by Miriam English
"Duffy's having a bad day today." Emma was helping Cheryl out the door to the verandah.
"It's all downhill from here, dear."
Emma was always amazed by Cheryl's calm acceptance of it. Cheryl was nearly blind now and her hips gave her pain whenever she tried to move. Duffy was physically well enough, considering his age, but drifted in and out of lucidity. In recent months he'd been disappearing into a confused and lost state increasingly often, sometimes for days at a time.
It was slow going, guiding Cheryl around -- being her eyes and taking some of the strain off her legs. It would be good when prosthetic technology could more easily replace those troublesome hips and almost useless eyes, but that would not likely be some years yet, even with AIs working hard on the problems.
"How is the pain?"
Emma knew that fine was code for bad, but that Cheryl would resist anything to reduce it until it began to interfere with her enjoyment of conversation, or birdsongs, or audiobooks. Emma wasn't just Cheryl's eyes and her walking aid; now that Duffy was gradually becoming so lost she was taking up the other half of Cheryl's conversation.
Cheryl said, "Next time around it might be better."
Emma restrained herself from commenting.
Cheryl smiled impishly. "Oh come on dear, you want to correct me, we both know it." She chuckled.
Emma couldn't help but smile too. She was being baited. "You know my response: There is no next time. This is our single shot at being."
"Forgive me trying to draw you into a discussion on this, dear. You have a refreshing mind with an unusual viewpoint."
"There's nothing to forgive. I enjoy chatting with you."
They were approaching Cheryl's large, soft armchair. "So, I believe in endless lives, being reborn as something else next time and the time after than, and so on. You believe in just one. Why do you think I'm wrong and you're right?"
"Reality isn't affected by belief. It isn't a shopping mall from which you can pick and choose the reality you'd like. Things either correspond to the real world or they don't. I don't believe that we have only a single life. It is simply the only explanation left when all the others fall away."
Emma helped Cheryl into the armchair. She could only help balance her. Even in her fragile and weakened state she was still stronger than Emma. Evolution had developed biological muscles, and the metabolism that drove them, over perhaps six hundred million years. The AIs had developed the dolls' muscles and sugar-based metabolism in less than a year and it still had a long way to go.
"You have me puzzled, dear. How do you disprove reincarnation?"
"I should go and get Duffy."
"Oh, he'll be alright for a moment. I'll die of curiosity if I have to wait for your answer."
"Briefly then, I'm your disproof of reincarnation."
"I'm a constructed mind. Obviously I have no soul. I think and feel just as you or anyone else does. Therefore nobody has a soul. No soul; no reincarnation. I'd better go get Duffy."
"Hang on, how do you know you have no soul?"
"Alright, let's suppose for a moment that I do have a soul. In that case the soul has no effect on anything because my mind can be tuned and altered in clearly understood ways. The woman who designed us could have made us psychopathic murderers, in fact she was pressured to do exactly that, but she wanted us to save humanity, not destroy it. If it exists, the soul has nothing to do with who we are. It certainly can't be used to carry any aspect of self from being to being."
"Hmmm... I have a feeling you just used a little mental prestidigitation."
"Well, you ponder it while I go fetch Duffy. I'll try to clarify further when I return." She smiled to herself. It was difficult to understand the human desire to believe in such fantasies.
Emma re-entered the house and walked to the bedroom. "Duffy?"
Not here. Feeling a little uneasy, Emma picked up the bedside phone and walked more quickly through the rest of the house opening each door on the way. "Duffy? Duffy?" She looked out the back door and called out again, "Duffy?" Nothing. She ran back through the house to the verandah and pressed the phone into Cheryl's hand. "I've just dialled Finlay's number. Duffy's wandered off." She raced back through the house and out the back door. He couldn't be far.
The safest strategy would be to check the most dangerous directions first. The dam and the road. Calling his name as she ran to the road. He wasn't there. She walked the length of the property frontage looking all around her. Suddenly she saw him emerge from the bushes at the far end. He was walking straight out towards the busy road.
"Duffy!" She ran as fast as she could, frustrated with her weakness and inability to call very loudly. "Duffy! Stop!"
She reached him just as he was about to step onto the road in the path of an oncoming truck. She pulled him back as the driver blasted his horn. "Oh Duffy!" She wrapped her arms around him in relief. "Cheryl is waiting for you, dear. Come this way."
He happily let himself be guided back toward the house, completely unaware of how close he'd been to ending his life and causing heaven knows how much devastation among the vehicles speeding both ways along the road. Emma felt dizzy to think how badly Cheryl would have been hurt by what had almost happened.
Emma called out when within earshot, "He's safe. I have him." She could see Cheryl's silhouette relax. It took some minutes to get back to the house because Duffy kept trying to pause at flowers and plants along the way.
"He'd been about to walk onto the road. I'm so relieved I got there in time."
Cheryl was holding Duffy's hand to her cheek. "Oh Duffy. My silly duffer." She was distraught. "It's my fault. If I hadn't delayed you, Emma, it wouldn't have happened."
Emma put her hand on Cheryl's shoulder. "Please don't do that to yourself. It isn't your fault. It could have happened earlier or later. There is no predicting. If it is anybody's fault it is mine. I need to work out some way of tracking Duffy better or perhaps getting a fence around the property. If I can make a radio-bracelet or anklet then I might be able to anticipate danger by knowing his whereabouts."
Finlay's car sped in the driveway and ground to a stop. The door opened and Finlay ran to the verandah. He lost his panicked look and instead frowned when he saw his father. "What happened?"
When Cheryl explained how he'd wandered off, Finlay turned on Emma and growled, "You were supposed to prevent this kind of thing. Useless machine! You nearly got my father killed!"
Emma hung her head, but Cheryl spoke up, "She saved your father! I'll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head Finlay. I didn't raise you to be rude to people. It was my fault, not Emma's. I delayed her when she wanted to go and fetch your father. If it hadn't been for Emma he would be dead. You couldn't have got here in time to save him. You should be thanking her."
He cooled off visibly. "Sorry Mum." Then he looked at Emma for a moment and let out a sigh. "Mum's right. Thanks for looking after Dad. I wouldn't have got here in time. I'm sorry for what I said."
Emma was embarrassed and needed to change the subject. "I have some ideas to prevent this happening again. We could either fence the property in or get your father to wear a radio bracelet or anklet. What do you think?"
Finlay nodded. "Good ideas. I'll get the fence started tomorrow. It would need to be tall with a lockable gate."
Emma added, "And should isolate the dam."
"Yes. I wouldn't know how to get the bracelet, though."
Emma said, "That's alright, I think I can make that."