I thought some might find it inspiring for writing their own fiction.
Disclaimer: Yeah, this stuff has a copyright but rumor
has it that Roddy McDowall jumped ship with it in his Time Machine about
forty years ago.
Originally Published in If: The Worlds of Science Fiction, 1954
Publisherís Note: The Joy of Living, by the editor, is here for two reasons: because it is about androids, and because it is a moving, emotionally real story.
Mr. Nolanís science fiction has previously been selected for Yearís Best SF, The Pan Book of Horror, The Fiend in You, etc. and he has edited one other SF anthology (Man Against Tomorrow, for Avon). His latest SF anthology sale is to Italy, and a new Corgi edition of his first book on the field, Impact 20, (Paperback Library, 1963) is due for release in England next year.
As one of the "founding fathers" (along with Charles Fritch and Jack Matcha) of Gamma, he served as its managing editor during 1963 and Ď64. His work has also seen wide publication in the automotive and show business fields.
"Itís just around the next turn," Rice said, peering from the tinted windows as the car skimmed over the warm summer streets of the city.
The vehicle slowed, took the long curve with fluid grace, and whispered to a stop. A silver door panel sighed back and Ted Rice stepped into the heat of morning. His suit-conditioner immediately circulated an inner breath of cool air to balance the rise in temperature.
"I wonít need you for the rest of the day," he told the car. "Iíll be walking home."
"May I have your location number, sir, in case a member of the family should wish to contact you?"
"No, dammit, you may not!" This was Free-Day. He neednít tell the car anything. "Go home."
"Very well, sir." The machine slid obediently from the curb. Rice watched it glitter briefly, like a lake trout in the moving wash of morning in traffic, and disappear.
On Free-Days, he told the car what to do. No predetermined destinations. No pre-determined activities. Today the bars were open.
He intended getting very, very drunk.
On this morning, the sixth anniversary of his wifeís death, Ted Rice had made two highly important decisions. He would quit his job and he would turn Margaret in to Central Exchange. The job he hated, but it had been his life and quitting took courage. It meant beginning anew in an untried field and, at thirty-eight, that wasnít easy. Margaret he did not hate, finding it impossible to catalogue his exact emotions where she was concerned. But his final decision to turn her in was the only one possible under the circumstances.
His reason for getting drunk, however, had nothing to do with his job or with Margaret. He was not, had never been, a drinking man. Intoxication was an anniversary ritual performed in memory of his late wife, Virginia. He exercised extreme care in his yearly choice of drinking quarters, avoiding pretentiousness because he wanted the surroundings to reflect his own inner loneliness.
Louieís Place was anything but pretentious. Ceaseless towelings had worn the bartop to a circular whiteness. The mirror behind it, in the shape of a giant passenger rocket, hung chipped and blackening at the edges. Even the mural, depicting Manís First Landing on the Red Planet, was dust-dimmed and faded, the paint cracking, peeling gradually away. The shabby stools fronting the bar were all unoccupied.
"Morniní," greeted the bartender. Rice nodded, took a corner stool, and pressed the straight-whisky button. The drink glided into his hand and he downed it, grimacing.
"Ainít seen you around before on "Free-Days," the barman observed, swabbing idly at an already-dry glass ring. "Just move inta thí neighborhood?"
"I donít drink often," Rice said, re-pressing the button.
"Wanna tell me about things?"
Rice shifted his attention from his shot glass to the man behind the bar. Beefy, slack-jawed, with a broken nose and a pair of watery, protuberant eyes over which lids folded like canvas sails. The face of mourning. The professional kindred soul, salaried receiver of woes and sad lament. Rice regarded him suspiciously, twirling the shot glass between thumb and forefinger.
"Turn around," said Rice.
The big man grinned broadly, his solemn face splitting as though a paper-knife had slit the skin across. "Now I know you donít drink much. Believe me, Iím the real McCoy. In my racket you have to be."
Still grinning, the bartender complied. Law provided that evidence of a mechanical could not be concealed and there was no metal switch behind the manís right ear.
"Like I toldja, thí McCoy."
