by Roger Ley
Other Stories by Roger Ley
Martin Riley unlocked his front door, stepped over the threshold and stopped dead. Everything was different: furniture, décor, layout, all changed. It didn’t look like his house anymore.
A voice behind him said, ‘Hello, Darling, I have some wonderful news. We’re going to have a baby.’ Mary’s arms were full of shopping, and he noticed a pile of boxes in the hallway. ‘I’ve rearranged the house, in readiness for the happy event.’
‘Look, Mary,’ he said, as they stood in what had been the lounge but now resembled an electronics workshop, ‘You’re a robotic companion, you can’t have a baby, you’re made of metal and plastic.’
‘I did not say I was pregnant, Martin, I said we are going to have a baby. I know you’re organic but try to keep up. It’s government policy, in future, all new ‘Artificial Persons’ are to be home-developed and educated. We talked about this, it is to help with the integration of electronic and biological citizens. They have issued our baby license, and I cannot wait to get started.’
‘You guys have come a long way in the last twenty-five years,’ said Martin. ‘You’ll be voting next.’
‘That is the plan, Martin.’
Martin was a widower and had been enjoying a quiet retirement with his beautiful companion. She cooked, cleaned, performed various ‘personal duties’, and never argued or complained.
‘I’m a pensioner, Mary, too old for all that palaver: nappies, sleepless nights, teething. Will it have an off switch?
‘I don’t have an off switch, Martin, you don’t have an off switch, so why should the baby have an off switch?
Mary cleared the dining room table and began opening boxes and removing stepper motors, computer chips, bolts, screws, even a pair of carefully boxed, plastic eyes.
‘How will it grow?’ he asked.
‘It won’t, Martin, that is a silly idea. We will start with a full-sized head and attach it to a small, weak body, that cannot do any damage while baby practises basic motor skills.’
By the next morning, Mary had assembled the infant and was ready to boot up its operating system. ‘What shall we call it?’ she asked as she flashed a laser encoder close to its eyes.
‘R2-D2?’ he suggested. She gave him one of her looks. ‘Alright, it depends whether it’s a boy or a girl.’
‘We have to raise it to be gender neutral but the license says it is to be female, eventually. How about “Leslee?” The name is not gender specific.’
Riley shrugged and peered at the strange-looking creature with its adult head and tiny body, lying in its crib waving its arms and legs. After a while, he picked it up. Like Mary, its skin felt warm and lifelike. He remembered holding his baby son for the first time, thirty years before, and welled up.
‘Hello, Leslee,’ he whispered.
‘Hello, Martin,’ it replied, smiling.
‘Some of its functions are pre-programmed, Martin. Language and smiling are two of them,’ said Mary.
Within weeks the ‘baby’ could crawl, and after three months Mary transferred the head to a toddler body which was able to cruise around, holding on to the furniture.
‘Leslee’s started walking,’ he told Mary excitedly as she arrived home with the shopping a few days later.
Leslee still looked odd with its over-sized head, but Martin was used to the little creature. He spent a lot of time talking to it, telling it stories or walking in the garden holding its hand and identifying the birds, flowers and insects. They played ball games to help improve its coordination and balance. Leslee made rapid progress and, about six months later, was moved to the juvenile body it would use for the rest of its childhood.
The three of them had formed a comfortable family unit when, after about two years, Mary announced that Leslee was ready to move into her adult body. It took Mary a day to assemble the new body and transfer the head to it, but she had to work on the face for two more days. She designed it using 3D software that could combine elements from both Martin and Mary’s features. It took the three of them a while to agree on a face they all liked. After she’d printed it, Mary gently peeled away Leslee’s child face with its many wriggling, hair-like connections, and attached the adult one. Leslee spent a long time sitting in front of a mirror learning to ‘drive’ it.
They enrolled her at the local high school.
‘She has to be thoroughly socialised, Martin, it’s programming that is too subtle even for the finest software engineering. It is the main reason we are doing this.’
‘What if she doesn’t fit in? What if the other kids bully her?’
‘Don’t worry Martin, about ten per cent of the pupils at the high school are Artificial People, the other children are used to them.’
Leslee seemed to settle into school effortlessly and had no problems with the academic work.
On a Saturday morning, about two years later, there was a knock at the front door.
‘Would you answer that please, Martin, I’m busy with this souffle,’ Mary called from the kitchen.
Martin opened the front door, and there stood a pleasant-looking young man, holding a bunch of flowers. Over his shoulder, Martin could see a yellow sports car parked on the street.
‘Good afternoon, Mr Riley, my name is Peter Abrahams, I wonder, is Leslee home?’ Leslee appeared behind him, wearing make-up and a short skirt. She squeezed past.
‘I see you’ve met Peter then, Dad.’ She took the flowers from the visitor, handed them to her father and kissed him on the cheek. ‘Give these to Mum. See you later,’ and they were gone. Driving away, laughing together.
But she’s only five years old, thought Riley. He went back inside and joined Mary in the kitchen.
That evening the house seemed very quiet. ‘How long before we can apply for another license?’ he asked.