The Velvet Glove

by Harry Harrison

Copyright© 2017 by Harry Harrison

Science Fiction Story: SF writer and editor Harry Harrison explores a not too distant future where robots--particularly specialist robots who don't know their place--have quite a rough time of it. True, the Robot Equality Act had been passed--but so what?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

New York was a bad town for robots this year. In fact,
all over the country it was bad for robots...

Jon Venex fitted the key into the hotel room door. He had asked for a large room, the largest in the hotel, and paid the desk clerk extra for it. All he could do now was pray that he hadn’t been cheated. He didn’t dare complain or try to get his money back. He heaved a sigh of relief as the door swung open, it was bigger than he had expected--fully three feet wide by five feet long. There was more than enough room to work in. He would have his leg off in a jiffy and by morning his limp would be gone.

There was the usual adjustable hook on the back wall. He slipped it through the recessed ring in the back of his neck and kicked himself up until his feet hung free of the floor. His legs relaxed with a rattle as he cut off all power from his waist down.

The overworked leg motor would have to cool down before he could work on it, plenty of time to skim through the newspaper. With the chronic worry of the unemployed, he snapped it open at the want-ads and ran his eye down the Help Wanted--Robot column. There was nothing for him under the Specialist heading, even the Unskilled Labor listings were bare and unpromising. New York was a bad town for robots this year.

The want-ads were just as depressing as usual but he could always get a lift from the comic section. He even had a favorite strip, a fact that he scarcely dared mention to himself. “Rattly Robot,” a dull-witted mechanical clod who was continually falling over himself and getting into trouble. It was a repellent caricature, but could still be very funny. Jon was just starting to read it when the ceiling light went out.

It was ten P.M., curfew hour for robots. Lights out and lock yourself in until six in the morning, eight hours of boredom and darkness for all except the few night workers. But there were ways of getting around the letter of a law that didn’t concern itself with a definition of visible light. Sliding aside some of the shielding around his atomic generator, Jon turned up the gain. As it began to run a little hot the heat waves streamed out--visible to him as infra-red rays. He finished reading the paper in the warm, clear light of his abdomen.

The thermocouple in the tip of his second finger left hand, he tested the temperature of his leg. It was soon cool enough to work on. The waterproof gasket stripped off easily, exposing the power leads, nerve wires and the weakened knee joint. The wires disconnected, Jon unscrewed the knee above the joint and carefully placed it on the shelf in front of him. With loving care he took the replacement part from his hip pouch. It was the product of toil, purchased with his savings from three months employment on the Jersey pig farm.

Jon was standing on one leg testing the new knee joint when the ceiling fluorescent flickered and came back on. Five-thirty already, he had just finished in time. A shot of oil on the new bearing completed the job; he stowed away the tools in the pouch and unlocked the door.

The unused elevator shaft acted as waste chute, he slipped his newspaper through a slot in the door as he went by. Keeping close to the wall, he picked his way carefully down the grease-stained stairs. He slowed his pace at the 17th floor as two other mechs turned in ahead of him. They were obviously butchers or meat-cutters; where the right hand should have been on each of them there stuck out a wicked, foot-long knife. As they approached the foot of the stairs they stopped to slip the knives into the plastic sheaths that were bolted to their chestplates. Jon followed them down the ramp into the lobby.

The room was filled to capacity with robots of all sizes, forms and colors. Jon Venex’s greater height enabled him to see over their heads to the glass doors that opened onto the street. It had rained the night before and the rising sun drove red glints from the puddles on the sidewalk. Three robots, painted snow white to show they were night workers, pushed the doors open and came in. No one went out as the curfew hadn’t ended yet. They milled around slowly talking in low voices.

The only human being in the entire lobby was the night clerk dozing behind the counter. The clock over his head said five minutes to six. Shifting his glance from the clock, Jon became aware of a squat black robot waving to attract his attention. The powerful arms and compact build identified him as a member of the Diger family, one of the most numerous groups. He pushed through the crowd and clapped Jon on the back with a resounding clang.

“Jon Venex! I knew it was you as soon as I saw you sticking up out of this crowd like a green tree trunk. I haven’t seen you since the old days on Venus!”

Jon didn’t need to check the number stamped on the short one’s scratched chestplate. Alec Diger had been his only close friend during those thirteen boring years at Orange Sea Camp. A good chess player and a whiz at Two-handed Handball, they had spent all their off time together. They shook hands, with the extra squeeze that means friendliness.

“Alec, you beat-up little grease pot, what brings you to New York?”

