Malcolm Ashford warily eased his front door open. Yesterday he'd come home from work to find his rugs rumpled up in a corner, tables and chairs moved around the room, and books knocked off his bookshelves. The policeman they'd sent out had investigated then told him he couldn't find any sign of forced entry, no fingerprints anywhere except his, and no evidence anything had been stolen.
“It's probably some kids playing pranks on people,” the cropped-hair officer told him, stripping off the blue latex gloves he'd used while dusting the house for prints.
“But how'd they get in?” Malcolm had demanded. “Everything is locked up tight as a drum.”
The officer shrugged. “I don't know, and to be honest that concerns me more than anything else. If there's some new gadget on the black market that helps people break in to houses without leaving any sign of how they did it or where, it's a worrisome trend.”
And that, as they say, had been that. The officer gave him a copy of the report, which told him exactly nothing and left.
He slide carefully through the gap in the door, shut it quickly and quietly behind him, then tiptoed through the house, a baseball bat in hand, hoping to surprise any intruders, but to his chagrin there was no one there but him.
He put the bat back in it's place beside the front door, grumbling to himself, “I guess you Harry Houdini crooks didn't come back today, did you?” He felt silly talking to himself but it had become a habit after so many years of living alone.
He was a short man, slightly overweight, although he liked to refer to himself as stout, since it seemed more manly than overweight or pudgy, which were also accurate descriptions of his physique. He could still bench 200 lbs but years of chair parade as an accountant had whittled away how much he could lift in the gym, and to be honest, he wasn't going as often as he should. Most of the time he came home so tired all he wanted to do was flop down in front of the TV with a microwave dinner and veg out.
He was tired today too; his eyes hurt from squinting at endless rows of numbers and his brain had turned to tapioca but the wariness induced by yesterday's break-in, and a possible re-occurrence today, had energized him. In spite of his weariness he was keyed up and alert.
He tossed his keys on the kitchen table with a clatter. The noise plus his muttering woke up, Lexi, his automated household assistant – although 'nag' might be a better term.
“Good after-noon, Mal-colm,” it purred in it's stilted, fake-womanly voice.
“Hey Lexi,” he responded, still looking around the house. “Did we have any visitors today?”
“Which web-site do you want to visit?” she asked, misunderstanding him as usual.
He sighed in frustration. His plethora of labor saving devices sometimes didn't save him all that much labor after all. “Never mind.”
“I never mind working for you,” it replied disjointedly.
He shook his head. Sometimes he wondered if all his gadgets were really worth it. “What do we have for dinner?”
That one at least she understood, mainly because he asked it every day and his refrigerator was a smart device wired to the internet. It maintained an up-to-the-minute database of it's contents, with Lexi giving him noisy reminders when anything got low. “There are five Hungry Man dinners in the freezer and two packages of hot dogs in the refrigerator drawer,” she answered quickly.
She began rattling off the rest of the list but he stopped her. “Enough. I'll just grab some hot dogs tonight.” Suiting actions to words he grabbed one of the packages, sliced it open, and dumped the whole lot in a pan. He filled it with water, plunked it down on the stove, and turned on the heat.
“What Lexi?” he asked tiredly, knowing in advance she was going to 'remind him' to get more hot dogs. He'd tried several times to change his preferences on how often she reminded him of things but for some reason his changes never seemed to stick. They always reverted to the factory settings regardless of what he did. There was probably some special sequence or code he was supposed to enter to save his changes, but if there was, the badly written instructions in the manual made it impossible to find or understand.
She didn't disappoint him. “We are now low on hot dogs. You should buy more while they're on sale at . . .” she paused for a moment, trawling the internet for the best price, “. . . Price Saver for $1.99 for a package of 12 + 2 extras,” she finished.
He shook his head. Price Saver was a tiny mom-and-pop store on the other side of town in a bad neighborhood. “Don't worry about it Lexi.” That too, was another command she understood from repeated exposure. It was his standard answer to most of her suggestions.
“Vacu-bot is low on vacuum cleaner bags,” she said. “Shall I order more?”
He sighed. They weren't low on bags. If anything they had too many in the closet because he'd trusted her report one time and let her buy more, discovering to his horror she'd ordered a year's supply of bags, somehow thinking each package of 24 bags was only one bag. No matter how many times he scanned the barcode, which explicitly showed it was a package of 24, Lexi couldn't seem to grasp it. The Vacu-bot website instructions recommended always keeping a supply of 25 bags on hand because they were so small, and by golly she was going to do everything she could to maintain the supposed inventory at or above that point. “Don't worry about it, Lexi.”
The pot of hot dogs reached a boil and he grabbed a plate out of the cupboard. “Turn on the lights, Lexi,” he ordered absently as the sun sank further toward the horizon.
“Using excess electricity during daylight hours is a waste of . . .”
“Turn on the lights!” he snapped, interrupting her pre-programmed rant on the evils of using too much electricity, which ignored the fact she used electricity 24/7.
“Yes Mal-colm. Turning on the lights,” she dutifully replied. The lights came on in every room in the house.
He shook his head. Attempting to train her to turn on only the lights in the room he was in had been an exercise in futility, one he'd finally given up on, accepting a daylight bright house in every room until he went to bed as the price of using her.
