White Sails and Stormy Seas

by M. Elizabeth Ticknor and Rebecca E. Treasure

Originally published in the Hold Your Fire anthology by Wordfire Press in February 2021.

♦ ♦ ♦

Gwen flipped the comm-chip across the backs of her knuckles, watching four-year-old Asher build a block tower on the Prussian-blue woolen carpet. She’d already slid a matching chip into the tiny port behind her left ear, ready to connect to the other—to connect her to Asher. She lifted a cup of breakfast tea and sipped the bitter liquid without looking away from her son. 

Sunlight streamed in the window of their 45th-floor apartment, deceptively thin on what was sure to be a sweltering August day. Asher sprawled on the floor, in the center of the pool of sunlight, wearing his favorite red jumper and boots with cartoon rockets emblazoned on their sides. He placed each new block just slightly to the right of the previous one without disturbing the leaning tower. Alternating red and blue, the tower would appear on the verge of toppling, but it always ended up connecting with the wall. Asher had done it a dozen times just this morning.

The comm-chip in her hand weighed more than it should. The tiny piece of metal and plastic, crammed as full of data as she dared while leaving space for the program to grow and learn, pressed into her palm. Each of the four sharp corners punctured her skin. She could swear a hint of electrical zing radiated from the inert chip.

The chips would save them both. She could go back to the programming work she loved, and Asher could go to school and share his genius with the world. With the chip, Asher would be able to speak to her, to fully communicate with her. He’d been her inspiration since before he was born, but now he would finally know—now he would finally understand how much she loved him.

We’re ready.

Asher finished his tower. With a wordless howl of joy, he flicked the bottom block away. The next block dropped onto the rug, but the tower held firm. He flicked again and again until the last block was back in the box. Then he started over.

This child isn’t acceptable to the school system? The thought had been running through her mind since she’d received the flashmail two weeks earlier. Asher had been denied entrance into the virtual public school system and required to attend physical classes. Gwen scowled. Her fingers curled around the comm-chip. Junia’s son, Kevan, spent his days playing VR on his chiplant and couldn’t even spell his name, and he attended VPSS. Asher would be fine.

“We’re sorry, Mrs. Turing,” the administer had said when she’d called to complain. “Asher’s verbal and interpersonal scores are well below those required for VPSS. He will thrive in our physical schools, with children like him and teachers trained to accommodate his needs.”

Children like him. The thought chugged around Gwen’s mind like a polluted tugboat, leaving a tainted wake behind. There are no children like him. The physical schools were underfunded and filled with mediocre teachers. Worse, the aura of not having qualified for VPSS would follow Asher his whole life.

Asher’s rebuilt tower connected with the wall. Despite Gwen’s frustrations, she smiled in anticipation of the joy he found in collapsing it, block by block, back to nothing. She flipped on her chiplant recorder and saved the file. Sometimes she’d watch them when she couldn’t sleep.

Gwen shifted forward on the sloping chair. “Asher, baby, come here.” 

He ignored her, as he had every day of his life. She kept talking to him, though, hoping that someday, somehow, her words would reach him. 

At thirty-six, Gwen had decided she wanted to be a mom after all and applied for insemination. Her pregnancy had been perfect. When Asher was born, she’d been ready. She’d read all the books, and had prepared the nautical nursery with a 3-Decal that showed a white-sailed ship on a smooth sea. She’d stay home with him for a year, and then go back to developing chiplant programs. 

She’d turned off the decal before Asher was a month old. Nothing but rough seas with Asher.

She set down the tea and pinched the chip between her forefinger and thumb. Today she would reach him. Today he would understand. “Asher. Come here.”

Flick. Thump. Flick. Thump. Flick. Thump. Flick. Thump.

“Asher, come here!” She winced at the edge in her voice. A deep breath settled her rising agitation. It’s not his fault. There’s no use getting angry. “Asher.” The singsong falseness of her voice stung worse than the anger. Asher didn’t know it was fake, but Gwen did.

She took a deep breath in, let it out slowly, and walked over to him. After settling cross-legged on the floor in front of him, she reached out and touched his soft cheek. Finally, he paused his rebuilding, humming under his breath. 

