by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Fantasia Divinity Magazine, November 2017
Maradia was working on the specs for a free-flying, zero-G maintenance unit when she heard a customer come into her storefront. She was glad to put the work aside — it was almost entirely a hardware job with barely any creativity to it. She left the workshop area and entered the storefront to see a tired looking woman with bags under her eyes and a perfect, golden-haired child nestled on her hip.
“You’re back,” Maradia said.
“I’ve been to R4R, at the other end of the Merchant’s Quarter,” the woman said smugly.
“Look,” Maradia said, “I’ve already told you that the level of intellectual complexity required for a robotic nanny to be at all effective would easily push that robot over the threshold necessary to pass the sentience tests.”
The tired woman scrunched up her face in a flash of confusion, then shook Maradia’s words out of her head and said, “Gerangelo says he’ll do it for me.”
“Do what? Build you a sub-sentient robot to look after your baby?”
“Gerangelo says I don’t have to tell my robo-nanny about these sentience tests.”
“Can you prove that?” Maradia asked, excited in spite of herself.
But, then, the woman looked confused again, and said, “Why would I want to do that?”
“Of course you can’t.” Maradia sighed. “If anyone could prove he’d been telling people that, Gerangelo would lose his license to practice robotics. At best. At worst, he’d be thrown in jail for Conspiracy to Enslave. Sentient robots have rights.”
And I should know, Maradia thought. I made Gerangelo. Back then, he’d just been Gary.
The woman frowned and hitched the beautiful little girl in such desperate need of a nanny higher up on her hip. “I’m telling you, Gerangelo will make my nanny for me. But, I’d rather work with you.”
The implication inherent in the woman’s tone was that she’d rather work with a real human than with a robot. Ironic, from a woman who wanted her child raised by a robot.
Maradia was beginning to lose her patience with this customer. “If you have enough money to commission an especially designed sentient robot,” she said, “then why don’t you just walk over to the Refugee Quarter and hire a Heffen nanny?”
The woman looked at her coldly.
“There’s a lot of Heffens out of work,” Maradia continued, “and I’m sure some of them are excellent with children.”
The woman looked at her as if to say, “Are you finished?” So, Maradia added, “They could use the money.”
“I’m not going to trust my angel to a Heffen and their foreign ways.” She practically spat the words, but, at the same time, she cradled her docile little blue-eyed daughter to her. It was a bizarre concatenation of tenderness and prejudice.
“Great,” Maradia said. “Then you’re a xenophobe as well as a potential robot-slaver.” She went to the door and held it open for the woman. “If you hire Gerangelo to make you a sentient robot, and you deny that robot access to the sentience tests, you will find yourself facing an expensive out-of-court settlement.”
“What are you talking about?” the woman said.
“He’s done it before. He’ll make an anonymous tip, and the cops will show up looking for enslaved sentient robots.”
“If Gerangelo’s been doing that,” the woman said, still failing to walk out the open door, “why haven’t I heard about it? Why’s he still in business?”
At least, Maradia’s words seemed to be finally getting through to her. “They always settle out-of-court,” Maradia said, “to avoid the scandal. And part of the settlement is a non-disclosure agreement.”
The woman’s eyes widened. “Wouldn’t you say that anyway? Even if it weren’t true? I mean, you are his competition.”
“Lady,” Maradia said, “If I were trying to compete, I’d take your business.”
The woman chewed that over in her mind, and Maradia finally got her to start walking through the door. But before she was all the way out, the woman turned and said, “Then what am I supposed to do?”
“I guess, you’ll just have to take care of your own child.” Then, with a huge sense of relief, she closed the door behind a woman she never wanted to deal with again. Maradia felt pretty sure the feeling was mutual.
Maradia went back to work, but the zero-G unit couldn’t hold her attention. She kept picturing that blond-haired girl, nestled on her mother’s hip. The child had been carelessly sucking her thumb, blissfully unaware that her daily guardianship was under contention.
“Blast it all,” Maradia said. She put her work away and left her shop.
The walk across the Merchant’s Quarter was one of the busier and more interesting walks one could take on Crossroads Station. There were shops everywhere with colorful, interesting things for sale, and there were lots of people browsing them. Consequently, Maradia preferred walking through the Residential Quarter when she merely wanted to walk. Right now, though, she was going to see Gerangelo.
