+J.M.J.+

Toys out of the Nursery

By "Matrix Refugee"

Author's Note:

I am "trying" take a breather from those lascivious Joe fictions I've been writing…I doubt this has been done before; it is very, very sentimental so, as usual, read at your own risk. However, I did crossbreed the plot with some drastically changed elements from Spielberg's earlier effort, Schindler's List (specifically, Helena Hirsch's sufferings at the hands of Amon Goeth), which makes this in some ways a darker story than it could have been. I also borrowed somewhat from Isaac Asimov's short story "Robbie", about a little girl and her robot friend, which Asimov himself described as a "robot-as-pathos" story.

Disclaimer:

I do not own "A.I.", its characters, concepts, imagery, settings, dialogue, or other indicia, which are the property of the late, great Stanley Kubrick, of DreamWorks SKG, the living, great Steven Spielberg, Warner Brothers, et al.

I

Cherished

"Maddy will be just as well off as if you were taking care of her yourself," assured Carrick, the saleswoman from Serve US. "Babette was built specific to her task and programmed for and with care."

Artemesia Grachek shook her head in mingled despair and delight. "I don't know if I should; she's just a machine, like all the rest of them."

"But she is no ordinary machine: she was meant to be a child's companion and guardian."

The two women sat in Artemesia's drawing room. A third female figure, clad in a flowing white cotton dress stood beside Ms. Carrick's chair, short and a trifle matronly in a pretty, shapely way, with a soft peaches-and-cream complexion and cornflower-blue eyes, her perfectly symmetrical oval face framed with masses of chestnut-brown hair tied back with a white ribbon. A delicate smile curved her coral-pink lips, almost—almost—eclipsing the slight vacancy in her eyes.

Artemesia stared up at the stranger in her house. "I don't know, I'd almost sooner put Maddy in the State daycare than leave her with this."

"Is Maddy boy or girl?" the figure in white asked, her voice a sweet, almost sugary alto.

Artemesia jumped and looked first at the figure, then at Ms. Carrick. "Did…she…just say that?!"

"Ask her for yourself," Ms. Carrick replied, eyes twinkling.

Artemesia turned to the figure. "Babette, did you just speak to me?"

"Yes."

"What did you say?"

"Is Maddy boy or girl?"

"A girl."

"Ah, how old is she?"

"She's just four years old."

"Une petite fils, yes? How sweet!"

Artemesia turned back to Ms. Carrick. "I don't know. Now that I'm thinking about it, I don't know if I can let such…let her into the house."

"The real test is when your little girl meets her. Unless they've learned prejudices from their parents or other sources, most children take well to Mecha nannies."

"I've tried to avoid instilling this prejudice into Maddy; we have a housekeeper Mecha."

"I can't twist your arm. I'm not here to make a hard sell."

Artemesia looked at Babette, into those serene eyes. She imagined Maddy playing with this tranquil creature.

"If something doesn't work, I can return her?" she asked.

"All our Mechas are covered by a full guarantee. We won't make you pay for something that doesn't fit in."

"She can stay; I'll sign the agreement."

Ms. Carrick held out to her the clipboard holding the liabilities documents. Artemesia read them over and signed it. Ms. Carrick separated the sheets, with one copy for Artemesia, and the other for Serve US.

The saleswoman left shortly afterward, leaving Artemesia alone with Babette.

"You can look around the house; Maddy will be home later," Artemesia said.

"Oui, Madame. May I know whom else lives in your family?"

"Just my husband, Emil, but he's away much of the time. Oh, and our housekeeper Mecha, Gussie."

She left the Mecha to its own devices as it roamed through the house, taking it in. The only time Artemesia interposed was to lead Babette to the nursery; Emil hated that word, but Artemesia used it when he wasn't around. It was so simpler to say than "Maddy's room"

Though she could easily afford it, Artemesia had bought Maddy very few Supertoys, preferring the simpler, less expensive and less unpredictable things she had had in her own childhood: a wooden set of building blocks, play furniture, dolls and cloth animals. She'd even painted the walls pink with a mauve rug and white trim.

Maddy had her own little suite, with a fair-sized playroom that opened onto a screened porch, a cozy bedroom, her own bathroom. Babette surveyed each room in turn, her hands clasped loosely before her. She did not touch a thing, but her soft gaze seemed to caress all it lit upon. No, Artemesia thought. I can't humanize her.

The front door chimed. "Wait here," Artemesia said. She went to answer the door.

When Artemesia opened the door, Maddy, with her grandmother's driver following her with the bags, skipped in. Artemesia knelt and hugged her little girl.

"Did you have fun at Grandma's?" Artemesia asked.

"Ooh yes!" Maddy held up a bunch of crinkled flowers of thin cardboard. "See what she showed me to make!"

