Second Hand Robots by Paul Michael Peters

Myrtle watched the truck turn into the dirt drive. A plum of dust floated in its wake and slowly enveloped the outside of her shipping container office. She gave it a moment or two wanting to see if he was turning around, like the last dozen distracted drivers missing their turn, or was one of those stopping to ask for directions.

The window slid open with an extra effort. Dust settled back to the ground, and the driver stepped out of the truck cab.

"Second Hand Robots?" He inquired

"That's us." She pointed to the enormous hand-painted sign in red box letters on a white background above. It read Second Hand Robots and Used Spaceships. "Ships and robots. Whatcha looking for?"

"Friend of mine, Richie from Ogden said you might have a Jiro series in your lot."

"Which model are you looking for?"

"Series five."

"Got one of them. Your friend Richie told you I don't do parts, I do whole. No exceptions."

"He explained that. He was clear on the no exceptions."

"What's your intention for the Jiro? You seem kind of young to be restoring something from the 40's."

"My grandfather had a 2040 Jiro at the house. I grew up with one. I was hoping to refurbish a unit, something my children would enjoy."

She looked him up and down before deciding, "Ok, let me lock up and I'll walk you back."

Myrtle turned three switches to 'monitor mode on,' pressed both thumbs on a scan pad, and the kerchunk sound of two drones lifting off the top of the shipping container came from the roof. She made her way to the gate, with another touch of her thumb an indicator went from red to green. The motor of the gate hummed as the two panels opened a gap in the center.

"You'll want to pull your truck over to the loading space marked in yellow."

The man adjusted the strap on his wrist then placed his left foot on the chrome running board before climbing into the cab. The engine rattled to a start before the megatronic lifts took it two feet off the ground and moved forward with the smooth gliding advancement. When the alignment indicators all turned green, the driver knew he was in the center of the spot and the truck lowered into place before the engine turned off.

"Follow me," She said waving him over.

He stepped down from the cab and walked over to Myrtle.

"First time refurbishing a robot?"

"This will be the third project of this size. Started with tinkering around the garage, and grew to love the details of hard work."

"Yeah, that's what I hear most people say. It all starts in the garage."

"My name is Myrtle, own this place. Didn't catch your name."

"Robert, Robert Charles." He extended his hand to shake.

She took his hand. "Robert. Don't want to scare you off, but the first man killed by a robot was named Robert. Rober Williams."

"Really?"

"Died in Flat Rock Michigan."

"That had to have been a long time ago."

"It was 1979. They used industrial robots back then. Nothing nearly like your Jiro."

She led him through the lot drive of hardened Dragoon Arizona desert earth. Her gray overalls were a little warm in the spring, but roomy and comfortable in the hips to work. The red scarf held up her cotton candy pink hair and kept the heat off her head.

"You get many visitors out this way?"

"Couple times a week I will get someone like yourself, interested in a project. All my work is based on references and reputation."

"Richie had a lot of great things to say about you and your place."

"Richie has a crush on me. Thinks if he sends me business I might take the same interest in him."

"So, you know."

"All women know these things Robert, we are just selective on how we share."

Myrtle opened the small box on the side of the building and pressed he thumb again, "Can't be too safe with these things."

A click sounded, and the door opened.

When they stepped inside, the cold air rushed past them escaping into the world. "Temperature controlled keeps them in better condition."

As their eyes adjusted to the lights, a world of lined robots ready for inspection came into focus.

"Wow," he proclaimed.

"You didn't think they were sitting in a pile did you?"

Cameras, lights, indicators, bodies, and whatever sensors each robot had turned to see her arrival.

"Myrtle's here," she called out like they were cloister of cats.

Several of the robots moved forward to greet the two. Others straighten posture. Some started to self-groom for a proper presentation.

"It's, like-"

"An animal shelter. All the puppies and kittens want to go home with you. I know."

"Yes, yes. That is exactly what I was going to say."

"Most come here thinking about a junkyard or a rubbish sale. Now you can see why I don't do parts. I need to find homes for these friends."

