Runner-Up for the 2023 Lewis Edwards Memorial Prize
Rosie Gandon is a student and writer from East Sussex, currently studying Japanese and Linguistics in her first year at Edinburgh University. She has been writing ever since she was young, though this is her first time ever submitting a piece to be read by someone other than herself. Her writing explores complex characters and relationships. She also loves cats.
The latest upgrade to come with the IHP-92 new hardware package has my eyes fitted with 13mm, 150-degree field of vision state-of-the-art lenses, all with improved sensor-shift optical image stabilisation. It’s not the best on the market by any means, but the increased clarity in my visual input has been a great aid around the home. I am uprooting the dandelion weeds littered amongst the bed of red chrysanthemums, spotting the little green shoots dotting the soil; twenty metres to the kitchen I see the timer expire down to its last second and remove the bread from the oven before Astrid can hurt herself doing so. My hands are made from heat-resistant silicone polymer, another very useful, if worn out, upgrade I received after one too many cooking-related incidents when Astrid was a child.
She doesn’t like it when I interfere like this, but has become milder in old age. I place the pan down on the countertop after it’s cooled and Astrid leans over to inspect her handiwork. She’s very into patterned breadmaking at the moment. Today, along with the scoring, an elegant honeycomb design complete with little bees adorns the surface of the sourdough. The loaf is perfectly round and an attractive golden brown. I don’t have olfactory receptors, as is common in units manufactured around my time – the few that are left – but judging by Astrid’s expression, it must be somewhat pleasant. My internal temperature detectors ascertain that the loaf is baked within the safe parameters to eat. Not that Astrid would listen to me, anyway. Old age may have made her milder in some regards, but almost certainly crabbier in others.
18:21. Right on time, the door goes, and Ellen is back from work. She’s about to take two weeks’ leave, and it’s making her more frazzled than usual. If it weren’t for the store clerk badge pinned to her lapel reading her name and the astute fact that she looks thirty years younger, one might say that she and Astrid were identical twins. She puts her keys on the hook labelled ‘CAR KEYS’ and, like clockwork, fills up the kettle before even greeting the two of us in the room.
“Hi mum. Hi Daisy. Long day. Do anything fun? How’s Amelia? Is she in bed? Any changes?”
Ellen always speaks in the same pattern, like she’s afraid someone will steal the questions from her and so needs to shoot them out at rapid fire. My informative learning protocol kicks in at once and I am able to analyse the input in 0.3 milliseconds. That process has operationalised considerably since the time Ellen was around eight.
“Hello, Ellen. No. I cleaned out the flowerbed and mowed the lawn. Astrid made bread and did the crossword. Amelia’s fine. Yes. No.”
Ellen looks a little disappointed at my answer, but today is lucky for her, presumably, because at that precise moment Amelia wobbles her way through into the kitchen. With three fully-grown women, one of them nine months pregnant, and an android crammed into the smallest room in the house, things suddenly become a little uncomfortable. Astrid is still analysing the pattern on her sourdough; she hasn’t so much as looked up since Ellen walked in. I quickly run a brain scan for any signs of abnormal activity, but everything shows up normal. I believe it’s a case of early-onset Alzheimer’s, but that’s another thing Astrid has told me not to talk about on pain of death.
I can’t actually die, but Astrid is at present the only one who knows where my user manual is located and also the only one with administrative privileges to perform a full factory reset. That would be problematic, given her granddaughter is days away from giving birth.
Amelia is twenty-four. Ellen is fifty-seven. Astrid is eighty-eight. I am also eighty-eight, and my ‘birthday’ is the same as Astrid’s, though being that my hair is made out of synthetic fibre, I have yet to go grey.
Amelia is expecting a daughter, which will mark an impressive four generations of women all living under the same roof. Unlike her mother and grandmother, who are both short with square builds and dark hair, Amelia is waiflike with almost translucent skin and hair. Since getting pregnant, she’s looking a little healthier, and I keep a close eye to make sure her condition doesn’t deteriorate, but even throughout childhood no matter how many puddings Ellen kept in the fridge, the little girl never maintained a physique anything outside of a beanpole.
