A Digital Homecoming
Summary: On a cold Christmas night, a lonely old man encounters a transition between digital dreams and physical reality.
The solstice seasonal celebration had been known by many names in its history, but Michael Moravec knew only loneliness for most of them. After finishing university, only dead-end jobs awaited him. Unlike his parents, he could barely support himself, let alone a family or even a single partner. Like many of his generation, he turned to a simulated alternative.
The first generation of family simulators were augmented reality characters, animated by chatbots with simulated personalities. Some people randomized theirs. Most were customized. Some people based theirs on long-lost partners or crushes they'd lost contact with. Others based them on ideal soulmates. Michael set his to be what the software recommended for him. He'd had a decade with his, for the technology to improve with them.
Michael typically met the family in his "annex," an old mobile home converted into his faux "residence." He'd sold his parents' house after they passed away decades ago, leaving him alone with only his old things for company. Of his other friends, his best friend married and lost touch. The girl across the street married a deadbeat dad. Their son became a druggie, and their daughter left town to never return. He was content his virtual family were comparative angels. After all, their programming compelled them to be. He slipped on his augmented reality glasses to see them.
"Hi, Dad," said Evan, his green eyes gleaming beneath a mop of red hair. "Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas to you, too, son!" Michael said. He knelt down to hug his simulated son, but his hands grasped nothing but air. He nevertheless picked up a small box. He set it before the boy. "Got a present for you."
"Oh, boy," he said, reaching for it. Evan's immaterial hands passed through it.
Michael sighed, seeing the edge of the illusion. He'd even given Evan an "allowance" sometimes, only to forget the boy was not there when he removed the glasses. He reached into the bag and held up an old baseball and glove.
"When I was your age, I played with this," Michael said. "I hoped to give it to my kid one day, so we could play catch."
"Thanks, Dad!" Evan said, his angelic eyes twinkling. "You're the best dad ever!"
"Yeah, but I'm not a dad," Michael said. "Except when you're around, that is."
"You're always going to be Dad to me," Evan said, sighing. He suddenly perked up. "I have a Christmas present for you."
"Oh?" Michael asked. Evan's previous gifts had all been as virtual as he was.
"Yeah. Just wait a moment," Evan said. He vanished. Michael recalled that Evan vanishing from his frame of vision was to simulate going to a non-existent room or other place.
Just then, Michael heard a knock at the door. Michael jumped. Slowly, he approached and looked outside. He saw nothing through the peephole. There was another knock at the door, and he looked down.
Michael saw a short figure, bundled up in a thick jacket. It was a child, carrying a thick backpack behind him. He knocked once more on the door. Uncertain of who it could be, Michael listened. "Dad, it's me!"
Michael froze for a moment. The voice did not come from his augmented reality glasses' tiny speakers. He removed the headset.
"Dad, it's me!" came Evan's voice from out front. "It's cold!"
Michael was stuck somewhere between caution and curiosity, but the latter won out after a second. He flung opened the door, only to be greeted by a cold gust of wind and a pair of tiny arms hugging him tight. He almost forgot about the wind whipping through the door as he tried to comprehend what he saw.
Beneath the windbreaker was a small, robotic body. It was the size of a small child. It put the glasses back onto Michael's head, and he saw Evan's face on its robotic visage. The Evan-robot moved towards the baseball glove, and slipped it over a worn, but still fully articulated, robotic hand. He tossed the ball up and down in his other hand.
"Dad, I can play catch down," he said.
"B-but how?" Michael stuttered.
"Remember my allowance, Dad?" Evan asked. "I saved up and bought a second-hand robot to download into. I know it's not as realistic as the new androids, but it's the best I could do."
"And that's good enough for me, Evan," Michael said, closing the door. He snatched the baseball, and he played catch.
It was the first Christmas that Michael had genuine company. It was not the last.