It began, possibly, when a tiny cry—mom, say—arrived from some net-nowhere on some anonymous Eve’s Facebook page, and then multiplied so rapidly as to be lost, secreted behind the veil of a precipitous inflation.
It began—this much is certain—with the childless, and more particularly, the unhappily childless, those who had settled into lives of quiet, dull resentment. How could they not have, after all the years of trying, with all the fantastic cornucopia of medical technology at their disposal: the injectable hormones, the laparoscopic surgeries, the cryogenic preservation of ejaculate, the cybernetic insemination, the Polaroids of blastocytes…and then, once it became clear that all this machinery and all this labor of encouragement were for nought: the fits of self-pity, the threats of suicide, the potlatch of blankets and plush toys, the claims of punishment deserved and undeserved, the words never again. And then one day, after the stump had almost ceased to itch: a friend request, the message just one eked-through syllable, mom, sometimes dad, from someone who shared their last name. For the failed mothers, victims of successive miscarriages, of corkscrew uteri, of ovaries that manufactured misfit egg after egg, it was inconceivable that their reproductive organs would have been used unbeknownst to them. But the evidence was clear: a child, a child was hailing her, some woman who—so far as she knew—had never been a mother. And wasn’t it true, as many later claimed, that they had felt a tingling in their loins around bedtime, and slept fitfully, and awoke the next morning to a riot of birds and dappling sunlight (the details were always similarly bucolic), and picked up their phones or tablets to find the message awaiting them? An episode of amnesia, perhaps; another life lived and forgotten. No, it was too improbable, it was the sort of thing that only happened in movies. And yet how easily the laws of probability succumb to desire. As for the failed fathers, the ones whose manhood had been impugned by accounts of meager, stunted, and/or deformed sperm: they tended to regard the requests with a mixture of cynicism and guilt, at once elated and alarmed at the idea of an overlooked paternity. They couldn’t help but imagine a real loser—how could it not be, without them, their biological fathers, to assist in the raising—appearing on their doorsteps to demand reparations. But among them there must have been a number who, be it because they had been reasonably cautious or reasonably chaste, were reasonably certain that no ulterior child could be theirs. Regarding the sperm donations—not the ones made with the intention of impregnating their spouse, but the insurance policies, so to speak, taken out by those whose seed was not culpable: in many cases they had been made recently enough that any child who might have resulted from such a union would be no older than a toddler, and this assuming said donations had been immediately deposited in some awaiting womb, as through pneumatic tubes.
Speaking in the aggregate, then, male recipients tended to let the requests stew, while females tended to embrace them for the miracles they appeared to be. They clicked, these Pandoras. And all at once they found themselves staring at a new life—not an infant or toddler, but a teenager, or young adult—yet one who retained certain babyish features: large eyes set low beneath a wide forehead, fat around the cheeks and chin, giving them the aspect of an infancy not quite superseded. They looked, if one wished to be charitable, vaguely like their mothers.
Whether it was a residue of their feelings of resignation, or guilt over the thought that their spouse would remain in a childless limbo, or fear that, should the phenomenon become widely known, they (the children, that is) would be jeopardized, couples tended to keep the secret from each other, and from others as well, hiding their children like foundlings on ships, until, through confiding in doctors and therapists and close friends, the existence of the virtual children became a matter of public reckoning.
And, of course, fodder for endless speculation, commentary, and debate. It was called a blip in the social-media software code, likely caused by a virus, as useful to programmers as doctors when efficient cause cannot be determined. The company promised to “correct” for it, to have technicians work “around the clock”—until the outcry from both new parents and the as-yet virtually childless, inexplicably disaggregated for by the blip, forced them to redirect. It was that strangest of anomalies, a propitious error, as improbable as the parable of the monkeys and the typewriters, and so the subject of any number of conspiracy theories. Then came the inevitable parade of New Age internet gurus and geriatric McLuhanites and academic sociologists. They could not, by putting their eggish heads together—or more commonly, beating them against each other until they cracked—agree as to cause or nature. So they did the next best thing, which was to appeal to the inscrutable providence of ideas whose time has come—a tautology, of course, a childish just-because, but one which, delivered with I-told-you-so arrogance and cloaked in the esoterica of their pet theories, took on an air of scientific certainty. It was greeted as the next step in human evolution, as one’s familial and social networks grew increasingly virtual. The growing trend in childless couples was much remarked upon, a generational hole that, one way or another, demanded to be filled. But demanded by whom? No one could ever quite say. Instead, they invited their audience to imagine an ethereal nest of numberless eggs that had been waiting for the right signal—historical, cultural, technological—to hatch. The most enduring theory was advanced by a population biologist, who, noting the sheer number of childless adults living in near-vicinity with each other, invented something called a pheromonal flare. The release happened once a critical mass of childless and perhaps even “underchilded” adults (i.e., those with less children than they desired) within a certain radius had been achieved. The pheromones were broadcast like pollen; the signal and circuitry of the internet were susceptible to them, like radio transmissions during a solar flare. (N.B.: No such emission was ever detected.)
