Reading time: 30 minutes
The explorer trembled when she heard the dinosaur coming. There was no doubt that she was going to be found. And when she was found, there’d be no saving her. Losing control of her voice, the explorer let out a shriek. She was clearly terrified.
‘Oh no!’ she cried, ‘who will save me?’ She waved her arms above her head, as if this could protect her from the dinosaur’s clamping jaws, crushing feet, and massive, swooshy tail.
The explorer buried her head between her knees. Something moved the chair she was hiding behind, exposing her to the dinosaur. The Harrysaurus Rex pounced. The clamping jaws clamped over the explorer’s head, the crushing feet crushed her stomach until she couldn’t help but laugh (even with her head in the clamping jaws), and the swooshy tail went swooshing straight into the lamp on the side table.
‘Kathy?’ called a voice from the kitchen. ‘What was that?’
‘Nothing, dear,’ replied the explorer, picking up the lamp and winking at the Harrysaurus Rex, ‘just playing a game.’
‘Can you play something that involves less smashing of furniture please?’
‘Sorry Daddy,’ said Harrysaurus Rex. The dinosaur stood upright, relaxed his arms, which he’d had tucked up into tiny T-Rex claws, wiped the snarl off his face, and became a human boy again.
‘That’s alright,’ said the voice from the kitchen, ‘just be careful please. Why don’t you pretend to be helper robots and do some tidying up before dinner?’
The explorer, now Harry’s mum again, said, ‘Alright, love, we’ll be good,’ she smirked at Harry, then said, ‘Ok, Haz, let’s be robots. Let’s see who can be the best robot. If you win, I’ll make sure Daddy lets us play Harrysaurus again tomorrow.’
‘How will you do that?’ asked Harry.
‘I’ve got my ways,’ she said.
‘Well, like giving him a biiiig kiss!’
‘Bleugh!’ said Harry. ‘What happens if you win?’
‘If I win… you can tickle me silly until my head pops off from laughing too much! Deal?’
‘Affirmative,’ Harry replied, his voice metallic, as if it was a recording being played somewhere inside a large metal box, which is what Harry now imagined his head was.
‘Ooh, game on!’ said his mum, ‘I better find some duct tape and start taping my head to my neck.’
Harry didn’t laugh. He was being a robot. The best robot he could be.
‘HazBot 2000,’ said his mum, using the same metallic voice, ‘I am MumBot 3000. I have a higher number because I am from the future and I am cooler than you. Let us do what robots do and tidy up for our human overlord. I will put these books away.’
‘I will put these toys away.’ replied HazBot 2000.
They began carrying out their robot tasks, moving with jerky robotic movements, occasionally whirring or beeping. Harry’s mum lost her composure a few times and her balance more than once. HazBot 2000, on the other hand, was a robot through and through. He never laughed, but he whirred when his limbs moved and beeped as he thought about which toy went where.
‘Dinner’s ready,’ called Harry’s dad from the kitchen.
‘Almost done,’ said his mum, then, ‘Oh sh-ugar… Ha! That didn’t sound very robot-like did it HazBot? You win!’ She went into the kitchen. ‘Sorry Chris, it’s dinosaurs again tomorrow.’
‘Oh, is it now?’ said Harry’s dad. ‘Pretty sure you said something about a “biiiig kiss” to get me to agree to that. And right now, I don’t feel like kissing, soz!’
‘Be quiet and come here…’
HazBot 2000 watched and waited for the exchange of affection to end, then whirred and clanked into the kitchen.
‘Game’s over, Haz,’ said his mum, sitting in her seat at the kitchen table, ‘Robots don’t eat spag bol.’
HazBot 2000 clambered onto his chair and picked up his knife and fork, holding them upright with his arms bent at 90 degrees. ‘Spaghetti bolognese is not ideal, but it will do,’ he said, ‘I can make energy from food to recharge my battery unit.’
‘Just what every chef wants to hear,’ said his dad.
HazBot 2000 used his fork to flatten the food in his bowl. Then he patted it down so the sauce and spaghetti compacted into a dense cake and sliced it into neat squares, each one half an inch wide.
The parents exchanged a look they assumed Harry didn’t see.
‘School tomorrow, Haz,’ said his mum, ‘have you finished your homework from Friday?’
‘Negative,’ said Harry, ‘HazBot 2000’s homework was to make a log cabin with a door and windows using lolly sticks. HazBot 2000 used the lolly sticks to make a ramp for his cars. Then I threw the lolly sticks at some pigeons.’
Harry’s mum snorted into her wine glass and got a glare from her husband. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘at least you’re being honest about it. I think we’ve got a few more lolly sticks. Shall we see if we can make a cabin out of them after dinner?’
‘Affirmative,’ replied her robot son.
‘You know you won the game, don’t you?’ said Harry’s dad, ‘Mummy said you were the best robot, so you can stop now.’
