It was Wednesday, so Mitchell had the day off. For a while, he puttered around in his garden, watching the dragonfly drones nibble at the grass. Once in a while one would spot a weed and dive bomb it.
But after a while, even watching the grass grow got boring. He went inside and stood in front of a Living Photo of his grandfather. Grandpa died before they had revival technology, so all Mitchell had left of him was the animated portrait.
It wasn’t really Grandpa, just an AI-powered recording, but it sounded just like him.
Mitchell pulled his armchair over.
The picture came alive.
“Mitch, Mitchy, Mitchellino. What’s up, dawg?”
“Not much. What are you doing?”
“I’m stuck in this picture frame, how do you think I’m doing.” Grandpa laughed so hard the toupee almost slid off his head. “Now, if you upgrade me to a Living Doll, you and I could do stuff together. Go fishing. Ride a bicycle built for two. I could teach you my secret recipe for grilling hamburgers.”
Grandpa had made the suggestion before. Mitchell considered it. Grandpa could follow him around the house. Wait for him to come home from work. Maybe do some chores. That was all good.
But then when his friends dropped by, everyone would think that Mitchell had some weird sex fetish for grandpas. He’d have to hide him away. Then, if anyone opened the wrong closet door and saw the Living Doll, they’d be even more likely to jump to the wrong conclusion.
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
There was a moment of comfortable silence while Grandpa looked around the living room and caught up via the news feeds on what he’d missed since the last time he’d been turned on.
“So, you’ve going to your friends’ wedding,” Grandpa finally said. “Good for you, getting out there, being social.”
Mitchell shifted uncomfortably.
“Well, I might not be going after all.”
“Nonsense! You’re the best man!”
“I might have said the wrong thing and now I’m disinvited.”
“Was it true, what you said?”
Mitchell thought back. He’d been drinking, so maybe he’d been a little too forceful. But he’d been right.
“It was true.”
“Then fugget about it.” Grandpa flapped his hand in dismissal. “Who needs them? If they can’t handle the truth, they can’t handle the truth.”
“Thanks, you’re right.” Grandpa always knew what to say to make Mitchell feel better.
Mitchell pulled up his contacts menu. He would send Charlie and Hamp a message right away and be done with it.
But the couldn’t. The message window just wouldn’t open. It took a little navigating, but finally Mitchell found the reason. He’d been blocked.
Michell stood up.
“I’ll be back,” he told Grandpa. “I’m going to go and get some closure.”
Michell had been to Charlie’s Facepage apartment, which was virtually connected to Hamp’s house on the habitat. So that was the first place to start.
He settled into his rig and went online.
Facepage was as bad as it always was. Ads, ads, and more ads, tacky virtual chain restaurants, strip clubs, and crowds of people who had nothing better to do than to hang out on Main Street all day and argue with each other.
Charlie’s place was in an upscale neighborhood. Charlie paid a premium so that he wouldn’t have to deal with any advertising. Plus, his backdoor opened up on the Sierra Nevada mountain range instead of having one of those freebie backdrops.
If Mitchell ever died, God forbid that ever happened, instead of getting a place here he’d get a new body printed. That’s why he used a commercial insurance policy instead of relying on the standard government plan. In life insurance, as in real estate, you always get what you pay for.
The front of Charlie’s building looked like a New York City brownstone, a five-story walkup. But it was an illusion. Every apartment was on the third floor, up high enough for some privacy, but low enough that you could people-watch and yell down to your friends.
Charlie’s curtains were drawn, but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t home. Mitchell walked in through the main entrance. The building still remembered him. Charlie must have forgotten to block him on Facepage, thinking that Mitchell would never come there. He took the elevator to Charlie’s floor and knocked on his door. There was a sign on the door that Charlie was out, but maybe he was just screening visitors. Mitchell knocked again. After a couple of minutes, he got tired of waiting and went downstairs.
Last time he’d been here, Charlie had taken him out to lunch at McMeaty’s.
Mitchell didn’t remember the way, but Facepage wasn’t Krim. He waved a hand and directions appeared in the air in front of him. McMeaty’s was down the block, around the corner, and one block over.
