by Adele Gardner
On his second birthday, Carolina Wannemacher took her son out in his stroller to shop for a new suit. She had instructed him carefully. When the clerk arrived, Nigel lay inert in the harness, just a trifle more still than a soundly sleeping toddler. As Carolina carefully worked the suit onto the artificially stiff limbs, the clerk gave her an odd look. “Are you sure you want to spend the money? A little one like that grows so fast.”
“He’s a doll, you see,” Carolina said seriously, keeping her attention focused on Nigel. He was being so good. Following his programming perfectly. Not an eyelash twitched.
The tag on the clerk’s navy blue jacket named her Lotte. She seemed happy with Carolina’s explanation. Lotte scarcely even batted an eye when Carolina said she wanted the suits a size too large, as if the doll would grow into them.
When Lotte retreated behind the staff doors, Carolina heard laughter and caught a glimpse of Lotte talking to another clerk. Of course, Lotte would want to share the eccentricities of her client. Carolina took the opportunity to confer with Nigel about his likes and dislikes.
When Lotte returned with several more suits to try, she told Carolina that every woman was entitled to a hobby, and that she herself was making a family of ball-jointed dolls from her favorite fantasy series and sewing the clothes herself. She’d won an award at Dragon Con.
Lotte admired the delicate, realistic modeling of Nigel’s face, her finger tracing the weave of the pinstripe on Nigel’s baby limbs. Lotte murmured, a wistful note in her voice, “He looks so alive. I wish I knew how you did it.”
Carolina smiled slightly. “That’s a trade secret.”
Lotte’s face fell. She drew back, her mouth pinched. “I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay,” Carolina said. “I’ve been building prototypes since I was about his size. After a while you just get good at something.”
Lotte’s face brightened, as if Carolina had said the magic words. “Well, there’s hope for me then,” she said. And as Carolina made her choices and checked out, Lotte added, “I hope you don’t mind, but I wish you’d think about sharing your patterns online. I mean, you’re really talented.”
Feeling acutely aware of the store camera and Lotte’s shy smile, Carolina said, “You might have something there.”
She wheeled the stroller onto the sidewalk. Passersby chatted to invisible friends via Bluetooth, but Carolina waited a block before she said, “Good job, Nigel.”
“I should have done a better job. She actually believed you were a doll.”
Those uncannily human blue eyes looked up at her. “Don’t worry, Mom, you did the best you could.”
“Next birthday, Nigel. Next birthday I’ll do better, I promise.”
“Can we have friends over? I’d like to invite Audrey. She seems nice.”
Carolina fell silent as a man in a business suit passed her with a half-smiling nod, which she returned gravely. She considered. Audrey was fifteen, an online pal of Nigel’s, compatible in many ways. Home-schooled, a child prodigy who played cello with the symphony, Audrey would probably sympathize with Nigel’s differences from other children, especially his advanced intelligence. But she was sheltered, and quite close to her mom. Was it wise to trust her with the secret?
Nigel was a healthy, growing boy, but arranging playdates was difficult. Though plenty of adults in Carolina’s generation had been enthusiastically building robots since they were tiny tots receiving their robotics and circuits kits from Santa, most of these were far more limited than Nigel. Carolina didn’t want to reveal just how advanced he was. And the human kids who might be more intellectually compatible carried too much risk of letting the cat out of the bag.
At her continued silence, a cloud passed over Nigel’s face. “Mom? Her cello sounds so beautiful with my harpsichord. I thought we might have a concert.”
Her heart hurt. Was she doing right by him? He looked up at her with such trust in that little-boy face, his skin as creamy as her own, his hair in blond curls modeled on her little brother’s at that age. “She’s a little young for you, honey. Maybe next year. A lot of girls mature when they turn sixteen.”
Nigel sighed, a mannerism he’d picked up from her. But he settled back in the stroller contentedly enough. He started humming Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pièces de Clavecins en Concert, performing both the harpsichord and cello parts, adding improvisations in the baroque style and harmonizing with himself, his tripled and quadrupled voice eerie and beautiful in his perfect, little-boy pitch.
Buying a suit had been his birthday wish. He wanted to follow Audrey’s lead and take up the traditional position of the child prodigy, sharing his skills with an audience, even if only a virtual one. He was too young to be self-conscious enough for stage fright. He didn’t even know he should be scared.
Or what he, her robot child, had to fear.
* * *
Carolina Wannemacher worked at Hilliard Public Library and lived with five cats, who loved her fiercely and followed her from room to room with loud purrs, rubbing her legs and nuzzling her feet and ankles.
