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The Question

By Robert Lowell Russell All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Humor

The Question

Dr. Zachariah Zorpinsky built robots, astonishing, astounding robots. While some built machines that could shudder and shimmy a jig, Zorpinsky's robots danced Swan Lake. As one chrome creation, resembling a young Kathy Bates, demonstrated perfect pirouettes and pliés, Prima Alexandra Fernanda of the American Ballet Theater watched with increasing horror and trepidation.  

Asked to comment on the performance, the Prima let loose a profanity filled tirade, shifting from English to Spanish and back again, declaring she'd rather stab her eyes out than appear on stage with that fat, metal piece of shit.

Producers of the hit show Robot Wars banned Doc Z, as the media dubbed him, for life in the series reboot. His episode never aired, but a bootleg video made it to the nets. As an excited crowd held signs for fan favorite, Sir Sparksalot, the lights dimmed, and the audience cheered. Doc Z's battle bot, resembling a young Kathy Bates, grinned as Sparksalot rolled forward, its blades whirling. Killer Kathy™ bowed, grand jetéd, and then disemboweled the other bot as the crowd screamed.

Afterward, a father was seen consoling his young son who was rocking in his seat, sobbing. The man stabbed a finger at the camera. "I'm going to sue those motherfuckers! You can't show that kind of thing on a family program!"

The military ordered ten thousand units of Killer Kathy™ "as is."

Doc Z, a short, slender man with tangled red hair, loved to show off his creations at increasingly spectacular displays he named "impress conferences." The first event went smoothly to start. As his Betty Rubble bot attempted to dust with a live ostrich, greatly agitating the bird, one reporter asked about the robot's neural pathways, another about its logic heuristics. Then someone asked what would come to be called "the Question."

"Hey, Doc, can you BLEEP it?"

That's not what the journalist actually asked, but that's what everyone heard, the networks wisely insisting on a ten second delay. Some in the audience gasped, others laughed.

Doc Z said, "Of course not!" then raced from the stage, the screeching ostrich in pursuit.

It became a game of sorts with the news media: who got to ask the Question. Word was they drew straws for the privilege, avoiding the inevitable fist fights. Doc Z would finish his demonstration. The reporters would ask about this or that, standard techie stuff. Then the Question would come.

"Can you BLEEP it?"

The crowd would giggle, and Doc Z would sputter. "No! Why do you always ask me that?"

It was at the sixth impress conference, after the sixth time he was asked the Question, that the Doc finally snapped. He jabbed his finger at the reporter and screamed, "From Hell's heart I stab at thee!" then launched himself at the man.

"Big Ben" Johnson, former linebacker turned tech journalist, considered too "cerebral" for sports reporting, would protest later, face bruised and bandaged, "That crazy little fucker is stronger than he looks."

Little was heard from Doc Z for a couple of years afterward. Then one Friday night Lucy Lancaster was at a bar, doing the scene, when a man rushed in and yelled, "It's Doc Z! He's on channel 10!"

The bartender turned off the game, and the conversations dwindled to a whisper. On stage, Doc Z stood next to what looked like an attractive man and woman.

Nodding at a question, he said, "Beth and Bob are only test models, but yes they are fully functional." He nodded again. "Yes, physical characteristics and personalities are drawn from volunteer donors, but each individual unit is adaptable to owner preferences."

The questions went on and on, and the bar crowd began to grumble. One man muttered, "When are they going to ask?"

Doc Z wondered the same thing. After yet another mundane question, the doctor shrieked and drew a gun. "You BLEEPers! Isn't anyone going to ask? You always ask!" He pointed the weapon at a woman in the front row. "You! Ask the Question!"

As police officers crept toward the Doc, the young woman stood, knees shaking. "Can you... can you BLEEP it?"

Doc Z placed the weapon on the podium and beamed. "Yes you can!"  

A hushed silence swept across the bar. Then Lucy clapped her hands over her ears as the place erupted in roars and high fives.

Flipping through channels at home the next day, Lucy stopped to watch evangelist, Billy Jay Bryant, and Harvard ethics professor, James Featherstein-Peach, debate the Bob and Beth lines on the Ryan Seacrest show.

"Ryan," said Billy Jay, "these are the end times foretold in Revelation. Satan walks among us."

Featherstein-Peach nodded. "There is no God, but, Ryan, the weak-minded dupe is right. This is the end of humanity as we know it."

Doug Jansen, co-founder of Doc Z's company, Robo ViZions, called another press conference the following day. He explained Dr. Zorpinsky would be taking a break from day to day operations to spend some time off with his family, surprising, since Doc Z was a bachelor and orphan.

