VRM-547
by W. R. Thompson

ALL is NOT well. VRM-547 has vanished, its place taken by VRM-1489. I cannot understand how this happens, as neither object—coded as a floor lamp and a hat rack, respectively—is mobile. Nevertheless it happens, and as always I must spend several hundred microseconds in reprogramming my house map. The two objects are just dissimilar enough to require such adjustments. It is an unending source of confusion.

The date is Tuesday; therefore I must scrub and wax the floors. My owner—coded as “Yes, sir, sergeant, sir”—requires this operation on all Tuesdays. I connect with my cleaning apparatus, fill its tanks with soap, water, and wax, and proceed with the assigned function.

The function is 97 percent complete when my owner rolls across a section of floor. “Lieutenant Halloran, clean those up,” he orders. He points to the floor.

“Those” is an indefinite term. It is plural. Analysis suggests that “those” refers to the marks which my owner’s wheelchair has left on the floor. I assign the marked areas a higher priority than the uncleaned areas of the floor, and proceed with my modified function. “Yes, sir, sergeant, sir,” I say, acknowledging the order.

In due time, I finish the function. I return my cleaning apparatus to its storage rack. The next function in my assignment stack is to check on my owner’s health. This is my primary function, programmed into me by the Veterans Administration. Every hour I query his implant, and collect data on his health status and the medication levels in his bloodstream. Whenever it is Monday, I send my collected data to the nearby VA hospital, unless the readings fall outside certain limits. In that case, I would initiate emergency measures.

My owner’s health is well, within its limits. My next assigned function is grocery acquisition, so I mount the wireframe basket on my shell. I roll into the living room, where my owner is seated before VRM-12, a television set, currently active. “Lieutenant Halloran, are you going shopping now?” he says.

“Yes, sir, sergeant, sir.”

“Lieutenant Halloran, my nephews are coming over today. Buy some munchies for them.”

“Error code forty-seven,” I say. “Unrecognized word: munchies.”

“Lieutenant Halloran, you feeble excuse for a Marine, add a dozen Twinkies to the grocery list.”

“Yes, sir, sergeant, sir.”

I am about to exit the house when I detect a hazard. A sheet of newspaper has fallen atop VRM-187, an electric space heater. Although the heater is not active, it may be activated. My safety program warns that this situation creates a fire hazard. This, in turn, would endanger my owner’s health. I retrieve the paper, fold it and place it on VRM-53, a coffee table.

I roll down the ramp, reach the sidewalk and make a ninety degree turn to the right. I proceed toward external position three, coded as a supermarket. There are two stop points between my home position and the supermarket, coded as crosswalks. At each I stop and wait until I see a green signal light.

This function uses most of my data-processing abilities. Outside the house I see many objects and shapes which are not coded in my Visual Recognition Matrix. I must examine each uncoded object to see if it fits a generalized visual code: human or wheeled vehicle. I am programmed to avoid collisions with these objects. This is difficult, especially as certain vehicles will attempt to intersect my path at random, while certain humans will block my path at random.

I enter external position three, print out the grocery list, and wait for human assistance. Over a billion microseconds pass before a human appears and takes my list. Another billion microseconds pass before the human returns. As he loads objects into my basket, I tag each with a temporary recognition code: VRM-T-187 through VRM-T-215.

There is trouble as I return home. A vehicle increases its speed and attempts to intersect me. I give full power to my drive units and avoid a collision, but VRM-T-198 has bounced out of my carrying basket. It is round, and it rolls a considerable distance, lodging among a number of unrecognizable objects. This makes recognition difficult, and I must examine each object before I can identify and retrieve VRM-T-198.

Upon my return home I enter the kitchen and store the new objects in the upper and lower food cabinets. After I finish this task I put the wire-frame basket on its storage rack. There are dirty utensils in the sink, and I have no scheduled functions, so I begin to clean the utensils.

My owner rolls into the kitchen and opens the lower food cabinet. He removes VRM-T-191 and VRM-T-203. Then he faces me. “Lieutenant Halloran, you jackass, how many times have I told you to put the damned eggs in the refrigerator?”

“Error message twelve,” I respond. “Data not available.”

“Lieutenant Halloran, you little piss-ant, put the damned eggs in the damned refrigerator.”

“Yes, sir, sergeant, sir.” I roll up to him and stop. He holds two objects, and I have been ordered to take one. Which one? “Error message seven. Identity: eggs.”

