My Android, part one
“Empathy chips transformed certain androids from mere Personal Assistants into companions.”
— Dr. Herbert Hoover Sr., Computer Scientist and Android Designer
Toby Troy slumped in his chair at the kitchen table, staring out over the farm of corn-filled patches in the Territories. If only tomorrow weren’t his fourteenth birthday, he might go out and wander. Even though the sun blazed hot on the fields, he needed space to think, and time to plan. The state required all youths to select an android before the age of fourteen. If an adolescent didn’t select one, then one would be assigned. Even though Toby knew exactly which android he wanted, he couldn’t quite get him yet. This meant that he needed to convince his already overworked mom to help execute his plan. And, he needed to do all this before tomorrow.
Life had been difficult since Toby’s dad died. As his father was a war hero, one might expect that Toby’s family—his mom and him—would receive some state assistance, but the state denies benefits whenever it can. People from the Territories don’t get sympathy from the state. They get treated like they were already outcasts or “less-than’s.” Toby had been shipped away to boarding school in Boston because his mom thought he needed a better school in a dome community to get the right education.
The truth of the matter was that Toby was lonely. He wanted a companion and a close friend. Although an android wasn’t supposed to be a companion, Toby knew that his Stephen Hawking android was the exception. He just needed to talk his mom into it.
“Toby, you’re getting too old now to be without a Personal Assistant. You need to pick out your own,” his mom said. “Have you been studying the models? What do you think of them? You know I’ve saved enough money to buy one for you. You know, PAs are just appliances. You are required to have one of your own to continue attending private school at the Computer Sciences Institute.”
“Yes, Mom, I’ve found one I like—a decision I’ll have to live with, literally, forever.” The weight of it had been dragging Toby down for nearly a year and now the time had come. His mom wasn’t going to let him out of deciding.
All adolescents have until age fourteen to select a Personal Assistant, which involves deciding the brand, type, and functionality. Some of Toby’s classmates had gotten their PAs as early as twelve years old. Toby couldn’t decide that soon, so he sought the help of a friend’s father, Herbert Hoover Sr. Through Herbert Hoover Sr., Toby had made an unusual connection.
“I’ve decided on the Stephen Hawking model,” he said, clenching the table with his hands. He felt as though he were bracing himself for his mom’s reaction and possibly shocked response. He felt like he was getting ready for a roller coaster ride of a day.
“Why would you want an obsolete model? And, anyway, how could you acquire such an old model? You’d have to know someone who was about to recycle it because…There’s really only one reason.” Her voice trailed off. She didn’t seem to want to verbalize the “other” possibility, mainly that Toby had found someone who was dying and who wanted to give him his Stephen Hawking PA.
Toby’s mom stood about five feet eight inches tall, with a trim figure and sandy brown hair, which she usually clipped up and out of her way. As a medical doctor tending to the needs of patients in the Territories, she didn’t take time to fuss with her hair, nails, or makeup. She cared more about others than she often cared for herself.
Looking perplexed, she waited for a reply.
“Mom, you’ve heard me talk about Herbie, who is a friend from school and someone I’m working with after school at the Computer Sciences Institute. His dad, Dr. Herbert Sr., oversees the Institute. Dr. Hoover introduced me to his Stephen Hawking android, whom we call ‘Hawk’ because of how sharp and focused he is at work. About six months ago, Herbert Sr. was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Herbert Sr. wants his Stephen Hawking to go to someone who’ll provide a good home for a lifetime.
“I’ve been working on a lot of complex programming with Hawk. He’s really a genius at programming, and many other things, too. We work well together. I don’t want to start over with a new PA,” Toby said.
Toby’s mom fiddled with some dials on the food replicator, preparing breakfast. She didn’t look pleased. Instead of putting her hand on her hip to admonish Toby as she might have done years ago, Toby’s mom waited to hear him out.
“The rules are the rules, as we all know,” Toby continued. “Six months before Herbie’s dad knew he was dying, Herbie selected his PA because he was of age. By law, Herbie can’t change that selection. You know that there aren’t exceptions to the rules. One PA per child, no exceptions.”
