This short story was originally published on richardholliday.co.uk on January 1st 2014.
by Richard Holliday
“Another cup of tea, Professor?”
The old man’s head turned slowly in the chair, the stiffness of which irritated the Professor. With a smile, Professor Jericho laughed. “No, but thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Professor. Can I make you more comfortable?”
Professor Jericho coughed hoarsely. Across the room, Aibo’s face fell to one of utmost concern, studying the movements of the Professor carefully. After a few seconds, the ill man composed himself enough to answer his… friend’s question. Could his mind be wrenched from this addled body that had aged before its time? No, of course not.
“Yes. I’d like to go to bed now,” the Professor answered finally.
“Very well, Professor.”
Aibo left the room to prepare Jericho’s sleeping quarters. It was the same every night: seven minutes to warm the bed and move it to a position most acceptable to Jericho’s frail body. Aibo was no longer just a mere servant crafted from metal and silicon; it was the Professor’s last true friend. A lifetime of human colleagues, acquaintances, friends and lovers had either left him or died in prior times. Even Jericho’s only son, whose personality and features had inexorably been fused into Aibo was long dead, in human form anyway.
Still sitting in the aged chair, Professor Jericho sighed with melancholy, as he did every time Aibo went to prepare his bed. Each day he had the same thoughts, of people long gone and who were long missed. Six decades of stellar engineering of the highest calibre and Jericho was just an old man alone in a house.
“Your bed is ready for you, Professor,” Aibo said calmly, re-entering the lounge. Jericho tried and failed to get up independently. It was a routine all too familiar; Aibo gently lifted the frail man from the chair and guided him along the corridor to the bedroom before placing him into the bed. Finally, the synthetic fibre covers wrapped the old man nice and snug.
“Goodnight, Professor Jericho.”
Jericho cracked a smile, at great effort to his disease-addled physicality. “Goodnight Aibo.”
Aibo left the room and returned to the basement. The house was quiet and dark; some rooms untouched for months, even years. Professor Jericho’s illness had robbed him of most of his independence and soon would rob him of even more – his very existence as a sentient body. Aibo’s programming gave him one purpose and, as he retracted into his charging station in the basement utility room, the robotic man was reminded of it: to maintain Professor Jericho’s life above all else. It was an extension to the First Law that Aibo saw as a duty to his creator.
Aibo entered a sleep-like state of deep hibernation, but didn’t really sleep. It didn’t need to shut down to organise the day’s thoughts and events, and its power cells could re-energise even if its central processor was active or dormant. Any human mind would quickly become bored to insanity by the sleep period Aibo went through every night, but this wasn’t to be a routine night.
A few hours passed and Aibo woke up unexpectedly, and was instantly alert. The house remained silent but Aibo’s control circuits rang out great alarm – the Professor was in trouble! The lifesign monitor has reported grave developments – a cardiac arrest being followed by acute hypoxia – a lack of oxygen to the brain caused by a loss in blood flow. Aibo ran upstairs to the very top of the house to find the Professor gasping for breath while clutching at his chest.
“Professor, please do not panic,” Aibo said in the only tone of voice it could – calmly. It had no other way of vocalising, anyway; though the remnants of the Professor’s son that made up his personality wanted to scream. “The medical patrol will be here in seven minutes.”
This was not inaccurate; the medical patrol were on their way, called automatically by the lifesign monitor in the house. This exact situation was why all this technology had been implemented.
Aibo picked the Professor up from his bed. He was cold and hardly moving, his eyes flickering between lucidity and unconsciousness. The robot carried the man swiftly downstairs to the waiting medical transport. Aibo’s timing was impeccable; this whole performance had been pre-planned to the second.
“Allow me to accompany my master to the rest centre,” Aibo asked the paramedic slowly. The medic nodded.
“Very well, robot. You’ve done well to get him this far.”
“Oh,” Aibo said, climbing up the step and sitting on the bench beside the gurney, “it’s just what I was programmed to do.”
The gurney carrying Professor Jericho buffeted through doors into the emergency room and was surrounded by a throng of medical staff.
“Clear the way! We’ve got cardiac arrest leading to loss of brain activity!” the medic from the ambulance called loudly.
Loss of brain activity… this phrase made Aibo spring into action. This was the worst possible case. “Please, stablilise him!” the robot called
The lead doctor turned for a moment. “Be still, robot. We’ll get him hooked up to the Cortex and stabilise him. I… I don’t know what else we can do right now.
Aibo seemed to relax, his shoulders lowering. Connecting the Professor to the brainwave analyser would give a window into the state of the Professor’s greatest asset: his intellect. “That would be most good, doctor.”
The medical team wheeled the Professor into a treatment bay but their faces gave away the severity and futility of the situation. Professor Jericho was soon being kept alive and conscious by machine only. Aibo came forward and looked into it’s master’s face.
“Time is short, Aibo…” Jericho said, his speech muffled by the breathing tube inserted into his trachea.
“I know what I shall do,” Aibo said quietly, looking to the Cortex assembly that was beside the bed but not plugged in. This wiry helmet fitted around the Professor’s cranium and Aibo’s hands quickly placed the contacts in the correct place about the Professor’s head. Before the robot did any more, the curtain around the entrance of the treatment room was closed to avert gazing eyes.
“You have a plan?!” Professor Jericho gasped. “I’m dying, Aibo. Leave me, and go help someone who can be saved.”
“No,” Aibo said firmly. The Professor looked on speechless as Aibo continued setting up the Cortex device. Soon Aibo turned his attention to the breathing tube. The robot studied the valve it was attached to and adjusted it. The Professor felt dizzy and drowsy, and the room began to spin.
“Remember the First Law…” he gurgled. Aibo looked across briefly.
“Professor, I have not forgotten the First Law. I have improved it. Goodnight, Professor.”
Finally, with a mass of swirling colours, Professor Jericho fell unconscious as Aibo loomed over him. He’d die now knowing what his robotic companion was doing, but it didn’t matter. At least there was no pain…
“Dad? Dad? Is… is that you?” a voice echoed from across a void. Jericho recognised this… it was his son!
“Son, is that you? Oh, I’ve not heard your voice in so long… wait…” the Professor stopped. “Is this death? Or just a cruel illusion?”
His son’s voice laughed. “Ha, it’s neither! Open your eyes!”
“I can’t, silly!” Jericho huffed, “I’m supposed to be dead!”
“Open your eyes!” his son said, his voice distorting as the syllables rang out… becoming robotic.
A second passed and Jericho opened his eyes to see the treatment room. People surrounded him, but his vision was hazy. Slowly it cleared to focus…
“Are you alright there?” the doctor asked calmly. “It’s been a few hours.”
“Wh… what happened?” the Professor spoke, but his voice was somehow different. It felt forced and synthetic. “The First Law!”
Then the Professor turned his head to see his own body, finally succumbing to the natural illnesses that had chipped away at his vitality for years. Turning back the human doctor nodded and the Professor lifted his hand to his face to inspect it.
It was metal.
“Thank you, Aibo,” the Professor cried with his new voice. Inside his head, his son spoke back.
“You’re welcome, dad.”
© Richard Holliday, 2014