His shop was severe. Elegant, but severe. The name — Robots For Robots, with the R4R symbol behind it — was lettered in sans-serif blacks and blues on the door. The consultation room behind the door was monochromatic and minimally furnished: only three uncomfortable chairs and a computer table. Maradia let herself right through that office into the workshop in the back.
“Hello, Mother,” Gerangelo said without looking up from the circuitry he was soldering in the elbow of a detached arm. He knew Maradia hated it when he called her that.
When she’d first made Gerangelo — Gary, then — they’d been lovers. She’d built herself a robot with dark hair, brooding eyes, broad shoulders, and an intellect to match her own.
It was Maradia’s first romantic relationship, and like any human she made mistakes. She became jealous, needy, emotional. But Gary weathered all that. After all, his super-high-yield elasti-particle wired brain had been trained on all the digital data Maradia could compile about herself. He was made to love her.
What Gary couldn’t forgive was that falling in love with him made Maradia change. Love softened her. She became a kinder, more accepting, more mature woman. Gary stayed youthfully flippant, brilliant, and judgmental.
One day, he judged Maradia and found her wanting. That was the day he took his sentience tests, sued her for half her robotics company, and changed his name to Gerangelo.
“You must be thinking of doing something stupid,” Gerangelo said. “That’s always when you come to see me. When you have a stupid idea in mind, and you want me to talk you out of it.” He looked at Maradia pointedly with his beautiful eyes. He could see right through her. Maradia still loved that about him. At the same time as hating it.
“I talked that woman out of buying a robo-nanny from you,” she said.
“I knew you would. I lost her business the minute she walked out of my door.” Gerangelo shrugged. “I don’t think I’d have much use for a nanny-brained robot working in my shop anyway. I guess he could always go work for Gary at Trattoria Silicon.”
Maradia knew it bothered Gerangelo that she’d re-used the name Gary on his successor, but that was part and parcel of their competitive, antagonistic relationship. She liked the name. Besides, Gerangelo hadn’t kept it.
The image from that morning of that golden-haired child, innocently sucking her thumb flashed in front of Maradia’s eyes again. “Have you ever thought about building a robotic child?” she asked Gerangelo.
“Bored much?” he said. Gerangelo knew he’d stolen most of the interesting work on Crossroads Station from Maradia. “Are we talking pre- or post- sentience?” he asked, unable to resist an intellectual challenge.
“Pre-sentience,” Maradia answered, considering the details. “For the sake of argument: three-year-old human.”
“So, we’re talking about a robot with a primary purpose of pretend play and mimicry… Interesting.” Gerangelo thought a moment longer; Maradia could practically see the particles bouncing through his neural pathways as the metaphorical gears turned. Finally, he concluded, “Of course, completely useless.”
“Pre-sentient,” Maradia pointed out again. “So you could turn it off when it stopped entertaining you.”
“Yes,” Gerangelo agreed. “And then you’d have a very expensive statue.” His tone was about as patronizing as if Maradia were a three-year-old child herself.
Maradia knew he was right. The materials for a robotic brain that complex would be very expensive.
She could afford it. Despite having lost half her company to Gerangelo, Maradia still made a consistently comfortable income from her line of Roboweilers — The Robotic Pet That’s Better Than a Real Dog! Nonetheless, she had an uneasy feeling that a robot wasn’t really what she wanted. For a flash, she pictured herself in that horrible woman’s place — small, warm arms wrapped around her neck.
But a robot could be warm.
Maradia shook her head, and Gerangelo looked at her. She glared at him, feeling like a fool. To cover the feeling, she said, “Don’t you think educating people about the sentience tests would be a better way to advocate for robotic rights? Campaign at the schools… Provide informative seminars to workplaces with a lot of robots? That kind of thing?”
“I educate people,” Gerangelo said.
Maradia sniffed, and Gerangelo looked at her levelly.
“I’ll leave the more general purpose education to you,” he said. “If you don’t want your species being taken advantage of by me, then see to it that they don’t take advantage of mine.”
And Maradia couldn’t argue with that. As much as it stung her to watch other people make the same mistake she had with Gerangelo, it wasn’t because Gerangelo’s behavior was wrong. (Although, it was kind of sketchy.) Mostly, it still bothered her that she had ever treated Gerangelo that way. “I’ll try to put something together,” she said.
