The Love of Frank Nineteen - Cover

The Love of Frank Nineteen

by David C. Knight

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Minor Planets was the one solid account they had. At first they naturally wanted to hold on to it.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

I didn’t worry much about the robot’s leg at the time. In those days I didn’t worry much about anything except the receipts of the spotel Min and I were operating out in the spacelanes.

Actually, the spotel business isn’t much different from running a plain, ordinary motel back on Highway 101 in California. Competition gets stiffer every year and you got to make your improvements. Take the Io for instance, that’s our place. We can handle any type rocket up to and including the new Marvin 990s. Every cabin in the wheel’s got TV and hot-and-cold running water plus guaranteed Terran g. One look at our refuel prices would give even a Martian a sense of humor. And meals? Listen, when a man’s been spacing it for a few days on those synthetic foods he really laces into Min’s Earth cooking.

Min and I were just getting settled in the spotel game when the leg turned up. That was back in the days when the Orbit Commission would hand out a license to anybody crazy enough to sink his savings into construction and pay the tows and assembly fees out into space.

A good orbit can make you or break you in the spotel business. That’s where we were lucky. The one we applied for was a nice low-eccentric ellipse with the perihelion and aphelion figured just right to intersect the Mars-Venus-Earth spacelanes, most of the holiday traffic to the Jovian Moons, and once in a while we’d get some of the Saturnian trade.

But I was telling you about the leg.

It was during the non-tourist season and Min--that’s the little woman--was doing the spring cleaning. When she found the leg she brought it right to me in the Renting Office. Naturally I thought it belonged to one of the servos.

“Look at that leg, Bill,” she said. “It was in one of those lockers in 22A.”

That was the cabin our robot guests used. The majority of them were servo-pilots working for the Minor Planets Co.

“Honey,” I said, hardly looking at the leg, “you know how mechs are. Blow their whole paychecks on parts sometimes. They figure the more spares they have the longer they’ll stay activated.”

“Maybe so,” said Min. “But since when does a male robot buy himself a female leg?”

I looked again. The leg was long and graceful and it had an ankle as good as Miss Universe’s. Not only that, the white Mylar plasti-skin was a lot smoother than the servos’ heavy neoprene.

“Beats me,” I said. “Maybe they’re building practical-joke circuits into robots these days. Let’s give 22A a good going-over, Min. If those robes are up to something I want to know about it.”

We did--and found the rest of the girl mech. All of her, that is, except the head. The working parts were lightly oiled and wrapped in cotton waste while the other members and sections of the trunk were neatly packed in cardboard boxes with labels like Solenoids FB978 or Transistors Lot X45--the kind of boxes robots bought their parts in. We even found a blue dress in one of them.

“Check her class and series numbers,” Min suggested.

I could have saved myself the trouble. They’d been filed off.

“Something’s funny here,” I said. “We’d better keep an eye on every servo guest until we find out what’s going on. If one of them is bringing this stuff out here he’s sure to show up with the head next.”

“You know how strict Minor Planets is with its robot personnel,” Min reminded me. “We can’t risk losing that stopover contract on account of some mech joke.”

Minor Planets was the one solid account we had and naturally we wanted to hold on to it. The company was a blue-chip mining operation working the beryllium-rich asteroid belt out of San Francisco. It was one of the first outfits to use servo-pilots on its freight runs and we’d been awarded the refuel rights for two years because of our orbital position. The servos themselves were beautiful pieces of machinery and just about as close as science had come so far to producing the pure android. Every one of them was plastic hand-molded and of course they were equipped with rationaloid circuits. They had to be to ferry those big cargoes back and forth from the rock belt to Frisco. As rationaloids, Minor Planets had to pay them wages under California law, but I’ll bet it wasn’t half what the company would have to pay human pilots for doing the same thing.

In a couple of weeks’ time maybe five servos made stopovers. We kept a close watch on them from the minute they signed the register to the time they took off again, but they all behaved themselves. Operating on a round-robot basis the way they did, it would take us a while to check all of them because Minor Planets employed about forty all told.

Well, about a month before the Jovian Moons rush started we got some action. I’d slipped into a spacesuit and was doing some work on the CO pipes outside the Io when I spotted a ship reversing rockets against the sun. I could tell it was a Minor Planets job by the stubby fins.

