By Curtis C. Chen
The food was the same every Sunday. Its appearance changed each time—meatloaf, pot roast, chicken, sausage, casserole—but it always tasted the same to Charles: bland, flavorless, with a texture that turned to mush the moment it touched his tongue.
Today it was green bell peppers stuffed with rice. His simulated daughter-in-law, Maria, brought it to the table, holding the pan with giant oven mitts. The steam rising from the food quivered as she set it down—the programmers had gotten that detail right, anyway—and Charles felt his mouth watering and his stomach rumbling, an imaginary hunger for an illusion of sustenance.
The family sat down around the table, poorly rendered mannequins snapping into their chairs. All the little imperfections jumped out at Charles: the body parts that didn't quite match up at the edges, the pixelation of fabric texture too small for the surfaces they had been mapped onto.
His unreal son, Doug, turned to Charles and asked him to say grace. It was the one time every week when he didn't feel like a puppet being pulled by invisible strings, when he actually had a chance, however slim, to make contact with the real humans outside this virtual prison.
"Get me the hell out of here!" he shouted at the ceiling. "If you're watching now, if you still give a damn about me, stop this and let me die! Just pull the plug! I don't want to be here any more!"
He shouted until his throat felt hoarse, and then he kept shouting, because he knew it wasn't real. None of it was real. He was in limbo, and the worst part was knowing it.
"Can't we do anything for him?" Maria asked.
Next to her, Doug remained passive and silent. The technician, a middle-aged woman, peered at the couple from behind large, round eyeglasses.
"We can modify the simulation," the technician said. "But it will take some time to ease his brain into the new environment. A transition that's too abrupt could cause further trauma." She looked at Doug. "And there would, of course, be an additional charge."
Maria nodded. "Could you give us a few minutes alone?"
The technician shrugged and left the monitoring chamber. The door hissed shut behind her.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Doug whispered.
"You're right," Maria said, watching one of the many screens surrounding them. Charles was still shouting, but nobody was listening. "He's miserable."
"But he's still a hero," Doug said. "And a son who kills his father doesn't get re-elected."
"We don't have to choose right now," Maria said. "You sign over his caregiver power of attorney, and I'll keep visiting while you campaign. Let me decide how to end it. It'll be a real surprise, and you'll be able to deny everything. Denounce me well enough and it might even give you a bump in the polls."
Doug shook his head. "Sometimes you scare me, honey."
Maria smiled. "As long as you still love me."
Photo: My Brain on MRI by Julie Falk, June, 2005