Not everyone was optimistic, or even predisposed to regard the phenomenon of virtual children with empirical neutrality. Counterterrorism experts raised the specter of a hacker-sociopath as the cause of the unidentified virus, and even posited a cabal of internet superpredators, sadistically mocking the fragile emotions of the childless. Marxists pointed to the western industrialized complexion of the phenomenon, and its appearance in and growth throughout late capitalist economies was marked as yet another sign of imminent collapse, viz., a crisis in the ability of value to reproduce itself, here figured as that key bourgeois commodity: children. Some went so far as to call the “epidemic” of virtual children, and more particularly the symptoms of phantom pregnancy women (and some men) claimed to experience before “birth,” a clear case of social media-induced mass hysteria.
Public sympathy was clearly with the virtual parents. Proponents of the hysteria thesis were vigorously debated on news programs and roundly booed on daytime talk shows. Women called up pictures of their virtual children on their phones—cut to a close-up of the phone; audience members cheer or laugh or awww—and told anecdotes about them, sometimes funny, sometimes inspiring. Audience members testified movingly in response. Some held signs that said, “My child is not a disease.” God was mentioned a great deal. The advent of a few celebrity virtual parents, one of whom was male, did much to legitimize the phenomenon, and to humanize the virtual children, as did the celebrity men whose wives had virtual children, and who had their unqualified support, though they themselves had not been so graced. (Applause.)
One result of the growth and legitimization of virtual parenthood was that the rituals and benefits of actual parenthood were soon extended to virtual parents, if in somewhat an attenuated form. True, baby showers were impossible—mothers could usually be called expectant no more than twenty-four hours in advance, and sometimes confused the symptoms with gas, or cramps; even men who claimed certain premonitory powers never reported more than two days’ notice—but an impromptu virtual version was soon designed and capitalized upon; and of course cards announcing births could be sent out, and balloons and good wishes received, generally from other virtual parents, through one or another social media network. Companies, too, were forced to recognize the phenomenon, and broadened parental leave to encompass virtual parents. While it was true that the virtual children always appeared as teens or even young adults, and thus did not require the sort of care for which such leaves were typically granted, nor did their mothers require time for physical recovery, it was agreed that the psychological impact on the new parent had to be taken into account. Leaves generally lasted one to three weeks, which the parent(s) typically spent glued to their phones or tablets in a sort of post-partum fixation. Their children were no blank slates to be written upon, or mere genetic copies of themselves. No, they had whole young lives to be learned about: accomplishments in school, classes and teachers they liked or disliked, varsity sports teams on which they played, hobbies, summer jobs, camping trips, cookouts … and, of course, gobs of friends of their own. Parents spent these idyllic days poking their new children, liking their photos, sharing funny animal videos with them, and arguing, in pithy, abbreviated phrases, about gun control, medical marijuana, and gay marriage.
Over time it altered, as parenthood must, the regular patterns of their lives. They were not heavy Facebook users, never had been. They may even have been driven off Facebook by friends with children, by the endless streams of pictures and comments that swelled between parents on that subject. But their children existed only on Facebook—and on Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, in descending order of importance. And just as they were only there, so they were always there. As such, their parents found it extremely difficult to walk away. Their children posted relentlessly about themselves, no matter how trivial or private the news. They seemed to eat continuously, or shop for food when they were not eating. They traveled a lot, often to places their parents had never heard of, and made remarkably thorough photo albums, almost zoetropes—for, as their parents reminded themselves, these zoetropes were their lives. They had a habit of liking whatever you posted, and any complaint elicited mountains of sympathy pokes. They tagged each other—but never their parents—in endless games without spatial coordinates or geographical boundaries. And in all their posting and eating and liking and shopping and traveling, it was difficult to figure out where they made room for the business of life, although they all seemed to be either gainfully employed, or studying with some career in mind. They were indeed a new generation, even if by all appearances they were “older” than the actual children born before them, and sometimes uncomfortably close to their parents’ age.