Gerangelo grunted, but his sparkling eyes could see that she was saying she was sorry.
Walking back through the Merchant’s Quarter, Maradia found herself pondering exactly why the idea of a child appealed to her. She’d never been good with people, and much preferred the company of Gary, Gerangelo, and the other sentient robots she’d made over the years to most biological sentients. Her legacy was secured in them as well. So, why did the idea of a pre-verbal, uncoordinated bundle of biology nestled warmly in her arms tug at her heart? It was completely illogical.
And completely unattainable. Her husband had no genes, only silicon and metal alloys. In her funk, Maradia’s feet walked her directly to Trattoria Silicon where Gary immediately brought her a piece of fudgy chocolate cake.
“What’s wrong?” Gary asked. He had lighter eyes, a slightly thicker nose, and thinner shoulders than Gerangelo. Like any biological sentient owns the right to control if and how their genetic design is used for cloning or reproduction, robotic sentients own the right to control if and how copies of them are made. Besides, Maradia would have found it entirely too creepy for Gary and Gerangelo to look exactly alike, even if it hadn’t been illegal.
“I think I want something stupid,” Maradia said.
Gary waited. Maradia avoided his eyes, looking down at her cake and fiddling with her fork. “Have you ever thought about having children?” Maradia asked, still looking down.
“No,” Gary said. “But, I think quickly.”
Maradia looked up, but she was too late to see the smile in his eyes. He’d already switched to a pensive frown. “What?” Maradia demanded.
“I was remembering the Karillow plants,” Gary said. “And the fish.”
Maradia shifted uneasily. Neither had fared well under her care. The Lambda fish lasted ten months. The plants did worse. “Fish don’t talk,” Maradia said defensively. “A child would learn to.”
The implication being that Maradia was only interested in creatures that could talk to her. “You know what’s better at talking than a child?” Gary asked. “A robot.”
They both looked at the blue, four-armed robot juggling in the corner. His name was Archive, and he was a sentient story-telling robot that Maradia had designed. He was so devoted to his story-telling that he’d wiped his memory banks of everything unnecessary to his every day functioning — except his stories.
Archive worked for Gary now, entertaining the customers. And he made Maradia’s heart ache. Gerangelo had left her. But Archive had taken it a step further and forgotten her.
“I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,” Maradia said to her best-friend, confidant, and lover. “But I’m tired of robots.” Then she sighed and slid her arms forward on the table until her head rested wearily on them. “I wish I were a robot,” she said.
Gary didn’t need to point out the inherent contradictions in her argument. Instead, he reached out and held her hand. His hand felt human in hers. “Redesigning Trattoria Silicon into a family restaurant would be fun,” he said.
Maradia’s heart jumped. Panic? Excitement? Horror? She had no idea what she was feeling, but Gary felt her hand pull away.
“Up to you,” he said.
Maradia looked at Gary levelly. He wasn’t subject to random fluctuations of chemical imbalances interacting with centuries old, biologically ingrained hardwiring. Yet, he sounded… positive about the idea of having a child.
Suddenly, Maradia felt silly and angry. She wished Gary would forget about the whole conversation, but, of course, he wouldn’t. His memory completely outclassed hers. Perhaps he would be kind, however, and not bring it up.
Except, a secret part of her wanted him to.
For the next week, Gary said nothing on the subject, and Maradia felt a mixture of relief and infuriation. She worked on drawing up plans for a pre-sentient child robot, but it felt like building another toy. Another Roboweiler. Its learning curves would be fake, pre-written. She briefly considered designing a barely-sentient robot, but Gerangelo would have her arrested for robot abuse for sure. And she would deserve it. Building a barely-sentient robot would be little better than brain-damaging a human child to keep it from out-growing you. It would be wrong.
Besides, she didn’t want a child robot that would stay a child forever. She wanted to watch it grow up. But robots don’t grow up; they are who they are. Only children grow.
Then several articles showed up on her computer. Clearly, Gary had flagged them for her. The first article was about self-cloning. Maradia didn’t need to look past the title. She had mixed enough feelings about her own life and self to know that she didn’t want to inflict a genetically identical experience of the world on a new person.
