Picture by Larisa Koshkina




I leave the house as I always do, eyes skirting the floor, headphones plugged deep into both ears, a faint nod to my mother on the way out.

My neighbors think me a bit odd for not taking the tram to school, but it’s such a short walk, and the weather is so temperate. I walk in with a light, humid sweat on my face and several of the more traditional-minded students whisper about me to their friends.

My friends are at the lunch table in the far right corner, as they are every afternoon. It seems we’re eating vitamin preserves for the fourth day in a row.

“Ugh,” I say as I join them. “At least tell me they’re not raspberry flavored again.”

Harv slaps his spoon onto the gelatinous substance and we both watch it jiggle. “Nope, I think it’s raspberry. But, my mom’s making hamburgers tonight, so I can swing this.”

“Lucky,” I say, eyeing everyone else’s portions bitterly. “I think I’ll just skip it today.”

“Careful,” he says, barely slipping a bite in between his teeth. “You only get two skips a month, and you’ve already used one, remember?”

I snap my plastic spoon and hang my head, “Now I do.”

“Just muscle through, Loren. It wouldn’t be worth a detention.”

I do as he suggests and begin to spill the vitamin supplements into my mouth in an attempt not to taste it or dwell on the texture. I look down the table and notice that Paul’s seat is empty. It’s extremely rare for students to miss school, so I feel a tickle of worry crawl up my spine.

“Have you heard from Paul, Harv?”

“No, I haven’t. Actually, come to think of it, I messaged him this weekend about seeing a movie and never heard back.”

“Huh…” I dump my lunch container in the trash incinerator and stew in my thoughts for the rest of the lunch hour.

As the bell rings, we make our way to the classrooms. I split ways with Harvey and arrive in room B107, the Biography room. I sit, along with twelve other students, in an arm chair which cradles my back, and feel the upload helmet slip over my head and morph to my face.

I hate the smell of the upload helmet, but if the lesson is interesting enough, I usually forget about it.

Today I only get to choose between early 20th century war heroes and Renaissance painters of the 14th century. I weigh my options carefully before selecting the painters lesson and let it stream into my brain. Though uploads only take a few minutes, it feels like hours as your brain slows down to process all the information. I would drift off, but the system automatically caffeinates you every time you feel the urge to yawn, so I’m wired and jittery by the time the lesson is over.

I switch rooms three times and churn through whatever uninteresting material they have to sponge into us before they let us out for the day. As with most days, I avoid going home until my mother absolutely expects me back.

It’s 5:59 as I finally broach the porch to my house, and I can smell dinner filtering out through an open window. It smells smokey and burned. I take a resigned step indoors and flick my earbuds out of my ears to say hello to my mother. I am faintly exhausted after three upload lessons and several hours at the arcade in VR.

“Hey, mom.” I swing my backpack off and avoid looking at her. I can sense without looking in her direction that she’s already a mess for tonight.

“Hey, honey!” she calls from the kitchen, suddenly making a lot of noise with pans. “I tried to make spaghetti for dinner, but I lost track of time and burned it up pretty good.” She rounded the corner from the kitchen and looked at me guiltily. “Do you hate me?”

I roll my eyes. “Why would I hate you, mom? Let’s just order some Chinese.”

“I’ve got them on speed-dial one if you want to use my phone.”

I do as she says and order our usual. Even with the general chaos of clanging pans and smoke alarms blaring every few minutes, I can sense that something else is wrong with her. She’s hiding some kind of stress.

“What’s up, mom?” I ask from near the open window, so I can breath properly.

“Well, honey. I’ve got some bad news for you.” She abandons her mountain of charred pots in the sink and turns to me. “Come and sit with me on the couch a moment.”

I refrain from rolling my eyes again. She’s done this bit more than once, and it doesn’t ever get easier to sit through. She sits next to me on the sofa and reaches for my hand. “Honey,” she says, and I lose track of time staring at the bags under her eyes.

