A Joy Reclaimed

Issue 02

Word Count: 2619

Jonathon Pantelis

Jonathon has had short stories published in the CultureCult anthology Creep, in Verse Magazine, and on the Didcot Writers‘ website.

The blades of grass tickle my feet. I haven’t smiled this much in years.

When I was younger, at a time when the wrinkles on my face weren’t as deep, things were simpler. Technology didn’t rule our lives. We read for fun and not just for knowledge. We played sport to socialise and not to prove that we were superior to our friends. We browsed the web on physical objects rather than through these fancy chips governments insist aren’t remote controls. I’m too old to understand how it all works. People smarter—and so much younger—than me are here for that.

Personally, I believe that nothing compares to that feeling of wind rushing through your hair, of the freedom sport gives you to run up and down a field. Primitive really. Kicking a ball to your mates, shirts billowing behind you as you rotate, duck and dodge your opponent, protecting the all-important orb that needs to find its home in the back of the net. The sheer disappointment when the enemy anticipates your moves and steals it from you. That desire to get it back, to win.

So many people find fault with this connection, or think it basic and unsophisticated, but I can’t help but shake the notion that sport and war are not so different—especially in one particular way. In war, you’re always trying to gain ground, to protect yourself and your comrades by monitoring your enemy, searching for weak points; on the pitch, are you not doing the same thing? The real difference is that war has such harsh consequences for making an error. And it’s for this reason, I guess, that being on a soccer pitch compared to a battlefield made me so happy. Back when I could play, anyway. It was this opportunity to learn from mistakes that made sport such an important aspect of my life, whereas every single moment of my deployment was horrifying.

After I returned from the war across the ditch, following the great pandemic of 29, I had two legs less. A total of zero. Smart people told me that I could have bionic legs but I sulked in self-pity and squandered my chance to walk. I told the smart people that I didn’t want legs. That it’d be a reminder of the war, of the errors I’d made.

Our regrets hang heavy around our necks, our posture so poor that the back pain settles in forever.

Before long, money was a problem. It was tough to work when you were wheelchair-bound. Sure, the motorised ones were great and all but who’d want to employ someone like me? What could I do that an able-bodied person couldn’t?

There never was another chance to get those legs. Savings slipped through my fingers until the government started supporting me through their welfare payments. It wasn’t enough to flourish but I could get by. There was no hope left for me to ever walk again. Or so I thought.

I don’t know how they’ve done it but I can feel my legs now. They call it an avatar. Sure, I’d heard of it before. Knew what it was, kind of. But I had never, in my wildest dreams, believed I could feel my legs again. I can feel the grass brushing against toes I don’t have. Like a phantom sensation except that it is real.

I am the proud recipient of a charity avatar. I submitted an application explaining my position as a disabled vet and what I stood to gain from the robot. There had been no expectations and maybe that was why my application did so well. The war always stirs up emotion in judges. Everyone has seen the devastation of war on the holo-news. Maybe not to the extent that I have but they can empathise, having seen the footage. The holo-news is good like that—a panorama that gives the viewer a virtual 360-degree taste of the situation.

Life opened up.

I have used the avatar every day for four months and I still can’t get enough of the grass between my toes, the dirt on the soles of my feet. I can feel it. I can feel the thud of my body with each step, the vibrations rippling up my legs with each stride. Like the face of a child who’d been deaf all their life when first gifted with hearing, it was a bloom of wonder, of joy, of unbridled curiosity.

Could I walk? Yes. Could I run? Yes. Could I jump and trust that I’d not fall in a heap on the ground? Yes, indeed I could. Could I scratch my leg when it had an itch? Yes, and oh the satisfaction!

I call the avatar Arnie. Arnie’s been walking up and down the river each evening, waving hello to the others exercising. While I can’t obtain the health benefits of these strolls, my body is tricking itself into looking better. Maybe I just imagine the fat dropping away—a product of the long-forgotten feeling of happiness—but I won’t complain. Anything to live again.