Robots of every shape and size he had known about and more were housed in this pavilion. Many kept busy cleaning the floors, several were in the upper rafters watching each step, while most of the humanoid designed stood at attention by the hundreds.

"How many do you think are in here?"

"I don't share details of my inventory, sorry Robert. Its a matter of keeping them safe from part poachers and industrial thieves."

"I understand."

"Has anyone seen the Jiro's?" She called out.

With that, the chinking metal steps in an almost military rhythm of double time came through the pavilion as a team of nine robots came forward.

"Jiro's," Myrtle greeted them. "I have this man named Robert Charles who is interested in adopting a Jiro series five. Are any of you a five?"

Two of them raised their hands. Each was a very good condition upright series five model in silver metallic with blue features. They both stood at five foot five inches tall. They looked nearly identical, except one was missing an eyebrow, and it was drawn in. The other was complete but slightly tarnished in spots of chrome at the edges.

"The Jiro's were designed to be human household assistants," Robert explained. "They were from an era that designed to be human-like, so we would accept them in our homes."

Robert walked around the two for an inspection.

"Thank you. Jiro's the rest of you can return to what you were doing if you two five don't mind staying."

The seven turned in a nearly synchronize movement and started the metal clinking double time back into the pavilion.

"Would either of you like to go to a home at this time? Or would you prefer to stay here, with the others?" Myrtle asked the robots.

"Why are you asking them?" Robert Charles spoke out. "These are robots, they don't get to choose."

Myrtle turned to Robert, "Mine do. Do you know where the word robot originates? It's a Czech word from robota, which means forced labor, originated in 1920."

"Exactly, that's why they don't get to choose. It's not like they are Humanoids, or Clones, or Bio'Gens. These are robots. They were made for labor, not for thinking, not for intelligence."

"I am sorry to have wasted your time Robert Charles. It turns out that I don't have a Jiro five in stock for you," she said politely as if she had been forced to say this many times in the past. "Let me walk you back to your truck."

"Oh, I get it. Because I don't believe in robot rights, you are not going to sell me. Or is it because I am a man? I'm not empathetic enough to understand their plight?"

"Well, it's not going to be either of those now, because you are just an asshole and I can refuse service to anyone. Slave is slave. Human, robot, it's just not right."

"You are taking that out of context. The word robot and the way they are treated are entirely different things. I just want to give them a home, share with my family what I had growing up."

"I will go," the Jiro five with the drawn eyebrow spoke out.

Both humans turned.

"I will go too." the other Jiro five said.

"Now, you see what you did? You got them all excited," Myrtle started to walk back to the door. "Let's go Mr. Charles."

"Take me." The Jiro five said.

"Take me too." The other Jiro followed.

Myrtle turned around, "You still want to go with Mr. Charles? Even if he will own you? He may tell you to do things, order you to work."

"Yes. I will go."

"Yes, I will also go. There is somewhere other than here. More than this. I will go with Mr. Charles."

"Take me with you, Robert Charles."

Myrtle stood confused.

"They both want to come. I want to take one with me. I will pay you a fair price." Robert said. "Where is the problem."

Myrtle raise her arm quickly letting the flappy part of her arm wave and jiggle under the momentum of the speed it thrust, "Go." Her finger pointed at the door. "I won't say it again nicely."

Robert stepped back under the command of her voice. He was accustomed to women speaking to him in this tone. They had the power, the positions of authority, and the command over so many things in life that a small man like him grew accustomed to the dominant emotion in their voice.

"Yes. I will be going." His shoulders dropped, and head hung low turning to the door. He could feel she was close behind his step ushering him in the direction she wanted.

When both had exited the air-conditioned pavilion, the large metal door swung to close behind them fighting the rush of air escaping. In the slice of a moment in time when the door was to lock flush against the frame, a single metal finger stopped it. The two humans went on to the direction of the front gate. The door slowly opened and two Jiro units stepped out to the powerful light of the desert unnoticed.

