There had been so few people at the funeral. It just made the whole miserable affair seem even more unreal to Kaleb. Though the worst part had to be complete strangers coming over to him to pat his head and try to give him comfort. He would just shrink back behind his sister and she would fixate her icy glare on the strangers till they retreated.
But now it was all over and they were back to the safety but emptiness of their home. Kaleb wanted to run to his room and stay there for a while but his father stood in the hallway, blocking the way to the bedrooms. Please move, Kay thought, squeezing his sister’s hand tightly for reassurance.
“I need to speak with you,” their father said in a distant voice.
“Father, I think it would be best to wait. We have had a trying day,” Jay said.
Their father’s hands curled into fists and red crept up his neck from rage. “You know nothing of what a ‘trying’ day might be! Go into the living room. We are talking.”
No way out. Jay guided Kay into the other room and sat next to him on the couch. He tried not to tremble. What could his father possibly want to talk about? Today of all days, after they buried their mother? And had lost her the night they turned thirteen… Kaleb knew he’d despise his birthday for the rest of his life.
Their father sat down very slowly and then remained silent, staring at the wall behind the twins with hollow eyes. “I didn’t expect to have to tell you this for a very long time. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if I should tell you. However I think perhaps it would be best under the circumstances.” He wiped his hands off on his black trousers then sucked in a deep breath. “I am sure you will both understand…” He hesitated, glanced at Kay, then focused on Jay. “Well, I am sure you will understand.”
Jay slid her hand to cover Kay’s, helping hide and suppress the shaking.
“Your mother–the one that you have known as your mother, at least–was not quite really your mother…”
“Excuse me?” Jay sat up a bit. “We both looked as much like her as we do you.”
Their father shrugged. “Your real mother died when you were both just babies. A… lab accident. It was a horrific night. One I do not wish to recall.”
Kay felt like he couldn’t breathe. Jay leaned forward a bit, eyes narrowed. “You said we would understand. I, however, do not. Have you lost touch with reality? Jacquelyn Redding is–was our mother!”
“Yes. She was.”
“But you said–“
Their father stood up quickly and turned his back to them. “Jacquelyn Redding died almost thirteen years ago.”
Jay looked at her brother who slid a bit closer to her, feeling utterly confused. “Father. Mother died four days ago. Jacquelyn Redding died four days ago,” Jay said a bit cautiously, assuming her father had just gone off the deep end.
“Jacquelyn Redding 2.0 died four days ago,” their father whispered.
Complete silence. Then in a very tight tone, “Two-point-oh?” from Jay.
He finally turned back around, arms folded. “Yes. She… the one who died four days ago, that is, was an artificial lifeform.”
“You are saying our mother was a–a–robot?!” Jay stood up now, shoulders snapped back.
“Yes, in a sense. We were doing a lot of work with that back then. We were able to program–“
“Our mother was not a robot!” Jay cut him off. “First of all that sort of technology does not even exist at the moment, let alone thirteen years ago! Second of all–“
Now their father cut her off with, “It existed in Strangetown!”
Jay fell silent then sank back down onto the couch. Kay immediately seized her hand again, wishing she wouldn’t argue with their father too much. Though right now he almost wanted to argue with their father. Their mother couldn’t have been a robot…!
“We were doing similar work in Strangetown, before you two were ever made. We had built mockups of robots that worked with the artificial intelligence programming we designed together… a mix of our memories and minds. Your mother began to grow paranoid and started designing programs to imitate us. One for her, one for me. That way if something happened to either of us we…” Their father paused and rubbed his forehead. “We could just bring the other back through artificial means and continue the work. And, after we realized we would be having children, to help raise you.”
Kay wanted to cover his ears, to beg his father to stop spouting these inane lies. He wanted his sister to do something but she looked as if she actually believed the lies.
“When Jacquie died I… I fell into such a deep grief that I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to continue with anything, let alone raising you two and continuing the work…” Their father returned to his chair and put his head in his hands. “Perhaps it was wrong of me to do what I did, but it had been her wish. And I couldn’t be alone. So I built her.”
“How?” Jay inquired.
“That is not important. I had plenty of… items from Strangetown. I was able to build her and synthesize her outer appearance to look like the real Jacquelyn Redding. It took a few months to get the programming to work without issues. I went through several tries without success until I managed to get it working to the point of the artificial lifeform being no different from the original and real Jacquie.
“You were about eight months old when Jacquie 2.0 became reality. It had felt like eight years for me. But you had your mother again.”
“N-n-n- we d-d-didn’t!” Kay stammered without thinking. “Y-you j-j-ju–just s-s-said our–m-mother–our r-r-r-r-real m-moth-th-th–“
“Kaleb, if you cannot form a simple sentence you should not speak,” their father said a bit wearily. “And don’t start crying. You are old enough to handle your emotions without making a scene.”
Kay swallowed, trying to stop the tears from forming but he couldn’t. Instead he just felt like a failure as a few drops splattered onto his suit. He wished his father had never brought this up, had never told them. If it were indeed true, which Kay wasn’t even sure that it was. He understood that people were working towards artificial intelligence and understood some about it (not as much as Jay though) but he also knew what Jay had mentioned–the technology just didn’t exist.
