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Ctrl Alt Del
by Marl Darrin
Hansel opens the door for the delivery man to wheel Renold inside. The manufacturer was able to put him back together nicely, and left it up to his parents to boot him back into consciousness. Hansel signs for the delivery and carries Renold to the living room where Jodie is waiting. Jodie picks at her chin; a habit she falls prey to when she’s nervous.
“Our baby boy.” She cries out as if she’s been holding her breath.
Hansel puts Renold in a sitting position next to Jodie, then runs to his office at the back of the house. He returns with a portable terminal, unwraps a cord attached to it, and links it to Renold through his neck ports.
Before he turns on the terminal, Jodie stops him. “What if we just kept everything?”
“Why in the hell would we do that.” Hansel groans, frustrated to be having this conversation again. “He’s full of bugs!”
“It’s his life, it’s what he decided. Those experiences make him who he is.”
“They made him walk into traffic.”
“Which probably taught him a great lesson.” Jodie touches the fresh flesh covering Renold’s face.
“We have to do everything we can to protect him.” Hansel turns on the terminal.
“If we erase all his mistakes, won’t he just make them again?”
“No.” Hansel makes sure he has Jodie’s full attention. “We won’t let him. It’ll be a fresh start.”
Jodie reluctantly nods for Hansel to activate and install the program they’d purchased to scrub Renold’s memory. This, of course, was long before it was illegal to do home mods on an artificial organism.
“Looks like it found a bunch of bugs. There’s at least three different instances of loop method malware in here, and they’re connected with Suzanne and some guys named Charles, Craig and Aster. I have to delete all of it.”
Jodie remains silent. Hansel clicks the enter button.
Renold whirs to life and opens his eyes to his mom’s smile. “Hello, stranger!” Renold laughs, glad to see his mom after…how long has it been? Renold looks back and forth between his mom and dad, confused. Even though he’d only been out for a few days, to Renold it felt like a year lost from under his hibernation.
“You got hit by a car.” Jodie bursts out. Hansel furrows his brow at her. He hadn’t wanted Renold to know anything about what had happened.
“Am I okay? What happened?” Renold inspects his body, looking for any damage.
“You were taking drugs. They damaged your mind, and you walked out in front of a car. But we fixed you.” Jodie reaches out to hold Renold’s searching hands and calm him down.
“I don’t remember taking a drug.”
“It damaged your memory.” Hansel says firmly. “You’ll never get parts of your memory core back, son. Drugs are very dangerous. They kill a part of you every time you take them.”
Jodie tells Hansel to stand down with her eyes. Hansel grunts to himself. Renold examines one of his hands, not recognizing it. He doesn’t remember giving his original hand to Aster.
“This is new.” He spreads his fingers, then makes a fist to test out his new hand. Doing a quick self-inventory, he snaps his attention to one of his feet. “So is this. Where’d mine go?”
“Lost in the crash.” Jodie starts to tear up.
“What’s wrong, ma?” Renold gets ambushed with a hug from Jodie.
“Don’t ever leave us again.” At Jodie’s words, a black hole forms inside Renold’s chest. He wraps his arms around Jodie, meeting her embrace.
“I’m right here, stranger.”
V. Control Alt Delete
The next day, Renold decides to sit at the breakfast table with his mom and dad even though he physically can’t share in the action of eating. He watches them chewing their food. Jodie notices his stare.
“I can see your gears turning.” Jodie teases, trying to make Renold smile. Hansel looks up from his newsfeed on his mobile terminal where he’d been immersed all morning, then drowns himself back inside of it.
“I think I feel hungry.” Renold can’t quite put his finger on how to describe the emptiness inside.
“Want some?” Hansel jokingly offers Renold some food from his plate.
“What do you mean?” At this moment Jodie becomes witness to depression sneaking out of Renold’s eyes.
“I don’t know…” Renold’s internal alarm chirps. “I’ll see you after school.” Renold grabs his knapsack from the floor, goes over to his mom to kiss her cheek, squeezes his dad’s shoulder, then heads outside. Jodie doesn’t finish her breakfast. She sits in the kitchen as Hansel gorges on his food and his mobile terminal while she thinks about her son.
Suzanne waits anxiously in the front of the school building for Renold to show up. When Renold reaches the end of the car park he smiles politely and begins to walk past her to the front door.
“Ren! Are you okay?” Suzanne rushes in front of him before he can enter the school.
“Hello, stranger.” Renold says, using the word ‘stranger’ genuinely instead of as his usual term of endearment to ironically demonstrate intimacy. Suzanne hugs him tight, and Renold squirms out of her arms confused by such familiarity from a stranger.
“I heard you got hit by a car. What happened?”
“How did you hear that?”
“You made the newsfeed!” She runs her hand through Renold’s wig. “You’ve got your face back in one piece, that’s a plus.” She goes to kiss him, but Renold recoils. Suzanne stares at him. “What’s wrong?”
