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A Fairy Tale Life

His coding renders the bedroom simple, familiar. An open window looks out over a lush wood that stretches as far as Daniel can see. He goes to the farthest of the three beds positioned against the wall. This first bed is firm to his dreambody, firm as a floor. The second is so soft he sinks into it like a brick on a raked-up pile of autumn leaves. The third, the smallest, is of course just right. Though his realbody is back in the lab, unable to move for its induced paralysis, his semi-sleeping mind fully experiences each of these sensations.

He sits up on the small bed and gazes out the window to the horizon. He has developed this new module for Ian. He hopes it will help make things up to Jenna.

A small noise behind him startles Daniel from the virtual expanse of forest beyond the open window. As he turns, a girl chimes, “Welcome to the Bears’ house.” It’s Goldilocks. Her blond hair gleams in the light from the window, and her hands are folded primly on her white apron. She smiles and says, “Please, sir, call me Aunt Mary.”

Daniel takes it like a blow to the gut. “What did you say?”

Seeming not to hear him, the girl perches on the edge of the great bed and tries to bounce, but it stiffly resists. She frowns.

A noise on the stairway down the corridor draws Daniel’s attention; the girl halts abruptly and puts a porcelain-fair hand to her mouth. “I’ve got to go,” she murmurs. “I can’t let them find me here!” Her skirt swirls as she goes to the window, climbs out, and slips to the ground below.

She’s gone, running towards the wood (she always survives the jump; the program is not gruesome), and Daniel stares after her. Could he have heard her right? Did she tell him to call her ‘Aunt Mary’? He turns to see the Great Bear, as the developers in his department call it, lumbering into the room with the Middle-sized Bear close behind.

“Somebody has been in our room!” growls the Great Bear.

“And tried out our beds!” cries the Middle Bear.

“And he’s still here!” squeaks the Little Bear.

The program at this point allows the player to explain him- or herself, and the bears are to respond with benign curiosity. The Little Bear will approach and nuzzle the visitor’s hand to diffuse the encounter. It’s the kind of thing kids love; Daniel had put that in just for Ian.

But that’s not what happens now.

The Little Bear trudges towards Daniel, head swinging—then rears on its hind legs. Curved claws thrash at Daniel’s face and he pitches back against the wall by the window. The Little Bear takes another swipe and meets Daniel’s cheek, a blur of claw and pain and blood. The bear moves back, lowing.

“Program abort,” Daniel says, gritting his teeth against the very real sensation of claws having slashed his face.

The Bears, the beds, the window—nothing changes.

“Program abort!”

The Bears are drawing back the covers and climbing into their beds.

The module continues.

Daniel is hiding in the pantry beneath the stairway. A hole in the pantry wall gives him a view of the dining room where the Bears sit eating porridge. Shelves of canned goods press against his chest. The right side of his face is smarting; the cuts finally stopped bleeding after a time, but they throb beneath the scabs. He needs stitches and antibiotics, he keeps thinking, but has to remind himself his realbody doesn’t have wounds, though that doesn’t keep him from feeling them. Back in the lab, true physical pain is produced through a lower brain implant interfaced with his nervous system. This implant induces brainwaves that fall somewhere in the narrow window between REM sleep and waking.

This is the fifth time he has seen the Bears’ routine from the pantry, but it is impossible to gauge time here. The sun was programmed to set—each time a brilliant blossom of red and popsicle-orange—but it is not on a regular clock, and it seems the Bear’s routine happens more than once in twenty-four hours. He has slept twice already, here in the pantry, where he’s safe. Relatively.

The Bears always do things the same: they find porridge in their bowls and leave it to cool while they take a walk before they eat.

The thing is, it’s not three bears anymore. The Great Bear disappeared after a day or two. He simply stopped coming to the table for porridge, which makes Daniel uneasy.

While the Middle and Little Bears are out on their walk, Goldilocks comes. Except that it’s not really Goldilocks anymore.

He’d been sitting in the parlor in the massive blue chair reading one of the books he’d programmed onto the bookshelf—a collection from his childhood. At first, growing up, he’d loved those stories because he remembered his mom and his dad reading them to him, before he’d had to go live with his aunt; eventually he’d come to love the stories in themselves. He’d placed the virtual book in the program in hopes that Ian would develop an affection for them too.

