by Nidhi Singh

A lone cloud, on a citrus-scented fall morning, drooped lazily above the Mayor’s building as I climbed up the white oak-planked staircase lined with ivy and topiaries with my master Mr. Chips and Grace, his love. This was their umpteenth visit in months. It was pointless arguing with him on the futility of such visits. Mr. Chips was a stubborn old man who still read books from a rusty trunk hidden in the loft, and believed in miracles – things from the distant past – and had dragged us along this time too, though I had a lawn full of leaves to rake, and Grace had a pumpkin bread to bake, and Mr. Chips himself could barely speak with a swollen, bandaged mouth after an unplanned impacted tooth extraction. He carried a pile of colorful cards in his tweed jacket and spoke to us by scribbling words on them with a barrel-thick pen. “Martha! Just follow me, please!” the yellow card had read, in his impeccably polite style, when I’d raised a hand to protest.

“What may I do for you this morning, Mr. Chips?” tweeted Ninny, a low-cost Golem. She kept the Mayor’s appointments, greeted visitors in a cloyingly sweet nasal accent, sorted mail, and performed usual household chores like filling up the birdbaths and encircling the deck with citronella candles to keep the bugs at bay. After she was done, at night, she plugged herself into the wall and charged.

He sorted out his cards and flashed one that said: “My marriage license, please?” The devil had prepared the card beforehand. He was a charmer, that one; he always had a plan. Ninny smiled at him with ill-disguised impatience – the measly funded Town Office couldn’t afford artistry as an attribute in their automatons. His marriage application had been turned down not less than six times in a row. He had a stuttering problem; all of his siblings, eleven of them including the three that had died, stuttered. Their parents were first cousins; they had eloped, so it was a problem with the genes.

Nowadays the state frowned upon such unions between closely related or handicapped persons, so they turned down Mr. Chips’ application each time on some pretext or the other. The state doesn’t want to risk freaks being born of such a match. They don’t like couples to produce children at all for that matter. They mix and match frozen DNA and genes in secret laboratories to produce perfect citizens devoted to the cause of furthering anthropoid excellence and the “model state.”

Since Mr. Chips still stuttered, and it was incurable, we’d probably walked thus far only to be turned away again. Surprisingly, he’d been a ballad singer, and a famous one too – people still stopped him on the streets and took selfies with him. He used to tell me he felt fluent only when singing, and terrified when speaking. Recently, to my surprise – I was already a perfect, high-priced crooner – he’d upgraded me, something he could ill afford with his state pension, by fixing a chip in my voice box, and I could now exactly mimic his singing style and voice.

“Why are you throwing away good money, master?” I’d asked him, in a gentle reproach.

“When I stop singing, you could carry on,” he’d replied.

Pray, why would he think like this – he was perfectly healthy, and to my mind, virile, for Grace, 52, was three months pregnant with his child? Plutopia, our state, forbade children out of wedlock among humans or bionics, and would most certainly kill the unborn baby. Grace, whose twins had been killed during a freak accident, wanted the child desperately. She would simply not survive without it. And Mr. Chips could not let that happen for he loved her deeply. His own children, grown up and successful, had not kept in touch. Grace and I were all he had in this world.

I liked him for the gentleman he was. He treated me with dignity, like a human, though I was a Stage-4 Bot – the best money could buy – who could please him in any manner he wished. But he never touched me inappropriately, or spoke in a loud tone.

Grace and I braced for the usual twisted look on Ninny’s face when she would apologetically announce the state’s rejection of his appeal once she had finished scanning her computer records. Mr. Chips looked on stoically, hope still lighting up his craggy features as it had the day he’d first applied.

So, don’t blame me, when despite being a well-trained droid, my left eyebrow shot up a tad when Ninny declared Plutopia was pleased to grant Mr. Chips a license to wed!

“Thank God!” Ms. Grace exclaimed, when we’d reached home through streets covered in whispering leaves. The word ‘God’ was forbidden in our state, but she was old-fashioned and used it out of habit in private. Master beamed happily at her through the bandages. He had no card to flash this time.

“You can croon to the baby in that lovely voice of yours all you want,” I said.

He suddenly became all quiet, and looked down sadly.

“What is it, my dear?” Grace raised his chin and looked into his eyes with concern.

Mr. Chips didn’t say anything – instead he shuffled over to the desk and handed her a sheaf of papers – medical reports they seemed. She read them and fainted. I helped Mr. Chips revive her with smelling salts. I chanced to look at the reports as he huddled by her side on the bed, desperately scribbling card after card, while she wailed and rained feeble blows on him.

Mr. Chips, master, had had his tongue excised at the Bodyparts Subtraction Center. Now that he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t stutter, could he? And Grace would get to keep her baby.

And I could do the singing.


Image by Steve Johnson at Find him on instagram @artbystevej.