I think, “Man, has she always looked this old? Is it because of the Divorce? I wonder if the Chinese place has any job openings…only two manned positions per restaurant after the AI Inclusion Ordinance. It’d be nice to waste some time in the evenings being productive…and I’d probably get free food…”

“…are you going to be okay?” she asks after a while.

“Hmm?” I rip my stare away from her wrinkled eyelids.

“Are you going to be okay? I mean…nothing like this has ever happened to you before.”

I start a tumultuous war in my head trying to decide if I should ask her to repeat what she said or just pass it off.

“Did you hear what I said? Paul…Paul is dead.”

This time, I’m alert. I look at her, but don’t see her. I feel my tongue tracking dryly across the roof of my mouth, and I try to swallow. “W-What? Paul died?”

“Yes, dear.” And then she does something uncommonly motherly by stroking my hair. “He got hit by a tram last Friday. His family has been keeping it quiet.”

“But—But I saw him Friday afternoon at school!” My mother looks at me with pity, and I suddenly feel so much anger at her that I want to hit her. She senses my frustration, it seems, because she leaps off the couch and puts some distance between us.

“Honey…that’s not all.”

“No, I think I’m done with this conversation.” I close my eyes and rub my temples, trying to maintain control. “When the delivery guy gets here, don’t forget to tip. I’ll be out in a few hours.”

“But—dear, you should know—“

“Shut. Up. Shut up.” I see her wrinkled eye bags quiver as a fat tear begins to form in the corners of her eyes.

I leave her like this, refusing to feel guilty. If she’s correct and Paul really is dead, then there’s any easy solution to this.

I slip into my room and strip my clothes, attaching cables to my temples, heart, fingers, knees, and feet. I then sit carefully back in my chair and call out, “Initiate transfer.”

When I open my eyes again, I’m on my bed in my room and Bacon is there. He jumps on my bed, purring loudly and rubbing his fluffy tail against my face.

“Hey buddy,” I pick him up and scratch his ears and chin and plant kisses all over his fuzzy whisker face. “Got some errands to take care of. You’re welcome to come with me.”

I leave my room, then, with Bacon at my heels and cross to the room to the right of mine. I do not knock before entering. The fire is going and grandma’s rocking chair is tilting rhythmically as she reads. When she hears me come in, she shoves her book underneath the afghan on her lap.

“Hey, Gramma. How’s your day?” I crouch next to her chair and grab her proffered hand.

“Oh, just about like any other day,” she smiles and chuckles.

“Reading Dean Koontz again, are we?”

Gramma blushes and hangs her head. “Now, don’t give me any grief about it, Loren. This one’s juicy, but your mom already blacked out all the good stuff.”

I smile at her and kiss her cheek. “Remind me to get you a copy you can hide from mom.”

She looks at me with a glint of hope and treason in her eyes, “You would do that for me?”

“Come on, Gramma, you’ve got to have something to look forward to for the rest of eternity!”

“Damn straight!” Gramma says and winks at me.

“I’m going to go check on some others, okay. I’ll be back tonight after dinner.”

“Chinese food again?”

“How’d you know?”

There were several other rooms in the quadrant with inhabitants that needed visiting. When I had made my rounds, Bacon stealing pats and tickles from every room, I shiver and brace up to what I’m about to have to do. It’s never fun the first time.

I approach the download screen and search “Paul Brennan” on the monitor. The search is slow as several other faces with the name “Paul” assigned filter through and disappear. When his profile comes up, I scroll to the bottom for the download link.

Paul Brennan, born 27 January, 2290. DOD 10 April, 2309.

I feel a heavy sigh escape me. I scroll further. The last thing written at the bottom of his profile strikes me cold and hollow.

No Downloads Available.

“That can’t be right.”

I erase the search history and type in “Paul Brennan download link.”

To which, the monitor replies: No Results Found.

“No. That…That can’t be right. He wouldn’t do this. Who would do this?”

I feel Bacon rub his sides against my ankles. He always had a sense of when I was upset. I pick him up and cuddle him to my face.

“I won’t panic, yet. This isn’t absolute.” I leave the visitation room with the resolve to visit Paul’s parents tomorrow.