Thursday, December 29, 2016


First Steps
By Matthew Harrison

“I’ll take Toby to kindergarten today,” Michael said. “I’ll–”
A blizzard of update notifications swept down in front of vision, projected by his glasses. He tried to read them – some looked important, about the car – but he lost track, and took the glasses off in despair. Too late he saw Toby teetering at the top of the stairs.
“What are you doing?” his wife Sarah exclaimed as she appeared from nowhere and yanked Toby back. “Can’t you look after the child? Angela is more reliable than you!”
Michael mumbled that he was sorry. Watched by a still-fuming Sarah, he led the little boy down step by step until they reached the hall. Angela emerged from the living room, calling “Toby! Toby! Toby!” and the boy jumped into the robo-maid’s arms.
With mingled jealousy and relief, Michael stepped back. It was tough being a Dad – and all the support technology nowadays didn’t make it easier. There was really so much to attend to. Just monitoring Angela’s updates was nearly a full time job. She was transforming from the simple mechanical helpmate they had purchased when Toby was born into something much more intelligent and aware. And better-looking, too, he thought – the enhancements hadn’t been restricted to software…
“Haven’t you left yet?” Sarah called from above. “He’s supposed to be there at nine.”
“Already on the way,” Michael called back. He unceremoniously grabbed Toby from Angela, and carried the protesting boy out to the car.

The car drove them steadily through the streets, and Michael relaxed enough to close his eyes. But he had a nagging worry about the updates, and as they rounded the final corner before the school, he touched the console and had them scroll down holographically in front of him. Better for his eyesight that way. Fortunately, it was nothing he needed to attend to – the braking system had been enhanced, that was all. Although if there had been something, he didn’t know what he would have done – refer it to their robo-mechanic, most likely. But it was the spirit of the thing, keeping man in command of machine.
When they’d got out and reached the kindergarten playground, he voiced this thought to Ted, who was the only human accompanying person there that day.
Ted grunted, busy tracking his own updates. “You can’t keep up,” he said at last, removing his glasses. “They’re getting faster and faster. Machines on machines.”
“It’ll plateau,” Michael countered. “Look at space travel. Man didn’t go back to the moon for sixty years.”
“But look at the moon now,” Ted said gloomily.
Michael involuntarily looked up, and indeed a faint orb stood above the school in the clear morning sky, but the domes and caverns that housed the colonies there were of course not visible.
The class door opened, and a clamour of children’s voices rose to greet Miss May, who stood plump and human, half-filling the doorway.
“That’s why we bring out kid here,” Michael said. “The human touch is so important for a growing child.” He suddenly resented Angela. Why hadn’t they looked after Toby themselves? He could have taken time off work. God knows, most of his work was done by robots anyway!
Ted nodded. “This is about the last place that doesn’t teach them by AI. But they’ll go the same way soon. Technology’s accelerating out of sight.”
This was so exactly Michael’s thought that he didn’t answer. If they found it hard to keep up now, how would Toby’s generation cope? It would be totally out of humanity’s control.
Michael tried to focus on the children. At least they were still there, flesh and blood, not robots, although he had heard of some parents… He saw one of the bigger boys clambering up a blue climbing frame he hadn’t noticed before; now he was shouting taunts from the top.
To Michael’s surprise, his own son responded to the challenge and stumbled forward. “No, Toby!” he cried, but the boy had already got a foot on one rung, a hand on another, and was reaching for a third. Michael watched, frozen, as the little limb stretched higher. Then the inevitable happened. The child lost his footing, and hit the ground with a, ‘Thump!’.
Michael belatedly started forward. Why hadn’t he stopped Toby when he could? Sarah would kill him. But the foam flooring had already yielded beneath the small body, and with a springy motion it re-formed, pushing Toby to his feet again.
The little boy tottered back. But as the climbing frame bowed down, halving its height to accommodate him, he toddled forward again with a cry of delight. The blue bars modulated, tensed, and whisked him up alongside the bigger boy, who graciously made way.
“Daddy!" Toby yelled from the top of the climbing frame, master of all he surveyed.

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Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of that or some other reason entirely his writing has veered from non-fiction to literary and he is currently reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published numerous SF short stories and is building up to longer pieces as he learns more about the universe. Matthew is married with two children but no pets as there is no space for these in Hong Kong.


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