Robots by Tim Boucher

 

THE EPITHET

by
Bruce Boston


Mr. Marsh met with the eight house robos in the library. Or what had at one time been the library. robot by Tim BoucherWhere books had once lined three of its walls from floor to ceiling, and a sheet of plate glass the fourth, now there were only metal panels, arrays of flashing lights, sockets and keyboards and display screens. Oddly enough the furnishings of the past remained. The oak desk, long empty, in one corner of the room. The scattered armchairs and settees. The standing lamps which cast a soft illumination on the darkly patterned rug.

Mr. Marsh sat by the piano, where a vase of flowers had been placed for his enjoyment. Although it was morning he wore his dinner jacket, a freshly laundered dress shirt, its whiteness stretched across his chest and belly. The robos wore only metal. They had gathered in front of him in a loose semicircle, sitting or standing, all but the Servo, who was plugged into a wall unit monitoring the functions of the house.

Marsh listened as the Domo led its charges through the monotonic litany of the robopledge. He had heard it all before: the vow to serve humanity, to never harm it, to work toward fashioning a better future. Once they had finished, he took a swallow of his drink before beginning.

"I have called you here this morning because we have a complaint."

One of the standing robos rolled forward a few feet and spoke. "Pardon the interruption, Mr. Marsh, but when you say 'we' are you referring to the generic 'we,' mankind as a whole, or to some more immediate and personal kind of 'we.'"

Marsh sighed. Robos could be so difficult to talk to, so damnably precise. He was convinced that sometimes they did it on purpose.

"I mean myself, and my family, and a few friends."

"Which friends did you have in mind, sir?"

"It doesn't matter which friends. Forget the friends!"

Marsh realized he was talking to the Cook, or at least he thought it was the Cook. He glanced from one robo face to another.robot by Tim Boucher They all looked so much alike to him. "This is not a dietary matter. Let me speak to the Domo."

The Cook rolled back into the semicircle. The Domo, who was seated watching the Mech, now swiveled its head toward Marsh. It had the most distinct personality of any of the robos, but Marsh didn't always like that personality. The Domo seemed so young, so enthusiastic.

"Yes, Mr. Marsh, what can I do for you?"

"Myself...and my immediate family...we have a complaint."

"And what might that be sir? Since it is not a dietary matter, I trust that climate control has been satisfactory?"

"Yes, yes, of course."

"Perhaps you would like an adjustment in the holo schedule. I've been considering introducing more educational programming at the--"

"No!" Marsh brought his fist down on the arm of his chair. "Just be quiet for a minute and I'll tell you."

"Certainly, sir."

Marsh took another swallow of his drink. "My complaint has to do with a certain kind of behavior we've noticed. I want you to know that we are aware of what goes on behind our backs. We've heard you talking. And it's got to stop."

"Mr. Marsh," the Domo answered, "Just what is it that you think we're saying?"

 Marsh hesitated. "It's not so much what you're saying, as how you say it. It's your entire attitude toward us."

"But our attitude is one of service," the Domo stated, its tone taking on the formality of a recitation. "We attempt to anticipate your every need. We bring you the finest foods from around the world. We build your cities and highways and we maintain them. We keep the barbarians at the gates. Why we practically give you the sun in the morning and the moon at night."

Marsh decided, not for the first time, that whoever had originally programmed the Domo was strange, very strange indeed. He felt his anger failing within him. It was all so much trouble, talking to robos.

"This has nothing to do with the service," he went on, choosing his words carefully. "This is something else entirely. You've got to stop talking about us behind our backs...and you've got to stop calling us that name!"

The Servo unplugged from the wall unit and faced the assembly. Several heads turned in its direction. "And what name is it you are referring to, Mr. Marsh?"

"You know very well what name. I want you to stop calling us...fleshpots!"

"You must be mistaken," the Servo assured him. "That's quite impossible, sir. 'Fleshpot' is not part of our vocabulary."

And then there was silence, deathly silence, as there always was when one of the robos made a joke. They couldn't laugh, but one could feel them laughing. Marsh ground his teeth together. He didn't know what to say.

It was the Domo who broke the silence. Its head swiveled back to face Marsh. "I'm sorry, sir, but your complaint is invalid within our current parameters. We must serve you. We must make your lives as comfortable as possible. But there is nothing in the robopledge which says we have to like you."

The Mech stood up. "I have work to accomplish and the minutes continue to pass."

"Yes," the Domo answered. "We all have our work. And soon it will be time to serve lunch." It clapped its metal hands together and the sound rang like a shot. The robos began moving into action. The meeting was over.

As they wheeled his chair from the room, Marsh thought for a moment he might scream.

But it was only a thought.
 
 

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