by Corrine Pratt
An homage to Brian Aldiss
When the box arrives, the house is relatively quiet. Mr. Braxton is seated at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper. Mrs. Braxton is in the study, doing paperwork. And Sarah Braxton is, as usual in the garden.
The box is large, intimidating even, so Sarah hides behind Mrs. Braxton’s legs as they enter the foyer. The box is white, with large red letters on it. Sarah already learned how to read last year, so she can see that it says, “LUMICORP: BRINGING THE FUTURE TO YOU!” and below, “Premium Near-Human Robot – Youth Model”. There’s a big, shiny bow on the box, so Sarah stops reading and steps forward, hesitant.
“This is a present we got for you, Sarah; a new toy,” says Mrs. Braxton.
“We think you’re going to love it,” says Mr. Braxton, “It’s a friend for you.”
“Not a friend, dear, a robot,” Mrs. Braxton admonishes, “It’s not a person. Don’t give her the wrong idea.”
Mr. Braxton opens the box and there’s a little girl inside. She has straight black hair and Sarah can’t tell what color her eyes are because they’re closed. Sarah wonders where the robot is. Did the girl bring it?
Mr. Braxton lifts the girl out of the box and stands her by Sarah before he pulls a think book from the box and starts to read.
“Hi,” says Sarah quietly, “What’s your name?” The girl doesn’t answer, doesn’t open her eyes.
“Wait a moment, sweetie, it’s not on yet,” Mrs. Braxton murmurs, placing her hands on Sarah’s shoulders.
After a moment Mr. Braxton looks up from the book, brow furrowed, and puts his hand on the back of the girl’s neck. Mr. Braxton taps his fingers against her neck and her eyes open. They’re blue. The girl tilts her head to the side and her mouth opens. Like she’s waiting for something.
“The manual says we have to give her a name. Sarah, what do you want to name her? Think carefully, it’s very important.”
Sarah is confused, how can the girl not have a name yet? Only babies don’t have names. Sarah looks at the girl for a long moment, thinking of all the names she knows. The girl is pretty, so her name should be pretty. And she’s a little taller than Sarah, so she needs a name for a strong, powerful person.
“Queen Elizabeth,” says Sarah, looking right into the girl’s eyes. “Your name is Queen Elizabeth.”
“Now, now,” says Mrs. Braxton, “That’s just silly. Why don’t we name her Elizabeth and you can call her Lizzy?”
“What about Mary? Mary’s a nice name,” adds Mr. Braxton.
But it’s too late. The robot won’t answer to anything else.
Sarah can run faster than Queen Elizabeth, but Queen Elizabeth can climb higher in the tree behind the house. When Sarah wants to wear her princess dress, Queen Elizabeth helps her with all the little buttons in the back. Sarah likes to play in the garden all day, but Queen Elizabeth likes to sit in the window better. They play in the garden, because it doesn’t matter all that much to Queen Elizabeth. Sarah and Queen Elizabeth play together every day, because Sarah says that they’re friends and that’s what friends do. Friends stick together.
In the fall, when Sarah goes to school again, Queen Elizabeth has to stay in the house without her. Sarah asks Mr. Braxton if Queen Elizabeth will be lonely, being by herself all day. Mr. Braxton says not to worry. He says the instruction manual that came with the robot makes it clear that the robot doesn’t have feelings. It says robots have “near-human emotions”, but that this means they’re not the same as human emotions. Not as good. Queen Elizabeth may act lonely, but she won’t be. Not like a person would be.
Queen Elizabeth spends the whole first day that Sarah’s gone buttoning and unbuttoning the back of Sarah’s princess dress.
The instruction manual says that a robot can “acquire new experiences”, but it doesn’t say that they can “learn”. Queen Elizabeth could already read when she came to the Braxtons, but she doesn’t know how to braid. Sarah teaches Queen Elizabeth to braid her hair for her, so they can pretend to go to the ball. It’s hard at first, but soon Queen Elizabeth can weave the strands together deftly, and Sarah wears her hair in braids for the rest of the year.
Queen Elizabeth can’t eat anything, but she can hear and smell and feel. She loves the smell of apricots. She asks Mrs. Braxton to help her cut an apricot open, and she spreads the juice on her fingers and wrists like perfume.
Roses are Sarah’s favorite smell, and the two of them pick roses all day to put in her hair and pockets. Mrs. Braxton finds rose petals under chairs and in drawers for months, and the apricot stains don’t come out of the carpet for years.
