qdesjardin: (Default)

3

By afternoon, the families arrive in droves, either by the front door in a line, the gifts and delicacies at hand, or they're looking for comfortable parking space in their cars. The house has been tidied up, with the fruit punch ready, the garbage bins out, the couches dusted and furniture neatly organised.

Martin and Lena are there to greet everyone entering, while Werner is preoccupied in his room with that Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War novel, which he's been mid-way through reading since that time – the text on the pages show slight fading, but at least it's something that he keeps a connection with. He remembers playing Ocarina of Time once at Klaus's place, where Link traverses 7 years between Hyrule's past and future, many terrible things happening to the towns over that time, such that it feels like a different place entirely.

A knock on his door. It's Rieke, and she tells him that there's boys, and a few girls. They're taller than her, but they're all asking the same thing: where is Werner, the prodigal son of honour?

The news makes him beam.

Werner descends the stairs, and he acutely feels everyone's eyes on him, arousing in him that timid shyness – like when he was on the spelling bee once, and he had to articulate every single letter so the crowd could hear; how he dislikes this kind of embarassing publicity! (He never really asked for this.)

"It's Wernie!" That is Klaus, his voice cracking – the lanky-faced boy who is all but recognisable under puberty's changes. Werner remembers filming his football matches in the school fields. "Hey, long time no see! And who's this gal with ya?"

Alongside Klaus, there's Rene, who has grown plump and big in the interim, chewing on bubblegum with the game disc of 'Warfare Futuristique' at hand.

"I can't believe it!" Klaus goes, coming up the stairs with all the grown-ups talking about them. "You're like one of the first people who's ever recovered from Sinclair's Malaise. It's so weird, looking at you; it's almost as if I've stepped back in time.. I'm talking to my friend from two years ago."

"Yeah, tell me about it." Werner decides to introduce them to Rieke, to deflect attention off himself. "She's Rieke by the way. She's erm.."

He isn't sure how best to describe her.

"Your friend? Little sister?" Rene asks.

"Not really.." For the lack of a better thing to say- "She's my android."

"Hallo!" Rieke nods towards them, coming ahead of Werner. "How do you do?"

"Your android?" Klaus blinks; did he hear his friend right? "Seriously!? Are you sure you're not suffering from cryo-disorientation? I don't believe it – do you Rene?"

"Nuh-uh." (Rene is too busy savouring all the gum's immense flavours.)

Martin, noticing the commotion about the household android, ventures onto the stairsteps and gathers everyone's attention. "Some of you I'm sure have been asking who this girl is. Maybe you've seen her take walks with me, or my son. Her name is Rieke – a lifelike android built and designed at my company, and the very first prototype of her kind. And she'll be one of our family members from now on, treated like another person."

To Martin's coworkers, all of this is redundant, but to the other family friends, their surprise is as good as the cheers they give, admiring Rieke under a new light.

"She looks so real..!"

"Wowzers!"

Rieke pirouettes under her spotlight, and with the sun shining in from the oculus window of the ceiling, she almost seems to glitter with joyous energy. And then she does a curtsy, and everyone applauds.

"Did you design her?" someone asks.

"No, that's not in my department," Martin goes. "She's primarily the work of Hans Andersen, our company's esteemed inventor. If everything goes well with her, we'll be doing mass-production with androids like her- hey, where'd she go-?"

She has gone, and so have Werner and his friends. While everyone's been distracted by Martin's speech, Werner has snuck her through the kitchen, out to the backyard, where a tent has been set up with BBQ catering and balloons prepared. The roast beef is still steaming under the auto-cooker, but the utensils and plates are there beside on the table.

Escaping public situations is what Werner has grown good at – he can do it almost to the degree of a magician's sleight-of-hand technique; all it takes is a break in people's attention on him, and he could sneak away. In this case, with three others, Werner picked the opportunity when his father was making his rousing speech about Rieke. What a shy person wouldn't do.

"If my parents had their way," he goes, "we'd all be stuck standing there while everyone asks us questions."

They enter under the tent's shade, sitting by a table, with Rieke joining them.

"We missed you so much," Klaus says. "A lot's happened since you 'died'.. in junior high, we're all falling heads-over-heels with our English teacher, the food court is a battlefield – there are some real bastards we had to deal with from the older grades, and you're still like 11!"

