P. G. Hurh
Software makes a poor surrogate parent. And a sibling who buys that software? Almost as bad.
By the time they got back to the apartment block it was dark.
Horza slouched against the wall of the elevator while Dorcas ran his tape through the slit of the control panel. With an audible click, a button halfway up the panel lit up. The number on its surface was unreadable. The elevator car jerked upwards and began its ascent.
Dorcas turned and looked at his brother. Horza's haggard face was pointed at the floor, his eyes glazed over. His hands went through the pockets of his oversize trench coat and paused as his right hand dipped into the left waistpocket. It reappeared with a long, thin blank piece of paper. Horza stretched it out in front of him, looking at the entire length.
"There's something left on the other side..." Dorcas didn't finish as Horza flipped the paper over with a snap and located a single blue derm. He peeled it off, looked at Dorcas and made an offering gesture to his younger brother.
"No thanks, man."
Horza carefully rubbed the decal along his jugular.
"You know, you should have taken that before the funeral. Maybe you would have stayed awake."
"I was stricken with grief," Horza intoned without emotion.
"Well, I wasn't. Still ain't stricken either."
As if on cue, the elevator gave an unusual sigh and rumbled into silence.
"What the fuck?" Horza growled. His eyes were wide and his face flushed; the derm was taking effect.
"Elevator stopped," Dorcas answered.
"No shit, bro. Run your tape through again."
The fluorolamps overhead flickered and then faded to about a quarter of their earlier brightness. Dorcas looked at Horza. "It won't work without any power."
"Just try it."
"You try it!" Dorcas flung his card at Horza.
Horza groped in the dim lighting. He found the card and swiped it through the reader.
He tried again with the same effect.
"Give it back, Horza. It's just a brownout. Be thankful we're not at the bottom of the shaft by now."
Horza tried the tape twice more and then lifted the card to inspect it more closely. "This thing's all beat up, man -- you gotta take care of your shit, Dor. It's like you don't care where you live no more."
"My card ain't the problem. There's a power brown and the lift won't move 'til there's juice to lift it."
"Well, what are we supposed to do, just sit here?" Horza tried the card again. Nothing.
"Give me my tape back."
"Maybe I should hang on to it 'til you learn some more responsibility. Or maybe I'll set a curfew lock on it, now that I'm your guardian."
"Yeah? And who'd show you how to run the fuckin' credit tape, or the automatons, or your fuckin' g-friend's chastity belt?"
"Or the fuckin' elevator!" Horza bellowed and held the card out to Dorcas -- and snatched it back as Dorcas reached for it. He held it, taunting, two feet over Dor's head.
Dorcas rolled his eyes. "I'm tellin' ya, my tape had nothing to do with this shit!" He jumped for the card and, in the process, jammed the top of his head into Horza's nose. Horza groaned and fell to the floor, still clutching the tape card in his upraised hand.
Dorcas rubbed the top of his head and lunged again for the tape. He reached Horza's lifted wrist and grabbed it as Horza scrambled backward, pushing with his legs. Dor crawled on top of Horza and twisted the card away. He stuffed it in his pants pocket and backed off to the other side of the elevator.
Suddenly Horza leapt to his feet and charged. Dorcas yelped and defensively surrounded his face with his arms, elbows pointed at his older brother.
No blow came. Instead, Dorcas heard Horza kick the elevator doors. Once hard, then again more softly.
Dorcas lowered himself to sit on the floor, knees raised before him, and stared at the opposite wall. Horza continued to tap his foot against the sealed doors and dab at his nose with the sleeve from his overcoat.
Silence attempted to fill the confined space, thwarted only by Horza's sporadic pacing. Only a few minutes had passed, yet Horza acted as if he'd been preparing to say something for a couple of hours.
"You know the small inheritance we got now?"
"I spent it on the funeral."
Silence filled the elevator again.
"What do you mean you spent it on the funeral?" Dorcas had thought that the cremation was part of the insurance settlement. "It's not like we came away with anything from all this." The thing that had kept him going throughout the day was knowing he could spend his share of the money on a cheap deck... maybe start doing something he liked for a change.
Horza read the disappointment in his brother's voice. He nervously fingered a lighter in his pocket and struggled with his next sentence. "I... I'm sorry about Mom and I know you had plans for the money. So did I. But I wanted to do what was right. The man in the parlor said it would be like still having Mom around. And I didn't know what... what I could do. I don't know how to be a guardian. Your guardian." Horza anxiously pulled a cubic package from the folds of his coat.