Had it existed in Strangetown? Along with those aliens?
“If… m–mother… w-w-was… a… r-ro…b…ot… ho…how c-c… c-c-c…” Kay’s entire body was taut from trying to force out the words without a stutter, “could… sh-she… d… d… die…”
Their father snorted a bit, looking at his son with mild disgust. Jay cleared her throat and added, “It is an excellent question, Father. What happened?”
“The wires I used were fraying. Her system began shorting out, which is why we kept saying she was sick last year. There were times when her entire system just shut down. I did my best to repair her but as you pointed out, the technology does not exist in this place. I worked with what I could. Everything I used as replacements simply did not work. Last month it was at the point where I had to open her up and fix things every single day. She told me that–that we were fighting a losing battle and to let her expire.”
He gave a slightly sad sound that neither kid expected to hear. “Something the original and real Jacquie would have said, too…”
Our lives have been a lie, Kay thought, not daring to speak. Is he a robot too? Are we robots? He looked at his hands curiously. How could one be certain one was a human? He felt human. He had more emotions than either of his parents ever did, than his sister even did. None of them ever cried. Perhaps everyone else in his life was a robot. Or… what if he were the only human and he had been programmed into some sort of… simulation?
Unable to bear the thought he got up and ran from the room. He knew he’d be in trouble but he didn’t care. He had to be alone. He had to be away from the conversation–from the–the weirdness. His mother a robot, his sister believed it? It’s all lies, it can’t be true!
He flung himself on his bed and counted to ten, fifty, a hundred, two hundred. Finally the tears stopped, the shaking stopped. He felt a bit better though definitely far from how he had felt five days ago. When his mother (robot or not) was still alive. Everything had seemed so normal… he and Jay were starting their junior year of high school… wanting to graduate soon but they had to wait another two years before they could get into a college.
He remembered their mother getting the news that the twins would have to wait till their fifteenth year. How she had railed and stormed and called the board of education. She had been so furious. But it had just been programming. It hadn’t been real. None of it had been real. Lies, all lies…
“Kaleb?” His sister came into the room without knocking. “Have you calmed down?”
He sat up, adjusting his glasses, glad he had stopped crying. “I g-g-guess…”
“Father will be angry if you continue to do things like this.” She crossed the room and sat down. “I know this is hard…”
“Sh-she w-wasn’t real.”
“Yes she was. Father told us that they used her memories and mind–all of what made her her–as the program. She was as much Jacquelyn Redding as… as the woman who died thirteen years ago.”
Kay shook his head but remained silent. He wouldn’t be able to get across how wrong it all felt to him. Jay was the only person in his life he loved or cared about and he knew it was the same in reverse for her. But sometimes she seemed so far away… in her own little world of–of computers and research and experiments. Of course she’d be fascinated by their mother being a robot.
Neither of the kids really missed their mother. There hadn’t been much love between parent or child. Kay now wondered how much of that was because of the robotics. Would their real mother have been gentler? Would she have hugged Kay as a child, given him the praise he wanted, given him the love he craved? Or would she have been as cold and pushing as ‘2.0’ had been?
“I w-want to b-be alone r-right now,” Kay said.
Jay stared at him in absolute shock. He had never really sent her away like this before. “I see.” But she didn’t. She couldn’t, and Kay knew that. To her this meant something to learn about, to explore. She wouldn’t be questioning their entire life like he did.
As soon as she left the room he got up and went to the window, looking at their backyard. Scraps of metal lay everywhere. Random inventions. Ones that worked, ones that didn’t. He had helped build some, help invent some. But he much preferred books… folding himself into the past. History, English. That sort of thing stimulated him more than… wires and… artificial intelligence, a robotic mother. He wiped his eyes and turned away from the window.
One day he’d be free from this house. Free from their father. Free from these terrible thoughts and discoveries. A robotic mother. A life where he needed to be the best and could never be the best. A robotic mother that had preferred his sister over him. Wired to prefer his sister. Or would his real mother have preferred Jay? She was smarter, stronger–everything their parents wanted in a kid. Kaleb was just the unwanted failure that could never keep up.
Unless it’s all fake, unless this is all just a simulation and I am the only real human.
Kay clutched his head, feeling sick and dizzy. He didn’t want to be alone anymore. It scared him. He needed his sister. He needed comforting, he needed love.
He ran from his room and into hers. She was at her computer, looking at some coding. Their mother? Was that the coding used to create Jacquelyn Redding 2.0?
“Kaleb?” Jay asked softly.
“I f-f-feel… I’m s-scared,” he cried.
She cocked her head to one side then picked up a pair of scissors and without warning dug the sharp end into her finger. Kay watched as blood dripped down onto her desk.
“She never bled,” his sister said simply. “I never saw her hurt or injured, and never once did she bleed to my knowledge.”
Jay knew what was going on in her brother’s mind and had done that to reassure him that she at least was real. He collapsed to the floor and she sat down next to him, holding him tightly in her arms.