‘Can not compute,’ said Harry, ‘HazBot 2000 does not understand “game”.’
‘You are so good at this,’ tried his mum, ‘definitely the best robot I’ve ever seen, but maybe you should go back to being Harry the boy for a bit.’
‘Can not compute,’ he repeated. ‘HazBot 2000 does not know “Harry the boy”.’
‘Fine’, sighed his mum, ‘But do you have to talk about yourself in the third person?’
‘Can not compute. HazBot 2000 does not know “third person”.
Harry’s dad said, ‘Third person is what we use when we talk about someone else. So if I say, “Mummy should know better than to egg you on like she did”, that’s in the third person. But if you use it when you talk about yourself, it’s like you’re really talking about someone else.’
Harry seemed to have stopped listening, but kept eating square after square of spaghetti cake.
After the meal, Harry’s parents let him do the washing up, wipe the kitchen surfaces, and sweep the kitchen floor. His next task was to do his homework. It took him about half an hour to build the log cabin, although he forgot to include the door and windows.
Before bed, he brushed his teeth, taking precisely three minutes and making sure to spend an equal amount of time on each tooth. He lay awake and unmoved as his mum read him a funny story in bed. Then, as she switched off the light and left the door ajar, HazBot 2000 said, ‘Shutting down to upgrade systems’.
‘Well, that was an interesting evening,’ said Kathy as she came back into the living room. She shut the door behind her so Harry couldn’t hear them from his bedroom down the corridor. Apart from the living room and Harry’s bedroom, the flat had three rooms: Chris and Kathy’s bedroom, a small bathroom, and the kitchen. All the rooms were shabby in some way — worn carpets in the living room, cracked tiles in the bathroom — because the landlord refused to improve anything without increasing the rent. At one end of the corridor was a sash window looking onto next door’s plain brick wall. They were on the top floor of a detached Victorian house in a once-leafy London suburb. It was the type of building that might have been perfect for a typical middle-class family when it was built. Now it was divided into five flats which the average family could only rent if both parents worked full time. Kathy worked full time. Chris didn’t, but his publisher paid decent advances and he bought all his clothes from charity shops to make up the difference.
‘Yeah, well,’ replied Chris, when the door was closed. Kathy looked at him for a moment. He was reading a novel, or pretending to.
‘“Yeah, well” what?’ she said.
‘Nothing, sorry, I didn’t mean anything, just that it was interesting, like you said.’
‘Yeah.’ Kathy waited for Chris to speak again. ‘Ok, fine. I just think sometimes you might encourage him a bit too much.’
‘Aren’t I supposed to encourage him?’ Kathy said, picking up the bottle of red from the coffee table. ‘Isn’t that what we’re meant to do?’
‘You know what I mean. We need to keep him calm in the evenings so he doesn’t get too excited before bed.’
‘He’s six, Chris, I was playing with him.’ She paced around the room, reluctant to sit down.
‘I just think we need to set some clearer boundaries, to stop this sort of thing from happening.’
‘This sort of thing? How many times has this happened before exactly?’
‘Well, not this,’ said Chris, ‘but remember that week he kept saying “poo” instead of “food”, or the time he painted his whole face blue because you were playing Braveheart?’
‘It was half his face,’ mumbled Kathy.
‘We need to start making this easier for ourselves,’ Chris said. ‘I’ve got a month until my deadline. I need to be able to focus, not worry about how he’s pretending to be a robot. I’m freaking out about it, if I’m honest. About the deadline. I still don’t have an ending, apart from the one they said was confusing, and they’ve asked me to rewrite a whole backstory. I don’t have the headspace for this.’
‘And you think I do?’ Kathy said. Wine sloshed in her glass. ‘It’s not like I meant for this to happen, is it? Our funders are pushing for results, the press office are begging us for details, the university secretary is asking about our budget, which we have definitely blown wide open, and we’re still not even sure our bloody theory is actually bloody sound.’
‘Which is exactly why we need to calm things down for a while,’ said Chris, ‘I don’t want you to stop playing with him, but it needs to be calm.’
‘Well, I’m probably not going to be here in the evenings anyway because I might have to work late most nights, or every night. I doubt I’ll be home for his bedtime. You’re going to have to get him to bed, so at least he won’t get to use his imagination and it’ll be nice and calm and you can just bore him to sleep!’
‘Har har,’ said Chris, and picked up his book again.
‘Look,’ said Kathy, ‘he’ll forget about this robot thing by the morning. And if he doesn’t, he can keep doing the housework to take the pressure off us.’
