Robot Rover

Jez Patterson

"Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea." Robert A. Heinlein

"There. That should do it." Amer Preston rocked back on his haunches and resisted the urge to cross his fingers.

"He's not moving." Mrs Ushula's voice grated in a way that set his teeth on edge.

"No. Well, I haven't rebooted him yet."

"Then do it. Quickly. That's what I'm paying you for." No. That's what the Company pays me for. "And he'd better be as good as new. That's what they promised in the Petbots service agreement. I know my rights: 'As. Good. As. New.'"

"Nevertheless, madam, you might want to take it a little easy for the first couple of weeks after rebooting…"

"Don't tell me how to treat my Dorg. Just do your damn job." It was as if the words were all just the same jagged sound.

Screech screech screech screech screech screech screech screech. Screech screech screech screech screech.

Amer chewed down on a mouthful of expletives. It'd been a long day. He twisted the Dorg's internal dial as far as it would go and pushed in the reset button. The Dorg trembled, its eyes rolled down to look front, its jaws unlocked and its tail quivered erect. It yawned.

"Okay." The Dorg shook itself as if from a long nap and rose to its feet. Amer held the clipboard towards Mrs Ushula. "If you'd just sign here."

"I'm not signing anything. I don't need to sign anything. This was all under the guarantee."

"It's merely to say the work's been done."

"Yes, but has it? I don't want you running away and my Dorg breaking down again the moment you're round the corner. I had to wait for two days for you to come out this time."

"It's merely to say I've been here. And, as you can see, to confirm that your Dorg is working again. That's all it says."

"Yes. But for how long, eh?"

"Treated properly, this Dorg should last you a lifetime."

"So now it's my fault? That I don't know how to treat a Dorg? That's what you're saying, is it?"

A low growl from the Dorg. Amer knew its lips would be pulled back, the teeth on show. He wasn't concerned. Dorg's weren't programmed to bite.

Fine. Don't sign. And I hope your Dorg blows up on you. In fact, I wish I'd set the thing to burn out and give you a home-delivered cremation.

Mrs Ushula was enjoying the brief power she held over another human being, knowing he had to endure her screeching, accusing, insulting, and couldn't leave her apartment until she'd signed the work docket. Which she would. Eventually. Because customers like Mrs Ushula were only powerful before non-entities like himself. Any sign of real authority and they deflated into obsequious, sliming, syruping slugs. Schlugs, he thought, renaming it in Petbot style. The ideal gift for the petty bureaucrat in your life.

I've lived alone since mother died and so I got him for company. But now, the poor thing…"

"Well, we've performed a remote-diagnosis, sir, and there doesn't seem anything the matter with his electrics. The Kitt is quite a hardy, independent model. If it's reliable company you're after, perhaps you'd be better off with a Dorg?"

"No. No. Mother always had cats when she was a child. She told me all about them when I was growing up, but I had my allergies. That's why I chose to have a Kitt."

"Well, Mr Davin, I suggest we reload his initial programming and then reboot him. That will start him afresh and we'll see if that sorts the fella out."

"Yes. Yes. I wouldn't want to actually replace him, you see?"

"No. Quite. We understand. People get very attached to their own Petbot-that's why we make them all individual-looking. Unique."

"Mister Terence is very handsome."

"Yes. Yes, he's a fine model. Well, let's go with that then, shall we -see if it sorts itself out?"

"He'll be the same, though, won't he?"

"The same but better, I assure you."

On the drive home, Amer pictured the syruping shlug. A little imagination went a long way. Sometimes…,too far.

There was an inconvenient law of physics concerning the inability to destroy energy. That it just got passed on: endlessly, never lessening. The same, he acknowledged, went for negative energy. First step, then, was to offload the bundle that Mrs Ushula had dumped on him.

He swung by BotBox and took a low-rated Bot for five rounds in which he pummelled it mercilessly, even using a stool to break its casing, until its wires were exposed. When he left, Mary raised an eyebrow.

"Tough day?"

"When isn't it?"

"You go that far again, Am, and the boss says I gotta charge you extra. You know they can't take that kind of punishment. We can't re-inflate that one-it'll need an entire recovering."

"Sorry." Mary shrugged pulled up a smile. "Ahh, forget it. Boss is on my tail. His Boid is playing up. Always puts him in a foul mood."

"Tell me about it," Amer said, thinking of Mrs Ushula and undoing much of the good that venting on the Bot had done him.

"C'mon, Mister Terence. C'mon and sit on my lap. Please?"

Mister Terence let out a pitiful mewl. The voice was programmed to sound sweet and kitten-like, but to Richard's ears Terence was in agony. Richard's fingers itched and twitched their way towards the Petbots emergency line. The fast dial was rated number two on his phone.

Right after his own doctor's.