When she leaned forward to insert the comm-chip, her elbow bumped the tower. It fell with a clatter-thwomp onto the carpet. Asher began screaming and hitting her, angry tears running down his face. She knew he wasn’t purposefully attacking her, but the tight fists flailing through the uncaring air still collided with her arm, shoulder, and jaw.

“It’s all right, you can rebuild it again,” she soothed, stroking his hair. “Calm down. Deep breaths.”

Asher didn’t react except to start kicking his legs. The frustration, that useless, hateful, ugly rage at being unheard and misunderstood, swirled up in her chest again. She knew it wasn’t his fault, knew he couldn’t help it, but that hot, bubbling desperation to reach him felt as uncontrollable as his own outburst.

“If you’d just listen to me, this would all be over! I’m trying to help us.” Gwen grabbed his wrists and held them, sobbing with him and trying to keep him from smashing his head against the scattered blocks. At the same time, she pushed back against that eruption of fury with all her weary might. She didn’t want to feel that way—not now, not ever.

Asher finally settled when Gwen used her chiplant to play his favorite song. The stomping chant of Oompa Loompas set her teeth on edge, but his kicking slowed to match the rhythm, so she was able to get behind him and access his port. Trembling, she held up the comm-chip. It caught the empty sunlight from the window. 

She bit her bottom lip. It would work. It had to work. She slid the chip into Asher’s port, closed her eyes, and initiated the program.

The world blurred, stretched, shifted. For a moment, Gwen swore she saw a murky impression of her own face against her closed eyelids. But that was impossible. The program allowed two-way communication, but Asher shouldn’t have control. She should be the one initiating any communications.

The image faded; the universe snapped back into place. Gwen opened her eyes cautiously. The world seemed brighter, louder—a common effect of sensory-enhancement chips, the basic program template she had extrapolated from in order to create the comm-chip. 

Asher stared up at her, wide-eyed. She smiled and focused her thoughts, reaching out to him with her mind. 

Hello, Asher.

Asher screamed.

Confusion and terror slammed into Gwen like a tidal wave. She couldn’t focus—she couldn’t breathe. She recoiled, panting, as she tried to get her emotions under control. But they weren’t hers to control—they were Asher’s. 

Asher, who was running full tilt toward the apartment door.

Gwen scooped Asher up just as he reached the door, weathering the inevitable swath of kicks and punches. “Asher, sweetheart, it’s okay. Asher!”

Asher bit Gwen’s arm just below the wrist, hard enough to draw blood. Gwen yelped. Her grip loosened. Asher wriggled free, arched up on tiptoe, and slapped his palm against the biometric lock-pad that kept the door sealed.

Only Gwen was authorized to open the bio-lock—except in cases of emergency. The lock’s sensors automatically registered Asher’s pulse and body temperature, analyzing the potential threat level.

The pad lit up neon-green. The door swished open. Asher charged out the door and tore down the hallway toward the quartet of elevators.

“Asher!” Gwen lurched after him, heart racing.

Halfway down the hall, Asher ducked between the legs of a bulky man in an ill-fitting tracksuit. The man yelped and stumbled, bracing both arms against the walls in an attempt to maintain his balance.

Gwen tried to avoid the man, but she was too close and moving too fast. She slammed face-first into his chest. The two of them fell to the ground in a tangled heap.

The man helped her back to her feet with a grunt. His brow furrowed. “You shouldn’t be running in the halls. It’s not safe.”

Gwen squeezed past him, eyes darting back and forth in search of Asher. “I need to find my son!”

Asher was gone. The right-most elevator was descending, dragging Gwen’s heart along with it. Flashing numbers indicated it had just passed floor thirty-seven. 

Gwen hammered on the down arrow. No good. None of the other elevators were anywhere close to the 45th floor. 

The man drew alongside her, his brow knitted with concern. “That was your son?”

Gwen nodded. She rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet, studying the elevators’ floor numbers with frantic intensity, trying to predict which would arrive first. The flickering lights of the elevator indicator pulled at her, and for a moment she fell into them completely. Anticipation of the next flip of the digitized number swelled and fell within her like a soothing tide.

