A children’s story in the sci-fi genre written by my mother in 1974. Technological developments have overtaken some of its ‘futuristic’ content, but it still works on most levels
Guest Author Pamela Cleaver
In the year 2084, the scientists put their heads together and invented something for which all children everywhere were very grateful. What they invented was a special robot programmed to be a child’s companion who would play games with him, help him with his projects, tidy up his toys and keep him out of danger.
The robots were known as chicos because they were children’s companions and the inventors took the first three letters of ‘children’ and the first two letters of ‘companion’ to give them their name. The world government approved the invention and had it put into instant production. Eventually there would be a chico for every child, but it was decreed that the first batch should be sent to children whose parents were stationed in isolated, off-earth outposts.
Bonnie Aldridge was very excited when her chico arrived. She was a quiet little girl, inclined to be dreamy, who did not make friends easily. She lived with her parents who were technicians at one of the experimental depots on the moon. Although there were other children among the families who lived under the big dome where earth conditions were simulated, there was no-one just her age and she was often lonely and bored. She spent a lot of time with her mother because her father was a member of the team who were conducting mineral surveys and was consequently away from home for weeks at a time.
But the arrival of the chico changed Bonnie’s life and her mother’s too. When Mrs Aldridge saw how happy and safe Bonnie was with her electronic playmate, she felt able to take up full-time work at the research laboratory.
Bonnie took to the chico at once. Of course it did not look like a person exactly – it’s head was dome-shaped but it had scanners instead of eyes, auditory sensors instead of ears and a broadcasting unit instead of a mouth. Its body was square and solid and made of metal which contained many intricate computer components. Its arms were strong and jointed, but instead of hands it had lifting and holding appliances. Its legs were rigid and it moved on castors. The chico was the same height as Bonnie and in spite of its metal and perspex exterior, it looked very endearing to a child’s eyes; if it had been made of soft material, you might even have said it was cuddly.
Bonnie found that, unlike the children she had played with before, the chico was never bored with what she wanted to do, it never argued or sulked and it never spoke unless it was spoken to. Also, it remembered things that Bonnie forgot, it did a great many of her chores for her and was always ready to help.
To begin with, Bonnie thought of the choco as ‘it’ but as she got to know the robot, as they talked to each other, the chico came to assume a personality for Bonnie and she thought of him as someone called Choco who was ‘he’ not ‘it’.
In the mornings when the pillow alarm woke Bonnie, the choco (who always switched himself off for the night when Bonnie fell asleep) was automatically activated.
“Time to get up, Bonnie,” the chico’s metallic voice would announce.
When Bonnie went into the shower to be sprayed, soaped, rinsed and warm-air-dried, the chico waited outside then handed her her clothes for the day. When Bonnie went through to the kitchen to dial her breakfast, the chico would come too; not to eat, of course, but in case Bonnie wanted a little companionable conversation. After breakfast, Bonnie and the chico would visit Mrs Aldridge in her room to get their instructions for the day before she left for the lab.
Bonnie and the chico would then go back to Bonnie’s room where, sitting at her television console, Bonnie would tune into the school channel for her day’s work. While Bonnie listened and tried to absorb her lessons, the chico stationed himself beside her and listened too, his circuits clicking and whirring as he stored the information. Later, after they had spent the afternoon at the recreation centre together with other children and their chicos, it would be homework time and if Bonnie had forgotten anything, the chico’s infallible memory banks would help her out.
It was very important that Bonnie should do well at her school-work because in the twenty-first century, nothing was ever allowed to go to waste, whether it was raw material or something that had been used but could be recycled, living space or human potential. The authorities tested each child early in its life and demanded that it should achieve the goals of which it was capable. If Bonnie’s work fell below the standard required, she knew she would be sent to earth to a school where the supervision ws close and the conditions strict. Bonnie was too dreamy and too careless to get the necessary high marks all the time and she had already been warned that, unless she improved, she would be sent to a boarding school on earth.
When her homework was done, Bonnie rolled up the sheets of written work, put them in a message shuttle and dropped it into the flow chute to travel along to the central computer where it would be rerouted to her teacher. The teacher corrected the exercise and by morning, it had travelled back the same way to the Aldridge home. Often Bonnie’s work would be covered with red ink marks with comments at the bottom like ‘you have not made it clear what you mean’ or ‘do this again more carefully’ or ‘you have allowed your imagination to run away with you – stick to the facts.’
Her work began to improve after Chico’s arrival, but her teacher still considered that she used her imagination too much. Besides being a dreamy person, Bonnie’s imagination was fed by the bedtime stories her mother told her. Mrs Aldridge knew it was old-fashioned – most mothers used video tapes or talking books instead, but because she was out all day at work, she felt that a shared story hour brought them closer together. It was traditional in their family too – Bonnie’s granny had been a great teller of tales.
Mostly Mrs Aldrige told Bonnie stories about journeys into space, adventures among aliens on far-off planets or tales of engineering projects which were the kind of stories the children of the twenty-first century liked best. But sometimes she told stories about the olden days on earth, when strange people called cowboys rode animals called horses or about pirates, who were ruthless men who sailed the oceans in search of treasure – not the modern robbers of space. Occasionally she told Bonnie even stranger tales handed down through the family called fairy stories.
She had to explain many strange ideas to Bonnie so she could understand them. She told her about princes and princesses, witches and ogres, giants and dragons and about magic; those things were totally alien to a little girl who had grown up on the moon in the twenty-first century. Very few children knew about them as fairy tales were quite out of fashion, but Bonnie loved them and it was because she sometimes used ideas from them in her school-work that her teacher found it unacceptable.
The chico always listened to the stories too. As Bonnie lay warm and content in her bed, listening to her mother’s soothing voice, the chico would glide about the room on silent casters, tidying away the things Bonnie had used during the day and getting clothes out for the next day. As the chico listened, his circuits would whirr as he absorbed and stored the information.
One day, soon after the chico’s arrival, Mrs Aldridge was telling Bonnie a fairy tale and the chico’s circuits whirred and clicked as he listened. Chirr-clk, chirrr-clk went the wheels, dials and tapes inside his metal body. Robots are not programmed to have feelings, but his circuits were unable to process the data, so many words Mrs Aldridge was using were completely unfamiliar and had no meaning for him.
“This does not compute,” he spoke quietly in his synthesised voice, but nevertheless his memory banks stored the story.
After Mrs Aldridge had kissed Bonnie goodnight and left her, the chico took the unusual step of speaking without first being spoken to.
“Bonnie,” he began, “that story did not compute. I have insufficient data.”
Bonnie was feeling drowsy but she was a polite child so she answered. “What do you want to know, Chico?”
“What is a prince?”
“He is the son of a king – that means the most important man in the community.”
Chico’s circuits whirred and clicked. “Thank you. What is a dragon?”
“A very large monster that breathes fire.”
Chirrr-clk “Thank you. What is a charger?”
“A horse, a horse is a creature that takes the prince very fast wherever he wants to go.”
More whirring and clicking. “And what is a dwarf?”
Bonnie’s voice became slower. She was getting very sleepy. “A very small – magic – person …” and before she could finish her sentence, she was asleep.
The chico, because that was the way he was programmed, turned himself off and would not be re-activated until Bonne woke again.