Dorcas looked at it and then at Horza's face. He couldn't see his eyes in the dim elevator light. "Horza, you didn't... a ROM cube? Come on, that costs a fortune. Can't you take it back?"
"Dor, this is what's best for us, man. I don't know how to be a mother. I can't be a mother. I got my whole life ahead of me. I've... spoken to it, I mean her, and it's totally like she's right there! Take a look at it at least. You're too young to have a mother like me." As if in emphasis, Horza tossed the cube in Dorcas's lap and turned to hit the door again, this time with open palms.
Dorcas looked at the wrapped cube. He saw the elevator's dim fluorolamps reflected in the shrink-wrap. Along one of the square, five-inch-long sides was printed Mom's name with a poem below it in smaller lettering. Dorcas couldn't read the poem in the light.
He looked at Horza, who now seemed more interested in another scrap of paper he had fished from his pockets. He looked back down at the cube. He hadn't even touched it yet, but it seemed foreign in his lap and he could feel the coldness of it through his jeans. Horza may not feel like a mother, Dorcas thought, but he sure was a mother fucker. This thing in his lap cost not only his inheritance but probably half their rent for the next five years. Because of this thing in his lap, he'd have to find a job because Horza sure as hell won't.
Dorcas held up the cube with both hands and tried to read the poem. Only it wasn't a poem. More like instructions, English instructions, badly translated from Japanese. He scraped at the shrink wrapping with his middle finger until a nick in his fingernail scratched it open. The plastic unraveled. He flipped the cube over, staring at its blank surfaces. In the dimness, Dorcas could just make out the glimmer of a display beneath the glossy sides.
"The switch is hidden on the bottom," Horza said.
"Yeah, I see it." Dorcas jumped at Horza's words and felt embarrassed to realize that Horza, although trying to appear uninterested, was watching Dorcas fumble with the cube.
Horza turned back to the elevator control console and began to inspect the useless buttons. He traced his fingers around them and was genuinely surprised when they depressed with his touch. He never knew that they were actually buttons. He began to push all the buttons rapidly. "Damn fucking thing."
Dorcas did his best to ignore Horza as the cube turned on. All six of its sides came to life with a quick flash followed by a lasting greenish glow that emanated from the six surfaces. He turned his back on the rest of the elevator and leaned against one wall, facing into a corner. His short legs were doubled up with his toes pressed up against the floor molding.
He flipped the cube so one side was facing up at his eyes. His mother, with a blank stare on her face, peered back at him. Her brown hair hung in lanky rivulets from the top of her head. Wrinkles surrounded her smile as she seemed to recognize him.
"Dorcas! It's about time someone picked up the phone. I've been sitting in this room forever."
Dorcas flipped the cube so another side faced him. This time his mother looked up at him with a younger face. Scorn was evidenced by her frown and furrowed brow.
"Dorcas... You stay here and talk to me before I page your father at work. If you run off again I'll -- "
He flipped the cube again. This time he saw a young woman with her hair bobbed short and a silver-polychromatic film blouse peeking up from the bottom edge of the cube.
"Son? Is that you?"
Dorcas frowned and looked up at Horza, who still seemed entranced with the spent piece of derm paper. "Yeah, Mom. It's me."
"You look so old..."
"Well you shoulda seen yourself today, Ma. You didn't look so hot in that jar."
Dorcas flipped the cube again and saw his mother as he had last seen her, eyes sunken and surrounded by bright blue eyeliner, skin baked into an orange glow. He stared at the image. She didn't stare back. Her eyes seemed glazed over and focused on something beyond the screen of the cube.
"Mom?" Dorcas said softly. He looked up at Horza. He was pushing buttons again.
"Mom?! Can't you hear me?"
Recognition wandered its way across his mother's face. "Dor? Is that you? What are you doing in my simstim? I thought you were at school today."
"Mom, I went to your funeral today. It was kinda rainy out and the pastor said we'd all be better off underground."
"What? I can't hear you! Listen, can you come back in a few minutes? We'll talk then. We'll have a good talk."
"Mom, you lost it, didn't you?"
"I'll talk to you later, son. This is important."
"You lost your life."
Dorcas flipped back to the first face he had seen. He had about three seconds before it became animated. He looked at the sadness ingrained in the face floating in the cube and realized that some of the lines he saw there he had helped place and still others he had erased.