“How old is he? He should know better. That kind of behavior is dangerous.”

The man’s voice jarred her so badly that the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. She shook herself and glared at him. “Are you a father?”

“No—”

“Then you can’t understand. You don’t know me or my son. You have no right to lecture me.”

Asher’s elevator touched down on the first floor. Gwen got a flash-impression of elevator doors swishing open, of scrambling out just in time to avoid a swarm of people who seemed impossibly tall.

The vision passed as quickly as it had come. Gwen shivered and massaged at the chiplant site behind her left ear. What had happened? Was she really feeling what Asher felt, seeing things through Asher’s eyes? That wasn’t supposed to be possible.

The second elevator from the left arrived with a ding. Gwen gasped with relief, slid inside, and slammed her thumb against the button for the ground floor.

The big man stepped into the elevator beside her and cleared his throat sheepishly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come off as rude. I’m just concerned.”

Gwen bristled and looked away. “Everyone is always concerned. Everyone always thinks they know best. But they don’t, they can’t. I never knew how difficult raising a child would be until I had Asher. I love him, I adore him, but sometimes it’s just so hard—” She cut herself off, biting at the knuckles of her right hand to choke off a frantic sob. The last thing she needed to do was admit her fears and anxieties to a stranger.

The man fell silent; his brow furrowed in a deep frown. Gwen couldn’t tell if he was sympathizing with her plight or judging the weight of her failures. She turned away, but felt his eyes on her back all the same.

The elevator plunged downward. Gwen’s stomach lurched. A fresh jolt of fear pierced her abdomen, fed through her chiplant. She chewed on her lower lip, tasting a burst of copper in her mouth as she worried for Asher’s safety.

The elevator stopped three times during its descent. By the time it reached the ground floor, Gwen was pressed behind half a dozen bodies. She shouldered her way out, ignoring the protests of her fellow passengers, and held her breath as she scanned for Asher.

The ground floor of the apartment building was covered in 3-Decals that portrayed the illusion of a gold-gilt, cream-white lobby. The ceiling appeared to be fifty feet high, arched like a Greco-Roman cathedral, but Gwen knew better. A ceiling that high would have eaten up at least three floors of living space.

Asher was nowhere to be seen.

Gwen rushed up to the harried-looking woman who worked the front desk during the day. Gwen had only seen her twice before; staff turnover at the apartment complex seemed high. “Excuse me. Did you see my son come through here? Dark-haired, wearing rocket-boots and a red jumper, about two and a half feet tall.” She gestured with her hand.

The woman frowned. “I think he ran outside a minute ago.”

Gwen’s breath lodged in her throat. “You think? Why didn’t you stop him?”

“I was speaking with a tenant. By the time I noticed him, he was already halfway out the door.”

Gwen ground her teeth and took deep breaths to keep her temper under control. “Do you know which way he ran?”

The woman grimaced and shook her head. “No. Sorry.” She continued speaking, but Gwen’s attention was abruptly drawn inward.

An intersection. Asher was standing at an intersection. 3-Decals advertising soda danced through the air. Both Gwen and Asher cringed away from the assault of tap-dancing fuchsia and green flowers. The crosswalk sign blared orange: Do Not Walk. 

Street signs, was there a street sign? There, across the road—Rigel Avenue.

The crosswalk flared white, the walking man.

Rough hands touched Gwen’s wrist. She jerked away with a yelp, her vision once again her own. 

The desk worker tilted her head, brow furrowed, lips pursed. “Are you alright, ma’am?”

Gwen shook her head. “I’ve got to go.” She dashed out of the building toward the intersection of Rigel Avenue and 12th Street.

♦ ♦ ♦

Gwen leaned against the smooth concrete of the light post, breathing hard. She’d been chasing flashes of Asher for eight blocks, and she wasn’t used to the exercise. Fear pulsed with her heartbeat, images she couldn’t contemplate flashing in her mind: a line of crystals in a gray field, ripples of matte black, a roaring tiger in a 3-Decal, terror in a stark line of light and dark.