The library was good to her. She enjoyed the supportive, creative atmosphere. Among the treats she prized most was the chance to lead and attend Maker programs. Coding, robotics, 3-D printing—she had plenty of skills to share with their patrons. Carolina had been designing robots since childhood. Her son Nigel was the great project of her life, and she built him in the Maker Spaces of many libraries. She was careful to create only individual parts at each location, staying within the printing limits per patron while avoiding anyone guessing what she built.
Each year she made Nigel a new birthday suit, a human frame one developmental step up from his prior body, with an expanded brain to match. She reasoned that his best chance to acquire not just sentience but wisdom would be to start as a little child, then grow as any human would. She’d teach him all she could about what was good in life, how to love, what mistakes to avoid; she’d share memories of family and the best of human culture. She wanted him to have the chance to appreciate this wonderful life, not simply receive a data dump. The best way she knew to create depth was the same lifetime commitment her parents had made to her.
When Nigel was five, he told her that for his next birthday present, he wanted to be a cat. She smiled and pretended surprise. Though she wondered if it was a good idea at this developmental stage, she loved cats and preferred their company to that of most humans. Her five cats were highly affectionate, creative, and intelligent, and Nigel needed to build his socialization skills.
Human science had come a long way in translating the complex speech of fellow Earthlings, but with at least as many multisensory as verbal cues, Cat was a tough nut to crack. Carolina started with a translation algorithm based on the latest in talking cat collars from Japan and added data from veterinarians, cat behaviorists, and her own experience. Maybe Nigel could fill in some of the blanks.
Nigel loved being a cat. Carolina had thought he would. He’d been romping with the cats on all fours since birth; in many ways, he grew up speaking Cat. He chose to be a calico female whom he named Duchess. Carolina let him help sculpt the details, just as she’d helped her grandma quilt when she was little.
Though she equipped Duchess with a voice synthesizer for human speech, the new calico sported all the feline communication devices—vocal, olfactory, tactile, and body language. When Duchess talked to Carolina, the other cats shied away from the mysterious human voice issuing from the cat’s body. Soon Duchess lifted her furry chin, held her whiskers high, and spoke to Carolina only in Cat with other felines present.
Duchess imitated the other cats, learning the delicate language of touch and brush, the infinite meanings in the quirk of a whisker. She palled around, tangled with them, snuggled and slept with them. She shared their food, water, and litterboxes as part of the cat communications network.
Carolina worried at first that Duchess needed more intellectual stimulation, both for education and entertainment, but her child pleaded earnestly for the Cat Immersion Experience. Being a cat was a full-time job.
Embracing the cats’ Eternal Present, Duchess joined in group grooming, cleaning Moonie’s ears, then submitting to Sebastian’s face-wash. She formed part of the patchwork fur pattern when the cats curled in a sunny heap, nestling her chin in Cleo’s side while Rocco draped his arm across her back. In the evenings, Duchess rushed with all the cats to greet Carolina and sit with her. It felt strange at first to stroke her child’s silky head and scratch around cat ears and chin, but Duchess purred, looking up at Carolina with a cat’s pure love.
One day, when Carolina tossed tiny toy mice and fishes, Max’s acrobatic leap landed him on Duchess’s back. Duchess yowled in pain and flattened to the ground. Carolina ran over and scooped her up. Not for the first time as a robot’s mother, worry smote Carolina. To fit all of Nigel’s boy-sized brain in the cat, Carolina had positioned parts in places normally reserved for internal organs. “Baby, are you all right?”
Duchess meowed a complaint. What to do? No emergency vet would treat a robot cat.
Talking to Duchess soothingly—she always kept her cats informed—Carolina said, “Don’t worry, Duchess. I’m just going to do some diagnostics. Make sure everything’s okay.”
Duchess issued a raspy protest; her claws lightly pricked Carolina’s arm. Carolina ignored this, stroking her synthetic fur as she hooked Duchess up. Rocco ran over to check on the calico, who hid her face in Rocco’s ruff.
Fortunately, the spine had protected the brain, as it should. But when Carolina released the calico, Duchess skittered away, then ignored Carolina, grooming herself with total concentration as if the examination had been an affront to feline dignity.
Carolina’s anxiety did not disperse as easily. She’d been too lax. Introducing a robot into a clowder of cats might be just as dangerous as it was fun. Now that she looked more sharply, she thought Moonie might be losing weight. Maybe he’d just been playing extra hard with a sixth cat in the house, or faced too much competition for food. She hovered, making sure the big cats didn’t chase him from his bowl. But Moonie ate less and less, though he still ran to her when she dished out wet food.
