“HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM.”
Margi’s heart hammered as she uttered the words she hoped she’d never have to use……
When Fred had come into her life three months earlier, he’d brought with him joy and a sense of purpose only a pet can bring. There was a reason to get up in the morning. He had released Margi from the loneliness that had haunted her after losing Bruno, her beloved dachshund a few months earlier.
Margie was determined to get it right when it came to looking after “Fred.” Mindful of the fact he wasn’t an ordinary dog, she knew she’d be fine as long as she didn’t get dementia or some other debilitating disease. She might not be as agile as she once was, but she was good at crosswords and puzzles. Apart from forgetting the odd thing, which could easily happen to someone younger, her mind functioned well. According to her daughter Jenny, she was as “sharp as a box of tricks.”
Even so, she’d signed a contract permitting a well-known robotic company to keep an eye out for any signs of mental deterioration. She’d agreed to be the subject of a trial on how an ‘older person’ would respond to the latest state of the art robot pet. Margi was allowed to have a Robodog on the condition she regularly turned on the camera and listening devices. Although it wasn’t encouraged, she could turn off the camera, but unlimited access to his listening devices was a given. That way, her interactions and progress could be closely monitored.
The journey into acquiring “Fred” had not been easy for a fiercely private person. It had involved numerous assessments and a high level of trust. While she had passed the assessments with flying colours, the trusting part proved more difficult. Naturally suspicious of people’s motives, Margi had always found it easier to connect with animals, especially dogs. Her decision to recreate a prototype of her beloved Bruno had been driven by the most powerful emotions: love of her pet and fear of being alone.
When her daughter had moved to Australia, the fear of being alone had notched up.
Margi was cuddled up with her dog Bruno when she came across the article about a high-tech company that were promoting a model robot dog that was based on the one you already had, but was not subject to infirmities. Or, when it came to it: death. That basic design flaw in both humans and animals did not exist here. Unless, by some quirk, you wanted to keep it in. That could be arranged too. Hardly able to believe what she was reading, she excitedly face-timed her daughter.
“What do you think Jenny? Shall I look into it?”
Jenny, who felt guilty about being so far away from her mother, considered all the options.
“Bruno’s getting frail. I don’t know what I’ll do when he goes. It would finish me off,” Margi wailed. She was not above exaggerating Bruno’s physical problems, but her fear of being isolated was real enough.
“You know you can always move over here, if you want,” Jenny offered.
“I wouldn’t want to get in the way, Jenny.” It was a veiled reference to the fact she and Jenny’s husband had never hit it off. “Anyway, you know I’m terrified of flying.”
Mother and daughter had often had this conversation and it always ended in the same impasse.
“Let me look into it, mum. I’ll get back to you when I find out more,” Jenny promised. “Don’t forget I’m coming to see you soon. We can discuss it more fully then.”
True to her word, Jenny researched the company and found it had a reputation for excellent service. Once Margi felt safe, the quest for her new ‘pet’ began in earnest.
Handing over her beloved dachshund to lab technicians was stressful. Even if it was only for a week. A security man had escorted Margi to a pleasant reception area featuring an enormous marine tank. She sat on a plush sofa nervously sipping coffee while light classical music played through unseen speakers.
The man in charge of the project was called Steve. “Nice to meet you,” he said shaking Margi’s hand with a warm clasp. His eyes were kind as he smiled at her. Bruno whimpered pitifully in his basket and she had a lump in her throat when she handed him over, complete with his favourite playthings and bowl.
“He will be unhappy if hasn’t got those,” she explained. “Please, please take care of him, whatever you do. He’s not used to being away from me. It was bad enough taking him to get his teeth done. I don’t want him to suffer pain.”
With a trembling Bruno gazing at her through the gaps in his basket, Margi almost had second thoughts. She hoped she was doing the right thing.
“Don’t worry we’ll treat him well. There won’t be any pain,” Steve promised.
With Bruno gone, the house ached with his absence. When Margi wasn’t distractedly cleaning every nook and cranny, she spent sleepless nights agonising over her decision. The future seemed rosy, but she wondered whether she should have researched more into the procedures the company used.
But then, perhaps it was best not to know too much.
On the morning of her dog’s return, she rang the tech company. A receptionist informed her that everything had gone well and Bruno was ready for collection later that day. It wasn’t entirely true that he’d experienced no pain, but it had been minimal. Blood and DNA samples had been taken and he’d been tranquillised while the team worked on him. Amongst other things, his brain had been scanned and he was photographed from every angle.
