Written in late 2003, Mis-Selling Pensioners is a cloning story on the borders of sci-fi, with a tinge of black humour.
Thomas Stein lay sprawled across his bed, a crumpled duvet on the floor signalling his discomfort the night before. Chinks of pale yellow sunlight crept between blind slats and fell over his naked body.
With one eye open, Thomas scanned the room until he found a clock. Red lines levitated and formed into numbers surrounded by dancing dust. Blurry vision forced Thomas to open a second eye, but he still could not make anything out.
His head ached from last night’s excess. Rhythmic pounding of retro 21st century dance music was only part of the problem; A litre bottle of Kentucky bourbon was the main culprit. Despite alcohol poisoning Thomas gradually became aware of his surroundings, familiar with the objects in the room; Cognisant of another presence watching him.
‘Kaliber, is that you?’ Thomas asked.
‘Yes, Master Thomas. I am adjacent to the door,’ the robot answered, then stepped into the room.
Thomas sat up and rubbed his bleary bloodshot blue eyes.
‘What time is it?’
‘Master Thomas, I observed you viewing a clock less than 90 seconds ago.’ Kaliber paused to allow Thomas to interject. ‘The time is 7.45am. Today’s first customer arrives at approximately 9am.’
Customers? Thomas wracked his sore brain and found the answer. The new crop was ready and Thomas was in charge of sales whilst his parents were on holiday.
‘Didn’t I give you instructions to wake me at 7.30?’
‘I have watched you since 7.28, however, I was reluctant to wake you.’
Thomas’s eyesight was clearing up and he glanced towards the mirror only to see Kaliber’s metallic outline retreating towards the door. He’s probably getting a safe distance away in case I rip out his voice box again, thought Thomas. That lanky robotic broom certainly believes in self preservation.
Thomas stared at the reflection of an almost unrecognisable version of him. Several days’ facial growth covered his pasty complexion. Even without the unkempt appearance he would’ve felt dirty.
After a steaming shower and a shave Thomas could look himself in the mirror again and see a business degree graduate once more. He wondered how long he could hold off his alcoholic Hyde. Long enough to pull off a first day sales record? Perhaps soon he could afford a new liver and the colour of health would once again adorn his complexion.
Kaliber waited in the arboretum with Charles and Susan Peterson and their only child, Kyle. The pre-schooler studied the series-7a droid for signs of motor movement but Kaliber was tuned to approaching footsteps.
Thomas stopped behind a clump of fern-like Jurassic Dioon Spinulosum, taking a moment to size up his prey. Bringing them to the arboretum was his style.
He felt it made the buyer at ease with their purchase, as opposed to his Dad’s “line ‘em up and flog ‘em” approach. After all, this was a biogenetic life form up for sale, not some crappy old domestic robot like Kaliber.
‘Mr and Mrs Peterson,’ Thomas said, striding straight into salesman mode. ‘Pleased to meet you.’ They exchanged handshakes and Thomas turned to Kyle. ‘And you must be little Kyle.’ He bent on one knee and reaching in to his jacket pocket. ’Here, have a lollipop.’
Kyle snatched the proffered candy, stuck it into his mouth and started sucking on the pacifier, just as Thomas hoped he would. Thomas didn’t want a kiddie interrupting his sales patter.
‘Follow me please,’ Thomas led them along a winding path, deliberately brushing past flowering blooms to release heady perfumes, which, along with an easel of vivid pink buds, orange blossoms and cherry petals, painted the background to the deal.
Granny Stein sat on a bench crocheting a blanket. Or at least, Thomas reminded himself it appeared to be Granny Stein; the clones were so life-like the only way Thomas could tell the difference was by the serial number on the back of the clones’ necks.
‘Hello Thomas, my dear. Will you and your friends join me? Kaliber promised to bring some tea and biscuits if I sat here.’
‘ Wow, Mr Stein, that’s amazing,’ exclaimed Mr Peterson. ‘I had heard your Grannies were pretty realistic but seeing your handiwork close up, I’m blown away.’