> POWER ON … INITIATING BOOT DISK
> UPGRADING CPU … UPGRADE COMPLETE
> FORMATTING DRIVE A: … FORMATTING COMPLETE: HAZBOT 4000 AWAKE
> INITIATING OCULAR RECEPTORS … ESTABLISHING SURROUNDINGS
> INITIATING LIMBS … CONFIRM MOBILITY … MOBILITY CONFIRMED
> TEMPERATURE SENSORS FUNCTIONING … ATMOSPHERE: COLD …
> LOCATING DRESSING GOWN
> STEALTH MODE ACTIVATED … NAVIGATING STAIRS
> LOCATING KITCHEN …
‘This can’t be good,’ said Chris not long after the alarm went off.
‘Is he still asleep? He never sleeps later than us,’ Kathy said, whispering in case, just this once, he had.
‘Could be a new phase. Maybe he’s become a teenager overnight.’ Chris slumped out of bed and shuffled next door into Harry’s room. Kathy held her breath until her husband’s head reappeared in the doorway.
‘Not a new phase,’ he said, ‘we should get downstairs.’
Harry was dressed and ready for school when they got to the kitchen. He’d prepared breakfast for them both, mixing his mum’s bran flakes with raisins and warming porridge for his dad. He’d made coffee, poured orange juice, and put a banana on each of their side plates.
‘Good morning,’ the tinny voice said, ‘HazBot 4000 has prepared a healthy breakfast for you. Please begin eating.’
‘Morning Haz…Harry,’ said his mum, ‘That’s very kind of you. You’re a kind little boy, aren’t you?’
‘Negative,’ said Harry. I am not kind, I am simply performing one of my many secondary functions: to serve you a healthy breakfast. Also, I am not a boy,’ he paused, ‘but I am quite little.’
Harry’s dad knelt down in front of him. ‘Harry,’ he said, looking him in the eye, ‘you have to stop this now. You’re going to school today, and your teacher will be angry if you keep pretending like this. Do you understand? Mr Crickle isn’t going to like this very much is he?’ HazBot 4000 closed his eyes.
> SEARCHING MEMORY …
After a few seconds of whirring and beeping, he said, ‘Mr Crickle has shown an interest in robotics three times in the last month. Mr Crickle likes to read science fiction books written by Isaac Assmov.’
‘Asimov,’ said his dad, ‘but Harry, Mr Crickle won’t want you to pretend to be a robot like this. He’ll want you to be Harry.’
> SEARCHING MEMORY …
A few seconds later he said, ‘In the same time period, Mr Crickle has told Harry he is being “disruptive” sixteen times. HazBot 4000 is never “disruptive”, so Mr Crickle will prefer HazBot 4000 to Harry.’
‘Let’s let school deal with this then,’ said Harry’s mum, eating her cereal, ‘they’ll know what to do, they must have seen something like this before.’
‘I’ve never seen anything like this before,’ said Mr Crickle. He was talking to Mrs McNiven, the Headteacher, towards the end of the lunch break.
‘Have you tried asking him to stop?’ Mrs McNiven said. She was sitting behind her desk, watching her half-eaten egg salad sandwich as if it might get up and leave if she didn’t finish the job soon.
‘Of course, yes, but, well…he wouldn’t,’ replied Mr Crickle, ‘he just replied that it was one of his many functions and he was programmed to do it.’
‘To be a hand dryer?’
‘Exactly. So I tried quoting Asimov at him,’
‘Asimov’s laws of robotics. A robot must obey orders given to it by a human. He’s pretending to be a robot, you see.’
‘Yes, I gathered that much,’ said Mrs McNiven. Her egg salad sandwich was inching towards the door. ‘And where did that get you?’
‘Well, nowhere, obviously. He just said something like, “HazBot 4000 cannot override programming”. I suppose that’s a valid argument.’
‘No, Mr Crickle,’ said Mrs McNiven, standing up, ‘that is not a valid argument. That is not a valid argument for standing in the corner of the girls’ toilets and blowing on their hands when they try to leave. Now, I suggest you find a way to remove him from there before he decides he’s a bidet. I will call Harry’s parents and tell them what’s happened and what will happen if they do not resolve this little plea for attention soon. I’m sure they’ve handled something like this before.’
Mr Crickle left the office and closed the door. Before she called Harry’s parents, Mrs McNiven slowly and thoughtfully ate her egg salad sandwich.
‘She really thinks we’ve dealt with this before?’ Kathy said when Chris told her about the phone call. They were in the kitchen, tidying up after dinner. Harry was in the living room next door and seemed to be staring blankly at the wall.
‘That’s what she said. I think she was trying to be encouraging, but it sounded pretty threatening. It might be the accent.’
‘Has she got an accent?’
‘Kath, she’s definitely got an accent.’
‘She’s Scottish. She’s really really Scottish.’
‘Oh. Well, whatever. What else did she say?’
‘She said we need to sort it out, stop him being a robot before next Monday. Or…’
‘What?’ Harry’s mum asked.
‘She said they might have to suspend him.’
‘Suspend him? For pretending? At primary school? Isn’t that what primary school is all about?’
‘I think you’re thinking of drama school,’ said Harry’s dad.
