It was getting late. Empty beer bottles and pizza boxes littered the living room. The TV screensaver stopped looping and plainly asked, Are you still watching? Zach and I lay sprawled out on the couches, lethargic from too much food and even more alcohol. A pack of cards rested on the coffee table between us. It was still in the plastic, evidence of my underwhelming party-planning skills.
“Thanks for hanging out, Trev,” he murmured. “You don’t have to wait up with me until midnight.”
I looked at my watch. It was 11:53 p.m. “Not much longer to go,” I said. “Besides, I’m as curious as you are.”
Zach’s laugh was tinged with melancholy. Every man our age reconciled himself—at least outwardly—to the decade our government now required us to forfeit. When it finally came, the “AI Revolution” we were promised completely backfired, prematurely terminating the service of an entire cohort of dads. The resulting dad shortage nearly crashed the economy and plunged society into chaos.
Zach and I were lucky. We’d both been given dads on our 20th birthdays and got their entire 15 years of loyal service, mentorship, and training. Since the shortage began, however, men in some corners of the country weren’t getting their dads until they were 23 or 24, and they were lucky to keep them past 30. It didn’t seem fair. What could a man possibly learn from a dad in just six years?
Of course, correcting unfairness for them meant upsetting the system elsewhere. This was why my soon-to-be 40-year-old best friend would begin his dad service far sooner than he expected. Activating dadNET at age 40 instead of 50 left a generation of men—myself included—feeling cheated. To be fair, I had no grand designs on what I might accomplish in my forties. Still, there would be the potential for greatness, or at least moderate achievement, during that decade. Not anymore. Those ten years would now be spent in service, and it made no sense to dream about what we might accomplish. Once we became dads, our lives were no longer ours.
At least I still had a few years to go. Zach was already 39 when the rules changed six months ago.
“Do you think it’s gonna hurt?” Zach asked. “None of the training modules said anything about what it feels like.”
I couldn’t help but find Zach’s apprehension a little endearing. He was three years older, but I had always been the leading half of our friendship. This was especially true after he turned 35 and his dad retired. Instead of stepping into his mid-30s ready to assume a central role in society, Zach seemed lost and in need of direction. Although it wasn’t technically permitted, I let my dad give him the occasional lecture and pep talk to keep him motivated and productive. Last year, when my dad retired, he said I had become a true leader in our time together, comparing me positively to my perpetually meandering best friend.
Becoming a dad 10 years early was probably a blessing in disguise for a man like Zach. Finally, he would be given a purpose, and the programming would keep him from getting into trouble. I didn’t know whether the dadNET activation would be painful, but I didn’t want him to worry about something he couldn’t change. I shook my head. “Those trainings were super detailed. I’m sure they’d have mentioned it.”
Zach made a noise between a “yeah” and a grunt. I couldn’t tell if he believed me or not. As the clock ticked toward midnight and we chatted about nothing, I intently studied Zach’s facial expressions and body language. In the last few months, a couple of my buddies hit the big 4-0 and became dads, but I was never there when it happened. They simply didn’t show up to work the next day, and all my text messages were returned undelivered.
I had been obsessively watching the clock for the last hour, but laughing at old inside jokes and quotes from our favorite shows made me lose track of time as those last few minutes ticked away. Midnight came and went without me realizing.
“Do you remember the look on her face,” I said between bursts of laughter, “when after all of that, I didn’t have all three stamps on the form?”
My laughter subsided. Zach wasn’t laughing at all. At first, I wondered if he had fallen asleep, but when I craned my neck to look at him, he was sitting straight on the sofa, his back straight and his legs splayed wide. His brow was furrowed, and his jaw was slack. He looked like he was stumped by the punchline of a complicated joke.
“Zach,” I said. I jostled his knee to rouse him from his stupor. “Hey, buddy, are you all right?”
He stared straight past me into the middle distance, his blue-grey eyes unfocused and glazed over. “I am fine, Trevor. It is starting. I can feel it.”
I glanced at the ID chip on his right bicep. Instead of the usual blue, denoting “citizen,” his was illuminated grey, denoting “dad.” Then I looked at my watch. It was 12:01 a.m. dadNET didn’t waste any time activating him.
“I am having difficulty remembering things. I cannot remember my name,” Zach said. His voice was placid and even like he was reading items off a shopping list.
“My name is dad. I am a dad.” Zach pinched the bridge of his nose. “Trevor, I did not think it would happen so fast.”
I got up off my sofa and sat next to Zach. He’d broken out into a full-body sweat, but I didn’t care. I put my arm around him. “It’s okay. Just relax.”
We sat in silence for a minute or two. Zach’s body twitched every few seconds like a machine undergoing one hard reset after another. I tried speaking to him, but he ignored me. Finally, he fell asleep—or whatever the new dad equivalent of sleep was. I waited an hour to see what would happen next, but drowsiness caught up with me, and I nodded off next to my deactivated best friend.
I woke up to the smell of bacon frying and the clattering of pots and pans. When I opened my eyes, I realized I’d been moved back to the second couch, and a blanket had been placed over me. I got up, stretched, and looked around the room. It was spotless. All the evidence of last night’s going away party for two—the beer bottles, the pizza boxes—were gone. Zach’s living room was tidier than it had been since his dad retired.
I started for the kitchen and passed by an opened box on the dining table. Inside was a bunch of discarded packing material and a dogeared flyer that read “dadNET Quick Start Guide.” Clearly, Zach had gotten an early start to the day.
“Rise and shine, Son. About time you got up, sleepyhead. Breakfast is just about ready.”
I barely recognized Zach when I saw him at the stove. He flipped an omelet with a skill I knew he didn’t possess twelve hours ago. He wore the standard black dad uniform, and the compression gear had already started transforming his physique. His chest was thicker, his hips narrower, and his thighs rounder, though he had a way to go before he matched the latest dad template.
“Zach—” I started, then remembered who I was talking to now. “Sorry, dad, but I’m not your Son.”
“Oh,” dad said matter of factly and smiled. “Thank You for the correction. Do You know where my Son is?”
I shook my head. “You were only just activated today.”
“I see. Would You be willing to deliver me to the nearest processing center? I can assure You that dadNET will compensate You for Your time and travel expenses.”
I took a seat at the table and pushed the dadNET box aside. A part of me missed the Zach I knew, but I couldn’t deny that the dad he was becoming suited him well. He looked happier than I’d seen him in months. Our friendship as we knew it was over, but I couldn’t help thinking back to when we were younger and how our dads’ friendship mirrored our own. With any luck, in three years’ time, we could be friends again, as a pair of handsome, dutiful dads ourselves.
“I’d be happy to, dad. After breakfast.”
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