Toby’s mom nodded, but shot him an intense look. “I knew you were spending lots of time at the Institute. I didn’t understand your job in the Astrophysics Lab. I just thought it was a way for you to make some spending money. So, you’ve spent a lot of time with this Stephen Hawking? And your mind’s made up, is that right?” she asked, with her brow furrowed.
Toby’s mom knew Toby wasn’t kidding. He didn’t make such decisions without a lot of thought. He’d been studying his options for a long time. He’d watched so many other kids go into the retail outlets, factories, or just online to order their androids, a very impersonal process. It sent a chill down his spine. How could anyone be sure that the android he selected would be the right one for an entire lifetime? How could anyone really assess an android’s capabilities or personality without intense collaboration first?
“I know you’re not just some starry-eyed kid but rather a prodigy and a serious-minded young scientist. You’ll be the only child I know with an old model. It’s practically an antique that belongs in recycling or even a museum. You’ll probably have a lot of extra maintenance upgrades for it. How will you feel about that, not to mention the costs?” she asked with a pointed stare.
“No! You’re missing the point,” Toby cried, as his face turned red. “This Stephen Hawking feels. He thinks for himself; he’s my friend, in fact. Hawk would be like the brother I never had,” Toby pleaded.
“Ouch.” Toby had delivered a below-the-belt blow to his mom, who was a busy, working woman, and who would have had another child if Toby’s dad hadn’t been killed in a senseless drone attack.
Single parents weren’t given the privilege of having an additional child. With Toby’s dad’s death, the possibility of having a sibling vanished. Toby’s mom looked hurt by his reply. She turned away from him and walked over to the sink. Toby heard her sniffle and saw her take a tissue out of her pocket. It wasn’t her fault that Toby was an only child. Single parents were automatically ranked lower on the totem pole, in terms of petitioning for a second child. There simply weren’t enough resources on the planet to allow single parents to have more than one child, the state insisted. Unheard of. The petitions for a two-child family always went to two parents, never to single individuals. If there were exceptions, those weren’t discussed. It might happen for the very rich and powerful, but never for people in the Territories. Toby often thought his mom should’ve thrown in the towel and moved to a dome instead of running the family farm and continuing to treat patients as a country doctor.
Toby’s mom’s eyes welled up, but she didn’t fight back. Even after four years’ time had elapsed, the subject of his dad’s passing was painful for her.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean it like that,” Toby said, desperately trying to make amends. “I mean, it wasn’t your fault you couldn’t have more children. We all know the state allows only one child to single parents. Nothing you could do about it. I know I pestered you about a brother or a live-in friend my age. But laws are laws, and rules are rules. I didn’t mean to suggest anything else.”
“When will your Stephen Hawking be available?” she asked. And, with that simple, definitive question, she made it clear that she respected Toby’s decision.
Toby blinked, not believing he’d convinced her so easily. Then a big grin came over his face, and his eyes widened enthusiastically. She probably hadn’t seen that much excitement since his dad was alive, when he used to ask Toby to join him on fishing trips and other adventures.
“It depends on Herbert Sr.’s timing. He’s petitioned for euthanasia, still waiting for a reply. ‘Hawk,’ as everyone calls him, has been at his bedside 24/7. He seems moved by this illness. Hawk is sad because he’s already grieving for Dr. Hoover, Mom. Hawk has never known any other father or owner. He’s really bonded with Dr. Hoover.”
His face felt flushed, and tears had welled up in his eyes, too. Something about his friend Herbie’s waiting for his dad to die and Hawk’s sadness made him sad also. It was like a collective sadness. It reminded him of his own dad’s passing.
“Do you really think this android senses emotions?” Toby’s mom asked. She didn’t question his controversial thoughts, aware that Toby had very different ideas about how science and human emotions intermixed. She called him her little scientist with humanistic sensibilities.
“Okay, then. Let’s assess where we stand,” she said, as she grabbed an electronic tablet to make a list. Toby’s mom was the consummate list-maker.
“First,” she said, holding the stylus over the tablet, “we’re waiting for the state’s decision about Herbert Sr.’s euthanasia. His death would release Hawk automatically. The alternative would be recycling.