"You've got a lot to catch up on.. omh om nomh-" Rene spits out his gum and sticks it onto his pant knees.

"I know.. " Werner sighs, his hands playing with the utensils.

"Let's show you this for example!" Rene notions for Klaus to get up, and they head out to the grass, where he pulls what looks like an origami piece out of his pockets, a petite unicorn. When he tosses it in the air, the piece seems to unfold by itself, until it lands as a more 3-D, larger version of itself, on its four hooves. "That's the latest in utilitarian tech – 'drogamis.' It's like a pet that you never have to feed or walk, just charge its power on the occasion, and it'll do your bidding. It skitters on the floor, passing notes to your friend on a test, or say you want to see how this chick is like, so you can send it over in stealth, watch and hear what it sees through the phone. It's so awesome Wern.. hey Tibbers, tap Klaus on the head!"

And Tibbers the unicorn trots over, chasing after Klaus who is running away like it's a rabid dog, "Oh no, not again!" and then it leaps onto his shoulder, his head and gives him a ticklish lick on his hair. "Hahahah- haha- stop it!"

"You see! And that's only the beginning!" Rene tells his Tibbers to stop now.

Werner is giggling; his mind is already whirring up possibilities on using those drogamis, as well as wondering how these drogamis work – do they use GreenTooth, Internet, or radio to connect for example?

Rieke picks up the fallen drogami, which is trying to balance itself on the grasses. "It looks so cute."

"Yea, it is!"

While Rene goes over to show Rieke how to handle it, Klaus decides to be candid with Werner about how it is, getting older. "Maybe you've noticed my voice has grown deeper, it's cracking – I'm half-a-head taller than you, and I can probably kick your ass. We're no longer just kids. It'll hit you too, Wernie. Puberty."

"I know what it is," Werner goes, growing aware of the time difference.

"No, you've only heard of it from your science books. It's a different thing to experience it entirely. Just like how sex is. You start to see life from this new perspective, you feel wild and volatile. The girls no longer have cooties anymore, they start to look hot, and you get all excited about them, you lose your mind.. yadda yadda. And you start growing hair all over, and some acne."

"Eeck." It sounds gross, but more importantly, the thought of losing his composure due to hormonal changes, going insane over the girls, it's not what he's looking forward for. Then again, he'd have gone through puberty already if it were not for that illness. It's an inevitability, and Werner feels anxious about what is coming ahead of him. "I hope when it hits me, I'm taller than you, and I beat you at basketball! Mouahaha!"

"That's the spirit! Nothing to worry about when you leave your old toys behind."

Rieke seems to be getting along with Rene just fine, and he's showing her some tricks with his hand – mostly bending his fingers out of proportion, having her giggle at that.

And Werner, imagining the thought of his older self, still dealing with a young and childlike Rieke. He could relish looking after her as her 'big brother,' but it would be eerie to still see her frozen in age, her young face like a familiar street to him, that he's walked through his whole years.

I suppose it would be amusing to see a young girl with the experience of a woman..

"Hey Rieke," Rene asks. "Since you're an android, that means you won't get older, yes? You'll still look the same, if you live long enough to see us marry."

She shakes her head. "You are mistaken. I do indeed grow as time goes on, into a woman. I don't know how I know this, but it's what I feel inside me." Then she grins.

The images change. No longer is Werner toting little Rieke, hand-in-hand, but instead he is dancing with her, his hand on her shoulder, and her dress glittering and her lips red in lipstick. And then she gazes at him, in love with him-

"Gaahhh!" Werner is shaking his head. "I don't believe this! How are you supposed to grow Rieke? If you're wires and circuitry on the inside- artificial parts don't just grow, do they?"

"Should it matter?" She looks at him, her eyes solemn. "My body is not flesh and blood like yours, but if in the end, I am a girl, a person like you, does that make any difference with my existance?"

"Well, yes.. you are made different; what happens if, for example, you have a breakdown? We'd go to the doctors for medicine and surgery, and you go.. to the manufacturers for repairs. They'd just do a total replacement of your 'organs,' or if your main memory is failing, they'd back everything up into a brand new mind. Does that mean anything to you?"