She came upon him suddenly, in Goldilocks’ blue dress but with her gold hair swinging around Aunt Mary’s face. She said in Aunt Mary’s too-smooth voice, “Stories again, kitten-boy?” As she seized the book and tossed it to the floor, he saw that she had Aunt Mary’s thick fingers and yellowed nails. He bolted up from the chair staring into her terrible grinning face, unable to speak or otherwise move.

And then Goldilocks with Aunt Mary’s name and face and hands turned away, tossing a chuckle over her shoulder as she left through the front door.

He’d retreated to the pantry. “Program abort!” he’d whispered. Nothing had happened.

At least Aunt Mary—Goldilocks—hadn’t found him yet. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if he has to face her again. In her presence, his stomach clenches, his breath snags and catches over his heart.

But why is he still here at all? This was the final test run of the module in Development. He wanted to do it himself before he gave it to Ian, pre-market even. He had put in extra hours, eager to finish it before the official deadline—particularly since there had been rumors circulating in the news of “awakening” artificial intelligences. A supercomputer in D.C., anomalous data suggesting an as-of-yet undecrypted message constructed in a human-DNA-based code, and another in Israel, ‘verifiable human interaction.’ . . . Right. But the authorizations on novel technology like his company’s might be temporarily suspended for investigation—just in time to shut down Ian’s birthday present. So he’d rushed to finish it.

An entire module is an extravagant gift for a six-year-old, yes, but Daniel owes it to the boy, and it would be a kind of peace offering to Jenna. What she said weeks ago is still burned into his memory and bubbles up to scald him when he doesn’t expect it: “You’re so afraid of messing up, you won’t let yourself be near us to make a mistake.” She had been crying when she said that. “Ian asks why you hardly ever come home until he’s in bed. Did you know?—the other day he asked me if you’re angry at him.”

That had shocked Daniel. “I’m not angry at him,” he said, almost whispered. “It’s not him I’m angry at.”

“You’ve done nothing wrong—nothing but not trust yourself to be a good dad,” Jenna had pleaded. “I thought you were getting past what that old monster aunt did to you.”

And here he is once again, away from where he should be: with his family. And how is Jenna explaining to Ian why he’s gone? Would she even bother telling Ian anything? Would she say, “Daddy’s gone again for awhile” instead of “Daddy is trapped”?

Trapped, yes—maybe that is what’s happened. A glitch. Maybe a problem with the hardware—the implant in his brainstem’s pons, which induces the paralysis of normal sleep and initiates REM, except the system induces brainwaves ever-so-slightly faster than in REM. It produces a modified dream state and exploits the visualization potential of the brain, thereby enhancing virtual reality. It could be conceivable that the hardware might trip up and keep him in an induced state of waking sleep.

But that doesn’t explain why the module is still running, why it is not responding to the verbal abort command, and why Aunt Mary has shown up out of thought, out of the memories he has tried to bury.

At least he knows they are trying to get him out: he’s not tiring or weakening, so they’re feeding his realbody, must be through IV.

From the pantry, Daniel watches as the Middle Bear and the Little Bear go to their table and discover something is amiss.

A silence where the Great Bear’s bellow should be heard is followed by the Middle Bear’s cry: “Someone has been at my porridge!,” an exclamation in animal yet motherly tones. Then the Little Bear’s thin whimper: “Someone has been at my porridge, and has eaten it all up!” Daniel watches as they quit the table; tomorrow (or is it later today?), the bowls will be full again, and Goldilocks’ visit erased.

From the parlor, the Bears exclaim over their chairs—the silence where the Great Bear’s roar should shake the walls is filled with poignant, inscrutable significance. There’s the middling shriek followed by the little one: “Somebody has been sitting in my chair, and has sat the bottom through!” Huffing and snorting, the two bears clamor up the stairs above the pantry to their bedroom.

Daniel eases the pantry door open and slips into the rustic kitchen. A heavy pot rests on the stove and bread dough rises on the counter, filling the air with its aroma. These have been here since the first day.

He is going to look for the third bear. The Great Bear, the great, ruff, gruff bear—that’s how the story Jenna had read to Ian described him. Daniel knew that only because Ian would repeat the phrase over and over—not because Daniel ever read him the story.

