Book excerpt

Expiration Day

William Campbell Powell

Tor/Forge

Sunday, July 18, 2049

 
What a funny old day!
We got a robot today. And it was my eleventh birthday. So I thought I’d start to write a diary, because it was a weird day, and if you can’t even write a decent diary when you’ve got something to write about, what chance have you got when the days are dry and dreary?
But I’m not going to start every entry with “Dear Diary” or anything so Victorian. That would be just so wet. Anyway, I want to decide who’s going to read it. Whoever you are, my distant, unknown friend, I need to see you in my mind.
Maybe no one will read my diary, except me when I’m ninety. So just in case, “Hello, me-of-twenty-one-twenty-eight! This is me-of-twenty-forty-nine.”
Maybe, though, my grandchildren are reading this. “Hello, grandkids! This is your dotty granny Tania writing, before she lost her marbles. I hope you’ve found me a nice home.”
No, I don’t hope any such thing. If I have to become anybody’s granny, please don’t let me be a boring granny. Instead I shall be a grand Dame, knighted for my services to the country, and I shall tell fabulous stories, mostly true, about my adventures as a spy, or a detective, or an actress. So by 2128 you’ll need me, whoever you are, because there won’t be many like me left.
And if you’re just a boring old historian, or some kind of slimy-tentacled alien archaeologist called Zog from the Andromeda galaxy, trying to find out who on earth I am and what human beings were …
Do you have churches in Andromeda, Mister Zog? Weddings, christenings, and funerals? Too much detail, I think, at least for today. Anyway, my dad is a vicar. And in these times he has a lot to do. He says thirty years ago the churches were empty. Now they’re full. Full of unhappy people, looking for help to make things bearable. Looking for the little rituals that make things feel normal.
The church business is good. But vicars are still poor. Mum says he’s keeping half the village sane, but still we live on people’s cast-offs. We have Value Beans in the larder. Our vid is someone’s old 2-D model. And our “new” robot is a reconditioned ’44 model, donated by a kindly parishioner.
But we have a robot, a real, honest-to-goodness robot. And Dad says even the bishop only has a ’47 model. Ted, one of the churchwardens, dropped him off. Him? It? I’m going to keep on saying “him” for now, as his voice was rather deep, and very “Home Counties.”
We called him—the robot—Soames. It seemed like the perfect name for a 1930s butler—right out of an Agatha Christie 3-Dram. Dad activated him, and I watched as the eyes lit up for the first time. I asked Dad about that, and he smiled.
“Yes, there really isn’t any need for glowing eyes. They’re more for show, part of a retro look, that the psychologists say makes us feel more comfortable with them around. We see all the old-fashioned twentieth-century sci-fi movies, and we laugh, because they’re so quaint. This is the same thing—robots deliberately made to look clunky and antique, and act like it, too, so we feel superior, rather than feel afraid.”
We had to do an imprinting, of course, to get Soames to recognize the voices of his new owners, so that he’d obey our orders.
“Michael Deeley, primary registrant. Acknowledge.” That was Dad.
“Acknowledged.”
“Annette Deeley, secondary registrant. Acknowledge.” Mum.
“Acknowledged.”
“Tania Deeley, junior registrant. Acknowledge.” Me, reading from the instruction manual and sounding very formal.
“Acknowledged.”
And that was it. Soames would obey Dad, then Mum, then me. In that order. There were a bunch of other commands built into his brain that we couldn’t override, sometimes called the Asimov Laws, after some ancient writer who came up with the idea. Dad says Asimov’s original laws were very simple, but Soames’s version had been made very complicated by the lawyers. So under stress any robot just became completely useless.
Anyway, we put Soames to work doing the washing up. He didn’t break anything, but I could have loaded up the dishwasher myself in half the time. Tomorrow, though, he will be faster, because he’s learned what to do and where to put the plates afterward.
And then, because it was the summer holidays, there was no school, so I got him to play table tennis, because it was my birthday and Dad said I deserved a treat for that. Soames spent most of the time picking up the balls, when he didn’t crush them underfoot (two destroyed) or knock them into the lamp shade (one out of reach).
Then we took him around the house, showing him where everything was. So we can tell him to tidy the house now, and everything will find its way back to where it was on my eleventh birthday. Or whenever.
Big deal.
Okay. I’m not frightened of domestic robots, honest. But can you make one that can play table tennis, please?

 
Copyright © 2014 by William Campbell Powell