"As long as I can be well enough to live," Rieke goes, her smile on her face brightening her words with a sincerity.

"Hey," Rene asks, "can you do superhuman feats, like karate chop through a concrete block-"

Their parents are calling them, showing up in the backyard too.

"We're coming!"

qdesjardin: (Default)

2

Tonight is Martin and Lena's wedding anniversary, and they're about to head out for a steakhouse restaurant. In their colourful attire, Lena sprays perfume over her neck, while Martin answers calls from family friends, who wish them a happy night.

"Hmm, shall we get going?" Martin goes, after the last call. He kisses her on the cheek, almost tasting the intoxicating scent. "You smell so lovely.. I love it when you wear this stuff."

"Will you still love me when it's all gone?"

"No."

"Oh, stop it Martin!" She laughs.

"We can always begin again, this time with a fragrance that's not in short supply. C'mon – we're gonna be late."

As they descend down the stairway, Rieke is playing another game on the SBOX – Burnout Leagues, where she's having fun smashing the other cars down the racing road (and making "vroom vroom" sounds to herself).

"Hallo Rieke-" Martin gets her attention. "We'll be off shortly. When we leave, all the doors and windows will go smart, so you can't leave the house."

"Walk us out, alright sweetheart?" Lena offers her hand, and Rieke pauses the game – she's in her pajamas – and she follows them to the entrance doors, where they put their shoes on. "We'll be back around 11; you know how to call us, right? In case of an emergency-"

"Yes Lena."

"Good." Lena leans in and kisses Rieke on the head – the marionette's skin warm and blushing to the touch.

Rieke can hear them talk about her as they're walking to their car. "She's so sweet with me," Lena speaks, "she prayed for our son, and she has a way with making coffee."

"If only some of the kids were as nice as her," Martin rambles.

Alone in the house now, Rieke resumes nitrous-boosting her truck to the finish line, until she gets bored of winning all the time, and then she switches the TV to the channels. There's some cartoons, like 'Hey Arnold!' where Helga is still fibbing with herself whether she wants to hate Arnold, or love him.

She flicks through the various channels, catching glimpses of the numerous different images that flash by her. There's a talk show, one old geezer sitting in a dark room, solemnly interviewing a woman about her whistleblowing over the secretive NATO military technologies (60 Minutes), or a comedy show about people in a workplace, getting into wacky hijinks with their co-workers.

Finally, Rieke lands on something that sparks her interest; she sees Superman flying over the horizons, into space, before it turns out it's the end of the movie. Can a person actually fly just by themselves? Maybe she could, one day.

The next movie, it's about an alien who is left behind on Earth, and he finds a boy named Elliott who takes care of him with his brother and sister. "E.T. phone home!" Rieke mimes along with the character, and she finds herself laughing with the cuteness, when Elliott kisses the girl in his classroom, and then she is crying tears of joy when E.T. is resurrected, and they bring him back to his mothership. "I'll be right here," the alien points to Elliott's heart, and Rieke finds her own chest quivering in happiness, for that is the feeling of love.

The one after that, it is Titanic. It's such an invigorating watch, the tale of old Rose remembering her moments on the fabled ship, almost a hundred years ago – with the one person, Jack, saving her from a life of suffocating aristocracy, from the ship's sinking, and- it's so sad, Jack dies in the ocean. But Rose is happy at least, she has a loving family in America, and she got to do all those things she promised Jack..

Before Rieke knows it, it's already way past 11 in the night (almost midnight) – but her parents still haven't come home yet. She wonders what has happened, and remembering their phone number, she heads for the phone and calls them.

*ring ring!*

It takes a few tries, before anyone picks up.

"Rieke?" It's Lena, sounding like she's panicked. "I've got some very special news.. it's Werner. The doctors found a cure for his illness. We're bringing him home."

"That's wonderful!" Rieke's chest leaps; she'll get to see him at least.

"He's not yet fully recovered, but it's a great hope already."

So excited is Rieke that when the doors open, she lets out a squeak at the sight of Martin and Lena – wheeling in Werner who is slumped on the wheelchair, with IV drips and life-monitoring systems attached to the brim on his body.

