I felt really bad for letting Riley down – she just wanted to talk to her mom, after all – but at the same time I was mad at her for messing up the radio. Then I had an idea. After I got back to camp, I spent several hours with my Vyzor, working with the built-in Virtual Toolkit. The next evening, after we camped near Bavaria, Kansas, I approached Riley. She was just finishing her dinner.
She looked up at me and scowled. “What is it, Robert?”
I really hated it when girls spoke to me in that tone of voice, but I plowed bravely ahead. “I’m sorry about last night. I’ll get someone to fix the radio, and stuff… you really miss your mom, right?”
She teared up. “More than anything in the whole world. What do you want?”
I started getting nervous. “Well… I was just thinking… maybe I could take you to see your mom – sorta…”
Her eyes narrowed. “How? We can’t just leave the camp!”
I’d been holding my two Vyzors behind my back. I pulled them out and showed them to her. Instantly she shook her head and waved her hands No. “Not again, Robert! That thing is like, way scary bad!”
“Riley, I got it all figgered out! We could, y’ know, fly back along the trail and find your mom – your virtual mom, that is.”
She thought about that. “Really? I dunno… It sounds sorta’ creepy… “
“It’ll be just like meeting her for real!”
She thought for a minute. “Well, okay… I’ll try it. But nothing dangerous, okay?”
We sat down together and slipped on our Vyzors. She said, “How does this thing work?”
“Well… it sorta’ scans everything around us, and changes it. It’s called super-reality.”
“Yeah, I can control how much reality we get with this little dial on the side, here – all the way from just normal, to totally freaked-out. See?”
I gave the dial a slight turn, and our view suddenly went cartoon-ish: the trees, the campsite, and Riley were now all just eight garish colors.
“Whoa…” she breathed. “That’s really baad.”
I was just getting started. “Yeah, that’s just the lowest setting. I can make you look like a Denebian space-slug.”
“Please don’t,” she blurted.
I pulled off my Vyzor and looked down at it. “This is the only nice thing my dad ever gave me. I think he was just trying to get me off his back. Well, it worked. There are some adult settings on here that he locked out. He said they were way too hot for me to handle.”
She was getting bored. “Take me to my Maman – please?”
“Sure.” I put the Vyzor on, blinked several times and pulled up the virtual terrain I’d worked on so hard the night before. I reached out and took Riley’s hand. It felt sort of cold and clammy. “Ready?” I said.
I heard her reply, “I think so… Nothing looks all that different yet.”
“That’s the way I programmed it,” I replied. “Let’s fly!”
I focused on the virtual joystick in the center of my view and gave it a nudge with my eye. Up we soared, high above the camp. Riley screamed. “Oh-my-gaw! How do you do that? I’m flying!”
I was in my element now, my own virtual world. I rotated the view to the west, and we soared up above Old Highway 40. I could see Bavaria, and Brookville, and Ellsworth in the distance. I was used to this virtual world, but Riley wasn’t – she kept a death-grip on my hand. “Don’t let go, Robert! Omygaw! This is so fab!” she screamed.
“Here we go!” I shouted back. I nudged the joystick forward with my eye, and we sailed along Old Highway 40, about two hundred feet up. We were flying along at about a hundred miles per hour, I guessed. Virtual Kansas below us was a never-ending bed-quilt of rectangular and circular fields in various shades of brown and green.
Soon we soared above Brookville, which we had passed on foot two days before. About a minute later we flew over the old ghost town of Carneiro, then we passed Kanopolis. As we approached the town of Ellsworth, I blinked several times and reduced our speed. As we slowly descended, Riley said, “Is this where my virtual Maman is, Robert? Will she recognize me?”
I suddenly lost confidence. Hoping fervently that I’d gotten the programming right, I said, “Sure, Riley. She’ll be just like, uh, your real mom.”
As we descended, I recognized the handcart party I’d built the night before. They all looked suspiciously like people from our Fountain Stake group – I had nothing else to model them on, after all. They were all standing rigid, frozen in time. As we approached the ground, they suddenly came to life: circling the handcarts, putting up tents, building campfires, chopping virtual wood and doing all the stuff that a typical group of 21st century pioneers would do.
We touched the ground together, and Riley finally let go of my hand. “Maman? Où es-tu?” she said, looking around. Then she spotted her.
Virtual Joella stood next to the virtual Atkinson family handcart, mechanically removing and replacing a bag of flour, over and over. Her movements were a bit robotic, but then I hadn’t had much time to limber her up, so to speak.
Riley hesitantly approached her virtual mother and said, “Bonjour, Maman. Je suis de retour.”
Virtual Joella set down her flour bag, turned stiffly and smiled at Riley. Blinking her eyes, she opened her mouth, waved her hand and said, “Comment vas-tu? Je suis heureux de te voir.”
I was real proud of the French translation feature – I’d worked really hard on that.
Virtual Joella struck a rigid dance pose and danced several quadrille steps, like a ballerina.
Riley squirmed uncomfortably. “Maman, do you recognize me? It’s me, Riley,” she said plaintively.
Now Virtual Joella clasped her hands and started babbling in French, while staring into space.
“J’entre dans la salle de classe. Je vois les élèves et le professeur. Je dis Bonjour au professeur. Je prends ma place.”
Riley turned away, with tears welling in her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“That’s not my Maman. That’s a robot. And she’s just repeating the first French lesson I learned in school.”
My heart sank. I said, “Riley, I’m sorr – ”
She cut me off. “Take me back. This is all fake. I want my real Maman, Robert.”
I sighed. “Okay… close your eyes.”
I’d learned a long time before that just flipping from the virtual world to the real world could be a shock, so I always closed my eyes before making the switch. I blinked up the main menu and selected End Program; then I closed my eyes and waited a few seconds. I removed my Vyzor and looked around. Riley was still standing next to me in the real world, in our real Fountain Stake pioneer camp.
“Okay, it’s safe to take off your Vyzor, now.”
Riley pulled off her Vyzor, shook her long hair loose, and took a deep breath.
“Oh my… that was, like… awesomazing. Thanks, Robert. It was very… sweet of you.” She smiled wistfully at me.
“Can I like, y’ know, borrow this thing? It’s like, totally rad.”