“The burning desire to see something besides rain and jungle, if you must know. After you bought out, things got just too damn dull. I began working two shifts a day in that foul diamond mine, and then three a day for the last month to get enough credits to buy my contract and passage back to earth. I was underground so long that the photocell on my right eye burned out when the sunlight hit it.”

He leaned forward with a hoarse confidential whisper, “If you want to know the truth, I had a sixty-carat diamond stuck behind the eye lens. I sold it here on earth for two hundred credits, gave me six months of easy living. It’s all gone now, so I’m on my way to the employment exchange.” His voice boomed loud again, “And how about you?”

Jon Venex chuckled at his friend’s frank approach to life. “It’s just been the old routine with me, a run of odd jobs until I got side-swiped by a bus--it fractured my knee bearing. The only job I could get with a bad leg was feeding slops to pigs. Earned enough to fix the knee--and here I am.”

Alec jerked his thumb at a rust-colored, three-foot-tall robot that had come up quietly beside him. “If you think you’ve got trouble take a look at Dik here, that’s no coat of paint on him. Dik Dryer, meet Jon Venex an old buddy of mine.”

Jon bent over to shake the little mech’s hand. His eye shutters dilated as he realized what he had thought was a coat of paint was a thin layer of rust that coated Dik’s metal body. Alec scratched a shiny path in the rust with his fingertip. His voice was suddenly serious.

“Dik was designed for operation in the Martian desert. It’s as dry as a fossil bone there so his skinflint company cut corners on the stainless steel.

“When they went bankrupt he was sold to a firm here in the city. After a while the rust started to eat in and slow him down, they gave Dik his contract and threw him out.”

The small robot spoke for the first time, his voice grated and scratched. “Nobody will hire me like this, but I can’t get repaired until I get a job.” His arms squeaked and grated as he moved them. “I’m going by the Robot Free Clinic again today, they said they might be able to do something.”

Alec Diger rumbled in his deep chest. “Don’t put too much faith in those people. They’re great at giving out tenth-credit oil capsules or a little free wire--but don’t depend on them for anything important.”

It was six now, the robots were pushing through the doors into the silent streets. They joined the crowd moving out, Jon slowing his stride so his shorter friends could keep pace. Dik Dryer moved with a jerking, irregular motion, his voice as uneven as the motion of his body.

“Jon--Venex, I don’t recognize your family name. Something to do--with Venus--perhaps.”

“Venus is right, Venus Experimental--there are only twenty-two of us in the family. We have waterproof, pressure-resistant bodies for working down on the ocean bottom. The basic idea was all right, we did our part, only there wasn’t enough money in the channel-dredging contract to keep us all working. I bought out my original contract at half price and became a free robot.”

Dik vibrated his rusted diaphragm. “Being free isn’t all it should be. I some--times wish the Robot Equality Act hadn’t been passed. I would just l-love to be owned by a nice rich company with a machine shop and a--mountain of replacement parts.”

“You don’t really mean that, Dik,” Alec Diger clamped a heavy black arm across his shoulders. “Things aren’t perfect now, we know that, but it’s certainly a lot better than the old days, we were just hunks of machinery then. Used twenty-four hours a day until we were worn out and then thrown in the junk pile. No thanks, I’ll take my chances with things as they are.”

Jon and Alec turned into the employment exchange, saying good-by to Dik who went on slowly down the street. They pushed up the crowded ramp and joined the line in front of the registration desk. The bulletin board next to the desk held a scattering of white slips announcing job openings. A clerk was pinning up new additions.

Venex scanned them with his eyes, stopping at one circled in red.








Jon rapped excitedly on Alec Diger’s neck. “Look there, a job in my own specialty--I can get my old pay rate! See you back at the hotel tonight--and good luck in your job hunting.”

Alec waved good-by. “Let’s hope the job’s as good as you think, I never trust those things until I have my credits in my hand.”

Jon walked quickly from the employment exchange, his long legs eating up the blocks. _Good old Alec, he didn’t believe in anything he couldn’t touch. Perhaps he was right, but why try to be unhappy. The world wasn’t too bad this morning--his leg worked fine, prospects of a good job--he hadn’t felt this cheerful since the day he was activated._

Turning the corner at a brisk pace he collided with a man coming from the opposite direction. Jon had stopped on the instant, but there wasn’t time to jump aside. The obese individual jarred against him and fell to the ground. From the height of elation to the depths of despair in an instant--he had injured a human being!

