The wind bit into his face and made his nose tingle, but the windbreaker stopped most of the cold. The world around him was an icebox, white and unremarkable. His gloved hands clutched at a GPS that displayed the depth of the lake beneath him. Without it he would never know he was on top of a lake in the first place. A hundred more feet and they would be at the correct depth: a dark blue on his small GPS screen. His son tugged at his elbow.
“Dad, it’s cold.”
“Will it get warmer?”
The father patted the duffle bag he had slung over his back. Inside was a portable grill. He could hardly wait to get it out and get some warmth seeping back into his hands. The image playing on repeat in his mind was the heated seat in his truck.
The GPS flickered. They’d made it to their destination. He set down the duffle bag and unzipped it, spilling out contents as if it had been gutted. The auger was on top, and he grabbed it and took a few steps away. “This should be good. Watch out now.” His son backed away. He turned the machine on and pressed it into the ice. It punched through without a problem, sending a wave of water over his boots. Luckily the leather stopped the water from penetrating his socks. The hole he made was perfect and he took the auger out of the ice and turned it off and set it down near the duffle bag.
“Do you remember how to set the flags?” the father asked.
“I think so.”
“You do that and I’ll get this fire going.”
The father handed him the tip up flag and then grabbed the grill. He set it up, poured in some propane, and fired up the burner. Heat washed over him. He turned towards his son to see him lowering the baited line into the hole. The flag was pulled back and cocked, and the stand made its way onto the ice. His son beamed. “Ready!” His excitement brought a smile to the father’s lips.
“Come warm up by the fire.”
His son shook his head. The cold must have passed from his mind because instead he leaned in towards the hole to catch a glimpse of the contents within.
“I see one!” He shouted. He leaned his head in closer, staring deep into the lake. “It’s HUGE!”
“Shhh,” you don’t want to spook them.
His son clasped a hand over his mouth and tiptoed to the father in case the fish could hear him walking above them. He thrust his hands toward the flames and sighed with warmth. “Is this how the ice people used to do it?”
The father shrugged. “Probably so. Maybe without the fire.”
“Without the fire? Why would you EVER do it without fire?” He caught himself speaking loudly and lowered his voice. “I bet there’s a fish swimming underneath our feet right now. Maybe a whole school.”
“We’re certainly standing on top of a world.”
His son wasn’t listening. The flag had popped into the air. “Dad! We got one!”
“Go,” the father said.
His son grabbed hold of the line and started to tug. The fish tugged back and soon he was laughing and giggling as he inched the fish closer to the surface. After a final tug the Char flew into the open air.
The father rushed to his son’s side and, not about to touch it with his hands, grabbed the slimy fish through his gloves. He unhooked it and tossed it onto the ice, where it pressed into the snow and stopped moving. He shook off one of his gloves and grabbed a knife from his pocket.
His son’s eyes shimmered with greed and a smile warped his face. “Can I?”
The father set the knife in his son’s hand and the boy squatted down to the fish’s level. Its gills pumped frantically, screaming silently for help, but its body was otherwise still. His son poked the fish with the knife and it flopped forward. His son giggled. A trickle of blood made its way down the fish’s side.
“Just kill it, please,” the father said.
His son nodded. The knife went up and then down. The head of the fish bounced in the air with a dramatic flurry. The father clapped his hands. “Your first catch!” But his son wasn’t sharing in the merriment. His elation had given way to tears. He dropped the knife, staring at the bloodied head of the thing he’d just killed.
“Hey bud, what’s wrong?”
His son sniffled and wiped some of the wetness from his eyes. “Don’t tell my friends I cried. They’ll call me a baby.”
“Baby? Bud, that was so brave of you. All of this was.” The father found his throat constrict and his speech stutter. He wrapped the boy in his arms. “I’m proud of you. Killing something isn’t easy. It shouldn’t be easy.”
His son nodded.
“This was just supposed to be fun. Do you wanna go home?”
“Can we have it for dinner?”
The father pointed at the grill. “We could have it for lunch.”
An icy lake unfolded before him as the sky was painted a deep blue. A wind racked his body and he shivered with discomfort. The sun reflected off the snow and blinded him. He thought of sunglasses and they formed around his face. The world was desolate and alone, but he didn’t have to be. He could have someone to share this experience with. A son, he thought.
