A voice boomed in the darkness.
“GET UP, YOU LAZY SLOB!”
George Gearing opened his eyes and, still half asleep, lifted his head from the pillow. “Who? What?”
“ON THE FLOOR AND GIVE ME TWENTY, PEA BRAIN!”
George rubbed his eyes. The light that filled the room was blinding.
“OUT OF BED, MISTER!”
George had tried to reprogram his Sergeant Wake-Me-Up clock to speak in a gentle, feminine voice, but something must have gone wrong. It had reverted to factory settings.
“I WON’T TELL YOU AGAIN!”
The clock started blaring a recording of a bugle from across the room on George’s desk. The windows rattled with the sound.
George plugged his fingers into his ears. “Jackbot!” he shouted.
The door opened, and three feet of scrap and spare parts rattled into the room on wobbly legs. Jackbot’s head tilted toward the bed, and his green eyes flashed.
“Yes, George,” he said in his expressionless mechanical voice.
“Shut that thing up, would you?”
“DON’T MAKE ME COME OVER THERE!”
Jackbot scooped up the alarm clock in his right pincer and placed it on the floor. He raised a metal foot, motors whirring.
“OF ALL THE GOOD-FOR-NOTHING, INSUBORDINATE—”
Bits of metal and plastic flew across the room. The bugle gave a final despairing wail, then fell silent.
“That was—uh—a little extreme,” George said. But it was no use blaming Jackbot. Robots just do what they are told.
George sat up in bed. “Could I have my glasses?”
Jackbot trotted forward and handed George his glasses using his left-hand suction grip.
George put his glasses on, and the mess of his room swam into focus. Transistor boards and loose wires littered the floor beside an open copy of Professor Droid’s book Advanced Robotics. George had been working late into the night on a new baseball drive for Jackbot. If he could just program him to catch, their games would be a lot more fun.
George climbed out of bed and picked his way through the debris to his closet to find some clothes. A couple of old photos had fallen off the door, so he carefully stuck them back up. One, from last summer, showed Jackbot and George fishing at the lake. The other showed Jackbot teetering precariously on George’s skateboard. George grinned, recalling the day Jackbot’s balance sensors had failed on a steep bit of sidewalk by the neighbor’s front yard.
“You remember the day you flattened Mrs. Glitch’s rosebush, Jackbot?” he said. “I thought she was going to blow a gasket!”
“Yes, George,” said Jackbot.
George smoothed his wiry brown hair in the mirror, pulled on his pants and a shirt, and scooped up Jackbot to carry him downstairs. He’d been working on a stairs program for ages, but it was surprisingly complicated.
Uncle Otto was wearing his usual dingy plaid work shirt and jeans, his barrel-chested frame balanced on a rickety chair as he sat at the kitchen table. He didn’t raise his head when George walked in. He was stabbing at a battered tablet with oily fingers while munching on a piece of brown toast. The crumbs tumbled down into his half-grown beard. A greasy carburetor that he’d been working on sat in the middle of the table.
“Morning, Uncle Otto,” George said. He glanced over his uncle’s shoulder and saw he was scrolling through an article about cars. Big surprise.
His uncle made a sort of grunting noise, which George knew was as close to a hello as he was likely to get.
George sat at the table and put Jackbot down on the floor beside him. Mr. Egg, the cook-bot, trundled over on its squeaking caster wheels.
“Good-morning-sir,” it said in its flat, tinny voice. “Would-you-like-a-piece-of-toast.”
“Sure,” George said.
Mr. Egg inserted a slice of bread into the slot in its chest and pressed its nose. A low humming noise started up, and the toast slot glowed red.
“Sounds good,” said George—then he had to act fast as Mr. Egg held the glass directly above the boy’s lap. George just managed to grab it before Mr. Egg let it fall. One benefit of having Mr. Egg in the kitchen, he thought. It’s good for the reflexes!
George sipped his juice and watched the sunlight reflecting off the metal surfaces of Jackbot, Mr. Egg, and Scrubby, the dishwasher-bot. They were shabby robots, but the light pretty much brightened them up all the same. “Nice day,” George murmured absent-mindedly.
Otto flipped over a page on the screen of his tablet. “Get me another coffee,” he said, holding out his cup to Mr. Egg. As the robot’s metal pincer grasped the cup, smoke began to pour out from the grill in its chest.
“Toast-is-ready,” said the robot. It slid a piece of blackened toast onto the plate in front of George.
“Um,” said George, wondering if it was even edible.
“Coffee-is-ready,” said the cook-bot.
It dropped the cup of scalding coffee into Uncle Otto’s lap.
“Yow!” yelped Otto, leaping to his feet. He tore off his steaming pants and stood fuming in his boxer shorts. George saw that they were decorated with little racecars and tried not to snicker. “You hunk of metal, you could’ve put me in the hospital!” yelled Otto.
“Are you okay?” asked George, trying to look serious.
“I’ll survive, no thanks to you! If we have to live our lives surrounded by these thinking tin cans, can you at least make them work properly?”
George wanted to explain that their robots needed more than just a few replacement parts. They weren’t like cars, which could have their spark plugs changed and be given a drink of oil. The house-bots needed complete reprogramming—a system overhaul—to get rid of all the bugs making them malfunction. But something told him that his uncle wasn’t in the mood for excuses. He didn’t like the bots at the best of times. So George went silent, staring down at his burnt toast.
“Every robot in this house is a useless pile of bolts!” Otto railed on. “The gardener-bot drowns all the plants, and the dishwasher-bot leaves crusty stains on the dishes!”