Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Free Featured Fiction: "Robo Rooter"

We're still tinkering with the timing of the various features on the HTR blog. What became very clear over the course of the first week was that our series were overwhelmingly author-heavy, with only FREO as a reader-centric counterbalance.

We convened the braintrust of Hunt to Read and put all of our resources behind the problem. What we came up with was unsurprising: Readers want to READ!


So we're starting a new series that we hope to make weekly: Free Featured Fiction. Each week, we hope to host a story by a different Hunt to Read author. All genres are welcome; if you're an author and want us to feature one of your stories, please check out our submission guidelines here.

For the moment, we only have my stories in the pipeline, but I'm sure that will change shortly. This first entry is a story I wrote almost a year ago. It's a funny tale about the direction our society is going, automating everything, yet trying (and failing) to replicate human interaction.

It's called "Robo Rooter," and I hope you enjoy it. Word of caution: there is mild swearing in it, so if that's not your kind of thing, feel free to skip this one and catch us next time. Enjoy!




Robo Rooter

The knock on the door was sharp, but polite. Eric half-threw his tablet on the glass coffee table with a dull “thud.” His knees groaned with protest as he pushed himself out of the well-worn divot of the leather sofa and toward the entrance to the apartment.

He fumbled with the latch for several moments before he unfastened it, then unbolted the lock and turned the knob with anxious resignation as he gave the door a healthy pull.

He knew what to expect, but was still jarred when it actually presented itself: the aluminum (or was it titanium?) skeleton, coated with a rubbery, plastic composite material, and formed into a vaguely human face, though the visage was different enough to dispel any notions that this was anything more than an advanced tool.

“Hello,” the voice was overly-warm, perhaps the result of too much meddling by too many engineers and programmers. “I am Robo Rooter, unit number…3…6…1…”  Unfortunately, when it got to the numbers, any humanity drained from the contraption’s tone, and it became more metallic and almost menacing.

It extended its right appendage, which was opaque plastic over brushed-metal, simultaneously exceedingly capable and frightening. Eric had little choice but to grasp it, and found his robotic counterpart’s handshake to be slightly-less-than-firm.

“Uh…nice to meet you unit number—"

“Please, call me ‘Jerry,’” the robot plumber curled its lips into a curt smile, though the vacancy of its eyes belied the intended effect.

“Sure, Jerry.” Eric took a drop step and stuck out an arm to invite the robot into his apartment, but it stayed still with the absent grin on its face. “Uh…come in…”

No sooner than Eric had said the words, the robot took three rigid steps inside the door and stopped.

“Crapper’s over there,” Eric turned to his right and pointed through the living room to the powder room at the end of the short hallway. “Damn thing’s clogged up. I tried plunging it, but it just won’t flush.”

“You have a lovely home,” Jerry took several steps into the living room, and paused when it reached the coffee table. It bent over to look at the tablet Eric had cast down moments before.

“Ah…Pornography…” The more robotic tone filled in the blanks in the machine’s programming. “I often enjoy reading…pornography…in my spare time.”

Eric practically leapt at the tablet and snatched it from the robot’s prying eyes.

“I…uh…how’d that get on there?” Eric asked rhetorically. “Damned pop-up ads.”

He looked at the machine’s face for a wink, a nod, something that might provide the vaguest indication that it understood.

Instead, the machine’s cold eyes stared back, the empty smile ever-present.

“Anyway, like I said, the problem’s in the bathroom over here—”

“Did you see the…local team…play last evening?” Jerry asked.


Lazy bastards
, Eric thought. They couldn’t even be troubled to program it to say “Cardinals?”

“Uh…sure. Boy, that was somethin’, wasn’t it? Gerald Allen really can mash the piss outta the ball, can’t he?"

The robot nodded. “Indeed. I feel like we are really establishing a connection over our shared interest in…local team. Do you not agree?”

“Look, pal,” Eric’s eyes narrowed. “I really just need my toilet fixed, okay? So if you wouldn’t mind—”

“Are you a heterosexual or a homosexual?” Jerry asked.

“Now wait just a damned minute—”

“Judging by the...pornography…you were reading, I’m guessing you are a…heterosexual male…and/or…homosexual female. Is that correct?”