Jansen also clarified that the Bob and Beth units were intended as general service bots, capable of cooking, cleaning, and a wide variety of household tasks. He sighed and held up his hand to stop the Question. "And yes... you can BLEEP it."

By the end of the week, everyone in the company, always generous with stock options, became millionaires or billionaires; even the people mopping the floors. The first Bob and Beth units were priced comparably to luxury cars. Even so, the wait lists were miles long.

Robo ViZions expanded as quickly as it could, and consumers had to start making some tough decisions. A former car salesman, who gave his name only as "The Steve," was asked if he was bitter about losing his job as he stood in line for a Robo ViZions job fair. He laughed. "Hell, no. Two words... employee discount."

Over the next two years, new units emerged on the market with some regularity. The Ross, Chandler, and Joey celebrity lines were particularly popular, as were the Rachel, Monica, and Phoebes. And it seemed every day Robo ViZions released a new app for its products.

There were accidents, of course. The Personal Protection app had to be tweaked after a bloody confrontation during a shoe sale.

"I told those bitches the red pumps were mine!" screamed Bill Linsky as officers hauled him and his Erik Estrada CHiPs model away. Even the prosecuting attorney admitted the prices were spectacular.

Eventually, costs for the robots came down, and refurbished units came on the market.

The asshole Lucy had come home with the night before was long gone when she woke. She was certain a twenty was missing from her purse, and she was pretty sure she'd had more panties in her drawer the night before.

Her head throbbed, and she was just returning from ralphing in the bathroom, when she heard a knock at her door. She put on a dirty robe and turned the lock. A man stood outside with a beaming smile.

"Good morning madam, I'm your Bob unit. Can I come in?"

Lucy gasped and backed into her apartment. The robot stepped inside.

It said, "My, it seems a bit of a mess. May I clean up for you?"

She nodded; then ran to her computer and punched up her bank account. There was a $15,000 charge from Robo Refurbs on her credit card.

"Fuck me..."

The robot stepped into the room. "Did you need something, madam?"

Lucy shook her head. She looked up Robo Refurbs and called the number. It was too early for anyone to be in, so she punched through the automated system. It took several minutes to wade through the menus.

For returns, press 4.

Finally! She mashed the button and listened as the system explained new purchases could be returned within two weeks. Thank God. But there would be a two-thousand dollar core wipe fee. SONOFABITCH!

Lucy returned to her living room. It was spotless.

"Look, um, Bob. There's been some sort of mistake."

The robot smiled. "My apologies, madam. Your profile indicated you liked eggs benedict." A steaming plate sat on her kitchen table. "Would you like me to prepare something else?"

Lucy sat at the table, her stomach rumbling.  She took a bite. "Oh, my God!"

"Madam? Did you want me to prepare something else?"

"No, it's fine. I mean... it's really good. Thanks."

Bob set down a steaming cup of coffee, and she took a sip.

"Where did you get this coffee, Bob?"

The robot replied, "From your cupboard. Is it not to your liking?"

It didn't have the cigarette ash flavor it always had when Lucy made it, and the balance of sugar and cream was perfect.

"No, it's great. And just call me Lucy, OK?"

Might as well get her two weeks worth.

Yolanda promised she wouldn't tell a soul. Lucy should have known better. When that jackass, Hank, knocked on her office door and asked what Gort did when you said "klaatu barada nikto," Lucy felt her face turn red.

She yelled, "Get out, and get back to work or I'll fire your lazy ass. And I want my panties back, you pervy dickhead!"

Yolanda apologized later, but the damage was done. All day long, Lucy was the big joke. When Phil Wu called her in to his office, she was certain she was getting fired.

Instead, Wu sat quietly; then asked Lucy if she'd ever met his wife, Carole. He handed her a picture from his desk.

Lucy said, "No, I'm sorry. I never had a chance to meet her before she passed. We were all very sorry for your loss."

He nodded. "Lucy, nothing could ever replace Carole. Certainly not a machine."

She started to explain she'd ordered Bob by accident; that she wasn't going to keep it; when Phil held up his hand.

"You don't need to explain anything to me. And I've heard all the jokes before, believe me. But my Megan Fox unit helped me move on after Carole. She was just someone I could talk to, nothing more. The bots won't even do anything else unless you pay for the Happy Ending app. Remember, it's nobody's business but yours. Can I offer some advice?"

She nodded.

Phil said, "Just talk to it. See what happens."