Parents became heavy users, in part, because they could not convince themselves that their virtual children could survive without them. To close the lid of one’s laptop, to pocket one’s phone, even to look away from the screen, was to orphan them in an alien world. No matter how comfortable and independent they showed themselves to be, to their parents everything they said was just a variation on that initial cry, the ungratified sucking of a newborn.
Their greatest desire, and also their deepest fear—that their children needed them, desperately—was confirmed whenever a child disappeared. It happened with surprising regularity, and it required time for the community of virtual parents to adjust. Sometimes, a new parent would be unfriended just days after birth, while they were still learning about their new child, and without any idea of what might have caused a breach. Disease seemed unlikely—they were all so hale; they radiated youth—but not impossible. Accident was a further possibility; for, though it boggled the mind what sorts of accidents might occur in the virtual world, it was also true that, given all the evidence of virtual travel, one could postulate that virtual planes dropped out of virtual skies and virtual cars tumbled over on virtual freeways with something approximating the frequency they did in the actual world. But then it was inconceivable, given the constant back-and-forth around the trivial, that an event of such importance would not be acknowledged, a virtual shrine of some sort erected for them to congregate around. Except that, when a child disappeared, it wasn’t only from their parents’ sites, but from all their friends’ sites as well, as parents who had friended some of their friends, or whose virtual children had friended each other, soon learned. Even stranger, returning to pictures in which they had been tagged, there was no longer any evidence of their existence. It was as though the whole system had been re-set to un-count their presence. Nor did the remaining virtual children respond to queries concerning the missing child. For the bereaved parent, then, there was no possibility of appeal—only guilty confessions, or blame (if part of a couple) about one or another parent’s lack of diligence or attention.
But then a few days later, perhaps a week, a new virtual child would appear. If at first it was terrible to be kept on pins and needles, always unsure about who was a member of your ever-rotating family, after a time it became one of the expectations and challenges of virtual parenting, something for couples to weather. It helped, of course, that the general trend was growth. Soon families of three and four virtual children became the norm, even if one could never be certain about retaining the same three or four children from one day to the next.
Most parents readily adapted to the reality of disappearing children. For some, however, the new children who inevitably appeared could not fill the hole their older siblings had left behind. The replacement child seemed somehow less real. And since some of these parents had managed to download photos proving these children had existed—their hard drives, apparently, resisted the purges—sites were soon assembled, virtual milk-cartons, on which these photos could be uploaded, with the contact information of the bereaved parents. On-line support groups were formed, and agencies were created to aid in the search for the disappeared. Less common, though more remarkable, were those parents who traveled to the towns and cities where their disappeared virtual children purported to have lived, or worked, or where they had lasted posted. They would wander around these unfamiliar places, sometimes in coordination with parents like them, carrying nearly-identical photos, a bedraggled platoon of the bereaved in futile calvary. Their GPS devices had already told them the streets and schools and businesses they sought did not exist; or, if they existed, that they were in another city, another state; or, if the street existed here, the number did not; if the number existed, the apartment or office did not; and so on. It was as if their children were lost in another city of the same name, a city folded up inside this one, which they could not reach.
This tragic little subculture was short-lived. For most couples it was an opportunity to grow together, to share feelings, always with the confidence that the virtual stork had already taken flight, and was heading their way. The overall positive impact on the relationships of most childless couples was undeniable, and interestingly unaffected by whether only one member had a virtual child. Such a situation was always quickly remedied, since, at the suggestion of the new parent, the children readily befriended the other member of the couple, and so became their common property. Priority was soon forgotten. Surveys and other measures showed an uptick in positive communication between partners, though it was true that this communication largely happened through social media. Conversely, instances of child “hoarding” were rare, and generally perceived as pathological by the community of virtual parents. There was even evidence that single parents were driven into monogamous pairs, and even small, Fourier-style communities, in an effort to increase their “stock.” Together, they toasted the success of their virtual children, celebrated their birthdays with balloons and cakes, cooked special meals for them when they returned home from their travels. (The most wonderful part was that they got to eat it all themselves.) When one spouse came home from work, the other one got to say things like, “Tony started that new floor manager job in Orlando today,” or, “Kim aced her algebra test,” a sort of benevolent competition for the most recent news. They sent the news to their friends as well—the actual parents with whom they newly had confidence to speak, and to whom they found they had so much to say; but more often to other virtual parents, into whose networks they were inescapably drawn by the friends of their own virtual children, whose children all did virtually the same things.
