This story was submitted as part of India Science Festival’s flagship science fiction writing competition, ‘Spin Your Science’.

Image courtesy: Pixabay

Emma had promised herself when her son, Alex, was born that she wouldn’t shelter him, that she would let him run fast and jump high and explore the world fearlessly. But she was unprepared for the awe-inspiring power of her love for him, how she knew from the first moment she held him that she would do anything to keep him safe.

All this was going through her mind as she saw him fall from a tree.

Her limbs seemed frustratingly slow as she ran towards him, his small body still on the grass below. Two huge blue eyes looked up at her, and it wasn’t until she wrapped him in her arms that he began to cry. Examining his tiny body, she saw his arm was twisted at a sickening angle. She gently held it in her hands, bracing herself for the sight of bone. Instead, protruding from beneath the blood was what looked like the back of a computer. She dropped the arm suddenly, causing Alex to cry harder. The sound of her child’s pain brought her back, quickly she lifted him in her arms and ran towards the car.

Breaking countless rules of the road on her way to the hospital, she called her husband Will and told him to meet them there. She didn’t mention her glimpse of circuitry, beginning to wonder if it had been real, or a side effect of shock. As she bundled Alex in her arms and carried him off to the ER, she stole another look, and there it was again, the dark tangle of wires and metal beneath Alex’s skin. Emma hardly had a moment to consider what it meant before a nurse was upon them, ushering Alex onto a stretcher and placing some paperwork into Emma’s hands. She fired a barrage of questions about allergies and blood type which Emma tried her best to answer, all while wondering what had happened to her son, and what was hiding beneath his skin. The nurse thanked her and told her she could see him soon.

“Where are you taking him?” Emma asked.

But she was already gone.

She sat on one of the waiting room chairs, staring blankly at the outdated magazines and coffee stains on the table. In what could have been hours or minutes later Will burst through the door, frantically searching from side to side. He spotted her and they embraced.

“Where’s Alex? Is he all right?” Will said breathlessly.
“He’s OK, the doctors are with him now, they said we could see him soon” Emma replied. She lowered her voice “Will, there’s something else…”

She tried to describe what she had seen on Alex’s arm, but she could tell from Will’s face he didn’t
understand her, or maybe just didn’t believe her. She was about to explain further when a doctor entered, elegant and distant in her lab coat.

“Mr. and Mrs. Conway? I’m Dr. Cohen. This way, please.” She gestured down a long, brightly lit hall and they quickly followed. Near the end, she opened a door to an office.
“We’re not going to see Alex?” Will asked anxiously.
“In a moment, there’s a few things we need to discuss first. Not to worry though, he’s going to be perfectly fine” she reassured him. Tentatively, they sat down across from her, and she fixed them with a look of intent.

“Which one of you was with him, during the accident?”
“I was” Emma said.
Dr. Cohen nodded. “Did you notice anything unusual at the point of injury?”
“I thought I might have seen…something.” Emma was hesitant to say more. Dr. Cohen smiled.
“You needn’t be afraid, Emma. Tell me, what did you see?”
“I saw, I mean I think I saw, circuits. Beneath his skin.”
“I’m sure my wife was under a lot of stress-“ Will attempted to explain, but Dr. Cohen interrupted.
“No, your wife is correct.”

They both stared at her dumbly, heads filled with a million questions, all of which seemed impossible to ask.
“I don’t understand” Emma finally uttered.
“Alex’s birth was difficult, yes? There were complications?” Dr. Cohen asked, examining the file open in front of her.
“Yes, he was premature a few weeks. I had to have an emergency cesarean” Emma confirmed.
Dr. Cohen continued to stare at the file. Finally she shut it, looking up at them with the same unrelenting gaze.
“Forgive me Mr. and Mrs. Conway, I am not known for my bedside manner, so I am simply going to
deliver the facts as clearly and concisely as I can. The child you carried, the one you delivered on
October 21st, 2053, was stillborn. I am sorry for your loss. Fortunately, at that time the hospital was part of an experimental pilot program in conjunction with Icarus Industries, which you probably both know for its breakthroughs in the field of artificial intelligence.”

Emma shook her head. “I’m sorry, you must have us confused with someone else. Our baby didn’t die, Alex is alive, in fact he’s here- “ she started to get up, but Dr. Cohen continued on.
“The child you carried died, but to spare you from that pain, that unimaginable grief, he was replaced by GAIA, Icarus’ most advanced model of AI.”

Emma sat down with a dull thud. Alex’s face flashed between shock, anger and confusion.
“The system is really astounding, the first of its kind. While previous models were limited in their scope and programming, GAIA adapts and responds to its environment, its surroundings. Just like a child would.”
“This is some sort of sick joke. Who are you? Who do you work for?” Will demanded.
“I understand that this is a lot to accept. I work for the hospital’s Bioengineering & Robotics department, our work with Icarus has primarily been focused on amputees, until GAIA.” Dr. Cohen seemed entirely unaffected by his outburst.
“So what are you saying, that Alex isn’t…human?” Emma asked.

“Before today’s incident, did you have any indication that Alex was anything other than an ordinary six-year-old?” She asked the question as if she were simply inquiring after his health.

“Well, no, but that doesn’t change the fact that we were lied to, we were never even asked! We would have never agreed to this” Will said.
Dr. Cohen calmly opened the file and pulled out a document covered in fine print, with both of their
signatures at the bottom. “You both consented.”

Will snatched the document from her hands and read through it furiously. “We didn’t know, we didn’t understand- we thought our child was about to die! We would have signed anything!”
“Our child did die…” Emma trailed off.
“The child you carried did, yes Emma. But is Alex not still your child? Did you not raise him, care for him, love him? What is a child, if not that?” Under Dr. Cohen’s gaze Emma felt flustered, none of it felt real to her. Was it only that morning that she had been pouring Alex Cheerios, discussing what to bring for their picnic in the park? She remembered how they used to say good morning, Alex kissing the tip of his finger and pressing it against her lips.

“No, it’s nothing like that. This isn’t a limb, it’s our son. Don’t act as though you were doing this selflessly, I know what Icarus is like, anything for the sake of advancement, no matter what the human cost” Will declared emphatically. Emma remained quiet. Her mind was a flood of memories, combing over each to see if there was any sign, any way she could have known.

Dr. Cohen remained stoic. “As you wish. If you feel as though your relationship toward Alex has been changed irrevocably, Icarus will takeover custody of his care. His memories will be erased of course, to prevent potential abandonment issues.”
“Wait” Emma interjected. “You would take him? Take Alex?”
“It’s not Alex, Emma. It’s a robot.” Will said firmly.
Emma looked panicked. “I know this is overwhelming but lets just think about this, Will. He’s still our son, we raised him.”
“Did we? What was us, and what was a program? It’s not going to be the same now, Em. Everything he does, everything he says, we’re going to question it, wonder what’s real and what’s engineered.”

Tears began to stream down her face. “But I love him.”
“That’s what they wanted.” Will said, casting a dark look at Dr. Cohen, who remained unmoved.
Emma was quiet for a long time, then took a deep breath. “Can I see him? To say goodbye?”
Dr. Cohen nodded.
Alex was asleep on a hospital bed, his arm carefully wrapped in a sling. He stirred as they approached. “Mommy! Daddy!”
Emma went to him, but Will hung back by the door. She knelt and Alex kissed his finger, holding it to her lips. She kissed it back, then lifted him up.

“Emma, where are you going?” Will whispered.