“Daddy’s Girl” by Eleanor R. Wood
Daddy lived in the cupboard under the stairs. I hardly ever saw him. Myra saw her dad twice a week, even though he didn’t live with them. Daddy still lived with us, but his eyes were dim and his limbs were still. Sometimes I’d sneak into the cupboard when Mum wasn’t looking and dust the cobwebs from his skin. I would sit beside him and lift one of his heavy arms around me and pretend he was really hugging me even though the arm hung limply beside me if I let go of his hand. But I could still lean against his steadfast frame and breathe in his faint metallic scent, laced with stale traces of his cologne. It was the scent of safety, and love, and protection.
I took on two paper routes when Daddy was put away. For the first week he remained lifeless on the sofa, sitting there like he’d just sat down to watch TV or help me with homework. But one day I came home to find him gone. Mum came in from work and told me, in a tight voice, that she’d put him under the stairs. ‘For now.’ Because we didn’t know what had broken, and it was too painful to have him sitting there.
People had started reading the news on paper again with the price of electricity so high. Paper needed delivering, and we needed the money. Mum already worked every available shift, so the more I could help out, the sooner we’d have Daddy home again. Properly home. Sitting at the table while we ate dinner. Waiting for me when I got home from school. Mowing the back lawn on a sunny afternoon. Not slumped in the dusty darkness with the spiders and creaking stair boards.
Months passed and our meagre savings still weren’t near enough. My birthday was coming up, and I cried at the thought of spending it without Daddy. My first ever birthday without him. My thirteenth. It was supposed to be a big day when you became a teenager. I just wanted to stay twelve until we were a family again.
Mum heard me crying and came to sit on my bed. She stroked my hair, not needing to ask what was wrong.
“What if we don’t ever save up enough, Mum?” I asked, my voice hitching on a sob.
“We will, sweetheart. As long as we keep our belts tight and put aside everything we can, eventually we’ll have enough.”
“But that could take years!”
“I know, baby. But we’ll do it. He would never give up on us, and we won’t ever give up on him.”
I knew it was true; I’d known Daddy’s story my whole life. Mum hadn’t given up on him after the accident, either. Even when the doctors told her not to cling to a pipedream. Even when the dream came true and she was offered the uncertainty of testing a prototype that had never been tried before. He was the man she loved. The father of her unborn child. She had to give him a chance, even a radical one on the fringes of science. His body was useless, but his mind was alive and trapped.
So they freed him. His first body was little more than a computer, but they built him a proper one with synthetic flesh and the likeness of his own face. And he was my daddy. The only one I’d ever known.
Most children are told the tale of how their parents met. I was told how mine met all over again, and how Mum had placed the wriggling bundle that was me into Daddy’s brand new arms. How he’d looked into my eyes and longed for real tears to express his overwhelming joy.
I had enough real tears for both of us now. I finished my paper route one evening and rode my bike out to the old quarry. Daddy used to take me to see the city skyline from the top of it, cupped in the lip of brutally gouged stone that formed the quarry’s outer edge. Many of the tallest buildings looked desolate now, even from here. I remembered a time when they’d been gleaming and bright, beacons of human success and financial prowess. The company that built Daddy had been housed in one of them. They’d gone bust just like all the others, leaving us with no hope if anything went wrong. And of course it had gone wrong, and my daddy was sitting lifeless under the stairs waiting in vain for us to scrape enough together to have him mended.
The sobs broke through my chest before I even realised they were building. I screamed a throat-rending yell that bounced off the quarry walls and repeated itself until it diminished to nothing. I grabbed a rock and flung it at the distant skyscrapers, my rage finally finding an outlet in their failure.
I felt a little better, but I realised then that I needed to do more than extra paper rounds. I needed to feel I was contributing something useful. Daddy’s experts were still out there somewhere, scattered into more austere professions, but they were no use without the mammoth funds. Saving up enough was going to take years. So be it. I would put those years to good use.
By the time I was sixteen, my shelves were piled with physics textbooks and robotics manuals. Myra’s bedroom walls were covered in posters of bare-chested hunks I’d never heard of because I had my nose in New Scientist while she was reading Seventeen. I had a picture of Hiroshi Ishiguro above my bed.
“You fancy that guy?” Myra asked one day.
