“Do you have any additional questions, Mr. Harris?” Doctor Williams seems bored with me at this point, like a tired parent trying to explain something to an unreceptive child. For a brief moment, I begin to say no, but then I take it back.

“I do have one question,” I take yet another sip of coffee before continuing. The virtual coffee was really damn good for some reason. I had probably gone through at least three mugs of the stuff. I shake my head. It’s not real. None of this is. Stay focused.

“My son, his name is Andrew,” I begin. The doctor seems to slide back in his chair a little. He was definitely bored. He probably had other appointments to go to, but I just need to know this one thing.

“He got his Link when he turned thirteen about a year ago. He…. hasn’t spoken to me since. I was just wondering-” 

“Look Mr. Harris,” Doctor Williams cuts me off. “If you need a psychiatrist, I’d be happy to make some recommendations, but I don’t think this is my prob-”

“You’re damn right it’s your problem!” This time, I was the one interrupting. All of the rage and frustration that had been building up inside me seemed to let loose like a tidal wave. “Nobody has helped me and I don’t think anyone will! This is your job, isn’t it? You work for a Link company, so you know how it works! Now tell me how to fix it!”

“I don’t think you have the right to-”

“I do have the right!” I slam the coffee mug onto the virtual table so hard, the code glitches and the handle breaks loose. “My son hasn’t talked to me in a year! A whole goddamn year! Do you know what that’s like? Do you have any idea what I’ve gone through?!” Williams coughs and looks around uncomfortably. 

“Mr. Harris-”

“Just say it.” I was gripping the arms of the office chair with enough force to make my hands ache. Even in the virtual world, I could feel the clenching pain. “Do you have a son?”

“I had a daughter.”

“What’s her name?”

“Amelia.” I sit back in my chair, examining the doctor. He seems sad, depressingly so, like how someone looks after a loved one has passed away. 

“Does she have a Link?”

“She did.” The sudden past tense catches me off guard. Maybe this was a bad idea. A sunken look creeps into the eyes of Doctor Williams. When he looks up, I try to avert mine. I could tell something had happened to Amelia, but it wasn’t my place to ask. Seeming to sense my curiosity though, Doctor Williams waves his hand. “Go ahead and ask.”

“What happened to her?” The words sound cold and uncaring, but that’s probably just the Link tech messing with my emotional voice inflections. Deep inside, I feel a sudden pang of sorrow for the man. Doctor Williams flicks his wrists and mumbles something under his breath. A bottle of what looks like whisky appears in his hand. He looks at it and chuckles. 

“You know why I hate the virtual world?” he asks me.

“Why?”

“You can’t get drunk, even when you want to,” he takes a huge swallow and gasps as it burns his throat. This was a mistake. I wanted to leave. I wanted to use my Link and find Andrew. I wanted to find him and hug him and tell him that I would love him no matter what. The last thing I needed was another sob story. And yet, despite this, I wanted to know.

“Amelia is…. dead,” Doctor Williams begins. “I’ve been trying to convince myself of that fact for too long.” He coughs before looking back at me. “I know you probably don’t want to hear this right now, but…” Williams takes another sip of the drink and clenches his fist. “I killed her.”

“What?” the word pops out before I can stop it. I look at him warily. They do background checks on the Link doctors, right? “Look, I’m sorry about my outburst. I can handle my son. You don’t have to-”

“I need to let it out. This is a secure room. No one can hear us. I just need to say it.” I shift in my chair. Who needs help, me or him? The light in the doctor’s eyes is gone, all traces of his soul vanished. 

“I killed her. I didn’t mean to, but it doesn’t change anything. Amelia had a Link. She got hers when she turned 12. My wife and I thought it would be a good birthday present since her friends were all getting theirs. She spent most of the year Linked in. She didn’t talk to us, she didn’t interact with us, she didn’t even look at us. Nothing we did worked, and no one would help us,” Williams sets the now empty bottle on the coffee table next to him. His words sting as I realize what he’s getting at. 