“You just tried to kiss me.” Renold laughs nervously. She’s very pretty, Renold thinks to himself.
“Are you mad at me?”
“No, I just don’t know you.”
Suzanne takes her turn to laugh nervously, not sure how to digest Renold’s words. “Very funny. Seriously, though, is this about what we talked about in the lunchroom the other day?”
“Did we meet in the lunchroom? I don’t remember, I’m sorry. What did we talk about?”
“Ren, stop, this isn’t funny.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember you.”
Suzanne stares at Renold, trying to call his bluff. When the silence yawns for too long, Suzanne grabs Renold by his arms.
“Ren, it’s me. It’s Suzanne.”
“Nice to meet you, Suzanne.” Renold says, a little freaked out.
“No, you already know me, it’s me, it’s Suze.”
Renold shakes his head. “I don’t know you.”
Suzanne can’t help but shatter in front of him. Clamping back tears, she asks, “Renold, where’d you go?”
“I’m right here.”
“Did Fruit Loop do this to you?”
“Who is Fruit Loop?”
Suzanne breathes deeply, trying not to hyperventilate. “Are you happy?”
Renold thinks for a moment, then nods. “Of course I’m happy.”
“No, I mean, are you alone?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You are, you’re alone, you told me so. You just can’t remember.” Suzanne solidifies herself. “Come with me.”
Renold wants to say no. Renold needs to make it to his class on Mary Shelley since they’re just now changing authors from Carlo Collodi and he doesn’t want to miss the first lesson. Yet, something about how this girl smells like lavender causes him pause. He lets her lead him inside the school building.
She drags him to the computer hall where two boys sit silently with cords in the back of their necks connecting them to separate terminals. Suzanne violently yanks out one of the boy’s cords and shakes him from a daze.
“Hey, I was in the middle of a conversation!” The boy yells, then notices Renold. “Ah, loop-head is back! What’s up, fellow android?” The boy extends a hand hoping for a high-five. Renold stares at him blankly, not recognizing the boy as Craig from his English class or from his last Fruit Loop’ed visit to the computer hall. He timidly slaps Craig’s hand.
“Where’s Charles.” Suzanne doesn’t phrase it as a question but more as a demand.
“I have no idea, probably in his first period terraforming class. Or out back smoking.”
“Wait here.” Suzanne plants Renold in a seat and then rushes out of the computer hall.
Renold stares at the second boy in the computer hall who is lost inside his terminal connection, trying to avoid Craig’s stare.
“I liked you better without a flesh-face.” Craig says.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Renold snaps, his morning becoming too confusing for him to remain calm.
“They’re trying to implement a new dress code ‘cuz of you. Principal Franz announced it when you were out getting run over. ‘No exposed plating or wiring’. Pretty mental if you ask me.”
Renold pulls out his English homework from his knapsack in an attempt to ignore this strange boy.
“Oh, can you take notes for me today? I have to finish my data call during first period.”
“Are you in my class?”
“Damn, dude, how hard did that car hit you? It’s me, Craig!”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know you.”
Suzanne floods back into the room with Charles in tow. “Fix him.” She barks. Charles shoos Craig off the terminal he is currently occupying. Craig obeys without uttering a single protest. Charles glances at Renold while he boots up a new program, closing down Craig’s open applications. “I liked your fleshless look better, kid, sad to see it go.” Charles grabs the end of the cord from the terminal and steps over to Renold.
“Did I use to not wear my human face?” Renold asks, bewildered.
“Lean forward.” Charles commands, trying to get at Renold’s neck ports. Renold hesitates, sensing danger.
Suzanne sits down next to Renold. “It’s okay, Ren. He’ll help you remember me.” She kisses Renold’s cheek.
“Okay, stranger.” Renold says softly, feeling a warm liquid wash over his chest cavity at the brush of her lips. He leans over and allows Charles to rip back his neck-flesh and slip a cord into one of his ports. A small bit of static electricity zaps him.
Focusing back to his terminal, Charles exclaims, “Ah, he’s got a good ‘ol parental block on him, that’s why he doesn’t remember you.”
“Fix him.” Suzanne begs again.
Charles cracks his fingers and begins typing. Renold’s vision pixelates to blackness. Charles pauses at the terminal for a moment, continues typing, then pauses again. “Wow, you guys are a lot more complicated than I thought.” Craig peeks over at his screen, just as befuddled by the code as Charles.
“All you need to do is remove the memory block over me that he’s got.” Suzanne pleads.
“Yeah, yeah, of course.” Charles begins inserting new code into his terminal readout. He punches the enter key, clacks out more code, then punches the enter key again. He copies pre-concocted code from one of his own personal files and crams it into Renold’s code. He makes his keyboard sing like hail on a tin roof, then pauses for a moment. “I’m going to create a loop method to—” Charles abruptly clamps his mouth shut, then goes back to furiously typing. “Shit.” From his seat he yanks the cord out of Renold’s neck, bending the plastic end piece slightly as he does.