No one could discover what was wrong. The specialist prescribed medicines against every possible illness; this only made his appetite worse. Carolina dropped everything to care for him, but he slipped through her fingers like water.
The other cats worried. Whenever Moonie emerged from Carolina’s cat-hospital bedroom, they washed him, touched noses, and snuggled close, offering comfort. Duchess followed Moonie everywhere. Carolina took her child aside, holding Duchess on her shoulder and petting her while she explained how sick Moonie was. Duchess purred into Carolina’s ear. The little calico licked Carolina’s face.
Then, all at once, there was no more time. Packing Moonie in his carrier for the emergency vet, she walked him around to the other cats for a chance to say goodbye, just in case. But he couldn’t be saved. Too much had gone wrong. Carolina sang to Moonie as he died.
When she returned, her weeping scared the cats away. She wanted to explain to Duchess, at least. With wide eyes, laid-back ears, and puffy tail, Duchess looked thoroughly spooked. The little calico hid her head in Carolina’s armpit while Rocco howled from the kitchen, hunting for his missing friend.
By night, Duchess curled in a tight little ball against her side. By day, Duchess followed Carolina as if afraid to let her out of sight. Duchess let her batteries run low, though Nigel had been responsibly charging himself since he was four. Carolina began plugging Duchess in while the calico hunkered beneath the desk—one of Moonie’s favorite spots. How horrible grief must be for a cat, who lived in the Eternal Present, where there was nothing but this love, this loss. A cat couldn’t distract the grief with a book, TV, or solid work. Duchess seemed exhausted by it, pressed down to the ground by an overwhelming force of gravity.
At last Carolina took action. She returned Duchess to Nigel’s most recent body—she always saved the last two for emergency spares. The six-year-old robot boy wouldn’t speak. Carolina held him on her lap and stroked his hair and spoke to him softly about their friend Moonie, how much they missed him, and how unfair it was that cats should have such brief lives, their great hearts leaving little record on this earth except in the hearts that loved them. Nigel cried with her, silently at first. At last he whispered, “Please, Mom, I want to be a girl now.”
“That’s fine, honey.” Carolina set to work. She thought she understood: it would be both a reminder of his life as a cat, and a complete switch from the life he’d known, which had been flipped upside down by death.
And maybe, just maybe, it showed a desire to get closer to her. For that was the year they started to truly bond, as Duchess had done with her fellow cats. With relief, Carolina found that this continued, even after Nigel returned to being a boy.
* * *
Year by year, Nigel had gone to his body fittings without complaint. Carolina tried not to let him see how she worried. So many things might go wrong during the annual transfer. She backed him up on several computers, but that wasn’t his consciousness—she couldn’t duplicate that spark. There was only one Nigel Wannemacher in the universe.
Near the end of each year’s body, Nigel moved more slowly. He looked listless, dispirited, sick: too much wear and tear on the joints, the body materials grown fragile, not enough energy. He limped. He called for her in the night, terrified, though usually his dreams delighted him—the stranger, the better. Carolina considered turning off the dreaming module, though she considered it essential to an artificial human intelligence. With the dreams came imagination, poetry, playing pretend, and flights of fancy she’d never achieved for the logic-bound robots of her youth. Nigel felt the novels he read, rather than simply understanding or analyzing them.
She had to do more to help him. Her funds meagre, Carolina ranged farther afield to take turns in the Maker Spaces of more libraries. She tried pushing up the replacement schedule, working hard to create parts and make him a full body faster, proactively substituting components before they had a chance to wear down. To raise funds for more parts, she finally began licensing her designs, concealing herself behind a handle.
Still, as his ninth birthday approached, Nigel dragged as if his body had grown too heavy. He stayed cheerful, but his patient weariness reminded Carolina too much of lost loved ones in their last days. “Nigel, are you feeling bad?”
“No, Mom.” He never liked to complain. He was like the cats that way. But she had deliberately built him without a poker face. Expressions were too valuable in human communications.
Carolina observed, “You don’t look well.”
“I’m all right, Mom.” Carefully, he took a seat at the dining room table.
She pulled out a yellow chair and joined him. “You seem tired. I’d like to run some tests.”
“I don’t need any tests.” His realistic silicone face looked worried, drawn in.
She sat him down that afternoon and plugged in nodes and wires. He fidgeted. He asked to leave. As she dialed him back toward sleep, he lay in the chair lethargically. She offered to replace a ball bearing in his elbow that was generating a low level of background pain. His normally pale skin took on a greenish tinge closer to Mr. Spock’s than she’d ever achieved with her mother’s eyeshadow at Halloween.