“One night, I made a decision. If it was the Link that had severed our connection with her, then destroy the Link. I was angry and wasn’t thinking straight. I grabbed a screwdriver from the garage. I went into her room. I destroyed it.” Something flashes next to me. The arm of the office chair now has a screen built into it that hadn’t been there before. Words begin appearing on the new display.

-DANGER-

-High levels of emotional anger/grief detected-

-Can you confirm your safety?-

Doctor Williams doesn’t notice the message. It’s been sent directly to me. What the hell? 

“The seizure that resulted killed her,” Williams continues. “I remember sitting there with this dead piece of technology in my hand. The thing sizzled and sparked, and when Amelia opened her eyes, all I saw was red and white. There was blood coming out of her nose, her ears, and her eyes. It was like her brain had just fallen apart and was now leaking out everywhere. I tried CPR, mouth-to-mouth, anything that would bring her back, but it didn’t work. She just twitched and drooled and bled. She died before the medics even arrived. Maybe that was the point.” A new message pops up.

-DANGER-

-LEVEL 6 ALERT-

-Appropriate script has been breached-

-High levels of emotional anger/grief detected-

-Assuming immediate assistance-

“And now my wife is gone too. She blamed me, said I overreacted. Said it was my fault,” Doctor Williams looks at me with a pleading expression. “I have nothing. I am nothing. No one can save your son, because they don’t want to. That’s why they-” Suddenly, the chairs and tables disappear and I’m sitting in a new room, a real room. The VR darkness was gone. Did they just pull me out? Two other doctors rush by me and into the room adjacent to mine. Judging by the white walls and lack of windows, I’m back in the Link Portal building. I stand and stumble around the room. Nothing feels right. My head starts to spin and my limbs fail. I lean against the door, trying to catch my breath. They just pulled me out. I swing the door open with as much strength as my arms can muster before stepping out into the hallway. There’s something going on in the room next door. I hear the shattering of glass, and then screams.

“I didn’t mean it! I’m sorry! Please! I’m sorry! Don’t-”, the words are cut off by more screaming. Screams of pain. I back up slowly, my heart racing. Someone grabs me from behind and whispers in my ear, “This way, Mr. Harris. We’re having some technical issues.” It’s another doctor. I’m led away into a different area. This room has windows. I turn and look back into the hallway, but the new doctor closes the door behind me before I can get a glimpse of the chaos. 

“I hope that didn’t interfere with your experience. We all have those days,” the doctor smiles and winks at me as if what had just happened hadn’t happened. The screaming has stopped, replaced by nothing but silent agony. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Neon blue. That had been Andrew’s favorite color. He used to say it reminded him of the future, something that was bright and cool-looking. This future reminds me more of the color gray. No thought. No emotion. No beauty or ugliness. Just gray, like snow melted by tears and washed away by rain and mud. Sure, the bright city lights and autonomous cars might give someone the wrong impression, but I know what lies underneath the shiny exterior. A world of rot and decay withering and retreating into itself. That’s our reality, and it’s the one I’ve accepted. Still, it’s hard not to marvel at how far we’ve come from dirt huts and hunting spears. As Jason drives me down 17th Street, I subject my eyes to the strobing acid trip that is the outside world. Holographic women dressed in minimal clothing dance around one street corner and a 3D advertisement of some new shooter game flickers alongside a random skyscraper. If any human had been driving a car, they would’ve been overstimulated in seconds. Thank God for self-driving vehicles. 

“Jason, dim windows please,” I request as politely as I can. The glass around me suddenly blurs out and the pulsing lights are transformed into a murky shadow. Closing my eyes, I reach behind my head and lightly touch the new Link. It feels warm against my fingers and I flinch. The unnerving feeling of having a piece of technology literally fused to my body evokes a shudder down my spine. Why would someone ever willingly do this to themselves? I mean, I had, but not for the fun of it. A thought suddenly crosses my mind and curiosity overcomes the fear. Links can be used to “connect” with pretty much every form of AI or computer system. Does that mean…what a minute.

