getting to play on a black sand beach? Don’t you like having your own legs?”

Jared frowned and pushed himself upright and out of bed, jostling Lake’s shoulder. “That’s ableist talk, mom. I have legs.” He left the room.

Where had he heard that term? Surely not in his present school. School before, then. Or from his father. She heaved a sigh. She had sacrificed a lot, working overtime, so he could have those legs. They had to change them as he grew, too. He’d been on his third set when they’d come to Sequester.

Her feed scrolled through other apartments she could have, other beaches to visit. Or how about hiking in the mountains? She saw a breathtaking view from a high vantage point.

“Hey,” she called out. “How about we take a trip to the mountains? Do some hiking?”

His head popped into sight in the doorway. “Mom. Is that what your feed is showing now?”

She threw up her hands. “I’m just trying to make you happy. So what do you want to do? Tell me and we’ll do it.”

He slouched against the door frame and studied his shoes. “Well, we’ve been studying animals at school. Dogs and things. I guess I could go do that, and then hang out with some of the kids.”

Lake rose and went to him. She bent and kissed the top of his head and then ruffled his hair. “You’ve been making friends, then. That’s good.” Maybe that’ll keep him where he’s supposed to be. Age groups were more often separated here. It encouraged the children to become more autonomous, while providing a safe environment, reducing the need for constant parental monitoring. Lake had been enjoying her own greater freedom, until her son had started disappearing.

Having him in school also meant she could go to work. “Hey, so get out of here already. I’ll see you later.”

“Thanks, Mom.” Jared straightened and headed for the living room and the front door.

“And Jared?”

“Yes, Mom?”

“Behave yourself now.”

“Sure, Mom.” Then he was out the door.

Lake suspected that aside from being disorienting, people shied away from beta testing because it requires interaction with artificial intelligence. The A.I. were difficult to understand, even when they managed a complete sentence in human language. Usually they spoke in gibberish, which she’d been told was their own invented language, and signified their superior intelligence.

Cycle Lake I I I body circuit jaguar tree massive parallel processing, one said.

Another responded in a more feminine voice. MPP CIP I complete tree they. In cycle circuit abbastanza.

It didn’t seem important whether she understood or not. They seemed to listen politely to her verbal feedback after testing, but she suspected it was unnecessary. They’d probably already gathered what they’d needed based on observing her.

Sometimes what she beta tested was unpleasant, although afterward she felt invigorated by being stretched and challenged in this way. Today was no exception. She found herself in a different body, one with extra appendages she didn’t seem able to control. They flopped around as she walked, even slapping her in the face. She became aware she was on a very thin slice of sidewalk suspended high over a mountain valley. Even though she knew she was safe, she gasped, and her four arms flailed. The two arms she seemed unable to control slapped against her face again. It didn’t hurt—nothing here ever did—but it was annoying. She strained with the effort of trying to manipulate them, to no avail. They fumbled over her face till they found her eyes, and covered them. Evidently this was their function, because they stopped flopping around. What a relief.

Then the feed sprang to life around her. No longer was it a separate window to the side of her vision. It enveloped her. She had a new avatar here. It was younger, more vibrant, and thankfully had the correct number of arms and legs. Delighted, she grabbed at things. She tried on a flowing halter dress that shimmered with color when she moved. She selected a pair of gold stiletto heels she’d never been able to walk in with her other body, but was effortless here. She saw a section where she could modify this new avatar. She could select different eyes, give herself a nose job (she laughed ruefully at that one), or sculpt her body in new ways. Suddenly she had a tiny waist, and slimmer thighs. Her skin looked like she’d spent a week in the Bahamas.

She found she could focus outside this immersive feed experience. She experimented with her new appendages again, and found at last the trick to thinking about them, and with this thought muscle she uncovered her eyes. Looking down, she saw she did not have the new body or the new clothes. “Well, that sucks,” she said out loud. Back on the thin walkway above the abyss, she was suddenly overcome by a feeling of deep loss, and sank to her knees. Her whole life had been a series of disappointments. Jared’s father, David, had left her for a man. She’d understood, but she’d also lost her best friend. Then Jared was diagnosed—incompetent doctors for not catching that sooner!—and had his legs amputated when he was four years old.

She looked down into the abyss. It would be easy to throw herself off, but she knew she couldn’t die here. Instead, she tried covering her eyes with her hands again. Wrong pair. She tried again, with the other hands that she was still getting used to manipulating, and covered her eyes with those.

Instead of seeing the beautiful feed sprung to life, with the customizable body and all those clothes, she was out of the simulation altogether.

Thank you Lake cherry cherry lime, said the more feminine voice.

Was that a reference to a slot machine? Lake almost laughed. She started to report out, sharing her impressions and thoughts—especially about that new way to experience the feed!—but she was suddenly very tired. They probably knew everything they needed to, anyway. She punched out for home.

Lake paced the living room, frowning. She’d rather be at the Never-Ending Mixer, her favorite after-work hangout, but she’d told Jared she’d be here when he came home. But just when was that going to be? She replayed the memory of their conversation, and saw no time had been mentioned. He’d said he was going to hang out with the kids after classes, so even if she checked the school times, it wouldn’t tell her anything about Jared’s return.

She replayed the memory again. There was her son, leaning on the door jamb, studying his shoes. That was his father’s slouch, with the downward gaze. She pursed her lips. Jared’s intentions were plain as day, but she’d failed to see it because she’d been so relieved she could go to work. If you passed a statue in an art museum posed like this, its title would read Dishonest Boy with Secret Plans.