I rolled my eyes in frustration. “I don’t fancy him, Myra. I admire him. He was a robotics pioneer who built one of the first interactive humanoid robots.”
She looked around my room with an expression of disdain. “You seriously need to get out more.”
That was the day I realised I’d outgrown her friendship. I sat under the stairs with Daddy that evening, feeling closer to him than I did to any of my peers. I pulled his arm around me and told him what Myra had said. He listened in stoic silence as always. I kissed him on the cheek and vowed he’d always be more important to me than silly nail-varnish-wearing girls.
By the time I was eighteen, the economy was slowly recovering. Food bank queues were ever shorter, councils were repairing roads again, and most importantly of all, I’d earned a scholarship to Cambridge. I was ecstatic. By now Mum and I had scraped together a few thousand, but still nowhere near enough to have Daddy fixed. Without a scholarship, there was no way I could have gone to university.
I made Mum promise to keep Daddy free of cobwebs and dust while I was away.
By the time I was twenty-three, I was embarking on a Master’s degree in computational neuroscience and cognitive robotics. The depression had stunted the development of android technology, so androids were still rare and expensive. The lab had one as a subject for study, but its consciousness was entirely artificial.
I was examining its servomotors late one afternoon. One of my fellow students, Raz, was working on something else two benches over. He stopped to watch me.
“Did you know Edinburgh had an uploaded consciousness model?” he asked. “I’d sell my gran to get my hands on one of those.”
“What happened to it?” I tried to sound casual.
“I dunno.” He flicked dark hair out of his eyes. “Somebody said it got tired of being a lab rat and walked out, but I heard that was just a stupid rumour. It’s not like they have human rights!” He seemed to find this funny.
Until then, I’d been considering the idea of bringing Daddy here. There were enough experts at the university to mend him, possibly at reduced cost, but I realised he would become a coveted object for study. I couldn’t do that to him.
I lowered my head, got on with my work, and politely ignored Raz for the rest of the semester. I was the only Cambridge postgrad who had ever seen an android with uploaded human consciousness, and I never mentioned it to anyone. Daddy wasn’t an android to me. He was my dad, and I missed him terribly.
I studied, and learned, and worked a waitressing job in my spare time. I deposited all but my most basic expenses into the savings account I shared with Mum. For Daddy.
I built my first artificially intelligent model for my dissertation. I’d built smaller robots before; I’d been building them since I was fifteen, but this was the first machine I’d built that could learn and think for itself. I modelled its brain on that of a human toddler, with all the same capacity for growth. I wanted to see how long it took to develop the mental skills of a human adult.
I graduated with honours and received a commendation from the university.
The pioneering research into transferring human consciousness had all but ground to a halt when its funding dried up. But now that the recession was fading, there were new companies eager to invest in up-and-coming technology, and several were vying to be the first to patent prosthetic bodies for living consciousness. Less than a year into my doctorate, I was approached by a headhunter.
“We’d love to have you on board, Miss Landry.”
They would fund my doctorate if I agreed to carry out research on their behalf. It was the foot in the door I’d been dreaming of.
The working atmosphere in the lab was a strange one. We were fellows, all sharing the same passions and goals, relating to one another in ways we couldn’t with others in our daily lives. Yet we were also rivals, competing for that first ground-breaking discovery or technological advancement. The harsh competition meant we closely guarded our discoveries, kept our advancements under wraps, and took every advantage ruthlessly. It was the only way to get ahead.
My closest competitor was a guy named Mark. He seemed decent, but I’d never got close enough to really know him. As the two highest academic achievers and the two most likely to hit a breakthrough, we held each other in mutual respect but kept our distance. Another lab partner, Susie, pulled me up on it one day.
“Do you really have to minimise your computer files every time Mark walks past?”
“Don’t you?” I asked.
“No!” Her tone suggested I was being ridiculous. “I’m not about to let him rifle through my notes, but a glance at my screen won’t tell him anything.”
“Don’t be so sure,” I muttered. “You know he only keeps paper notes in case anyone hacks his system, right? He takes the damned things everywhere with him.”
“So because he’s paranoid, you have to be too?”
“I wouldn’t call protecting my research ‘paranoia’. The guy’s practically a genius, Suse. He doesn’t need any help from the likes of us.”