“Jason, Link Up,” I clench my hands and wait for a response. 

“Would you like me to Link with Andrew? I’m afraid he is currently occupied…”

“No. Please Link to my account.”

“Confirm Link with Joshua’s account?”

“Confirm.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I see everything. I feel nothing. I am a passenger. Control is gone. Free will is a commodity. The surrounding world I had understood so well now turns into a fluctuating landscape of red and green. My body is gone, replaced with… nothing. My only senses are that of sight and sound. A gentle hum fills my thoughts and I realize that it’s Jason.

“Jason? Confirm Link.”

“Link Confirmed. Welcome Joshua, to your interactive experience. If you wish to operate systems, please say the word: ‘Interact’. If you wish to simply observe, please reply with: ‘Observe only’.” Un-frickin’-real. His voice emanates from everywhere, like the response has been simulated in my mind. I had no idea it would be like this.

“Interact,” I respond. If I had been in my own body, the words probably would have sounded uncertain or nervous, but now, there is no distinction between fear and confidence. It’s almost as if my very soul has been stripped from me. 

“Confirm. You will be given limited access to controls and visuals to ensure the safety of both yourself and those around us. Due to protocol, you will not be given access to the following features: wheels, steering, speed, ultrasonic sensor controls, LiDAR sensor controls, or any other sensor controls. However, you will be given access to the following options: cameras, on-board entertainment, GPS and navigation, or any other programs included with your Link system. Thank you.” The voice stops, but the hum continues. Damn…

The camera experience proves to be both trippy and nauseating. After navigating through the various immersive images, my brain overloaded and I ducked out, returning to the “home page”. The home page was basically a large virtual interface with an overwhelming amount of built-in apps and ads, as well as internet Links, computer access, etc… etc… etc… 

It was too much to take in all at once. “Jason, un-Link.”

“Confirm un-Linking with your account.”

“Confirm.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It all makes sense now. As an outsider looking in, I could never have known what it truly was. Now, having Linked Up with nothing but a car, the pieces finally fall into place. Andrew is trapped. That must be it. He’s trapped. Imprisoned by a world of control disguised as free will and perfection. And the doctor… What had they done to him? The sound of his piercing screams pound in my head, hitting me over and over and over again. Had they killed him? No, they wouldn’t. They would’ve done something else. Memory wipe? That couldn’t be it either. Those were illegal, insanely so. So what would they do to him? Hell, why did they let me go? No answers, only truth. Strange, quietly horrifying truth. I didn’t want to know the answer. 

The house feels just as empty as usual when I walk in the door. And to think I had solved all my problems. This is where things would get messy. I had thought about what I would do in this situation for nearly a year. Where do I go from here? The pain, the agonizingly blind cruelty, the waiting… the waiting. For something better. To see my son once more. And now here I am, standing on the edge of my own future. But I don’t know if I can bring myself to step off the cliff. 

He’s your son

He doesn’t feel like a son anymore.

Doesn’t change the facts.

I know. 

So I jump.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

And I fall. The minute I say the words, my mind is transported. No. It’s stolen. Stolen away on a ship designed to enslave the entirety of my species. And I can feel it too. I can feel the sails flapping, carrying me away from shore. The sea is shimmering and bright. Too bright. I try to shield my eyes, but I have no arms. I want to scream, but my voice is dead and gone. I don’t even exist. No body, no soul, no life. Just like in my nightmares. But the light fades and so does the terror, and now I’m standing in the middle of a crystal-clear pool. My eyes finally adjust, and suddenly, I can feel everything. The air tastes salty and the bright blue sky is dotted with fluffy white clouds. The water feels refreshingly cool under my feet as it vibrates under my weight. And yet, I’m standing. Floating. The landscape forms beautifully around me. Snow-capped mountains in the distance, warm air, birds fluttering in the dark green trees. Paradise. But it’s too perfect. The temperature is simply too precise. The sounds, the feelings, all of it. Fake. But it just feels so…

“Hello Joshua! Your interactive experience has finished loading. Your account is ready, and all pre-downloaded apps have been installed. We’ve taken the time and care to recreate this wonderful platform for you, which, judging by your feedback, is perfectly suited! All tutorial based needs are included. Thank you for choosing LinkUp, and we hope you have a lovely day!” The voice fades out. Quick and to the point. Ah, what the hell. It’s a perfect system. I can’t help but smile.