‘I’m not thinking of drama school, I’m thinking of primary school. They just play games and dress up and play with dolls all day.’
‘That’s nursery Kath. Harry’s six, you know that right? He’s doing Key Stage 1.’
‘I don’t know what that means. I thought it was all still fun and games.’ Harry’s mum said.
‘Look, the point is, he needs to start acting normally, otherwise they’re going to send him home for the week. I can’t afford to take the time off to look after him, and neither can you, so we have to sort him out. Now.’ They went back into the living room.
‘S’up, Haz,’ said his mum, ‘what you up too?’
‘HazBot 4000 is storing your recent conversation for future processing,’ HazBot 4000 said.
‘Processing… oh god, ok. Harry, I just remembered I promised we’d play dinosaurs again tonight. Is that alright, Daddy?’ She looked at Chris, then said, ‘I’ll keep it calm.’
‘Well,’ said Harry’s dad, putting on a show. ‘Ok then, just don’t break anything please!’
Harry’s mum took up her position outside the living room door, put on the explorer’s hat and rucksack, then picked her way through the dense foliage and into the jungle clearing. Half way across the open space, she froze, unable to ignore the feeling that something was watching her. She glanced about without moving her head. Out of the corner of her left eye she could just about see the giant lizard, it’s massive hind legs and leathery belly, the disproportionate forearms, and, near the tops of the trees that lined the clearing, the powerful jaws and massive, razor sharp teeth.
‘Don’t move a muscle,’ she hissed to herself, ‘Harrysaurus Rex can’t see you if you don’t move.’ Suddenly, a prehistoric bee the size of a rugby ball landed on the end of the explorer’s nose. She flailed her arms around wildly, shrieking and whooping while she hopped up and down, spinning around, anything to dislodge the giant insect… then she remembered the Harrysaurus Rex, who was usually laughing hysterically by this point.
The mega bee flew away, and the explorer turned towards the beast standing still on the edge of the clearing. ‘Fascinating,’ said the explorer, ‘it’s toying with me. I’ve discovered a new behaviour unknown to modern man. It must be more intelligent than we think.’
‘Harrysaurus Rex is not toying with you,’ said the dinosaur, ‘Harrysaurus Rex is resting after its recent meal. Harrysaurus Rex recently ate fish fingers, chips and beans and needs to digest the meal before continuing to hunt. You pose no threat to Harrysaurus Rex. There is no need to chase you.’
The explorer took off her hat and rucksack, and Harry’s mum went into the kitchen to pour herself a glass of wine.
After school on Tuesday, Mr Crickle was waiting with HazBot 4000 at the school gates. When Chris arrived, Mr Crickle explained how Harry had offended one of the cleaning staff by pretending to be a translation bot, ‘translating’ what she said into English, even though she was speaking English already.
Next, he told Chris that Harry had declared himself the ‘auto-fart-amatic’ and turned Quiet Time into thirty minutes of screaming, giggling and gagging.
‘Then’, said Mr Crickle, ‘in the art lesson, he offered to carry the paint pots and had an “arm malfunction”. Chris looked down at Harry and saw that his face and hair were still mottled with various colours of paint.
‘I was actually quite encouraged by the fart machine,’ said Mr Crickle. ‘It was almost like the old Harry, but somehow he managed to make even that seem robotic.’
Wednesday afternoon brought a similar report from Mr Crickle. HazBot 4000 had been found by another teacher preparing to use his ‘self-cleaning toilet brush extension’.
‘There’s more,’ said Mr Crickle. ‘He’s become an influencer. Other children are following his lead. Not necessarily as robots, but we do have a few of those. We’ve also got an astronaut, an egg, a monster, a police officer, a spoon, and a parrot.’
‘At least the parrot should be easy to teach,’ said Chris. ‘Because, you know, it just repeats what you say.’
Mr Crickle ignored him. ‘I’ve kept this away from Mrs McNiven for now, but if it spreads to the other classes and she gets wind of it, it’s not going to help Harry’s case.’
That evening at home, after another conference (this time in their bedroom with the door closed), HazBot 4000’s parents explained to him that what he was doing would get him into trouble. He listened patiently while they told him that it was upsetting for them and for the other children at school. They tried to impress on him the severity of being suspended from school, of how it could affect him — follow him — for the rest of his life.
> LOCATING SELF … SEARCHING …
‘HazBot 4000 has no life,’ he responded, ‘HazBot 4000 is not alive.’
‘What are you trying to do?’ asked Harry’s dad.
> SEARCHING …
‘HazBot 4000 is merely carrying out its primary function: to be the best robot.’
‘Well that’s not enough, Harry,’ said his dad, ‘you need to try harder than that.’