Craig puts his hand to his mouth. “Oh.” He stares wide-eyed at the terminal.
Suzanne blinks excessively, holding her breath. No one moves. Renold sits silently in a hunched position. A terminal fan whirs. The other boy in the computer hall sits dormant, still plugged into his own connection a few seats away. Craig starts looking from Charles to the terminal and then back to Charles again.
“Did you fix him?” Suzanne finally finds the strength to come over and see the terminal, but nothing on the screen makes any sense to her. “Did it work?” Charles doesn’t answer. Instead, he goes over to jam the bent cord back into one of Renold’s neck ports. “Did it work?” Suzanne asks again, this time more forcefully. Craig finally registers her question.
“He deleted him.”
Charles runs a reboot program on Renold as Suzanne squeezes her nails into her palms, still forgetting to breath. Renold slowly revs back to life. He blinks, observing everyone in the room.
“Renold?” Suzanne steps back over to Renold and sits at his side.
“Congratulations on your adoption! I am Fos-18 unit A22.6. The personality you are currently interacting with is affectionately known as Alonso. I come pre-equipped into every Fos-18 unit. I comprise the introductory software of this particular designed intelligence, and I am here to help you smoothly install your new child. To begin, please configure my initialize method with the first name of the child you wish for me to set-up on this unit’s memory database.” Renold, now referring to himself as Alonso, smiles at everyone in the room, and then, upon further analysis of their faces, frowns. “That’s odd, you all seem underage for the requirements of booting up a Fos-18 unit.” Alonso does a quick self-inventory. “Ah, I see I haven’t been relocated to new hardware yet. This hardware is outdated. Something must have gone wrong with my previous family. My database shows reference to a Mr. and Mrs. Bird?”
Charles shuts down his terminal in a flurry, grabs his things, and crashes out of the room. Suzanne sits with her mouth agape in disbelief.
“He deleted him.” Craig repeats, staring at Alonso. “He restored Renold to his factory settings.”
Alonso wheels his focus to Craig. “Renold? I assume you refer to Renold Bird? I do have an instance of one Renold Bird in my database for the current hardware I’m occupying, but his memory core personality has been overwritten. I regret to inform you that the boy you call Renold Adonis Bird has passed away. A notification of this fact should have been automatically sent to Mr. and Mrs. Bird upon his passing. Since it is quite clear that none of you are this unit’s reassigned family, I must now return this Fos-18 unit to the factory.” Alonso gets up to leave, but Suzanne yanks him back down.
“Where’s Renold?” She screams.
Alonso recognizes Suzanne’s anguish from his three hundred years of function and service. This sort of thing rarely happens, but Alonso has seen it before when families try to repurchase units with corrupted memory core personalities that become damaged before the natural deaths of said adoptive families. It’s fairly usual for installed memory core personalities to become corrupt and need to be decommissioned before they can outlive their adoptive families. The average life-span of a Fos-18 unit is forty-years before their memory core personalities deteriorate and need to be recalled.
“You knew Renold well, didn’t you?” Alonso places his hands on Suzanne’s. She nods. “I am sorry, but Renold is gone. His body will be recycled and donated to others in need. I will return to the factory where my memory core will be placed in a new body — ‘year-one-activation’ hardware — for adoption. A new personality will then grow from my memory core, giving another family the chance to raise their own—”
“You are Renold. Bring Renold back.” Suzanne grips Alonso’s hand.
“I am not Renold. I am Alonso, the software building-block that allows for personality and memory growth in Fos-18 units. I have been the basis for 9 adopted designed intelligence beings, all of which branched from my A22.6 memory core before being overwritten after their deaths due to viruses, voluntary or involuntary deletion—”
Suzanne slaps him, leaving her hand red from the metal underneath his flesh-covered cheek. “You. Are. Renold.”
Alonso ignores Suzanne’s violence. “Renold was special to you, I know. He knew that, too, I’m sure of it. Sadly, his…soul has been erased from my memory core.” Alonso carefully chooses the word ‘soul’ believing that Suzanne might understand this more easily. “I shall be a container for a new soul, now.”
Suzanne shakes her head vigorously, reality setting in with a nauseating quickness. “We didn’t mean to! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, just bring him back! I was trying to fix him, I just wanted Renold to be happy!”
“You can’t fix other beings. Worry about fixing yourself.” Alonso advises, assuming this would help calm her down. He did not intend to be rude, yet inadvertently his words came across as quite brutal. “There will never be another Renold, but you still carry him in your memory even though he has been irreversibly deleted from mine.” Alonso stands up. “Goodbye, stranger.”
Alonso walks out of the computer hall, leaving Craig to reach over and attempt to console Suzanne.
At the home of Jodie and Hansel, it is quiet. It is quiet save for the birds outside. Jodie and Hansel neglect eating dinner and sit in the living room with all their electronic devices turned off. They sit, listening to the birds slowly ending their song for the day.
Thanks for reading! Please comment and let me know what you think, and stay tuned for the start of a new story next week!