John A. Frochio
The doorbell interrupted their fight. Mark stormed away from his wife to the front door and threw it open without checking the security popup.
A small repairbot about a foot tall with a wide cylindrical body, a spherical head and a narrow blinking monitor sat outside the door, clicking and whirring and buzzing. Mark’s name and address scrolled across the screen under a ten year old picture of him when his hair was longer and darker and his face was not so worn by lines of stress and age.
After a moment of confusion, he said, “We don’t need anything fixed.”
The bot buzzed for a moment, as though reflecting on Mark’s remark, then said, “These are the precise coordinates that I received. To verify these coordinates, I transmitted a confirmation request to the repair call dispatcher and received an acknowledgement.”
“Well, somebody made a mistake. I didn’t make a repair call.”
“We have been directed . . .”
“Go direct yourself someplace else. Goodbye and I hope you have as nice a day as I’ve been having so far.”
He knew the irony of his statement was lost on the robot, but it made him feel better.
As he reached to close the door, the repairbot rolled past him.
“Hey!” he said, spinning around.
While he was distracted, a parade of smaller helperbots followed the repairbot inside. They rolled past him and immediately began fanning out into separate rooms.
The helperbots were about seven or eight inches tall with a spherical base on swiveling wheels topped with a pivoting cylinder ringed by six webcams. Their arms were short and flexible with a variety of different sized and shaped “fingers” that seemed to move around constantly.
His wife, Amanda, popped in. Her long brown hair was disheveled and she wore a yellow and orange flowered sundress, a disarming contrast. The summery dress did not match the furrowed brow, tightly drawn lips and intense gaze that distorted her normally radiant and attractive face.
She froze in mid-step. Helperbots were scurrying all over the place like an infestation of roaches.
“What’s going on?” she asked, her voice tense.
“Repairbots. They said someone called them about something needing fixed in our house. I told them nothing was broken, but they won’t take no for an answer.”
She sighed. “Okay. I’m going into the bedroom,” she said. “Just please keep them away from me.”
“Yeah. Okay. Sure.”
She left the room, angrily dodging and stepping over the bots that got in her way. She almost tripped over one, then kicked it halfway across the room.
The bots zipped back and forth around Mark like manic bumper cars at an amusement park attraction, crossing his path every time he tried to take a step. He stood motionless and fumed for a while. One helperbot kept bumping into his left foot repeatedly before it turned and rolled away.
Finally he shouted, “Get out of my house! Get out! Get out!”
Then he realized he was shouting at no one since all the bots had left the room. He heard them clamoring in other rooms.
“Okay,” he continued talking to no one. “Since I can’t reason with the lot of you, I’m going to have to call your supervisor. You’re in big trouble now. Wait until they get ahold of you guys.”
He popped his cell out of his shirt pocket and punched up Social Reparations Services. In response to pre-recorded instructions, he punched a number, then another number, and another and another and . . . finally he got somebody “real.” Or as close to real as he could hope for, if a robot could be considered real. He groaned at the thought of trying to talk to yet another robot.
“Can I help you, sir?” A tinny though distinctly male voice said. “Is this a call for emergency service?”
“No, that would have been about six numbers back.”
“I am required to ask that question, sir. What is the nature of your call?”
“A team of repair robots entered my house because of a repair call they claim was made. I denied the call was made, but it didn’t matter to them. They won’t leave.”
“You are aware that some appliances and power equipment have the ability to make repair calls on their own behalf?”
He had forgotten about that little feature. “Well, yes,” he said. “I do have some of those newer models. But they’re still required to inform the owner, aren’t they?”
“Yes, if they can. However, sometimes the malfunction they are experiencing prevents them from communicating any information to the owner.”
“Oh.” That was certainly a brilliant comeback on my part, he thought.
“Please give me your name and address and I will look up the repair call.”
Mark bit his lip to stop himself from saying anything more, then punched an identity dump.
He heard Muzak. Vintage Blue Oyster Cult. He remembered this was his Grandfather’s favorite band. He used to play it all the time. “7 Screaming Diz-Busters!”
A few moments later, the support agent returned and said, “At 5:05 PM, we received an emergency repair call from GB17002461001, a Polar Xpress Model A6 refrigerator. The issue was described as a ‘Household Controller’ issue. No further details were provided. Hence our repair robots did not have sufficient information and have resorted to a full scan for problems in your entire house.”