"This is Werner," Lena says, smiling. "This is my son."

His body is rather thin, from being nourished mainly by IV for all these times, and his skin is drained of colour. But his blue eyes already hint at the jovial mind behind the face.

"Isn't he beautiful..?"

Werner vaguely tilts his head to that girl, not comprehending who she is, or what she's doing in the house.

"He's the most beautiful thing I've seen," Rieke goes.

/

"You are an android," Werner goes.

"I'm a girl."

In Werner's room, the two of them are convening, with Rieke standing, and Werner sitting down on his chair, his glowing leg braces making him resemble an action figure, still getting used to the unfamiliarity of his own room despite nothing much being touched since.

"I've been muddled under a black ocean for the past years, and I would have never expected to be in contact with a humanoid AI."

"AI?" Rieke blinks.

"Artificial Intelligence. Aren't you already aware that you are a machine, underneath the lifelike facade?"

"I'm not a machine, not like a coffee maker or a car, or a sewing machine." Rieke steps forward, as if asserting herself. "I'm a person, like you, and my name is-"

"Rieke – my parents told me. Do you know if you have a serial number, or who your makers are?" Those are some tough questions for her to answer, and on some level Werner knows it – he wants to see just how well she's able to comprehend and answer naturally.

"My maker.."

"The ones who manufactured you."

Rieke puzzles over her memories so far, and the first thing in her mind (before the haze) is being asked lots of questions in a white room, by people in white coats, with wirings hooked over her body. Simple things like what would she do in a given situation, and then being alone in a pink room, playing with the cute plush toys.

"I don't know," she goes.

"Never mind." Werner stands up, his leg braces whirring with effort. He reaches out to touch her cheeks, her face. "You feel so real, and you're warm. You have body heat. This is the stuff that Science Fiction authors would dream of imagining in their own stories."

"Do you know who manufactured you, Werner?" Rieke asks, out of the blue, and for some reason it maks him guffaw.

"Hahaha, I- people don't get manufactured. It's not like that for flesh and blood humans. A man and a woman, they.. well.." He is visibly blushing. "When they love each other enough, they can have a child. That's how I was born, from my parents."

"Oooh. If I love you a lot, then.. we can have a child?"

"Oh, get outta here!"

/

On Werner's walks (leg therapy), Rieke accompanies him while his parents are busy preparing for his coming home party. He doesn't talk much, just observes with his eyes how the scenery has changed, whilst Rieke would wave 'Hallo' to every neighbour she sees. Then he'd put on his headphones, silence out the natural soundscape with the thrashes and drums of metal music, and then he'd gallop and skip down the sidewalk, and Rieke would join him in his fun.

The news spreads through the neighbourhood about Werner's return, as well as that charming girl accompanying him. Gossip spreads over social media, and their answering machines.

Everyone is buying gifts, as well as preparing food and delicacies for the boy's sake. Books, a new laptop, packages of green and ginseng tea, books ("Life without reading is a shame," he was once quoted saying at school), an exercise set, a new PS5 console and tons of games to go along with it.

The whole ordeal has his parents exhausted, with Martin getting tons of congratulations at work for Werner's return, and Lena answering the phone nearly all day.

And Werner? He is admiring how Rieke could manage to get so deep into Eternum Souls, just playing by herself. The build she has on her character is serviceable, and she is struggling to get past the part where she's being hunted by private detectives – he tells her that she needs to change her outfit every time she's spotted by a detective, so to lose their trail.

"Waaa, how could I not have thought of that?" Rieke goes.

"I thought that should've been obvious."

/

The pharmacutical drugs spin on the platter, while Lena is sectioning off the appropriate pills to give to Werner each day, morning and evenings.

"You put the pink ones here.." she tells Rieke, filling a miniscule bottle with the pink pills. "Make sure Werner has two green ones in the morning, and one pink pill in the evening, so he'll recover smoothly."

"Mhm."

Werner enters the kitchen, in his pajamas, his curiousity roused.

"Oh Werner," Lena goes, "we're just getting your pills ready; you'll be having one tonight."

"What are they for?" he asks. He's wary of having his awareness hampered by any side-effects of the drugs – he remembers articles where college students, suffering mania/depression, have taken olanzapine and it turns out it makes them drowsy (as well as getting fatter).