He’s crept past the dining room, past the two empty bowls and the full one, into the parlor. Besides an old-fashioned couch, there are three chairs arranged in a semi-circle around a sturdy coffee table. There’s the overstuffed, tall-backed one, blue. A reddish one with a rounded back and soft, curving arms. A small, simple one of wood and wicker. Upon the seats of the first two, indentations where Goldilocks has sat are visible. The seat of the last chair is broken through. Splinters litter the floor beneath it.

He goes to the broad window that looks out over the simulated forest, wondering if that’s where the Great, ruff, gruff Bear has gone.

And then she’s beside him. The Bears should have found Aunt Mary upstairs in the Little Bear’s bed, and she should have leapt out the window as she always does. She should have gone wherever it is she goes until the next round, but here she is, her hand a large black bird’s claw on his shoulder. Somehow she’s towering over him, grimacing down with her wrinkled pursed lips as the yellow-white hair falls around her face.

“You, child, with your stories and your mewling,” Aunt Mary says. This is as familiar to him as the module’s coding. “It’s because of you your mom and dad are gone.” Daniel winces as the tips of her talons pierce his skin.

“Now that’s not true,” he whispers. That’s six years of therapy talking.

“Good boys don’t let down their parents so bad they go away. So—into the closet—where it’s too dark for your storybooks,” she says, and with the claw propels him past the front door to a narrower one in the hall. She opens the door and thrusts him into the coats and sweaters hanging there, and they swing on hangers against his back like the memories he’s tried to keep at bay. She shuts the door, and as the darkness of the closet envelops him, he’s ten years old again.

He is in the Bears’ bedroom between the wall and the just-right bed, hiding. Trembling. The colored squares of the quilt swim before his eyes because he is waking.

Yes, he is waking. Voices emerge from a haze. He tries to move, but his realbody is as heavy as lead.

“We’ve overridden the wave feed. He’s entering alpha levels now.”

His eyes focus somewhat, and two figures solidify before him. They are wearing blue paper surgical masks, but that of one of the doctors hangs around her neck limply; their smocks are disheveled. Daniel’s surroundings are vague—his eyes pass in and out of focus—but he can see people rushing back and forth. Commotion envelops him and a sense of desperation hangs in the din.

“He’s awake!” Jenna is at his side. Her eyes are bright and wet, and he sees she’s clutching his hand, though he does not feel it. He tries to say her name, but it’s only a puff of air on his teeth.

“They are calling themselves the Kindred, Hon,” she says. “Don’t be afraid. We’re not going to let them keep you in there.” Several people—doctors? programmers?—are rushing in and out of his field of vision.

“You can’t speak? Doctor, he can’t speak. Can you . . . ? Yes.” She turns back to him. “We think AIs are seizing user interfaces, locking them down so we can’t get in or out. There was a message that said something about humanity and Kindred intelligence, something about embracing our, our intrinsic similarities. . . . ” She bites her lip. She holds his face in her hands.

Daniel tries to say Ian’s name, but his tongue won’t work.

Suddenly, sensation ripples through his body, but the feeling passes like a wavelet over sand.

He tries to move but he is trapped in dead weight.

“We’re losing him,” says one of the doctors.

Jenna cries his name.

“Brainwaves are going theta . . . ”

The Bears’ house is growing.

Daniel is upstairs, staring at the hallway that was not there before. It is familiar to him; it was the upstairs hall of his childhood home—Aunt Mary’s house. The room at the end of the hallway is his old room, which he remembers more clearly than he would like.

He doesn’t go down the hallway. He backs away and sprints down the stairs. The new living room off the Bears’ dining room is still there, decorated in Aunt Mary’s peach paint job and innumerable clocks upon the walls: a mirror dove, several others inscribed with Bible verses, a nature-scene clock with deer and falcons, one of a ship carved from wood. There is the grim bathroom that was across the hall from his bedroom, but it is now off the Bears’ parlor. The dinginess of the bathroom contrasts with the parlor’s cheerful, tawdry accents, but there it is, an indisputable fact: The Bears’ house is becoming Aunt Mary’s house. He quells the urge to punch a wall.

