Выбрать главу

He opened his shiny black suitcase.

Rudy Valet, the new machine, was a rectangular metal box with a gray crackle finish, three teet long by a foot wide by three inches deep. It walked horizontally or vertically on two, three, or four spidery arm/legs. Rudy sorted and folded laundry, hung up clothes, made beds, and set out clean towels. Rudy also emptied ashtrays and brought plates, cups, and glasses from around the apartment to the domain of the Kitchen King.

That helped. But clean ashtrays can seem a little silly when there's a permanent black ring, in your bathtub and a year's supply of dust on the Venetian blinds. Bardsley sympathized.

A few days later he brought Tilly the Toiler, an aluminum machine resembling a large, segmented worm. Tilly did floors, carpets, windows, blinds, curtains, bath-tubs, sinks, and toilets. As a bonus, Bardsley also brought Lucy the Laundress, an ambulatory gray cube three feet to a side that, while Ives was out, crept around the apartment sniffing out dirty clothes, then plugging into the water system to do the wash.

Lucy could also handle dry cleaning and was great with delicate fabrics.

The next addition to Ives's household was Shorty the Short-Order Cook, who resembled a medium-size plastic octopus. Shorty's vinyl tentacles, studded with thermal sensors and terminating in taste probes, turned out a limited but satisfying menu of fried egg ' sandwiches, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, chili, and iacos.

Shorty was soon followed by Billy Bartender, a tripodal peripatetic refrigerator with a Mixmaster head and high-speed ice-making capacity. Billy had an encyclopedic knowledge of drink combinations and specialized inmartinis.

This pretty well took care of Ives's creature comforts. Mext Bardsley introduced him to "Emotional Engineering tor Better Living,"

a hot new development that Robotgnomics was getting into. The basic unit was Magda Ihe Mood Maker.

Magda looked like a group of expensive audio components arranged On a smart, white metal cabinet and equipped with eight small feet. She was covered with dials and lights and liquid-crystal displays. She looked cute as she waddled across Ives's beige carpeting and plugged info an electrical outlet. Magda took charge of music, lighting, and ambient sound. Within days she had acquired the necessary data on Ives's emotional cycles and was able to create an everchanging program of sounds especially for him. Some mornings Ives awakened to the dolorous- cries of seabirds; other times it would be the crash of surf, the distant barking of mating seals, or the steady patter ot canned rain. For musical backgrounds, Magda orchestrated his favorite selections in accord with his mood and adjusted the lights accordingly. The effect was dramatic.

Ives's slightest move or gesture seemed to take on a heightened significance. It was like being the star ot his own movie.

For the first time in his life, Ives was happy.

When he came home from work, his apartment was waiting for him, its lighting subdued, its mood inviting. His dinner was always ready when he wanted it. Sometimes it was one of Shorty's snacks; other times, it would be an elaborate feast prepared by Robotgnomics' lates: acldrion to his household, Frangois the French Chef. After dinner, drinks would appear beside him as though by magic, as Magda tuned in his favorite TV shows or selected a feature film from the cassette library. Mood music would accompany him as he moved around the apartment, and would lull him to sleep at night. "

So satisfying were his evenings that Ives began to spend all his free time at' home.

Why, surrounded by perfection, should he subject himself to New York's dirty, crimehaunted streets? Robotgnomics had orchestrated him into the perfect urban recluse, self-sufficient and self-satisfied.

Women and friends didn't seem to matter much anymore. His apartment was magic, and you can't do better than that.

Marissa, now his ex-wife, came by one afternoon to discuss the disposal of some books and papers he had left behind. Ives had Frangois concoct an elaborate French dinner. Billy Bartender produced the proper wines, precisely chilled, and Magda created a light-and-sound show of utmost artfulness and beauty. At the meal's end, Rudy Valet served a rare old Armagnac.

Marissa sipped her drink and said, at last, "Edmond, it's all quite perfect, I suppose."

Ives sensed her hesitation. "But?"

"Well, I was wondering where you are in all this."

Ives hadn't expected that. He laughed, a little uncertainly. "But all of this /s me."

'•Robotgnomics had orchestrated him into the perfect urban recluse. Women and friends didn't seem to matter. His apartment was magic, and you can't do better than that3 Marissa considered for a moment. "Yes, I suppose that's true."

"Is there anything wrong with that?"

"Not if you like it. I guess," Marissa said.

Ives didn't understand her attitude, and she didn't elaborate. He thought about it for a while after she had left, and decided it was nothing but jealousy. What could possibly be wrong with his life?

He went upstairs to the bedroom. He undressed, dropping his clothes on the floor, knowing that Rudy Valet would be along presently to pick them up. He fell asleep on Lucy the Laundress's warm, fresh sheets.

Ives woke up abruptly some hours later.

Looking ai his watch, he saw that it was tourtwenty in the morning. Marissa must have upset him more than he'd thought, because he. was wide awake, alert, and apprehensive.

He lay in bed, watching the programmed shadows move slowly across the ceiling, listening to the silence tape. After a while he heard sounds of faint laughter coming from -somewhere within the apartment.

He got out of bed, slipped on a robe, and tiptoed downstairs into the darkened living room. He heard a whisper of voices from the kitchen. He went to ihe doer and looked in.

The Kitchen King, Rudy Valet, Billy Bartender, and Tilly the Toiler were sitting in a circle on the floor. Lucy the Laundress shared one side of the dinette with Shorty the Short-Order Cook. Francois the French Chef was perched on top of Magda, who occupied the dinette's other side. Sitting on the slove were two robots whom Ives couldn't remember having seen before.

"What's going on?" Ives asked.

"It's him," Magda said.

"Of course," Frangois said. "I told you to continue monitoring him."

"No, it's better this way," Rudy Valet said.

"It's lime we put Ives in the picture, now that he's used to us."

'Actually, Mr. Ives," the Kitchen King said, "we're not robots at all. We're members of a race that was old before your planet was born. In the course of our development we learned how to live without bodies, free of any dependence on matter whalsoever. This was the final stage in the evolution of intelligence, and we embraced il eagerly. Our entire race became disembodied intelligences, virtually immortal, floating around the galaxy, blissed out on enlightenment. Are you following this so far?"

"Of course," Ives said, surprised more by his own calmness than by the aliens' revelations.

"Bui what are you doing disguised as robots in my apartment?"

"Well," the Kitchen King said, "even though disembodied enlightenment is the highest state you can reach, you begin to get restless after a few centuries. You want to have a body again. For the contrast, you see."

"Makes sense," Ives said.

"The question was, What should we embody as? We didn't see much sense in becoming human-type creatures again. We'd been through all that—putting money in banks and taking it out again, winning wars and losing them, falling in and out of love.

We wanted to do things that needed doing.

We wanted to help other sentient beings. So we checked out the inhabited planets in this part of the galaxy. We found some interesting civilizations, but they were getting along fine without us. We were getting pretty discouraged.

Mr. Ives. Until we found Earth."

'A wonderful place, Earth," Rudy Valet said. "Here was a planet with several billion intelligent beings, and most of them were miserable because they had to do things they didn'l want to do. It looked made to order for us."