There’s a group of young guys who play soccer in the park three blocks from my apartment. It’s one of the last remaining parks, surrounded on all sides by high-rise offices. Arnie goes there sometimes—at least once a week—and they’ve practically accepted him as a person. Isn’t that great? They see Arnie as me, not as some robot. They call me Old Geiser, but I don’t mind. They let me play soccer with them.

I can’t believe I’d forgotten what it was like to score a goal.

The lack of legs isn’t my only problem. Sometimes, when all is silent and a door in my apartment slams shut, I get irrationally afraid. I’m transported back there, to the war, guns firing, blood spilling. It’s not only loud noises that set me off, however. When the elevator in my building has a few too many people in it, I feel trapped, like there’s nowhere to go. I’m on the battlefield once again—enemies surrounding me on all sides, every exit blocked. There’s a knot in my chest, a tightness too, like I’m suffocating.

My psychologist said that it’s normal in vets like me, but I wasn’t too sure. I thought maybe there was something wrong with my lungs. A tumour perhaps, pushing up against my internals, restricting breath. Well, I got a doctor to check me out.

I was right. But not where I thought.

Despite all the ground-breaking research into cancer, there’s still gaps in our knowledge as a species. Sure, we got internal computers, avatars, perpetual power, plastics that can be properly recycled, and this nanotechnology thing I still don’t really understand that permeates everyday life—apparently—but we haven’t figured out cancer. It still gets us. Like a soldier shooting the undefended or wounded on the battlefield.

I was told I had a year to live six months ago. It was part of my motivation to apply for an avatar—I wanted to feel human again before I died. Just a week ago, they changed it: they said it’s progressing faster than they expected. A month now, they say.

I’ve been getting my things in order, recording memories on this tab. Yesterday, I talked to my family. Told them that I loved them. Highlighted some of my favourite moments with them, the things they’ve done for me that I’ll never forget.

Anyway, today is Arnie’s turn. He’s been a real treat. I think it’s only fair to leave some sort of ‘thank you’ to those who created him, an ode to the good he’s done me. I know I paid for him but that’s beside the point.

Arnie’s given me my life back.

While I still had energy, I found work. Nothing strenuous of course. My nephew was helpful—he told me all about the opportunities us ‘elderly folk’ have in this age of advanced technology. Indeed, since I bought Arnie, I’ve been able to work in supermarkets, packing people’s deliveries into boxes or restocking shelves for those few people who still like to buy the necessities the old-fashioned way. The local sports clubs are letting me umpire some of the junior games. Some are even allowing me to assist coaches in training.

The pay isn’t much but I know I don’t have long. Every cent I earn goes into my account and once I have enough to buy an avatar for someone else like me, I’ll do it. People who don’t have legs or arms or are paralysed. Those that can’t do the normal things that able-bodied folk can. We miss out on the small things but it’s the small things that make life so special.

My aim was to purchase an additional twenty-one avatar systems but I think I’ll run out of time before then. I’m up to ten but I can’t claim all the credit myself. I’ve had important people take interest in my pursuit. They’ve helped me financially—matched my contributions and more. It’s been phenomenal.

Just two weeks ago, we formed a team. The ten people I’ve helped plus me. Eleven. A full team for soccer. It was a thank you for what I’d given them. We took on the guys who call me Old Geiser. A team of artificial intelligence, a team of machines.

As the ball passed between us, we each felt its comforting thud on the inner side of our feet. Our hair danced about in the wind.

As we dummied and sidestepped, dribbled and shot, I felt tears in the corner of my eyes. My real eyes, that is. I could feel it all. I wasn’t just watching a game; I was living the game.

Even after the match was done, our team continued to kick the ball about. It was just so human. We knew we’d been missing a primitive part of humanity but now that we had it back, we were afraid we’d never get another chance to enjoy such a normal activity again. Being human isn’t about having a brain and being able to think, nor is it about having legs and arms. No, it’s about feeling like you’re a part of something.

And we hadn’t felt like we were a part of something for a long time.