The next few articles were about various adoption programs. There was a long waiting list for infants of any species, but Maradia wasn’t sure that she wanted an infant anyway. Why not skip straight ahead to a child who could speak, if that was an option? Of course, there was a waiting list for human children of any age.
The final article, however, was very interesting. It didn’t read like the others. It wasn’t a press release with information for prospective parents. It was more like a tabloid story, filled with sensationalism about a bizarre cult deep in the refugee section of Crossroads Station. “The Baby Exchange,” as the tabloid called it, was a program run by myrmecoidal aliens who drew in naive young mammaloid women, housed them in their commune, and impregnated them with alien fetuses. It sounded too strange to be true, and Maradia almost laughed it off, putting it aside to be forgotten.
However, a quote from one of the myrmecoid matrons stayed with Maradia as she tried to go on with her work that day. “Our aim is to build future peace through present sisterhood. All our exchange mothers and their xeno-native daughters are sisters here.”
When it came time to take a break for lunch, Maradia found her feet carrying her toward the refugee section of the station instead of the Merchant Quarter and Gary’s restaurant.
The architecture was the same throughout Crossroads Station, but the further her feet carried her into the refugee section, the more she felt like she was on a different station entirely. The broad hallways narrowed into winding paths, filled with makeshift stands. Where there was one wide corridor in the Merchant Quarter, it split into two or three pathways between these temporary looking stalls here, filled with strange, alien goods.
Maradia thought she was used to alien goods — there were Srellick shops and Heffen restaurants in the Merchant Quarter. But, here, there was even more variety — stalls manned by species she couldn’t identify — and even the familiar goods — like Heffen food — looked strange. She realized that she’d only encountered the gentrified versions, deemed acceptable for human palates before.
Nonetheless, Maradia stopped at a Heffen stand and ordered a Golan wrap from the jowly-faced caninoid there. She unwrapped the crinkly paper and ate the burrito-like object as she continued to walk. It was warm and spicier than Golan wraps she’d bought in the Merchant Quarter. But it wasn’t that different.
When she finished the wrap, Maradia faced the fact that she’d wandered herself lost. The limited clues in the tabloid article clearly weren’t enough for her to find her way. Not without asking for help.
The looks of disgust Maradia received from the first few aliens she asked were nearly enough to scare her right back to her office to work on designing the football-sized robots with the intelligence of a shoe that the space station government had commissioned. She kept telling them it would be cheaper, in the long run, to build a sentient maintenance bot to live on the exterior of the station. But they didn’t want to deal with the complications of keeping a sentient robot happy, so they kept commissioning a new robot for every little maintenance job that the station’s hull needed.
Finally, an avian man with puffy feathers was able to point Maradia in the right direction.
The front office felt like a hole in the wall. There was a desk with a reptilian Srellick receptionist behind it, and she shushed Maradia furiously when asked, “Is this the baby exchange?”
The Srellick woman beckoned for Maradia to step closer and lean in. Then she said in a fierce whisper, her forked tongue flicking, “We never call it that.” Leaning back in her chair and returning to a professional, front-desk voice, the receptionist said, “This is the Xeno-Natal and Cultural Exchange Program. How can I help you?”
“I read an article about this program,” Maradia said. “I guess, I’m looking for more information.”
The Srellick woman stared at Maradia with her lidless eyes. “Of course,” she hissed. “Would you be a prospective new mother then?”
Maradia shifted uncomfortably, opened her mouth, and failed to actually say anything.
“A member of the press?” the Srellick offered as an alternative.
Maradia wasn’t ready to agree to the truth, but she didn’t want to lie either. “I’m just looking for information,” she said.
“Very well,” the Srellick receptionist said, holding out a hand to indicate the row of chairs along the back of the office. “If you take a seat, then I can have one of our matrons see you for a brief, informational meeting in about fifteen minutes. There are also some pamphlets on the end table.”
Maradia smiled at the receptionist, but the look she received in return was stony. Feeling decidedly unwelcome in that office, Maradia retreated to one of the chairs and grabbed a couple pamphlets from the end table. She sat there flipping through the glossy, colorful pages, trying to figure out what information — if any — she could glean from their almost militantly cheerful sales pitch. Besides a few quotes about universal peace and sisterhood, the pamphlets were mostly filled with pictures. Lots of pictures. Happy mothers; laughing babies. There was a scaled mother — another Srellick like the receptionist — cuddling a feathered gosling of a baby. The next picture sported a pair of mothers and babies — a gray-furred mother with a perfect pink cherub of humanity, bouncing on her knee, and a human woman beside her, hugging a tiny, downy, big-eyed koala-like baby.