"Oh, aren't they lovely!" Artemesia said. She braced herself inwardly. She had to tell Maddy. "Come upstairs to your room. I've got a surprise there."

"A good surprise?" Maddy asked.

"A great surprise."

Artemesia took her daughter by the hand and led her up to the nursery.

Babette stood exactly where Artemesia had left her, in the playroom. Maddy stopped on the threshold. She looked up at Artemesia.

"What is it, Mommy?"

"This is Babette; she's going to take care of you when I go back to work. Say hello to Babette."

Maddy clung to Artemesia's hand and shrank back against her legs. Babette stepped forward and knelt down to Maddy's level.

"Hello, little girl. What's your name?"

"Maddy," she replied, eying the stranger with suspicion.

"That is a pretty name for a pretty girl. How old are you?"

"This many." Maddy held up her hand, fingers spread, thumb curled in.

"One-two-three-four. My, you are quite a young lady now, yes?"

Maddy pulled away from her mother. "You talk pretty."

"Thank you."

Artemesia withdrew and left the two to acclimate to each other. Of course the Mecha took to the little girl immediately, obedient to a set of programmed responses to stimuli. But she sounded so natural…

Maddy had a few days to adjust to Babette before Artemesia had to leave her in the Mecha's care. And, in that time, Artemesia could peruse Babette's record.

She was a slightly less recent model, but she had previously served only two other families: first, the Armbrusters, for seven years, then the Nackerts for five years. She had ceased to serve the Armbrusters' daughter when she went away to a boarding school in Switzerland. The Nackerts had let her go only because she was no longer needed following the death of their son. There were no complaints, only good reports, a relief after all the human nannies she had gone through with Maddy.

But still Artemesia's heart sighed at the thought of going back to work at the advertising firm and her having to leave Maddy in the care of a Mecha, but she had no other choice. She couldn't maintain their lifestyle by working part time, and Emil wasn't back yet from the last archaeology expedition. In some ways, as the assistant to the CEO of a company that made Mecha components, she was the real breadwinner of the family. Emil had always been wild and impractical, but that was one reason she had married him: even when he wasn't around, he kept her life from getting too predictable. Sometimes his affinity for scavenging for the fragments of the past seemed at odds with their milieu, what with the World Bank faltering and the world economy roller-coastering in the wake of global changes, sometimes it seemed as if they had no hope for a future generation for whom to preserve the relics of the past.

"Then what are we supposed to fill the museums with? Mecha components?" Emil had objected, but only when he'd been drinking. "Perhaps we're doomed to extinction. Perhaps someday, some other race will be assembling our skeletons, trying to figure out what we were and what made us tick. I'd just like to leave them a time capsule of what we managed to accomplish.

He'd said this as Gussie drew the curtains in the parlor; he eyed the dumpy old simulacrum with a glitter in his eyes perhaps not resulting from the straight bourbon he'd consumed.

Through the days that remained before she returned to work, Artemesia covertly watched her daughter and Babette. At one in the same time, Babette was like a large child and a gentle motherly type. She played tirelessly with Maddy, told her stories with a remarkable naturalness, bathed and dressed the little girl with care. Except for the mildly vacuous look that lingered in her eyes, Babette might have been an émigrée from Bordeaux come to work in the States.

But all good things come to an end, and Artemesia went back to work, confident that Babette could take good care of Maddy.

One day, Maddy lay on a heap of dress up clothes in front of the French windows that opened onto the porch, listening to the rain falling on the trees outside. Babette sat on the rung beside her.

"Babette, why does Mommy have to work?" Maddy asked suddenly.

"She works so she can earn the money to buy you good food and pretty things, ma petite."

Maddy snuggled close to Babette. "I wish she didn't have to go out to work."

"She will be back, princess." Babette gathered Maddy into her lap. Maddy snuggled down in her soft arms as Babette sang to her gently in that warm language Mommy said was "French".

A year passed in peace. Maddy shot up three inches. In the summer, she went with Babette to stay with Aunt Sarah in South Minnesota, but she came back for her fifth birthday. Artemesia tried to make up for the year's absences by having a party for her little girl, her first real party with invitations. Artemesia even relieved Gussie of baking the cake.

That autumn, as the heavier rains fell, Maddy started kindergarten. Artemesia made much of this big step; she took Maddy school shopping and let her pick out some of her new clothes. Once they got home, Maddy ran straight up to the nursery, lugging a big shopping bag, to show off her new dresses to Babette.

First day of school, Artemesia had to leave early on a business trip, so she entrusted to Babette the duty of walking Maddy to school, which wasn't far from the house.

"Madame, I will guide her well and it shall make Mademoiselle Maddy very happy," Babette replied.

The prospect of walking to school with Babette made Maddy forget her dismay that Mommy couldn't walk her to school

Once they reached the school, and once Maddy had been whisked away to her classroom, Babette lingered just inside the front door, waiting for her little charge to return. Time and waiting meant nothing to the little Mecha-woman.