Rieke steps forward. "The pink pills accelerate your body's restitution process for your atrophied tissues, but at the cost of drowsiness. And the green ones undo that effect." She knows Werner seems smart enough to be able to understand.

It surprises Werner about Rieke's straightforwardness – her use of medical terminology like that. His own mother would've just said something along the lines of "They'll help you get better soon, just take them!" He relaxes, and says, "Give me one."

And when he is tucked in bed, the pill is already taking effect on him as he yawns, feeling the sleepiness take over his awareness, and soon he is curled up, his head cozy on his soft pillow like a baby, his arms cuddling his teddy bear. Little does anyone know that Werner has his sentimental side too, but rarely shows it to people.

"Good night, sleepyheads," Lena goes, before turning off the lights.

The celestrial darkness of the room's stars and galaxies puts Rieke into a tranquil mood, alone, hearing the occasional car hum by outside.

"Good night.." she whispers on the bunk bed above Werner, before she closes her eyes.

/

On the day of Werner's welcoming party, he is anxious – still caught up in the thought of those two years, having passed him by indifferently. He's munching on French Toast, watching 'Attack on Titan' on the TV, one of the few shows he's able to recognise from the new lineups, but the episodes have advanced far past the storyline he already knows. New characters, a new situation between Eren, the hunters and Titans, and a few people who seem to have disappeared altogether. It's disorienting to apprehend, but even worse – the people who are coming over for his party, it's going to be like that with them too.

His old friends would be around 13 or 14 now, and would he'd be forgotten by them? Left behind along the sidelines of time's passing? Would he get to have fun with Rene, Klaus, Bruno again, or would they not be there anymore? It almost makes his heart choke up.

Rieke comes by with his green pills and water, when she notices him staring off into contemplation. He seems particularly engrossed by the scene where Eren Yaeger is just chewing bubblegum, waiting for Ymir to arrive with them harpoons.

"Guten tag!" she greets him, waking him out of his reverie. "Aren't you excited for today? Other families, and even your friends are coming to visit you!"

Werner nonchalently takes the pills from her hand and gulps them down, and then he snaps back to current reality, like the muffled bubble he's been in has been popped. "Oh, Rieke – I was.. it's strange, being back after two years, when it felt for me like a prolonged sleep. It's such a long time, and my friends would have likely moved on."

"I don't know how long a year feels yet," Rieke goes. "I do know, there's 365 days in a year, and I've lived two weeks in your house, and it feels long enough already."

"I hope they still know me. If none of them show today.."

Then Rieke starts frowning. "Don't think like that. You're an interesting person, and why would anyone want to forget someone as smart as you? Many invitations have gone out, the whole neighbourhood has heard, and your friends are bound to come!"

"Is that so?" On the TV, he sees Eren and his buddies rally up to assault the underwater Titans. "I guess we can only wait and see."

And Rieke, watching too, clasps Werner's hands. "I know they'll come. You'll see."

qdesjardin: (Default)

The Marionette – by QDesjardin
n. A puppet worked from above by strings attached to its limbs. Originally 'Little Mary' in French, for the first marionette created was the Virgin Mary.

1

In the not too distant future, there is a lone inventor who once cared for his young daughter, Rieke – her fair yellow hair and charming yet dainty face made all who saw her fall under a spell of adoration. But an accident took away her life; her doll fell down from the apartment window, onto the road, and when she hastened to retrieve it, she collided with a car, and there she lay, lifelessly still on the street, with the blood pouring from her lips and nostrils.

The doctors have tried everything they could to keep her alive, but only in a comatose state, with very little chance of awakening from her deep slumber. Thoughts of pulling away his daughter's life support come to him – to allow her to rest in heaven, instead of remaining deprived, but the inventor shut away those notions, and put his daughter's belongings into storage – dust may gather upon them, but it is his hope that one day, he will get to see Rieke frolick about again, balleting from room to room in her lively manner.

As time passes, the inventor's productivity grinds to a halt; he could not help himself from weeping whilst he puts together the delicate parts on his workbench, for the investors who have paid him a fortune to deliver the gidgets they want.