“Second,” she said as she made a notation on the tablet, “is the legal paperwork in order, dear?
“Third, I need to locate a digital copy of your birth certificate to have at our fingertips, should anyone question your age or relationship to me,” she said, brushing away a loose hair that kept tumbling onto her face.
“Herbert Sr.’s attorney has everything prepared. If you agree to co-sign for me, then Hawk will be transferred to me legally,” Toby told her.
As a minor, Toby wasn’t old enough to sign binding legal documents, and therefore his mom would need to co-sign for him.
Toby had researched all this, and Herbert Sr. had studied it in even greater detail. They knew all too well that Recyclers would be after Stephen Hawking’s parts. “Parts are parts” was their motto. Laws were laws. Parts were parts. What a society they’d become, Toby thought.
“All right then, I’ll sign for you,” she said. “If you feel this strongly, then so be it. We should consult his advocate. I’m sure this situation has a precedent.”
“I’m ready whenever you are,” Toby told her.
“Today’s the day,” she said, as if it were a refrain or chorus.
“Yes, today’s the day.”
Toby’s mom flashed him a reassuring smile. She looked tired, older than her real age of forty-seven. Working two jobs—one as a remote professor of medicine at the University of Kansas and another as farm manager and roving country doctor—had taken their toll on her. Her once light brown hair had lost its luster and was graying at the temples. She stood five foot eight, but since Toby’s dad’s death, she tended to slouch and look a little haggard, as if the weight of it all was literally on her shoulders. Toby thought that the slouch diminished her somehow, looking like she was alone against the big, encroaching world.
“Should I place a video link call, Mom?” Toby knew his mom always wanted notice if they were going to place a call using public channels. She didn’t want to get caught in a shower cap, or something crazy-looking. The inherent danger of video calls was the state’s tendency to monitor and use footage out of context. That was why everyone had to be careful about what they said and what might be misconstrued from these conversations. No video calls could be considered entirely private.
“Yes, sure,” Toby’s mom said.
Herbie answered Herbert Sr.’s phone. “Hi, Toby,” he said.
“Hey,” Toby said with wide-eyed, youthful enthusiasm. “Mom’s agreed. She’ll co-sign for me!”
“Great! Dad has worried about this for days, but he’s comatose now, Toby,” Herbie said. “He can’t answer the phone anymore.”
“I’m so sorry to hear the news,” Toby said solemnly, meaning no disrespect for Herbert Sr.’s condition, but still wanting to save Hawk from destruction. “Stephen Hawking is a special case, and we don’t want to lose him. Wait, there’s one more thing.”
“What’s that?” Herbie asked.
“Mom wants to meet with your family’s advocate first. She needs to understand the legalities of co-signing. I don’t—or we don’t—expect a problem,” Toby said.
“Okay, sure, let me ask our lawyer,” Herbie said. “We should try to finalize everything as soon as possible.”
“We can meet him anywhere that’s convenient,” Toby’s mom said, looking over Toby’s shoulder onto the kitchen’s old flat-screen player.
“Well, I can’t speak for Mr. Rollins, our attorney, but I’m guessing yes. He’ll meet you here or wherever you’d like,” Herbie said. “Should I have him call you to make the meeting arrangements?”
“Yes, the sooner the better,” Toby told Herbie.
“Herbie signing off,” Herbie said.
“Toby signing off,” Toby answered.
Church bells played from the wall’s flat-screen device. It was a small kitchen, and the size of the screen almost overwhelmed the room. It was the only room with such a device, as Toby’s dad was always against two-way communication devices in other parts of their home.
“Mom, you should answer it. It’ll be Herbert Sr.’s advocate,” Toby said.
“Hello, this is Dr. Helen Troy,” Toby’s mom said, clicking on the remote to turn it into a two-way display.
“Mrs. Troy?” the caller asked, with a voice that sounded timid and slightly uncertain about the identity of the person on the other end of the line.
“No, Dr. Troy,” she answered.