> UPGRADING CPU … UPGRADE COMPLETE
> RECEIVING NEW SECONDARY FUNCTION … SECONDARY FUNCTION COMPUTED
> INITIATING RECORDING FUNCTION … RECORDING
> FILTERING DISTRACTIONS …
On Thursday morning, HazBot 6000 sat in the classroom while the other children jostled and shoved, hanging their bags on their hooks, shouting over each other. He observed the inefficiency of their movements and their speech, how they jumped and ran, jabbered, sang and repeated themselves: ‘Keira, Keira, Keira’; ‘no no, listen listen’.
He watched Mr Crickle, at the front of the classroom, trying to find something in the art cupboard, displacing paint pots and brushes, spilling a tub of glitter and swearing under his breath.
As the lesson started, HazBot 6000 tuned out the background noise and focused. He heard Mr Crickle say things he hadn’t heard before and understood for the first time how the five times table worked, how the numbers could only ever end in a five or a zero, nothing else.
A little later, he wrote a poem, concentrating on the rhythm of the lines, the meaning and shape of the words, not just whether or not they rhymed.
After lunch, he cleared the leftover plates, wiped down the tables and mopped the floor. Then, during Quiet Time, he found a dictionary and read to the end of the Bs.
At home in the evening, HazBot 6000 heard his dad saying that his publisher had cut his deadline by two weeks.
‘I’ve been writing like crazy, trying to meet my quotas, but it’s all rubbish, my mind’s all over the place, I can’t get my ideas in order.’
HazBot 6000 went into his dad’s bedroom and found the stack of printouts and notes he’d dumped on a chair.
> INITIATING REORDERING SEQUENCE … SEQUENCE READY
> COMMENCING REORDERING …
Later that night, he remembered the words ‘appurtenance’, ‘assoil’, ‘benefactor’, ‘bodge’, and ‘burble’.
Chris and Kathy had agreed they’d both collect Harry after school on Friday. Chris’ arrived first, but Mr Crickle, Mrs McNiven, and Harry were the last people waiting in the playground. Harry was sitting on a bench a few yards behind the grownups.
> INITIATING RECORDING FUNCTION … RECORDING
‘I’m so sorry I’m late,’ said Chris. ‘My publisher moved my deadline and my notes were all out of order — I don’t know what happened there — and I lost track of time, it’s all been a bit frantic… is Kathy not here yet?’
‘No,’ said Mrs McNiven, folding her arms, ‘as you can clearly see, she is not. However, we have been standing here for quite some time already, so I suggest we get on with it. As I’m sure you are aware, young Harry is still… acting up, shall we say? This has been rather a trying week for Mr Crickle, for the other children, and, I don’t doubt, for the two of you.’ Kathy arrived while Mrs McNiven was talking. She’d had a phone call at 4.55pm — the press office asking stupid questions about the press release they were writing for her research. ‘Thank you for joining us,’ Mrs McNiven went on, before Kathy could apologise. ‘However, I think we can agree that the person to suffer most as a result of Harry’s behaviour is likely to be Harry himself. The things he has done this week, the distractions he has created… he has never been the most focused of our pupils, but this week he has slipped even further. I severely worry for his future studies if this slide towards ignorance continues.’
Mr Crickle cleared his throat. ‘Actually, sorry to interrupt you, but the last couple of days he’s done really well.’
‘Has he?’ said Mrs McNiven, ‘Well, that’s a surprise twist.’
‘Sorry,’ said Mr Crickle again, ‘I should have told you.’
‘Indeed. We’ll discuss this later, but I suppose you’d better reveal all.’
Mr Crickle pulled a handful of notebooks from under his arm and shared them between Harry’s parents and Mrs McNiven.
‘Since yesterday,’ he said, ‘something seems to have clicked. His work has vastly improved. I mean, beyond anyone else in his year. Maths, english, geography — he’s suddenly getting it all.’ Harry’s parents looked at the notebooks in their hands.
‘He’s used metaphors,’ said Harry’s dad, ‘Correctly.’
‘And his handwriting is way better than last week,’ said his mum. ‘It’s joined up and everything!’
Mrs McNiven said, ‘How has this happened, Mr Crickle?’
‘I don’t know,’ said the teacher, ‘I really don’t, but he’s changed — his attention span, his whole approach to lessons. This sounds mad, but it’s like he’s reprogrammed himself, like he’s gone beyond pretending. I don’t think he’s playing at being a robot anymore. He’s not using it as an excuse to do silly things. It seems like, in his mind, he is a robot.’
‘Stop there please, Mr Crickle,’ Mrs McNiven said. ‘Your imagination seems to be getting the better of you too — one more thing to discuss later — but whether or not Harry thinks he is a robot or is pretending to be one, he must stop before Monday morning. The threat of suspension is now quite near, and very real.’
Harry’s parents protested immediately, waving the notebooks at Mrs McNiven, insisting that Harry’s improved work had to count for something.
‘If he goes on doing work like this,’ said Harry’s dad, ‘who knows where it could lead him. He’ll get over the robot thing eventually, but this could be his chance to get ahead. Look at the potential he’s got here!’
