“I have no appreciation of danger,” said the boy as he and Gry sat on the mountain once again, this time under the midnight sky. “You think that that’s what allows me to take these risks, but you’ve mixed it up. I take risks because I’m trying to learn that appreciation.”
Gry stayed silent.
“Look at yourself,” continued Wilson. “Your body is perfect. Its growth has been monitored and focused since before conception so that you’ve never had to bother with its maintenance. You eat to excess, anything that pleases your tongue or eye. Yet, you’re so fit that two hundred years ago when they still had athletes, you could have been in the Olympics. But have you ever had to exercise?”
“Most people would say that technology has freed us.” said Gry, slipping into teacher style.
“Freed us to do what? Drift? Vegetate?”
“That’s hardly fair. No one is idle. Art and science are both in a golden age the likes of which no civilization has ever seen before.”
“You’re wrong,” said Wilson, tossing pebbles over the cliff. “The art’s the worst of it. It’s beautiful, but it has no soul. No tension.”
“So what would you say is good art?”
Wilson contemplated the stones in his hand.
“Romeo and Juliet.”
Gry had begun to truly know Wilson one day when the boy’s status alert had gone off while Gry supervised his class Stream. As the indicator flashed on the computer-projected Environment Vision Interface overlaid on his sight, Gry mentally requested a recheck. Not that the computer ever made a mistake, but human nature demanded he make sure.
The boy had turned his Warden off and the binary stream that had been pouring into his brain had nowhere to go. This kid is becoming a real pain. Yet, Gry relished the all too rare chance of tackling a Streamline mess. He cut Wilson’s sub-flow then vented the knowledge stream back into the main highway through the backflow line.
No! Traffic was backing up too fast. Detour options appeared; were accepted or discarded. Gry noted the task timer when normal flow resumed: 14.3 milliseconds. His true satisfaction in this job came from knowing he was the best.
“Incoming message.” This from the seldom used class dialogue channel. It was Wilson.
Gry asked, “Do you realize how dangerous that was?”
“It was worth the risk,” said Wilson, from wherever in the city his home was.
“Streaming isn’t ‘cut and paste’. We’re talking about rewiring brain cells. That takes time. When you shut that off in the middle of writi—“
“I bet the computer failsafe had it covered the whole way.”
“The computer never had to enter into it,” said Gry. “This behavior is still unacceptable and will be considered in your evaluation.”
“That’s what I messaged you about,” said Wilson. “I need you to not put this in a report.”
“It’s procedure. I can’t omit it.”
“You’re such a slave! Do you do everything you’re told?”
Even though he saw the kid’s game quite clearly, the question still irritated Gry.
Wilson said, “Look, I’m offering you a deal.”
“What is it?”
“Cut me free for a couple of hours each day.”
“Are you mad?”
“Do that and I won’t switch off the Warden during class,” said Wilson.
“I can handle switch-offs.”
“Yeah, but if you get twenty a day, I bet the higher ups will ask questions. Bad for your teaching career.”
This behavior amazed Gry. Streaming was such a painless teaching method that rebellion against it was unheard of.
“I accept,” said Gry, “on condition that I supervise your down time.”
When Wilson signed off, Gry called up the Stream records for the kid’s switch-off. He found that the computer had completed the vent protocols long before he had done the job himself. It had simply been waiting for his 20 millisecond time allowance to expire before it stepped in.
Fuck. The kid was right.
That night Gry created a nice girl. Elena de Souza he named her. Blonde. Perky tits. Twenty-four. As they coupled on a storm-lashed beach—Gry in fact lying in bed with his familiar Seattle apartment around him, Elena and the beach a construct in his mind—the Warden’s stimulators fired his synapses for him, creating all the sensations of sex—the smells and tastes, touches and heat. After his brisk and robust orgasm, they spooned together on the sand. While he slept alone in his bed, Elena kept him faithful company through the night.
According to the EVI the boy was 4529 meters away, the distance rapidly closing as Gry cruised through the air in his little force bubble. A small file readout appeared, linked to the image of the boy by a thin green line: “Dal Wilson, age 14 years 65 days, Male, Contact key 2123-OC-19-Toadboy…” Gry could access other information—hobbies, student history, parental information and more, if he wanted.
Around Gry, the Dakota badlands flashed by, half-an-hour after starting his trip. Coming over a ridge, he felt blessed by the view of stark rocks, thrusting out of the green plain like sea monsters. He captured the moment through his eyes, saving the image in the Warden’s hard drive.