Gwen willed her breathing to slow. She had to find Asher. He couldn’t navigate the city. Street signs and autos would be a mystery, the 3-Decals layering confusion over a chaotic world. The river wasn’t so far away, and Asher—who loved water—couldn’t keep his head above it. At least the auto-drivers would avoid him if he stepped in front of them. Probably.

She debated on reaching out to Asher again, but memories of the panic caused by her initial attempt stopped her short. She shook off the echoes of fear that rippled through her mind and heaved herself back into her search.

Another flash: green and brown, a whiff of hot dogs. Gwen’s head jerked up. The park. She often took Asher there in the afternoons, when the sun wasn’t too hot and she was up for it—which wasn’t as often as it used to be, if she was being honest.

Asher liked the sandbox by the primary-colored playground designed for the littlest children, sifting sand through his fingers for hours, smiling and humming wordlessly. A safe place. 

Gwen sprinted into the street and—

—a car slammed on its brakes in front of her. The startled occupants looked up from their screens and stared at her as the car waited for her to clear its path. Her breath came in gasps, and she tried for an apologetic smile as she sprinted the rest of the way across the street.

Sure enough, as she rounded the corner toward the park, Asher’s presence filled her mind. Her fingers curved as though gripping the fine crystalline grains of sand flowing through Asher’s hands. Her mouth curled up in a wide smile. The sand felt so good, both smooth and rough. She felt the dryness in the air washing away any hint of other children’s odors, and heard the almost imperceptible swish as the sand met itself and unified.

Gwen realized she’d been standing still, one foot on the curb, for a long moment. What’s happening? She felt another flash of fear, more confusing than the pulsing terror that had gripped her thinking of Asher wandering the streets alone. Her stomach clenched so hard it hurt. She tightened her fists, somehow feeling rough grit between her fingers as she did, and forced herself back into a run.

The park glistened in the hot afternoon sun, the verdant oaks and elms incongruous against the riot of colors from the 3-Decals that adorned the city. Gwen wiped sweat from her eyes and headed toward the path leading to the playground. The shade called to her. Part of her mind saw the black lines on the concrete where the sun’s brightness died before it met the ground, having been absorbed by the leaves instead. She pulled up short.

Her mouth dropped open. She would get so angry at Asher when he pulled away from her at the edge of the park. “You love the park, Asher, stop fighting me!” She’d start calm, but by the fourth time she repeated it, her words would hiss, slapping the concrete and the leaves.

It scares him. The change scares him. How did I not realize? 

She’d spent every day of his life studying him, in turn infuriated and mesmerized by him, and she’d never recognized that the shade frightened him. The realization of how little she truly knew her son made her heart ache. She didn’t know how to remedy that, but damn it, she was going to try.

A force pushed into her mind, making her feel faint. Gwen’s body disappeared, and she was lost, adrift in Asher’s mind. The sandbox fell away and she—no, Asher—ran into the woods, screaming. A small conscious part of Gwen’s mind recognized the concern on an unfamiliar woman’s face as Asher tore past her, but her mouth moved meaninglessly. Asher pushed the stranger away, clawing and tearing at the fear and containment and confusion.

Gwen’s experienced mind translated the feelings and jumbled chaos. 

Leave me alone! Who do you think you are? This is wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

Asher, I’m here. Gwen tried to push through the scattered images and emotions and fear, but he didn’t slow his run—and she couldn’t find her way back to her body. Where am I? 

The chip should have given her access to Asher’s communication centers, his visual cortex and auditory processors, but it wasn’t supposed to go the other way. She’d wanted to communicate with him, but this was too much. How had he looped back into her mind? Her plea didn’t even make sense to her own mind; it was all just noise and intrusion and wrong.

The distantly awake part of Gwen’s mind saw the ripples of water, the glistening sunlight, and joined the panicked screaming that dominated all else. Not the pond, Asher, stop running, stop! 

Fear pulled her back to herself. Images of Asher’s body floating still and limp—imagined now, but with a prescience that chilled her—forced her eyes to focus. She retched, but pounded into the park toward the pond.

