We’re in a bar somewhere near the Satyr district, the kind of place that’s all dusk, corners and moans. Real sleazy. But after one, two, ten shots, you don’t care. We’ve all felt this way, right? Whatever the reality.
“Where we going next?” asks the horse-slash-lizard woman I’m drinking with. She leans forward and rests a claw on my thigh. “I know a great 8-bit bar. Once you go pixel, you never go back.”
She’s getting no lucid reaction from me. She’s getting the same as everyone else when I’m in this state—deleted lives, screams that go on for as long as you feel like the world is spinning backwards.
Late on, someone grabs me by the collar. Stranger, it’s time for you to leave. I’ve no idea why. My throbbing fist and the aching in my face like someone swung a wrecking ball into it could have something to do with it. Standing outside in the neon and the rain—it always rains in the Satyr district—I check my credits, hoping I’ve got enough to dull the agony. The short answer is no. Not if I want to auto-sober before getting home. It’s what a good father would do.
I catch the slow port, getting back an hour before Julia wakes. I hate imposing a programmed sleep/wake cycle on her, but how else do I go out and get wrecked? And babies love routine, right?
Back at the apartment, an hour to kill, me sober and filled with self-loathing, I log into Jukebox Smash and start playing. You’ve got to line up vinyl record into threes, fours, and praise be, the occasional five. I never get a five. I rarely get a four. I’m not very good at it. But I’ve got to keep playing. Let’s just say I’m in somewhat of a hole. Money borrowed, debts accumulated… and if you think debt collectors in the digital world are any softer on you than in the physical world, then you’ve got much thinking coming. They do things here that are inconceivable to fleshers.
So I’m playing this dumb game as many hours as I can manage, playing for other people, collecting their daily bonuses, levelling them up. Among some crowds, it’s quite the status thing to have a high rank. In Jukebox Smash. Ladies and gentlemen: the future.
Julia’s voice comes from the bedroom.
She’s standing on her cot, banging the top of the wooden rail. “Dada. Dada!”
I lift her and bring her close. She grins, grabs at my lips, tries to yank them off my face. I pull away, then dive back in to blow a raspberry on her neck. She squeals with joy and slaps the top of my head.
Once she’s calmed, I change her nappy—cursing myself, as always, for insisting on this feature. I’ve played a hundred hours of Jukebox Smash to cover what it cost me in bowel configuration. It had to be realistic! Down to the accurate production of gut bacteria. Just so I could dispose of endless shitty nappies. But she’s cute when I change her, writhing and clapping her hands and going baa baa baa.
This time, it doesn’t take long. But then Julia does something strange. When I try and dress her in her favourite babygro—the one with the frolicking dogs—she throws up a fuss. I try all different ones, she won’t wear them. When I put her back in what she was wearing before, the one patterned with smiling kettles and dancing cups of tea, she calms.
The other Julia never did this.
The next day, I get the visit I’ve been dreading.
I’m awful at Jukebox Smash. And it’s not the first game I’ve been awful at. I sucked at Coffee Captain and Super Office Manager 2. I wondered how long it would take the criminals forcing me to pay my debts this way to get sick of my meagre performance.
I open the door. Three of them are waiting on the other side. Black hair, black suits. Featureless faces, save for the eyes. Oh, those eyes. They all have the same churning scarlet corneas, from which emerge and disappear tiny arms and screaming faces, like shipwrecked sailors drowning in the seas of hell. What else can I do but invite them in and beg for mercy?
“You’ve got ‘til tomorrow morning to settle the debt,” says one. A desperate hand reaches from his eye. It scrabbles around on his lower lid, before being sucked back in.
If I can’t pay, then all my assets will be seized—including my own avatar—and sold as part of a bulk lot to game designers, film makers or artists making whole worlds out of reclaimed parts.
What happens to me? I become one the screaming faces lurching from the black suits’ eyeballs. An eternity of agony to serve as a warning to other late payers.
I start asking random questions, praying for a human to reason with. You can always work out if avatars are AI—they’ve got nothing to say for themselves.
“What do you think of this flannel shirt?” I ask one. “You like flannel shirts?”
“I don’t want to talk about flannel shirts,” he replies, rather stiffly. There’s one of them.
The guy on the right isn’t answering. He notices me noticing. “Fucking dumb robots,” he grins.
I say I’ll work harder at my game, spend my own credits on enhancers. I’ll get better. I’ll play better. The whole time, he’s shaking his head, like, I would if I could, but…
“Dada dadadada.” Julia from the bedroom.
I don’t like the way the guy’s eyes widen. He starts for her—I go to grab his arm, but the look he gives suggests I shouldn’t. So I follow behind, feeling like I’m going to cry and throw up at the same time.
He’s by the crib now. “Hello little miss, how are you today?”
“Please give me a few more days.”
Julia’s slapping the top of the rail, giving the guy a grin with all six of her teeth.
“That’s an impressive baby,” he says. “Will she develop?”
“No,” I shoot back, thinking it’s the right answer, but realise too late it’s not. Who wouldn’t want a gorgeous, sweet-natured baby forever?
Especially some sickos and perverts on this side of the screen.
The man straightens up. When he smiles I feel like a mouse considering a cobra’s swaying head. “She must have cost you a fortune,” he says. “If you’d be willing—”
“You may even come out with a little profit.”
I shake my head.
“Once we’ve assessed her properly.”
My mouth won’t work.
“Don’t give me an answer now,” he says. “You’ve got until the morning.” Faces frozen in torment jut momentarily from each red cornea, before sinking again. “Think about it.”
So, I think about it. Or, should I say, I pace the room. I pull at my hair, and remember the pain-twisted creatures leering from his eyes. Could Julia and I run? Run where? There’s nowhere to go, not when I’m out of credit.
The choice is simple.
I hand over Julia to clear my debt, or I don’t.
She isn’t the real Julia. She isn’t my daughter, who I held to my chest moments after she was born, the one I promised to love forever. She isn’t the stunning little girl, barely a year old, who I left in the bath for a minute, just a single minute, while I hunted for my camera so I could take a photo of her splashing around.
This Julia is a refinement of photos, videos and memories. An expensive replica. I’ve buried myself in debt to make this version look like her, act like her. But it isn’t her.
Even though it’s the middle of the night, I get her out of her cot and bring her into bed with me. I stroke her cheeks and press her nose, tell myself this isn’t her. She isn’t real. I can’t spend an eternity in agony for a ghost.
She claps her hand and babbles in her baby language. She reaches and touches my face gently, like she knows I need comfort. When I cover and uncover my eyes, going “Peepo!”, she giggles like it’s the funniest thing anyone’s ever done. Before I know it, I’m blowing raspberries on her belly, kissing her chubby legs and feet, swinging her around and around until she’s giggling so hard she can’t catch her breath.
As light seeps through the window, I cradle her in my arms and softly sing her favourite nursery rhyme: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Sometime in the morning, she does something amazing. She grabs my cheek and brings it to her mouth, like she’s kissing me. I never programmed a kiss.
All too soon, I hear them outside.
Julia’s nap schedule is minutes from starting. She’s yawning and stretching, her body limp with sleep.
They bang on the door: “Open up!”
I wrap my arms around my baby and hold her tight to my chest.
If they take her, or they don’t take her, either way I’m going to suffer.
But if I do this, then at least Julia won’t.
My voice is cracking as I call up the control system.
I wait until I hear the crash of the door, and give the authorisation code to delete her. At least this time I had a chance to say goodbye.