The instruction manual doesn’t say that robots can feel pain, but it says that they have “an implicit need to avoid hazardous situations”. One day, Sarah gets sick and Mr. and Mrs. Braxton are gone and Queen Elizabeth doesn’t know what to do. Sarah’s forehead is hot and she coughs weakly and Queen Elizabeth doesn’t know how to make her better.
Queen Elizabeth remembers that last time Sarah was sick Mr. Braxton made her soup, so she runs into the kitchen and puts a pot on the stove. She pours in a can of soup and turns the stove on as hot as it will go.
She runs upstairs to tell Sarah that she’s making her soup, and Sarah’s shivering with cold. Queen Elizabeth gets all the blankets from Mrs. and Mr. Braxton’s room and wraps Sarah up tight. She gets a glass of water and puts it on the table by Sarah’s bed.
When Queen Elizabeth rushes back downstairs she sees that the soup has all these big bubbles rolling around in it, but she doesn’t remember what that means. Is the soup ready? When Mr. Braxton made soup, he tasted a spoonful to make sure it was hot enough. Queen Elizabeth can’t eat anything.
Queen Elizabeth doesn’t know what to do. The soup is the only thing that will make Sarah better, but what if it doesn’t work unless it’s just the right temperature? How will she know? Queen Elizabeth wants to make Sarah better. She has to. So, finally, she leans forward and blows on it, just like Mr. Braxton did, before plunging her hand into the pot.
When Mr. and Mrs. Braxton get home, Sarah is in her room eating a bowl of soup. Mrs. Braxton asks where Queen Elizabeth is, and Sarah points to the corner where Queen Elizabeth is crouched, rocking back and forth, her mouth opening and closing silently. Her eyes are wide open and staring down at her hand, where, Mr. Braxton sees, the outer layers of plastic have melted away to reveal a stainless-steel framework.
When Queen Elizabeth gets her hand replaced, the skin on the new one is just a little lighter than the old one, but Sarah says she can’t tell.
One day Sarah wakes up and realizes she’s gotten taller than Queen Elizabeth.
Queen Elizabeth and Sarah go to the zoo. Queen Elizabeth likes the seals and the penguins and the peacocks, but Sarah likes the lions and the anteaters and the monkeys. Mrs. Braxton buys Sarah a hat that looks like a lion’s mane, and she buys Queen Elizabeth a stuffed seal. Queen Elizabeth names the seal Sally, and she pets her soft fur and whispers into her ear.
Both girls like the elephants. At first Queen Elizabeth is scared; the elephants are so tall and broad, with flapping ears and rough grey skin. Mrs. Braxton assures Queen Elizabeth that the elephants are strong, but gentle creatures, and she coaxes the robot out from behind her legs. When they get close to the elephants, Queen Elizabeth can see their warm brown eyes and probing noses. One of the elephants is wearing a floppy beret on her head, and has a paintbrush held firmly in her trunk.
“All of the zoo animals are allowed weekly recreational activities,’” reads Mrs. Braxton from a nearby sign, “‘Daisy the elephant is an artist. She loves to paint.’”
Daisy the elephant dips the brush into tubs of paint and drags it lazily across a large canvas. When her trunk is extended, Queen Elizabeth thinks it looks like Daisy’s mouth is smiling. Like she’s happy. Sarah says she wants an elephant of her own. To ride to school. Queen Elizabeth doesn’t want her own elephant, though. Daisy looks happy here. She gets to paint pictures. She gets recreational activities. Elephants aren’t for riding to school.
Next, Sarah wants to go to the Reptile House, but they have to go through the House of Modern Marvels to get there. The House of Modern Marvels is a long hallway, with huge windows looking into little rooms. On the wall above the windows is a sign saying, “SYNTHETIC HUMANS THROUGH HISTORY”. In one room is a metal box with a camera on its front. It moves slowly on its wheels, rolling to a wall, stopping, turning, and rolling again. It circles around the room, never stopping, and Queen Elizabeth moves to the next window. In the next room is a metal man, his frame scratched and rusting. He’s exercising: he does 5 push-ups, then 5 sit-ups, then 5 jumping jacks, and then back to push-ups.
In the last room are two people, a man and a woman. The woman is standing at a chalk board, solving math problems. The man is folding giant piles of laundry. Queen Elizabeth hears Mrs. Braxton say, “Look. Those are modern robots. Just like Queen Elizabeth.” Just like Queen Elizabeth.
Queen Elizabeth covers Sally’s eyes with her hands. “Don’t look, Sally,” she says, “Don’t look.”
She turns around to look at Mrs. Braxton. “What do the robots do for recreational activities? Do they play in the garden? Do they have princess dresses and doll houses?”