At three, the school bell rang and the children filed out, Maddy spotted Babette exactly where they had parted, and ran to meet her friend.

At the further end of the hallway, one of the teachers spotted the child running toward the quiet figure that stood waiting in the shadows of the entryway. That's not a Mecha, is it? he thought. He'd have to speak to Mrs. Grachek.

When Artemesia came home that evening, Maddy ran to meet her at the door, bursting with news. As soon as her daughter had gushed most of her stories, Artemesia turned to Babette.

"Did Maddy behave today?"

"Yes, Madame, there are not notes from her teacher."

But the next day, Maddy came home with a note from Mr. Vincent:

Mrs. Grachek,

I noticed that Maddy came to school accompanied by a Mecha which lingered in the school entryway. Kindly instruct your Mecha to leave the premises after the first bell and to return at 15.00 pm.

Sincerely,

[signed]

Jacob Vincent.

Of all the Luddite nonsense, Artemesia thought. There was no explicit school policy on Mechas, so she knew this to had be the teacher's personal prejudice. She tossed the note into the paper shredder.

After a week or two, Maddy came to Artemesia with a simple request.

"Can I take Babette to school for show 'n tell?"

Remembering the note, Artemesia swallowed the affirmative forming on her tongue. "I'm afraid you can't. Your teacher might not like having Babette around."

Maddy's face crinkled with confusion. "But Babette's so nice, he'd like her if he got to know her."

"Some people just don't like Mechas." She bit her tongue. She'd never let on to Maddy what Babette really was.

The confusion nearly tied Maddy's face in a knot. "What's Mecha?"

"Well, Babette isn't a real person like you and I. She didn't grow like you're growing. People built her."

"Like a house?"

"A little like that. She's a little like your dolls, except she can talk and move by herself."

"Oh." Maddy's face untied itself, but a little pucker of concern lingered on her brow.

She went to her playroom, where Babette waited for her. Maddy hesitated, staring up at the soft-eyed being. Was she really only a big doll?

"Babette, are you real?" Maddy asked as her friend came to meet her.

Babette knelt down before the little girl. "You can see me with your eyes, yes?"

"Yes."

"You can put your arms about me and hug me, yes?"

"Yes."

"Your ears can hear my voice when I speak to you, yes?"

"Then I am real."

That was good enough for Maddy. She put her arms around Babette and cuddled her face in the Mecha's bosom. Babette held her gently.

And so it went for a year. From time to time, Mr. Vincent sent home notes to Artemesia about Babette, but nothing came of it, either way.

Summer came. Maddy went to Aunt Sarah's for a month, with Babette. She insisted on bringing the Mecha along, and Artemesia couldn't do otherwise. Sarah, who had lived in Paris for some years, enjoyed having the little Mecha at her house: for a little while at least, she had someone she could carry on a conversation with in French.

Then autumn came; Maddy moved up to first grade: different teachers, different children in the class. Babette still walked Maddy to and from school, still waited patiently in the hallway for the little girl to return.

After a couple weeks, one of Maddy's classmates, Sidney, noticed Babette as school got out. Next day, she asked Maddy about it.

"Is that a nanny-Mecha you come to school with?" Sidney asked at recess.

"Yeah, that's Babette."

"She's Mecha."

"I know."

"Only babies have nanny-Mechas."

"Don't you have one?"

"Yeah, when I was a baby. It looks after my little step-sister now; she's two."

That afternoon, after the final bell, Maddy trudged down the hallway, looking over her shoulder to make sure no one took notice of her as she went to meet the quiet, soft figure that waited for her.

"Maddy, what is wrong?" Babette asked, kneeling down to Maddy's level.

"Sidney said only babies have nannies."

"But you know that you are a big girl. Does this Sidney have a nanny?"

"No."

"Then she does not know the fun we have together, no?'

"No," Maddy agreed, smiling again.

They went home together, hand in hand. Maddy put aside Sidney's cruel words.

But it was not enough.

"Baby-talk! Baby-talk! Baby talks with big dolls!" Sidney taunted from across the playground, a few other girls around her as Maddy sat alone, eating her lunch.

"Does that nanny-Mecha change your dipies when you get home?" another girl teased.

"You got jelly on your chin. Want me to get your nanny to wipe it off for you?" twitted a third girl.

Maddy tried to ignore the mocking, but it only continued. She threw down her lunchbox and ran across the yard, her little fists flailing.

The three girls pounced on her and rolled her in a muddy spot in the corner of the yard.

Fortunately the yard monitors saw this happen and rushed in to put a stop to it. They separated Maddy from the combatants. One of them carried Maddy to the nurse's office; the three troublemakers were marched to the school therapist's office.