He bent to help the man to his feet, but the other would have none of that. He evaded the friendly hand and screeched in a high-pitched voice.

“Officer, officer, police ... HELP! I’ve been attacked--a mad robot ... HELP!”

A crowd was gathering--staying at a respectful distance--but making an angry muttering noise. Jon stood motionless, his head reeling at the enormity of what he had done. A policeman pushed his way through the crowd.

“Seize him, officer, shoot him down ... he struck me ... almost killed me...” The man shook with rage, his words thickening to a senseless babble.

The policeman had his .75 recoilless revolver out and pressed against Jon’s side.

“This man has charged you with a serious crime, grease-can. I’m taking you into the station house--to talk about it.” He looked around nervously, waving his gun to open a path through the tightly packed crowd. They moved back grudgingly, with murmurs of disapproval.

Jon’s thoughts swirled in tight circles. How did a catastrophe like this happen, where was it going to end? He didn’t dare tell the truth, that would mean he was calling the man a liar. There had been six robots power-lined in the city since the first of the year. If he dared speak in his own defense there would be a jumper to the street lighting circuit and a seventh burnt out hulk in the police morgue.

A feeling of resignation swept through him, there was no way out. If the man pressed charges it would mean a term of penal servitude, though it looked now as if he would never live to reach the court. The papers had been whipping up a lot of anti-robe feeling, you could feel it behind the angry voices, see it in the narrowed eyes and clenched fists. The crowd was slowly changing into a mob, a mindless mob as yet, but capable of turning on him at any moment.

“What’s goin’ on here... ?” It was a booming voice, with a quality that dragged at the attention of the crowd.

A giant cross-continent freighter was parked at the curb. The driver swung down from the cab and pushed his way through the people. The policeman shifted his gun as the man strode up to him.

“That’s my robot you got there, Jack, don’t put any holes in him!” He turned on the man who had been shouting accusations. “Fatty here, is the world’s biggest liar. The robot was standing here waiting for me to park the truck. Fatty must be as blind as he is stupid, I saw the whole thing. He knocks himself down walking into the robe, then starts hollering for the cops.”

The other man could take no more. His face crimson with anger he rushed toward the trucker, his fists swinging in ungainly circles. They never landed, the truck driver put a meaty hand on the other’s face and seated him on the sidewalk for the second time.

The onlookers roared with laughter, the power-lining and the robot were forgotten. The fight was between two men now, the original cause had slipped from their minds. Even the policeman allowed himself a small smile as he holstered his gun and stepped forward to separate the men.

The trucker turned towards Jon with a scowl.

“Come on you aboard the truck--you’ve caused me enough trouble for one day. What a junkcan!”

The crowd chuckled as he pushed Jon ahead of him into the truck and slammed the door behind them. Jamming the starter with his thumb he gunned the thunderous diesels into life and pulled out into the traffic.

Jon moved his jaw, but there were no words to come out. Why had this total stranger helped him, what could he say to show his appreciation? He knew that all humans weren’t robe-haters, why it was even rumored that some humans treated robots as equals instead of machines. The driver must be one of these mythical individuals, there was no other way to explain his actions.

Driving carefully with one hand the man reached up behind the dash and drew out a thin, plastikoid booklet. He handed it to Jon who quickly scanned the title, Robot Slaves in a World Economy by Philpott Asimov II.

“If you’re caught reading that thing they’ll execute you on the spot. Better stick it between the insulation on your generator, you can always burn it if you’re picked up.

“Read it when you’re alone, it’s got a lot of things in it that you know nothing about. Robots aren’t really inferior to humans, in fact they’re superior in most things. There is even a little history in there to show that robots aren’t the first ones to be treated as second class citizens. You may find it a little hard to believe, but human beings once treated each other just the way they treat robots now. That’s one of the reasons I’m active in this movement--sort of like the fellow who was burned helping others stay away from the fire.”

He smiled a warm, friendly smile in Jon’s direction, the whiteness of his teeth standing out against the rich ebony brown of his features.

“I’m heading towards US-1, can I drop you anywheres on the way?”

“The Chainjet Building please--I’m applying for a job.”

They rode the rest of the way in silence. Before he opened the door the driver shook hands with Jon.

“Sorry about calling you junkcan, but the crowd expected it.” He didn’t look back as he drove away.

Jon had to wait a half hour for his turn, but the receptionist finally signalled him towards the door of the interviewer’s room. He stepped in quickly and turned to face the man seated at the transplastic desk, an upset little man with permanent worry wrinkles stamped in his forehead. The little man shoved the papers on the desk around angrily, occasionally making crabbed little notes on the margins. He flashed a birdlike glance up at Jon.