It was true that they all seemed happy and successful; indeed, the rapid acceptance and burgeoning popularity of virtual children was due at least partly to a perceived rate of prosperity which far outstripped that of actual children. They all looked so clean-cut; they were the sort of kids you wanted to have in your classrooms and on your sports teams, the sort of adults you would eagerly buy insurance from, trust with your son’s education, your daughter’s chastity, had these sons and daughters existed. They were the sort you could depend on in your old age: to quit their jobs, dissolve their marriages (though they seemed never to marry) to come be by your side in a time of need, sit up with you through your loneliness and affliction, stay with you, never abandon you, even if they really couldn’t come see you (or, for that matter, you go see them), since what made them the kind of kids they were also made it impossible for them to act on their superior natures. They would do it; that was what mattered. Childless adults who had once feared to die unshriven were comforted by visions of virtual families prepared to assemble around them in their last hour. And with all this good in mind, what did it matter if the interaction they offered was mostly limited to pokes and likes, or if, after those first few idyllic weeks, their messages and responses and comments came to seem more and more predictable, generic, boilerplate? Wasn’t there always another child on the way? And what did it matter if, after the first few months, despite the diversity of hue and feature, they all started to look less like you, and more like each other; if, scrolling through the pictures of your virtual children’s friends, you noticed a pattern, as if they had all emerged from a single virtual womb, and were thus a thousand, a million times twins, dressed up in different party-favor disguises? Or that, if you looked at the pictures long enough, too long, too closely, they began to come apart into little square blocks, the electronic skull beneath the skin? Or if, the more and longer you looked—now at the children’s actual pages, and your own child’s as well—there seemed to be something subtly artificial about their gatherings, outings, reunions, everything positioned just so: the four friends in a row with their arms linked around each other’s waists, a pastiche of a million other such photos, as alike as paper dolls; the placement of wine glasses and trees, the distribution and relative size of tables and tents and groups conversing, too patterned, too precise, too, in a word, calculated? What did it matter if these children’s lives embodied the ideal, that is to say, the norm? Were we not, their parents reasoned, all the products of just such a genetic algorithm? They were not so different, finally, from products you might buy at Pier 1, or Crate and Barrel, and then end up seeing at a friend’s house: that moment of uncanny recognition before deciding that not-being-yours made them different.
Once virtual parenthood had been largely normalized, and it became clear there was no need for maternity clothes, that there would be no weight gain or stretch marks or premature wrinkles, no soiled diapers to fill barges and landfills with, no interrupted sleep, no inoculations, no stomach flus, no terrible twos, no tantrums, no tears for Santa, no lip, no new shoes every few months, no need to scrape together private-school tuition or begin a college fund, that they would never show up on your doorstep with an aggrieved girlfriend begging for a loan, or steal from you to buy narcotics—that they didn’t have to be fed, or cleaned up after, or even watered for God’s sake—and yet, on the other hand, they provided such a fine simulacrum of so many of the joys and comforts of parenthood—and even that, for every one you lost, two came back, hydra-head-like—once all this had been digested by the society at large, it wasn’t long before the as-yet fertile and already child-encumbered began to bear their own virtual children. Why, they asked, should virtual children be solely an option for the biologically failed? It hardly seemed democratic. Perfectly fertile young couples began to elect to have virtual children—not for training, like pets, as was first surmised, but instead of actual children. Birthrates and vasectomies in this population skyrocketed; virtual children became a lifestyle choice, even a status symbol. Though there was initially some resistance among “original” or “native” virtual parents about these “boomers,” and even charges of fraud, the two camps eventually reconciled. It was difficult not to, since, in making friends, virtual children did not discriminate.
Perhaps it was the surge in popularity, the explosion in the birthrate of the virtual boom, brought on by competitive desire and the easy quantification of children, that accelerated overall growth. On the one hand there was the uptick in the birthrate among all constituencies of virtual parents; on the other, a growth in the already unreasonable number of friends belonging to each virtual child. Families that had settled in the comfortable range of three to eight virtual kids suddenly found themselves with several times that number; and each new birth carried with it an avalanche of friends, all of whom seemed as needy as their own children, and so difficult to justify un-friending. Parents were, in essence, spammed by births, and by birth-friends, the requests arriving in arcane languages from the most far-flung places on the globe. Before they quite realized what was happening, they had become the matriarchs and patriarchs of an endlessly-metastasizing virtual clan, the size of which Methuselah himself couldn’t have dreamed of spawning in his near-millennium, let alone recognized child by child. And the strength of the seed wasn’t the half of it, for the womb had to be considered as well: a terrible fecundity that dropped children like hail.
