BY ROBERT SHECKLEY
Miagic is not to be found in the desperate suburbs. The split-level home, once so eagerly desired, has become oppressive to Edmond Ives's spirit. Here he is.
propped up in the superfirm king-size bed. watching a rubberfaced comedian on the bedroom TV.
His wife, Marissa, lies beside him. satin sleep mask in place,"
mouth tense, awaiting her nightly journey to oblivion on the good ship Valium. Is this what life is all about?
Marissa isn't fun anymore. She isn't even cute anymore. She's no longer right for Ives, a man hungering for a new spirit and a new life.
For these and other vague but compelling reasons, Edmond Ives left his wife and moved back to New York City.
Ives was an account executive at Smith, Levy, Durstin & Tamerlane, an advertising agency looking forward to better times. Ives was thirty-four, of medium height, with hazel eyes, iight-brown hair, and smalt, even features. He just missed being handsome without the compensation of looking interesting. In a TV drama, Ives might have played the star'sold college friend who killed the blond hitchhiker in the first act for reasons that never become entirely clear, In New York, Ives looked at a few apartments, all unsatisfactory for one reason or another. Then he was shown a multilevel place in the East Sixties. The broker who accompanied him had the air of a man explaining divine mysteries. "It's unusual to find a place like this on today's market, "he pointed out. "Dustin Hoffman once sublet here, you know."
Ives looked at the apartment's dramatic curves and angles, its steps, eccentrically placed and of varying heights, leading to an upper level of fanciful shape. The apartment was pleasing but cold, impersonal in its fashionable eccentricity. Ives liked it. He signed a lease that afternoon.
In this apartment that Dustin Hoffman had once sublet, between work and phone calls to his lawyer, Ives waited for Manhattan's famous magic to begin.
New York, as usual, was long on promises and short on deliveries. The famous magic must have been lost in transit; it never seemed to reach Ives. Months later, on an otherwise perfect summer evening, Ives realized that nothing great was ever going to happen to him. Maybe not even anything good. His life was a bore, and his apartment was an ever-growing mess despite the perfunctory efforts of a succession of short-tempered cleaning ladies.
Then the doorbell rang.
No matter how bad things are in New York there's always the possibility that one day the doorbell will ring and something strange and wonderful will come in. Usually it's just a mugger or a process server.
But sometimes . . .
Ives opened the door. A small, middleaged man stood outside, dressed in a wellworn brown suit and carrying a shiny black suitcase.
"I'm Bardsley," he said, "representing Ihe Robotgnomics Corporation. If I could have a moment of your time—"
"I'm not interested," Ives said. He started to close the door, but Bardsley was blocking it with the edge of his suitcase.
"Don't be ridiculous," Ives said.
"I may be persistent," Bardsley said, "but I am not ridiculous. I am introducing a new line of household robots. And 1 smell something burning."
Ives smelled it too, and dodged around the stacks of old Sunday Timeses to get to the kitchen. His Mexican sausages had turned into a charred black mess, the English mulfins had burned in the toaster oven, and the ranchero sauce was annealed to the sides of the saucepan. Ives had never really grasped food's inability, to take care of itself. So much for another adventure increative cookery.
As he switched on the exhaust fan, he became aware that Bardsley had followed him intOjthe apartment. Ives turned, enraged, but the little man said, "I know, you're not interested. But this was my fault. Let me clean up the mess."
Bardsley opened his shiny black suitcase.
What he took from it looked like an expensive toy, one of those cunning dolls that children like so much, perhaps because the dolls lack any resemblance to humans. It was a hemisphere of chromed metal about the size of half a cantaloupe.
From its underside there depended two flat feet with prehensile plastic toes and rubber sucker disks. On its rounded carapace were two slender antennae, each with an eye at its end. Behind the antennae were coiled metal arms terminating in a variety of small instruments.
Bardsley touched a switch at its base. The little robot's antennae twitched, and it ran up the side of the stove. First it went at the skillet, scraping out the blackened sausages with a squirt of detergent from an internal reservoir. Then it dissolved the ranchero sauce and disposed of the charred sausages.
When it finished, Bardsley turned il off and returned it to his suitcase.
Ives gave this performance the minute of '•Magda looked like a group of expensive audio components - arranged on a white metal cabinet and equipped with eight small feet. She was covered with dials and liquid-crystal displays.** respectful silence it deserved. At last he said, "Okay, I admit it, it's incredible. What do you get for a gadget like this?"
"The Kitchen King, as we call it," Bardsley said, "is free."
"What's the catch?" Ives asked.
"There is none. You will not pay one cent for the use of this miracle of humanistic engineering."
Bardsley explained that the Robotgnomics Corporation had been set up to exploit some recent breakthroughs in home-service technology. As a promotion, the company was placing machines in certain households throughout the country. Those selected could use the robots for an indefinite period, free of charge. The company would retain ownership of the machines and could use lavorable comments in its upcoming advertising campaign.
Bardsley took out the Kitchen King. Ives studied it intently, a man caught between paradigms. On the one hand, he knew that nothing is free, everything's got a catch, and caveaf emptor is a fundamental law of the universe. But it is also true that fortune favors the bold, opportunity knocks but once, and he who hesitiin : > nd-mn joc-n living like a slob.
"Think it over," Bardsley said. "I'll come around next week."
"Never mind," Ives said. "I want it."
Bardsley produced a short typed agreement that Ives read and signed. Bardsley put the paper away and touched the switch on the Kitchen King's base. Antennae twitching, the Kitchen King climbed to the sink and attacked the pile of dirty dishes that had been accumulating all week in hopes of a miracle. It washed, rinsed, and dried them, and stacked them away in the pantry. After scrubbing Ihe sink until it glistened, the Kitchen King stowed itself in a closet to await further tasks.
"It's only fair to lell yoi i," Bardsley said, "the King doesn't do floors or windows or anything like thai. Just kitchen work."
Ives didn't care. He was experiencing something like an epiphany, When Bardsley came by a few days later, he found Ives delighted with his household robot. He had only one complaint.
"It works perfectly," Ives said, "but only in the kitchen. I know you told me about that.
But look: Say I eat in the living room. When I'm done, I have to load everything onto a tray and bring it back to the kitchen myself.
If the King will lake stuff off the dinette, why not off the coffee table or nightstand?"
"Well, it may seem arbitrary to you,"
Bardsley said. "But in fact, appropriate limits are fundamental to a humanistic philosophy of design."
"Come again?" Ives said.
"We could program the Kitchen King to mow lawns, drive cars, walk dogs, tutor you in Swahili, figure your taxes. The possibilities are endless. But where do we stop? Carried to its logical conclusion, multipurpose robots could rival and even replace man himself And that is wrong."
"Well, okay," Ives said. "But would it really violate your principles if my Kitchen King came out once in a while and emptied the ashtray?"
"I'm afraid it would," Bardsley said. "But since you've been so cooperative, the company is prepared to lease you another of our household robots on the same terms as before."