There was something wrong with the robot baby. Ed could tell right away that the thing was defective. Halfway home, he turned the air car around and returned to the clinic. He strapped the wiggling baby to his chest and went back inside. The robot’s piercing screams raked at his ears. He marched into the waiting room and told that woman with the blue tufted hair behind the counter, “You forgot to show me the off switch. This thing won’t stop crying. I think it’s broken.”
Offering a bland smile, the woman replied, “Sir, there is no switch. Starter babies are an exact duplicate of real children in every way. Have you looked at the instructions?”
“I haven’t had a chance. With all this.” Ed struggled to maintain his balance as the robot shrieked and had a kicking fit. “This can’t be normal. It’s obviously malfunctioning. I want to exchange it for one that works properly. Please.”
“Let me get someone to speak with you.” The woman activated a collar mic. “We have a code pink. I repeat, code pink.”
“I don’t need to talk to anyone. It’s broken. I told you.” The robot picked this moment to spit directly into Ed’s eyes. “You see? Please. Just go back there and get me another one.” He wiped his eyes. Was this water or mechanical lubricant? He hoped there wasn’t any chance of injury. “I just want to trade it back for one that works right. Please.”
“Herb will assist you.” The woman gestured to a man whose lab coat flapped around his tall frame as he hurried down the hall.
“I’m Herb Walters.” Narrowing his eyes at the receptionist, the man asked, “We’re presently in code pink?”
Ed demanded, “What is that? Code pink? This baby is broken, can’t you see that?” As if on cue the robot wailed. “I just got it and I want an exchange.”
“Please come with me.”
Ed followed down the hallway. They went into an office. The robot squirmed and tugged at his hair. Wincing, he pried its hand away.
Walters sat behind his desk and offered Ed a chair. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Mr. Haskins, if you’re dissatisfied you can return your starter baby of course. But I’m afraid there is a waiting period of one year before we can issue you another.”
An angry heat shot through Ed. “What? That’s ridiculous. This thing is broken.” The robot shrieked and jabbed a finger into his eye. “Dammit, I insist you give me another one immediately.”
“We won’t do that. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t believe this! First, they pass that stupid law that makes us go through this trial period.” The robot squirmed. “And now you expect me to put up with this? Well, I won’t do it.”
Walters offered no sympathy whatsoever. “Entirely your choice.”
“I’ll get a lawyer! We’ll take you to court.”
“You’d be wasting your money. No judge is going to order us to make an exchange. It’s been tried before.”
The robot baby twisted its face into an angry knot and began crying again. “Please,” Ed begged. “Why are you doing this?”
“Mr. Haskins, I’m sure you’re aware that the population of the United States just passed six hundred million. This is why prospective parents are now required to go through a trial period with a starter baby. The government wants to make sure you’ve considered all the factors involved and that you’ll be capable parents.”
“I’m sure we will.”
“You’d be surprised how many couples decide not to raise a child after the trial.”
“No, I would not. Not if they’re all like this.”
The robot screamed.
“My husband, Rob, is not going to enjoy listening to that! This is unbelievable. We’re just trying to follow that stupid law,” Ed snapped.
“What?” Walters glanced at the robot baby and blinked. “You’re gay?”
“That should make no difference whatsoever.”
“You must not have put that on your paperwork. It’s optional of course. But we have no way of knowing.”
“You can’t refuse us because of that! The law says you can’t discriminate and you know it. We’re a happily married couple and — ”
Walters cut him off. “No, it’s not that.”
“Just what do you mean then?”
“I apologize, Mr. Haskins.” A flush of embarrassment swept across Walters’ cheeks. “The starter baby program was initiated in an effort to alleviate the recent overpopulation crisis, quite frankly. You being gay — well, this puts things in a different light.”
The robot squirmed. Ed blocked a finger aimed at his eye. “What are you saying?”
“Now that artificial natal methods have been banned, it’s quite likely you’ll be adopting a baby.”
“Yes, yes, we plan to adopt.”
“Mr. Haskins, are you aware that gay couples provide a more nurturing environment for children? Studies show gay parents statistically remain together longer and their children benefit immensely from that stability.”
“You mean — ?”
Walters reached across the desk and unbuckled the carrier. “Here.” He took the robot baby. “If we’d known you were gay, you would have never gotten a Naughty Neal. Let me get you one of our Happy Helens. I’ll be right back.” He hurried away.
Ed’s cell phone buzzed. Rob’s voice rang with excitement. “Are you still there, Ed? How’s it going?”
Ed chuckled. “You are not going to believe what happened.”
“I think everything’s all right. I’ll tell you all about it when I get home.”
“Ed, did you get one or not?”
Just then Walters rushed back into the room with another robot baby. The cherubic face broke into a smile. Two bright brown eyes glowed with joy. She gurgled — a wonderful sound.
“Oh, Rob,” Ed cried. “She’s so cute!”
Dean Grondo is a retired truck driver who is presently involved with the entertainment industry. His work has appeared in Aurora Wolf, Another Realm, and other publications. A Chicago native, he currently resides in Iowa.