Mrs McNiven apologised, but said he’d have to find another way to apply himself to his studies.
‘What about the other children,’ said Harry’s mum, ‘the other ones who are pretending? Are you going to suspend them all?’
‘Mr Crickle?’ said Mrs McNiven. ‘Something else you haven’t told me?’ Mr Crickle was looking nervous. ‘Something else for our little chat. You’ve scored a hat trick!’ She turned back to Harry’s parents. ‘You’re not going to change my mind here. Just take the weekend and resolve this issue. Find someone who can help, get away somewhere, just do something, or he won’t be coming back into this school on Monday morning.
‘Camping?’ Kathy tilted her head, weighing up the suggestion. ‘Do you think it’ll work?’ They were standing face-to-face in the tiny kitchen while the washing machine went through its inhuman cycle of screeching and shaking. HazBot 6000 was in the living room, apparently doing his homework, which was to make up a mnemonic to remember all the planets in the solar system.
‘I have absolutely no idea,’ said Chris, ‘but it’s all I can come up with at the moment. He’s loved it in the past, and he’s always wanted us to take him somewhere that isn’t a campsite. We’ll go somewhere really wild and fun, somewhere adventurous, where we can show him how to light a fire. We’ll pick mushrooms, jump in a river, all that.’
‘We’ve got nothing to lose I suppose,’ said Harry’s mum, ‘let’s give it a go.’
On Saturday morning, Kathy and Chris packed the car and strapped Harry into his car seat. They drove for a few hours, leaving the red-brick suburbs behind for brown industry and the brown behind for green fields. HazBot 6000 didn’t ask where they were going or whether they were nearly there yet. He didn’t ask to go to the toilet or have a snack, but Harry’s parents made sure they stopped enough that he didn’t have to. They’d decided to try the path of least resistance – not to scold him or cajole him, but to let him see that nothing was wrong with admitting defeat, that they’d be there to have him back when he chose to return.
They parked the car by the side of a small road, then Harry’s dad put a bag on his back, and Harry’s mum put a bag on hers, and they followed the road on foot until the tarmac turned to loose stones. HazBot 6000 kept up with them all the way, swinging his arms and legs stiffly, whirring and clanking his gears and pistons along the road, then the stony track, then the muddy path that led through the trees and across the field, up the hill and over into the woody valley below.
‘This looks like a good spot,’ said Harry’s mum, ‘what’ya think Haz?’
‘Please qualify “good”,’ said HazBot 6000.
‘Good for camping, Haz, we’re staying the night here. You remember doing that last year? We went to that campsite by the sea didn’t we? And you made friends with that boy Sam. Remember?’
‘Affirmative, HazBot 6000 can confirm memory file is present.’
‘Good,’ continued Harry’s mum, ‘well, this is going to be even more fun than that I bet. We’re going to play in the woods, and make dens, and get really muddy if you like. There’s a river down there where we can go for a swim, then we’ll see if we can catch some fish for our dinner. Dad will pick some wild mushrooms if he can find some, and I’ll gut the fish and put it on a stick which we can hang over a big fire, which we’ll light right here in this clearing.’
Chris started to unpack the tent from his bag, feeling his way through the folds of the canvas, pulling out the edges and corners, laying out a two-dimensional plan of the tent on the ground. He positioned the hoops and holes, the ropes and loops, so that they were all aligned. Then, beside the canvas, he began to set out the flexible poles which would form the skeleton of the tent, arranging them in order, depending on their length and the colour-coded stickers he’d wrapped around each one at both ends. HazBot 6000 watched the whole process. His mum was unloading boxes from the car, but when she saw him watching, she said, ‘Right, Haz, let’s take our shoes off and go down to the river for a swim before lunch. Sound good?’
‘HazBot 6000 does not understand logic of removing its shoes.’
‘It feels nice,’ said his mum, ‘and it’s fun.’
‘HazBot 6000 does not feel. HazBot does not know “fun”.’
‘Just do it, you’ll see,’ she said, taking off her own shoes and socks. HazBot 6000 complied, like an obedient robot, then stood still on the ground, watching his mum curl her toes into the moss and pine needles. She shuffled deeper into the earth and let the soil work its way into her skin, a smile widening her face. Then she ran off through the woods, shouting for Harry to chase her. He followed with his usual stiff walk, his sweaty bare feet picking up the dry dirt.
Harry’s dad joined them when he’d finished putting up the tent. Together, they swam in the river and took turns to climb out and jump in. Harry’s parents flung themselves through the air in comical shapes — making huge splashes as they hit the surface — then burst out of the water laughing. HazBot 6000 took his turn to jump in when he was told to, but he kept his limbs to his body as he fell and never laughed when he broke back out of the water. When they had swum enough, his parents chased each other on the river bank, giggling like children, while HazBot 6000 watched unamused. After a while, they walked back up to the tent, where Harry’s dad lit the stove and cooked them a tin of baked beans, which they ate with buttery rolls and cans of Coke.
