Authors: John Sladek
Tags: #Artificial Intelligence, #Fiction, #General, #High Tech, #SciFi-Masterwork, #Science Fiction, #Computers
‘I hear you, Indica.’
‘Every time Hank starts another article we get the whole crap thing all over again. Like his survival shelter, three tons of cement in the shape of a pyramid – because of the rays and all – only he has to make the door too small for anybody but the chickens, whole thing smells of rotten eggs all the time. “I’ll fix it,” he says, and goes off to another damned pollution conference, Jesus! I could tell him a thing or two about pollution.’
‘Yeah,’ Bax said. After a moment’s thought, he added, ‘Yeah.’ He tipped his chair back further and reached a leg in her direction.
Indica stared into her earthenware cup, the one with her name and zodiac sign hand-painted on it, the one with the broken handle. ‘I mean, he got this house computer to make everything simpler, and it just made it worse, it never does anything but tell him how wrong he is, how wrong everything in the house is. And since we moved out here, anything goes wrong we have to take it twenty miles to town to get it fixed, there sits the ultrasonic dishwasher, it worked about a week.’
‘Now he only wants to buy a car that runs on chicken-shit, that’s all, a bargain he figures and it only costs about twice as much as an Eldorado. See what I’m up against?’
Bax thought his foot was at that moment up against hers. He pressed, and something hummed and moved away from the contact.
‘Christ! Are you hurt?’ She helped him up.
‘No, I’m – but I guess the chair’s not too good.’ He handed her the splintered chair back, and she placed it in a corner, near a dismantled coffee grinder.
‘Hey, what is this thing under the table?’
Two glittering eyes peered up at him.
Indica shrugged. ‘That? Nothing. A kind of robot, I guess.’
‘A robot! Great!’ Bax stood clear of it.
‘Don’t worry, it doesn’t work either. Just some piece of junk a guy dumped on us. This creep poet Allbright, who never writes
any poetry, just rips off stuff. Guess he ripped this off from some computer freak he knows …’
‘Yeah? What’s it, uh, supposed to do?’
‘Who knows? We’ve had it a month, so far all it does is watch TV and get in the way.’
Bax squatted down to look at it. ‘Watches TV?’
‘Sure. Hank’s creep friend said to treat it like a real kid. So Hank plunks it down in front of the TV every day and it just sits there by the hour. Never moves a muscle.’
Man and robot studied each other. ‘Not much to look at,’ said Bax, and it wasn’t: a squat instrument only two feet high with a large spherical head, a small, conical body, and a pair of tiny tank tracks on which it now edged back, further under the table. The spindly arms, resembling miniature dental drills, were folded against the chest, where Bax could read a word stencilled in black on battleship grey.
‘Roderick, eh? Here boy. Here, Roderick.’
The blue glass eyes stared. No sound came from the tiny grille set in the position of a mouth.
‘It doesn’t know a damned thing, not even its name,’ said Indica, and yawned.
Roderick saw a pair of pointy-toed cowboy boots, knees bursting through faded jeans, a huge tattooed hand reaching out towards him. It all looked pretty dangerous, except that the hand had a wrist watch of the kind you could get at Vinnie’s Rock Bottom, for rock-bottom prices in comps, calcs, watches, cassettes, video, everything guaranteed personally by Vinnie, everything at low, lower, lowest, rock-bottom prices. At the other end of the arm was a man with hair under his nose, and milk on the hair.
Indica yawned. ‘Hank’s coming home in a couple of hours, so …’
They were gone. Milk, what was it for? Pour it on cereal and spoon it into your mouth. Once upon a time there was a lovely princess who bathed in milk, and they say that her complexion …
Roderick listened to their feet going upstairs. Bax was a big man with yellow hair the colour of cereal. Indica was a lovely princess who bathed in the big tub upstairs, it made a wonderful banging sound when she ran the water in. Water was like milk, it
was milk with clear stuff added, clear as the shine that makes good furniture even better …
Something good was upstairs, Indica had whispered to Bax and led him up to see. Now there were stockinged feet moving around up there. Maybe they would tiptoe to the window and pull back the shade to see policemen all around the house. Grown-ups took off their shoes a lot, to watch TV, and if you have a foot-odour problem you need Footnote, spray or powder. Gee, no foot odour!