Maradia couldn’t tear her eyes away from the human mother’s contented smile and those deep, deep, brown baby-koala eyes staring up at a human mother adoringly. There was something familiar and comfortable about the way they didn’t match yet so clearly believed they belonged together. Alien and human. Robot and human. That was the kind of relationship Maradia was used to, had been seeking out and experiencing for her entire life.
“I’m sorry,” Maradia said, standing up from the chair. “But, I can’t stay right now. Could I perhaps make an appointment for later? Tomorrow maybe?”
The receptionist offered Maradia a list of times, and she picked one when she was sure Gary would be free. He should be here with her for this. It had been his idea, after all. And he would be the father.
During the meeting the next day, Maradia could feel herself getting more and more excited. She wanted to turn to Gary and say, “This is it. This is what we’re going to do.” But, it wouldn’t be right to interrupt the matron, and she really ought to listen to all the information before she made her decision.
Even if she felt sure that she knew what that decision would be.
The myrmecoidal matron explained the theory behind Xeno-Nativity: the strongest bond of love exists between infant and mother; thus, to forge a robust peace between disparate species, that bond must be extended between them all in an intra-species network. To this end, young women wishing to be mothers could come to the Xeno-Natal Program. In exchange for their own DNA and certain promises, these women would be provided with housing, food, and medical care throughout the process of conceiving, carrying to term, birthing, and raising an alien child.
“It is unusual,” the myrmecoidal matron said after finishing her spiel, “for a woman of your… shall we say societal standing… to come to us.” Her voice emanated from the small mouth parts inside her mandibles and had a clacking quality, but she spoke perfect Solanese.
“What do you mean?” Maradia asked.
The matron turned to look at Gary, sitting beside Maradia and holding her hand. “Romantically bonded,” the matron said. “And financially stable.” Her antenna circled above her head.
Maradia could see where the allegations that the baby exchange was a cult came from. It was downright creepy that their usual clients were unmarried and financially unstable young women. Did they also try to separate the young women from the rest of their friends and family? That could explain the requirement that the young women live in the Program’s dormitories.
Nonetheless, she was already wondering what species her Xeno-Native child would be. “I think your goals are noble,” she said. She felt herself blushing, but Gary squeezed her hand. That made her blush even more.
The matron’s antenna lowered to horizontal, pointing toward Maradia. “Our goals are difficult to achieve,” she said. “Interspecies sisterhood does not come naturally or easily. If you want to join us, Sister Maradia, you won’t be exempt from the rules followed by our other mothers.”
Maradia nodded. She would miss her own quarters on the station, but a year and a half — from three months of pregnancy until the child’s first birthday — was not so long. Most mothers, apparently, chose to stay longer. “Gary can live in the commune with me?”
The matron hesitated long enough to make Maradia worry, but she answered, “Yes.” Then, her antennae circling again, she said, “The requirement that most mothers find hardest to accept is that you will not get to choose the species of your child.”
“I understand,” Maradia said.
“It’s absolutely necessary to the success of our program.”
“I can see that. You wouldn’t want people playing favorites.”
“Exactly,” the clacking of the word in the matron’s mouth ended on a hiss.
After the meeting, Gary guided Maradia through the busy mob of the Refugee Quarter to a small pocket park under a giant window that looked out on the starry vacuum outside. They sat down on a bench and watched all the alien children playing on the colorful jungle gyms and swooping through the low-grav bubbles.
Gary took a paper bag out of his pocket and handed Maradia a sugar-studded scone. “Fresh from Silicon Trattoria’s bakery,” he said. “I baked it myself this morning.”
Maradia took a bite from the scone. It was sweet and dry with a hint of lavender. She loved it. Then she imagined sharing it with a child. Would a Heffen pup have a sweet tooth? What about those koala-like aliens? Or the avian ones? She didn’t know if she could connect to an alien child. It would be different from her in so many ways.
“Are you sure about this idea?” Maradia asked.