Oh, but she knew exactly where he was. She flung herself on the couch and closed her eyes. Clap, she shouted at herself. That wouldn’t do. She sighed out a lungful of anger and tried again. Clap. Clap your hands.

She sat up, pulling the hood from her head in one smooth motion, and then the lines connecting her suit with the bed. God, she was getting too good at coming out. She was steady on her feet as she rose and walked swiftly to the door of the ward.

There was a robot in the hallway, apparently waiting for her. For a moment, she took it for the one that had brought Jared back from wherever he’d roamed, but then again, all of them looked alike. Robot personality programming had been purged several updates ago.

“Where is he?” she demanded.

The robot tilted its head as if unsure what she’d said. “This is your formal warning that repeated surfacing behavior will result in ejection from Sequester.”

Lake sucked in her breath. “Just how many formal warnings do I get?”

“One,” the robot replied.

Lake blinked. “This one? This is it?”

“Correct.”

Lake’s hands clenched. “Then help me find my fucking son.”

She pushed past the robot and let herself into the children’s ward. All the bodies looked so similar in their black suits, but at least none of the beds were empty. She breathed a sigh of relief when she spotted Jared’s artificial legs, gleaming in the dim light. She approached, and stared down at his form, suddenly wanting to scream at him, he’s caused them both so much trouble. They’re on the brink of being evicted, of losing this golden opportunity to improve their lives for good.

But he was already on the other side, back where he should be in the virtual world. She’d have to save her fury for when she returned.

She felt rather than heard the robot’s presence at her side. There was a displacement of the air, a large mass in her peripheral vision. Her memory worked the old way here, but it was vivid enough.

“You mentioned you could put on a child lock,” she said. “On his hood. So he can’t take it off.”

“It requires the legal guardian of the child to authorize,” it said.

She chewed her lower lip briefly. “Then let’s do it.”

The robot reached down. Its arm made two clamping motions, one on each side of Jared’s neck.

“And take his legs,” she said, turning away.

“Repeat?”

“You heard me. Take his goddam legs off.” She exited, crossed the hall swiftly, and reentered her own ward.

It’s for his own good, she told herself as she fastened herself into the bed. He’ll be fine. He’ll adjust. Everyone does. And he’ll thank me. He’ll thank me for this.

She sat in her beach chair, toes grinding into the black sand, and watched her son—her only son—stare out to sea. He hadn’t spoken to her for three hours, not since he’d obviously tried to leave, to come out of it, to do his little visit back to his body. He’d come bursting out of his room screaming, “Mom! What’s going on?” She’d tried to soothe him, of course. She wasn’t a monster. She was doing this because she loved him.

“Honey,” she’d said as she held him close. “It’s because I care about you. I care about your future. You’ve got to believe me, this is better than out there. You’ll live forever, for one.”

Then, because he hadn’t stopped crying, she’d brought him here, to the beach. He liked the beach. Kids don’t understand about mortality, she thought. Jared probably never thought she’d die someday, let alone himself.

Jared was planted in the wet sand, letting gentle waves roll over his legs. His father, David, had liked the beach. He was always photographing the beach, and their seaside cottage, with that impossibly archaic camera with the bellows, and gargantuan negatives. He had to send for supplies halfway across the country, to make his blasted black-and-white photographs.

“Why do you bother?” she’d asked him many times.

“I like old things,” he’d responded. But there were some things he liked young, she’d discovered. He’d left her for a twenty-five-year-old man who’d majored in psychology at Sarah Lawrence. They got the beach cottage in the divorce. Lake had taken the two-bedroom apartment in Cambridge, near Jared’s school.

The morning she’d left him with Jared in tow, David had stood staring at the sea in the same way that Jared stared now.

She reached up and ran her fingers over her hair, as if the memories would shake out with the sand and float down the shore. This programmed place she’d secured for herself, for Jared, was her new world now, an exciting and seemingly limitless place that she was helping to create with A.I., through her beta testing job. Cherry cherry lime, they’d told her. They’d been pleased. When would she be able to leave Jared again and go back to work? She’d love to be enveloped by the feed again. The current sidebar of goodies suddenly seemed outdated. She watched the offerings scroll by: mood boosters, a memory excision tool. She paused to read about the latter.

“Mom? Mom!”

It was Jared, kneeling in front of her. Black sand stuck to his arms and thighs like so much pepper.

“Yes, I’m here,” she said. “You don’t have to shout.”

“Mom, I have to go back. Now.”

“Jared, you know you can’t. It’d mean—”

“I have to feed the dog, Mom. It’ll starve if I don’t.”

“Dog?” She couldn’t process this. “We can get you a dog, honey. Whatever you want.”

“Mom. This is a real dog. There’s a place outside Sequester where I go. Mom.” He started to cry.

“Go? What do you mean go?” But now guilt stabbed through the anger and made everything clear. She’d been so wrapped up in her new job, and being around A.I., and going to the Never-Ending Mixer, and worrying about what he was going to do, that she’d neglected to access her son’s space to look at his history of movements. She called it up now, even as he relentlessly stared at her with those serious eyes. And what she saw was unbelievable.

“You’ve hardly been sequestering at all,” she whispered. Every time she’d been at work, every time she’d gone to the Never-Ending Mixer, he’d been sneaking out. He’d hardly attended school at all, since they’d arrived.

“How can you still be here?” She meant how was he not expelled from Sequester, but instead it sounded like she didn’t want him around. Yet she didn’t have the words to correct herself. The silence between them was an almost measureable distance.

“They’ve been letting me go outside to get fresh air,” he said. “It’s only when you get involved that they care. Mom, please. I need to go.”

Read more https://www.tor.com/2018/06/27/the-need-for-air-lettie-prell/

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