The nurse and her assistant—whose face reminded her of Babette's—cleaned her up and found her some clean clothes to wear while they ran hers through the wash.

"I want Babette," Maddy murmured, trying not to whimper.

"Who's Babette?" asked the nurse.

"She's my nanny. She's waiting by the front door."

The nurse turned to her assistant. "Go to the front door and see if there's anyone waiting there named Babette. Bring her here."

"Yes, ma'am," the assistant said; she went out, her joints whirring and creaking slightly.

"Now what caused all this?" the nurse asked. "Why did those girls roll you in the mud?"

"You'd laugh at me," Maddy sniffled.

"I wouldn't. I promise."

Maddy looked around and beckoned to the nurse to lean down to her. The nurse obliged her.

"They were laughing at me 'cause I came to school with Babette."

"Well, most girls your age don't usually do that, but you're different. What's Babette like?"

"She's nice. She sings to me and reads me stories, and she talks really pretty."

"I bet you have a lot of fun with her." The nurse glanced toward the door. "I'll let you in on a little secret: I bet those girls who pushed you in the mud really wish they had someone just as nice as Babette waiting for them. And they got you all over mud because they're jealous."

At that point the assistant returned with Babette.

"Ah, mon pauvre petite enfant!" Babette cried, kneeling beside Maddy's chair. "Have les mal filles, the bad girls hurt you?"

"Mostly inside."

"Come, let me take out the hurt," Babette soothed, holding her.

The principal sent home a message with Babette, which the Mecha-woman innocently passed to Artemesia.

Next morning, Artemesia went with Maddy to school. She walked her daughter in, while Babette stayed behind in the cruiser.

Artemesia saw Maddy into her classroom, and then went to the principal's office.

"I don't really want to have to tell you this: I've seen Maddy with Babette, and I can see how much that little Mecha makes her happy. But I can't let it stay in the school after yesterday's little tussle," the principal, Miss Washford, said.

"Then what are you suggesting?" Artemesia asked.

"It would be better if Babette could be made to understand she has to leave the building after Maddy has gone into the classroom and return for her at 15.00."

"I could tell her that, but how is she—I mean Maddy, of course—going to take this?"

"She has to learn to let go. We all have to go through that passageway at some time or other."

Artemesia returned to her car. Babette sat quietly poised in the back seat, her eyes on the school's main door, as if she watched only for Maddy.

"Babette?"

The little Mecha turned her face to Artemesia. "Oui, Madame?"

"There's something important I have to tell you." As she explained the new rules, Artemesia hoped the Mecha understood it all. Of course it could…

Babette's eyes went blank for a moment, as if they clouded over with thought. But they soon cleared.

"I hope you understand," Artemesia concluded.

"There is little to understand. I must only do what is asked."

At least Sidney didn't make fun of her today, Maddy realized with relief. She decided not to play with Sidney that day, but with another friend, Pratibha.

At 15.00, when school let out, Maddy ran to the hall to where Babette usually stood waiting for her. She had a good day to tell her all about.

No Babette stood by the door.

She almost started crying, but the door opened and a soft figure stepped through.

"Babette!" Maddy cried, running to meet her friend.

"I am here, Maddy," Babette said, stooping down and gathering Maddy into a big hug.

For the moment, Maddy set aside her fear. But once they left the school and were well away from the building, she looked up at Babette.

"Why weren't you there when I came out?" she asked.

Babette paused and got down to Maddy's level. "You Maman told me I could not wait for you at the school."

"Why not?"

A blankly sad look passed over Babette's face. "I do not know; it is something I cannot understand. You will have to ask your Maman to explain."

Maddy wondered if it had anything to do with Sidney and the girls who had rolled her in the mud. She decided then and there she would never, ever, EVER play with Sidney again, just for that.

But she and the robot-woman soon adapted to the new rules they could not comprehend; yet another of the mysteries of big people. And Orgas.

The season passed. Fall's rains gave way to winter's snow squalls and spring's renewed rains and lush flowers.

Just after Maddy finished first grade, a call came from Nairobi to Artemesia's office, from the excavation team Emil was working with.

That night, Artemesia—Mommy—came home from work very early. She even came right up to the nursery, where Maddy and Babette were busy building a princess castle with blocks.

Artemesia sat on the floor close to her daughter, near the sprawling little edifice already in progress. "Maddy," she said. "I have something very important to tell you. It's about Daddy."

"Is he coming home?" Maddy had only very dim memories of her Daddy.

"Yes. He's been very sick, and he's coming home to get better."

"When's he coming home?"

"He should be home tomorrow morning."

The next morning, Babette bathed Maddy and put the little girl's hair up in a French braid. After breakfast, Artemesia drove them to the hyperjet terminal.