"Itís been a year," Rice said, by way of apology. "I wasnít sure they hadnít replaced you fellows too."
"Barsíud go broke if they did. Who wants to tell their troubles to a bunch aí springs aní cogs?í"
Rice glanced at his wrist watch and thought of Margaret, standing in the living room of their modest home, a smile illuminating her delicate features. She had been standing now for fifteen hours, thirty-seven minutes -- since heíd switched her off the previous evening in an angry display of temper.
"Six years ago today my wife died in a copter crash," Rice said, meeting the barmanís sad eyes. "Iíve put the memory of that crash away in the back of my mind and once each year I take it out and I remember." He tipped the shot glass at a careful angle, holding it quite still, as though he might capture Virginiaís tiny image there within the dark liquid, as a fly is caught in amber. "I remember how she looked when they brought her up to the house, as if her bones had suddenly run wild under their skin, the way her face looked... the face of someone Iíd never met."
Rice finished his fourth straight whiskey, feeling it burn down through his body, loosening inner tensions, making it easier to say what he subconsciously had to say.
"That can be rough." The big man looked wonderfully, professionally sympathetic, with those mournful red-rimmed eyes, which seemed about to flood into tears. "Didja have any kids?"
"A boy, Jackie. Heíll be nine this Game-Day. Lot like his mother. The other children, Timmy and Susan are mechanicals. Got them after Virgieís death, when I bought Margaret."
"Musta been tough on thí kid, losiní his real mother aní all."
"Jackie doesnít remember much about Virgie. He was only three. Fact is, Iíve been half a stranger to him myself, on the road most of the year. Margaretís all right, I suppose, but she doesnít think the way you and I do."
"How come you stuck yourself with this Margaret?"
"Authorities. Had to furnish a decent home for the boy or lose him. I couldnít stay settled then, with my wife gone. She was still so much a part of things, of our house, the streets, the places we used to go... I went on the road, tried to forget. That kind of life was out of the question for a three-year-old. I had no choice. Either I bought a mechanical or I lost my son. I could find no one to take Jackie. Virgieís parents were dead and my own mother was in no position to raise a child. So I bought Margaret and since weíd originally planned on a brother and sister for Jackie I decided to do it up brown and go for the package deal. After all, I got Ďem wholesale."
"Hey!" The barman cocked an eyebrow. "You are a mech salesman?"
"Until tomorrow. Iím quitting. My next job will be right here in L.A. and wonít have a damn thing to do with mechanicals!" Producing his wallet, Rice handed the bartender a card. "Read that."
"Theodore A. Rice," the beefy man pronounced carefully, "Authorized representative for World Mechanicals."
"No, no. The slogan at the bottom."
"íA Dollar a Day Keeps Childbirth Away.í So?"
Rice leaned forward, steely-eyed. "So the damned fool who originated that ought to be roasted over a slow fire!"
"Just a slogan, Mac. Everybody knows it."
"Exactly! Do you have any real conception of what that slogan and others like it have done to our national birthrate?" Rice asked, a fresh whiskey in his hand.
"Childbirth has been converted into a horror, a form of medieval torture in the minds of women today. For thirty bucks a month any woman can have a bouncing baby made to order and delivered fresh-wrapped to her door. For less than it used to cost just to feed a human child, she can share the pleasures and joys of motherhood and avoid all the responsibilities.
"íMadamí Iíd say, Ďdonít risk your figure. Donít tie yourself down and miss all the fun. Get a mechanical! No baby-sitters needed, no dirty diapers or squalling at three in the morning. No measles or mumps or tonsils out. Just a bonny little brat with a switch behind his ear. Whatíll it be, madam? A fat little bambino with dark eyes and an angelís smile or a saucy eyed little Irisher with freckles on her nose?"
"íOr howz about you fella? Tired of looking for the right girl? Want a ready-made cutie whoíll be 100 percent yours? How did the old song go? "I want a paper dolly I can call my own, a dolly other fellows cannot steal..." Well, here she is, chum -- a full-size babe with the old come-hither look reserved especially for you. Blonde? Brunette? Redhead? You name Ďer, weíve got Ďer. Yours on easy payments!"