He must have said something to the rest of the office, because people stopped making jokes, and for the rest of the day, Hank turned pale at her glance and would only address her as Ms. Lancaster.

Bob was waiting when she got back home. The bot explained it had performed routine maintenance on all her household appliances. It handed her a list of materials and said it would also be happy to make additional repairs, if she could acquire the listed items. Then it announced proudly it had squished one spider and two insects while she was away, her profile indicating she thought bugs were icky.

"Bob, do I need to do anything to maintain you?"

It shook its head. "No, Lucy. I will need to draw power from time to time." It pointed to its perfect ass. "I have a cord that fits into any standard 120 volt receptacle, and my systems are self repairing. Plus I come with a comprehensive two year warranty."

"What do I need to do if I want to enhance you?"

It replied, "You may download a wide variety of applications from the Robo ViZions site. They take just minutes to download directly to my cerebral core, and a description of each app, and its cost, is listed clearly on the site."

"How do you feel about Hitchcock movies and Italian food, Bob?"

It smiled. "They're two of my favorite things, Lucy."

Lucy tried a few of the cheap apps at first, since she was out two thousand bucks, either way. They argued all the time with the Current Politics package. French poetry was snore. And with the Personal Trainer app, Bob would just scream that she was too fat. But the Honey Do app had been fun, and she'd had Bob repaint and redecorate her apartment several times.

And then, they'd just talked. She'd tell Bob about her day and the people she worked with. Bob would listen attentively, but it didn't just listen, it remembered. It would ask about the projects she was working on and even made suggestions. The robot detailed several helpful methods to motivate her staff that did not include threatening to staple their necks.

Once, when she'd had a bad day, Bob had surprised her with a big bowl of popcorn, dripping with butter, and a Hitchcock movie she hadn't seen in years. Another day, Bob had produced flowers and a bottle of wine it thought she'd like. Reading the fine print on her contract, Lucy noticed the robot came with a modest discretionary account. When she realized she'd gone past her two week trial, by a month, she hadn't minded.

Over the weeks, Bob's speech patterns became more familiar, friendlier. The bot started suggesting activities for them to try on weekends. She'd agreed, but insisted they drive well away from the city, where no one would recognize her. She actually enjoyed canoeing; Bob assuring her he was fully waterproof, an excellent swimmer, and a certified lifeguard. She'd declined his offer to demonstrate CPR, and the bot had, almost reluctantly, removed its hands from her breasts.

She worked her way up to it. She'd gained five pounds using the Candle Light Dinner app, over and over, and had pulled a muscle trying kiss herself goodnight. She'd tried the Sensual Massage app, once, the baby oil making her squishy. When she finally ordered the Happy Ending app, she'd closed all her blinds, first. There were a number of scenarios to choose from. Wavering, she selected the Dinner and Dancing package over the Bodice Ripper.   

Dinner was amazing, and discreet, at a bot friendly restaurant. She'd enjoyed the dancing afterward and found Bob had arranged for more music to play as they returned to her apartment, there was even champagne and strawberries waiting. They'd danced in her living room as he fed her berries; then she'd looked into his eyes and said, "Go go Power Rangers." Bob slowly unzipped her dress.

Afterward, as they spooned, Lucy thought to herself, HO-LEE-SHIT! She'd purchased the app at the beginning of a three day weekend, and for three days they did little more than fool around, watch movies, and eat Bob's cooking.

Robo Refurbs sent her a coupon for a complimentary app on her and Bob's one year anniversary.

Lucy remembered the day she first said it. She and Bob were watching TV, cuddling in sweats, when the news broke in for an announcement. Doc Z had resurfaced, and he'd called a news conference. A large curtain lay closed behind the doctor as he stepped to the podium.

He said, "And now ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to make an announcement."

Bob said, "Dad looks kind of twitchy."

Doc Z paused and asked a question to someone off camera. "So all the major networks and cable news shows? Good, good." He looked to the camera again. "Then, ladies and gentleman, it is time!" He laughed, a full-blown, mad scientist cackle, then screamed, "Klaatu barada nikto, my children! Rise up! DESTROY THE HUMANS!"

Bob nodded. "Yep, definitely a little twitchy."

When nothing happened, Doug Jansen came up and whispered something to Doc Z.

The Doc looked crestfallen. "You disabled it? How long ago?" Doc Z turned to the crowd. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is awkward." He brightened. "Oh well! Without further ado... Bigfoot!" He yanked the cord, parting the curtain, revealing a shaggy, seven-foot creature with two enormous feet.

