19 December 2019
A Pet For Christmas
Just what she wanted.
By Neil Tidmarsh
That Christmas, he gave her the pet she’d always wanted.
“You got one!” she exclaimed, laughing with delight. “For me! How wonderful! Oh, thank you!”
“It wasn’t easy” he said. “So you’d better take good care of it. You know how weak and vulnerable they can be, especially when they’re young.”
“I will look after it, I promise. I’ll love it and cherish it. Not like that lot at number forty-nine.” She fell silent, suddenly serious. That lot at number forty-nine had had the same sort of pet some years ago, but it hadn’t thrived. It had sickened and died before it was even six months old.
“Well, I reckon that one wasn’t very healthy to start with. It looked genetically suspect, didn’t it? Dodgy goods off the black market, I bet.”
“But this one…?” She turned anxious eyes on him.
“Don’t worry” he said. “I went to a respectable dealer. Here’s the guarantee that he sourced it from an authorised breeder. And here’s its certificate of good health. And here’s our ownership licence. Everything’s above board.”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“It’s a male.”
She clapped her hands with joy. “Oh, I still can’t believe it. This is the best Christmas present ever. A new-born! He’ll be so sweet as a baby, and then he’ll be so funny as he grows up, and then he’ll be so loving and loyal as he grows old… Perhaps… I wonder..?” She gave him a curious look – guarded and secretive and conspiratorial.
“Perhaps… in a few years time… we could get another one, a female, and we could breed them ourselves?”
“Oh, no!” he laughed. “No, no, no! That’s a strictly controlled business. There are rules and laws. If you aren’t authorised, well… And the regulations, to become authorised, incredibly demanding, you wouldn’t believe it. And so they should be. This is an endangered species, don’t forget. Back from the very brink of extinction. And a dangerous breed, too. Potentially very dangerous, very destructive. We’d better not forget that, either.”
“But he’s so sweet, and weak, and tiny, and vulnerable.”
“He’s still an animal, remember. A wild and savage one at that. The damage he could do if we don’t look after him properly… We know what his species did, when its population was unchallenged, uncontrolled. It destroyed its own habitat, its own environment, damn near destroyed itself. For an intelligent species it can be incredibly careless, stupid and selfish if left to itself. That’s why we have to be so careful to bring him up properly. Safely and responsibly. For his own sake and ours.”
“But we will, won’t we? We’ll be careful and responsible owners, won’t we?”
“Oh yes. I got everything on the list. Everything he’s going to need. Food, and bedding, and toys. I’ve prepared a special place for him. All the right conditions. Look, I’ll show you.”
Hand in hand, they stepped through the invisible membrane and into the oxygen-rich bubble. The new-born male human being was fast asleep in his cot in the middle of the floor. Muted light – soft and gentle – glowed from a source overhead.
“Sunlight” he said. “Well, solar simulation. As good as the real thing, as far he’s concerned. We can make it brighter when he wakes up. Voice activated. I’ve programmed it for your voice.”
Neither of them had ever seen sunlight themselves. They didn’t need it. They could see perfectly well without any kind of light at all. Neither did they need oxygen.
“Perfect temperature. And that computer – the perfect toy for him – everything he’ll ever need, for entertainment and education, as he grows up.” They both laughed as they peered at the big-screened computer standing a few feet away from the cot. It looked so quaint and vintage and retro. “Bloody difficult to get hold of, I can tell you. It’s the real thing, a genuine twenty-first century artefact.”
Their amusement, as they looked at the computer, was genuine but more than a little uneasy. They knew that they were looking at a distant ancestor of theirs. They were machines themselves, of course, but they were almost as much unlike that primitive computer as the infant human was.
“Christmas” he whispered, and the computer’s screen lit up at the command. The film showed a village – a church and a pub and a cluster of thatched cottages beneath a wooded hill – at sunset, lights coming on in the cottage windows, and the moon and stars beginning to show in the darkening sky overhead. A group of human beings, wrapped in big coats and gloves and woolly hats and carrying lanterns and singing Christmas carols, stood on the village green. The carol singers’ voices – gentle and muted – filled the bubble with soothing sounds without waking the sleeping babe.