I have watched three tiny human beings grow into children, teenagers, adults, and, recently seen their smooth skin crease into wrinkles. Astrid has at most a few years left. Being created with no ability to experience emotion, I am unable to feel fear or regret towards her impending death; the most I can do is to expect its coming and to adjust accordingly. There is not a single memory I have without one of these women present, and soon I will care for the fourth as I have done for the last eighty-eight years. When Astrid dies, thirty-one years of her life will exist only within me. My skin is as smooth as it was when I was first assembled in a factory in north-western Taiwan, though it has been replaced many times over the years, eroded over time and spilt milk, and I still have the same youthful face I did ever since then. I watch my children grow older than I ever will.
Twice a year I go in for mandatory servicing at the IHP Distribution and Reconditioning Centre, located 1.2 kilometres from the house. Living in the city centre, Astrid and I used to walk the distance when she was young, but nowadays we either have to drive or take public transport to get there. Always proud, she refuses to let anyone else take me. I think part of her is scared Ellen or Amelia will swap me out for one of those new models they release every few years.
The person at reception always asks when they do my check-up anyway, like they can change the answer she’s given for the past fifty years. “I haven’t seen a model this old for a very long time. You know, units that have been around for this long only become more expensive to fix. You’d save a lot of money by disposing of this one and putting down a deposit for the new IHC coming out in September. There are so many upgrades! You wouldn’t believe what they can do nowadays!”
Or something along those lines.
Astrid always holds my arm a little tighter and replies, “No, thank you. That’s okay, she’ll do me just fine.”
The servicing technician is only being reasonable. I run into minor issues at least once a week and the effectiveness of my caregiving protocols is questionable in comparison to the new models we see roaming the street. I’ve been repaired so many times that none of my original parts remain; in fact, I think almost everything has been replaced more than once. Still, some old-age stubbornness or attachment prevents her from letting me fade into obsolescence and she pays the extortionate maintenance bill each time.
Again, the inability to feel human emotions prevents me from experiencing jealousy, but it does fascinate me how far the advancements have progressed since I was top-of-the-line. The newest IHCs are almost indistinguishable from humans – they can cry artificial tears, eat a meal at a restaurant with you (though they will have to remove the digestive bag insert afterwards), form their own preferences, and even experience smell and taste. My abilities have improved with the upgrades I receive over the years, but I won’t be able to continue efficiently forever. It is highly possible that after Astrid dies, Ellen and Amelia will indeed go ahead and replace me, and it will be a brand-new Intelligent Healthcare Provider that looks after the fourth-generation child. After all, there’s only so far old technology can go before it becomes unsafe.
I help Amelia sit down at the kitchen table and then leave the room to give everyone some space. Now that it has been vacated, I can give Amelia’s room a proper clean. From downstairs, I can hear the three of them chatting over tea. I am fully equipped to hold and join in with conversations, but I find they are more relaxed in my absence. Instead, I reduce my range of hearing so as not to snoop and busy myself with replacing Amelia’s bedsheets and cleaning dust off the surfaces – the job is made more efficient with my new lens upgrade. Astrid and Ellen are both obnoxiously clean, so I don’t have much to do for them in that regard, but Amelia is an artist and fits the stereotype. Before her pregnancy advanced and she became too unwieldy to move, she had been repainting the room I will use that doubles as the nursery. It’s most useful for me to be nearest the child at night for her first few years. When she grows older, for some privacy, my charging port will be relocated back downstairs and the cot replaced with a bed.
I take a little peek inside, half unable to stop myself. Of course, it’s part of my duties to clean the house from top to bottom, but Amelia has been vocal about keeping the new paint job a secret until her daughter arrives. Under the pretext of quietly keeping it clean, I’ve been in and out several times when no one is around to notice. The truth is, I enjoy looking at the colours and decorations that adorn the little room. She’s painted a big hot air balloon on the main feature wall, the balloon itself covered in rainbow-coloured stripes, and fluffy white clouds floating in the surrounding sky. Inside the hot-air balloon are four little figures; one of them holds a tiny baby fast asleep. I touch the one that’s barely bigger than my finger and stroke her red hair. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen myself outside of a mirror or reflective piece of glass. While the other three figures are smiling, the painted Daisy is expressionless, eyes fixed on the sleeping baby.
An error light flashes up in the corner of my vision. The algorithm running in my artificial prefrontal cortex is experiencing unprecedented stimuli – this happens every time I enter the baby’s room. When I look at my painted figure it begins to beep with increased fervour. It feels – it feels – like I’m on the edge of realising something, something that shouldn’t be possible for someone with a brain made out of metal wires. The steel disc in my chest made to simulate a human heart pounds faster. I glare at it harder, but I come no closer to that feeling. Eventually, a warning message is sent to my communication centre, telling me that if the bug persists, a report will be sent to Research and Development. I quickly leave the room.
