Greg Powell tried to settle himself semi-comfortably against the wall, his head pillowed by a giant teddy bear. He had long given up on the only furniture in the room, which while brightly painted and quite attractive was not designed to accommodate anyone over the age of eight. He and Donovan had created piles of soft toys to sleep on at night, which were far more bumpy and less comfortable than one might have imagined.
"It only goes to make you think -" Powell said, only to be interrupted by a heartfelt groan from Donovan.
"Must you? Aren't things bad enough without you thinking?"
"It only goes to make you think," Powell repeated, gently and determinedly, "what the world has come to. Once in Earth's history, several religious and cultural traditions focused some of their celebrations around this time. The giving of gifts to children was simply a way to mark these traditions." He had the impression that he heard Donovan muttering something about how, if he was going to be lectured, it might as well be for braining someone with a plastic model of a dinosaur, but he decided he must have misheard and continued blithely on. "Now it's just a celebration of crass commercialism, and all the religious and cultural celebrations have been moved to different dates to avoid conflicting with it."
"Crass commercialism," said Donovan, "pays our wages. Making money is what US Robots is all about, if you aren't too busy pontificating to notice."
"Even so, it's cause for thought." He ignored Donovan's sigh as he had the groan and mutters. "US Robots, too, began with high ideals of making humanity's lot on Earth a better one. Now robots are banned on-planet, and we're on an off-world chunk of rock, surrounded by robots making toys for a once-meaningful celebration -"
Donovan snorted. "All it makes me think is that we've got to find some way off this blasted piece of rock before I start thinking the ponies are trying to control my mind. I don't trust anything that pink. It's all my own fault, I should have known not to trust Old Lady Calvin. When she told us about this job, she nearly cracked a smile." He surveyed the room sourly, taking in the piles of toys, the tiny furniture and, above all, the entirely seriously sealed door. "Practically a working vacation, my foot."
Powell reached down, picked up a rubber ball, and threw it against the wall. It bounced back with a disappointingly squishy lack of energy.
The assignment had seemed misleadingly simple, but didn't they all, as Donovan had uselessly pointed out. The satellite they were trapped on, Festive, was in fact a gigantic toy factory, its staff provided entirely by US Robots. No actual warm-bodied people worked there except for visiting maintenance,and not so much of that. A central positronic computer, SNT-4 actually did most of the running of the factory, supplemented by occasional orders from the surface, and organised self-maintenance through its hundreds of subsidiary robots.
SNT-4, nicknamed Santa for some reason lost in history, was a remarkably sophisticated computer, which not only oversaw the actual production of the toys but made crucial decisions as to which toys were manufactured, and how many. It analysed market data and predicted trends, and through a deal which provided free learning computers to children, accessed psychological data about children to further enhance its decisions. There was also an incredibly popular special festive system called SNT-4's Good Children List, which allowed Children to send it a list of toys they wanted, along with intense psychological profiling and their parents' budget, and Santa would select the most appropriate presents for that individual child from the list. SNT-4's Good Children List, along with its market analysis, had helped Festive form almost a monopoly on the children's toy market.
Then things - small but significant things - began to go wrong. Customers weren’t always getting the toys they had ordered. Children who submitted their lists and psychological profiling to SNT-4's Good Children list sometimes had the oddest presents in response. In particular, little boys quite often received dolls and housekeeping items, while, less often but still notably, little girls received chemistry sets and building blocks. Minor mistakes and substitutions began to sneak in. In an ordinary business, these could have been accounted for by human error, but without any humans to make the error, questions began to arise. Customer complaints were also arising, and Festive were desperate to correct the problem before any doubt began to creep in to the public buying mind as to SNT-4's amazing gift personalization skills.
While they were hardly a mining company, Festive were still an important and profitable US Robots customer, so Donovan and Powell were asked to go in, have a chat with SNT-4, look at the robots, and figure out just what was going wrong.
On arrival, they had been conducted by a small ELV model to a room full of toys, and locked in. Not to starve, at least. Supplies from their ship had been deposited by an ELV model who refused to answer any questions, despite direct orders to do so, and the puzzled men had been left there. For three days. Fortunately the only open door opened on a bathroom that had been installed for occasional human maintenance trips, or Powell was convinced murder would have been committed, at least unless he managed to hide everything sharp inside teddy bears.
It still might happen. After days in the room, with the robots refusing to respond to their pleas, they were both feeling a little stir crazy. Especially, as Donovan pointed out, as Powell wouldn't shut up.
“What do you want to do, Mike, stare at the wall?”
“Maybe. If it helps us figure a way out. Damned robots…” Donovan added something even less pleasant under his breath.