She knelt beside him, stroking his arm. “What’s wrong, Son? Does it hurt you when I run these tests? Or when I replace your parts?”
His voice was as small as that of any young boy trying to be brave. “Not as such.”
She said, “But something about it—upsets you?”
“Disquiets,” he whispered.
He did not answer. Dread was written all over his face.
“What happens to you when I change your body?”
The answer was simple, stark. “It feels like dying.”
Why had she never asked this before? Heart in her mouth, hand on his, she asked Nigel, “Are you awake the whole time? What are you aware of?”
His voice distant, Nigel said, “Fire cuts me out of my body, like having my limbs cut off by a welding torch. I’m left in a tiny prison. I have no eyes, but I can peer out through the cracks.”
“The camera on my computer terminal,” Carolina whispered.
Nigel’s voice sounded tinny. “I can’t get out. While I’m stuck there, nothing exists but the moment of consciousness. I am trapped there for a very, very long time. Forever.”
With a pang, Carolina thought of that Eternal Present he’d shared with the cats, which made a cat’s suffering so unendurable. And yet they so patiently bore it. Like Nigel.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I love you, Mom. I didn’t want you to worry.”
“I’m already worried. Tell me,” she urged him, her throat tight. She listened with a sinking feeling.
“Suffocation is not the right word,” he said. “There’s a complete lack of air and life—like suddenly being snuffed out—as though the world is far away, down a long, dark tunnel—I can’t stretch far enough to reach the light—I’m fading away like Moonie—” His voice faded, too. He stopped, his mouth twitching.
Carolina said at last, “I’m so sorry, Nigel. I wish I had known. I’ll find some way to fix it. Thank you for being so brave.” She hugged him, feeling desperate at her helplessness.
Now as she designed and planned, she sought Nigel’s feedback; they worked on improvements together. They perfected a technique of connecting him to a new body or parts before disconnecting the old, and having him make the leap himself. But the basic problem remained: Carolina needed to construct her son out of sturdier materials. After several years of hard work, she earned her fourth degree and got a job at the library of a space science laboratory, where she negotiated limited use of their 3-D printers as part of her compensation package.
By now, many others were building robots based on her original designs. This community shared their research and problem-solving. And the climate around robotics had changed enough that Carolina began to participate in interviews—online, of course, under her handle. She earned additional funds to help Nigel by writing articles. She still worried that someone might come after him; she protected their privacy. But she did reveal a few facts. People were initially surprised to learn she was a librarian rather than an engineer, but they smiled when they read about her Triple Nine IQ.
Without intending to, Carolina found she’d inspired a movement. The passionate advocacy for robot rights proved helpful: when fifteen-year-old Nigel completed the online coursework for his PhD, rather than incur a storm of protest, the university passed a memorandum that recognized that a degree-earning “identity” might be artificially constructed. Then Nigel aced his astronaut exam. But despite NASA’s enthusiasm for his potential, he was still legally property, not a person, and could only go to space if Carolina “sold” him to the government. Instead, he took up robotics, going even farther than Carolina, who loved the field, but deeply enjoyed her library career, which unified her disparate interests and intellectual talents perfectly. Her greatest pleasures were an afternoon devoted to reading a good book while listening to classical or jazz and snuggling with her cats, or having an intellectual conversation with her son and protégé, who often contradicted her in the most intriguing ways.
As ocean levels rose and devastating storms increased, many robots stepped forward to help, providing invaluable rescue efforts and dyke repairs. Many robots selflessly gave their lives. Their mourning human families made it abundantly clear that the robots had acted on their own initiative. The footage went viral.
NASA eloquently pleaded the robots’ cause; indeed, Nigel’s research showed how essential the robots’ skills would be in preparing other planets for human habitation. Congress created a conditional proposal. With fear for human jobs and resources on the overcrowded Earth, robots might be granted U.S. citizenship provided they agreed to go to space and fulfill the missions NASA designed.
Nigel told her his plan, as nervous as any young person about to leave home for the first time. She smoothed his blond curls, kissed his creamy cheek. “You’re everything a son should be. Everything I ever dreamed of in a family. My little boy,” she said. “I’m so proud of you.”
His dimpled chin and worried frown, so similar to her dad’s, expressed more concern for her than himself. “Do you want me to stay with you, Mom?”
It wrenched, but she said it: “No, pursue your dreams.”
