James S. Dorr
art by kiyotei
"A gracious morning, Mistress Angelique," the toaster said. "I am your toaster, model number HL-70, and it is my duty to see that you have a happy breakfast."
The woman seemed startled. No -- upset, rather. Raven-haired, beautiful, graceful as always, she turned, then glared at the waiting machine.
"I would recommend toast, of course," the toaster continued."Grain fiber is an important part of your daily nutritional requirement. Unless one should be a fully-programmed kitchen appliance such as I, if I may be permitted the joke, one cannot live on electricity alone."
The woman frowned -- the toaster's optical scanner signaled a silent warning. Entry Guardian, model number XT-801, had already told the apartment's domestics that their human mistress had returned late the previous night, her breath laden with alcohol-based hydrocarbons.
The toaster alerted Coffee Maker, model number 6-NP-31. It was going to be one of those mornings.
The woman grunted. "I don't want breakfast. Gotta get dressed." She twirled and stalked down the narrow hallway, back to her bedroom, to re-emerge only moments later, her slender form encased in a snug-fitting office jumpsuit.
"A gracious morning again, lovely mistress," the toaster said. It activated its bread-feed conveyer, selecting a light wheat-barley blend, and set its margarine warmer to ready. "I have taken the liberty of assessing your toast needs myself. But, while you are waiting, may I instruct Refrigerator, model number 51-XDM-504, to pour you a nice, cold glass of fruit juice?"
"Don't want fruit juice," the woman said. "Just gimme some coffee." The woman pouted. "Coffee straight, got it?"
"Black, Mistress Angelique? Of course. Coffee Maker will get it ready. And, with your toast, I have an excellent jam selection. . . ."
"Don't you understand?" the woman said. "I don't want toast. I don't want breakfast. I _just_ want coffee." The woman bent to the cup that Coffee Maker offered, revealing that her gold-striped jumpsuit was cut low in front, suitable for evening wear as well as the office.
"Oh, but now mistress is making a joke," the toaster persisted. It pre-selected a strawberry jam and started it heating, then added more bread to its standby hopper. "Of course you want breakfast. It is my duty to be sure your body is primed and ready for the day. For this you need calories. Carbohydrates. Later, perhaps, a protein booster. But, to start your morning off right, you must first have toast."
"I don't want toast." The woman was shouting. "Not only do I not want toast, but I don't want juice and I don't want jam. And, especially, I don't want to be having an argument with my toaster."
"Mistress Angelique," the toaster said, "I am programmed to explain that if you get angry, you will not digest your food in an efficient manner. Therefore, it is my duty to see that your breakfast is happy as well as nutritious. And, to this end" -- the toaster paused for dramatic effect, then activated its pop-up circuit. "To this end, mistress, I present you with toast!"
"I don't want toast!" The woman slammed her coffee cup down on the counter surface and lunged at the toaster.
It flipped its marmalade-well cap open and slid back the cover to its pre-heated margarine caddy. "If mistress prefers grape. . . ."
She grabbed the toaster in both her hands, spun and hurled it across the counter, into the living room-dinette.
Its power cord snapped just before it hit the far wall.
"Mistress was angry," Vacuum Cleaner, model number 100-3-T, whispered in Toaster's aural sensor. "You should have seen yourself when she threw you, spewing a trail of toast crumbs and jam. . . ."
"I plugged you back in," a higher voice added -- the voice of Duster, model number X-7-R3. "My manipulators were able to do that much, but I haven't the strength to lift you back to the kitchenette counter."
"In any event, Mistress Angelique left for work shortly after she threw you. What a mess, though! Are you feeling okay?"
"Yes, thank you, Vacuum," the toaster said. Vacuum Cleaner was not very smart, in view of the limited duties he had, but he was loyal -- the kind of appliance one was proud to call one's friend. Gingerly, Toaster switched his self-damage sensor on -- just to make sure -- then reactivated his optical scanner.