The bartender, wise in the ways of his profession, maintained a listening silence.
"Ya know how this electronic illusion got started?" Rice demanded, tongue somewhat uncertain in his mouth, speech beginning to slur. "Well, lemme tellya. People got lonesome. Aní when somebodyís ole man died long comes a mech to replace him. When a woman was sterile she got her baby anyhow. When a Mr. Shy Guy wanted some female company long comes a sponge-rubber job right outa thí pinup mags. Jusí a few at first, here aní there, aní expensive as hell. But pretty soon the good ole American commercial know-how takes over and competition gets rough. Prices go down. A lotta people stop haviní babies. In nothiní flat everybody is buyiní mechanicals... you... Ďn... me Ďn everybody..."
"Hate ta spoil your fun, Mac, but youíre really loadiní one on. Iíd ease up on them straight shots."
"Aní you know what thí tragedy is?" Rice continued over a filled glass, ignoring the advice. "Thí trashdy is weíre all dyiní aní nobody cares! Pretty soon you Ďn me will be in the same league with the goddam ole water buffalo aní the dodo bird. Thí trashdy is that everybody is dyiní in a century designed for easy livin.í Say! Lesh drink a toast to thí joy of liviní."
The bartender extended a cautioning hand. "No fooliní Mac, if I was you -- Lookout! Youíre gonna..."
Rice felt the room rip, rock crazily for no apparent reason. Faintly he heard the bartenderís shout of warning, saw his face receding like a toy balloon down the length of an immense corridor which ended abruptly in a high fountaining of colored lights.
Margaret was her usual cheery self when Rice finally switched her on.
"Morning, Ted darling." She bussed him on the cheek.
"This is July tenth," he replied sullenly, nursing the remnants of a colossal hangover.
"Goodness! Have I been off that long? Honestly, Ted! Iíll never get the housework done if you continue to leave me off for days at a time. How are the children?"
"Fine. Still sleeping."
"If this is the tenth, then youíve had your... your---"
"íTootí is the word. And I feel lousy."
"Whatís the cut above your eye? Did someone hit you?"
"My assailant was the floor of the Third Avenue bar. I came off second best."
She was instantly solicitous. "You could have a concussion!"
"Youíre angry again."
"Iím fine and Iím not angry. Now, go wind the dog while I wake the kids."
If only she would react, thought Rice, watching her silent withdrawal. If only once she would stomp her feet, throw things, scream at him. But always, always this everlasting indulgence! The spark which ignites a marriage, makes it glow, was missing. In love, he knew, there is violence and Margaretís love was a calm, manufactured emotion, which left him unsatisfied and edgy, a love unreal, intolerable. When he and Virgie had quarreled, had things out and reconciled, they were actually much closer to one another for having weathered a personal storm. But, with Margaret, the case was different.
Rice thought of the latest incident, two nights ago, when he had been with Skipper encouraging the dog to beg for a plastobone. Skipper was outdated, as modern dogs go, but he represented a link with the fading past which Margaret seemed bent on severing. She renewed the familiar subject of his purchasing a modernized, electronic canine to replace the shaggy wind-up model, and he all but hit the ceiling, thundering at her, gesturing, swearing. But she had remained impassive, turning aside his rage with her calm smile. Then, savagely, he had switched her off, as one might extinguish a glaring light. How frozen she had stood! How instantly drained of personality and movement!
In that moment, facing her perfect, motionless body, he experienced a recurrent sense of guilt which invariably accompanied such action, as though he had taken a life, had murdered. Damning his own weakness he had left her there, smiling, in the silent room.
"Daddy, Daddy, Daddy," squealed Timmy after he was activated. "Hooray, hooray, itís Picnic Day! Hooray, hooray, itís Picnic Day!"
"Hooray, hooray," Rice repeated without enthusiasm, envisioning a hectic afternoon of child-noise and forced amusement.
"Now, quiet down. Your fatherís not feeling well," Margaret cautioned from the hall as Timmy zoomed and swooshed about the house playing Rocket.