She laughed. “So said the pot to the kettle…”
I rolled my eyes at her. In truth, we all had our own methods of protecting our work. We shared trivia. We kept our trump cards close to our chests.
Mum was visiting her sister in Scotland. I went to see Daddy for the first time in weeks. He gazed through me when I opened the cupboard and crouched down in front of him.
“Come on, Daddy. It’s time.”
His joints creaked as I shifted him forward. I’d often wondered how Mum had managed to get him in here. His frame was reinforced aluminium, but he still weighed about the same as an average-sized man. He was a dead weight as I dragged him out of the cupboard that had been his home for the past fourteen years. I winced an apology when his head bumped the floor. I heard a tear as his trouser leg caught on an exposed nail. I was breathing hard before I’d got him halfway down the hall.
I wrangled him into an awkward position on the back seat of my car, glad of the fading dusk that gave me some privacy against nosy neighbours. I drove straight to the lab, the hour-long journey giving me time to consider how I’d get Daddy inside unseen. I talked to him about it on the way, marvelling at taking a car journey with my dad for the first time since my childhood.
It was difficult and tiring, but after draping Daddy in a blanket and positioning my access card so the entry scanners could read it without my letting go of him, I managed to negotiate the lift to the second floor and finally get him inside my lab. No one else was there; it was Friday night, and they’d all gone home for the weekend, leaving me two whole days to tinker with the most important project I’d ever taken on.
I heaved him face down onto a workbench, pulling a muscle in my back. I stumbled to a chair and sat, wincing at the pain and trying in vain to massage it away. After a few moments, it eased enough that I could stand and stretch a little. I popped some paracetamol to take care of the rest. No time for distractions; I had work to do.
There was an access port at the base of Daddy’s skull, hidden beneath his hair. I realised straight away that it was an old connection. My cables wouldn’t fit, but there had to be an adaptor around somewhere. I scoured the lab and found one connected to an old computer interface. With its help, I plugged a cable into Daddy and hooked him up to my diagnostic computer. I checked his power supply while it was running. He ran mainly on an ultra-compact gas turbine tucked under his ribcage. I opened the panel and an intense memory hit me: Daddy standing in the kitchen, his torso panel open as he fitted a fresh gas cylinder. I remembered looking for my own panel and wondering why I didn’t have one.
“Little girls have tummies instead,” he’d answered my plaintive query. “They fill them with tasty things like toast and jam to give them energy for the day. My energy goes in here…” he closed his panel “…and yours goes in here!” He’d pounced on my tummy and tickled me into hysterics.
I smiled at the memory and went to check if we had the right model cylinder. When I returned, the computer was flashing its diagnosis. My heart sank. It had flagged two errors, one of which I could handle. But the other problem was beyond my scope. A machine like Daddy would have been built and maintained by a team of people. I’d been a fool to hope I could mend whatever was wrong with him unaided.
I drank coffee as I mulled my options. I could divert my research into the necessary area to gain the knowledge I needed, but it would take months. Now Daddy was finally here, I didn’t intend him to leave until he was fixed. The thought of lugging him home again made my pulled muscle throb, despite the painkillers. I wanted him to walk out on his own, at my side. I wanted Mum to find him waiting for her when she got back from Scotland. My years of patience had run out. He was here, in a laboratory that had all the necessary means to cure him, and I was damned if he was going back in the cupboard.
I knew I only had one choice, but that didn’t stop me wrestling with it. My focus had been so intent I’d barely noticed what others in the lab were working on, but I knew that marked me as unusual. We were all ambitious, but my goals were personal. My fellow scientists would kill for a look at this magnificent piece of ma-chinery. But if I didn’t ask for help, that’s all my dad would ever be.
I finished my coffee, took a deep breath, and phoned a colleague.
Mark’s jaw dropped when he saw my workbench.
“You never said you were working on something like this.” Awe permeated his voice.
“I’m not. He’s broken. I can fix part of the problem, but I need your help with the microprocessors.”
He seemed at a loss for words. “Where did you get this?!”
“Mark.” I made him look at me. “He’s my dad.”
For a long moment, he just stared at me. I met his gaze squarely and turned my monitor around so he could read the diagnosis. “Why me?” His voice was hushed. “Why not Susie, or James? They both have the experience you need.”
“Yes. But so do you.”