Other than being slightly subdued, when she picked him up, there were no obvious signs of suffering. Bruno eagerly licked her face and they made their way home in a taxi.
Several years later, after enduring the heartbreak of losing Bruno to heart disease, Margi was ready to take the next step.
When the door-bell rang, her heart raced in anticipation.
She was reassured to find it was Steve, the man who’d been with her throughout her Robodog journey, on the other side of the door. He’d recently grown a beard and got married, though not necessarily in that order. Most importantly, he was carrying a basket.
“Well, here we are again.” He gently opened the basket door where a little creature was whimpering inside. “He’s all set up,” Steve said, as the creature scampered out.
On the outside, the dog was an exact replica of Bruno. It had the same black fur, soft velvety ears and light brown muzzle. Margi was impressed by the eyes which were lively, yet mournful. Tears of joy rolled down her face as she held out her arms. The dog which felt soft and warm, immediately relaxed into her arms, resting its head against her shoulder, and repeatedly licking her face. The tongue had the texture and wetness of a real dog’s tongue.
“Thank you so much, Steve. You don’t know what this means.”
Steve smiled. “You know, making people happy is the best part of it. A good job’s been done of making him like your old dog, hasn’t it?”
“Bruno? Yes. It’s incredible. It looks like he’s going to settle in easily, too.”
“Good. That’s what we want. But don’t forget that while he’s an amazing product of AI, he’s not an actual dog. Although he’s programmed to behave like a dog, he’s been created under lab conditions. He has the same DNA as your dog in terms of skin, but there are also features unique to him. The chip in his neural processor which makes up his artificial brain makes him more compliant than most dogs, less likely to react to things typical of his breed. We’ve tried to iron out the less desirable traits.”
“You mean I won’t have to put up with half my garden being dug up while he goes on the hunt for small animals. My plant tubs will be left in peace.”
Steve laughed. “Hopefully not. He should be pretty docile.”
Margi remembered the close shaves delivery workers had experienced when Bruno had been less than welcoming. Especially if they were men.
“My old dog used to like snapping at the heels of postal workers. He could get quite aggressive for a small dog. Is that likely to be a problem here?”
“It’s unlikely to be a problem,” Steve said reassuringly. “The chip overrides any aggressive instinct. But make sure you read the instructions thoroughly and don’t hesitate to get in contact if you have any problems.”
“Will he be alright round other dogs?”
“There shouldn’t be a problem there. We’ve tested him. Actually, other dogs don’t seem all that interested after the first sniff.” Steve laughed. “You won’t have anything to worry about when it comes to chasing female dogs, or humping stranger’s legs. Also incessant barking is unlikely. If he barks, it will be in a limited way. The program for more concerted barking can be reset if it would make you feel safer. He’s been properly house-trained too, of course. Although he will need to to pee and poop if you decide to actually feed him, we’ve fixed a device to deal with that if you’d rather he didn’t do it the natural way. It’ll certainly be less messy.”
But Margi shook her head firmly. “A bit of poop won’t kill me. I want him to live as normal a life as possible. I intend to take him for regular walks. Let him enjoy running through parks and fetching a ball. It will be good exercise for us both.”
“I understand. Have you decided what you are going to call him yet?”
“I had planned on calling him Bruno, seeing he’s so much like my old dog. But now I think I’m going to call him Fred. After my husband. He had big brown eyes that pulled at my heartstrings too.”
“Excellent choice of name,” Steve said. “Now, before I go, are you happy about charging him up every night when you sleep?”
“Yes, I’ve got two charger beds set up already. That way he has a choice.”
“Just make sure you report any problems. Let us know if there’s anything out of the ordinary with his behaviour.”
“You remember the code words, right?”
“Yes. I’ve memorised them. I only hope I never have to use them.”
“It’s unlikely. But if you do, someone will be sent to help you. We have your spare key.”
When Steve left, Margi gently put Fred down and watched his dainty feet pitter-patter across her wooden floor. In the kitchen, he stopped to investigate Bruno’s old basket. After thoroughly sniffing it, he stepped inside as if it belonged to him.
“Ah, you look very cosy,” Margi said, gently covering him with Bruno’s old blanket. The dog yawned and closed his eyes. He had been designed to open them if Margi said the words “Time to wake up.” His breathing was slow and regular. Inside his body, electrical activity was slow and rhythmic. To all intents and purposes, he was asleep.
The next day, Margi got a chance to test out Fred’s placidity when there was a knock at the door. Fred cocked his ears and waited. In the past, the house would have been flooded by Bruno’s noisy barking, as she strained to keep him under control.