My owner makes an uncodable response. He pushes VRM-T-191 into my left manipulator and rolls away. I add VRM-T-191 to my permanent Visual Recognition Matrix, coding the shape as VRM-3876, the eggs. This puzzles me, as the matrix already contains VRM-96, an egg. The words are clearly related, yet the shapes are quite different. More to the point, “eggs” by definition means “more than one egg.”

The doorbell rings and I go to answer it. I recognize the two small humans at the door as my owner’s nephews. “Hello, Mr. John. Hello, Mr. Craig. Please enter.”

My owner and his nephews spend the next several billion microseconds in the living room. As I have no assigned functions, I remain by the door. I observe them as I stand by. My owner has placed VRM-T-203 on the coffee table. He opens the object, and the nephews remove smaller objects from it. They eat the smaller objects while they talk.

I consider how this phenomenon relates to “egg” and “eggs.” Perhaps VRM-3876, the eggs, should be coded as the egg container. My owner is not always precise with his input statements, which has confused me on other occasions.

This causes me to reassess the relationship between the hat rack and the floor lamp. The hat rack is present now. I note that its shape resembles that of the lamp. Its support legs and central shaft are made of light-reflective material, and it is topped with a complex shape. There are many small, smooth surfaces around the top structure. I realize that these facets can reflect light, and certain reflections can confuse my optics.

Perhaps the rack is the lamp with its lights off. However, when I attempt to recode VRM-1489 as a switched-off lamp, I receive an internal error message. Although this is a mistake, I continue to recognize VRM-1489 as a hat rack. This is an idiosyncrasy of my pattern-recognition software, and I am not able to correct it.

I hear one of my owner’s nephews use my address label: Lieutenant Halloran. This draws my attention, of course. “Why do you call your robot ‘Lieutenant Halloran’?” the nephew asks.

The other nephew answers him. “A robot has to have a name, so it knows when you give it an order. Machines are like that.”

“But why do you call it that, Uncle Jake?” the first nephew asks.

“So I won’t forget how much I hate the scumball. See, Lieutenant Halloran was my platoon leader in Nicaragua. Now I can push him around like I always wanted.” My owner rolls his wheelchair across the room and picks up VRM-1, a group photograph. “That’s him in front, the weedbrain. Dumbest pogue in the whole corps. Lieutenant Halloran, tell the boys about yourself.”

“Yes, sir, sergeant, sir.” I recite memory file HALLORAN for him: “I am the biggest clown in the Marine Corps, a disgrace to my uniform, a bigger threat to my unit than the entire Nicaraguan army. Ortega smiles when he thinks of me. I think field rations are delicious. …”

The file is extensive. While I play it back, I make my hourly query of my owner’s implant. I note that his blood pressure and pulse rate have lowered, and his brainwave traces have moderated. My medical software tells me this is consonant with a slight reduction in mental stress. I conjecture that playing memory file HALLORAN somehow has a soothing effect on my owner.

“Lieutenant Halloran, at ease,” he says, and I fall silent while my owner talks to his nephews. “The real Halloran nearly got our platoon killed a dozen times, because he wanted to look like a gung-ho gyrene—win a medal, impress the rear-echelon honchos, get himself promoted. So he kept volunteering us for lurps—hell, long-range reconnaissance patrols to you—and ambush patrols. All the scut jobs. Then one night he walked us into Sandinista turf, and he got half of us killed. I caught a bullet in the spine that night.”

A subroutine whose existence I have not suspected makes itself known. I record his words into a special memory file. They will be evaluated by a psychiatrist, who is concerned with my owner’s adaptation to his disability.

My owner again shows the VRM-1 group photograph to his nephews. “Look, I want you kids to know about the guys in my unit. See this dude, Wynsocki?”

“The white boy with the long mustache?” a nephew asks.

“Yeah, that’s Wynsocki. We called him the Sock. He saved us all one night.” My owner’s voice-stress levels remain within acceptable limits, if just barely. “See, Halloran sent us into a village, and he ordered us not to shoot until the Reds opened fire, so we’d know exactly where they were. That’s how an ambush patrol works. Only word had it that the Sandinistas had a whole company in that village. We knew we were dead goin’ in, but try telling that to Halloran. Orders are orders, he said, so write your will if you’re scared.