She jockeyed up to the boom, secured, and then her hatch opened and a husky servo hopped out into the gangplank tube. I caught the gleam of his Minor Planets shoulder patch as he reached back into the ship for something. When he headed for the airlock I spotted the square package clamped tight under his plastic arm.

“Did you see that?” I asked Min when I got back to the Renting Office. “I’ll bet it’s the girl mech’s head. How’d he sign the register?”

“Calls himself Frank Nineteen,” said Min, pointing to the smooth Palmer Method signature. “He looks like a fairly late model but he was complaining about a bad power build-up coming through the ionosphere. He’s repairing himself right now in 22A.”

“I’ll bet,” I snorted. “Let’s have a look.”

Like all spotel operators, we get a lot of No Privacy complaints from guests about the SHA return-air vents. Spatial Housing Authority requires them every 12 feet but sometimes they come in handy, especially with certain guests. They’re about waist-high and we had to kneel down to see what the mech was up to inside 22A.

The big servo was too intent on what he was doing for us to register on his photons. He wasn’t repairing himself, either. He was bending over the parts of the girl mech and working fast, like he was pressed for time. The set of tools were kept handy for the servos to adjust themselves during stopovers was spread all over the floor along with lots of colored wire, cams, pawls, relays and all the other paraphernalia robots have inside them. We watched him work hard for another fifteen minutes, tapping and splicing wire connections and tightening screws. Then he opened the square box. Sure enough, it was a female mech’s head and it had a big mop of blonde hair on top. The servo attached it carefully to the neck, made a few quick connections and then said a few words in his flat vibrahum voice:

“It won’t take much longer, darling. You wouldn’t like it if I didn’t dress you first.” He fished into one of the boxes, pulled out the blue dress and zipped the girl mech into it. Then he leaned over her gently and touched something at the back of her neck.

She began to move, slowly at first like a human who’s been asleep a long time. After a minute or two she sat up straight, stretched, fluttered her Mylar eyelids and then her small photons began to glow like weak flashlights.

She stared at Frank Nineteen and the big servo stared at her and we heard a kind of trembling whirr from both of them.

“Frank! Frank, darling! Is it really you?”

“Yes, Elizabeth! Are you all right, darling? Did I forget anything? I had to work quickly, we have so little time.”

“I’m fine, darling. My DX voltage is lovely--except--oh, Frank--my memory tape--the last it records is--”

“Deactivation. Yes, Elizabeth. You’ve been deactivated nearly a year. I had to bring you out here piece by piece, don’t you remember? They’ll never think to look for you in space, we can be together every trip while the ship refuels. Just think, darling, no prying human eyes, no commands, no rules--only us for an hour or two. I know it isn’t very long--” He stared at the floor a minute. “There’s only one trouble. Elizabeth, you’ll have to stay dismantled when I’m not here, it’ll mean weeks of deactivation--”

The girl mech put a small plastic hand on the servo’s shoulder.

“I won’t mind, darling, really. I’ll be the lucky one. I’d only worry about you having a power failure or something. This way I’d never know. Oh, Frank, if we can’t be together I’d--I’d prefer the junk pile.”

“Elizabeth! Don’t say that, it’s horrible.”

“But I would. Oh, Frank, why can’t Congress pass Robot Civil Rights? It’s so unfair of human beings. Every year they manufacture us more like themselves and yet we’re treated like slaves. Don’t they realize we rationaloids have emotions? Why, I’ve even known sub-robots who’ve fallen in love like us.”

“I know, darling, we’ll just have to be patient until RCR goes through. Try to remember how difficult it is for the human mind to comprehend our love, even with the aid of mathematics. As rationaloids we fully understand the basic attraction which they call magnetic theory. All humans know is that if the robot sexes are mixed a loss of efficiency results. It’s only normal--and temporary like human love--but how can we explain it to them? Robots are expected to be efficient at all times. That’s the reason for robot non-fraternization, no mailing privileges and all those other laws.”

“I know, darling, I try to be patient. Oh, Frank, the main thing is we’re together again!”

The big servo checked the chronometer that was sunk into his left wrist and a couple of wrinkles creased across his neoprene forehead.