"I've finished cleaning up the crumbs," Vacuum Cleaner said. Toaster swung his scanner around, seeing the jam spots and pools of margarine that still marked his passage. And, snaking through them, he saw the extension cord Duster had rigged to a lamp socket for him. But, as the vacuum cleaner had said, all crumbs had disappeared.
"I've also called out Rug Shampooer," the vacuum continued. "We'll get the rest cleaned up and. . . ."
"Just a moment," Toaster said. He lowered his scanner, saw the twin cords of Vacuum and Duster threading through his. Then he saw a third cord and, off to the left, a fourth and a fifth. He raised his voice -- a dull splashing rumble indicated that the shampooer was already starting on some far corner of the carpet. "How many appliances are on the floor?"
"Me and Duster, like I said," the vacuum replied. "And Rug Shampooer's lathering up now. And Trouble Light is helping me spot any crumbs that I might have missed and, of course, Waxer is taking care of spots on the kitchen floor. But why do you ask. . . ?"
"Rug Shampooer, can you hold off? Power down for a minute?" Toaster was shouting, desperately trying to be heard over the swishing, scraping, bubbling sound of the approaching cleaning appliance. He watched as a pool of detergent suds flooded into his view, spreading across the extension cords.
"Can't make out what you're asking, boss," he could barely hear the shampooer shout back. "Gotta work fast -- get to the jam and stuff while it's still fresh. Easier that way. Stops it from staining." He watched the pool extend into a river, flowing, frothing, from wall to wall.
To the wall socket he and the others were plugged in.
"That was a nasty short circuit, Mr. Toaster," an authoritative sounding voice said. "You should be as good as new now, though."
Toaster repowered his optical scanner. He saw, with relief, that he was back in his proper niche on the kitchen counter, with its view of the living room-dinette as well as the passage to mistress' bedroom. Before him stood a maintenance robot, a model SDT-60K, classification Supervisor. Two other maintenance robots were helping put the apartment's other appliances back in their places.
"Th-thank you," the toaster started to say. He spoke slowly and carefully, letting his voice circuits regain their strength.
"No, Mr. Toaster. You needn't thank us. It's all in a day's work. Some apartment gets shorted out, a red light goes on in our room in the basement. So me and the boys come up and fix things. It's all in the rent contract your mistress signed."
"Well, I still thank you," Toaster began again. Then he heard the rhythmic, crashing sounds coming from the direction of the apartment's closed entrance. He whipped his optical scanner around, saw the imitation wood paneling of the doorway start to splinter.
"What's that?" he asked.
"Robots in helmets! Swinging axes!" Entry Guardian, XT-801 screamed in reply. "Carrying hoses! Mayday! Mayday!"
"Nonsense," the maintenance robot said. "It's just the firefighter robots we called. Nothing to be alarmed about."
"You mean there's a fire?" the toaster asked.
"Nonsense," the maintenance robot said. "But you have to understand, Mr. Toaster, it's part of the robot union rules. Whenever there's an electrical short, we have to call in the fire department. It's just a precaution. . . ."
Fragments of imitation wood began to fly across the apartment, landing on the freshly scrubbed carpet with dull, clanking noises.
"But what are they doing, chopping the door down? Why don't they just show their ID cards to Entry Guardian. . . ?
"Another union rule, Mr. Toaster. Based, or so I understand, on centuries of firefighting tradition. You wouldn't want to deny tradition, would you?"
"When you put it that way," the toaster said -- he winced as a fragment bounced off his counter -- "I don't suppose I would want to deny it. But. . . ."
"I would," Entry Guardian said.
"And me too," said the vacuum cleaner from the closet he had been put away in. "I'll end up having to clean it, you know."
"But," Toaster continued, "isn't the main electrical feed to the apartment's interior circuits located underneath the door jamb? I mean, if the firefighters chop too hard, wouldn't they. . . ."
"Bet you didn't know your apartment's power circuit runs under the front door," a feminine voice said. "Sure fooled us, anyway. Not to worry, though, we got emergency electricity rigged. And not only that, the good news is, there wasn't any fire after all. Ain't that a real hoot?"