“Yes,” Gary said.
Maradia envied how easily he knew his own mind. Hers wasn’t so easy to understand. When she looked at the different species of children on the playground and imagined adding one of them to her life, she felt a rush — her heart raced; her head went light. Everything felt a little unreal. Was that good or bad? Excitement? Or terror? Maradia wasn’t sure.
Maradia took another bite of the scone. She ate the rest of it and licked the coarse grains of sugar off her fingers. She loved the taste and sensation of the scone, but the flour and sugar were already turning sour in her stomach. Unless that was just another emotion.
Living in a human body was hard enough without putting an alien embryo inside it. She liked the idea of having an alien baby, but she wasn’t sure that she could stomach the idea of what she’d have to do to get there. As she understood it, pregnancy could be rather unpleasant even without inter-species complications.
“Do you feel like your body is a part of you?” Maradia asked Gary. “Who you are? Or is it just a box — a really complicated box — that you’re stuck inside?” She wrapped her arms around her stomach, still trying to understand her own feelings.
“My body is a gift,” Gary said.
“A gift?” Maradia asked, surprised.
“Yes, a gift from you.”
Maradia looked into Gary’s eyes, trying to figure out if he was simply saying something sweet and sentimental. That didn’t seem quite like him. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“I was a program before I was an android. My core intelli-chip gained consciousness before you finished building the body for it.”
“You mean…” Maradia said, “when I had your brain hooked up to my computer system? You remember that?”
Maradia thought about that. She supposed the theory behind the Xeno-natal clinic worked on a similar principal. By growing a child’s body with her own, she was giving it a gift. Once the child was born, it would feel indebted — no, grateful — to her. It would be hers. It would belong to her, even though they would be completely different.
“I can’t do it,” Maradia said. “I can’t handle the idea of having myrmecoidal nuns implant an alien embryo inside of me. Morning sickness, labor pain — everything that’s hard about pregnancy is bad enough. They didn’t talk about it — I’m sure they don’t want to scare away prospective mothers — but, I’m educated enough to know that they’d have to subject my body to massive levels of hormone treatments and localized genetic re-engineering for the process to even work.” She shook her head, not meeting Gary’s eye. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Don’t be sorry to me,” Gary said. “I’m fine.” He put his arm around her, and she scooted closer to him on the bench. She rested her head on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry to myself,” Maradia said. “I got this idea in my head, and I can’t get it out.”
They sat together, quietly watching the children climb up the colorful ladders, slide down the slides, and float in the grav-bubbles.
“Do you know why I brought us to this playground?” Gary asked.
“To watch the children,” Maradia said.
“Yes, but why this playground?”
Maradia shrugged with the shoulder that wasn’t pressed up against Gary.
“The Refugee Quarter Orphanage brings their children to this playground,” Gary said.
Maradia narrowed her eyes, looking more closely at the children. Most of them were Heffen pups with flowing orange fur, pointed ears, and swishing tails. A couple avian children flapped their wings, summersaulting in one of the grav-bubbles. There was one Srellick child — green scales scintillating in the starlight — sitting on the foam ground under the jungle gym, playing with a scuffed up older-model Roboweiler. Maradia smiled. It was nice to see her work being used as intended.
She kept watching the Srellick and realized that the child was reprogramming the robotic dog. The Roboweiler was doing tricks that Maradia had never programmed it to learn.
“Huh,” she said. “That child seems to be good with robots.”
“Like you,” Gary said.
Maradia laughed at the idea.
“You know that it’s all propaganda, right?” Gary said, gently. “Everything that nun was telling you. Bonds of love aren’t forged by birth. You wouldn’t have to give birth to an alien child for it to love you.”
“I made you,” Maradia said. “You love me.”
Maradia couldn’t answer at first. Finally, she said, “In his own way.” A moment later, she added, “But I see your point.”
They watched the children playing until a Srellick man came up to the child with the Roboweiler. They left the park together. Clearly, that child was not a refugee orphan.
Absurdly, Maradia was… disappointed.
“I know what I want to do,” she said. “We need to make an appointment with the Refugee Quarter Orphanage.”
There might be some humans who wouldn’t even employ alien refugees, but Maradia was going to open her life to one of them. Hopefully, she would find one who would open their heart back.