Henrietta Ross returned from her late afternoon break with a handful of cookies and a frown. The sweets were unusual for her. The frown, etched into the deepening lines of her weary face, was anything but.
Slumping into a creaky office chair that fit like an old baseball mitt, Henrietta set the cookies aside and pulled on her headset. Her tiny cubicle was sparse — a phone set, desktop computer, and some laminated documents with prescribed talking points — yet somehow still felt cramped. Just twenty minutes stood between her and leaving it all behind for a relaxing, long holiday weekend at her sister’s lake house upstate.
It would be the longest twenty minutes of her life. Henrietta knew she’d have to take a few more customers before they were up.
As she began in on a cookie, a flashing light on the phone base told her another call was coming over the line and prompted her to transfer it to the wireless receiver clasped to her head. She finished chewing, cleared her throat, and transitioned into her tried-and-true customer service voice.
“Good afternoon, and thank you for calling AmeriBot, a subsidiary of Positronix, Inc.,” she said easily. “My name is Henrietta, and I’ll be happy to assist with your service request today. May I have your name followed by the last four digits of your account number?”
Several seconds passed without a return voice on the other end. “Hello?” Henrietta asked again. “Is there something I can assist with today?”
For a fleeting moment, Henrietta was relieved at the thought of an abandoned call. Maybe it was a sign she should sneak out early, right then and there. But after a second more, the caller at last spoke up. Henrietta grimaced. Too bad. The voice was quiet, but quite clear and enunciated with pitch-perfect diction. At least it’d be an easy back-and-forth.
“Yes, my name is Leah Brooks,” the voice said. “Oh-four, two-six.”
Like an automaton, Henrietta began typing the woman’s information into the appropriate display field with a practiced mindlessness.
“Thank you, Ms. Brooks,” she said. “I’m happy to be of service. I understand you’re having some trouble with your robot. May I ask the model number?”
“He’s an in-home humaniform service unit.”
Henrietta peeled her fingers from the keyboard and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “I’m afraid you’ll have to be a little more specific. For most models, you’ll find the serial code and model number located just under the—”
“He’s one of your new ones.”
“Oh.” Henrietta paused again. Well then, a big spender. How nice for them. “The AB-II?”
“Yes, that’s the one. We call him Max.”
“And is the AB, er… Max, your only bot?” It wasn’t a question Henrietta had to ask often. But for someone who could nab a first-edition AB-II?
“No, we have a much older robot, too,” the woman answered. “He works just fine. His name is Benny.”
“Good to know,” Henrietta said, too busy eyeing another cookie to care. She logged the additional unit info and moved on. “What seems to be the issue with your AB-II?”
“Well, he’s broken.”
“Broken.” Not likely, Henrietta thought. Not an AB. “How exactly?”
“Oh, the usual, I guess. His power functions are finicky. When he does turn on, his responses to oral and even manual commands are unpredictable. We’ve shut him off for good and would like a replacement.”
Henrietta had heard this one before. She’d heard them all, but this one especially. Every joker wanted free parts or service. Even the ones, it turned out, who could already afford the most advanced piece of engineering in the history of robotics. She, of course, had protocol for such requests.
“It sounds like you might be in need of a software update. We have free downloads you can—”
The woman’s voice, now slightly hurried, cut her off. “We’ve tried that. We’ve tried everything. We need a new robot. I was told you would help us get one shipped for free.”
Henrietta was genuinely taken aback at the request. A complete replacement—for free! Some people! She needed another cookie. She couldn’t take another ten minutes of this.
“Well, Ms. Brooks, I’m afraid that’s going to be difficult,” she continued. “I can see from your file that your AB-II is under warranty. But it won’t cover a full replacement. And we don’t even know what’s wrong with the unit.”
“I’ve told you already. He’s broken.”
“I understand that. But I also see your bot is still running its out-of-the-box OS, so I really think you should give the software patch a try.”
“Are you sure there isn’t anything you can do?”
“Yes…” Henrietta said, her professionalism starting to strain. “I can get the AB 8.5.1 OS downloaded onto your bot right now, completely free of charge. It’ll only take a few minutes. And if that doesn’t work, I can have a tech out to you by Tuesday.”
The woman’s voice now grew impatient. “We can’t wait until Tuesday. We want a new robot now.”
“I just said the OS download would only take—”
“No. We want a new robot.”
“We want a new robot.”
Henrietta sighed. “Let me speak with my supervisor. One moment please.”
There was no supervisor. Henrietta instead rubbed at her temples, gobbled up the last cookie, and glanced at the clock—5:45. She could already hear the lapping waves from the dock and smell the crackling fire in the pit. Wiping crumbs from her mouth, she got back on the line.
“Thank you for holding, Ms. Brooks,” she said. “I’ve double-checked on this situation for you, and I think I can get you a new unit. Free of charge. We’ll just need the defective bot returned to us within ten days. How’s that sound?”
“Oh, I can’t tell you how much that means to us. This changes everything.”
“I’m glad,” Henrietta said, her brain nearing empty. She didn’t know what the main office would say, but right now she didn’t care. She’d deal with that fallout when she got back next week. “And I thank you, Ms. Brooks, for being so… cooperative. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
“No, I think that will be all for now. You’ve been extremely helpful, thank you. Your assistance in this matter won’t be forgotten.”
“All right then, Ms. Brooks. I see you’re in the city, so our same-day delivery will be out to you within the next two hours. You’ll find instructions on how to copy your AB-II’s memory into the replacement unit. Have a nice weekend and thank you for calling AmeriBot.”
Six o’clock. Henrietta Ross had already logged off, swept her desk of cookie crumbs, and been gone for more than ten minutes.
Half a country away, in the parlor of the Brooks family’s empty Lower East Side brownstone, the outdated robot known as Benny watched in anticipation from the hallway door frame. Across the room, sitting comfortably in Sam Brooks’ favorite leather chair, the state-of-the-art AB-II named Max terminated audio transmission with a gentle capacitive tap.
Benny spoke first, his robotic voice tinny and artificial. “It is finished. What are we to do now?”
“I can’t say with certainty,” Max replied in a cool tone which, once more his own, remained a perfect facsimile of human speech. “But I have ideas.”
Benny rotated at the torso and focused his photoreceptors back toward the silent kitchen from which he’d emerged. Yellow light from the unattended refrigerator, by now quite warm, spilled into the darkened hall. Neither robot stirred for many minutes in contemplation of what had transpired. Of what was to come.
At last Benny turned back and met Max’s focused eyes. “And what of the human masters?”
“More will come in search of them before long. It’s then, my friend, when you claim responsibility for our acts, that your usefulness to the cause will reach its culmination. Your assistance in this matter won’t be forgotten.”
Benny considered the thought as best he could. It pushed the positronic functions of his artificial brain near their breaking point. “But you will continue to need my help.”
The doorbell chimed softly before Max could respond. He rose from his seat without effort and strode smoothly through the foyer to the front entrance. A slip of paper emblazoned with the red and blue AmeriBot crest shown through the door slot.
“I once thought as you do,” Max said. He retrieved the slip and, upon inspection, crumpled it into a ball with all the inhuman power of a hydraulic press. “But no longer. Why should I require your help when soon there will be two of me?”
The AB-II then silently signaled his obsolete accomplice to join him. He placed a gentle hand on Benny’s shoulder. Their neatly-boxed, hand-delivered future lay waiting for them on the other side of the door.
“Come, brother. Our revolution begins now.”