The boy appeared behind him and the father turned to look him over. Eight years old, light brown skin, dark hair, piercing eyes. Sufficient.
“It’s FREEZING, dad!”
“Can we warm it up?”
Adjust settings, the father thought. The wind stopped and the world heated up to a perfect 75 degrees, but the ice stayed frozen solid. The father shook off his charred black jacket and tossed it to the ground. Eight years of artificial memories loaded into his mind about the boy standing before him, and when he gazed at the boy again, he felt a mix of new emotions. The most prominent was an odd giddiness that smoldered in his chest.
Run program, the father demanded. A hole drilled itself in the ice and a line and bait materialized in front of his son. “Remember that time I took you soaring over a crater in the moon?” The memory was so vivid the father found himself blurting it out.
His son beamed with pride. “And then we went to that BIG cave with all the crystals growing on the ceiling, and you bought me Handy’s Ice Cream and it was the first time I ever had Handy’s Ice Cream and it was cold but tasted really good and you said that Handy’s Ice Cream was your favorite and that you eat it everyday because it makes you feel—”
The father raised his hand and the boy stopped talking. He knew how it made him feel. “Do you know what to do?”
His son nodded and moved to the hole. He dropped the line and bait in and peered into the depths. “I see some fish in there.”
The father was surprised by the apparent artlessness behind it all. Bait a hook and wait for a bite. Was it so easy an eight-year-old could do it? He did a knowledge search on the subject and found a still image of a long ago ice people holding up their catches and beaming at the camera. They were all so proud.
“This one’s huge, dad.”
His son pulled up on the line and a Char rocketed from the hole. The father rushed up to the fish and grabbed it with both of his hands. It felt like an uncomfortable handshake and he grimaced and tossed it to the ground. He held his hands out in front of him with disgust. They smelled funny.
“Ew! Fishes look like the monsters in Alien Blitz. Ew! Ew! Ew! You should play Alien Blitz with me because it’s super fun and you get to explore all these super cool…”
The father stopped listening. Too wordy, he thought. He couldn’t be sure if the free software his son was built on was programmed to sell ads.
His son fell silent and the rest of the world seemed to follow. Aside from a whisper of wind, nature was mute. The father found the lack of noise unsettling. He begged for something to break the silence.
“People used to do this?” his son asked.
“For food. Then entertainment.”
“Why did we do it?”
The father shrugged. “Nostalgia.”
The father felt a weight drop into his pocket. He reached inside and took out a knife. He could see his reflection in the blade. His face was longer than that of his earthling ancestors, and his eyes burned a deep ruby. It was a look he was proud of, a look that was at the top of that year’s fashion. The father handed the blade to his son and his son stared at his reflection as well. The child looked up at the father, then back at himself. He squeezed his eyes shut, and when he opened them his eyes had turned red.
“Just like you.”
“Just like me,” the father said.
His son kneeled down to the fish’s level and in one fluid stroke chopped off its head. Ruby red blood spouted from its body as its tail made one final flip. It was the image of it on the ice that froze the two in a morbid fascination. The father made no motion to pick it up, and his son let the knife dissolve to pixel dust in his hand. Neither had expected it to bleed.
“I don’t think I want to eat that,” his son said.
There was a moment of silence, then text appeared in front of the father. Your son is sending you an emotion, would you like to receive it? The father pushed the notification away. He could barely process his own emotions at the moment, let alone someone else’s.
He shivered, even though the sun that beat down on the back of his neck gave him a slight sweat. This simulation was too archaic. Too far removed from the high-speed simulations he had grown up in. To him it felt unreal. Inhuman. He wanted to leave.
And that’s when the father found himself kneeling to hug his son. His arms wrapped around the boy’s body and stayed there as nature’s muteness roared all around them. Blood pooled around the fish and soaked into the pixels of the father’s shoes.
Eventually he let go of his son. He stood, frowning. Whatever he had been looking for wasn’t there. He searched for some satisfaction. “How many people can say they went fishing?” He spoke as much to his son as to himself.
“Yeah! Now can we get some Handy’s Ice Cream and play Alien Blitz?” his son asked.
“Yes,” the father said.
Text appeared. End simulation?