“I can see why you would want to meet out here,” he said to Wilson over the messenger.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
“What do you mean?” asked Gry, landing on the mountaintop Wilson had chosen.
“Am I under your supervision now?”
Nothing visible changed around Wilson, but Gry knew the boy’s protective force-field was gone. Goosebumps broke out all over him thinking of how vulnerable the fragile flesh and blood before him was.
“You know, maybe we should stop for a minute—“
“Don’t be a coward,” said Wilson wandering to the cliff edge.
“Stop!” Gry pulled him back.
“Wow,” said Wilson. “I guess when you say ‘supervise’, you mean supervise.”
“I never promised you freedom. Just that I’d let you turn the Warden off. Now, sit there and don’t move.”
Wilson sat flat on the ground, smiling as if he had just won the argument. He located a large rock and held it close before him, examining it. Gry telescoped his EVI in, to see what interested Wilson so much. Sensing his focus, the Warden opened a file window before Gry’s eyes, linked to the rock by the ubiquitous thin green line.
Estimated mass, spectral analysis, three dimensional imaging… Options again offered themselves to him.
“Why are you holding it so close?” Gry asked.
“To get a good look.”
“But why don’t you just—“
Then Gry realized the boy’s EVI was off. The idea of Wilson facing the world without any assistance—without any insight—gave Gry shivers worse than when he had thought about the absent force-field.
“How can you learn anything using just your eyes?”
“It was just eyes that our ancestors used when they first took rocks and sparked fires. Took them and struck down their enemies.”
Gry smiled at the boy’s ready defense.
“But they were inefficient,” he told Wilson, feeling like an actual teacher for the first time in his life. “They could never be sure of success.”
“Exactly! Imagine how thrilling life must have been for them.”
“Imagine how terrifying,” said Gry.
“Yes. But at least they felt their emotions without any insulation.”
“Look, Wilson, if it’s adrenaline you’re looking for I can arrange a Freedisc game with some tough opp—“
“It’s not the same thing.”
“You have a better idea?”
That victor’s smile from Wilson again. “Actually, I do.” Wilson pressed a red button on his wristband.
From below the cliff, two machines floated up on autopilot to land near them. Each had a low seat and handlebars, with flared cowlings on the bottom.
“Hoverbikes!” said Gry.
“Yeah. These are from the last batch ever made. Thirty years old. They cost me practically nothing. I’ve disabled the mental interface”
“Manual control?” asked Gry, disbelieving.
“Yeah, it’s not hard. Here, let me Stream you the info packet.”
And just like that, Gry knew how to operate a hovercycle.
“Come on,” said Wilson, hopping onto a bike.
“No,” said Gry, as Wilson eased out over the cliff edge. In his mind he imagined the boy slipping, falling, breaking, at the foot of the cliff (69.6 meters below according to his EVI). “Get off that thing.”
Even though their convenience had eliminated most of the need for vehicles, Gry knew that his field bubble could never go as fast as Wilson’s machine. Wilson circled into the air, further out of reach.
“Get down here now, Wilson. You’re going to injure yourself.”
“Tell you what,” said Wilson. “I promise to do what you say, if you can tag me.”
“No. I’m not doing this.”
“You say ‘no’ way too much. When you make up your mind, I’ll be out in the canyons.”
The boy was going to kill himself. Wilson had obviously grown up with such faith in the shield’s constant protection that even now, with it turned off, he found it hard to appreciate danger.
Despite Gry’s expectations, the bike controls felt natural to him. The twisting of his muscles to command the levers and handles created a feeling of power. Gry was immediately master of the machine.
He found Wilson at the entrance to a jagged canyon, the boy obviously waiting on him. There was little difficulty in the chase at first. Gry was even certain a few times that he could have bumped against Wilson’s bike, but could think only of Wilson being thrown against the rocks below if he did.
Then the route became confused. Gry was forced to hang back, giving himself time to respond to Wilson’s moves as they raced along random ravines. He damned his human nerves. The lapse between his thinking a motion and his arm actually responding was maddening. Yet, the cutting sense of how overextended he was in mind and body made him feel like a man newly awakened. His temperature regulators could do nothing to stop the sweat dripping down his body. Pride swelled his heart with every successful maneuver as he chased Wilson.
His dread and concern returned all at once when he saw Wilson make a turn moments too late. Sliding sideways, the underside of the boy’s bike snagged and he tumbled out (Gry’s EVI told him that Wilson’s velocity was 214 meters per second). There was no way for the boy to avoid a collision with the canyon wall.