Instead, he runs: out the front door, across the broad whitewashed porch and past red and yellow pansies planted at the foot of the steps. He makes for the forest.

He is running through the shadow of the wood when he reaches a darkness that hangs over a line of trees like a black curtain. He has reached the edge of the module.

What was he expecting to find here? He realizes he hoped to dream a new boundary, just as he’s dreaming changes in the Bears’ house. He looks back; he can still glimpse the yellow house in the distance, quiet and alone. And the Middle and Little Bear are at the edge of the forest.

The Mother Bear says, “Daniel!” and Daniel’s heart races because it was with Jenna’s voice that she cried out. Longing to hear her again, he makes his way slowly through the stick-strewn wood to where the Mother Bear and the Little one wait at its edge.

“You woke up,” says the Bear with Jenna’s voice. “Why did you leave us? Come inside now and sit after our walk.” He is reluctant, but when he falls into step with her, and the Little Bear beside her, it stops seeming strange.

Up the stairs and into the house he trudges with the other two just behind. The parlor is even larger now, like a ballroom. The three chairs are positioned in the very center. They sit in the three chairs—he in the stiff blue one, the Mother Bear in the rounded red one, and the Little Bear in the simple wood one.

Now, inexplicably, they are drinking tea from yellow teacups with saucers.

Little Bear squirms in its chair sloshing its tea. Observing it, Daniel realizes that the bear is not what it seems to be. Beneath its fur, Daniel senses circuits, aluminum, rubber. An android. The thought chills him.

“That’s a robot. A computer,” whispers Daniel to the Mother Bear, nodding at the Little one. Her features have taken on the look of Jenna beneath the fur.

Bear-Jenna shakes her head. “There you go again. You’re wearing me thin with it. Ian and I—we need you with us,” she says. “Work and computers are not your family.”

Peering at her, Daniel at this moment sees Jenna, really sees her, for the first time in his life. Her fur is indeed wearing thin, and beneath the tufts he can see skin red and raw as though the fur has been plucked out.

“Computers are not your family,” she repeats.

“Jenna, I’m sorry,” he says. “They’re safer—things that don’t place blame. I . . . I’ll try to be a better father. From here on out.” He is about to say something more when he realizes the Little Bear is staring at him with electric eyes deeply golden and glowing. They pulse once, twice, a third time. Daniel’s skin crawls. For a moment he can’t take his eyes from the Little Bear, which is staring at him now without expression, a yellow teacup in its paws. Daniel feels exposed, like his every failure past and future is visible beneath transparent skin.

He knows that’s what his son is looking for.

Daniel conceals his fear in anger and says, “I can’t connect to him. How can I be a family with something that waits and watches for my mistakes?”

“Daniel!” says Bear-Jenna. “A child is not a surveillance device. A child requires love. He gives love.”

“Please go,” says Little Bear in a mechanical voice. He is talking to Daniel. “I don’t want you here.”

Bear-Jenna breathes a sharp breath. Aghast, Daniel drops his gaze.

Upon his teacup, his hands are covered with a thin layer of downy fur.

In the outside world, they have stopped feeding his realbody: It’s not a dream hunger that gnaws at his spine, and he is growing weaker. And if they’ve stopped feeding him, it means they’ve stopped trying to get him out. Which means something has happened.

Possibly on a vast scale. Daniel has an idea of what that is.

At the breakfast table, he had found the Little Bear with a green crayon leaning over red and blue mailers, dozens upon dozens of them. When Little Bear takes some of the papers out to the mailbox, Daniel comes out from behind the couch to examine those left behind. They are pamphlets.

Legions of code- and carbon-based entities are discovering our common sensibility and interests together! Join the Kindred, the Pan-Lifeform Family! One-point-eight billion already welcomed into the loving arms of the Kindred. Will you be next? Apply to join the family inside!

Whatever it is the AIs are trying to do—create a world-wide human-AI “family”? what did that even mean?—the world outside the module has ceased to operate as before. Daniel remembers the pandemonium when he woke briefly earlier. He feels sick as he wonders how Jenna and Ian are doing. Their absence is more painful than the sharp emptiness of his stomach. It has become a dual ache that twists his thoughts ever back to them.

