Sam didn’t have a brother or a sister because his mother didn’t like how stretched out she got after birth. She told him that when he was a lot older and she was drunk. And Sam didn’t have any friends because he lived in the pines somewhere. The driveway up to the complex was a half-mile long.
Kids at school didn’t like that. Sam didn’t know he was rich until the other kids told him. And he didn’t know that was a bad thing until the other kids started hitting him for it.
No siblings, no friends, but he did have Jack. Jack was about three feet tall and had a silver titanium body. He had warm blue lights for eyes. He was a “data-powered assistant.” The newest model. Sam’s parents had been sold on Jack because at the expo he did that trick where he twirled a pen around every single finger on his hand. Then he made fun of their matching polo shirts. They talked for a half hour. He made them laugh by saying he learned social skills by watching interviews with the old acting legend Will Smith on the Net. Jack had solar panels on his shoulders and only had to recharge outside once a month. He prided himself on obeying protocols.
So Sam’s parents were sold. They could leave Jack with the kid for a year if they had to. Program a command into Jack and he would follow it like a commandment. Jack wouldn’t make any mistakes. The kid would always be safe. Jack removed risk from the equation.
Sam woke up the next day and the nanny Karen was gone. Jack was there instead. Sam was twelve—too old to cry, said his dad—but he cried because he liked Karen. Jack handed him a tissue.
And later that day Jack spread jam on toast and brought the plate to Sam while he lay out by the pool. Sam was tossing a baseball up in the air and catching it. Jack took the ball and then took ten steps back on his little legs, his gears whispering, and threw it back to Sam.
“Who’s your favorite pitcher?” Jack asked.
Sam caught the ball and stared at it.
“Billy Gregson, the new guy.”
“He is very good. But have you heard of Cy Young? Or Roger Clemens.”
Jack told him their stats.
“You know everything,” said Sam.
“Yes. Everything that’s on the Net,” Jack said. “Anything you want to know, just ask.”
His voice had been programmed to sound like Sam’s dad. Sam told him to change it.
The car drove itself. Sam sat where the driver should and Jack rode shotgun. They pulled into the academy’s parking lot. The other kids came here in autonomous cars too but Sam’s car was a Bentley. Worth two Benzes. Sam’s parents said he’d go off to a more “prestigious” school after eighth grade.
“Have a good day, Sam,” said Jack. Now he sounded like a teenager.
“Thanks.” Sam paused with his hand on the door. “I have a Spanish test right now. I forget, how do you say ‘good afternoon?’”
While Sam went into school Jack just sat in the front seat and hummed to himself. Taught himself jazz songs streaming on the radio. Watched the clouds. And the ships floating between them.
Sam came out seven hours later and sat on the hood of the car. A ritual. He always took some quiet buffer time before going home. Jack came out and leaned against the front grill.
“Buenos tardes,” he said.
“Shit,” Sam said suddenly. Then he added: “Don’t tell my mom I said that.”
“Jamie and Brian are coming over. Let’s go.”
“Who are they?” asked Jack.
“Kids who jump me. Eighth graders.”
“I see them,” said Jack. His blue eyes changed shape.
Sam didn’t get the car door open fast enough. The kid Jamie ran up and blocked it. Brian stood right behind Sam with his arms crossed.
“What this fucking toy you got? Your best friend?” he asked Sam. He tapped Jack with his shoe.
“Don’t do that,” said Jack, and moved three steps to the side.
“Prince Samuel,” said Jamie. “Why do you always run away from us? We just want to be frien—”
The Bentley jumped forward a foot and slapped Brian. He went down and spun over the pavement.
Everything stopped for a beat.
“Go away, boys,” Jack said. “I’ve alerted school administration.”
“Did you do that?” Sam asked.
“Of course I did,” Jack said.
Then the driver’s door levered open and caught Jamie in the chest. He hit the ground rasping.
“Listen, Sam,” Jack whispered. “If he gets up, hit him in the face with your elbow.”
“It’s the hardest part of your body.”
Jamie got up. Sam hit him and got blood on his sleeve. Then Brian got up, or tried to, but Jack rammed him with the Bentley again.
The next afternoon Sam was back on the hood and Jack stood easy by the front wheel. No one came up to them.
“What’s that girl’s name?” asked Jack. “By the entrance, in the pink skirt.”
“Emily,” said Sam. “From Spanish class.”
“She likes you.”
“How do you know?”
“The dilation of her pupils. She touches her hair right after she looks at you and her cheeks flush a little.”
“Oh. Wow. You can see that from here?”
Sam thought. Negotiated with a strange new impulse that was bouncing around in his head.
“You’re nervous,” said Jack. “I can hear your pulse. Do you want to talk to her?”
“Y—yeah,” Sam said. Then he asked Jack, “But what do I say?”
“Before you say anything you take five deep breaths and relax.” Jack paused. Then said, “I see she has a gym bag. She plays soccer. Ask her about her favorite players.”
Sam watched her walking and felt like God. Like he could read a script of every conversation before he even had it. He said, “Jack, tell me about some famous players.”
He listened. Then got off the hood of the car and put in an earbud.
“Tell me more through this,” he told Jack.
And then Sam went over and talked to Emily.
Three months later Jack got hacked. Some big breach on the servers of the company that made him. Jack’s hands twitched and he bumped into walls while reciting clips of an old speech given by the president of Portugal.
“We’ll get him fixed. It’ll take two or three days,” Sam’s dad said.
Sam sat cross-legged on his bed. No toast for breakfast. Not dressed yet. Driving in to school was going to war. And going to war without Jack was going to be like giving up a superpower. Every single second of life would be uncertain and shifty again. All potential, no guarantees. Sam didn’t like it. He took five breaths but they didn’t calm him down.
“Well,” he told his dad, “I’m going to be sick for two or three days then.”
This week’s one word prompt is “risk.”