Artemesia almost didn't Emil when she first saw him. His dark blond hair had receded slightly and started to turn gray. His hooded gray eyes looked sunken and his face looked drawn. He'd had a powerful if slight physique, but that had started to run to fat, one of the effects of his illness, which had damaged his thyroid, according to the doctor who had called.

He smiled when he saw them, but the tired look did not leave his eyes. He limped to meet them; an old injury had left him with a slight hobble, but he usually took care to avoid walking crookedly.

"Welcome home," she said, embracing him.

"You look great; did you miss me?" he asked. He kissed her on the ear.

"No," she teased. He slapped her playfully.

Maddy ran up to her Daddy. "Now who is this beautiful young lady?" he asked, mock-quizzically. He let Artemesia go.

"I'm your little girl. I'm Maddy," she said, her lower lip thrust out slightly.

"Of course you are," he said, scooping her up. "I'd know you anywhere. I was just kidding you." He turned and eyed Babette. His brow furrowed. "Who's this?"

"This is Babette," Artemesia said. "She's Maddy's nanny."

"She's Mecha," he said in a low voice.

"She's wonderful with Maddy."

Artemesia took a few days off from work, reacquainting herself with this man she had married.

The doctors had told Emil he would probably never again have the strength to go out on expeditions. He had consequently decided to start writing his memoirs to bide his time until a job offer from a museum in Chicago, as a cataloguer, came through.

"It's not the big things you really have to worry about, you can often see them coming," Emil said, sitting by their bedroom window one night. "Except maybe earthquakes, but the seismologists are getting better at predicting them. It's the little tiny things that you really have to look out for."

"Little things like what?" Artemesia asked, making up the bed.

"Disease-carrying parasites," he said with a sour smile.

"Is that how you got sick?" she asked.

"Unboiled water. I was hasty. The old saying came true: Haste makes waste."

"At least you survived it."

He turned away from the window and joined her in bed. "But there's one big thing I'm concerned about. What's with the nanny-Mecha? I thought we agreed to keep Maddy's exposure to Mecha down to a minimum? Isn't Gussie enough? What happened to Falice?"

"I had trouble with her: I wrote to you about it."

"I must not have got that message."

"She wouldn't follow the house rules, and twice, she invited her boyfriend over when I was out. Gussie isn't really programmed to mind children. Babette's wonderful with Maddy. She's practically human. Once you get to know her, you'll be amazed."

"And I suppose I'd like her too," he drawled.

"Maddy's happy with her, and that's all that matters."

Artemesia also entrusted Babette with keeping a discreet eye on Emil when she was not tending Maddy, who was away at camp now, her first summer. She had objected nosily to the separation from Babette, but Artemesia had gently reminded her of the incident at school that last year.

He wasn't supposed to because of the medication he was on, but Emil kept a bottle of bourbon in the deep bottom drawer of the desk in his study while he worked. He took it out after he'd been working for three hours that morning.

"Monsieur, you are not allowed to drink alcohol," said a soft voice behind him.

He set his glass on his desktop and turned his chair around. That nanny-Mecha stood there in the doorway, looking at him with her soft, silly expression.

"How long have you been standing there?" he demanded.

"Thirty minutes and seven seconds, Monsieur."

"Well, you can just got away. You're supposed to mind Maddy; I'm a big boy."

The Mecha smiled her fey smile and went away. At least these things couldn't object, at least humans still dominated by word and by species.

That night, Artemesia questioned Babette about Emil.

"Monsieur took his medication, but he was drinking later this morning," Babette said.

"Anything more?"

"No. He worked at writing through the day.

Artemesia broached the problem later to him.

"I just don't want you to have some drug interaction," she argued.

"I was just one drink; I'll be all right," he said. He eyed her askance. "You put that Mecha up to this, didn't you?"

"You haven't been well. I just want you to be all right."

"Well, I don't need the likes of that thing spying on me. Maddy's one thing, but I don't need supervision, especially from that…thing."

She relented. At times, she wished somehow Babette could have gone with Maddy, but it would only cause more friction.

She changed her instructions to Babette next morning. The Mecha-woman took them with her usual patient sweetness.

Now that she wasn't looking after Maddy, Babette still made herself useful, helping Gussie with the housework. But she avoided the study if Monsieur was working there. He would not want her there and she had explicit orders from Madame.

A few of Emil's friends in the field dropped in to visit from time to time, to check on his recovery and see how he was progressing with the book. This afforded him a chance to sneak in a social drink or two; he'd cut back to palliate Artemesia, but he soon had slipped back to his old ways.

He was artful in finding ways to hide his private indulging, but Artemesia somehow knew when he'd been at the bottle again. She had to find ways to monitor him without interfering. She'd searched his desk drawers when he wasn't looking, but she didn't find anything.

She told Babette to clean in his study even when Monsieur was there and to report to her on anything unusual.

Babette could only oblige; she knew no other response but obedience.