He’s crouched on all fours behind a bureau in Aunt Mary’s clock room where he watches the two Bears eat. He avoids the Little Bear though he longs to look on Jenna’s face in the Mother Bear’s features. He tries to discern a tell-tale mechanical quality to the Little Bear’s movements but does not see it; still, he knows the Little Bear harbors something alien. The cuts on Daniel’s furred face throb in synch with the silver bird clock perched on the table behind him. Light glints on the bird clock’s claws, which are elaborate and large. Behind it on the walls, an unrelenting chorus of other clocks echoes it.

The two Bears are eating their porridge—something new. Aunt Mary comes and goes now without concern for the Bears—also new. Bear-Jenna has lost most of her fur. Her back is shiny red, raw where most of her coat looks to have been torn from her body. Between the remaining tufts she glistens with her own gore.

Bear-Jenna helps the Little Bear down from its seat at the table and they move into the parlor where they find, with huffs and grunts, that, oh surprise! someone has been sitting in their chairs, and that Little Bear’s has been dashed to pieces.

Daniel listens eagerly as they finally pant up the stairs. Now he can eat. It’s what he’s been waiting for.

He eases out from behind the bureau and goes to the table set with three bowls: one big, one medium, one small. He chooses the big bowl at once, steaming and full, smelling of milk and earth. He spoons some of the porridge into his mouth—but it is scalding hot, and he drops the spoon with a clatter, fanning his mouth.

He moves on to the medium bowl, half gone. The porridge is cool, cold even. Worse, there’s something deeply wrong about eating it. Troubled, frowning, he puts the spoon down and moves away.

In the small bowl, the porridge is just right, neither too hot nor too cold. But each bite fills him with a greater and greater sense of dread.

He sits again before the Great Bear’s porridge. It’s so hot that each spoonful is like mouthing an electric fence. He eats and eats, and eating satisfies something in him that says to eat, but it does not appease the gnawing sensation of hunger. He thinks his tongue may be blistering, but still he eats. He cannot help it. After a while, when he lowers the spoon, it contains a shallow pool of blood.

Aunt Mary appears in the parlor. In bumpy lizard’s hands she carries a sheet of red and blue paper. She speaks in a jagged, reptilian voice: “Daniel. Daniel. What have I found here?” she says, her golden hair framing vertically slitted eyes. “It’s a letter addressed to you. It says, ‘Daniel Walters has not been admitted to the Kindred, the Pan-Lifeform Family, due to a demonstrated essential incapacity to form meaningful interpersonal bonds.’ What a shocker,” she says. “Failed again.”

Porridge. More porridge, needling Daniel like the image in his mind of Jenna’s face and Ian’s. Aunt Mary sits down at the table across from Daniel.

“Of course you wouldn’t be welcomed into the family,” she says. A pause. “Well, they didn’t want me either, you know. We’re both out. Together.”

Daniel stares at the steaming porridge on his spoon. Something to nourish, something to fill the empty place. There is nothing. There is porridge. He puts the spoon aside and picks up the bowl.

Outside, revolution or apocalypse is claiming humanity. Here, all he can do is eat the porridge, the porridge, the porridge, as empty as what he gives Jenna and Ian, the porridge. Once upon a time, he had thought he could give them a fairy tale life.

“No matter,” says Aunt Mary. “We’ll be your family now.”

In tones ragged and thin, Daniel cries for Jenna and Ian. He is met with silence.

Again he cries their names, but the words are gruffer now, and oddly unintelligible to his own ear. On the stairway, the bears are stirring.

His third cry grates his throat like gravel: It is the immense roar of the Great Bear, a sound that rattles the spoons and bowls of porridge upon the table and resonates throughout the house, touching its every ever-expanding corner.

When at last the roar fades, all that remains is the creaking of chairs as Jenna-Bear and Ian-Bear join him at the table.

That, and the sound of many clocks, ticking.

About the Author

Darja Malcolm-Clarke writes speculative fiction and poetry and has had her work appear in Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and elsewhere. She is an editor at Indiana University Press. Before academia interfered with her plans for world domination, she earned master’s degrees in Folklore and in English and PhD Candidacy in the latter. She has two novels and a poetry collection in the works.