“And/or?”

“If that is the case, that…Jessica Henderson…really is something, is she not?”

“Sure…sure, I guess…” Eric sighed. “Now if you please don’t mind, the toilet?"

“Why would I mind?” Jerry asked blankly. “It is my job to do so, is it not?”


Sure seems like your job is making annoying conversation
, Eric thought.

“Now…where is the problem located?” Jerry said.

Eric’s mouth drew taut as he puffed out his cheeks and sighed deeply.

“In my bathroom at the end of the hallway.”

Jerry finally took several heavy steps toward the powder room.

“Please state the nature of the problem."

“Like I said before,” Eric gritted his teeth, “The toilet is clogged, and I tried to plunge it, but nothin’s happenin’. So I figure you have a fancy plunger…or whatever…”

“Okay. It sounds like you need a…toilet auger…and/or…complete toilet overhaul and replacement. Does this sound right?”

“I don’t need the whole thing replaced! Maybe that auger thing, but the replacement is over—”

“Are you sure you do not require a…complete toilet overhaul and replacement? For only…eight…hundred and forty three…dollars, and…sixty three…cents more, you could ensure that this problem does not occur again.”

“Tell ya’ what, why don’t we start with the auger…thing…and then go from there, okay?"

“All right,” Jerry said. Eric could’ve sworn the robot scowled. It opened a compartment in its chest and pulled out a thin telescoping rod with a snake-like hose attached. Eric nearly retched when the robot wrenched off the right hand that he had grasped moments before, attached the device, and plunged it into the toilet.

“Yes…this is your problem here…” Jerry said. “Processing…processing…” the snake whirred to life as Jerry’s “eyebrows” flexed with mock effort. “Almost…almost…there…” The snake retracted back into the rod and Jerry pushed the handle with his left hand. Immediately, the water in the bowl swirled, and, true to form, emptied down the drain.

“Are you sure that you do not require a… complete toilet overhaul and replacement? I am happy to perform one for you.”

“No thanks,” Eric said, still astonished with the relative ease with which the robot had cleared the line. “Looks like you did a fine job, though…uh…Jerry. Really great.”

The robot removed the auger and replaced it with its hand. “That will be…two…hundred… forty…eight…dollars and… ninety…three…cents. Will that be credit or debit?”

“That much? But you only did like a minute’s worth of work!”

“All billing inquiries must be directed to the main office.”

“Well, I’d like to speak with your manager then!”

“One moment, please…please note that all inquiries to management require that I send the video feed I have compiled while working on your problem.”

“That’s fi—” Eric then remembered the casual manner with which the robot had surveyed the “incriminating” material on his tablet.


Clever bastards…
he thought. Between those types of snafus and the various embarrassing “problems” that may require plumbing, these plumbers were running a nice little racket.

“You know what?” Eric waved his previous thought away, “No need to involve management. Just…uh…put it on my Visa.”

Eric took out his phone and held it in front of Jerry’s face. The robot’s mouth glowed for several moments as it read the information off of the device. The light shut off and an old-fashioned, paper receipt spewed from the robot’s mouth. The receipt automatically tore off, and Eric grabbed it.

“And you guys guarantee your work for thirty days?” Eric asked.

“Processing…” Jerry said, smile still vacant. After several moments, his head tilted to the side, “That is correct. If you encounter any problems, please call management and relate the issue. Of course, this will also necessitate sending the video feed of my work to my supervisors, to ensure that no mistakes were made in the initial—”

Eric frowned and shook his head, “Forget about it. I’m sure you did great work there,  Jerry.”

The robot moved toward the door swiftly, each step a loud “CLOMP” on the thin laminate flooring.

“Thank you for using Robo Rooter. Have a wonderful day,” the robot opened the door and extended its right hand with a smile. Without thinking, Eric grabbed the appendage and shook it.

Seconds later, after a curt nod, Jerry was gone.

Eric felt something slick on his hand and held it up to his face for inspection. A foul odor emanated off of it and only one word lodged itself in his head:

Shit.
The End
Questions? Thoughts? Let us know in the comments...

D.J. Gelner is the Co-Founder and CEO of Hunt to Read. E-mail him directly at djgelner@hunttoread.com.


 

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