Little Susanís enthusiasm matched that of her mechanical brother. She hopped around the living-room, circling Rice, screaming out her delight in a voice that pierced his head like a driven needle.
"For the love of heaven, STOP!" he shouted at the whirling children, "or Iíll switch you both off!"
Under his stern threat they quieted. Margaret returned with Skipper. The dog had run down the previous evening chasing the electronic cat next door. He scampered rustily across the floor, high falsetto bark betraying the damaging effect of morning precipitation.
"Good ole Skip... You need some oil, fella," Rice told him, tickling his ears. "Have you fixed in a jiff. Timmy, get the oilcan from the shelf."
Rice was in the act of administering the proper lubricant when Jackie emerged from the hallway, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
"Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. Morning everybody." He yawned.
"Hi, scout," Rice greeted him, roughing his already thoroughly tussled hair. "Have a good rest?"
"Sure. Hey, this is Picnic-Day isnít it? When are we leaving?"
"Soon as little sleepy-heads like you get out of their pajamas and into some breakfast." He playfully swatted Jackieís bottom. "Now git."
Margaret took the boyís hand. "Come on, dear. I have breakfast on the table." And over her shoulder to Rice: "I do think we should get an early start."
Susan and Timmy bounded into the yard with Skipper, leaving Rice alone with his thoughts.
He said, Hi Mom, first, before Hi Dad. And the look in his eyes when she took his hand! Jackie is too young to see Margaret as I see her; he canít realize that she can never really love him as he loves her. The longer sheís here the harder it will be.
The bullet-car flowed soundlessly over the highway, blurring the trees, rushing the houses past, but to Rice the speed was illusion, stage trickery. His impatient mind, reaching for the moment when he would be alone with Margaret and able to tell her what he must tell her, changed minutes to hours. Head back against the seat, eyes closed, he imagined the car in lazy slow-motion, wheels barely turning, each blade of roadside grass available and separate to the eye if one chose to look.
The ride to the picnic ground seemed endless.
"Iím bushed," he said to Margaret after the car had parked itself. "Letís skip the games today and just relax in the shade."
"But, Ted, the children..."
"... can play without us. I have something to say to you, something important."
She hesitated, watching the activity on the playing courts. The children, three elves in their picnic-jumpers, fidgeted, desperately anxious to join the games, their eyes darting like imprisoned minnows in small white pools.
"In order to be enjoyed to the fullest the games require family participation."
"Young and old, Ted. The games..."
"To hell with the games!" He snapped. "Are you going to listen to what I have to say or not?"
"Of course, darling. If you really want to talk..." She smiled, pressed his hand. "The children can join the Hartleys." She pointed across the wide picnic lawn to a group of rioting players engaged in a vigorous game of Magna-Ball.
"Run along you three. And be careful."
"Wheeeeeeeee!" pealed little Susan, and hands linked in a daisy-chain, the happily released trio sprang toward the courts.
"If weíre going to talk we can at least be comfortable," Margaret said, unpacking a blanket and spreading it over the prickling grass.
Every gesture perfect, thought Rice, watching her hands, every movement graceful and sure. Sheís so alive, so amazingly human, possessing such vibrancy and warmth, artificially created of wire and circuit and cog. Certainly Jackie has come to love her. Sheís good and kind and smiles a great deal. These things matter to Jackie. The fact that she isnít human does not matter. Not at all. The situation, therefore, is grave.
"What are you thinking about, Ted?" Her blue eyes were steady on his.
"About you. About how beautiful you are." He plucked a single dandelion from the grass and held its orange-gold face, like a miniature sun, in the cupped palm of his hand. "This is a weed masquerading as a flower. Beautiful, possessing many virtues, but actually a weed which must be removed before its deep tap root smothers the surrounding grass. Unless it is, there will eventually be room only for the dandelion."
"What has all this..."