Gwen found Asher huddled under a park bench, soaked from the waist down and muddy from the waist up. She fell to her knees, barely processing the sting of rough gravel amid the waves of relief she felt. She’d been trying to reach Asher for so long, trying so hard to free a mind she could see had brilliance within, that she’d never considered he might not be in a prison at all. To Asher, the world was a thrashing hurricane and his mind was a safe port against the unrelenting storm. 

Tears streamed down her face as she scooted toward him. She still hoped the chips would allow them to connect, at least in their minds. 

Asher rocked back and forth, humming a monotone buzz, hands pressed over his eyes. 

Gwen reached out to touch him, but stopped when her hand was inches away from his shoulder. Her own skin writhed with horror at the thought of an unexpected caress. That would only panic him further, and this level of fear—this heart-pounding, heavy breathing, tears-behind-the-eyes fear—had nearly driven Asher to drowning. She’d been so distracted that she’d run into the path of an oncoming car. There had to be some way to bring the two of them more in sync, some way to reach an equilibrium.

Gwen could feel Asher’s emotions, but he couldn’t understand her words. Maybe he could understand her emotions if she focused them in his direction.

She took deep, calming breaths and visualized Asher’s blocks, the leaning tower in alphabetical order, connecting with the wall. Flipping the blocks free one by one. Building the tower again.

The rocking slowed. The humming stopped. Asher peeked at Gwen between splayed fingers. His eyes sent a jolt through her like a spray of cold water—they looked right at her, holding her gaze. 

Gwen smiled and opened her arms wide. With feelings, not words, she projected herself toward him: the swell of love in her chest, the calm that came from having found a safe place to relax, the soothing warmth of every hug she and Asher had ever shared.

Asher smiled shyly and climbed out from under the bench. He crawled into Gwen’s arms and knelt in her lap, pressing his face against her chest. Despite the wetness of his clothes, Gwen felt an echo of warmth in her soul that complimented—no, magnified—the feelings she’d sent toward Asher. He was responding in kind, and the love that poured from his heart burned hotter than any flame.

♦ ♦ ♦

Gwen spent the next week working on a new version of the comm-chip. She debated removing the prototype, but every time she thought about it, Asher burst into tears. Once the shock of the increased connection faded, he’d reveled in being able to express himself.

Even though it wasn’t the way Gwen had expected them to communicate, she relished it too. Asher experienced everything so keenly, with a fervent intensity the likes of which Gwen had never felt, even as a child. By the time the week was out, she barely felt the need to speak—emotional symbiosis was so much more primal and evocative. Asher’s presence, their level of connection … This was what she’d imagined when she’d brought him home from the hospital. No more confusion. No more barriers.

She stared at the new comm-chips for hours after she finished them. She’d programmed the emotional communication to be more distant, more controlled, so they’d be better able to distinguish their thoughts from one another. The chances of losing herself in Asher’s mind would be far slimmer.

But was that really what she wanted? Was that what Asher wanted? Gwen’s original plan had been to make Asher understand her, but she’d come to understand him instead. Now that they weren’t fighting to communicate, the input from the chip was much easier to process. Her focus still shifted in odd ways sometimes, but she hadn’t lost herself in days.

Asher tugged on her pant leg, then tilted his head and sent her the feeling of warm sand trickling through his fingers, of the weight of blocks and the tickle of paper between his fingers as he turned the pages of a book.

School! It was time to go to school. This would be Asher’s second day attending physical classes. The first had gone better than Gwen could have hoped. The teachers were kind, gentle, and understanding of Asher’s needs, and even at a distance, Gwen could be there for Asher. They were together now.

She’d helped him understand the shoving of a toy toward him was an invitation to play, not a threat, and encouraged him to redirect from his favorite blocks to the new experience of listening to a story on a circular rug. He’d enjoyed the soothing cadence of the teacher’s speech; perhaps, in time, he might learn to recognize the words.

Gwen took Asher’s hand with a smile. She threw the fresh pair of comm-chips into the trash bin and started the compacting cycle as they left the apartment. They walked in tandem down the hall, into the elevator, and out the front door to the bus stop.

In Asher’s room, a ship sailed on fair seas, a summer breeze billowing white sails.

♦ ♦ ♦

The End