What am I doing? Andrew… you have to find Andrew. 

“Jason?”

“I’m here, Joshua.” Well thank god for that. 

“Collab with Andrew? Is that possible?” A brief pause.

“Please specify which Andrew you would like to Link to.”

“My son, Andrew.” A longer pause. 

“Confirming Link…” My mind is whisked away once more.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When the lights fade once more, I am in a room. A dark room. The walls are wooden and rustic-looking, and the ceiling spirals above me. Small cracks of light allow streaks of sun rays to cascade across the room. It’s cozy. I like it. Andrew sits in the middle. Wait… no way. That’s my son. His eyes are open, but he doesn’t see me. He must be doing something else.

“Andrew,” I whisper. He blinks and looks at me. I stumble back, my heart split. I haven’t looked him in the eyes for so long. It catches me off guard. 

“Dad?” His voice, warm and soft. Just how I remember it. He stands and walks over to me. I stretch my arms out, expecting a hug or some sort of tearful reunion. But he doesn’t stop. He just walks right past me. 

“So you finally got one,” he chuckles to himself. “Took you long enough.” I can’t even blink.

“What?” He doesn’t stop to let me speak.

“You know, I figured a year would be long enough. A nice solid year of nothing. I felt sorry about it at first, but then I remembered. All I had to do was remember.” He’s grabbing something. Food? No… couldn’t be. 

“Andrew, I…” he cuts me off again. Nothing. 

“At first, I thought it would’ve been when she left. You kept trying to fool yourself into believing she died. You know, she has a new husband and everything. We still talk from time to time.”

“You mean Audrey? My wife?”

“My mother. And yeah, I mean her. When you asked me if I missed her, I knew you’d gone off the goddamn rails. She never died, dad. So stop kidding yourself.

“I know. I know and I’m sorry. Ok? There, I was only trying to…”

“You thought I was young enough to be manipulated. You thought you could convince me that none of it was your fault. Might have worked if I was six, but now? It was freaking pathetic. You were pathetic.” Each word stings worse than the previous. He lays it on, truth after truth. I was wrong. It was never the Link that did this. It was me. I’ve spent all this time looking for something else to blame. All I had to do was look in the mirror. 

“Andrew, I know what I’ve done. I’m not trying to hide it anymore. I just wanted to see you again. I just wanted to tell you that I loved you and that I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I want to make this right.” I can’t cry, not here. But in the real world I would be. I can’t be any more truthful than I am now. But he doesn’t care. I hurt him. I hurt him more than I ever thought I had. I can’t even look into his eyes anymore. But I do. His eyes are piercing and sharp. He’s searching for a lie, but he can’t find one.

“I believe you,” he says. “But you can’t make this right.” And there it is. The final gunshot. The final stab. 

“I’m sorry,” he blinks and I disappear.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I’m back at the little lake. My little paradise. But nothing feels right anymore. I can’t even breathe. Ha! Breathing in a simulation. Right. I want to throw up, but I can’t. I want to scream, so I do, but just a little. Worthless. 

“Jason. Link me with Andrew.” A miniscule pause.

“Andrew has blocked your account.” Game over. It’s fitting I guess. That our final conversation blew up any hope of things going back to the way they used to be. A fitting conclusion to a disgusting story. 

“Jason, access Link entertainment.”

“Ok. You now have access to our entire catalog of free online entertainment. Would you like to play a game or watch a show or…”

“I just don’t want to think. Something easy and repetitive that never gets old.”

“Ok. Would you like to play ‘Siege’?”

“I don’t care. Just… just do it.”

“Linking up…”

  “…”

“Subject Linked.”

End.

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