“Oh, robots don’t need recreational activities,” laughs Mrs. Braxton, “I’m sure they don’t have any for them.”
Queen Elizabeth covers Sally’s ears, too. “But all the other animals get recreational activities.”
“Well, robots aren’t animals. They’re just machines.”
“But that’s not fair. It’s not fair. They should get recreational activities just like everyone else. They should get to paint pictures too.” The instruction manual said that the robot would have, “An understanding of socially acceptable behavior”. It didn’t say she would have a moral code. It didn’t say she would know right from wrong.
Mrs. Braxton says maybe they’ve had enough of the zoo for one day.
During the school year, Queen Elizabeth spends all day in the house alone, playing with Sally and writing Sarah letters she can read when she comes home. In the summer, Sarah stays home and they play together. Sarah gets a sun burn from being outside all day, and there’s a little creaking noise when Queen Elizabeth blinks, from getting sand caught under her eyelids.
One day Sarah goes away for summer camp. Before she leaves, Queen Elizabeth braids her hair, but when she comes back she’s wearing her hair down. She made a friend at camp, Emily, who straightened it for her. Emily’s coming to sleep over tomorrow.
When Emily comes over, Sarah tells Queen Elizabeth to stay in the basement so Sarah and Emily can have some time to themselves.
The instruction manual says that the robot’s skin is “sensitive to tactile sensations.”
Queen Elizabeth likes the feel of Sarah’s soft wool blanket. It’s thick and plush, with dancing fairies embroidered across it, and Queen Elizabeth likes to run it through her fingers and rub it against her cheek. In the winter, when it’s cold, Queen Elizabeth goes into Sarah’s room and they sleep under it together.
One day Queen Elizabeth goes into Sarah’s room and the fairy blanket is gone. In its place there’s another blanket, stiff and coarse with the image of a boy-band stitched onto it. Queen Elizabeth can’t understand why Sarah got rid of the old one.
Sarah can climb higher in the tree behind the house than Queen Elizabeth now, but she doesn’t like climbing trees anymore. Sarah wants to stay in her room and put on makeup, and she tells Queen Elizabeth she doesn’t want to play in the garden today. She says the garden is for little girls, and she’s a grown-up now. But Queen Elizabeth won’t ever grow up. Queen Elizabeth is programmed to be a little girl forever.
That summer Queen Elizabeth plays with Sally alone. She climbs the tree alone and plays in the garden alone. Queen Elizabeth braids her own hair and puts on Sarah’s princess dress, but there’s no one to button up the little buttons in the back for her.
One day Mr. Braxton tells Queen Elizabeth that they’re going somewhere special. Somewhere fun. Queen Elizabeth is so excited she wears the princess dress and she leaves Sally on the dresser and tells her not to worry. She’ll be back. She and Sarah get in the car. Sarah is tall now, and her nails are long and painted the same red as her lips. Sarah sits in the front seat and she doesn’t say anything to Queen Elizabeth for the whole drive.
They pull up to a big, grey building. On the front it says “LUMICORP RECYCLING CENTER” in blocky black letters.
Sarah stays in the car and Mr. Braxton takes Queen Elizabeth inside. A lady with grey hair asks Mr. Braxton questions and writes something on a piece of paper.
“And when was it activated?”
“About 8 years ago.”
“Fair. It had its right had replaced.”
“And you’re sure you’d like to dispose of the robot?”
Dispose? Queen Elizabeth doesn’t understand why Mr. Braxton says, “Yes.” They’re not getting rid of her. They can’t be. It has to be some kind of mistake. Sarah doesn’t want to get rid of her. She caught fireflies with Sarah and went to the movies with Sarah and hid from monsters with Sarah. They’re friends. Best friends. But Sarah doesn’t want a friend, not really. She doesn’t want an elephant that can paint pictures; she wants one she can ride to school.
Queen Elizabeth had been a good robot. She played in the garden when Sarah wanted to and made her soup when she was sick. Queen Elizabeth doesn’t deserve to be thrown away. But things aren’t always fair. Robots in the zoo don’t get recreational activities.
The instruction manual said Queen Elizabeth would grow “attached” to her owners, but it never said that she would love them.
Mr. Braxton touches the back of Queen Elizabeth’s neck and her eyes close.
When Mr. Braxton gets back to the car, Sarah asks what will happen to the robot.
“Oh,” says Mr. Braxton, “They’ll reuse the parts for something else. Nothing will go to waste. They’ll probably make 50 new robots out of it.”
“But it will just be the parts. It won’t really be her.”
“Oh, kiddo. She’s just a robot. There was never any her to begin with.”