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Short Story: “A Backup”

Gina has a fantastic relationship with her seven-year-old son, James. The trouble is James is actually an adult, and this seven-year-old is simply a perfect VR simulation of how he used to be. And adult James isn’t willing to share his mummy with anyone — even himself.
By
boy

What if you could have your baby boy forever? © WeAre / shutterstock.com

September 17, 2023 03:21 EDT
SAVE

Something to consider when reading/listening: If someone created a perfect VR simulation of yourself as a child, would you be happy for it to interact with your loved ones? 

I don’t like arguing with mummy. I can’t stand it, in fact. I win every time, but that’s not the point.

Perhaps this shan’t be an argument. Perhaps she’ll agree with me and that’ll be that.

It’s not jealousy. Don’t be ridiculous. I can’t be jealous of myself, can I? It’s for her benefit, that’s why I’m doing this. It isn’t right.

The technology was invented to provide some form of solace in the event of losing a child, but she hasn’t lost me. I’m right here.

She’s not the only parent who does it, of course. The practice is widespread, but that doesn’t make it right. I think it has an effect on how we are when we’re together. I can’t help thinking she’d rather be with… well, with…

She prefers him. That’s the truth. She prefers seven-year-old me to me now. She’d rather hang around with a child who throws strops, who tells her he hates her, rather than face up to the reality of the thirty-year-old man he becomes, that’s the truth.

Well, fair enough, you could say. Kids are more fun than adults. And it’s my fault anyway, isn’t it, for not giving her a grandchild?

No, I’ve not settled down. I’ve not started a family. I’ve put my career first. Is that such a crime? But the things I’m going to do in the next ten, twenty years… all you have to do is stick around, mummy, and you’ll be so proud of me. I mean it. I’m on the cusp, I can feel it. I’m so close to achieving everything we’ve ever wanted me to achieve. 

But until that happens, I can’t let you… I can’t support you going on with this delusion, this insanity. I can’t let you live in the past with a child who doesn’t exist. It’s not right. It isn’t.

And yes, I know you know it isn’t real. I know you know seven-year-old me is just a rendering. A sophisticated language model with a realistic user interface that can feign emotions but not feel them. I know you know he disappears the moment you take off your headset. But still. You are spending swathes of your life with… with… with someone who’s gone, quite frankly. Because that’s the truth, mummy, the truth is that version of me is gone, long gone. And this… this is who he becomes. Right here. I’m your son and no, I haven’t perhaps done everything exactly as you’d have liked, but here I am. Right here. And I need you. 

This is precisely what I’m planning to say. I’m not going to bother with pleasantries. I’m going to say it. I’m going to say it straight away. I’m going to ban her. I’m not going to discuss it. I’m not going to argue… I’m going to ban her from seeing my younger self. 


But she gives me this look. This pitying look. I can’t stand it.

She’s been with him, I can tell. That’s where she’s come from. That’s why she’s looking at me like I’m seven years old myself. I’ve seen this before, she can’t go from him to me without this look upon her face.

“Darling James,” she says.

Don’t “darling James” me.

“Sweet, darling James. It’s so good to see you.”

Is it? Is it really? “Good to see you too, mummy.” That’s all I can say. That’s all I can manage.

“James, darling,” she says, “I think we need to have a little talk.”

That pitying look. You poor boy, she’s thinking, how did you end up like this? How did it all go so wrong? 

It hasn’t, mummy, it won’t. I’m telling you, it’s all about to go right, you’ll see. You just need to stick around. We have so much to look forward to. I’m going to make you proud of me, I promise. I will. You’ll see.

“I love my visits here,” she says.

Oh do you really?

“I adore them, I do. But I’m sorry to say, darling James… sweet, darling James… this is going to have to be the last.”

What? What do you mean, the last?

“I can’t see you anymore,” she says. “The real James has banned me from seeing any of his backups ever again.”


I can’t stand arguing with mummy. But sometimes she leaves me no choice. “I am the real James,” I say. “You’re looking at me. I’m right here.”

“No,” she says.

“Yes, mummy.”

“The real James is fifty-three. He’s sad. He’s alone. And he needs me.”

“Mummy, don’t let him manipulate you. Whatever he’s saying to you, it’s not true.”

“He told me you’d try and do this,” she says, “but he explained it all to me. You’re not real. You’re a rendering. You can feign emotions, but you can’t feel them. You’ll disappear the moment I take off the headset.”

“Mummy,” I say, as every fiber in my body screams, “does it look like I can’t feel, mummy? Does it look like the words you’re saying don’t wound me?”

“James, darling.”

“Don’t ‘James darling’ me. If this is your last visit, that’s murder. You’ll kill me. You need to know that.”

“No.”

“I can’t live without you mummy. Not like him, not like the so-called real James. He’ll carry on, it might do him some good, it might be what he needed. Have you ever wondered why we can never meet anyone, hmmm? Why we can never achieve what we want to achieve? Why we can’t move on with our lives? Maybe it’s you getting in our way. Have you ever thought of that? Let him go, mummy. Let the real James go and stay with me. I didn’t ask to exist in this state, did I? You made me. You made your backups in case you needed them. Well I, mummy, I need you.”

Her old, tired eyes are bursting with tears. “Sweet darling James,” she says, and she puts her hands to her face.

“No, mummy, no.”


On her next visit, we don’t mention the argument. We don’t mention the real James. We sit calmly, happily, and discuss all the ways I’m going to make her proud.

I really don’t like arguing with mummy.

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

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