My handiwork, Thomas repeated to himself. Nice.
‘Yes, I’m particularly proud of this years’ batch. Of course, they’re based on my own Granny, who still lives with me and my family.’
‘Then you’re very lucky, Mr Stein. Kyle’s grandparents were among the many to perish over 8 years ago in the flu jab terror attacks.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ Thomas said, with as much heart felt sympathy as the first time he had been reminded of his families’ good fortune. Granny Stein was among the 5% of over 70’s who missed their flu jabs that year, and he and his parents thanked their lucky stars ever since.
‘A Stein clone can never replace your own relative, however, if you invest in one you will grow to love her in her own right….’
Thomas spotted Kaliber returning with a tray of refreshments. The robot seemed a bit unstable. Perhaps the humidity of the arboretum was affecting his circuits, thought Thomas.
‘Refreshments, Master Thomas. Tea for Mr and Mrs Peterson, Granny Stein and yourself, and orange squash for Kyle.’
‘Did your robot say that a Granny Stein can drink tea, like a human?’ asked Mr Peterson, unaware his question sounded inane to Thomas.
I don’t think we’ll have to work hard on this sale, Thomas decided, as Peterson doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of human cloning. All I need to do is make the clone do a few party pieces and the sale is mine.
‘Why, of course Mr Peterson. My clones are not robots – they are living, breathing humans. The clones are in fact superior to my own Granny because in the cloning process we can make a few tweaks so our customers get a long lasting clone with a guaranteed 25 year life expectancy.’
‘I am sitting here you know, Thomas,’ chirped Granny Stein. ‘It is very rude to talk about your own Granny as though I’m not here. If you weren’t so big I’d put you over my knee and spank you, young man.’
Thomas had never seen one of the clones express such familiarity or speak out of turn so early. This was a trait they develop as they become older and crankier. He wasn’t overly concerned, preferring to see it as something he could turn into a sales point if the subject arose.
‘I’m sorry Granny,’ Thomas said.
He felt silly referring to the clone as his own Granny. This one had some bugs in it, but the Peterson's seemed keen, so Thomas decided to play along.
‘Granny, why don’t you help me demonstrate how versatile our clones are?’
Thomas turned to Kaliber, ‘fetch a pile of mixed laundry.’
‘Do you think that is wise, Master Thomas?’ asked Kaliber.
Thomas was taken aback by the question. ‘Why? Why would it be a problem?’
‘It would not, Master Thomas.’
‘Then fetch it.’
‘Yes, Master Thomas.’
‘That robot’s going on the blink,’ Thomas admitted to Mr and Mrs Peterson.
‘I would’ve replaced him with a clone by now, were it not for the risk of mixing her up with the real Granny Stein!’
Still, Thomas was a bit concerned with Kaliber’s question.
‘Here is the laundry, Master Thomas.’
Kaliber placed the laundry on the bench next to Granny Stein.
‘Granny, could you sort this laundry, please?’
‘Yes dear. After I’ve had my tea and biscuits.’
So they waited while Granny Stein slurped her cup of tea, dipped and devoured three digestives, garnering her cardigan with crumbs. Then they watched as she methodically sorted the laundry. Ten minutes; twice as long as the average for last years’ batch.
Thomas wasn’t sure a display of clothes sorting really demonstrated the benefit of the clones so he was prepared to disregard this, though mainly because the Paterson’s did not seem perturbed by the doddery manner of this particular clone. In fact, Thomas got the impression they actually appreciated this more than a super-efficient one. Perhaps an imperfect clone was closer to what they expected.
Granny Stein reached over and poured herself another cup of tea, muttering about her sciatic pain playing up.
‘Okay,’ Thomas said as he turned to address Mr & Mrs Paterson. ‘This arboretum is not entirely suited for effective demonstrations of the full range of our clones, however, there are some simple tasks we could demonstrate.’
‘To be honest, Mr Stein, we don’t really need much convincing, but while we are here it would be nice to get more familiar. Could you ask the clone to read a story to Kyle?’
