William jumped from the swing onto the summer grass and took off after the magnificent butterfly that had caught his attention. One foot in front of the other, coordination coming slowly. He tumbled and the butterfly got away. But in front of him in the grass stood a great grey grasshopper. William reached for it, but it jumped away. He followed on all fours and came to the flower patch, where he stopped short as he was confronted with a massive gold and yellow garden spider, its web stretching too far for William to see.
``He is having positive experiences, Mr. Farkas. Although you can't see a smile on his face, this monitor shows the relative and absolute strenths of different brainwaves. This one,'' Dr. Router pointed to a blue fluctuating line that appeared stronger than its neighbors, ``indicates general pleasure. This other one indicates stress. We try to vary this one; constant stress retards grown, but bursts here and there stimulate vertical growth, followed by periods of maturation.''
``What is his age now, Doctor?'' Mr. Farkas looked down at the toddler in the bed. Its eyes stitched shut, regularly spaced electrodes placed over the whole of the body, and tubes entering the mouth and exiting elsewhere gave him the impression of intensive care, even though this was standard procedure.
The doctor flipped through a file and replied, ``Virtual chronological age is two years, nine months. Virtual mental age is 4 years, 2 and a half months, and emotional age is approaching three and a half years.'' He replaced the file. ``We'll boost him to five-to-one tomorrow, and in a few weeks we can switch him to the social-interactive environment.''
William crawled out of the swimming pool. The woman on the side, whose long brown hair encircled her rounded face, smiled at him and said he had done a good job. He was no longer afraid of the water. She picked him up and dried him off with a towel. Would he like to go for a walk in the forest? There would be deer and rabbits and geese. He nodded, but didn't speak. She took him by the hand and started to lead him off to the gate, but panic gripped him and he wrapped his chubby arms around her leg. He shook his head no and looked at the water. Okay, we'll stay a little longer. No need to rush things.
``William is progressing quite well, Mr. and Mrs. Farkas. The diagnostics say that he has improved motor control in a number of environments. His interaction with animals indicates growing empathetic skills. Perception skills are very well developed. You should be proud.''
``Thank you, Doctor,'' Susanne Farkas beamed. ``How long before you fix and burn the image?''
``The plan you folks chose calls for another three months in the tank. We'll conduct a freeze, attempt a test burn, and if that works, we'll then commit his programming to memory. Remember that in two months we'll need final confirmation of his future environment so that we can synchronize the program with the reality of your house. This will help to minimalize shock.'' Dr. Router pushed a short stack of forms across the broad desk to the excited parents. ``We are placing him into a group simulation with several other potential implants who should be burned and released within a few days of your William. They are also local, so they may continue contact post-implant. This encourages continued socialization.''
William ran across the gravel playground and stumbled. He got up and ran again. The game was on. He jumped onto the tractor tire, ran around the edge, leaped across to another, and could see Cindy right in front of him. You are it, he was going to scream as he reached out with his hand. But Cindy stopped and turned. He tagged her and stopped. She leaned forward and kissed him. You're it again, she called.
He wiped his lips and spit at her. She slapped him. He pushed her from the tire to the gravel below and jumped on her. A scream escaped her lips. He heard a cracking sound and he began kicking her head. You are it. You are it, you are it you are it you are it.
``Willam has proven defective, Mr. and Mrs. Farkas. He didn't adapt well to rapid socialization, and his responses to games indicate that he is unable to separate reality and fiction. Our failure rate is below industry average, but mistakes still happen.''
Mr. Farkas, standing at the window and looking down to the streets and train lines below, turned and asked, ``What are the recomended procedures, Dr. Router?''
``As per contract, you will receive a partial refund. 50% if you sign William over for distributed neural net and farming research, 37.5% if we erase the database and conduct an accelerated default implant. We can make William into another normal little boy, perhaps even a little above average.''
``Garrison,'' Mrs. Farkas pleaded, ``Do we want to risk another failure? One is almost too much to bear!''
``Susanne, I know that it's hard. It's always difficult deleting your children, but sometimes it's the right thing to do. We're not that strapped for cash, honey, and if we want a child, now is better than later. I don't want to have to buy another golem, and prices are going up.''
Dr. Router pulled out a short stack and a pen. ``Name?''
``Let's try Thomas. It was my father's name.''
Cindy climbed on the jungle gym and upon reaching the top looked around for her friends. She frowned. She couldn't find William. Where is William, she asked when recess was over. William was very ill, honey, Mrs. Nelson said. He went away to get better. Will he come back? No, honey.
Inspired indirectly by and with apologies to ucblockhead.
Notes: The title refers directly to an error message found in DOS. The story itself was inspired in June of 2001 by a journal posted by ucblockhead, a user at K5. His diary was titled ``Deleting your children'', and his entry was about deleting computer code and programs that one has written ... metaphorical children. I chose, instead, to turn the situation around. Farkas is the Hungarian word for wolf, and is a common last name---indeed, it was the name of my landlord in Budapest. I chose the first name Garrison as a direct reference to Garrison Keillor and ``A Prairie Home Companion'', a radio show I first learned of my senior year at Pomona. The ``above average'' comment by Dr. Router is a reference to Lake Wobegon---where "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above-average"---, which appears in ``A Prairie Home Companion.''