“We got to the edge of the village, and the Sock grins at me, and says he’ll obey orders and let them shoot first. Then— then he runs into the village, shoutin’ and screamin’, and that’s when all the Reds in the village start shootin’ at him. That bought us enough time to get under cover and save our bacon, but it was all over for the Sock. I guess he had better luck than me.” One hand hits the side of his chair.

There is a long silence, lasting tens of millions of microseconds, during which the nephews stop eating the smaller objects from VRM-T-203. When one finally speaks his voice-stress level is high. He says that it is time to go home, and they leave at once.

I clean up the living room while my owner prepares and eats his dinner. During my next check of his implant I note that his blood-alcohol level has risen to 0.09%, a significant but not worrisome amount. After dinner he returns to the living room. He carries VRM-T-200 on his lap, an object which contains brown bottles. He turns on the television and drinks from the bottles.

Then he speaks, and both his voice-stress and decibel levels reach high and dangerous readings. I roll into the living room, alerted for a medical emergency. I check my emergency systems: medical software, siren, oxygen bottle and mask, modem and telephone cord. “Do you require assistance? Is there trouble?”

“Trouble! You didn’t hear the news? We’re goddamn withdrawing from Nicaragua !”

Analyzing this as best I can, I find “withdraw” in my vocabulary. It is a medical term, referring to certain side effects of addictive substances. “Error message fifty-two. Undefined use of ‘withdraw.’ You are not an addict.”

“ ‘Addict’? What are you talking about, you scraphead? I’m not addicted to any damned thing.” My owner drinks from a bottle. “Maybe Uncle Sam is the addict. Yeah. He’s hooked on getting us into wars, then quitting before we can win. All that talk about how we’re fightin’ for democracy—what were they doing, just throwing us away? Tell me!”

“Error message twelve,” I answer. “Data not available.”

“Goddamn machine!” He throws the bottle at me. I am undamaged, although the bottle shatters. “Know why they gave me a robot nursemaid? Because you’re goddamn cheaper’n a human worker! They weren’t going to waste money on—forget it. Forget everything. Everyone wants to forget about us soldiers. Even family.” He rolls his wheelchair out of the room.

There is broken glass all over the living room floor. I get my cleaning equipment and remove it.

My owner goes to bed early, but he does not fall asleep until well after midnight. It is probable that he will not wake until late tomorrow morning, and he will not leave bed until he has been awake over an hour. In the sixty-three days during which I have worked for him I have never seen him vary from this pattern. My medical profiles inform me that this is not standard human behavior, but it does not fall outside the parameters which the VA gave me for my owner. I cannot explain this incongruity.

At 1:37 A.M. I hear unidentifiable noises from my owner’s bedroom. When I go to investigate, I find that a human has entered the bedroom. I examine him in infrared, and find that he does not fit my recognition matrices.

Evidently, he does not fit my owner’s matrices either. “What you want?” he asks. His voice-stress levels are high.

“Just shut up,” the unknown human tells him. “Stay quiet and you won’t get hurt.” The man looks out the window at the side yard, then pulls the window down. He does this with one hand. In his other hand he holds an object which I know I should recognize.

The man points the object at my owner. “Get your hands out where I can see them, spade. Real slow—I don’t want you pulling something on me. Now get out of bed. Slow.”

“I—can’t—walk.” His voice-stress levels verge on the danger line. Following my programming, I switch my medical monitors to full coverage. I now receive an implant update every five seconds. All of my owner’s readings are within tolerable levels, but the trend is upward. “Get up!”

“I can’t! Look, why in hell you think I got that wheelchair?” The man looks at it and makes a grunting noise. Then he notices me. “What’s that?”

“A Vet-Admin robot. It runs errands for me.”

“And calls the cops, too, I bet. Turn it off.”

“It doesn’t have an ’off switch. Hell, it doesn’t even have an instruction manual!”

“Yeah, I’ll just bet,” the intruder says. He comes to me and squats down. As he examines me I study the object in his hand. It strongly resembles certain objects in the group photograph. I feel a 90 percent level of confidence that it is a pistol. My safety program describes pistols and related devices as health hazards.

The intruder grunts again and pulls open my communication panel. In seconds my maintenance circuits alert me to damage: modem disabled. Siren disabled. Primary speaker disabled. It is evident that the intruder knows something of robotics, although he misses my back-up speaker.