“Well done Fred,” she said, relieved when he failed snap the postman’s heels as a parcel was handed over.
Later, when she told Fred they were going for a walk, he wagged his tail enthusiastically, but there was no wild barking. Just like Bruno, he enjoyed raking through leaves, sniffing grass, cocking his leg against trees, and delicately avoiding puddles. They passed various dogs, but other than a brief sniff, there were no dramatics. If anything, real life dogs left the scene a little confused.
One night, Margi woke up to find Fred growling in his basket on her bedroom floor. It was the first time she’d ever heard him do that.
“What’s the matter Fred?”
Her heart thudded as Fred’s growling grew more insistent. When she bent to pick him up, his body was uncharacteristically tense. “What is it? Can you hear something I can’t?” Quietly opening her bedroom door, Fred was out like a shot.
Breaking into a cold sweat, Margi unplugged her mobile and tiptoed downstairs. She had the fright of her life when she discovered two men in hoodies and jeans ransacking her living room! Fred was barking furiously.
“What are you doing?” she cried.
“Keep out the way and shut that dog up.” the taller one snarled. He pointed a knife at her and she cringed against the wall.
Suddenly, Fred’s eyes flashed red and his tail twisted in a way she’d never seen before. In a move that was both robotic and doglike, the mouth snapped open baring a set of sparking teeth. Before she knew it, an electric current bolted into the taller man’s legs. He instantly dropped the knife which skidded along the floor.
“Arg. Help me,” he shouted to his accomplice.
As the other man bent to grab the knife, electricity shot through his leg.
He fell to the floor, recoiling as his leg spasmed.
“Get your dog to stop,” he begged Margi.
“You shouldn’t have broken into my house. The robot is only trying to protect me.” It was the first time she’d thought of Fred that way. She was becoming alarmed. Fred had cast aside all attributes of a pet dog as he stood poised for further action.
“Fred! That’s enough now.”
But Fred’s eyes continued to flash red. By the time he’d finished, both men were blubbering wrecks.
Margi’s initial relief that the intruders had been immobilised had crystallised into fear. She did not want to be left with two dead bodies. Fred’s eyes were still flashing. With trembling hands, she scrambled for the mobile in her pocket. As an emergency measure, it had been set up so the code words would be immediately picked up:
“Houston, we have a problem.”
Unexpectedly, Fred shut down. Unbeknownst to Margi, the dog was responding to a signal that had been hardwired into one of his circuits. Margi was on her own here.
One of the men raised his head slightly. Margi picked up the knife and pointed it at him.
“If you move, I’ll use this.”
The man didn’t need telling twice.
Nigel from the Public Relations side of the Robotech company, was Steve’s superior. He had brought a bouquet of flowers. Margi placed them in the sink where they remained unopened. Nigel was smoothly apologetic as he sipped a cappuccino in Margi’s lounge. The company had paid for a new rug and the costs of tidying up after “the incident.” Beside him, Steve shifted uncomfortably.
“Nothing makes up for losing Fred. I thought I was set up for life,” Margi said sadly….
“We feel we owe you an explanation,” Nigel said. “Unfortunately, there was a glitch in that particular model’s programming. Amongst other things, we discovered a rogue chip had been added to his circuitry and we’re currently investigating the matter. As soon as we’ve resolved the problem, we’ll happily replace you with another. Free of charge, of course.”
“But I don’t want another robodog. I paid a lot of money for that one. He was designed to be like Bruno.”
“We still have your original dog’s DNA samples. We have multi-dimensional images and brain scans, I believe. It would take time, but we could produce a similar type. If you’re willing to wait.”
“I don’t know,” Margi said. “It’s been so upsetting.”
“We just want to make amends for your loss. Can you think of any other way we can help? Maybe you could try a robocat?”
“I’m not a fan of cats,” Margi said. She didn’t like being pressured like this. “I’m sure it will become clear after I’ve spoken to my daughter.”
Mother and daughter spoke at length later that evening.
“I don’t know what to do, Jenny. What do you think?”
“Isn’t it obvious, mum?”
“Not to me.”
Then it slowly dawned on Margi. It was so obvious, she couldn’t see why she hadn’t seen it before. The cloud that had been dogging her since Fred had been taken away lifted and the sun beckoned.
SHE WAS GOING TO GET ANOTHER DOG!! A real one this time. One that was messy and unpredictable, one that barked loudly at the slightest thing, one that might just snap at a postal worker’s heels.
If she was unlucky.