There was zero impact, however.
Alive and whole, Wilson stood, looking around himself. Ditching the bike, Gry ran over to him.
“How--?” But there was only one explanation. The instant before contact, the Warden’s shield had sprung to life, the force-field holding skin, bones, organs and flesh together with such firm gentleness that Wilson had never felt a thing.
“I expected this,” said Wilson fingering the Warden’s housing belt around his waist. “It would never allow me to truly turn it off. It was only playing dead.”
“What’s dead is our deal,” said Gry. “This is a lot more than you had any right to ask me for. I don’t care if you pull a hundred switch-offs a day.”
Three weeks with no trouble. Then Wilson wanted to talk. Just talk; no messing with the Warden. So Gry agreed to meet him on the mountain a second time.
“‘Romeo and Juliet’ is misunderstood,” said Gry. “People always think it’s about the glory of love. If you examine what Shakespeare is really saying, though, he thinks that letting emotion rule the intellect is…tragic.”
“You piped me Shakespeare last year. Remember? I already know that.”
Gry’s EVI offered to display the text of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for him. He declined.
Wilson said, “Those two knew there would be repercussions. The entire play is a race against the events they set in motion. And the closer their doom, the more they could feel the sharpness of life. Death was like the gravity in their emotional world.”
Gravity strength at Gry’s location was currently at 9.814 N/kg, according to an EVI pop-up.
“There’s more to think about than life and death,” said Gry. “What about happiness?”
“Would you rather be dead or unhappy?”
“Unhappy, I suppose.”
“You see?” said Wilson. “There’s only one consequence that matters—death.”
“Nobody’s immortal,” said Gry. “People still die every day.”
“Does it ever irk you that your job doesn’t really matter?”
“It matters a lot—“
“You could screw up every day and the computer would make it seem like nothing ever happened.”
That was true. Nominally, Gry was in control. He decided what knowledge programs to feed each student in his Stream, responding to their tastes and aptitudes. Yet, he had never once gone against the excellent suggestions of the computer. And despite constant human error, the fail-safes had never been breached.
“Nothing we do matters,” said Wilson. “We just sit here while the Wardens mind us—stopping us from hurting ourselves, making sure we get the right nutrients, keeping out the UV, slipping us our medicine, and the whole time I’ve got this shit in my eyes!”
“Wait now,” said Gry. “I can see your point about the Wardens, but what’s wrong with the EVI?”
Wilson scoffed, “Environment Vision Interface.” He grabbed Gry’s wrist. “This is a real interface.” Wilson pressed the hand into the cold stone. “The EVI is just another layer between your feelings and your living. Look at the sky for instance.”
Above Gry, spread a sky of diamond bright stars. As he focused on each, he learned its designation, luminosity, distance—
The world blinked out.
At least, that’s what it felt like as his EVI went dead. No more news stream, no more emergency channel, no more purchasing power, no more instrument readings for humidity, light levels, body temperature or time.
The stars were falling in on him.
When Gry could ‘see’ again, he was flat on the ground and he realized he had been screaming.
Wilson was kneeling over him. “I’m so sorry, Gry. I never thought—I’m sorry. Sorry.”
“You caused that?” Gry asked.
“Yes, I’m sorry, I forgot how much longer you’ve had yours. I didn’t think you’d get so scared.”
Wilson seemed genuine, not playing his games. There was none of his secret smile present.
Gry sat up. “It was like being lost in a poisonous fog,” he told Wilson. “I couldn’t tell where anything in the world was, I couldn’t even tell if there was a world. There was just me and I was alone and helpless.
“Don’t do that again, Wilson.”
“I won’t. It’s just that for me, when I do it, it’s like coming out of a fog. Like I can finally see the world clearly.”
Gry bought a hoverbike, but did not tell Wilson. Always in private, he gave it a thorough workout every day after work. The novelty of levers and buttons never faded, but it only made Gry appreciate more the presence of mental control in his other life.
Alarmed at how much of a crutch his EVI had proven to be, he determined to free himself from it. Only small steps at first: excising minor readings from the periphery of his need. Letting go of the vital signs monitors was surprisingly easy, the constant graphs of his heart and breathing replaced by a newfound sense of the blood surging through his veins. Letting go of the weather reports proved inordinately hard. Then Gry scaled back the pop-ups which were always overeager to explain the world to him. He always restored full functionality to the EVI after a few minutes, but each day Gry’s scrambling fear of disconnection shrunk.