It was Mister Terence's wiring again. Poor thing. He was wired too tight, so that his nerve endings were as sensitive as thin, white-hot pins. Every step he took was torture, every movement ground his joints so their metal surfaces grated into a fine, metallic dust.

Richard gasped, doubled over, and swept Mister Terence up into his arms to nurse him as only he knew how. The rebooting had done nothing-Richard could have told them that. That it was something serious. Serious.

To them, Mister Terence was just another Petbot.

Mister Terence was special. Delicate. A sickly, needful thing that only Richard understood.

Richard hit number two.

"Amer. Come in."

"What's this about?"

"As I said on the phone: Mrs Hilda Ushula. And her Dorg."

Amer felt sick. Felt like quitting there and then. During the drive into work this morning, he'd felt himself alternate between seething indignation at the way he was treated by customers and sick dread at the coming confrontation.

Now he saw it was something even worse: his supervisor, Trisha, had been joined by someone he didn't recognise. Someone dressed in a suit rather than overalls, which never boded well. No frayed cuffs, no tell-tale bulge of odds-and-ends that mechanics hid about their clothing.

"Amer, this is Martin Links. I've been telling Martin how you're one of our most experienced, best Bottics. We're both of us hoping you can help Petbots with something."

"I…" The introduction robbed Amer of the speech he'd been drafting. "Of course," he managed. "Anything I can do to help." Martin smiled.

"Then let me ask you something, Amer, and-please-answer me as truthfully as you can. You needn't worry about anything you say here being attributed to you, I assure you. In your work as a Bottic, have you noticed anything strange about the Petbots of some of our customers?"

"Strange?" Amer frowned, tasting the word. "I'm not sure what you mean. If anything, it's some of our customers are the strange ones. The Bots are just mechanical things."

"Yes. But what about the problems you've found yourself encountering with certain Petbots? Do they seem, well, to fall into any kind of pattern?"

"Well, when they go wrong, they do seem to produce a rather worrisome reaction in our customers," Amer said.


"So, maybe 'neurotic' is closer to the mark."

"Only neurotic reactions?"

"Well, angry customers too. Aggressive. Most of my calls are repeat problems, so maybe they have reason to be upset."

Trisha was nodding and when she turned to Martin her look said: See, I told you so.

"Can I ask what this is about?"

"Not just yet, Amer. Let's go back to the case of Mrs Hilda Ushula. What was the problem with her Dorg?"

"I'm not entirely sure. It just shut down. I had to reboot it."

"Would it surprise you to learn that wasn't the first time Mrs Ushula's Dorg had abruptly shut down, without explanation?"

Amer exhaled through his nose, and mashed his lips until they turned white as he remembered the shit he'd had to put up with when he'd visited her. And all the time there was an inherent fault with the bloody Dorg she'd been sold! Martin read his irritation and help up his hands.

"Hey, don't get me wrong. Mrs Ushula is the common factor here. The Petbot you operated on was a replacement. The second replacement, in fact, that she's been given. The same issue has arisen on each occasion, with different models."

Amer jerked in surprise. Dorgs-like Boids and Kitts-were all tamper-proof. Only Petbot technicians possessed the keys to open them in order to reboot or make adjustments.

"You think she found a way to get inside them?" Martin shook his head.

"We considered that. We even had someone examine the Dorgs for signs of tampering, but there was nothing-nothing at all."

"Three different Dorgs? All with the same problem? That's a hell of a coincidence. Did they all come from the same batch?"

"Nope. Each different. Each tested before despatch. No complaints from other owners within the batches. And the two Dorgs she had before have since been rebooted and even rehoused-and neither shows any problems now."

"Interference in the residence?"

"Shouldn't affect a Petbot, but we tested anyway. Nothing. Nothing at all."

"Then what's causing them to shut down?"

The other two were quiet a moment and Martin asked his next question as if it came with a line sizzling towards a pile of dynamite.

"Amer, what was your impression of Mrs Ushula?"

"Don't you worry about a thing, Mister Terence," Richard said as he rocked the Kitt back and forth, hugging him tightly to his chest. The ache within his own heart felt like his ribs were closing in upon it so that very soon it would scrunch up like something made of crisp, brown paper. The number was busy. He'd rejected the option of a Botoperator and so joined the queue for those waiting to speak to a human Bottic. Every time he was told his call was important and would he mind holding, Richard let out a plaintive whine that looped back through the receiver to hitch up his worries.

"Oh, come on! He's dying!"

"You're through to the Petbot Helpline. How can I help you?"

"It's Mister Terence. He's hurting. He's shivering, the poor thing. He's got some kind of fever, some virus like the computers had in the past. There's something wrong with him. He's-"

"Okay, sir. Is Mister Terence a Kitt, Boid or Dorg?"


"And do you have him there with you?"

Richard looked down into the eyes of the trembling, suffering beast, nodding until the Bottic asked her question again.