“Yes, yes, be quick. What is it you want?”

“You posted a help wanted notice, I--”

The man cut him off with a wave of his hand. “All right let me see your ID tag ... quickly, there are others waiting.”

Jon thumbed the tag out of his waist slot and handed it across the desk. The interviewer read the code number, then began running his finger down a long list of similar figures. He stopped suddenly and looked sideways at Jon from under his lowered lids.

“You have made a mistake, we have no opening for you.”

Jon began to explain to the man that the notice had requested his specialty, but he was waved to silence. As the interviewer handed back the tag he slipped a card out from under the desk blotter and held it in front of Jon’s eyes. He held it there for only an instant, knowing that the written message was recorded instantly by the robot’s photographic vision and eidetic memory. The card dropped into the ash tray and flared into embers at the touch of the man’s pencil-heater.

Jon stuffed the ID tag back into the slot and read over the message on the card as he walked down the stairs to the street. There were six lines of typewritten copy with no signature.

_To Venex Robot: You are urgently needed on a top secret company

project. There are suspected informers in the main office, so you

are being hired in this unusual manner. Go at once to 787 Washington

Street and ask for Mr. Coleman._

Jon felt an immense sensation of relief. For a moment there, he was sure the job had been a false lead. He saw nothing unusual in the method of hiring. The big corporations were immensely jealous of their research discoveries and went to great lengths to keep them secret--at the same time resorting to any means to ferret out their business rivals’ secrets. There might still be a chance to get this job.

The burly bulk of a lifter was moving back and forth in the gloom of the ancient warehouse stacking crates in ceiling-high rows. Jon called to him, the robot swung up his forklift and rolled over on noiseless tires. When Jon questioned him he indicated a stairwell against the rear wall.

“Mr. Coleman’s office is down in back, the door is marked.” The lifter put his fingertips against Jon’s ear pick-ups and lowered his voice to the merest shadow of a whisper. It would have been inaudible to human ears, but Jon could hear him easily, the sounds being carried through the metal of the other’s body.

“He’s the meanest man you ever met--he hates robots so be ever so polite. If you can use ‘sir’ five times in one sentence you’re perfectly safe.”

Jon swept the shutter over one eye tube in a conspiratorial wink, the large mech did the same as he rolled away. Jon turned and went down the dusty stairwell and knocked gently on Mr. Coleman’s door.

Coleman was a plump little individual in a conservative purple-and-yellow business suit. He kept glancing from Jon to the Robot General Catalog checking the Venex specifications listed there. Seemingly satisfied he slammed the book shut.

“Gimme your tag and back against that wall to get measured.”

Jon laid his ID tag on the desk and stepped towards the wall. “Yes, sir, here it is, sir.” Two “sir” on that one, not bad for the first sentence. He wondered idly if he could put five of them in one sentence without the man knowing he was being made a fool of.

He became aware of the danger an instant too late. The current surged through the powerful electromagnet behind the plaster flattening his metal body helplessly against the wall. Coleman was almost dancing with glee.

“We got him, Druce, he’s mashed flatter than a stinking tin-can on a rock, can’t move a motor. Bring that junk in here and let’s get him ready.”

Druce had a mechanic’s coveralls on over his street suit and a tool box slung under one arm. He carried a little black metal can at arm’s length, trying to get as far from it as possible. Coleman shouted at him with annoyance.

“That bomb can’t go off until it’s armed, stop acting like a child. Put it on that grease-can’s leg and quick!”

Grumbling under his breath, Druce spot-welded the metal flanges of the bomb onto Jon’s leg a few inches above his knee. Coleman tugged at it to be certain it was secure, then twisted a knob in the side and pulled out a glistening length of pin. There was a cold little click from inside the mechanism as it armed itself.

Jon could do nothing except watch, even his vocal diaphragm was locked by the magnetic field. He had more than a suspicion however that he was involved in something other than a “secret business deal.” He cursed his own stupidity for walking blindly into the situation.

The magnetic field cut off and he instantly raced his extensor motors to leap forward. Coleman took a plastic box out of his pocket and held his thumb over a switch inset into its top.

“Don’t make any quick moves, junk-yard, this little transmitter is keyed to a receiver in that bomb on your leg. One touch of my thumb, up you go in a cloud of smoke and come down in a shower of nuts and bolts.” He signalled to Druce who opened a closet door. “And in case you want to be heroic, just think of him.”

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