“But wouldn’t the fact that the refrigerator made the call imply that the refrigerator has the problem?”
“Not necessarily. There is a wireless connection between all modern appliances in the same home that possess this AI feature. In a sense, they basically look after one another.”
That last remark disturbed Mark on more than one level.
“Well, thanks,” he said, uncertain what to do next. “I guess I’ll wait to see what they find out.”
“Was the response to your call satisfact . . .”
Mark clicked off. He had enough of that for one day!
Bots continued to speed past him from all directions. He dodged several of the more reckless ones, then went into the kitchen and stared at the refrigerator. The refrigerator stared back.
He opened the refrigerator door. Everything was cold as it should be. He checked the freezer. Everything was nicely frozen. No obvious freezer burn on anything. There was a steady hum coming from the motor. Nothing seemed wrong here.
“What’s broken, fridge?” he asked it, not really expecting an answer, though he had heard of a new generation of talking refrigerators that were taking off. He could hear it now: Something’s about to expire in a couple days, buddy; you better take care of it!
He took an ice cream bar from the freezer and closed the door.
“Come on. You know what it is. Spill your guts.”
It continued humming.
At a loss about what to do next, he went back to the bedroom to share his frustrations with Amanda. Though this whole confusing business was beginning to make him forget his earlier argument with her, he could clearly see she had not forgotten a single bit of it. However, she listened to his story without interrupting.
“Well,” she said after he finished, “just let them fix whatever it is and send them on their way.”
“Easier said than done. The refrigerator seems okay to me and the bots haven’t even gone near it.
I can’t get their attention, anyway. They won’t listen to me. They just keep going from room to room. They’re not finding anything to fix.”
She said, “Can’t you do anything on your own?” She stormed past him.
He followed her. He didn’t say a word. Now was not the time to start up another argument.
There were no bots in the kitchen. She went into the living room. No bots there either. He stopped following her at the entranceway.
“Maybe they finally gave up and left,” he said.
She turned to him and said, “Just like the way you treat our marriage?”
He sighed. So the diversion was over now and we’re back to the fight. Well, at least they had some time to calm down a bit. Hopefully.
He said, “Listen, I’m sorry about the way I’ve been acting lately. I have been neglecting things, neglecting us, neglecting you. I admit it. I’ve been distracted. There’s less people doing more work at the office. We have more responsibilities but not enough time to do anything right. It’s been frustrating.”
“So you take it out on me?”
“I guess I do. I’m sorry. I really am. It all builds up inside of me and I take it home with me, which I shouldn’t. And then I blow up at every little thing.”
Her face was expressionless.
He said, “I know. It’s no excuse.”
She went over to the window and stared outside. “Marriage is supposed to be a partnership, Mark. We’re supposed to share everything, the good and the bad.”
“I know and I’m sorry. I’m going to have to speak up more at work. I can’t work like that anymore. And I can’t bring it into our home anymore.”
Her mouth dropped open. “Oh my!”
“What is it?”
“It looks like the robots didn’t leave after all. Some of the robots seem to be dismantling our car.”
“What!” He lunged toward the window, then tripped over a vacuum cleaner that was being dragged past him at that moment by a helperbot. He hit the floor hard.
Amanda ran over to Mark and helped him to his feet. Together they watched speechlessly as the little robot swiftly and systematically took the vacuum cleaner apart.
He was momentarily stunned. Those little arms moved amazingly fast.
In the following moments, they observed their wall TV being lowered to the floor and a lamp was carefully examined. More bots swarmed into the room. Amanda and Mark froze in their spots to keep from tripping over anything that buzzed by them.
Mark shouted, “None of this stuff needs fixed, you crazy bots!”
Amanda turned to look at Mark. A small smile crossed her face. Slowly she said, “Or maybe something does need fixed.”
Mark looked at Amanda and saw a familiar sparkle in her eyes. He hadn’t seen that glimmer in a long time. It meant she had been struck by a clever idea that she wanted to share with him.
Both of them smiled.
He followed her lead. “Yeah,” he said, “there is something broken.”