Bump, bump, bump. Just like water in the tub. Or like shots. Then they struggle for the gun, it goes off and there’s a body rolling down the stairs, bump, bump, bump, what have I done? Like chopping wood: I’d be beholden to you, ma’am, if you could see your way clear to givin’ a hungry man some wood to chop for his breakfast. Breakfast is the bestest when we all eat Honey-O.
Roderick hummed it to himself as he moved across the black-and-white squares of kitchen, the roses of the living-room, the creaky boards to the foot of the stairs:
Breakfast O Breakfast
Breakfast is the bestest
O breakfast is the bestest
When we all eat Honey-O.
Honey-O, Honey-O, honey, honey
O Breakfast, etc.
The stairs were a problem. They were up and up, while Roderick was down here: he couldn’t see how to work it. TV people did stairs all the time. He saw them running down, falling down, rolling down, sitting still on a step and talking, waiting on the dark stairs with a gun and a hat, creeping up with shoes in hand, even vacuuming difficult stair carpets can be a breeze with Breeze-o-mat, because Breeze-o-mat makes housework a breeze!
Animal cries floated down to him, as the bumping continued. Jungle drums? Lord, the heat, the flies! Why don’t the beggars attack – what are they waiting for? I don’t know if I can stand much more of this, with the Brigadier away on trek for days at a time, leaving the two of us alone like this. My God, Marjorie, I’m only flesh and blood. I also, Nigel. The heat, the flies, gorillas
hammering their chests, a Jap sniper in every tree, Joe, I can’t go on. Leave me here, I’ll hold them off, that’s an order soldier.
Roderick spun around to check the big green plant behind him. Behind it was another big green plant and then another Roderick and then shadows that might be anything: black men with spears, spotty things with teeth in their mouths, fat spiders, glittering snakes, a scorpion crooking its finger at him, shambling zombies coming after him. A guy had to protect himself, one chance in a million but it just might work, break through to the shore, the sunlit sand where he could hear the surf beating, beating …
‘Nothing,’ said Bax. He dropped Hank’s kimono on the floor and climbed back into bed. Indica noticed that he was getting a paunch.
‘How can it be nothing, we both heard it!’
‘I mean, just that little robot thing, you know? Knocked over your potted plant in the hall.’ He reached for her but she sat up, drawing the sheet around her shoulders.
Just great. I only spent two years growing that damned thing from an avocado stone, that’s all. Two years.’
‘Okay, but –’
‘Don’t. I’m not in the mood any more. I hate that sonofa-bitching robot, you know? Hank says it cost a million or so to build. For two cents I’d trash the damned thing.’
‘A million? Wow.’
‘Yeah, wow.’ She turned away from him, his bleached hair and faint face-lift scars. ‘That really grabs you doesn’t it, a price tag like that? That’s men all right, all you think about is gadgets and how much you can get them for. I see Hank reading an electronics catalogue, he gets the same look on his face, the same dumb look he gets over a sex magazine, how do you think that makes me feel?’
‘No, sure, but –’
‘Let’s get dressed. A million bucks’ worth of junk running around the house destroying my plants, how do you think that makes me feel?’
‘Yeah, but –’
‘I don’t want to talk about it any more. Just get dressed.’
Bax obeyed, and followed her downstairs. From the living-room came sounds (Yipe! Eeeeow! Boing! and scales played on a xylophone) of Roderick’s favourite TV cartoon,
The little robot stood close to the screen, mesmerized by the sight of cats blackening their faces with
walking off cliffs, and being flattened under weights marked
Bax, too, was fascinated. He sat down to watch, only half-aware that Indica was leading Roderick out into the hall.
‘Where’s that cat?’
said a deep voice from the TV.
‘Where’s that dad-blamed cat?’
Its owner, visible from the waist down, wore hobnail boots and carried a meat-cleaver. Bax was grinning already.
‘Hey honey? Come and watch this. Old Oscar’s on the warpath and –’
An odd sound came from the hall, like grinding gears. In a minute, Indica and Roderick came back. She was crying and trembling, while the robot seemed unperturbed.
He crept up close to the screen, until his large dome caused a partial eclipse.
‘Outa the way, big-head.’ Bax noticed a shiny dent in the dome, as it moved away. But just then he needed his full attention for animated carnage: a knocked-out cat listened to birds and grew a red lump on its head, and looked at the world through a pair of plus-sign eyes.