He turned to the stove with his plate and nearly tripped over the Vacu-bot trying to vacuum the kitchen floor. The flat, oval shaped, autonomous robot wasn't supposed to enter rooms where it detected moment – i.e. humans – but it's time settings seemed limited to 5 seconds or less, so if he stood still for more than five seconds it assumed the room was empty and it could start vacuuming, leading to one stumbling encounter after another.
He'd called tech support but the bored sounding representative on the other end blandly assured him that their ergonomic studies had decided five seconds was the optimal time frame for scanning for human presence so it was hardwired into their Vacu-bot line of automatic self-guiding vacuum cleaners. Would he like a free vacuum cleaner bag to make up for the confusion?
He'd hung up without bothering to answer, disgusted by their lack of interest or sympathy.
“Get out of here!” he shouted, kicking it across the tile floor. It slide across the room and banged into the legs of the table.
“Where shall I go?” Lexi asked.
“Not you,” he snapped, “the stupid Vacu-bot!”
Lexi mulled that one over for a grand total of 3 micro-seconds then asked, “Shall I order a replacement Vacu-bot?”
“NO!” he shouted. He was still trying to figure out how to uncouple Lexi from his credit card. He didn't want her ordering anything, least of all a $695 vacuum cleaner.
The Vacu-bot got itself straightened out, turned around and began pushing mindlessly at the table legs. He'd long since decided the idiotic machine was a waste of money but one thing it did have was good traction. Within seconds it pushed the table out of the dining room into the living room where it hung up on the edge of the carpet. The table stopped and began slewing sideways under the impetus of Vacu-bot's continued pushing.
Malcolm stared at it fascinated. His eyes automatically cut over to the rug he'd found rumpled up yesterday and suddenly realized how it must have happened. The movement of the table and chairs was also explained, as were the books that had been knocked off the shelf. Vacu-bot must have bumped into it and the vibration shook them onto the floor.
“Unattended stoves are a fire hazard,” Lexi informed him primly. “Turning off the stove.”
“What?” He turned back in disbelief. She could turn off his stove? The knob rotated silently and the flames went out as he watched.
“Unattended stoves are a fire hazard,” Lexi repeated, answering his question in her literal minded fashion.
“I know that,” he gritted with exasperation, “but how can you turn my stove off?”
“Regularly scheduled safety update downloaded from the company website according to the End User Agreement you signed during purchase of your Lexi unit,” it replied smoothly. “All internet enabled devices shall be placed under the control of the Lexi Household Assistant to maximize human safety in a non-intrusive manner while preserving resource depletion allowance standards in accordance with U.S. Government regulation §59.37 . . .”
“Stop!” he shouted.
Just then the Vacu-bot rammed into his ankle. “Ow!” He hopped away from it, nursing his ankle. Apparently he'd been standing still too long again. “Get out of here you moron!” he screamed at it.
“Where shall I go?” Lexi asked.
He started to answer then realized there was a better way. He stormed over the front door to retrieve his baseball bat. Enough was enough! It was time to reclaim his house and his life.
He lifted the bat high overhead and brought it down with resounding crash on the Vacu-bot's gleaming metal casing. It bounced up off the floor then scurried away from him sounding a shrill alarm. His eyes widened. It was still going? He clenched his teeth and started after it.
“Intruder alert, Mal-colm. Your Vacu-bot is under attack by an armed intruder,” Lexi informed him. “Please exit the house as quickly as possible. I am calling the police for assistance.”
He swung around. “Wait . . . what? No!”
On Lexi's loudspeaker he could hear a voice answering her phone call. “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
“This is Lexi Household Assistant calling to report property damage by an armed intruder,” Lexi reported quickly.
“NO!” he shouted. “I'm the home owner! The stupid vacuum cleaner is hitting me!”
The operator obviously didn't believe him. “Sir, we've already received one report of a criminal break-in at this address so lay down your weapon and remain where you are. I'm sending a squad car right away. They are prepared to use lethal force if necessary.”
His jaw dropped. His own report of a break-in, caused by a robot, was now being used against him at the instigation of another robot? He clenched his teeth in fury. “Enough!” he shouted. He turned like a big league ball player and swung at Lexi like Hank Aaron trying for a home run.
Wham! The tiny ball-like unit shattered into a million pieces flying around the room.
“Yeah!” he exulted.
He turned, looking for the Vacu-bot. He spied it hiding under the end table by the couch. He dashed across the room, flipping the table out of his way with a crash. It tried to scurry out of his way but speed wasn't one of it's features. He swung the bat down with all his strength, aiming for the sizable dent he'd already put in it.
This time he heard metal break and shatter beneath his blow. He repeated the mighty blow once, twice, three more times, the bat vibrating painfully in his hands each time, but he succeeded in reducing the annoying machine to so much glittering junk and fragments.
He dropped the bat with a grim feeling of pride.
In the distance he heard wailing sirens getting closer. He walked outside to sit on the porch steps. He had some explaining to do when the police arrived, but at least his house belonged to him again. He allowed himself a satisfied smile.
Then the lawnmower started itself.