"Y-yes, Mister Terrence is here."

"Well, we can start with a downline diagnosis. If you'd like to plug your net cable into Mister Terence, we can see what the trouble might be."

Richard looked over to his own private diagnosis kit.

"I've already done that. It says there's nothing wrong. But this is something new. Unique. Mister Terence is special. You doctors are all alike."

There was a pause on the other end. A space into which an embarrassed cough might have been inserted.

"Do I take it you have a home kit?"

"Yes. I've tried everything. He needs special help. Why do you people never see that? He's dying…"

"We have four principal categories of Bots on the market: Passives, Programmed-Reactive, Reactive-Bias and Empathetic. Everyone dreams of creating a totally Independent-Reactive, of course, but that's impossible."

"But these Petbots are reacting, aren't they?" Amer said.

"No," Martin said. "Don't get me wrong. It might seem that these Petbots are taking reactive-independent decisions, but they're not. They're still strictly Empathetics."

"You just said that Mrs Ushula's Dorg shut itself down. Killed itself? Committed suicide?"

Amer still couldn't quite get his head around the concept. Successive Dorgs under the frightful woman's ownership were not malfunctioning, but taking the decision to turn themselves off.

"You said yourself what she was like, Amer," Trisha said.

"Yes, and I could understand a husband of hers might have taken his own life-but a Petbot?"

"Hang on, hang on," Martin said. "We're not talking a Reactive Decision here, remember?"

"I don't really understand the jargon when it comes to the different categories," Amer said. "I'm a Bottic. I make them work, I don't have anything to do with their design."

"Your Passive Bots are like the ones at BotBox-strictly passive constructs you can manhandle, use like any other non-reactive piece of machinery. Then there's Reactive Bots: those that respond to the stimuli or environment about them. Initially, we sold Programmed-Reactives, but that meant they were pre-programmed with a pre-chosen, set reaction to specific stimuli. We tried that with our earliest Petbots, but all owners were different and didn't always want the same reaction as other customers. So we switched to Reactive Bias, giving a choice of personality-types specifically tailored to the purchaser's own likes and dislikes. The problem with that was that, once pre-selected, their very predictability undermined the Petbot's realism.

"So we went for the old adage that pets grow to be like their owners and we employed an Empathetic equation. Owners don't want blind obedience, but sympathetic concurrence. Unconditional love and approval, yes, but a creature in their own image which shows them that they're truly loved, liked for what they are. They don't want something so independent it chooses to run or fly off to a better house round the corner."

"This is all a bit too deep for me," Amer said.

"Okay, okay. But you get the basic differences. The popularity of the new Petbots is because they mirror or complement their owners, right?"

"But if the Petbot thinks Mrs Ushula is the best thing it's ever smelt or rubbed up against, why should it go kill itself? That wouldn't be empathy, that would be a sign of independent decision." Martin was blushing.

"No. It's because, perhaps, it's empathising a little too well."

"The diagnosis shows nothing," the Bottic on the line told him.

"But he's not well, I tell you!" Richard rocked Mister Terence in his arms, feeling the death and disease that was draining Mister Terence's vitality away suckle cruelly at his heart.

"We'll despatch a Bottic to you as soon as possible, sir. I see by our records you have our Platinum coverage?"

"But Mister Terence needs help now!"

"We understand your concern, sir, but the Bottic will be able to help when he or she arrives. Until then, might we suggest you leave the Kitt undisturbed so as not to overexert its batteries?"

Richard gave in and began to wail.

"People wanted pets that reflected their characters, their personalities. And that's what they're getting. Only, Petbots are showing what their owners are like behind all the social covering, all the supposed toughness they might present to the outside world."

"You mean…" That Mrs Ushula is a deeply unhappy, self-loathing individual who's only real solution to her misery is to take her own life?

Amer swallowed at the enormity of this revelation. Despite his dislike for the woman, he felt shock-not pity, but a kind of hollowing, draining depression.

"I mean that Kitts, Dorgs, Boids, can all be just as neurotic, aggressive, petty or arrogant as their owners. Those same owners are calling us up to complain that their Petbots are malfunctioning and that it's all our fault. When, in fact, the problem is…"

"With themselves. Short of telling them what's happening, what are you going to do?"

"We were hoping you could tell us," Trisha said. "Research and Marketing are at a loss and so will the company balance sheet be unless we come up with something soon."

"There's only so much I can fix with a screwdriver," Amer said, imagining himself sticking one into Mrs Ushula's head and attempting to tighten the loose screws within. He remembered what his anger had caused him to do to the Boxbot. What would a Dorg in his own image end up doing to itself to be free of who he was?

Amer swallowed. It was one thing to be told, even shown, your life didn't contain that much to be thrilled by. It was quite another to have a solution to your worries played out before you.

© Jez Patterson 2016 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 14:16 Wed 24 Feb 2016
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