There’s no reason for me to ignore the error. In my own ‘old age’ I’ve experienced plenty and they’re usually fixed with the next software patch after I send a bug report. But for some reason I cling to this one like it’s important. What will happen if a bug makes an IHC able to feel? If I were one of the new units, the fallout could be catastrophic. Luckily, I am probably the only model of my release not long in landfill and the error is restricted to a single piece of wall in one room of the house, so I do not deem it to be a danger. I go into my visual input files and erase the past ten minutes of data. It still exists in my memory cache, so it’s not like I’ll forget, but any record of discrepancy linked to the bug should be unretrievable.
I look at the door, now closed. It is best to pretend nothing happened here.
Two days later, forty-six minutes after Ellen leaves for work, Amelia goes into premature labour. The time between contractions shortens dramatically until providing sufficient care for her becomes beyond my capabilities, and I drive to the hospital. The baby is two weeks early and with how rapid the contractions, it doesn’t take long for her to be seen. A scan I performed on the way there revealed that the baby is facing the wrong way, owing to the progression. I tell the nurse but keep my voice low as not to worry Astrid. The two of us sit outside the room, and I hold her hand though it trembles. I have done so twice previously; felt the crushing weight of her fist as she gave birth to Ellen, wiped the tears from her cheeks as we waited for Amelia to emerge into the world – this time she does not cry, but the same fear looms behind her eyes. She says nothing, and so neither do I. Twenty minutes later Ellen appears in the hallway out of breath and goes to speak, but thinks better of it. This time I hold both of their hands and Ellen cries silently. The tears drip down onto her collarbones and into the neckline of her work uniform.
I go into power saving mode and find myself freefalling through memories right at the beginning of my storage. Astrid’s mother is holding my hand and carrying the tiny child that will become Astrid. We wade through the field of daisies that is my namesake. She tells me to always look after her precious daughter: new-born I reply that I will never leave her side. I look at the daisies blooming amongst the long grass. Their bright faces gaze up to the sky like they are smiling. The rest of the memory has become corrupt.
Three hours later, I go to the hospital café on level four and buy the two of them lunch. Amelia has gone in for an emergency caesarean section. The server at the counter is a pretty ICP configured especially for retail purposes. She has a barcode scanner built into the palm of her right hand. I specifically ask her questions she does not have dialogue responses to answer and feel smug about it. I do not have the capacity to be worried about Amelia, even though there is a possibility her and the baby may not make it through, but by the time I return with two sandwiches and two bottles of water she is, to my surprise, inside the hospital room half asleep on an IV full of painkillers. Her face is ashen, but the ICP attending her assures me she is recovering perfectly well. Astrid is holding something tiny wrapped in soft white cloth.
I move closer. Astrid is smiling at me. I move closer still, somehow hesitant, still holding the sandwiches.
She turns the baby towards me.
In some inextricable, unexplainable coincidence, or maybe some law of nature making fun of me, the tiny girl’s eyes are the same colour as mine.
I do not know how to breathe, nor does my fake heart need to beat, but I am sure that this is what humans must mean when they say ‘my heart skipped a beat’ or ‘I forgot how to breathe for a moment.’
Amelia’s daughter smiles at me. She has Ellen’s pointed chin and Astrid’s large, flat nose. She reaches out one little hand and wraps her tiny fingers around one of mine. She does not know I am not a human. She does not know anything at all, but her eyes are the same colour as mine.
Warning, says my artificial prefrontal cortex. Suspicious activity detected. Manual reboot advised. An error message blinks in the corner of my vision. I can feel myself getting close, like I’m wading through that old field of daisies towards a big blooming light. Does that field still exist? Astrid’s mother smiles at me from eighty-eight years ago and tells me thank you.
From the bed, I see Amelia’s eyes blink open and shut weighed down by the heavy anaesthetic. She smiles at me, and it’s the same smile her daughter wears. Everyone is made up of little parts of each other, I think in wonder. You are all built just like me.
The baby’s tiny fingers are still wrapped tight around my own. ‘Daisy, Daisy, Daisy,’ Amelia murmurs. ‘I want to name her Daisy.’