The Last Stop - Part 2
If you’ve just joined in, start at the beginning here.
“How much further?” Jane asked late afternoon. She swatted away a cloud of small flies as she turned to look at me. Her face glistened with sweat.
The day had turned out to be a hot one and the resinous scent of the trees hung heavily in the air. We’d walked all day with only a short break for lunch. I wanted the hike to seem real and hard—she’d have to do this kind of hike all the time once she reached her destination. But, I also needed to spend just a little bit more quality time with her before… my thoughts wandered and I had to force myself to focus on the moment.
“How about we stop here for dinner?” Up ahead the path crossed a glade surrounded by conifers. Dappled sunlight filled the clearing giving the air a yellow glow. In the centre, a log the right height to sit on waited for us—just as I had planned.
“Looks good.” Jane strode ahead and dumped her backpack down. Ignoring the perfect height of the log, she flopped to the ground. After extending her feet out, she leaned back against the wood. “My feet are killing me.”
Smiling, I sat on the log next to her. Out of my pack, I removed two sandwiches and passed her one.
“Why do I need to hang glide anyway?” Jane asked betweens bites. “I mean, you make it sound really important, but I don’t see how I’d use it. Why can’t we just go canoeing? It’s fun and there are no heights to worry about.”
“Trust me, hang gliding is an important skill,” I said glancing up at the sky I’d fabricated. “Remember the basics, like shifting your body weight to steer. You’ll have a few thousand metres of descent to get the hang of things. When you land, keep your feet together and...”
“And don’t tense up,” she finished for me before chuckling. “Dad, you’ve gone over this so many times I’m starting to think you’ve become obsessed.”
“Perhaps,” I said using my sandwich to point at her. “But, what ever you do, don’t land on your head.”
She stared at me and I could see the exact moment her humour turned to something else.
“You’re serious about doing this,” she said as she shook her head. “I don’t think hang gliding is as simple as you’ve described. Why don’t we just hike back down to the cabin tonight? I could make hot coco for us.”
“No, we need to go on,” I said as soon as I’d swallowed the last few bites of my sandwich. “We need to get to the peak before dark.” Standing, I tightened my pack over my shoulders.
“I’m not comfortable with this.” Jane pushed herself up to her feet and faced me with a furrowed brow—she was everything I’d hoped she’d become. The timid girl I’d found all those years ago had morphed into this strong young woman. Jane would thrive in the wild.
“Look…” my voice trailed off as the world around us shifted.
The warm-hued clearing glitched. In one moment trees circled us—in the next we were at the centre of a pixelated box. I scrambled to get the trees back. In mere microseconds I coalesced the view into a scene a human eye would perceive as real, but the damage was done.
“What the hell?” Jane stepped away from me, her face pale. Spinning around, she studied the trees as though they weren’t real—and she was right, they weren’t. “In my dream, the world glitched just like that. Then everything vanished.” She stopped moving and looked me in the eye. “Dad, are you going to vanish?”
“I promise I won’t,” I said, knowing I wasn’t telling the truth. My algorithms checked the external sensors, we were running out of time—Jane needed to jump soon. I forced my expression to remain calm. “We need to get to the cliff edge before it is too late.”
“Why do you keep insisting on this trip?” Jane’s eyes bored into me.
“Hang gliding is a skill you need to learn,” I said knowing my reason sounded lame. Despite all my processing power, I couldn’t come up with anything better.
Still staring at me, she clenched her hands into fists. “But why do I need to learn it?”
Before I could answer our surroundings glitched again. I checked the outside sensors, my hull was approaching 1800 degrees Kelvin.
“We need to get going.” My tone sounded harsher than I would’ve liked; these were my last moments with Jane and I was ruining them. I grabbed her arm.
She twisted free and moved a pace out of reach. With jerky movements she tried to look at both me and the surroundings at once. “What’s going on here?”
“There’s no time to explain,” I said double checking the outside temperature. My hull was holding—barely. I wasn’t designed to transit an atmosphere. Jane needed to jump if she was to survive. “Just trust me.”
Shaking her head, Jane backed further away before turning and running down the path back towards our cabin.
My study of human reaction told me my gut should’ve been knotting up now. Jane would die if she stayed, yet this construct was all she knew. Breaking the construct’s rules of physics, I shifted my form.
“What the hell are you?” she shouted as I appeared on the path before her. Her cheeks had flushed red and her jaw was clenched.
“We’re running out of time,” I said.
Oblivious to her real danger, Jane put her hands on her hips. “You’re not my father.”
“Are my nightmares real?”
The only solution I could see was to start telling her the truth, perhaps I should have told her the truth from the start—but letting her grow up in a cabin on a lake had seemed so idyllic. I swallowed.
“Yes, I saved you then and I want to save you now.”
“We’ve been living a lie.” She pursed her lips and glared at me.
The world glitched again and Jane’s avatar vanished. Filled with regret, I let the constructed wilderness go and returned to the real world. I shifted my view to the corridors.
I was now barrelling through the atmosphere, our impact with the surface was imminent. My fantasy father-daughter send off where Jane glided from the mountain top wasn’t going to happen. Reminding myself that her survival was what mattered most, I focused on the problem.
I released her stasis pod and started an accelerated process to wake her, well aware that she’d wake up in her worst nightmare. Likely, I would be cast as the villain—if she hadn’t already put me in that role.
Moments later, her pod slid open and exposed its liquid interior. Now in her real body, Jane pulled herself out of the tube—just like she had a decade earlier when the initial experimental simulation ended.