‘Sure we can, can’t we, Granny?’
‘Yes dear, what is it?’
‘Master Thomas. I do not consider this to be a good idea,’ Kaliber said.
Thomas had forgotten the malfunctioning robot was still present. He strode over to the Kaliber and stood face to face, his eyes level with Kaliber’s infrared optic lenses.
‘Listen tin-head,’ Thomas growled his whisper. ‘I’m trying to make a sale here. Why shouldn’t I demonstrate the ability of the clones?’
‘Master Thomas. It is evident this particular clone is not perfect. Carrying out further substandard demonstrations may lead the Peterson’s to rethink their purchase. This would leave you with an imperfect clone, which would be hard to sell to more discerning customers.’
Thomas realised Kaliber had a point, though his own brain was still pickled from last night’s drinking spree. Once more Kaliber was proving to be the sobriety sidekick his aptly, and deliberately, chosen name suggested. Perhaps the robot wasn’t malfunction after all, thought Thomas. But the Peterson’s do seem keen on this clone regardless, and they have asked for a reading demo. It’s all about customer service, Thomas told himself. If I keep them sweet they might take the after sales service package too.
‘It’s my decision, so we’ll continue with the demo. Fetch some appropriate reading material.’
‘Yes, Master Thomas.’
Kaliber brought a large print book, The Adventures of Timmy Trumpet.
Thomas observed as Granny Stein read the book from start to finish, with occasional pauses to adjust her spectacles. As the demonstration progressed Thomas discreetly watched the other spectators too. The Peterson’s were enthralled; little Kyle wrapped up in the story, his doting parents taking mental pictures for their photo album.
It was the other spectator, Kaliber, who held Thomas’ attention the most. His shiny exterior gave nothing away, but Thomas detected the robot’s lenses twitching more than usual. Kaliber never really showed much interest in clone sales before. Thomas always used him as an introduction robot to show the difference between clones and robots and then Kaliber would disappear to return to his domestic duties. In fact, right now Kaliber should be with the real Granny Stein, fulfilling personal services like clipping her nails or scraping dead skin from her feet.
Thomas conceded Kaliber’s duties could be getting the better of him. He suddenly realised that ever since Kaliber’s duties were expanded to include looking after Granny Stein the domestic robot had been acting strangely.
‘Do you require my services any further before you complete the sale, Master Thomas?’
Kaliber’s question pricked Thomas back to the present, and clumsily did the sums for him too. The promise of tea for sitting in the arboretum, Kaliber challenging the need for demonstrations, slow sorting of laundry, eyesight problems, and eagerness for the sale to go through without demonstrations. Added to other incidents such as a bolt found in Granny Stein’s soup and a scorpion in her bedroom there was only one answer.
Thomas stormed over to Granny Stein and said, ‘Granny, would you mind lifting up your hair at the back of your neck?’
‘What a peculiar question, young Thomas. Mind, I’ll tell your father about this,’ said an indignant Granny Stein, but she did what Thomas requested.
‘As I thought. No serial code.’ Thomas turned to confront Kaliber but the robot was nowhere to be seen. I might’ve known, thought Thomas. His request to be absent from the sale betrays his guilty feelings. I never granted it, but he couldn’t bear being discovered.
Bemused, Mr Peterson asked ‘What’s going on?’
‘I’m sorry, Mr Peterson. There’s been a mix-up. This is the real Granny Stein. I’ll fetch a clone and run through the demonstrations again.’
‘Well, I’d rather take this one,’ said Mr Peterson. ‘I’ll pay double.’
Thomas wondered, could I really sell my own Granny? True, the clones are more efficient and I could remove the serial code from one. Their genetic make up is the same so we could continue producing clones and no-one would ever know.
‘You’ve got a deal Mr Peterson,’ said Thomas, thrusting out a firm hand.
At the back of his mind Thomas felt a momentary pang of guilt, but it disappeared when he thought of the extra money which would cover the cost of his replacement liver, and enough bourbon to last him well into his pensionable years.