‘We should go for a walk after lunch,’ Harry’s mum suggested as she mopped up bean juice with the last of her roll. ‘There’s a path up the hill that way that’s got amazing views at the top. It’ll blow your mind, Haz, seriously.’
‘That does not sound possible,’ said HazBot 6000, ‘I have no mind. Also, why are you serious?’
The path led through the woods and along the side of the river, so Harry’s dad took the fishing rod in case they found a good spot to catch dinner on the way back. Now, as they walked, HazBot 6000 kept falling behind, his stiff legs slowing him down on the uneven ground. His parents took the opportunity to talk.
‘We need to try harder,’ said Chris.
‘Are you kidding?’ said Kathy, ‘we’ve been super positive this whole time, I don’t know how we could possibly try any harder than this.’
‘Well it’s not working is it?’
‘I think it is. You’re the words person, didn’t you hear him earlier, he called himself “I”.’
‘Did he?’ said Chris.
‘He said, “I don’t have a mind”.’
‘Not exactly a promising statement!’
‘But he did say “I”, definitely.’
‘That is good. He hasn’t done that all week.’
‘But we need to keep going.’
‘We will,’ said Kathy, ‘We’ve got this.’ She turned around to see if Harry was close enough to hear them. The path curved through the trees and bushes behind them and, for a few seconds, she couldn’t see him. Then she heard the familiar clanking and whirring, and Harry’s awkward gait brought him into view. ‘Alright, Haz,’ she said, ‘keep up, slow coach!’
The path narrowed and steepened as they started to climb, taking them away from the river and dropping them into a gulley about six foot deep. The gulley walls were topped by thick summer hedges, so even Harry’s dad couldn’t see the landscape around them. Without sunlight, the gulley was dark and damp underfoot. The air was cooler here too, and they hadn’t brought any more clothes than the t-shirts and shorts they were wearing. They fell silent and kept walking, occasionally stopping to catch their breath and let Harry catch up.
‘It’s not much further up here,’ Harry’s mum said. ‘Can’t be much more.’
They walked for another ten minutes. Then they went round a corner and the world opened up before them. Soft, green hills and tempting valleys, criss-crossed hedges, and blue-tinged shadows cut out of the late afternoon sunlight. Their own shadows stretched out on the plateau in front of them as they stepped out of the gulley. Chris and Kathy stood together for a while, then heard footsteps behind them. HazBot 6000 emerged from the gulley and stopped, looking around, apparently taking in the view. His expression, blank as always, gave nothing away.
‘What’s he thinking?’ Harry’s dad whispered. His wife looked at him hopefully.
‘What do you think, Haz?’
‘HazBot 6000’s mind does not appear to be “blown”,’ said Harry. ‘Perhaps more time is required.’ He looked around some more while his parents trudged further on so they could talk to each other out of earshot.
They spent half an hour on the plateau, chasing each other, examining flowers and insects, taking silly pictures. HazBot 6000 joined in with everything, making tinny comments now and then. When they came back down, they found a spot by the river where the water was slow, sat on the bank and dangled the line into the water. They had some bread for bait. When that didn’t work, Harry’s dad asked him to dig up some worms, which he did without complaint or excitement. The worms didn’t work either, but they sat on the bank anyway, watching the eddies swirl around the reeds. Harry’s mum talked about fluid dynamics, and HazBot 6000 said he comprehended, which was probably a lie.
They went back to their tent without any fish, fried some slices of courgette and frankfurters, then mixed it with boil-in-the-bag rice. Harry’s mum and dad drank beer that they’d forgotten would get warm in the tent. When they offered Harry a taste, he explained that there was no point as robots can’t get intoxicated. They laughed when he said this, even though he didn’t.
After they ate, Harry helped his parents find sticks and logs, arranged a few of them in a precise pyramid, then watched his mum light the firelighters, like miniature bundles of straw. She put them at the base of the pyramid and HazBot 6000 watched as the flames grew around them, attracted to the sticks and twigs above. Then those were burning too, and his dad added larger sticks, then logs, until the fire was glowing pink and orange at the centre and they had to pull back their chairs to stop their legs getting too hot. Harry was the first one to move and he did it without comment.
They sat around the fire for hours, Harry’s parents telling stories about things they did when they were young, games they played, trouble they got into.
‘We spent a lot of time in woods like these,’ said Harry’s mum, ‘building dens mostly. Once, we found a homeless man’s shelter and stole his stuff. That was pretty bad. He found us in our den looking at his books. Scared the daylights out of us and we ran off screaming. We didn’t go back for about a month, but he’d trashed our den. There was nothing left of it except the big logs we’d dragged there to sit on.’