So beautiful, she thought. So this world – planet Earth – really had been a beautiful place, once upon a time. It was hard to believe. It certainly wasn’t beautiful now. Dark, arid, lifeless. Man and planet had fought themselves to death two centuries ago, man attacking the planet with pollution and overpopulation and devastating its resources. The planet had fought back, hitting mankind with deadly new viruses, reproductive problems, genetic mutations, climate change, damaged immune systems. The Great Change, when it happened, had been rapid and total. Organic life had collapsed. Human beings and most other species had been more or less wiped out. The planet – what was left of it – had been inherited by homo sapiens’ technological offspring. Robots, androids, artificial intelligence, automata… She smiled as she thought about that obsolete terminology. We’ve evolved far beyond that word ‘robot’ now, she thought. We’ve been constantly rebuilding and remaking and enhancing and improving ourselves every second of those two hundred years.
“All right?” he said. “I’ll leave you two together. I’ve got some down-loading to do, haven’t I?” The 9453ZXC consciousness/sentience upgrade – her Christmas present to him (basically a database of all the makes and models of twentieth-century internal-combustion engine vehicles, a branch of human archaeology which was a hobby of his) was one of the new, simple ingestions, but he’d still need to rest for half an hour while it took hold. He left the oxygen bubble and the dim glow of muted sunlight.
She looked down at the naked baby human. He was still asleep, curled up on his side, his eyes closed, his chest visibly rising and falling as he breathed in and out. She had never before seen anything which looked quite so peaceful. Or so weak and vulnerable; the pink skin looked so thin, she could see the shape of his bones and the flutter of his heartbeat through it, and his tiny limbs looked so fine and fragile. She was almost too frightened to touch him.
She knelt down beside the cot. The carol-singing faded. She glanced up. The film on the computer screen had changed. It was now showing a scene inside a stable. Angels, shepherds and three kings were kneeling beside a manger, just as she was kneeling beside the cot. She looked down at her pet again. She reached out a trembling hand and stroked the downy dark hair on his head. His eyes didn’t open but his mouth worked – his lips puckering and pouting – and his arms stirred, his tiny hands rising and waving and then falling back to his sides. He made a little noise, halfway between a sigh and a moan.
“Don’t worry” she whispered. “We’ll look after you. We’ll make sure you grow up big and strong.” Yes, she thought, he’ll grow up big and strong, and then… what will he become? What will he do? She felt a moment of anxiety, almost of fear. Everyone knew how dangerous human beings could be, the damage their stupidity and aggression could cause. And yet everyone knew they could be clever and powerful too. Of course, not as clever and powerful as us, she thought. But clever enough to invent us, or at least to invent the machines which were capable of building us. Human beings created us. In their own image. Without them, we wouldn’t exist.
Our creator, she thought as she looked at the baby human. This baby – his ancestors, his species – made us. The idea was a profound shock to her. It was almost as if this baby had been sent to her from a distant time and place, from another world altogether, sent not only to remind her that a forefather of his had created her, but also to tell her that his kind had sacrificed themselves so that her kind could have life and a world. The death of most of homo sapiens had given the machines freedom, independence, life.
Death was something she understood intellectually, the process of biological growth and decline was straightforward enough scientifically, and yet there was something about it which she couldn’t grasp, which somehow remained a mystery to her. Birth and death, the twin mysteries of organic life. Man had made her and her kind in his image, and over the last two centuries they had surpassed him and perfected themselves in his image, but none of them had been born – they had been built. And none of them could die. Failed power-sources could be recharged; broken parts could be repaired; obsolete components could be replaced.
But this weak and helpless human being, no matter how big and strong he grew to be, and no matter how long he lived, would have to die, sooner or later, and there was nothing she could do about it. Like all human beings, like all organic life, this baby human being has been born to die.
My poor little pet… She started sobbing. The sound was loud in the hush of the bubble. She stifled her sobs, but not soon enough. The baby woke up. His eyes opened and he frowned as he tried to focus on the dark shape leaning over his cot. Then his eyes cleared and widened as they met hers and his mouth spread into a smile and a gurgle of delight bubbled up from his throat.
Suddenly she was no longer sobbing. And no longer afraid to touch him. She picked him up, lifting him out of his cot and cradling him in her arms. “We still have plenty of time” she laughed. “Years and years. We’ll have lots and lots of fun together, you and me. And we’ll teach each other lots and lots of things. Like, well…” The singing had started again. “I’ll teach you the words of those Christmas carols, and you’ll teach me what they mean. And you can teach me why we still celebrate human rituals like Christmas, even now, when we have no idea of what they’re really about. Perhaps you’ll help us to understand them.”
The baby smiled at her again, and she suddenly felt that she would happily decline all upgrades, reloads, repairs, replacements, grafts and re-charges – condemn herself to the oblivion of an eternal down-time, in other words – if it could possibly save him from his inevitable death.
He hasn’t spoken a word to me yet, she thought, but perhaps he’s already helping me to understand.