His sadness does not go unnoticed. One of the major companies, Cybertronics, offers him an opportunity to mend his aching heart – there is a growing need from the wealthy families to have children to tend for, but a viral outbreak has rendered them irrevocably sterile; no matter how much the couples have tried, they could not conceive a child. And the solution would be to craft for them an artifical one, to entrust their hearts with.

This artificial child, besides fulfilling the need to love (and be loved in return), must also be distinguished from other children – the experience of caring for it must not be irritating, as when one deals with naughty children, or a strain, as when one has to spend extra groceries to keep a child fed and healthy.

Besides those requests, the inventor is free to come up with a prototype of his own imaginings, so he pours all his energies into coming up with a plausible design of the child. He pours through books and online articles about artificial beings, like the Jewish golems, the Mechanical Turk (chess-playing machine, actually a hoax) – staying up days and nights, with thoughts of Rieke always on his shoulders.

The pages of his sketchbooks become filled with varying designs and outlines for the being of the child. How will it feel, how will it think – how will it keep itself going, and if it could be allowed to grow old, and expire.. those sorts of considerations that cannot be left out of the equation. And above all, if it could be loved in turn by a real person, as a person instead of a novel toy.

Months later, he comes up with an actual build; the delicately-assembled modules of the child, the head, the torso, arms and legs, with the exterior having life-like skin, and its face resembling his daughter's. Its positronic brain will allow it to learn and feel experience, as a person would, more than the limited intelligences of conventional computing.

The inventor names her Rieke also. How beautiful she seems, as a still being, and how more beautiful will she blossom to become, when he breathes life and has her animate. The desire of Man, mirroring that of God, to have another being in your image, yet have their own volition.

The first family to be blessed with a manmade child – the Herzogs, they have been chosen out of many thousands, not in the least because of their strignant loyalty towards the company, but also because their case is freshly tragic; their 11-year old boy, Werner, has remained in cryo-stasis for two years, being taken by a mysterious disease, and it would be painful for them to repeat raising another child up to that age, having poured all their love into petite Werner.

Perhaps they could do with her. A private test without public fanfare, for she would be the first of a new kind; the public beta for these artificial children (with press releases) will come once Rieke can get along with her new home.

"I hope you can be happy," the inventor whispers into Rieke's ear. "You'll love them, and they'll love you in return – my daughter. That is the greatest thing anyone will ever know. It is no fantasy, it is no careless product of wild imaginings."

The parents, Martin and Lena, they've been interviewed about the prospect of taking care of their new marionette – they'll be making history, don't forget – and it seems like they'll have little problem taking care of Rieke. There's no sign of martial discord, they are forthcoming for all the questions asked; they've raised Werner lovingly, and they seem more than willing to help Rieke grow into a goodly adult.

/

When the technicians ship her over to their home in the suburbs, they unbox and unwrap her from the cushioned box, where she's dressed in an innoceously white tutu, her eyes resting asleep. Standing her up on the hardwood floor, they push specific points on her body, on her legs and neck in a specific order, and the sleeping beauty awakens.

"Ha..llo?" Her soprano voice wavers, but it's cute enough that it completes the impression of the ideal daughter. She todders around, taking her surroundings in, finding that she's with four other people, the technicians she recognises already. "Who are you?" she asks the couple.

"What – she doesn't know who we are already?" Lena asks. "This is outrageous!"

"Well.." The technicians know they'll encounter some incredulity from the family, and one of them is holding Rieke's shoulders in reassurance. "We haven't pre-programmed her to love you specifically, but she does know how to love, once you'll get to know each other. It's the philosophy behind her design, built to resemble a natural person from the ground up. That includes relationship-wise; once you connect with her over time, the feelings are much more richer, as opposed to having us tell her she's supposed to love you."

"It's nice to meet you Rieke-" Martin shakes her hand. "How do you do?"

"I'm doing fine, thank you for asking." She does a polite curtsy. "What's your name?"

"Martin Herzog, and this is my wife Lena. We'll be your new parents.. Rieke. Rieke Herzog. I like the sound of your name."

"If you have any concerns or questions," the technicians go, "don't hesitate to call us. We'll be providing you with Rieke's legal documentation shortly, the ownership rights, insurance policies, and you'll just have to sign the papers.."