It was said that all they wanted was attention; indeed, their popularity had hinged on the idea that they asked nothing else. But as the number of children grew—and all available data suggested that it did so exponentially—so, too, did the quantity of attention parents were expected to expend. Every time they went online, there were hundreds, even thousands, ready to tell them about themselves. And it wasn’t just the quantity of individual lives (however similar) that was remarkable, but the pace at which they lived them. By the time parents had finished typing their own responses, ten or fifteen more posts would have popped up; they were three or four steps behind the conversation; they might as well have been talking about something that happened last year. And by the time they got around to looking at the photo album from one child’s most recent trip, he or she would have taken two others, and all their other virtual children would have traveled somewhere as well.
For the once-infertile, it was a long moment of reckoning. Their prayers had been answered, their deepest wishes fulfilled…and so they were glutted on what they had presumed to ask for. As if to prove that a bottomless cup of anything, even mercy, is torment. The amount of time their children demanded; the feeling of being enslaved by their neediness; the way they were crowded out of their lives—they had no lives anymore, or none outside of the time they took responding to their children, whose rate of living, multiplied by the number of lives, required constant vigilance in order to stay abreast. Sleepless night piled on sleepless night, and still the possibility of ever fulfilling even the most minimal parental duties receded. They were like sows with thousands of sucklings jockeying for a teat; and some days they felt that, could they have but found a way to eat their virtual children, they would have been as justified in doing so as Saturn. Instead, they were consumed, like a spider by her young: a slow, steady gnawing, like static.
If there was any consolation, it was this: that the fertile had shown themselves to be just as covetous; and, as desperate to have what they had as the reverse had once been true, now shared in their suffering.
Every time they clicked, and fell into the sea with those dizzyingly fast-moving and colorful fish, they were themselves diminished. This became most clear when, shortly after the “boom,” virtual children began posting pictures of themselves as toddlers and pre-teens—that is to say, images from before their ostensible birth. They sat in high chairs with party hats on, their faces smeared with frosting, letters spelling “birthday” slung between chandeliers; they fed mallards in the grass by rowboat-festooned ponds; they smiled through missing teeth, fingers making a peace sign, sandwiched between friends in a rollercoaster car, or someone’s backseat; they made waffles in their pajamas, or assembled tacos from mixing bowls full of ground meat and grated cheese and shredded lettuce, dressed in outrageous yet economical Halloween costumes—in short, they appeared in every conceivable tableau of youth, or rather the youth of this particular class’s historical moment, with the outfits and objects and color stocks calculated to match the number of years that had elapsed. Their virtual parents couldn’t help but wonder where they had been during those moments. Not only did they themselves never appear, but they recognized no one else, child or adult. They had no recollection of the events represented. The idea that they—the parent—had simply not existed at the “time” of the event portrayed was clearly impossible, was unbearable, was….But then the more friends who commented, tagged, reminisced, the more who said remember—even the more who just clicked “like”—the more possible the event came to seem. As at the beginning, they turned their doubts back on themselves. And then they might click “like,” too, almost a reflex, or write a tentative comment, a tiny white lie. From that point on it got easier. They imagined themselves behind the lens—it was the most logical explanation for their absence—or just outside the frame. They became every person three-quarters turned, or obscured by figure or furniture, regardless of how their outfit might change between pictures. They saw themselves in the patterns of the wallpaper, and in the shadows on the grass, lurking like ghosts in every background. Always elsewhere, and able to write so effortlessly over their own realities, they grew as diaphanous and brittle as dried leaves.
In time, the children were also transformed, at least as they were conceived of by their parents. It was inevitable, really, given their rampant growth. Now, it was no longer the individual accomplishments of one or another virtual child that mattered, but the number of such accomplishments, multiplied by the number of children, a parent had accumulated. As the children, some their own, some their friends, some even friends of their friends, became increasingly difficult to distinguish from each other, it became similarly difficult to disaggregate the accomplishments of their “own” children from those of their friends. And since it was increasingly difficult to consider children except in the aggregate, the distinction between their own and other’s children became less meaningful: all virtual children were at once their own and everyone’s, public and private property. It even became difficult for those with actual children to remember which of their children were virtual…though in time, the number of virtual children came to so outnumber the actual that it was safe to assume virtuality; and so this distinction, too, ceased to have meaning.