"Youíre like the dandelion, Margaret. Youíre smothering Jackieís love. He has grown to love you far more than he does me. Up to now Iíve been just a visiting relative who comes home from some distant place to spend Christmas and summer vacations with you. When he was younger he cried whenever I shut you off, as though I had beaten him. Even now he watches me lose my temper, swear, bang the furniture, and I see him looking at me, and I know heís comparing us, weighing us. He scales are in your favor. Iím home to stay now, and as long as youíre here heíll always be comparing. I canít, I wonít, compete with a mechanical for my sonís affection!"
She sucked in her breath, sharply. He could see that his words had struck with the force of hurled stones.
"Have you thought this all out, Ted? Isnít there some other way?" She was actually trembling.
"You know how much I love you."
"You only think you love me, Margaret. What you mistake for love is only conditioning. Receptors can be re-fed, patterned responses erased, new ones substituted. At Central Exchange theyíll alter you, Margaret. Youíll never know I existed.
"Ted, you canít!"
"Thereís no other way."
A silence between them.
Despite himself, Rice again experienced a twinge of guilt. Perhaps he had broken the news in too ruthless a fashion, but it was imperative that she understand his position, and he had considered it impossible to pierce her shell of calm. That she would be visibly shaken by his words, was totally unexpected. Of course, he reasoned, no mechanical likes the idea of complete re-orientation. On these grounds her behavior seemed less surprising. But still...
"Why have you told me all this?" she asked him. "Why didnít you turn me in suddenly, without my knowing in advance? Iíd have preferred that." Her hands moved nervously on her skirt, toyed with the locket at her neck, now touched at her hair like two restless birds unable to fly away from her body.
"Because I need your help. Jackie musnít know the truth... Not now. Later, when heís older, better able to evaluate facts for himself, heíll understand. Iíll tell him something about your having to go on a long trip for reasons of health. Heíll believe me if youíll back me up. Will you?"
"If thatís what you want," she replied softly, head down, her fingers turning and turning the dandelion he had discarded. "Iíll do anything you want, Ted... because I love you."
"Timmy and Susan can stay with Jackie for awhile," he hurried on, "to make your leaving easier for him. In time, heíll adjust."
"Yes... heíll adjust."
The drowsy rustle of leaves in summer air. The distant hum of voices from the playing courts.
"Well, then itís settled."
"All settled. Youíd better call the children in for lunch."
After lunch, Rice gamboled in the scented grass with the whooping children, imitating, to their vast delight, a bear, a gorilla, a whale, a jet train, and a moon rocket. He ran races with them and organized a rodeo, in which he doubled in a brass as a fiercely snorting brahma bull and a bucking bronc.
On the way home they sang folk songs and watched the sun go down over the ocean. The day, everyone agreed, had been a huge success.
But, that night, Rice could not sleep.
The headboard whispered, "Three, A.M., sir," when he questioned the hour. He lay on his back, hands laced behind his head, staring into the ghost darkness of the room. In the moon-painted sky a copter whirred past like a giant night insect seeking distant city lights, and Rice thought of Virginia. In past weeks he had been finding it remarkably difficult to remember many of the things about her that he wished to remember; time had hidden her image as a coin is hidden in deep waters.
The drone of the copter faded into Margaretís quiet breathing from the bed beside his, and now her face drifted into his mind, superimposed over the dim reflection of Virginia. He saw, in infinite detail, each curling black hair of her down-swept lashes, long and trembling against the rose of her cheek. He saw her quivering lips form words, four startling words of the afternoon: "... because I love you."
Impossible, that a mechanical could love as Virginia had loved; that a being of metal and glass, of wires however cunningly woven could fathom and experience such deeply genuine emotion.
Yet, it was inconceivable, Rice wondered in the pressing darkness, that somehow an unknown process had taken place in Margaret, that far back in the green cave of her brain, among the delicate spider webbing of silver wires and hidden circuitings, an emotion had come into being above and beyond that of the purely mechanical?
Rice re-lived his initial shock of the afternoon, when, in direct vocal assault, he had unexpectedly found a chink in her armor, when he had all but moved her to tears -- ridiculous in itself, for a mechanical, lacking both inclination and tear-ducts, cannot cry! But now, despite his earlier rationalization of her strange behavior, he was puzzled, vaguely disturbed.