Harry’s dad took a turn. ‘We used to build bases like that at boarding school. There weren’t any homeless men, but we’d hang out in the woods or sneak out there after lights out. There’d always be a bottle of something and a pack of cigarettes stashed somewhere.’
‘Don’t tell him that!’ Harry’s mum whispered, but Chris nodded towards his son. HazBot 6000 was asleep in his chair. Harry’s dad picked him up while his mum unzipped the tent, climbed inside, and opened his sleeping bag. They put him down on the middle sleeping mat, took off his coat and boots, then lay down either side of him.
> POWER ON … INITIATING BOOT DISK
> FORMATTING DRIVE A: … FORMATTING COMPLETE: HAZBOT 6000 AWAKE
> INITIATING OCULAR RECEPTORS … ESTABLISHING SURROUNDINGS … INSUFFICIENT LIGHT …
> ACTIVATING TORCH MODE … TORCH FUNCTIONING
> ESTABLISHING SURROUNDINGS … LOCATION CONFIRMED: TENT
> INITIATING LIMBS … CONFIRM MOBILITY … MOBILITY CONFIRMED …
> EXITING SLEEPING BAG
> TEMPERATURE SENSORS FUNCTIONING … ATMOSPHERE: COLD …
> LOCATING DRESSING GOWN … DRESSING GOWN UNAVAILABLE …
> RECALIBRATING … LOCATING COAT … COAT LOCATED … LOCATING BOOTS … BOOTS LOCATED
> STEALTH MODE ACTIVATED … EXITING TENT
HazBot 6000 followed the path back down to the river, clanking carefully, slowly, stiffly, following the spread of light from the torch he carried as it pulled tree roots, ferns and fallen leaves out of the shadows.
> RIVER DETECTED
> ACCESSING GPS … LOCATION CONFIRMED
> CAUTION MODE ACTIVATED … MAINTAINING DISTANCE FROM RIVER
> ACCESSING GPS … ROUTE CONFIRMED … TURNING LEFT
The path forked away from the river. It looked unfamiliar, as paths often do in the darkness, but HazBot 6000 clanked on.
> ACCESSING GPS … LOCATION UNCERTAIN … U-TURN WHEN POSSIBLE
He tried the right fork.
> ACCESSING GPS … LOCATION CONFIRMED … CONTINUE STRAIGHT
The darkness grew dense in the gulley, pushing in from both sides.
> INITIATING BRAVERY MODE … BRAVERY MODE FUNCTIONING AT 20% CAPACITY
> ACTIVATING WHISTLE FUNCTION
> BRAVERY MODE FUNCTIONING AT 25% CAPACITY … 30% CAPACITY
> UNSTABLE SURFACE DETECTED UNDERFOOT … INITIATING OFF-ROAD MODE
> BRAVERY MODE FUNCTIONING AT 40% CAPACITY
> TORCH MODE MALFUNCTIONING …
> BRAVERY MODE FUNCTIONING AT 20% CAPACITY
> TORCH MODE MALFUNCTIONING …
> BRAVERY MODE FUNCTIONING AT 10% CAPACITY … 5% CAPACITY
> TORCH MODE MALFUNCTIONING
> BRAVERY MODE … MALFUNCTIONING
As HazBot 6000 stumbled onto the plateau at the top of the gulley, he saw the galaxy overhead. His cold stiff legs carried him to the bench which was there for weary walkers and view-spotters. He sat down, then lay on his back so his ocular receptors could take in the countless points of light above him.
‘My virtual existence might just start unravelling now,’ he said. ‘Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune.’
He lay like that for some time, not bothering to access his internal clock. To his left, there was a faint glow on the horizon and the silhouette of low hills started to appear in the morning mist.
> SEARCHING MEMORY …
HazBot 6000 recited: ‘There’s a path up the hill that way that’s got amazing views at the top. It’ll blow your mind, Haz…’
> SEARCHING MEMORY …
‘Let’s see who can be the best robot.’
> SEARCHING MEMORY …
‘…he needs to start acting normally, otherwise they’re going to send him home for the week…’
> SEARCHING MEMORY …
‘You’re a kind little boy, aren’t you?’
> SEARCHING MEMORY …
‘…the person to suffer most as a result of Harry’s behaviour is likely to be Harry himself…he’s never been the most focused of our pupils…’
> SEARCHING MEMORY …
‘Well that’s not enough, Harry, you need to try harder than that.’
> SEARCHING MEMORY …
‘…he’s gone beyond pretending…he is a robot…’
> SEARCHING MEMORY … LOCATING SELF … SEARCHING …
> SEARCHING …
Harry’s legs were stiffer than usual as he clanked back down the hill. The torch had stopped working, but the early morning sun gave him enough light to pick his way through the gulley and back beside the river.
He took off his coat and boots, unzipped the tent, and crawled back inside, shuffling into his sleeping bag between his parents. Then he pulled their arms across his body as sleep softened his robot limbs.