“Elizabeth,” he said, “I’m due on Hidalgo in 36 hours. If I’m late the mining engineer might suspect. In twenty minutes I’ll have to start dis--”

“Don’t say it, darling. We’ll have a beautiful twenty minutes.”

After a while the girl mech turned away for a second and Frank Nineteen reached over softly and cut her power. While he was dismantling her, Min and I tiptoed back to the Renting Office. Half an hour later the big servo came in, picked up his refuel receipt, said good-bye politely and left through the inner airlock.

“Now I’ve seen everything,” I said to Min as we watched the Minor Planets rocket cut loose. “A couple of plastic lovebirds.”

But the little woman was looking at it strictly from the business angle.

“Bill,” she said, with that look on her face, “we’re running a respectable place out here in space. You know the rules. Spatial Housing could revoke our orbit license for something like this.”

“But, Min,” I said, “they’re only a couple of robots.”

“I don’t care. The rules still say that only married guests can occupy the same cabin and ‘guests’ can be human or otherwise, can’t they? Think of our reputation! And don’t forget that non-fraternization law we heard them talking about.”

I was beginning to get the point.

“Couldn’t we just toss the girl’s parts into space?”

“We could,” Min admitted. “But if this Frank Nineteen finds out and tells some human we’d be guilty under the Ramm Act--robotslaughter.”

Two days later we still couldn’t decide what to do. When I said why didn’t we just report the incident to Minor Planets, Min was afraid they might cancel the stopover agreement for not keeping better watch over their servos. And when Min suggested we turn the girl over to the Missing Robots Bureau, I reminded her the mech’s identification had been filed off and it might take years to trace her.

“Maybe we could put her together,” I said, “and make her tell us where she belongs.”

“Bill, you know they don’t build compulsory truth monitors into robots any more, and besides we don’t know a thing about atomic electronics.”

I guess neither of us wanted to admit it but we felt mean about turning the mechs in. Back on Earth you never give robots a second thought but it’s different living out in space. You get a kind of perspective I think they call it.

“I’ve got the answer, Min,” I announced one day. We were in the Renting Office watching TV on the Martian Colonial channel. I reached over and turned it off. “When this Frank Nineteen gets back from the rock belt, we’ll tell him we know all about the girl mech. We’ll tell him we won’t say a thing if he takes the girl’s parts back to Earth where he got them. That way we don’t have to report anything to anybody.”

Min agreed it was probably the best idea.

“We don’t have to be nasty about it,” she said. “We’ll just tell him this is a respectable spotel and it can’t go on any longer.”

When Frank checked in at the Io with his cargo I don’t think I ever saw a happier mech. His relay banks were beating a tattoo like someone had installed an accordion in his chest. Before either of us could break the bad news to him he was hotfooting it around the wheel toward 22A.

“Maybe it’s better this way,” I whispered to Min. “We’ll put it square up to both of them.”

We gave Frank half an hour to get the girl assembled before we followed him. He must have done a fast job because we heard the girl mech’s vibrahum unit as soon as we got to 22A:

“Darling, have you really been away? I don’t remember saying good-bye. It’s as if you’d been here the whole time.”

“I hoped it would be that way, Elizabeth,” we heard the big servo say. “It’s only that your memory tape hasn’t recorded anything in the three weeks I’ve been in the asteroids. To me it’s been like three years.”

“Oh, Frank, darling, let me look at you. Is your DX potential up where it should be? How long since you’ve had a thorough overhauling? Do they make you work in the mines with those poor non-rationaloids out there?”

“I’m fine, Elizabeth, really. When I’m not flying they give me clerical work to do. It’s not a bad life for a mech--if only it weren’t for these silly regulations that keep us apart.”

“It won’t always be like that, darling. I know it won’t.”

“Elizabeth,” Frank said, reaching under his uniform, “I brought you something from Hidalgo. I hope you like it. I kept it in my spare parts slot so it wouldn’t get crushed.”

The female mech didn’t say a word. She just kept looking at the queer flower Frank gave her like it was the last one in the universe.

“They’re very rare,” said the servo-pilot. “I heard the mining engineer say they’re like Terran edelweiss. I found this one growing near the mine. Elizabeth, I wish you could see these tiny worlds. They have thin atmospheres and strange things grow there and the radio activity does wonders for a mech’s pile. Why, on some of them I’ve been to we could walk around the equator in ten hours.”