Wilson adjusted also. There had been a few weeks when his moroseness had prompted Gry to offer him a psych program—which he declined—but now Wilson was better than before. Still maintaining weekly meetings with Gry for supervised down time, he traded in Early Spaceflight and The Psychology of Rome for Quantum Programming and 22nd Century Aesthetics. The boy grew more peaceful the more he learned of computers. He would never be comfortable with his own era, but Wilson might at least be able to tolerate it.
Not that it went smoothly. In an attempt to counter one of Wilson’s sporadic nothing-we-do-matters rants, Gry confessed his periodic turning off of the EVI.
“Don’t you see what it means?” he asked Wilson. “You made that happen. For the first time in my life, I’m in charge of how I perceive the world. You gave me that. Is there any greater gift than freedom?”
“And what exactly is it that you’re free to do?” asked Wilson. “You see the walls of your prison, that’s all. Pound them, scrape them, caress them; in the end they’re still keeping you in.”
The incoming message overrode Gry’s candlelit romp. Not with Elena, but with a girl he had met after an exhaustive search of the citizen directories. It seemed there were still those who liked their lovemaking to be with other humans. Not in the flesh, of course, but even in virtual reality, sex with another human was refreshingly unpredictable.
The sensations dissolved into the image of a stern-faced man floating in his apartment.
“Gry Solomon,” said the man, “I am Investigator Treveni. Tell me what you know of the student Dal Wilson.”
Gry put his memories on Stream for the policeman.
“No, I do not mean that. We have already searched your files. He is not at the mountain. What is the boy’s motivation?”
“What do you mean?” asked Gry. “What has he done?”
“He has breached the Warden design files and learned how to deactivate his belt.”
“But Wilson has known how to turn off his Warden for some time.”
“No,” said Treveni. “I mean true deactivation. The safety protocols. Does he intend to do himself harm? What can you tell us…”
Treveni’s voice faded as the EVI died. The sudden loss brought Gry to his knees, where he vomited, stunned by vertigo.
It seemed Wilson had severed Gry’s link, but where was the boy, if not at the mountain?
On all fours, Gry groped his way to the cycle garage. Even that small room seemed as large as the open sky in his expanded sight. The machine responded to his finger on the ignition pad and, bent low, he went airborne, rain pelting his skin for the first time in his life, now that his shield was gone. Gry would have vomited again, if his stomach was not already empty.
The boy was not at the mountain, but he had to be close. Streaming took far more bandwidth than regular communications. That was why Gry’s students were all fellow Seattle residents. Wilson was in the city. Gry thought he knew where.
Praise be for autopilot. Gry entered the coordinates and hugged the bike. Now all he had to do was close his eyes and trust the bike to be stable as it took him to the city center, to the tallest building there.
Shutting his eyes was a mistake, the darkness oppressive without the readouts that had always been with Gry, even in his dreams. All he could do was fix his gaze on his destination and struggle against the wind.
Wilson was there, the rain plopping against his bubble. Gry ignored him while he struggled to land and then rolled onto the rooftop.
“I shut you down to protect you,” Wilson said with disdain. “You’re supposed to be trembling in your hole.”
“Wilson, what are you doing?”
“That must have been some ride to get here. Maybe you’re not the coward I took you for.”
“Are you angry with me?”
“No,” said Wilson. Then he bowed his head. “Well, maybe. I don’t know.”
“What on Earth for?”
“Because you’ve made this work. I can’t. No matter what I do, I feel like I’m chained down. You tell me you’re free. I can’t see that, but I can see that you feel it.”
Gry got to his feet, crouching, with his arms out for balance.
Wilson said, “Remember what I told you about the only consequence that matters?”
Gry nodded. “Yeah?”
“They’re already on their way here. They won’t let me keep it turned off. This is the only chance I’m ever going to have.”
Wilson surprised Gry by walking over and hugging him. Gry held the boy as if he was the entire world at that moment.
“I take it all back,” said Wilson. “You’re the bravest man I know.” Gry refused to let him break the embrace. Wilson’s shield blasted him back, the boy employing a self-defense option. Gry sprawled on the ground.
Lying there, he saw Wilson for the last time, an image burned into his memory more strongly than any hard drive file, the boy standing over the edge, a victor’s smile on his now rain-streaked face as he looked at the street below.
# # #
Consequence was originally published in the online Sci-Fi magazine, Fusion Fragment.