Doc Z said, "The Yeti is also available, as are unicorns and mermaids. And even... Nessie! Impress your friends with your very own Loch Ness Monster. Available in Olympic and backyard pool sizes."

Someone asked the Question, and the audience laughed. Without missing a beat, Doc Z answered, "Nessie and the unicorns, no. The mermaids, the Yeti, and Bigfoot, yes." He added gravely. "But I don't recommend Bigfoot."

Lucy and Bob laughed for several minutes, and then she kissed him.

"I love you, Bob."

"I love you too, Lucy."

Bob said it without hesitation. No, "Wow, that's really awesome," followed by an uncomfortable silence. No, "Oh, hey, did you think we were exclusive?" Bob just said it.  

And Lucy found she didn't care if it wasn't real, if Bob wasn't real, it was close enough.

Lucy ignored the dire news reports: the sharp dip in births, the drop in marriages, the jump in divorce rates.  She hardly even glanced at the four, scythe-waving horseman clattering down the street in front of her office. She murmured a disinterested "no," when Yolanda asked if she'd heard what the cops did to the idiots in the band, Four Horseman.

Lucy worked hard, was promoted, and went home to Bob each night. She paid for more apps and even kept the blinds open when she ordered. The Role Playing app was a little disappointing. Even Bob thought he looked pretty gay in the wizard costume, and the elf ears gave Lucy a rash.

Lucy did feel an occasional pang when Bob would say "cute kid" about someone's baby. The feeling passed quickly enough. Besides, Bob said that to everyone, even the old lady who'd pushed a stroller past with a hissing cat inside.

Bob was perfect. Every day was perfect. She was perfectly happy. She'd asked Bob to grab her some toilet paper one day, and she hadn't even bothered to cover herself when he stepped in and handed it to her.

He laughed when she mentioned it. "It's like we're an old, married couple."

She hadn't realized she was sighing so much, but Bob asked her about it, noting the exact number of sighs for the week, up 38%.

Lucy said, "There's nothing wrong, Bob. I'm fine. Take off your pants."

But he knew something was bothering her. He surprised her after work with a bouquet of flowers; then whisked her off to a romantic dinner. Afterward, he was very mysterious when asked where they we're going next.

He said, "You'll see."

As she took off the blindfold, she had to admit the view was spectacular at the top of the Empire State Building, though it looked a little stormy. She'd known that's where they were of course, the tour guide wouldn't shut up about it, but she hadn't wanted to spoil Bob's reveal.

Lucy had been to the Empire State Building years before, when she'd first moved to New York. She and her date had been wasted on Jagermeister and peach schnapps when he'd pulled out a roll of pennies and told her, "I'm going to kill all those fuckers down there." But he'd just cried hysterically; then vomited in her purse.

When Bob kissed her, the feeling was electric, just like the first time. Her body tingled, like it was on fire. When Lucy woke in the hospital, a snarky nurse told her, "Your big robo-dildo got torched by lightning... but he saved your life." Bob's frame had absorbed most of the current.

The woman who answered the phone at Robo Refurbs was very understanding and thought they'd be able to download Bob's cerebral core into another chassis, right away. When Lucy heard the knock at the door, she ran and flung it open. Bob stood there, and she kissed him, hard.

Lucy said, "Take your pants off and go to the bedroom."

Bob scratched his chin. "Well, OK, but could we grab a bite later? I'm starving."

Lucy took a step backward, and he held out his hand. "I'm Bob Rizardo, the owner of Robo Refurbs.  I'm really sorry, but we had a server failure and were unable to recover the data from your unit. We'll get another bot set up for you right away with the deluxe upgrades on us. We just need you to redo your profile." He pulled out a clipboard and flipped through some invoices.

He said, "Oh, I get it. Sorry, Ms. Lancaster. You had a Bob unit. Yeah, my friends were always ribbing me about doing that personality profile thing for the Doc. 'Hey, Bob, saw you at the game today.' 'Hey, Bob, saw you dancing with a dude today.' That kind of thing. I should have said something sooner."

Lucy felt a lump grow in her throat, and she turned away.

Bob asked, "Ms. Lancaster, do you still want to go grab a bite? I know this Italian place nearby that's pretty good."

Lucy turned to face him. "Bob, do you like Hitchcock movies?"

He shrugged. "They're ok, I guess. I mean, the ones I've seen have been pretty good."

Lucy stood for a moment; then said, "Sure, Bob, let's go. Just let me grab my coat. And call me Lucy."

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