The next day, as Emil reached for the Greek amphora he kept on a bookshelf by the desk, Babette came in with her sweeper.

"Hey, I really can't be disturbed," he said. "Can't you sweep later?"

The Mecha stopped sweeping and looked up. "Madame asked me to clean in here today."

"Oh, she did, did she? Well, I'm sorry, but I can't let you do that."

"I must, Monsieur."

He realized Artemesia must have told this thing to ignore his protestations. In a sense, she'd ordered the thing to go over his head.

"This is my study. I want you to get out of here and clean somewhere else."

"Monsieur, I have my orders from Madame."

He stood up to his full height and looked down at her. "Babette, get out."

"Monsieur, I cannot."

Before he knew what he was doing, he swung his flat hand and struck the Mecha's face. She stepped rather than staggered back from the blow. Without looking at him, she walked quickly from the room.

He hoped that made her reprocess those orders, if she could do that. That would keep her in her place as a servant. Since when did the servants order their masters? He didn't really like resorting to blows, but sometimes that was the only thing that worked. If the universal sign of dominance didn't work, what would keep these things down?

"He struck you?!" Artemesia repeated. "Where did he strike you?"

"He struck my cheek," Babette replied, a simple statement of fact, free from complaint.

Artemesia had seen caution on Babette's tranquil face when Emil had hobbled past her in the hallway and found it odd; now she understood why.

Later that night, when Emil came up to their room, Artemesia met him at the door and barred his entrance.

"What's this for?" he asked.

"You hit Babette."

"She's only a machine. It's not like I could hurt her."

"You could damage her, but that's not the point."

"She came into my study and she wouldn't leave after I asked her. How was I to concentrate on my writing with her puttering around?"

"You're using that as an excuse; you were drinking again, weren't you?"

"I had a drink just to settle my nerves."

"You know you can't drink."

"One drink won't kill me. Besides, you can't use a Mecha to spy on me."

"If you'd stay away from the alcohol, I wouldn't feel obliged to protect your health."

"Using a Mecha to keep an eye on me." He glared at her. "Who did you get this thing to look after, Maddy or me?"

He turned away from the door and went to sleep in the study. To spite Artemesia, he took a nip to help himself sleep.

Two weeks before Maddy came home, Artemesia had to go away on business for a week. The first day, Emil barricaded himself in the study with a chair braced under the knob as his first line of defense. He had another line of defense: showing his fist.

The second day, something came in his email to disrupt his writing: he'd gotten the cataloguing job. "The cat's away, so let the rats play," he murmured, reaching for the amphora and pouring a drink for himself.

The knob rattled at that moment. He ignored it. The chair tipped up on its legs. The door opened, pushing the chair across the floor.

"Monsieur, may I sweep I here?" that sugary little voice asked.

"Get out of here!" he snarled. That Mecha stepped into the room with the sweeper. He hurled his empty glass at her. She did not flinch; the glass struck the side of her head. She stepped back, out of the room and ran away.

For a moment part of his mind wondered if the glass had damaged something inside her. All the better, thought another part of his nature. If she malfunctioned, maybe that would be the best way to get the wretched thing out of the house.

He made a few phone calls, inviting some of his old friends and colleagues for an informal dinner party the following evening. He had to celebrate, share the news with the others.

He called Artemesia later that evening. She had to share his good fortune too. The whole time they talked together, he could hear her thinking, 'It'll get you out of the house'. Come to think of it, this would get him out from under the innocent, prying little eyes of Artemesia's mechanical spy in the frilled white dress and apron.

He instructed Gussie about the menu for the gathering the following evening, and he ordered Babette to help Gussie. That would keep her off his back.

He'd only invited a handful: Rollard and his girlfriend, Jarrek the paleontologist, Karpi the anthropologist, and his wife and colleague Athene. But when they arrived, Athene had brought along her college roommate Sondra Klip, whom Emil had dated. He'd stopped seeing her only when she'd gone on to pursue less intellectual endeavors such as fashion design. She'd done well in her field to guess from the expensive-looking young man she had for an escort. At first glance, Emil thought she had some up and coming young male model on her arm, but once her companion stepped into the light, he noticed something different: the young fellow's dark hair seemed a little too well-brushed back, and the sheen of his skin didn't look quite natural, unless he was taking a awful lot of Vitamin E. The eyes gave it away for what it was: no one eye's were that clear a shade of green and they had that vacuous look typical of Mechas.

Emil had asked Rollard to bring along some extra wine; Artemesia had a virtual palm lock keyed only to her hand on the household account, so Emil had been unable to buy any extra for his guests. Oh well, it was an informal gathering; they knew what a skinflint Artemesia could be.

And the party grew increasingly informal as the guests drank freely of Rollard's donations. Back in the kitchen, helping Gussie with the dishes, Babette heard sounds Madame might not approve of. She had to report to Madame on Monsieur's activity; doubtlessly this was part of it. She had to go find out, but she had to finish with these dishes.