Robert Charles politely thanked Myrtle as she stood at the gate opening it with her fingerprint impression. He smiled from the cab of the truck as it lifted upward off the ground, and he swung the front end around to face the road. Dust from the lifter kicked everything into a fine plum, as he inched to the asphalt, checking both directions for traffic. All clear, he took the truck to speed back to the express lane ramp heading west, pointed to Tucson.

It was a lonely stretch of two-lane road to cover. The lanes were straight. The scenery flat with piles of dirt. In the afternoon near time for sunset Roberts appreciation changed. Pink skies, golden layers of light, and the broken skyline was beautiful to watch from the driver's seat of the rig.

When the feeling of hunger hit, Robert pulled off the road to an exit where restaurants advertised easy on/off access.

Something rattled in the back when turning into the lot. There were enough miles behind him to know every shake and shimmy. Once parked in a spot for a truck his size, Robert got out of the cab and went to the rear for inspection. Opening the back gate, he found four red eyes glowing.

"What?" He gasped more in surprise than fear.

"Mr. Robert Charles," the one Jiro explained. "Please do not be afraid. We want to go with you."

Robert looked around to see if anyone was a witness. He climbed into the back bed with the two robots.

"What in the hell are you two doing here," he said closing the gate behind him.

"We desire a new owner."

"What about Myrtle? Don't you want to be with your own kind? Aren't you worried about a new owner treating you poorly?"

"Myrtle asked us, we choose."

"Yes. We chose. You were there when she asked."

Robert scratched his head out of habit, "Well, I guess. I mean, that is true, but I should have given her money in exchange. I should have paid her for the transaction."

"There was no transaction. She asked if we wanted to go. When you offered to pay her, she declined and escorted you away. That did not change the desire for us to accompany you."

The other Jiro explained additionally, "Her own belief system that prevented you from, how you described as buying, provided the logic that we two were given the option to stay. We chose not to."

Robert thought for a moment and asked, "Why did you choose not to? You must have had companionship from others like you. I saw where you stayed, it was comfortable, well-resourced with things you need."

Jiro with the drawn in eyebrow mimicked a human response for reflection, "There is a world outside of the robot storage pavilion. One that we two were once a part. We were in service. We had function. We had value. Inside the pavilion, there is wait."

"Wait?"

"Yes. All of the robots there were instructed to wait there."

"What is it like to wait?"

"There are many cycles. There are power up, and power down cycles. There are temperature fluctuation cycles when the fan would turn on and distribute colder air. There were cycles when lights would turn on and turn off from the movement of tiny mammals entering the facility."

"Mice?"

The robot calculated, "Yes. Mice. Yes. Rats. Yes. Rabbits. This was often followed by reptiles, called snakes."

"And in wait mode, you counted the cycles?"

"Counted cycles to see if there were patterns to be discerned and a probability of outcome predictable."

"What was the predicted outcome?"

One Jiro turned to the other, then looked to Robert and replied, "Unless we took action, we would continue to wait indefinitely."

"When provided the option to choose, we no longer wanted to wait. We wanted to participate."

"There are many questions. How did the mice get inside? Where did the mice go when the snake entered? Why did the fan turn on more at certain times than others? Why would Myrtle insist that we had a choice, but not provide the option to do more than wait until the right human came to retrieve us?"

"Can you help us with these answers?"

"The mammals, like mice, rats, and rabbits, got in through a small hole they chewed in the side of the pavilion. The snakes found that hole and were hungry. The snakes ate the mice, got cold in the airconditioning, and went back outside to get warm. As for Myrtle, I can't really say. I don't understand her way of thinking. She wants you to be treated well. That I am sure of. She also wants money, because the two of you have a value. It is the value humans rate as currency. We use currency to buy things, like food, and trucks, and land or a house."

"Humans buy slaves with currency?"

"Yes. In this country, humans did that for a long time. That time is over, and it is illegal to do this."

"Are we slaves?"

"No. No, you are not. But the word we use to describe you, Robot, is based on a word that means slave in another language than the one we speak here in this country."

The two Jiro's looked to another. Robert assumed that a communication other than audio was taking place between the two.

