Richard gets a Birthday Surprise
|Richard yawned loudly, then forced himself into a sitting position and squinted at the light streaming in through the windows. He had overslept, and his parents would not be pleased, Birthday or no. Shaking his head, the young man threw his legs over the side of the bed and wiggled his feet into his fur slippers. He pulled a robe from the corner bedpost and draped it over his smallclothes with scarcely a thought, and his hands tied the belt of their own accord. He skipped to the door, pressing the lever down to open it, allowing his slippers to skid right through the open doorway into the polished wooden hallway. With no one in sight, he risked a walk almost too brisk for dignity toward the spiral stairway and stepped lightly down.
The smell of ham and grease met his nose first, followed by the aroma of fresh biscuits and tea. A stack of flapjacks was visible as he rounded the corner: slower now, for he must show his good breeding. At the dining room table, his mother sat primly. Unlike him, she was fully dressed in her spring gown. Her eyebrow rose as he approached, but her face was otherwise unreadable. Father was dressed in a suit, his hair combed and mustache waxed. This must be part of the surprise because he hadn’t been informed of an outing; why else would they be dressed? But Richard didn’t think it was so late as that. After all, his brother and sisters had not even arrived yet.
“Sit down, Richard,” his father said with a gesture to an empty chair.
Richard obeyed. Megan, the Irish maid, set down the pitcher of juice and gave him a slow smile before disappearing into the kitchen. James, the butler, only waited with his hands clasped before him, awaiting a summons.
Father’s brow wrinkled, and his voice had an uncharacteristic waver. “I’m sorry, son, but the time has come to say goodbye. Your mother and I wanted to see you raised properly, the way it was done before the world became quite so artificial. We didn’t know how to do it, you see. We barely knew each other, and we’d never met our own parents. But we’d worked hard to get top ratings, you see, and this was part of our reward. The Gods chose us to have a child if we wanted to, and there hadn’t been children in years. But we didn’t know how to do it. We were raised in a Ninth Life creche with a hundred others, and that’s not what we wanted for you.”
Richard blinked, his eyes starting to water and a pit forming in his stomach. He recognized most of the words his father was using, but they had no meaning. He knew the meaning, when it came, would be terrible, maybe even world-destroying. But he couldn’t for the life of him understand what was going on.
Mother looked over at Father and frowned. “What Geralt is trying to say is that we’re not really here, and we never have been. We had likenesses of ourselves made and put in a program for you. There was an old game the Gods were able to have adapted for the raising of children. Geralt and I weren’t able to stay together very long, not even through the pregnancy. We thought this would be best. All the studies say that human minds develop better without the instant gratification of technology. Leaving Ninth Life wasn’t an option, even if we could afford it. This was the next best thing.”
Richard’s heart beat so hard he thought it would leave his chest, but every word left him more confused than the last. “I don’t understand.”
Father sighed and didn’t even wait for Richard’s words to finish, as if he hadn’t heard them. “Son, you’re living in a dream. One made by human beings and put into computers. There are technologies putting sounds in ears, sights in your eyes, and even telling your mind it’s smelling breakfast. But none of it’s real. You’re an adult today, and so it’s time for the program to end. You have to wake up. Unfortunately, you may find Ninth Life seems even less real than the dream. There are some courses on modern technology you can take if you want, and we’ve paid for James to stay on as an assistant for the next year to answer your questions. I’m sure you have too many to count.”
Mother pursed her lips. “God, this seems so inadequate, but it really is for the best. James will teach you how to navigate among the programs. At least you’ve had a family up until now, which we’ve never had. Oh, and you can keep the house, minus the people living in it. The Gods were willing to cover that much. I just hope it’s enough. I wish you the best.”
“Gemma and I both do,” Father who was not Father chimed in. “Goodbye.”
Richard reached up his arm to wipe away the tears that were blurring his vision, but when he did, his parents were gone.
The butler, however, stirred to life and began to speak with the kind of forced cheer the village salesmen liked to use. “Greetings, my name is James. I am the Ninth Life Virtual Guide Interface. Thank you for your one-year subscription! After the Eco-Collapse, Ninth Life has been the premier provider of nine-dimensional simulation for human beings in the shelter. We provide full physical sustenance as well as every form of education, simulation, and entertainment the human mind has ever dreamed into being. You currently have 50,000 credits and a yearly stipend of 5,000 credits. Since you are new to the system, we invite you to take the full tutorial. If you have questions at any time, please - don’t hesitate to ask.”