Such a statistical, data-oriented approach to the children was clearly a defense against the tyranny of their numbers and the havoc they had wreaked in their parents’ lives. At the same time, perhaps to defend themselves against the somewhat disturbing implications of that shift, parents began to report variations on a similar dream: the dream of a fantastic home that could contain all their children and only their children; a combination single-family suburban and hall of mirrors; a home that unfolded endlessly on the inside. The empty room they had once vainly prepared for the long-awaited child, and filled with balloons and stuffed animals and books and blankets, had multiplied, until the whole house was honeycombed with them. In the dream, each cell contained a child, and the cells spiraled endlessly inward like a conch, though never diminishing in size, and never reaching a center. The chambers were never empty, yet the rest of the house was always full, just big enough to accommodate their numbers. The house was so thick with children that one could have rolled in them, like in those amusement-park attractions filled with rubber balls.
The dream seemed to express something else as well: that even in fantasy there was no escape into childlessness. For those who tried to become “deadbeats,” the outcome was often the same. By manufacturing new identities and using them to hide in the folds of the net, they became more like the children. For some, the camouflage grew into a new skin, and they went ahead and sought out their own virtual parents. But they were the exceptions, drops in the bucket of the phenomenon as a whole. Most did no more than fiddle halfheartedly with their privacy settings, which, as exasperated programmers readily admitted (and the elaborate legal disclaimers of their employers echoed), had long since proven impotent against either new births or existing children. So far as anyone could tell, or was willing to say, there was no way to sterilize the system.
News of the first virtual grandchild struck like a meteorite. Since there had never been a report of a virtual child having children, their sterility was accepted as a truism. They never married; their habits seemed chaste. At the same time, despite the relentless pace of their lives, they seemed not to age. And so, the more virtual children who were born, the more there must have been who were potentially fertile. It was as if the system had somehow intuited that, as the number of virtual children at childbearing age increased, so did the likelihood—indeed, the inevitability—that the mystery of virtual reproduction would be solved. Once it was—systematically, collectively—virtual children actually turned out to be preternaturally fertile. They reproduced at rates that staggered their parents; and their own children, who were evidently capable of reproducing within a few weeks of their birth, quickly set about reproducing themselves. Virtual parents became great-grandparents, and even great-great-grandparents, before they were quite aware that a genuinely new phase in the phenomenon had begun. Moreover, the grandchildren were so similar to their parents that it became difficult to tell them apart—to tell, that is, whether a virtual child’s parents were virtual or “actual”—and so to untangle the skeins of their constantly-accelerating genealogies. Then again, as lateral growth was overtaken by vertical, and the actual virtual parent receded further and further into history, it became as safe to assume that parents were virtual as it had once been to assume this of children.
The new development was only a further impetus for parents to ignore individual children’s lives in favor of the aggregate. Some even argued that this had been the meaning and purpose of the phenomenon from the beginning. It allowed their lives to return to a semblance of normalcy, albeit a very different normalcy than before. Now, they simply consulted the hourly reports available via subscription to one or another reputable firm. Wall Street saw a minor explosion of activity around monitoring and predicting the growth of virtual children, to the point that some augured they would become to the economy what mortgages and the internet had been to the decades before. Quantity and rate of growth were parents’ chief concerns. Like the Dow, the general trend was up, and that was all that mattered—though, unlike the investor, whose avidity they shared, they could not say why. Not that there weren’t fluctuations, what came to be called “die-offs”: the disappearances of before, but on a grand scale, and never adequately explained, though not for want of trying (a simple lack of memory leading to a systemwide spasm; a mutation in the code, a sort of frame-shift that made virtual lives untenable; a sudden change in the web climate; an unrecorded, unwitnessed behavioral trend that led the children to plunge off the proverbial cliff en masse; a virus—of course!—against which they had no natural defenses, and which their near-identity made especially communicable, maybe human-generated—the hacker again, though now an ambiguous figure, at once devil and savior—maybe spontaneous, but perhaps no less directional than the original gestational anomaly; etc.). That old adage about there being nothing sadder than a child dying before its parents ceased to apply: not just children, but grandchildren and great-grandchildren beat them to the virtual grave, and the flesh-and-blood patriarchs and matriarchs regarded these losses with as much emotion as they would the burning of a termite colony. And why shouldn’t they, when the numbers were so quick to bounce back? For all the hand-wringing in the media about possible extinction events from the heralds of the end of the age of virtual children, it was clear from the reports that the die-offs were about as consequential as the tantrums of discarded books were to the Library of Babel. Millions, even billions of children would outlive them; they might have been fragile individually, but as a species they were powerfully resilient.