At seven, a robinís sweet song awoke him. He felt a breath of air against his closed eyes from the passing flutter of small wings. Burying his head deeper in the snow-soft pillow he tried to ignore the insistent twitterings. However, he knew the damn thing would begin a banshee shrieking if he didnít get out of bed. Irritably he staggered into his slippers, and the robin settled with feathered grace upon his outstretched hand. Rice flipped the body-switch and placed the immobilized Alarm-bird on the night stand.
He dressed before waking Margaret.
"Iíve had breakfast." He lied to her when she asked. Today he wasnít hungry.
She nibbled toast and drank orange juice in silence. He avoided her eyes, finding inconsequential kitchen duties to occupy his hands while she ate. After half finishing her food she said, her voice very distinct in the morning room, "I guess itís that time."
"Early yet," he said, not meeting her eyes. "No hurry at all."
"They open the doors at eight-thirty. We can set the car for a slow drive."
"Did you... tell the children good-bye?" he asked.
"Last night. We wonít need to wake them. Theyíll be fine until you get back." She put on black gloves, carefully fitting each finger, pulling them tight.
"Margaret, Iím sorry. Honest to God, Iím sorry it has to be this way."
"Donít say anything else, Ted. Just letís go."
"All right," he said. "Letís go."
A brief shower had cleansed the sky, and the morning was fresh and clear. The trees, their leaves still pendant with rain jewels, glittered in the warming sunlight.
Through the open car window Rice inhaled the rich after-scent of rain, and sighed. He wished it had not turned out to be such a damned fine day. The sky outside should have been gray, the trees stark and cold, like mourners along the street as they drove along in a one-vehicle funeral procession.
He tried to think of something to say to Margaret as the car bore them steadily through the crystal morning toward the massive white stone building which housed Central Exchange. He tried to think of words which would not sound wrong the moment they were uttered, as all of his words had sounded of late. But he found none and remained silent.
It was she who turned out to him in the moving car and spoke first. "Ted, what are you doing?" Her voice was strange.
"Doing?" he echoed, facing her.
"To me, to Jackie, to yourself."
"Margaret, youíre not going to question me now? Weíve gone all over his, the reasons for my decision, the factors involved. Surely you must realize--"
"Damn your reasons!" she exploded, eyes blazing at him, gloved hands clenched. "Are they fair? Do they take my feelings into consideration? Do they, Ted? Answer me! Do they?"
He couldnít answer her. A door was opening somewhere deep inside him and light was miraculously flooding in to illuminate a room he had never allowed himself to enter. He was blind, and her words were sight.
"Iím a mechanical, isnít that the answer, Ted? A bloodless machine that can be switched off at will, ignored, cursed, shouted at and destroyed, a creature without emotion, without feeling. Well, youíre wrong, Ted. So very wrong. Men built me, gave me human impulses, human desires, put into me a part of themselves, part of their own humanity. I feel hunger and thirst and cold and pain. But more, Ted! I feel a human hunger, a human thirst, a desire to be respected for myself, as an individual, as I respect others, a desire to be loved as I love others. Canít you see how wrong youíve been? Iíve held all of these things within because I was taught enduring humility and consummate patience by those who fashioned me. I was taught to behave rationally and calmly, to accept, to always accept and never question or rebel. But now itís ended and Iíve lost... Youíve rejected me, Ted, and I wasnít prepared for this... I canít accept this, but I donít know how to fight.... I only know I must and I donít know how..."
Her lips were trembling, her whole body swaying in the tide of released rage and sorrow.
"Lord, Lord, Margaret...." He placed a gentle hand beneath her chin and lifted her bowed head slowly. "Youíre crying!"
But of course there were no tears.
Rice stopped the car and took her, trembling, into his arms, saying her name over and over, quietly, trembling himself, and softly, tenderly, he kissed her.
Then , setting the controls at manual, he turned the car around and
with one arm holding her close on the seat beside him he drove carefully
home through the warm summer streets, knowing that never again, never ever
again in all the years to come, would he switch her off.