A Bad Day for Sales

by Fritz Leiber

Tags: Science Fiction, Novel-Classic,

Desc: Science Fiction Story: Don't wait to "Get 'em while they're hot." By then, it is too late to get them of all!

The big bright doors of the office building parted with a pneumatic whoosh and Robie glided onto Times Square. The crowd that had been watching the fifty-foot-tall girl on the clothing billboard get dressed, or reading the latest news about the Hot Truce scrawl itself in yard-high script, hurried to look.

Robie was still a novelty. Robie was fun. For a little while yet, he could steal the show. But the attention did not make Robie proud. He had no more emotions than the pink plastic giantess, who dressed and undressed endlessly whether there was a crowd or the street was empty, and who never once blinked her blue mechanical eyes. But she merely drew business while Robie went out after it.

For Robie was the logical conclusion of the development of vending machines. All the earlier ones had stood in one place, on a floor or hanging on a wall, and blankly delivered merchandise in return for coins, whereas Robie searched for customers. He was the demonstration model of a line of sales robots to be manufactured by Shuler Vending Machines, provided the public invested enough in stocks to give the company capital to go into mass production.

The publicity Robie drew stimulated investments handsomely. It was amusing to see the TV and newspaper coverage of Robie selling, but not a fraction as much fun as being approached personally by him. Those who were usually bought anywhere from one to five hundred shares, if they had any money and foresight enough to see that sales robots would eventually be on every street and highway in the country.


Robie radared the crowd, found that it surrounded him solidly, and stopped. With a carefully built-in sense of timing, he waited for the tension and expectation to mount before he began talking.

“Say, Ma, he doesn’t look like a robot at all,” a child said. “He looks like a turtle.”

Which was not completely inaccurate. The lower part of Robie’s body was a metal hemisphere hemmed with sponge rubber and not quite touching the sidewalk. The upper was a metal box with black holes in it. The box could swivel and duck.

A chromium-bright hoopskirt with a turret on top.

“Reminds me too much of the Little Joe Paratanks,” a legless veteran of the Persian War muttered, and rapidly rolled himself away on wheels rather like Robie’s.

His departure made it easier for some of those who knew about Robie to open a path in the crowd. Robie headed straight for the gap. The crowd whooped.

Robie glided very slowly down the path, deftly jogging aside whenever he got too close to ankles in skylon or sockassins. The rubber buffer on his hoopskirt was merely an added safeguard.

The boy who had called Robie a turtle jumped in the middle of the path and stood his ground, grinning foxily.

Robie stopped two feet short of him. The turret ducked. The crowd got quiet.

“Hello, youngster,” Robie said in a voice that was smooth as that of a TV star, and was, in fact, a recording of one.

The boy stopped smiling. “Hello,” he whispered.

“How old are you?” Robie asked.

“Nine. No, eight.”

“That’s nice,” Robie observed. A metal arm shot down from his neck, stopped just short of the boy.

The boy jerked back.

“For you,” Robie said.

The boy gingerly took the red polly-lop from the neatly fashioned blunt metal claws, and began to unwrap it.

“Nothing to say?” asked Robie.

“Uh--thank you.”

After a suitable pause, Robie continued. “And how about a nice refreshing drink of Poppy Pop to go with your polly-lop?” The boy lifted his eyes, but didn’t stop licking the candy. Robie waggled his claws slightly. “Just give me a quarter and within five seconds--”

A little girl wriggled out of the forest of legs. “Give me a polly-lop, too, Robie,” she demanded.

“Rita, come back here!” a woman in the third rank of the crowd called angrily.

Robie scanned the newcomer gravely. His reference silhouettes were not good enough to let him distinguish the sex of children, so he merely repeated, “Hello, youngster.”

“Rita!”

“Give me a polly-lop!”

Disregarding both remarks, for a good salesman is single-minded and does not waste bait, Robie said winningly, “I’ll bet you read _Junior Space Killers_. Now I have here--”

“Uh-uh, I’m a girl. He got a polly-lop.”


At the word “girl,” Robie broke off. Rather ponderously, he said, “I’ll bet you read Gee-Gee Jones, Space Stripper. Now I have here the latest issue of that thrilling comic, not yet in the stationary vending machines. Just give me fifty cents and within five--”

“Please let me through. I’m her mother.”

A young woman in the front rank drawled over her powder-sprayed shoulder, “I’ll get her for you,” and slithered out on six-inch platform shoes. “Run away, children,” she said nonchalantly. Lifting her arms behind her head, she pirouetted slowly before Robie to show how much she did for her bolero half-jacket and her form-fitting slacks that melted into skylon just above the knees. The little girl glared at her. She ended the pirouette in profile.

At this age-level, Robie’s reference silhouettes permitted him to distinguish sex, though with occasional amusing and embarrassing miscalls. He whistled admiringly. The crowd cheered.

Someone remarked critically to a friend, “It would go over better if he was built more like a real robot. You know, like a man.”

The friend shook his head. “This way it’s subtler.”

No one in the crowd was watching the newscript overhead as it scribbled, “Ice Pack for Hot Truce? Vanadin hints Russ may yield on Pakistan.”

Robie was saying, “ ... in the savage new glamor-tint we have christened Mars Blood, complete with spray applicator and fit-all fingerstalls that mask each finger completely except for the nail. Just give me five dollars--uncrumpled bills may be fed into the revolving rollers you see beside my arm--and within five seconds--”

“No, thanks, Robie,” the young woman yawned.

“Remember,” Robie persisted, “for three more weeks, seductivizing Mars Blood will be unobtainable from any other robot or human vendor.”

“No, thanks.”

Robie scanned the crowd resourcefully. “Is there any gentleman here...” he began just as a woman elbowed her way through the front rank.

“I told you to come back!” she snapped at the little girl.

“But I didn’t get my polly-lop!”

“ ... who would care to...”

“Rita!”

“Robie cheated. Ow!”


Meanwhile, the young woman in the half bolero had scanned the nearby gentlemen on her own. Deciding that there was less than a fifty per cent chance of any of them accepting the proposition Robie seemed about to make, she took advantage of the scuffle to slither gracefully back into the ranks. Once again the path was clear before Robie.

He paused, however, for a brief recapitulation of the more magical properties of Mars Blood, including a telling phrase about “the passionate claws of a Martian sunrise.”

But no one bought. It wasn’t quite time. Soon enough silver coins would be clinking, bills going through the rollers faster than laundry, and five hundred people struggling for the privilege of having their money taken away from them by America’s first mobile sales robot.

But there were still some tricks that Robie had to do free, and one certainly should enjoy those before starting the more expensive fun.

So Robie moved on until he reached the curb. The variation in level was instantly sensed by his under-scanners. He stopped. His head began to swivel. The crowd watched in eager silence. This was Robie’s best trick.

Robie’s head stopped swiveling. His scanners had found the traffic light. It was green. Robie edged forward. But then the light turned red. Robie stopped again, still on the curb. The crowd softly ahhed its delight.

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