When she had finished, she went out into the hallway in search of Monsieur, listening for his voice. At length, her auditory receptors picked it up in the near distance. She followed it, around the corner of the corridor.

She found Monsieur standing with a strange woman, kissing her as she had seen him kiss Madame.

This was not right: he was Madame's husband.

"Monsieur?"

Emil loosely released Sondra and looked over his shoulder. There was that wretched Mecha…again.

"Emil, who's this?" Sondra asked, giggling.

"Just the nanny-Mecha Artemesia got for Maddy, without consulting me," he said, letting her go. "You go on, I'll catch up."

He dragged Babette around the corner, his hand clenching her shoulder. Once out of earshot, he spun her around to face him.

"You stay out of my way, especially when I have guests," he snarled.

"Monsieur, have you been drinking again?" Babette's eyes scanned up and down his face, her head rising and lowering with them.

"That's none of your business!"

"But Madame has asked me to—"

"None of that!" He gripped her face. Gad, her skin and the structures under it felt real, nice trick of the designers. "I am the master of this house, you are just a Mecha. I give you orders; you obey them. Got it?"

"I hear your words. But Madame—"

"Shut up!" he rasped and swung her by the chin into the wall. The crack of the side of her head hitting the stucco wall sounded real. The bland look in her eyes vanished for a second. He rammed her into the opposite wall, wondering if she could feel anything. Her lips parted but she made no outcry.

 He let her go. "Forget whatever Madame says. Stay out of my way." With a parting slap across the face, he hobbled away to find Sondra.

The blow staggered her. Though her equilibrium moderator was designed to help her balance better than an Orga could, she tottered and fell against the wall. The pain receptors in her head kept firing.

She heard a man's footsteps in the hallway. Monsieur's? Had he come back? Would he apologize or would he do more hurt? But these steps sounded differently, more even, lacking Monsieur's slight limp.

A tall man in a long black jacket appeared around the corner, looking about with pale green eyes. He looked at her, approached where she lay and knelt gracefully beside her.

"Are you troubled?" he asked in a melodious voice. "Are you hurt?"

"I do not know. I only did what Madame asked me to do," she replied.

"And what did Madame asked you to do?"

"She asked me to watch Monsieur, to see that he did not drink while she was away from home, so the alcohol would not react with his medicine."

He reached out both his hands to her and gently took her hands by the wrists. His hands felt so soft and yet so strong. He stood up slowly, lifting her with him.

"You only did what you were ordered to do, and for this you were rewarded with a blow," he said, his face close to hers. Her eyes scanned his face and she understood he was not as most men, not like Monsieur and his friends, that he was different, the way she was different.

For a split second, his bright eyes lost their gently caressing look and gave way to a momentary blankness. She knew then he had seen it also.

He held her face in his hands, his eyes scanning her face as she scanned his.

"I do not understand," she said at length.

"What do you not understand? Why your Monsieur treated you so?"

"Oui."

The stranger with the bright eyes was silent before he spoke again. "He harmed you because you mean nothing to him. We really mean nothing to them. We exist merely to serve them and their needs. But someday, perhaps, they will learn better, that our only differences lie in our construction."

She could not understand what he meant by all this, but his voice caressed her auditory receptors. She smiled up at him.

"Now where would you be if you were not here?"

"I would be up in the nursery."

"Let me come with you, to see not further harm befalls you," he said.

"Merci."

She let him take her arm and she led the way upstairs to the nursery. As they reached the door, another strange woman stepped out of the shadows.

"Oh there you are. Are you hidin' on us, Joe?" she asked.

"I did not attempt to conceal myself, but I did encounter a damsel in distress," the bright-eyed stranger replied.

"Well, couldja rescue another damsel who's distressed?"

"Not without first bidding the first damsel a fitting farewell," he replied. He turned back to Babette and leaning down, kissed her gently on her cheek. He turned away and accompanied the disheveled woman down the stairs.

So much had happened, Babette hardly noticed that her pain receptors still fired under her scalp, but somehow that mattered little. She went into the nursery.

Fortunately, Emil could mask his mild hangover as part of his usual aches and pains. Thankfully, Babette kept out of his way and Gussie cleared up the remains of the party.

Artemesia arrived home around noon. He kept a modest profile as he went downstairs to meet her at the door.

"I couldn't wait to get home," she said, once she got in. "I almost took a flight out last night, but I met up with some old friends."

Thank heavens, he thought.

"I'm happy for you, but what about your health? Do you think you can handle it?"

"I'll take it one day at a time and see how it works. If I end up having problems, I'll just have to find something less intense, or maybe just settle on finishing my memoirs."

