“Mom! Kenny traded me a Ouiba for my Nanavo! But then Eric and I battled!” Tears streaked down Andy’s face as he sobbed, the words hurtling so quickly that Natalie could barely understand him. “He didn’t have the settings on safe, and my Ouiba’s hurt!”
Normally, she could identify when her son had started rattling about his MonstroBots, and could tune out beyond the need to reply okay or wow. But now, Andy was sobbing into her shoulder in the car. “It’s okay,” Natalie replied softly. “Maybe I can fix him.”
“I think he’s dying,” Andy whimpered.
She didn’t discount that. Every MonstroBot was a mix of frog muscular and neural cells, with plant cells for energy. You set them in a window to feed on sunlight, and the plant cells passed sugars generated by chloroplasts to the animal layers. “The perfect pet! Just add water! No litterboxes!” their ads declared.
Of course, they were a trading game for the kids. Andy would oooh and aaah over his new bots for ten minutes, and then would take them to school and trade them for some other, shinier bot.
Natalie hated that. It seemed cavalier.
At home, she held out a hand for the bot’s cradle, which Andy passed over. Her heart seized. The Ouiba was no bigger than her fingertip. Living flesh wrapped around a metal, froglike skeleton. And it was leaking sap-blood as it raised one tiny, shaky paw towards her.
“It’s okay,” Natalie told him. Told the creature. “I can fix this.”
She daubed disinfectant, telling herself that the creature couldn’t experience pain. It only reacted to damage reports sent by neurons to its CPU. “Some of these look like burns,” she remarked, using tweezers to place wisps of gauze.
“That’s ‘cause Eric used a Phlegmathon. They have firebreath. It’s not fair! I only collect water types, and they’re weak against fire!”
“I’m going to talk with Eric’s mom. That’s like letting him take a lighter to school. He’ll get expelled.” Natalie swallowed, watching Andy take his bot gently back into his hands, where it hopped from finger to finger, clinging. “No more battling, Andy.”
He looked up, his mouth opening in outrage. “MOM! So long as the settings are on safe—you said!”
“Yeah. And now I’m saying something different.”
Her heart ached. He’d had a hard time making friends till the MonstroBot craze swept his school. “I’m not saying you can’t collect them. You can. But no more battling. You can’t control how other people behave. And I think that watching these guys get hurt for other people’s amusement will—” She hesitated. The word conscience was too abstract for him. “It’s too much like having real animals fight. I think it makes people less good inside.”
Andy stomped off to his room, wailing that she wasn’t fair. That the Monstros didn’t make people less good. He seemed to be taking it as if she’d said he wasn’t good, for having Monstros.
But she held firm and waited out his surge of emotion.
Two weeks later, she had to go to the school at noon, to find Andy sobbing under a table. “Eric killed my Padji!”
Sure enough, there was a carbonized skeleton cradled in Andy’s small hands. Scorch marks under the desks. Wet carpet. Smell of fire retardant. Oh my god, they could have died.
But they hadn’t, so she took a deep breath and addressed smaller concerns. “You took your collection to school? I told you not to!”
He looked up, face so woebegone that she didn’t have the heart to scold. His empathy wasn’t in question, thankfully.
Lack of empathy was what turned people into monsters worse than any little machines could ever be.
At home, Andy mourned. “He killed it. Why’d he do that? He didn’t have to, to win.”
“Let’s see if we can fix him,” Natalie offered.
“But he’s dead!” Another racking sob.
“Maybe not. Let’s try, huh?”
It took a lot of reading on the MonstroBot website. Replacement cells, a petrie dish in which the bot could grow around the skeleton.
They also wound up with Eric’s collection when his parents confiscated it before sending him to another school. Few of Andy’s bots had scars—he loved them too much to risk them. The ones from Eric’s collection smote her heart until they’d scavenged enough replacement parts to fix the missing eyes and amputated paws.
“Maybe we can program these guys to do more than fight?” Natalie offered.
Andy liked that idea. First, they taught the bots to do chores—the Phlegmathon, inherited from Eric’s collection, had wings, and turned out to be a genius at dealing with wasp nests.
But when Andy was old enough to discover girls, he lost interest in his collection.
Natalie didn’t mind. She set up terrariums in her sunny windows and watched the bots interact. Their behavior seemed to be growing more complex over time—in fact, they were building shelters and improving their swing-sets and toys. Toys for toys. Tool-using life-forms, she thought as she refilled their water bottles. How about that?
So when Andy, in his thirties, asked for his collection back, as those first edition bots were now rare and valuable, Natalie replied, “I’m not sure I can give them away. It might not be ethical.”
He blinked at her. “I don’t understand. They’re mine.”
“No. I think it’s possible that they might belong to themselves.” She smiled, showing him a tiny piece of paper. “The Ouiba learned how to write last week. More than just its name.”
Andy’s mouth fell open as if he were eight again. “Self-awareness?”
“Maybe. Maybe . . . ask them where they want to go?” Natalie shrugged. “Maybe they’ll want to go to your kids. Maybe they like my living room. But it should be up to them, don’t you think?”
Andy went to a terrarium and stared inside. “Hi, guys,” he whispered.
And the bots waved back.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deborah L. Davitt was raised in Nevada, but currently lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and son. Her poetry has received Rhysling, Dwarf Star, and Pushcart nominations and has appeared in over fifty journals; her short fiction has appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Compelling Science Fiction, and Flame Tree anthologies. For more about her work, including her Edda-Earth novels and her poetry collection, The Gates of Never, please see www.edda-earth.com.