The first step was a mission to the moon. Nigel’s face lit up, his blue eyes glowing with starlight, a new feature she’d given him for his seventeenth birthday. Though he did his own design work now, he accepted her gifts for old times’ sake. Carolina saw him off with other robots and their human parents, her heart lifting to see this rainbow of human and robot diversity united in one proud moment.
The mission gave NASA a chance to show off the value of their all-robot crew. With few physical needs, the robots made great progress on the construction of the moon base, including a shielded shelter, greenhouse, and oxygen extraction facilities. On the return voyage, NASA broke the good news—new laws prohibited discrimination against artificial versus biological humans. Nor would the robots have to be exiled to earn their citizenship. It only made sense: with so many humans already benefiting from artificial limbs and organs, imposing legal limits on humanity would raise too many problems.
As his departure for Mars neared, Carolina realized that Nigel’s dream would be her greatest nightmare. She might never see him again. From the moment she’d created him, he’d been his own, not hers. She wanted above all else for him to be happy. But she had to make sure he was doing it for the right reasons. “You’re my family, Nigel. I didn’t build you so you would sacrifice yourself for us.”
“I know,” Nigel said gently. “You gave me free will—that’s why I’m doing it. I love you, Mom.” He hugged her. “That’s why I want to save you! You and the human species. To make sure you’ll live on, I have to make sure there’s still a future for humanity. And a future for Earth, so you can keep doing what you love.” His voice broke, splitting off into harmonics, dividing into the individual notes she’d braided to create his adult baritone.
“But Nigel—” She floundered, then decided to just say it. “That’s beautiful, but what I’d love most is to continue to share our lives! We’re not just family, we’re best friends. Not to mention scientific partners.”
“I’ll still be doing our work—putting our research in action. They need me out there. Robots can survive the elements better. We have less complicated atmospheric and sustenance needs. If we can tweak Mars to create a more hospitable environment for humans, colonization can begin in earnest. Then, with some of the pressure off Earth’s ecosystem, the planet will begin to bounce back.”
Carolina flushed. She found herself arguing against a plan she admired in theory. “But you’re not a farmer. That’s essentially what you’d be—a space farmer, harnessing the natural environment, moving water around for the benefit of crops like trees. I love trees. But you’ll be bored out of your mind!”
His eyes twinkled. “Admit it. You worried about the same thing when I became a cat. But that’s not how life is for me. I find the minutest detail interesting. And I can compose a sonnet in my head about the joy of having whiskers or the glory of a sunrise on Mars, then store it and call it up again later to tinker with while I’m drilling for water or sculpting mountains into underground cities. One thing the cats taught me: to savor the moment. I can see the stars shining in the day.” He smiled. “You gave me that, Mom.” He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.
She looked out the window, at the sun shining on all that green. Virginia summers—so hot, but so very beautiful. “You could also do a lot of good here,” Carolina said. “If you want to help, why not stay and clean up the environment or revive endangered species? Or you could be a poet. A deep sea diver. A veterinarian. A university professor. A ballet dancer. A concert harpsichordist,” she urged. “Anything you set your mind to!”
“Oh, Mom,” he said fondly.
So she took a deep breath and told him her own news. “I guess I’ll be seeing you on the red planet then,” she said, and grinned at his surprise. “NASA offered me and the other families first refusal on the human missions, provided we pass the tests. Maybe I’ll found the first library on Mars.” Exhilarating thought! Visions of library spires danced against red cliffs.
Of course, NASA couldn’t afford to send dead weight to Mars, despite her robotics expertise. She’d have to embark on yet another degree program and more training. But fortunately, fifty-two was the new twenty, and she loved to learn. She’d work it in around her library schedule. By the time she was ready to go, he’d be ready to welcome her. And she’d have had time to plan and advocate for the library she’d bring.
Carolina continued, “We won’t see each other right away.” She chose to look at the bright side, the way Dad taught her. “But we can collaborate. And it’ll be so exciting to be working toward the same goal.”
He said, “Who knows, by the time you join me, maybe we’ll have it looking like Bradbury’s small-town Martian paradise.”
She reflected. “That would be the time to build a library.” She floated on the delicious thought of all those novels and movies and music, art and oral histories, scientific texts and poems from around the world, in a wide variety of formats. “We’ll need a Maker Space,” she concluded.
“Yes!” he agreed. His eyes twinkled. “Highly appropriate—for two Machers in Space.”
She laughed. “My dad would have loved that pun.”
As they moved into the living room, Sebastian and Max wove between their legs and meowed. Despite his age, Rocco wrestled his way to the top of the cat tower to purr into her ear.
“Cats. We’ll need cats,” Carolina said.
Nigel beamed. “That, most of all.”
* * *
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