They looked around to make sure they were getting the attention of some of their visitors. Then Amanda indicated to Mark to follow her. They moved toward the kitchen, taking small careful steps to avoid stepping on the scurrying bots and various parts and pieces littering their floor.
“Follow me, guys” he said. “We’ll show you what’s broken.”
Mark and Amamda kept calling to the bots as they went into the kitchen. Soon they were being followed by a trail of clicking and clacking bots that seemed pleased to have finally found a purpose.
She went over to the countertop and picked up their extra-wide four-slice toaster, holding it high above her head. After only a moment’s hesitation, she slammed it to the floor. It hit hard, bounced and smacked into the refrigerator, a shower of crumbs spraying out in all directions, and ended up upside down. The toaster remained in one piece. The bots did not move.
Mark, who had been staring at Amanda intently, suddenly burst out into laughter.
“Fine,” she said chuckling. “Laugh all you want. Let’s just see if this works. Hey, guys! Look!” She pointed. “The toaster is broken.”
A couple of the bots scurried over to the toaster and began examining it. One lifted it up, shook it and set it back down. A couple more joined them, then a few more. Soon they were taking it apart. Mark didn’t realize a toaster had so many parts. One of the bots sucked up all the crumbs. He was grateful at least for that.
He went over to my wife and whispered, “I think this is actually going to work.”
She smiled warmly at him.
“Again you’ve proven you are a genius.”
The lead repair robot ambled into the room and watched its helperbots at work. When the helperbots stopped scrutinizing all the toaster parts, they carefully set all the parts down and moved out of the way. The lead repair robot rolled in and picked up all of the toaster parts. In less than a minute, the toaster was completely back together again.
The lead repairbot turned to Mark and Amanda and asked, “May I have two slices of bread?”
He smiled. “Yes, you can.” He retrieved a loaf of bread from the breadbox and removed two slices. He handed them to the repairbot.
The repairbot carried the toaster to an outlet and plugged it in. Then it inserted the bread slices. In thirty seconds, perfect toast popped up. The bot extracted them and handed them to Mark.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said in mock excitement. He took the toast and examined each slice with a critical eye. “They’re perfect! Honey, look. Perfect toast. The toaster is fixed.”
“That’s wonderful,” she said, joining in his impromptu charade. “Maybe we can have a nice breakfast with toast and eggs tomorrow morning.”
The lead repairbot rolled up to Mark and asked, “Is everything to your satisfaction, sir?”
“Yes,” he said. Then he added, “Except I want to make sure everything else has been put back together.”
“Of course, sir. We always clean up before we complete a service call.”
They toured the house together and also took a walk outside. Everything seemed to be back to normal.
Mark signed off on the work order. The statement “Unknown Repair Request” was crossed out and replaced with “Toaster Repair.”
Then all the robots left.
“At last,” he said, collapsing onto their living room couch. “I wondered if we were ever going to get rid of them.”
Amanda joined him on the couch.
They were both silent for a few minutes. Enjoying the silence.
Then Amanda said, “That was absolutely ridiculous.”
Then they kissed.
“Mark . . .” she began.
He stared into her brown eyes and said, “We were good together.”
“Yes, we were.”
“We are. We can fix anything. Now let’s work on fixing our marriage. You’re worth it, my beautiful lady.”
“We’re worth it. After all, we are a team.”
He smiled. “Tomorrow morning I’m going to get up early and make us a nice breakfast.”
“Of course. Perfect toast.”
They left the room together, his arm around her waist, his mouth whispering something into her ear.
The next morning they arose and had a wonderful breakfast.
Mark raised his slice of toast in the air. Amanda lifted hers. He said, “A toast to our repaired toaster and everything else in our home that works perfectly.”
“May we never need another repair call.”
The refrigerator hummed contentedly.
John Frochio grew up and still lives among the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania. For a living, he develops and installs computer automation systems for steel mills. He has had stories published in Triangulation 2003 & Triangulation: Parch (2014), Interstellar Fiction, Beyond Science Fiction, Twilight Times and Kraxon Magazine, as well as general fiction novel Roots of a Priest (with Ken Bowers, 2007, Booklocker) and sf&f collection Large and Small Wonders, (2012, Byrne Publishing). His wife Connie, a retired nurse, and his daughter Toni, a flight attendant, have bravely put up with his strange ways for many years.