Ctrl Alt Del
by Marl Darrin
I. ~.run Fruit Loop
Renold watches Suzanne Markley flit through the crowd, talking to these strangers with such intimacy. Suzanne had whispered in Renold’s ear-microphone to wait by the punch bowl and then she’d dove into the party.
There is someone here Renold needs to see. This stranger is the only reason he came to this party, and he needs to see this stranger before the black hole inside of him becomes any larger. He chews his lip, nervous to be around so many classmates all at once, and jumps when Nicole Bent suddenly grabs his arm.
“Renold, I’m glad you came!” Nicole squeals, squeezing Renold’s metal bicep underneath its synthetic-flesh covering.
“Hey, stranger.” Renold says, noticing the lust leaking out of Nicole’s stare.
The baby of a black hole chuckles inside of Renold, replaying a tape of his mother’s voice: ‘they stare at you because you’re interesting’. What rubbish. His entire life Renold has had to endure his friends obsessing over him, opening up his chest plate and peering inside, treating him like their doll.
“Want to dance?” Nicole asks, tugging at Renold’s arm as she downs her drink.
Embarrassed, Renold shakes his head. He lightly smiles, not wanting to hurt Nicole’s feelings. “Thanks. I’m waiting for Suzanne.” Nicole covers her annoyance at hearing Suzanne’s name with a wink. Without another word, she heads back into the crowd.
Renold watches her go. He thinks to himself: Dorothy does love a tin-man. His mental black hole claws at his temples. Give me a heart or make me the scarecrow, he exasperates to himself.
“Nicole is such a bot-freak.” Suzanne slips up next to Renold. He jumps, shocked at her sudden appearance, and turns to catch her softly looking into his eyes.
“And you’re not?”
“No, I totally am.” Suzanne teases. “If you were like us humans, I’d be utterly bored.” Suzanne giggles. Renold squints out a half grin. “I found my guy if you still want to do this.” She hooks her arm around his.
Renold nods. Suzanne leads him into the crowd until they stop at a man with hair spidering out from under a hat sporting the words ‘Downloaded Bliss’ in bright pink cursive. My wizard, Renold presumes.
“Charles, this is who I was telling you about.” Suzanne yells over the music.
“Hey, stranger.” Renold attempts a smile that doesn’t showcase his nerves. Charles grins under foggy eyes and motions with his head for them to follow him upstairs into a smoke-filled room.
An enmeshed couple sits on the floor smoking mommamuse. Charles steps over them and sits down at a terminal. “What’s your name, Cuz?” Charles asks Renold as he boots up the terminal.
“Have you ever had a Fruit Loop, Renny?” Charles pulls out a long cord and jacks it into the terminal. Renold shakes his head.
Charles stands up and waves for Renold to turn around. “A Fruit Loop, as you maybe guessed, loops through all of your memory core. It’s a bit of code that will sift through your memories and associate them with a good feeling. It’s going to be overwhelming, but I’ve heard it’s very euphoric.”
“You’re not going to delete any memories, are you?” Renold whispers as Charles peels aside the synthetic flesh on the back of Renold’s neck in order to reveal a set of input and output ports.
“No, kiddo, just take any bad ones and turn them into good ones. The ones that are already good will be extra good.” Charles plugs the cord he’s holding into one of Renold’s ports.
“If you accidentally delete some, that’s okay.”
Charles hums to himself knowingly. “Once you’ve looped, no memory will need deleting,” Charles slaps Renold on the back, “you’ll see.”
“How much do we owe you?” Suzanne asks Charles while putting her hands on Renold’s face to calm him down.
“Don’t worry about it, Suze. First one’s free. I’m gonna run it through three loops. That’ll wet your binary real good.” Charles sits back down at the terminal and begins typing.
“Honey, I’m going to be right here the whole…” Renold watches Suzanne’s lips move, but the sound of her voice trails off and is replaced by birds singing.
~./memory_db *, .run Fruit Loop, count: 1
…The black hole inside his head…Suzanne’s wheat colored hair falls in front of her eyes…internal voices tell him: ‘You don’t belong’…The black hole inside his head…the room pixelates…internal voices tell him: ‘does not compute’…That familiar void which won’t desist…
Renold sees his father in front of him.
“Hey, stranger.” Hansel, Renold’s father, beams his teeth and laughs with tears in his eyes. “Welcome back to the conscious world! You’re ten now!”
