The Ghost of Alma Matterson
Chapter 9: [Ctrl-N]

"Your son should wake up shortly. You will need these." Mr. Thomas handed Peter the patented Kwality Time visor and headset. "It might take a few minutes to learn the interface. Each unit personalizes to the wearer. Personally, I think the flash intro is corny, but you will need to take the survey that follows."

The flash intro was corny. In the upper half of the screen, Peter saw a circle of angels. The angels gently wrapped babies in pink and blue blankets. They tied the loving bundles to the beaks of storks which flew toward the spinning earth icon in the center of the screen.

The lower half of the screen showed the explosion of fluid from a large pink object that quickly disappeared after the ejection. Zooming in on the fluid, you could distinguish individual objects--round things with long tails. The sperm squiggled in a chaotic frenzy. There was a hint of a trail of hormones leading from a central tube. The squiggly round objects were in a race.

They raced through the fallopian tube toward a larger round globe embedded in a pink membrane. The weak sperm lost the race. The absolute fastest and most fit of the contenders reached the egg cell. The first sperm reaching the egg squiggled against the outer wall, then broke through! The egg cell changed colors, and was released from the membrane. It drifted toward the uterus in the center of the screen.

The mustering of storks and the swarming sea of sperm swirled together and morphed into the Kwality Time logo. "Behold the miracle of birth!" The logo faded into a still life of a proud young mother holding her newborn above her head.

The flash presentation circled in on the baby. The background faded to black. The image blurred for a second, it was no longer one baby, but a marching army of identical tottlers. The image overwhelmed the screen. The army of babies represented all possible futures.

The different futures popped from the babies' heads in cartoon bubbles. One showed the baby as a lawyer, another a doctor. A third showed a stoned unwed pregnant teen on a day time scandal show, another showed a man sitting sullenly behind the locked bars of his prison cell. Over a hundred different images flashed on the screen. The saddest image was the dead body of a drug dealer laying in a pool of blood on the cracked pavement of a dark inner city street.

"What does the future hold for your child?" The marching band of babies swirled together into the Kwality Time logo. "The time you spend together will decide; So be sure that time is Kwality Time." The flash intro offered the user a chance to replay the animation.

Peter clicked <<next>>. This page contained a survey about his background, income and education level. These were easy, In most cases he fell at the lowest level--which was the default. Employment was none. The race question was the most difficult. Being of mixed blood, he could go more than one way. He clicked African American.

Fortunately, the computer had a complete profile for Alma on record. The fact Peter knew nothing about his son was not a deficit. Peter wondered if Alma had a middle name. He would have fumbled big time if he tried to fill out the answers. After the survey, he finally got to the meat of the presentation.

"Kwality Time is not meant to replace parenthood. It is a tool to enhance the parents in this difficult endeavor. Kwality Time filters out those hidden messages which can devastate a youth." Peter thought about how even the slightest slip could have devastating results on his son's future. "With access to a data warehouse with over 560 million father son interactions. Kwality Time is the most comprehensive parental enhancement accessory on the market today. Would you like to run a quick tutorial?" Peter clicked <<Yes>>.

The screen was simple. The central window showed a streaming video of a child. The background played your selection of music, dubbed in with a streaming audio of the conversation. The top arrows would let you replay parts of the conversation. On the right of the screen was a panel showing the developmental metrics of the child during the interaction session.

The box in the top right of the screen indicated the overall success of the conversation. When the average was above fifty, the control panel was a light blue. If it fell below fifty, the panel would turn red. Although not recommended, the system was capable of multitasking. By hitting [Function-R] the parent could run any standard PC program. A busy parent could play solitaire, check up on stocks, or watch a movie without affecting the quality of the parent child interaction.

Certainly, with a data warehouse of 560 million father son interactions, this thing must be an expert at raising children! Peter spent an hour playing with the simulation. The box worked as a filter. He would think of an idea he wanted to communicate, and formulate a sentence. An applet would encode the sentence into a binary string, and query the string against a database of the child's developmental needs. The program would either enhance, or censure the sentence. Those listening to the box would hear the self assured voice of a parent with the correct tonal inflections for a given moment.  

Best of all, since the Kwality Time software used a centralized data store, adults running the program never had to worry about contradicting each other. No more embarrassing arguments beginning with "well, mommy said..."

Peter soon discovered that, whenever he tried to fiddle with the controls, or aggressively overcome the censors, the program would flash into the red. Fortunately, the program came with an autoSpeak mode. In autoSpeak, the program would generate all the necessary parental binary strings. Peter learned the best way to run the program was to idle in autoSpeak, with only a few subtle manipulations of the controls.

"Your son is awake," the nurse nudged Peter's shoulder. "Please follow me."

Peter felt completely out of sorts. He was out of his element. He was not up to this challenge. He hoped the machine was.

Sleep couldn't last forever. Alma hoped that he could grab a few more minutes of peace by simply keeping his eyes closed. He rolled on his side. The pillow felt more comfortable than any pillow he had know in the past. He heard the soft murmurings of human voices, and the blips of computers. His insides felt the same. His outsides felt as though someone had ripped off his skin and left his soul lighter and freer.

He moved his right hand directly in front of his face. He formed an image in his mind of the peach colored hand with five wiggly digits that he had known throughout his life. He took a breath and slowly opened his left eye.

His hand looked more organic. It was a slightly browner than the hand he knew. It was wrinkled and scaly. The fingers and thumb could still wiggle. A lump formed in his stomach. This was not going to be a pleasant day.

The voices to came nearer. He felt a gust of hot moist air blowing against his cheeks. A blinding shot of sensation shot though his nerves as he felt something fingers prying open his right eye.

"Let him wake up on his own time." One of the voices spoke. The moist breath disappeared.

Alma needed to take control of this situation. He rolled on his back, and held in his breath. He would be the first to speak. The words didn't matter.

"Where am I?"

"You are in a hospital in Cincinnati." the male voice spoke.

As Alma opened his he saw the crisp, recessed dimensions that he saw from the day before. An IV ran from a plastic bag to his arm. He saw the monitors and medical equipment lining the walls, as they did in the hospital rooms of the day time soaps.

On the south wall, there was a large reflecting panel. It must be an observation room. Who was observing? The reflecting glass showed the full detail of the scene. He must be the small mass tucked under the warm hospital sheets of the portable bed. This was the new Alma Matterson.

Behind the nurse, he saw two orderlies. The male voice spoke again. "I am doctor DuPree. I am a counselor. Welcome to the real world."

There was another figure in the room, pacing along in the corner. It seemed out of place. It was a darker man, with a box on his head. Was this a security guard, a android drone? The figure fiddled with the visor controls, and slowly approached.

A synthesized voice spoke from the box. The voice sounded vaguely familiar. "Hi Alma, it's me...your father."

Alma found the peaceful black screen again. The data warehouse recorded yet another father son interaction.

Thomas Hardin watched from the observation deck. The flash demo on the Kwality Time web site showed loved ones gathered around a child as they burst with tears into each other's arms. The awakenings he had witnessed involved orderlies wheeling terrified children back and forth between rooms, with perhaps a marginally qualified nurse to give anesthesia.

Time was moving quickly, they had only a few more years to perfect this process before the onslaught. They had well over 100,000 children in storage. They would start coming out by the thousands per day.

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