Toby’s mom stood with straightened and squared-off shoulders, her hair neatly combed and put up in a clip, as if she were going to work. Dr. Troy spoke in an assertive, straightforward manner. She looked a bit exasperated on top of her usual exhaustion. She’d taken time to apply makeup, but the wear and tear of too many burdens cast grey shadows under her bright green eyes. Her exasperation was evident in a tone of voice that sounded like she was about to correct a child. Helen Troy had spent too much of her life becoming a doctor for others not to recognize it appropriately.
“Excuse me—Doctor Troy. I’ve been asked on behalf of our client Dr. Herbert Hoover Sr. to contact you. Dr. Hoover’s estate would like to pay for a consultation between you and his advocate, Mr. Barnaby Rollins, Esquire, concerning the disposition of his Personal Assistant, Stephen Hawking 363,” the assistant said.
“We understand that you and your son are located in the Territories,” he said. “Is that correct?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Toby’s mom replied.
“Were you planning to come into one of the more populated domes or would you prefer we arrange this meeting with Dr. Hoover on site at the hospital?” he asked deferentially, suggesting to Toby that the assistant now understood they were important individuals to their paying client.
“We can visit you at the hospital today,” she told him quickly, trying to move the transfer along.
“Today? I’m not sure if that’s possible,” the assistant stammered. “Do you know that Dr. Hoover is being treated in the Mayo Clinic?”
“Today’s the day. Toby turns fourteen tomorrow, and I am prepared to co-sign for him,” she said with her heels firmly planted on the kitchen floor.
“Such urgency is unusual, but I’ll ask Mr. Rollins,” the efficient and now recomposed assistant android replied.
“It’s 8:24 a.m.,” Toby’s mom reported matter-of-factly. “Toby’s time is up. We need to complete the transfer today, because the law requires that we register Stephen Hawking’s transfer before midnight.”
“Okay, Dr. Troy, I’ll check with Mr. Rollins,” the android assistant said rhetorically.
Beyond the screen, Toby and his mom heard the android as he consulted with Mr. Rollins.
“What did you say? They want to meet today. Today? In Minnesota, at the Mayo Clinic, you say? All right. Tell them that I can meet them there. How soon can they arrive? They’re sure cutting it close, aren’t they?” Mr. Rollins said in an unhappy, gruff tone.
The assistant android didn’t respond, apparently aware that Mr. Rollins ranted at times. Inconvenient matters that legally demanded his attention probably set him off when he was in the midst of other cases. Toby wondered whether the android always waited him out like this.
The assistant returned to the video screen, looking slightly embarrassed and a little perturbed. The furrowed lines in his brow and the slight pink color to his cheeks made it clear he knew Toby and his mom had heard their conversation.
“We’ll take the next Tele-portal Tube to Minnesota. Our hovercraft on the farm flies fast, and I’m sure there’s some kind of hovercraft service that can connect us to the clinic, given its fame,” Toby’s mom said.
“I can arrange a private hovercraft to meet you,” the assistant assured them. “Sam 10844, signing off for Mr. Rollins, Esquire, at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, April 6, 2124.”
“And this is Dr. Troy, signing off. Tell your boss we’ll meet him in a couple of hours,” Toby’s mom said.
“Let’s go,” she said matter-of-factly. She had managed to make it sound as if they collected a new Personal Assistant every day.
Toby flashed her a wide smile, feeling alive with enthusiasm. Finally, he was turning fourteen and able to have his own assistant. And, this Stephen Hawking wasn’t just any assistant. He would come fully loaded with memories and knowledge of computer programming, space aeronautics, astrophysics, and inter-planetary exploration history—everything he longed for in the Territories, subjects which were difficult to understand through his formal studies.
They jumped into their suits and boarded their hovercraft, racing for the Tele-portal.
Toby’s mom flew fast. She assured Toby he could take the craft into town when he had his license. She didn’t want to get caught breaking the law, especially not today. The last thing they needed now was a traffic ticket.
“Today’s the day,” she repeated.
It became their refrain for the rest of the trip. Toby’s “coming of age” began to feel like a celebration. The rest of the day held the promise of everything new and different, a day that would change his life forever.
Continue to the second part of the story.
This text is not in final form and may vary slightly from the printed or downloaded text in the book when it is released on September 15, 2016.