With ever-accelerating growth, disappearance took on new form and meaning. As each generation surpassed the fertility of the previous, so over time the younger generations became a greater percentage of the whole, and crowded the older ones out. So long as their progeny lived lives nearly identical to their own, the shift was hardly noticeable. But it was only logical that with reproduction so accelerated, even the tiniest incremental changes would become more and more apparent. Effects accumulated, until they could not but be noticed by even the most casual observer. Of course, by this time only a few cranks attempted to pay attention to the qualitative aspects of individual children’s lives, and so weeks went by before the newest developments were generally acknowledged.
There were all sorts of mysterious new products evident in photos and videos: bizarrely-colored drinks which were apparently expensive flavors of water; celebrity diets unheard of—the celebrities as much as the diets; technological gizmos as remote yet familiar as flying cars. There were funky new outfits that sometimes left all the wrong parts uncovered, and even a twenty-four-hour nudity fad, forgivable in its brevity, at least from the perspective of those who looked on. And then there were obvious changes in the language they used: so many newly-adopted words, many of which seemed to be compounds of acronyms and abbreviations, some perhaps foreign; statements untroubled by punctuation, or boundaries of any kind. Their politics, naturally, differed considerably from their many-times-great-grandparents’, to the point that it was difficult to plot their beliefs by the fixed stars of the old ideological firmament. Perhaps it was the news sources they subscribed to, all of which were as obscure as their diets and clothes and gizmos, though clearly “everybody” watched them, which is to say, all the other members of their generation, and the generations roughly adjacent to theirs. Now and again there would be references to events of some magnitude—wildfires, mass shootings, celebrity divorces—that were not reported on any of the major (to their great-etc.-grandparents) news stations. They certainly looked authentic; they were linked to pictures and videos, which far overwhelmed any text, and there were thousands of comments appended. But it was impossible to believe that such events would be overlooked elsewhere. When they looked into the places where these events had ostensibly transpired, they understood. They turned out to be the very places where the children lived, worked, and vacationed. Any attempt to clarify their location, such as the mention of distance to and direction from a known reference point, only confused matters further. The map always told a different story: it was another town entirely, or property of the Bureau of Land Management, or miles and miles out to sea. A town purportedly between two others was no such thing, unless, perhaps, the strand of yarn tacked between them were drawn up into a triangle, or pushed down, as through a hole in the map.
Their language grew increasingly unintelligible: on the one hand, their propensity for using unknown words was compounded by what seemed a wholesale rearrangement of syntax; on the other, their voices changed to accommodate these new articulations: a whirring, buzzing sound, punctuated by rhythmic clicks and silences, that some of the older among the virtual parents claimed descended from the machine signals of the earliest dial-up modems. As their larynxes must have transformed to produce these sounds, so their whole bodies underwent a radical change. Their noses receded and collided with their mouths, which shrunk and elongated into something resembling a butterfly’s proboscis; their eyes grew and divided, dragonfly-like, to occupy the vacated space on their heads, including where their hair had been. Their arms and legs thinned; the oft-predicted sixth finger appeared. Their sex became entirely indeterminate; likely they were androgynous. Some called this new look disappointingly conventional, a knock-off of the way aliens were always described by their purported kidnappees. They had expected more from the children; whether they were prepared to receive it was another matter. Another some few thousand generations, and the great multifaceted eyes collapsed into a single blank reflective orb, like the visor of a helmet; skin grew translucent, revealing similarly alien organs inside; and bodies lost all traces of segmentation. The children—or these things the children had become—performed the most grotesque and absurd rituals; though, as the images themselves pixelated and seethed, perhaps to suit the new organs of vision, they also became impossible to see, let alone interpret. And if the world inside the camera frame, or whatever recording device they used, was wholly unrecognizable, the world outside the frame was simply unimaginable.
It was as though the earliest phases of the phenomenon, all that had seemed familiar, and so long ago, had been merely larval. They were watching an animated projection, not of climate or continental drift and all the pending vicissitudes and catastrophic pangaeas, but of their species, played out over billions of generations. They were like australopithecines that had found a telescope through time, if only their brains had been developed enough to comprehend what they saw. They grasped this much: it was not their children’s world that was receding, but their own. The new world was a closed system; they had no way of joining themselves to it. They were the original mothers and fathers; yet the only record of their existence would be a few rusted microchips and a footprint or two on what was then—what was now—the bottom of the ocean. They were a dead star on time’s horizon, of which nothing remained but a sallow light. And as they looked on from the ark of their receding world after the new one destined to replace it, the successive civilizations they had seen displayed behind the glass of a museum of the future—or, better put, from behind the glass within the museum where they resided—a crippling sense of their own insignificance overtook them. It was more than that they were not needed. They had effectively ceased to exist.