/

"She looks so real..!" Lena's mouth is agape, her hands fuming as a tear comes out of her eye. "I cannot.. I can't accept this! It's no replacement for loving your own child!"

"Please calm down! I thought you were-"

Martin and Lena are in the privacy of their bedroom, while Rieke is left alone, exploring the house for herself.

"She may be artificial, her insides circuitry and metal, but she's still a young girl!" Martin tells her. "She needs our love all the same." He goes over to Lena's side to console her. "Look hun, if.. it doesn't work out for the both of us, we could return her back to the company, there'll be no charge. Oki? Listen, you were so unhappy without Martin, and this is our chance to rediscover that light in our lives again. I thought you were looking forward to her."

Down by the winding staircase, Rieke finds portraits of the family – the little boy, sitting on Lena's lap, smiling; Martin and Lena, holding hands in their wedding dresses; the boy, their son, older now, looking through a camera on the football field.. and one where they're all skiing down the slopes of a snowy mountain.

Her eyes linger on the portraits; it seems like such a happy family, but she's also shy that she'd be able to rejoice in the same happiness.

Lena is huddled over the stairs, looking down at her. She's anxious about all the revealing details of family life, being scanned and processed for Rieke to use; it's as uncomfortable as having a stranger going through her things, and yet it would be so impolite to tell Rieke to go away – get out of the house, out of my mind!

"Let's go to her," Martin says, smiling, and he leads his wife down to Rieke, where he taps her shoulder, finding her face with an awestruck expression.

"You have such a happy family," Rieke goes. "What is your son's name?"

"Werner."

"I saw him getting older – how old is he now?"

"If he were here now, he'd be 13. For two years, he's been sleeping in hibernation, so he's still 11-years old."

"Why isn't he here? Where is he?"

"At the hospital. The doctors say he is sick with a virus, and they're still looking for a treatment."

"I hope Werner gets well soon," Rieke goes. "He is so cute, and I'd love to meet him."

/

The household doesn't have girl's clothing, but luckily Rieke has come along with her own wardrobe, helpfully packed by the company. Some nice dainty dresses, in pink, blue and green; a set of bunny pajamas (including slippers); and jeans with sweaters, when it gets colder.

One of the first things Martin does, after having her dressed up for the rainy Spring, is take her out to the neighbourhood for a walk. It's just freshly rained, and a rainbow gleams over the houses, under the rays of the mid-afternoon sunlight, and the air is alight with that crisp freshness.

Rieke notices the waters, carrying the fallen leaves down the curb like a petite river, into the drainage – while Martin is pointing out the homes of the neighbours: there's Annie, there lives the Zabels who believe in the Holy Christ, and by that home there, new families move in and out on a monthly basis (apparently it's haunted).

A few neighbours notice the girl, walking alongside Martin. ("It's my niece," he explains.)

And when they pass by the house with the pink flamingos, Rieke is enthralled by their appearance so much that she finds herself moving to touch them, "Ooooh," only to find that it's just still ornaments.

For dinner, it is awkward with Rieke sitting by, watching Martin and Lena munch on hungrily the sauerkraut porridge – herself, she has no bowl of food (she doesn't eat), but she finds it amusing to watch them dip their spoons into the soup – so much so, that she picks up a spoon of her own, and makes airplane noises as she flies the spoon by her face.

Their mouths are gaping open, in amusement; and then Rieke bursts into uncontrollable laughter, because for some reason they look funny, and they are laughing along with her in a release of the whole day's tension.

At night, she is tucked into bed in Werner's room, the walls aglow with blue stars and violet nebulae that would soothe the eyes in dreamy ambiance.

"Do you sleep, mein Fraulein?" Lena asks, while Martin is taking a nightly shower.

"I can lay still, and not make a single peep. But I'll always be awake enough, in case troubles happen."

"Huh, that's pretty nifty. I mean, do you ever dream?"

"I mull over the day's experiences."

"Oh. I suppose that's close enough. Anyways.. well, good night!"

Lena shuts the door behind her, not looking back at Rieke as the longings flood her heart – when was the last time she tucked her actual son in that same bed? He's old enough to do so himself, but on the times when he caught the cold.. or..