“It has to be First Rule situation. They disobeyed direct orders to tell us what was going on and let us out.”
“You've said that. Several times. And I kind of figured it out myself when I yelled at the robots and they ignored me.” Donovan kicked at a pile of blocks, which scattered across the floor.
“At least pick up after yourself. It' bad enough living in a toy chest without it being a mess as well.”
Donovan grunted, but he also bent down and began to pick up the blocks. He idly turned one into his hand. It was something he vaguely remembered from childhood, a plastic block with little prongs to stick into other plastic blocks, but it was different from the ones he'd had as a kid. Better. The texture of it was like carefully hewn stone, and the colours were properly textured. There were blocks like bricks, too, and marble, and steel, and little patches of carpet and wood and slate for floors, tiles and little glass-like windows…
Studiously ignoring Powell's derogatory comments, Donovan began to press the bricks into each other. Just to see how they slotted together. Of course, they needed a foundation…
“That carpet doesn't go,” said Powell. “Try this marquisette."
There were a lot of blocks, they found when they raided the unpacked boxes. In the end, the house was fully four feet tall, just right for the furniture they were digging out. They almost came to blows over whether to tile the roof or use some kind of steel, and again over the layout of the kitchen.
“What's this room?” Powell asked, eventually.
Donovan turned brick red. “The nursery,” he said in a barely audible mutter, pulling a doll cradle into it. Powell tactfully said nothing as Donovan, face set in a defensive scowl, selected a baby doll and carefully covered it up, although he did grin a little. He silently helped to choose some larger dolls to make a family, then stood back and surveyed the effect.
“Remind you of childhood, Mike?”
“What, are you asking if I had dolls as a kid?” Donovan’s scowl deepened.
“Of course not. Although it's funny, when you think about it. Why do girls have the dolls, and not boys? Maybe old Santa just doesn’t understand it, because robots have logical minds, and when you think about it, it's not logical.”
“I don't know. Never had dolls, though. Engineering sets and blocks, mostly. I liked taking things apart and putting them back together. Bet you did too, Greg.”
Powell was still following his own train of thought. “I wonder if Susan Calvin ever had dolls.”
Donovan snorted. “Not likely. Not much of the mother spirit about her, even as a kid, if I get her measure. Not unless they came as robot dolls, of course.”
“Maybe her parents should have given her dolls. Ever thought of it, Mike?” Powell's tone was almost studiously casual.
“What, being a parent?”
“Yes. Finding someone serious, getting married, buying dolls and chemistry sets, that kind of thing.”
“No… I mean yes, but not really. It’s not really the life to get married and have kids, getting sent out to spaceships and colony planets every week. You?”
“Not really, not in this job. It's the same. Married to the job, practically married to -”
Powell stopped talking for some reason. It was possibly because of the unusualness of this that there was an awkward silence. Donovan's color, which had been fading a little, was heightened again, and Powell could almost be said to be blushing himself.
“You know,” he said, “I've sometimes wondered…”
“What?” Donovan's voice was defensively sharp, but Powell had come to a decision at some point in the silence, and he kissed him anyway.
There was a long awkward moment in which Powell feared he would be pushed away, and then Donovan responded. There were longer moments, then, until Donovan did push him away - not hard enough to actually break the embrace, but enough to talk.
“Damnit, Greg, I -”
A smooth artificial voice over the PA drowned out whatever he was intending to say, and they broke apart. “Experiment has been a success. Prolonged exposure to nurturing based toys has elicited caring and and emotionally connected behavior in subjects. Subjects to be released.”
“Santa! If I get my hands on that piece of positronic junk…” Donovan clenched his fists.
Donovan pressed a hand on his shoulder, warning him to silence, as the door swung open. “Let's wait until we get back on the ship for the postmortem, shall we?”
Not quite looking at each other, in a distinctly uncomfortable silence, the two men walked back to the ship together. It wasn’t until they were securely leaving the planet that Powell spoke again.
“I told you it was a First Rule matter. They piled all that psychological information into that poor positronic brain, and it came up with its own conclusions. Once it decided that exposure purely to gendered toys was causing psychological harm to human children, it had no choice but to take action to prevent that harm.”
“Right. Now we know what's wrong, we can fix it. As long as we make sure the next lot of poor fodder don't let the robots ambush them.”
“Yes. Only… well, it seems rather a pity,” Greg Powell said softly. “After all, in his way, Santa did us a very good turn…”
Donovan avoided his eyes and set a course back to Earth. Powell was pleased to notice, however, that the rosy look had returned to his cheeks, and at the corner of his mouth was something like a smile.