"Dor? Stay here a minute. I'm kind of confused. Did the simstim just end? I thought I was in the middle of... Something must have gone wrong. Why are you calling me from school?" The puzzled look on her face stirred guilt in Dorcas, rooted in his self-indulgent thoughts at the funeral.
"Dorcas? Are you in trouble again? Look, I know it's not your favorite school, but it really is for the best. We can't afford to send you to the public school. At least this way you can please your father by paying for school as you go. And you're learning good responsibility too. Just think what your father would say if he caught you in your brother's footsteps. He's got enough problems with the Feds as it is. Anyway I'll be home in a few hours and we can do a networked simstim together, if you're up for it. Your teacher said that the new Alamo series was pretty good. I'll let you be Davy Crockett. What do you say?"
"Sounds great, Mom." Dorcas flipped the cube again.
Her face filled the side of the cube. The edges could hardly contain the smile she grinned at him.
"Kimopolous, Dorcas," she beamed.
"Yes, sort of." His mother's face pulled away from the screen. Dorcas saw bright orange skin, without a trace of an errant open pore, recede from his magnified gaze. The face was surrounded by curly, shiny dark hair and accented with sharply angled red lipstick. The eyes shining at him blinked in slow motion as the glare from the cube flickered and her silver blouse rose into view. "Although I don't have the memory access that is stored in the other cube faces, I do operate on the same simplistic neural network that was modeled after the sample from your mother's last simstim log. And although I don't have access to most of her memories, this cube face... Me, I have a lot of room for memory storage. I will be the one who, over the coming years of comfort and enjoyment, will be able to interact with you on a moment to moment basis. At least that's what the brochure says."
"You mean you'll be my mother?" Dorcas looked over at Horza slumped against the opposite wall. He looked like he was asleep, but Dorcas couldn't be sure. The small scrap of derm he had applied probably wasn't enough to keep him riding high for more than a few minutes.
"I'll be more of a mother than he will," replied the cube.
Dorcas looked back at the thing in his hands. The animated face was straining to look beyond the edge of its box. She turned her gaze back to Dorcas.
"Is that your brother?" The cube clicked for a moment. "Horza?"
"Yeah, that's him. Don't you even know what he looks like?"
"I told you my memories of your mother's past are minimal. I'm basically the amalgam of your mother's neural pathways."
"My mother never used words like that."
"Well, maybe there's an improvement."
Dorcas fingered the edges of the cube. The thing didn't really act like his mom. He tried to think of something to piss it off.
"What's on your mind, Dorcas?"
"Fuck you, you fuckin' machine."
The screen flickered quickly.
"Ooh boy, that really hurts me, dumb fuck." The computer generated image widened her eyes and pursed her lips in mock surprise then flicked back to its earlier appearance. "Listen Dorcas, I may not know much about you or our life together before, but I do think like your mom. And right now you're getting on my tits. Why don't you try and care about something? Doesn't it matter that I'm dead?"
"What matters is that you -- this clicking box in my lap -- took away the only damn thing I could have enjoyed from my Mom dyin'! And, yeah you're dead, but you never were alive!"
"Well pardon me for being an expensive fuckin' machine! I've got feelings too. It takes a hard personality to deal with the likes of you... son."
"I don't need to be dealt with!"
"Well, what do you need?"
Dorcas stared at the cube. "Not what you've got."
"Now you listen here, young man," the face retorted. "I've got more going for me than you think. If you think I'm going to take that kind of back talk from you, I'll..."
"You'll what, Mom?" It rolled off Dor's tongue with a smile. "Scream at me 'til your batteries run out?"
Dorcas flipped the cube quickly before she could respond.
Dorcas rotated the cube until he found the youngest face, the face that he recognized as his mother but didn't remember from his past. Before the face became animated he studied its bright cheerful glow. His mother looked about twenty-five or younger, and very excited.
"Dorcas? Is that you?" Her surprise at seeing him seemed as genuine as before. "You look so old."
"Yeah, its me."
"This is so cool. How old are you? Thirteen? Fourteen?"
"Wow, you look even older than that."
"Thanks, I guess." Dorcas tried to think of something to say. "Uhh... how old am I where, uh, you are?"
His young mother seemed preoccupied with looking at him. Her gaze was so excited and intense it made Dorcas nervous. She blinked and piped up suddenly, "Hey, do you have a girlfriend yet?" She gave him a sly smile. "I bet you do."