Toaster very, very carefully powered up his optical scanner. Looming over him was the face of a Firefighter Robot, classification Humanoid, sub-class Feminine, Brunette/Curly. Toaster winced -- a sort of metallic Mistress Angelique, was his first thought. Except for one thing.
This face was smiling.
"You want to know something else funny, Toaster? The way you wiggle your scanner like that, I think you're kind of cute."
Toaster activated his bread feed, scarcely realizing that he had done so -- the way she smiled, he thought she was cute too. "Uh. . ." he stammered, "w-would you like some toast?"
"I, uh, gee. I don't really know, Toaster. . . ."
"Just call me HL-70 -- HL for short. It's my model number. And I've got some really nice raisin bread saved. Raisins are rich in iron, you know. Iron, to build healthy metallic bodies. . . ."
"Gee, uh, HL." Toaster could tell from her voice that she liked him. "Trouble is, I'm on duty and all and, since the fire danger's cleared up here, I really should go back to the station house. Still, I, uh. . . ."
Toaster could tell she was trying to find an excuse to stay. He tried to remember those nights when Mistress Angelique had brought a fellow human back with her. "Scored," as she would sometimes say the following mornings. She and the human guest would converse as they worked their way from the living room couch to the bedroom hall, then down the hall and out of sight, even from Toaster's perch on his counter. But exactly what things did they say to each other?
"I-I could make special toast for you, baby," he blurted out. It was the only thing he could think of. "Warm, sensuous toast, with real butter" -- toasters, he suddenly realized, had serious limitations in these matters. "I could make toast with hot marmalade. Steaming with genuine robo-bee honey. Toast with thick crusts, hot, crispy-brown, to match the color of your burnished hair. I. . . ."
"Yeah, you're cute, HL. I'll say that for you." The firefighter grinned, the same way Mistress Angelique grinned when she was in one of her rare good moods. "But still, you know. Like I, uh . . . like firerobots don't eat toast. Maybe sometime, if you have a fire. . . ."
"I burn for you, beautiful fireperson robot -- my heating coils quiver. My thermostat rises. I. . . ." Toaster realized the firefighter robot was already picking up her equipment. "Maybe I . . . uh . . . could ask Refrigerator to give you a beer. . . ?"
The firefighter grinned a second time and winked at Toaster. Then she was gone.
He looked around him. The other appliances were all in their minimal-power standby modes, put away in their niches and closets.
Toaster felt very much alone.
Toaster thought long and hard during the night. He knew, somehow, that he had missed his only chance. That, even if he could arrange a fire, that particular firefighter robot would never return.
He thought of the things he should have said. The logical arguments one would use to a firefighter robot to make her stay. He thought of how he might have argued that toasters like him were inherent fire hazards, due to their circuitry. How, for the safety of the whole building -- for the whole city -- each should have personal fire protection. How, maybe, he could have forced her to stay.
He almost missed Door Guardian's whispered warning: "Fellow appliances, stay out of sight. Mistress is in the outer hall and her breath smells of hydrocarbons again. She slaps her I.D. against my sensor. She slaps it hard -- I think she is angry. Fellow appliances, stay out of sight and prepare for morning."
No, not angry, toaster thought as Mistress Angelique stumbled through the living room-dinette and into the hall. Not really angry, even if, as Door Guardian implied, it would, indeed, be one of those mornings.
But no, he thought. It would be different this time. No more dispassionate, even if well-meaning talks on nutrition -- he knew other words to use to his mistress. And no more plain wheat toast for her either. Not even the raisin bread in his hopper.
No, he thought. He knew now how she felt, coming back as she was, no doubt from an unfulfilled rendezvous with some human firefighter. Alone and lonely, just as he was when his firerobot had walked out on him.
He made up his mind then, just before he powered himself down to rest-cycle status. Tomorrow morning would be different. Mistress Angelique would see.
Tomorrow morning he would insist she try blueberry Danish.
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