It was in the backyard, and Werner was making paper airplanes to fly by the gardens. It seemed like just any other ideal summer day, and Lena was on the porch, sewing patches into his pants, when what she saw would send a chilling numbness through her limbs. She saw him freeze, mid-pose, just as he was about to fly another airplane, and then as he tumbled to the grass, in pain, she heard his groan.

"Werner? WERNER!?"

As she'd waited for the ambulance to arrive, she put the blankets over him in bed – his skin felt cool to the touch, and the look in his eyes seemed that he was fading away into a mist. And when the doctors told her that he was amidst other child victims of a new and unprecedented illness, she cried inconsolably for days; even having to take leave from her workplace, just to grieve.

At the very least, her son is still alive, but the result is still the same – she's without her Werner, just except that there's the faintest hope of ever having him in her arms again. And that hope grows torturous as the days pass by.

How can this artificial thing even hope to mend her heart?

/

The next day, when Martin leaves for work, Lena is doing the household chores – vacumning each of the rooms, getting the laundry into the cleaning machine; Rieke follows her around, observing her going through the motions, wondering why Lena seems to be perpetually frowning when it seems like such a cheerful day.

"Don't you ever stop?" Lena throws her arms to her sides.

"Stop?"

"You've been following me around, like you've got nothing to do on your own. Why? I have to put away my son's coats.."

A beat – Lena has an idea. "Hmm.. do you want me to show you some of Werner's games?" She leads Rieke to the living room, where the curved surface of the TV seems to complement the outside scenery through the window, and she opens the cabinet where the old SBOX console rests, the dust gathered on its casing.

Rieke marvels at the images when the TV is turned on – the crisp, hyperreal colours of people, they are playing basketball (Sports Channel). Lena switches the channel input to INPUT2, and as the SBOX console boots up, the Microsoft logo cleanly splashes over the blackness, before it loads up the game disc that's been inside – Eternum Souls, that game where Lena always sees Werner grunting about in his seat, in the steampunk Victorian atmosphere.

"Ermm," Rieke goes, as she is handed the two-pronged controller. She gets herself accustomed to moving the control sticks around, navigating the menu, and then she makes a new save game, where it's a cutscene introducing the perils of a doomed Scottish country, and it is up to her character to escape to the Unforsaken Realms.

"I don't really know how to play the game," Lena goes. "I just know Werner used to talk about it with his friends over the phone, and he'd get so excited.." She sighs.

It's a tough game to play; the dark hues of the environment along with the menacing monsters Rieke encounters in the lighthouse tower make her feel excitablely uneasy – there's the first boss fight which feels so unfair, until she realises she's not meant to fight him yet (after dying 30 times). The vibrancy of the game's sound, pouring through the wallspeakers, it has her so involved in the game's reality.

Then in the background, she hears someone sniffling.

Rieke puts the controller down on the table, and in the kitchen, she finds Lena, crying into her arms, a bottle of wine upon the dinner table, with a glass that is dripping with the alcoholic drink.

"Are you hurting Lena..?" Rieke asks, softly approaching her.

"No, no Rieke, I didn't hurt myself, please don't worry-"

".. in here?"

And Lena glances up – Rieke is notioning at her own chest, her eyes reflecting sadness. "You must have been so lonely, without Werner. He made you so very happy, just to see him everyday, and I don't know how long a time two years would feel, but it must feel like a long time ago. Two years, without seeing his smile, without ever having the chance to hold him.. it must hurt so much.. "

For some reason, it touches a place deep in Lena, and she's clutching her own aching chest, a new kind of welling sadness she is feeling. "I miss him.. and I don't know what to do.. I try to make myself forget about him so it wouldn't hurt, but I always keep expecting him to come in through the doors, like nothing's happened."

"I may not know much," Rieke goes, touching her shoulder, "but I remember, from somewhere, that love is the greatest thing you'll ever know. To love someone, and be loved in return. And if I could do something for you, I'll love Werner too, as a sister to a brother. So much that it will make him better, and.. he'll come home. I will promise."

How a heart can be touched, by a being comprised by silicon and wiring – Lena realises.

".. thank you, Rieke."


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