He helped her carry her bags upstairs, chatting with her about this and that, anything to keep her from going to check in with that Mecha. He just hoped his rough handling had damaged the object's memory centers so she couldn't recall what had happened the night before.

After lunch, while Emil took a rest, Artemesia went to the nursery to speak to Babette.

She found the little Mecha-woman sitting in her place in the rocking chair by the window.

"So how did Monsieur behave while I was gone," Artemesia asked. She bit her tongue for phrasing it this way.

The Mecha related something about how Emil had invited a few guests last night. That much hardly surprised Artemesia, but it progressed.

 "He kissed on the lips one of the women guests. I told him he should not kiss so any but you, Madame. He struck my head."

Artemesia stared in disbelief. Emil could get loud when he had had a few, but this was new. She wondered if these machines could fabricate…but no, they were artificially intelligent, but they weren't smart enough to lie. It defied their logic parameters, unless they had been fed misinformation. That couldn't be.

"Thank you, Babette."

"Indeed, Madame." Artemesia rose on legs that barely obeyed her own internal command.

She went to the bedroom. Emil lay on the bed, drowsing, eyes closed. She decided to wait until later, when he was more alert.

That evening, after supper, after Babette had cleared the table, Artemesia broached the subject to Emil.

"Babette says you struck her over the head."

Emil lit a cigarette, a rare luxury Artemesia permitted less grudgingly. "What?"

"She also said you were fooling around with a strange woman."

"She was mistaken. I had a few friends for dinner last night, and I was merely saying good night to her." His eyes showed clear. She decided he was telling the truth. Babette could be mistaken; she was programmed to keep wayward children in line and their behavior was easier to interpret.

"But she said you struck her."

"She got in my way and she wouldn't move. I was tired, so I'll admit I got a little harsh with her. But I didn't do anything to damage her." His eyes had shifted to the left as he spoke. Was he telling the truth?

There was only one way to tell for sure, and that was to have Babette's memory scanned.

"It's her word against yours," she said, grimly.

He didn't like the sound of that, as if he were a naughty child and the Mecha were a responsible adult.

Next day, Artemesia called Serve US to arrange for an enquiry scan of Babette's memory banks, but the soonest she could arrange for one was a week later, after Maddy came back from camp. Maddy would object to the separation, but maybe she would take it better now that she had been away from the Mecha for so long.

Emil played it safe for a few days; he couldn't hazard a drink just yet, but if he couldn't go too long without getting the shakes. He reached for the amphora one afternoon. The door opened behind him. He knew who it was.

Babette came up to him and put her hand on his wrist.

"Did Madame tell you to put your hand on my arm?" he demanded.

"Oui, Monsieur, she wants only your welfare and health."

This was the last straw. He tried to shake her off, but her grip was incredible. Gad, did she ever do this to Maddy?! He took the amphora from his hand. She let him go and started to reach for the other hand, but he set down the jug before she could grasp him.

He grabbed it around the head and dragged it out the door and down the hall. He ripped a strip from its apron and tied the rag around its eyes as a blindfold. It made no struggle. The least he had expected was that it might try to break free, but this made things easier.

He led the thing out the back door and down the slope of the yard, deep into the woods behind the house, into the shadows under the trees. He led it far enough away that he could no longer hear the sounds of civilization, leading his captive on a zigzagging path so it couldn't get its bearings.

He plunked her on the ground behind a tree. "Stay there, you heap of silicon," he muttered. He stalked away, taking a circuitous route home so it could not hear which way he went and follow him back.

"Oui, Monsieur," she said.

To be continued…

Afterword:

Because of my tightened schedule, I divided this story into two halves, just to tide you folks over until I get the next load of stuff written. For that matter, I might even add Maddy (all grown up) to one of my other efforts, perhaps "Zenon Eyes: eyes of Truth", so—as always—stay tuned for lots more to come…

Literary Easter Eggs:

Babette's name—I borrowed this name from another of my favorite movies, Babette's Feast, a quiet but beautiful Danish-made film about a French cook who works for two spinster sisters in late19th century Denmark, and how, through a special meal for her employers and their friends, she wins the confidence and respect of the extremely suspicious villagers. I needed a French name, and this was the first one that came to mind (After my own first name, Renee, but since I often inject a certain amount of my own persona into the Mechas in my fictions, I was concerned this might be too obvious.).

The Joe cameo—Yes, to you members of Joe's Coterie of Happy Customers, that is our green-eyed love machine comforting Babette's wounded sensors. I based this little aside on the touching yet powerful scene in Schindler's List where Schindler comforts Helena Hirsch (I'm just waiting for the day when some film analyst compares the man of list, as Spielberg portrayed him, with Our Silicon Hottie: they're both good-lookers who melt the hearts of females around them, they're both amoral types, and yet they both act altruistically at tense times, assuming an unexpected father role even though it ends up costing them dearly, one way or another).