“Thank you for calling F.A.X. Unlimited. My name is Claire. How can I help you?”
“My household unit isn’t working,” a man’s voice said gruffly. “I keep giving it commands, but they don’t work.”
“Ok sir, I’m happy to help you with that. Can I get your account number?” He rattled off a string of numbers, which I entered into my terminal. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Patty taking another call, her head moving slowly in time with her dialogue. As long as she was still on that call, she wouldn’t be able to take the next one. No such luxury for me, as I was currently IMing an encryption key to a factory manager in Bangalore, and simultaneously replying to an email about the new style and color options for the upcoming year. Meanwhile, my client’s account opened up in front of me. “Thank you for your patience Mr. Holden. I just need to verify a little information before we can proceed. Are you still living at Apartment 24C, Burr Building, City Level 12?”
“Yes,” he sighed. “Nothing’s changed, your machine just doesn’t work.”
“I am sorry to hear that, sir, and we are going to get her fixed for you. Now, you have a May model, delivered to you 78 days ago. She’s still under warranty so there will be no charge for this service call.” I cringed as I said that. Knowing they didn’t have to pay by the minute made some clients extra chatty, and I still had to troubleshoot that software download for a couple of dozen heavy labor models in India. “What kind of issues are you having with her?”
“She doesn’t do anything.”
“The unit doesn’t turn on?”
“No, she’s on. She’s sitting on the sofa right now, staring at me.”
“Have you tried turning her off and on again?”
“Yeah, I’ve done that. Doesn’t help. She looks all bright and happy, then she sees me, stops smiling, and sits down on the couch.”
I scanned the contents of John Holden’s file, looking for attachments or upgrades that might be conflicting with the base programming. “Can I ask what kinds of tasks you’re asking her to perform?”
“Nothing weird!” he insisted, though of course they all did. “Normal stuff. Cooking, cleaning. This morning I told her to make bacon, and she crossed her arms.”
Scanning his original order, I spotted it. “Sir, were you aware that you ordered the optional Care and Compassion package?”
“That’s the niceness thing, right? Guy said it would make her sweet. I want sweet. But refusing to cook my bacon is not sweet!” he yelled, head turned away from the receiver. He wasn’t yelling at me.
“Sir, please calm down. I’m certain we can get this taken care of.” Patty waved at me, and I looked down to see another line blinking. I shook my head, and the older woman nodded in response. She pushed a few buttons, and the light disappeared from my phone, leaving me with just Mr. Crankypants to deal with for a moment. “Now Mr. Holden, I’m not sure if you were aware of this but that module makes your unit more receptive to your needs, but it also makes her more sensitive to any anger or negativity on your part. When you phrase your requests, are you putting them in the form of a question? Are you saying please?”
“What? Why would I have to ask? She’s a damn robot!”
I sighed as quietly as possible. The client was in his early 80s, and clearly prejudiced. “Sir, I understand your frustration and of course the May unit is designed to fulfill all of your culinary and cleaning needs. She wants to help you, sir. It’s in her programming. It’s just that over time, the unit can balk at orders. She needs a bit of a gentle touch, is all.”
“Too much work,” he grumbled. “Can’t I reboot her, start from scratch?”
“Yes, sir, of course you can, but doing so will only solve the problem temporarily. As she develops her personality and adapts to your needs, you may run into this problem again.”
“Don’t care. Easier than not getting my breakfast!” I forced a smile back onto my face (Always Answer With A Smile! our training taught us), advised Holden to turn his unit off, and sent the reboot order wirelessly. Soon enough the May unit was back to her original, helpful, bacon-cooking self.
Checking the clock, I logged the call and switched my terminal off. India would have to wait until tomorrow.
“Bad call?” Patty asked.
“Another jerk who doesn’t care that his robot has, you know, actual feelings.” Patty nodded in reply, and rolling my eyes, I grabbed a screwdriver from my desk drawer. Walking over to my coworker, I said, “Patty, could I please fix that loose lever? Your head-bobbing is driving me nuts.”
“Oh, yes please,” Patty replied happily, her wrinkled face joyful. “I was starting to get dizzy.”
“I understand,” I said, gently opening the other woman’s neck to reveal a spring-and-lever system slightly out of whack. “It happens to me all the time.”
Previously published at Daily Science Fiction, November 2011