On Facepage, McMeaty’s was an open-air restaurant, with an arbor-style roof. It was on the corner and had no real walls on the two sides that abutted the streets, just low dividers. The two interior back walls were where the bar was. The weather was always perfect on Facepage, so a lot of places were wide open. Mitchell peered inside. Unless Charlie had changed his appearance again, he wasn’t there. For a second, he considered that Charlie might be in the bathroom.
But restaurants on Facepage didn’t have bathrooms. Just another reason why Mitchell didn’t like to spend time online. It was unnatural to eat and drink as much as you wanted without ever having to use the facilities.
Maybe Charlie went someone else for lunch. Maybe he teleported over to a virtual version of Hampton’s habitat and was having lunch with him there. At one of those restaurants that existed in both the physical and real worlds. Where Charlie could move the furniture around.
Mitchell pushed away the embarrassing memory.
Charlie could be anywhere. He could be working through lunch. Or out with colleagues. So many options. On Facepage alone there were thousands of restaurants.
Michell turned around. He could count four, no, five different restaurants in the immediate area.
And there he was. Charlie. Sitting at a sidewalk table across the street and half a block down, at a place called the Potato Palace.
Perfect, Mitchell could tell him that he preferred reality, thank you very much, and that if they couldn’t deal with it, then maybe he didn’t want to go to their wedding.
Charlie saw him walk over, immediately put down his burger and leaned back in his chair, arms crossed. He didn’t say anything.
Mitchell pulled over a chair and sat down across from him.
Then he stared at Charlie, trying to find just the right words.
“Well?” Charlie tapped his fingers on his upper arm. It made a little slapping sound. Slap. Slap. Slap.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. Don’t block me.” Michell leaned forward, hands clasped in front of him. “I want to go to the wedding.”
“Are you crying?”
Mitchell wiped his face. He’d forgotten to set his face filters. “I’ve had a hard few days. But I promise I’ll try to do better.” He sniffed.
“I don’t know if I believe you.”
Michell hunched down in his chair and tried to think of something to say.
“Umm… Nice weather today.”
“Uhuh.” Charlie picked up his burger and took a bite.
“You’re not at McMeaty’s. I was looking for you there.”
Charlie finished chewing, swallowed, and took a sip of his drink. “I always crave potatoes after visiting Krim,” he finally said. Mitchell noticed that Charlie had several types of potatoes on the table in front of him. Regular french fries. Curly fries. A baked potato. Potato skins. And a bowl of potato salad.
“That’s a lot of potatoes.”
“Well, why not?” said Charlie. “It’s not like they’re going to go to my waist.” He patted his flat belly and picked up a curly fry. “One of the benefits of living online.” He pointed at Michell with the fry. “I don’t have to worry about getting sick or injured or keeping up with other regular body maintenance. I bet you go in every year for a health check.”
“Right. You don’t want biology to suddenly raise its ugly head and turn your hair gray or give you wrinkles. I don’t have to worry about that.” Charlie waved the fry in the air. “I don’t have to worry about anything. I have a job I love. I’ve got friends. I’m getting married. Ever since I passed on, you’ve been acting like I deserted you. But I’m right here.” He leaned forward and thumped Mitchell on the shoulder with his free hand. “See? It’s all good.”
“It’s just that… we used to be so close. Now Hamp is off in space and you’re here. And everybody else moved away even before you guys did.”
“We didn’t leave. We moved on with our lives. There’s nothing keeping you from doing the same. You can afford to expand your horizons a little, you know.”
“I know. I’m trying.” Mitchell wiped his eyes. “Oh, I met someone. She lives online.”
“Really. Her name is Donna. She was one of the waitresses Saturday night. She was nice to me.”
“Waitresses are paid to be nice.”
“No, she was really nice. I went back to see her. I gave her a present.”
“You went back to Krim?”
“I got the plague. But I found her, and I found her a present. It was a crystal. Like, for healing. She liked it better than her other one, even though the other one was twice as big.”
Charlie uncrossed his arms.
“So, maybe you have changed.” He picked up his burger.
Charlie then said something else, but Mitchell didn’t hear it. He was thinking of the other crystal that Donna had. The big one. The one with a crack shaped like the letter “K.”