A commercial came on. Kids were urged to get a plastic robot that stalked in circles, saying, ‘Hello, I’m Robbie! Can I be your friend? Hello, I’m Robbie! Can I be your friend?’
Roderick was unable to watch this, for his head kept revolving in the strangest way, like a lid coming off a jar of Huck Finn grape-style jelly, a taste treat for kids – and grown ups too!
‘I didn’t do anything,’ Indica protested. ‘All I did was take him and show him the avocado he killed, all I did was rub his nose in it, a little.’
Hank watched the head revolve. ‘A little? Then how did he get that big dent? Jesus, I can’t keep anything around here, you –’
‘Sure, blame the wife, it’s what I’m for, right? Blame me. Okay, maybe I got carried away. Big deal, maybe I slapped him a couple of times, okay, I slapped your little toy.’
‘Just look at him! What am I supposed to tell Allbright? He trusts us with a billion-dollar machine, am I supposed to tell him you knocked hell out of it?’
‘A million dollars, listen they had this toy robot on TV, nine ninety-five plus tax, at least it can say hello; your little mechanical shit-head here can’t even do that. All he knows is how to smash people’s house-plants, how to go around murdering living things. Okay, I’m sorry. Okay? I’m sorry, maybe I hit him too hard. I don’t know, maybe I banged his head on the floor a couple of times, shit Hank, I was pretty close to a breakdown if you want to know.’
He combed his full beard with both hands. ‘Probably cost a fortune to fix him. A fortune. What the hell can I say to the guy who built him if he comes around to see – it’s all – it’s all getting on top of me.’
‘Look, maybe I can just stick his head down with scotch tape or something, no one’ll know the difference really. I mean, this dude never comes to see him or anything, who’s to know? Even if he did, I mean we just say he fell down the stairs … Look, I’ll fix him right now.’
She carried Roderick out to the kitchen. Hank sat staring at his hands for a moment, then went to the bar. As he picked up the bottle of Scotch, a tiny screen behind it lit up with a message:
First of the day 19:48:
CONGRATULATIONS HANK, YOU ARE MAKING REAL PROGRESS.
‘Shut up,’ he said. After downing the measured drink, he returned to the sofa and sat fiddling with his electric pipe-cleaner. Handy little gadget – but wasn’t it starting to make a funny noise?
‘Here we are, good as new.’ Indica plunked the little robot down in front of the TV and turned it on. ‘Good boy, you just sit here and watch the pretty pictures.’ The screen showed a lifelike armpit.
‘Good as new,’ she said to Hank. ‘Not that he was ever a hell of a lot of good. Never says a word, never opens his mouth. I mean, even when I plug him in for his recharge at night, he never says good night or anything. Some robot! If you ask me – what’s the matter now?’
Hank cocked his head over the electric pipe-cleaner. ‘Making a funny noise, hear it?’
‘You and your goddamned gadgets, how about listening to me once in a while? Hank, what the hell’s wrong with you, all you think about are your gadgets. I mean, we got a house full of broken-down machinery now, who needs it? We came out here to get away from crap and machines and – look at you, sitting here in the middle of the goddamned desert, listening to a goddamned electric pipe-cleaner!’
He looked at her, then back to the instrument. ‘Now wait a minute. We came out here to establish our own, ahm, environmental situation, right? So machines are an integral part of it. Oh sure, I used to want to turn the clock back, just like everyone else. I wanted to trash our whole technology, return to the soil – only I grew out of it. Whether we like it or not, technology is here to stay.
are here to stay.’
On cue, the pipe-cleaner made a loud buzzing noise and emitted a wisp of smoke. Hank dropped it to the floor where, after flopping for a moment like a dying fish, it lay still.
‘Ha! Maybe they don’t want to stay.’
Hank’s pudgy fingers dug into his beard. ‘Oh sure, laugh. But it doesn’t change a thing. Sure, machines go wrong once in a while. They have to be fixed –’
‘Tell me something I don’t know. You never fix anything around here, you never let me call a repairman, all you do is let it pile up! The crapyard of the universe we got here, the crap –’
Just let me finish, will you? Just have the courtesy to let me finish what I’m saying, okay? Okay. Machines are here to stay, we have to make the most of ’em. We owe it to ourselves not to just throw them away the minute they conk out on us. If we do that, we’re turning all our energy and raw materials into junk and garbage and pollution. Right?’
‘What is this, are you gonna quote your whole goddamned article for
or something? I’ve read it.’