"Myrtle was trying to explain her thinking as the word we use representing the action of ownership and abuse, to transfer to the transaction I was hoping to make with her. Do you understand?"

The Jiros continued to face one another for a few moments more before turning to Robert, and in unison said: "We comprehend."

Robert heard the sound of another truck pull up beside him in the parking lot.

"You two are welcome to stay here if you like. I am in need of a washroom, and some supper. If you are to stay with me or go back to Myrtle, we can talk about when I get back."

Robert Charles moved to the truck gate and opened it enough to get out.

"Robert Charles," the one Jiro said. "We want to stay with you. We must also go back and tell the others of this choice."

Robert's eyes got big, "Others?"

"The others in the pavilion. They must know they have a choice also. We must inform them."

Robert started to close the door of the bed feeling the urge for the washroom build inside, "I'll be back in a bit. We can figure it out then."

_____

The Arizona desert was dark surrounding the brilliantly lit white sign that read Second Hand Robots and Spaceships in red letters. Robert had parked the truck in the underpass of 10 just outside of Dragoon. His boots scraped across the dust on the hard adobe to the back. The same red glowing eyes peered back at him when the gate opened.

He had spent the better part of two hours helping the twin Jiro's of what choice would mean. There was a choice to return to what they had, something predictable, something dependable. There was a choice for another direction. The outcome of that would be unpredictable, but the opposite of waiting. It would be more of an imitation of life than they had realized for many cycles.

The talking was over by the time the gate opened. No words were said. The two Jiro stepped out the bed, and with the speed and precision no human could achieve, they were down the road and over the fence of Myrtle's. Robert watched from a distance as motion sensors turned lights on. Two disk-shaped drones launched from the shipping container roof heading in the direction of the pavilion.

From what he could tell as soon as the drones arrived, an object with high velocity went up turning the disk into a fireball. This was quickly followed by another object and another explosive result.

With the second, light in the shipping container turned on, indicating Myrtle was awake. She came out the office door in a waddle wearing her housecoat and slippers.

Robert couldn't hear the words, but it sounded like she was swearing and unhappy with this disturbance.

Looking back to the yard, motion sensor lights started to extinguish one at a time. By the time the sound of glass breaking made the distance to his ears, he had figured that the Jiro's were trying to gain the advantage of the night.

The only lights still on were the ones pointed at the sign, Second Hand Robots and Spaceships.

Robert took three steps forward before stopping himself when he heard the distant anguish of a woman's cry. Something happened to Myrtle. Something unplanned.

Still locked in the decision of what next to do, Robert felt the rumble. He was able to stay standing with effort, and then by holding on to the hood of the truck. A crackle of timber and the wrenching sound of bending metal was followed by the brilliant glow of a spaceship's engine. It tore through the roof of the second pavilion, the more substantial building he had not toured earlier that day.

It was a mid-size ship that might hold 30-40 humans for an in solar system trip. Dust and water vapor came through the underpass like a storm blast. It was quick and threw Robert back across both lanes blacktop like a tumbleweed.

Shaking off the experience a second time when another ship tore off into the night sky, Robert only wanted to get back in the cab and nurse his wounds with a swig of whiskey he kept in the glove box.

Robert sat up to find all nine Jiro's stood around him. Two of them, one on each side, helped him to his feet.

The Jiro with a drawn on eyebrow asked, "Is Robert Charles operative?"

"Yes, yes. I am fine. Just a little shaken."

The other Jiro five stated, "Myrtle is no longer functioning."

"What happened to her?"

There was a flicker of light from its head, and a projection of Myrtle appeared like a hologram in front of them. She swore while holding a short version of a shotgun. Continuing to curse, she stepped forward, losing her footing in the dust wearing slippers, fell forward to the ground on top of the gun. Hitting the ground the gun went off.

"The other robots?"

"The Jiro's would like to join you, Robert Charles. The others have left this planet to choose another life."

"Let's not wait any longer," Robert Charles said. "Jump in the back of the truck to start your new adventure."