“I’m flattered. Believe me. I’m just stunned that you’d give me this opportunity. I’ve only ever dreamed of seeing one of these up close. An android with living consciousness… and he’s your father? That’s… a colossal amount of trust to put in a direct rival.”
I took a deep breath. It was a risk, but I hadn’t chosen him at random.
“There’s no one else I’d trust with this. I can’t fix him on my own.” I could only hope he’d help me for the right reasons, but it was a gamble I had to take. Maybe he’d demand to experiment on Daddy, or expose my advantage and give others a reason to dismiss my real achievements as a mere rehashing of previous technology. It wouldn’t be true, but it would be enough to tarnish my career.
Either way, Daddy would be mended.
Mark stared at Daddy’s immobile frame. He touched his cold face and looked up at mine, as if noticing the resemblance between the artificial and the organic.
I met his eye again. “Please. He’s been broken for fourteen years.”
He set his shoulders as he reached a decision. “We’ll need parts. Very expensive parts.”
“I know. I have the funds.” Labour costs and lab hire were no longer an issue.
I wanted to ask if he’d sell me out. I wanted to know if he would ask for permanent access to Daddy in return for his assistance. But I couldn’t get the words out. What would I do if he said ‘yes’ to either question? There was no turning back, not now that I was this close. I decided I’d rather not know.
Mark and I didn’t leave the lab all weekend. We pilfered the parts from other projects and I ordered identical replacements. I told Mark all about Daddy, but I don’t think he believed in Daddy’s successfully-transferred consciousness until late on Sunday evening.
Everything was back in place and Daddy lay face up on my bench. I activated the power supply and closed his torso panel. Mark and I held our breath. Several tense seconds passed. And then my daddy opened his eyes and looked at me.
“Bethy?” He squinted and turned his head, clearly trying to orient himself. “Beth, is that you?”
It was like a tight string snapping inside me. My knees buckled and then there were strong, familiar arms around me, keeping me from collapsing, holding me up. I clutched him like I was five years old again and sobbed into his shoulder as he held me. He was warm, and real, and alive, and he was holding me all on his own.
When I finally looked at Mark, his eyes were glistening with tears. “Mark, this is my dad.”
Mark and Daddy shook hands, though I could see Daddy was still befuddled. “It’s an honour, Mr Landry.”
“Where am I, Beth? You… you’re grown.” He cupped my face. “You’re a woman. What happened to me?”
I sat him down and told him everything. He had no memory of breaking down and no knowledge of time passing since. I was grateful that no part of his consciousness had been active. He didn’t recall the dark, dusty cupboard.
He hugged me close for a long moment. “Thank you. Thank you so much, sweetheart. I’m so proud of you. I can’t even express it.”
“You don’t have to. You’re here. That’s more than enough for me.”
He pulled away and looked at me in earnest. “Where’s your mum? Is she here?”
I smiled, imagining her joy. “She’s not expecting this. I didn’t want to get her hopes up.” I video-called her on my mobile and made sure she was sitting down before I passed the phone to Daddy.
“Hi, love,” he said. I heard a sharp intake of breath from Mum’s end, and then nothing for a long moment, and then crying.
I took Mark aside to give them some privacy. He and I both needed rest; I could see he wanted to get home.
“I’m in your debt, Mark. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
He shook his head with a smile. “You don’t owe me anything. The chance to see him up close, to work on him, to actually meet someone like him in person… I should be thanking you.”
I felt the last shred of tension leave me. He was referring to Daddy as a real person. The way I’d always seen him. I somehow knew then that Mark wasn’t about to turn my lifelong secret to his advantage. I took his hand. “Thank you. For everything.”
“He’s your dad. I’m sure you’d have done the same if it had been my old man lying on the table.” He looked down at the floor. “I wish I had that chance. My dad died five years ago. Go make up for lost time with yours.”
Before I could say anything, he gently nudged me in Daddy’s direction and picked up his things to leave.
“Any time you want to sit and talk with him, I’m sure he’d be happy to,” I called after him.
He just turned and smiled at me, one friend to another.
About the Author
Eleanor R. Wood’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Bete Noire, Plasma Frequency Magazine, Pseudopod, Bastion, and Stupefying Stories, among others. She writes and eats liquorice from the south coast of England, where she lives with her husband, two marvelous dogs, and enough tropical fish tanks to charge an entry fee.