What really prompted me to make this recording, besides all the fantastic human experiences I’m allowed to have—thanks to Arnie—is something to do with the third avatar I bought and donated to a lovely young girl called Charlie. Age: eight. Her left leg and left hand had to be amputated because of some freak accident involving four cars. Too many variables—the computers in them had malfunctioned.

Anyway, Charlie was a brave girl. Her parents are lovely and were so supportive of her. I got in contact with them when I saw their story on the holo-news. They’d been overjoyed at my proposal. Thankful too. They’d invited me to meet Charlie once she got out of hospital but despite all the technological advancements, there were still accessibility problems in some buildings. Charlie’s family’s apartment didn’t have an elevator. They were now looking to move but hadn’t had a chance to look around yet.

Arnie went in my stead. Walked up the stairs to the third floor where they lived. As the door opened, there was a moment of confusion—they were probably not expecting to see Arnie—but Charlie’s mother smiled eventually. “Come in,” she said. They’d prepared little cupcakes and the coffee machine had been warming up. I politely declined all the fuss—not that Arnie would have been able to partake in any of it anyway—and asked to see Charlie.

And so we met, AI and human. It was awkward to start—I’d not really talked to any young person in a long time—but she was a pocket full of joy. We played cards on her tab, talked about what she was most looking forward to doing once she got her avatar. “I just want to be able to remember what it feels like to be balanced.”

She asked me how I coped without having legs. I didn’t have any answers—just told her that Arnie had made an impact on how I viewed myself.

“I like the name Arnie,” she’d responded.

“What are you going to name your avatar?”

“Charlotte. Because Charlie’s short for Charlotte, and Charlotte is going to be the full version of me.”

I cried when she said that. Not that she saw me weep.

I was there when the avatar Charlotte was delivered. Her smile had been toothy, dimples in the corners of her mouth. The parents seemed to be just as grateful. Their eyes were moist, red with forming tears.

I had been a makeshift grandfather since. During my weekly visits—through Arnie—we played more cards, talked more about what she’d always dreamed of being when she grew up. A violinist. She’d always loved music, but she couldn’t hold up the instrument in her actual hands anymore. Charlotte, however, could. Sometimes Charlotte would play for us. There was a piece that Charlie had written which was really nice, especially for her age. She’d called it: A Joy Reclaimed.

When Charlie died five days ago out of nowhere, due to some undiagnosed infection that the doctors had missed, I was devasted. We’d played soccer together only six days before. At her funeral yesterday, Arnie went in my place. It wasn’t that I couldn’t go in person—I could, although the grass at the cemetery was always hard to push my wheelchair through, what with all the mud—but I didn’t want anyone to see my tears. I’d only known her for a couple of short months yet the impact she’d had on me was indescribable. She’d proved that my charity had been worth it, that the lives people lost when their body was no longer whole could be rediscovered and enjoyed.

A joy reclaimed.

Charlie’s violin piece was played at her funeral. By Charlotte.

Who will cry when I die? Will those I’ve touched weep for me like I wept for Charlie? Maybe. It’s not why I’ve done all this though. I just wanted people to feel human again. Funny that. When I was young, you’d never have caught me thinking that the only way to feel human was to live through artificial intelligence. Hadn’t I always been rather traditional? I kept computers until they died, didn’t change my phone until it needed replacing. I’d never been one to have the latest technology. Yet here I am. Living my best life because of it.

When I die, what will happen to Arnie? I imagine he’ll get recommissioned. I hope that he can bring as much joy to his next owner as he did to me. Yes, the feeling of grass blades between my toes is something I keep coming back to. Something so simple, so mundane. I almost feel sorry for Arnie—my memories through him must be boring compared to his other lives. He’s probably been involved in rescue missions in space or underwater. Maybe he’s been involved in the hackings of computer systems run by master coders. Now, he’s got something different: soccer and card games with a child.

No matter what is recorded on his hard drive, though, I know Arnie isn’t really just artificial intelligence. He’s not just electrical currents and logical statements coded in some fancy language I will never understand. He’s more than that. The avatar is an extension of me.

When I die, he will continue.

And, in a way, I will live on too.