Renold doesn’t answer, not only because he’s in shock from spilling into a memory but also because the confines of his memory restrict him from saying anything he hadn’t said when it occurred.
“Did you reboot him correctly?”
“I think so.”
Jodie, Renold’s mother, comes into view holding a tall mirror in her hands. “Look at you, Ren, just look at you.” Jodie coos. Renold looks into the mirror at his body upgrades which Hansel and Jodie had gotten in the mail for the anniversary of Renold’s activation. “Happy birthday, baby.” Renold looks up at Jodie’s wet eyes, then looks back into the mirror.
He examines the height-extensions added to his shins, the length-extensions added to his arms, the bulkier torso unit his father has retrofitted him with…
“I didn’t pick these.” Renold whispers to himself, then louder to his adoptive mother, “These aren’t mine.”
Birds scream from outside an open window. Jodie sets the mirror down against the living room wall and crouches down to Renold’s level. She taps on her nose. “I didn’t pick this out either, hated it since I was about your age. What do you think of it?”
“Your nose? It’s your nose, I like it.” Renold says, looking down at his foreign arm upgrades. He moves them, unfamiliar with the way they grind on his shoulder joints.
“I like it, too.” Hansel chimes in next to Renold, still standing slightly away from him in order to admire how tall his son has gotten.
Renold shakes his head. “Your nose is human…you can’t change it.”
“Plastic surgery.” Hansel chuckles, then shuts his mouth after a warning glance from Jodie.
~./memory_db *, .run Fruit Loop, count: 1
Suddenly, Renold feels a surge of energy trickle through his body from the back of his neck. His internal black hole shuts its mouth. Renold feels warm, as if heated honey drizzles down his spine.
“If he doesn’t like it, we can just order a different set.” Hansel offers, but again closes his mouth after a second angry look gets shot at him from Jodie.
~./memory_db *, .run Fruit Loop, count: 1
“I know it’s confusing.” Jodie catches Renold’s gaze which has shifted back to the mirror over her shoulder. She continues to speak, but her words fall mute on Renold’s ear-microphones. Renold notices the gravity of his internal black hole has given way to a buoyancy, as if he floated atop molasses. His new body-upgrades lose their cage-like quality, fitting handsomely at home now underneath Renold’s synthetic skin. The image of Jodie’s face pixelates and gets replaced by a ceiling holding smoke.
“Are you back?” Suzanne sits next to him, blowing smoke through her lips. “How do you feel?” She runs her fingers through his wig.
Her words echo in his ear-microphone, and he takes a moment to process her question. “I don’t…feel as…hollow.” Renold speaks slowly, relishing how his thoughts still move through molasses in the aftereffects of the Fruit Loop.
Suzanne smiles knowingly. “That’s kinda like how mommamuse makes me feel, full and solid.” Suzanne coughs, then wipes black spit from her lip. “Do you feel happy?”
Renold looks at her bare feet stretched next to him on the floor, searching for an answer. “I don’t feel…empty anymore.”
“I’m glad you aren’t empty anymore.” Suzanne leans over and kisses him on the forehead. The smell of lavender floats off her skin.
“Thank you, stranger.” He fills the word ‘stranger’ with every cuddle they’ve shared on a grassy hill, every night they’ve shared whispered fears in an abandoned park, every giggle from each secret joke they’ve kept only for themselves.
Renold stumbles home, for the first time in his life finding his legs malfunctioning. He’d walked Suzanne home by one in the morning, and it shocks him to realize it’s taken him half an hour to arrive at his house only six blocks away. The gooey warmth from the Fruit Loop still overrides his usual black hole of a mind, so Renold ignores the glitchiness.
Hansel waits in the living room as Renold fumbles with the front door.
“Hello, stranger.” Hansel implicitly accuses Renold of some wrongdoing the instant Renold succeeds in opening the door, stabbing at him with the word ‘stranger’.
“Dad, why…aren’t you—” Renold notices how slurred his speech modulator sounds and quickly shuts his mouth before Hansel catches the Fruit Loop bug still affecting his voice.
“Do you know what time it is?”
Keeping his responses short, Renold responds with a simple ‘sorry’. He hesitates, not sure whether or not Hansel has more to say.
Hansel sighs, then rubs his forehead. “We’ll talk about this tomorrow.” His dad dismisses him with a nod, and Renold slowly drags himself upstairs to plug in for the night.
THE STORY CONTINUES IN