"Mom," Dorcas pronounced the word as two whiny syllables. "Where are you? Where am I in that thing?" He gestured into the screen.
"Isn't it great?" His mother turned to motion at the space behind her. "All this stuff... and it really isn't real!" Dorcas couldn't see anything but a white haze where she was gesturing.
She continued talking excitedly, "Uncle George gave me one of those simstim upgrades for my birthday! Now I don't have to just sit there and watch, I can interact 'cause they got my brain code or something in the stim machine! Isn't it so cool?"
"It's okay, Mom. But you use the thing a lot."
"What? No, I just got this stuff. It just came today. Uncle George says you're just a construct of what you'd look like in a few years. Wow! Twelve years old, huh?"
"Mom..." She didn't hear him because she had turned and seemed to be talking to someone else. Should he tell her that she that was the construct?
"Mom?" Now she was twirling around in the white mist, her silver pantaloons whipping around her legs. "Mom!"
She stopped twirling and looked at him. She looked faintly surprised. "Oh! I didn't know you were still there. You can go now. I don't need you anymore."
"Mom, you don't understand. You're the construct. You're the one who is floating around in this box." He shook the box.
She looked confused and then brightened perceptibly. "Ahh... No, you're wrong, Dor. I just put you to bed fifteen minutes ago. You were only eleven months old then and you'll be eleven months old when I jack out."
"Then jack out, Mom. I bet you can't, 'cause I've got the controls on this side of the cube."
His mother frowned and looked around her quickly. "Well, I hate to jack out now, but I guess I can get back in right away. Uncle George bought me a full year's subscription!"
"Uncle George," Dorcas said under his breath, "can suck my cock."
His mother's face looked preoccupied for a few seconds and then she was gone. The screen of the cube flickered from black to static and then back to the mists of before.
Superimposed over the mists was his mother's young face looking surprised. "Dorcas, is that you?" She narrowed her brows. "You look so old..."
Dorcas flipped the cube...
...and found himself looking into the glassy stare of the oldest construct. From the youngest to the oldest.
Dorcas waited for the face to animate, then realized that the face was animated except it didn't happen to be moving.
"Mom!" The right corner of her mouth twitched. "Mom!" he yelled again. It reminded him of the countless times he had roused her from her dreaming before. This cube face at least seemed to accurately mimic his mother.
"Mother!" This time her eyes focused on his for a moment.
"Dorcas?" she mumbled. "Not now, I'm in the middle of something." She started to slip away again.
Dorcas paused as he tried to think of something to say. "Can I go out to play?"
The orange face of his mother contemplated the question for all of a second. "Okay," she said without emotion.
Dorcas turned the cube over to the bottom face. Next to the power switch was a recessed receptacle that held the small fuel cell. Dorcas pried his fingers behind the cell and pulled.
The cube flashed brightly from all of its sides and then dimmed to a faint glow. Its afterimage radiance was just visible in the darkened elevator.
Dorcas stood with the cube in his left hand and the battery in his right. He let the cube drop to the floor and pocketed the battery. The cube bounced once and came to rest leaning against the elevator wall.
His brother was indeed asleep, hunched over in the corner. Dorcas looked at the ceiling of the elevator and then back down at his brother.
"Nothing like a little cooperation," he whispered and then stepped on the huddled form of Horza and launched himself at the ceiling. His hands lifted the drop ceiling panels as he rose and he grabbed onto the supporting cross members.
"What the hell?" Horza cried as he awoke.
Dorcas quickly pulled himself up into the overhead crawl space and swung his legs out of the way of Horza's groping hands. Once secured in his position, Dorcas found the emergency hatch handle next to his head and pulled it open. Elevator tag had never come in so handy.
Horza yelled from below, "Where do you think you're going?"
Dorcas clambered out onto the top of the elevator and smiled. "Out to play." He slammed the hatch closed behind him.
Inside the elevator, Horza spun around and spied the cube lying against the wall. The afterimage glow had dwindled into small white circular spots at the center of each cube face. He bent down and picked it up. If he looked at the cube real close, he imagined he could see the tiny image of his mother's face peering out of each one of its shining white dots.
P. G. Hurh (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a mechanical design engineer at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. In his spare time, he likes to sample good beer, play his bass guitar, ride his bike, and design instrumentation and beam-feedback devices for high-energy particle accelerators.
InterText stories written by P. G. Hurh: "Cube" (v3n6), "Little Sun" (v4n3), "Bad Sneakers" (v4n6).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 P. G. Hurh.