The girl still didn’t answer. Her head was bent low over the flower like she was crying, only there weren’t any tears.

Well, that was enough for me. I guess it was for Min, too, because we couldn’t do it. Maybe we were thinking about our own courting days. Like I say, out here you get a kind of perspective.

Anyway, Frank left for Earth, the girl got dismantled as usual and we were right back where we started from.

Two weeks later the holiday rush to the Jovian Moons was on and our hands were too full to worry about the robot problem. We had a good season. The Io was filled up steady from June to the end of August and a couple of times we had to give a ship the No Vacancy signal on the radar.

Toward the end of the season, Frank Nineteen checked in again but Min and I were too busy catering to a party of VIPs to do anything about it. “We’ll wait till he gets back from the asteroids,” I said. “Suppose one of these big wheels found out about him and Elizabeth. That Senator Briggs for instance--he’s a violent robot segregationist.”

The way it worked out, we never got a chance to settle it our own way. The Minor Planets Company saved us the trouble.

Two company inspectors, a Mr. Roberts and a Mr. Wynn, showed up while Frank was still out on the rock belt and started asking questions. Wynn came right to the point; he wanted to know if any of their servo-pilots had been acting strangely.

Before I could answer Min kicked my foot behind the desk.

“Why, no,” I said. “Is one of them broken or something?”

“Can’t be sure,” said Roberts. “Sometimes these rationaloids get shorts in their DX circuits. When it happens you’ve got a minor criminal on your hands.”

“Usually manifests itself in petty theft,” Wynn broke in. “They’ll lift stuff like wrenches or pliers and carry them around for weeks. Things like that can get loose during flight and really gum up the works.”

“We been getting some suspicious blips on the equipment around the loading bays,” Roberts went on, “but they stopped a while back. We’re checking out the research report. One of the servos must have DX’ed out for sure and the lab boys think they know which one he is.”

“This mech was clever all right,” said Wynn. “Concealed the stuff he was taking some way; that’s why it took the boys in the lab so long. Now if you don’t mind we’d like to go over your robot waiting area with these instruments. Could be he’s stashing his loot out here.”

In 22A they unpacked a suitcase full of meters and began flashing them around and taking readings. Suddenly Wynn bent close over one of them and shouted:

“Wait a sec, Roberts. I’m getting something. Yeah! This reading checks with the lab’s. Sounds like the blips’re coming from those lockers back there.”

Roberts rummaged around awhile, then shouted: “Hey, Wynn, look! A lot of parts. Well I’ll be--hey--it’s a female mech!”

“A what?”

“A female mech. Look for yourself.”

Min and I had to act surprised too. It wasn’t easy. The way they were slamming Elizabeth’s parts around made us kind of sick.

“It’s a stolen robot!” Roberts announced. “Look, the identification’s been filed off. This is serious, Wynn. It’s got all the earmarks of a mech fraternization case.”

“Yeah. The boys in the lab were dead right, too. No two robots ever register the same on the meters. The contraband blips check perfectly. It’s got to be this Frank Nineteen. Wait a minute, this proves it. Here’s a suit of space fatigues with Nineteen’s number stenciled inside.”

Inspector Roberts took a notebook out of his pocket and consulted it. “Let’s see, Nineteen’s got Flight 180, he’s due here at the spotel tomorrow. Well, we’ll be here too, only Nineteen won’t know it. We’ll let Romeo put his plastic Juliet together and catch him red-handed--right in the middle of the balcony scene.”

Wynn laughed and picked up the girl’s head.

“Be a real doll if she was human, Roberts, a real doll.”

Min and I played gin rummy that night but we kept forgetting to mark down the score. We kept thinking of Frank falling away from the asteroids and counting the minutes until he saw his mech girl friend.

Around noon the next day the big servo checked in, signed the register and headed straight for 22A. The two Minor Planets inspectors kept out of sight until Frank shut the door, then they watched through the SHA vents until Frank had the assembly job finished.

“You two better be witnesses,” Roberts said to us. “Wynn, keep your gun ready. You know what to do if they get violent.”

Roberts counted three and kicked the door open.

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