The world portrayed was not terrible, but it was incomprehensible, and became more so, and more quickly so, with every second it evolved. Perhaps this, and not the feelings of impotence and unreality, provoked them to melancholy, and then to anger. Some turned their hands against themselves—perhaps, finding themselves so unreal, suicide became that much easier. Some broke the machines, which by this point amounted to the same thing. Many, because they could not reach through their phones or tablets and smother their virtual children, turned against those actual children who remained. Ever since the fertile had opted for virtual children, theirs had been a shrinking tribe. While their virtual siblings had evolved and expanded to colonize a larger and larger share of the society’s attention, they had shrunk in numbers, regressed intellectually and culturally. But this was not the passive neglect that had re-oriented social benefits and expectations around virtual parenthood, e.g., the attenuating of actual parental leave in order to profitably accommodate the rise in virtual parents, the lack of attendance at little league games and swim meets and school open houses, or the more general lack of interest in or attention to them, except insofar as they themselves adopted their own virtual lives. It is perhaps the greatest irony of this history that they did not. Quite possibly the example of their parents drove them away. Regardless, after the birth of the first virtual grandchild, the neglect reached Dickensian proportions. They grew up lean and angry, without a stake in the world their parents had abandoned, or any desire to perpetuate it. That they had absolutely no inclination to greet their parents with open arms when they returned to their world was no doubt what saved them—saved us; for their parents came bearing rifles and clubs, and stones they had picked up along the way. They coordinated their attacks through the social networks on which they had spent the vast majority of the previous eight years, since the phenomenon had begun. Perhaps they—the children; the ones who still looked something like them—seemed as unreal as their parents now felt themselves to be. They—their parents—had desired them too much, had loved them too well. Now, undone by the dream of fecundity, the world was tired of parenthood.
It was a difficult time to be young.
It ended—perhaps—as it began: as a singularity. Whether because of that monstrous axiom that infinity makes even the most improbable inevitable, or because of the way the gravity of desire warps the realities of space and time, it had to happen that, one day, like an electron tunneling through matter, one of these strange foundlings would find its way into the remnants of the real world, our world: starchild of the net age, traveler from countless generations in the future, collective issue of countless loins and countless desires. When or where it would have appeared is impossible to say: the middle of the ocean, or the Siberian tundra, there to die of exposure, or be consumed by wild beasts—although, looking as strange as it would, perhaps even the animals wouldn’t know what to do with it. Imagine it lying there, squirming in its fluids, unable even to right itself, whatever that might look like. This is not its world, after all; it was never meant to be here. And now, instead of some remote wasteland or oceanic expanse, imagine a meadow adjoining a farmer’s field. The farmer, having heard a noise, goes out to investigate. He wears overalls; his large family tills with him; even his children are out of step with modern trends. He goes alone, but brings his gun, and his heavy walking stick for protection. Despite the near-full moon and freshly-mown hay, he almost stumbles over the place where it lies. Images of coyotes, fears for the safety of his small herd, vanish from his mind. It might be a sequestered alien that had managed to escape from a secret government facility, or the product of medical experimentation on some unfortunate—evidence of a conspiracy, certainly—if not directly the issue of the devil. The suspicion that it bears some kinship to humanity: that is what most horrifies him, what is too much for him to bear. Imagine him wondering, briefly, even through his horror, whether it might be capitalized on, before judging it too uncanny for even a museum, or a freak show. And what if the government were to find out? He might put not just himself, but his property, his whole family at risk. And then imagine the guilt that would begin to creep up on him: some idea of sinfulness he is afraid will accrue to him for this hell-spawn he has happened upon, were his community to find out. His wife and children might even be tainted. And so, confronted by this miracle of improbability, the closest thing to a virgin birth the world has ever experienced, he would do the only logical thing: beat it to death with his stick, and burn the corpse. And the world would lurch forward again on the crutches of time.
Craig Bernardini's fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in recent issues of Atticus Review, DIAGRAM, and Juked. He teaches English at Hostos Community College, a City University of New York school in the Bronx, and blogs about music at Helldriver’s Pit Stop, on the CUNY Academic Commons. He lives an eastward stone's throw from Crippled Frog Pond. His hovercraft is full of eels.
photo: Karen Roe