Weak on Square Roots

by Russell Burton

Tags: Science Fiction, Novel-Classic,

Desc: Science Fiction Story: Does your wife call you Pumpkinhead? Well, maybe it's _not_ an insult; it might be a pet name. Ah--but _whose_ pet name?

As his coach sped through dusk-darkened Jersey meadows, Ronald Lovegear, fourteen years with Allied Electronix, embraced his burden with both arms, silently cursing the engineer who was deliberately rocking the train. In his thin chest he nursed the conviction that someday there would be an intelligent robot at the throttle of the 5:10 to Philadelphia.

He carefully moved one hand and took a notebook from his pocket. That would be a good thing to mention at the office next Monday.

Again he congratulated himself for having induced his superiors to let him take home the company’s most highly developed mechanism to date. He had already forgiven himself for the little white lie that morning.

“Pascal,” he had told them, “is a little weak on square roots.” That had done it!

Old Hardwick would never permit an Allied computer to hit the market that was not the absolute master of square roots. If Lovegear wanted to work on Pascal on his own time it was fine with the boss.

Ronald Lovegear consulted his watch. He wondered if his wife would be on time. He had told Corinne twice over the phone to bring the station wagon to meet him. But she had been so forgetful lately. It was probably the new house; six rooms to keep up without a maid was quite a chore. His pale eyes blinked. He had a few ideas along that line too. He smiled and gave the crate a gentle pat.


Corinne was at the station, and she had brought the station wagon. Lovegear managed to get the crate to the stairs of the coach where he consented to the assistance of a porter.

[Illustration]

“It’s not really heavy,” he told Corinne as he and the porter waddled through the crowd. “Actually only 57 pounds, four ounces. Aluminum casing, you know...”

“No, I didn’t...” began Corinne.

“But it’s delicate,” he continued. “If I should drop this...” He shuddered.

After the crate had been placed lengthwise in the rear of the station wagon, Corinne watched Ronald tuck a blanket around it.

“It’s not very cold, Ronald.”

“I don’t want it to get bounced around,” he said. “Now, please, Corinne, do drive carefully.” Not until she had driven half a block did he kiss her on the cheek. Then he glanced anxiously over his shoulder at the rear seat. Once he thought Corinne hit a rut that could have been avoided.

Long after Corinne had retired that night she heard Ronald pounding with a brass hammer down in his den. At first she had insisted he take the crate out to his workshop. He looked at her with scientific aloofness and asked if she had the slightest conception of what “this is worth?” She hadn’t, and she went to bed. It was only another one of his gestures which was responsible for these weird dreams. That night she dreamed Ronald brought home a giant octopus which insisted on doing the dishes for her. In the morning she woke up feeling unwanted.

Downstairs Ronald had already put on the coffee. He was wearing his robe and the pinched greyness of his face told Corinne he had been up half the night. He poured coffee for her, smiling wanly. “If I have any commitments today, Corinne, will you please see that they are taken care of?”

“But you were supposed to get the wallpaper for the guest room...”

“I know, I know, dear. But time is so short. They might want Pascal back any day. For the next week or two I shall want to devote most of my time...”

Pascal?

“Yes. The machine--the computer.” He smiled at her ignorance. “We usually name the expensive jobs. You see, a computer of this nature is really the heart and soul of the mechanical man we will construct.”

Corinne didn’t see, but in a few minutes she strolled toward the den, balancing her coffee in both hands. With one elbow she eased the door open. There it was: an innocent polished cabinet reaching up to her shoulders. Ronald had removed one of the plates from its side and she peeped into the section where the heart and soul might be located. She saw only an unanatomical array of vacuum tubes and electrical relays.

She felt Ronald at her back. “It looks like the inside of a juke box,” she said.

He beamed. “The same relay systems used in the simple juke box are incorporated in a computer.” He placed one hand lovingly on the top of the cabinet.

“But, Ronald--it doesn’t even resemble a--a mechanical man?”

“That’s because it doesn’t have any appendages as yet. You know, arms and legs. That’s a relatively simple adjustment.” He winked at Corinne with a great air of complicity. “And I have some excellent ideas along that line. Now, run along, because I’ll be busy most of the day.”


Corinne ran along. She spent most of the day shopping for week-end necessities. On an irrational last-minute impulse--perhaps an unconscious surrender to the machine age--she dug in the grocery deep freeze and brought out a couple of purple steaks.

That evening she had to call Ronald three times for dinner, and when he came out of the den she noticed that he closed the door the way one does upon a small child. He chattered about inconsequential matters all through dinner. Corinne knew that his work was going smoothly. A few minutes later she was to know how smoothly.

It started when she began to put on her apron to do the dishes. “Let that go for now, dear,” Ronald said, taking the apron from her. He went into the den, returning with a small black box covered with push buttons. “Now observe carefully,” he said, his voice pitched high.

He pushed one of the buttons, waited a second with his ear cocked toward the den, then pushed another.

Corinne heard the turning of metal against metal, and she slowly turned her head.

“Oh!” She suppressed a shriek, clutching Ronald’s arm so tightly he almost dropped the control box.

Pascal was walking under his own effort, considerably taller now with the round, aluminum legs Ronald had given him. Two metal arms also hung at the sides of the cabinet. One of these rose stiffly, as though for balance. Corinne’s mouth opened as she watched the creature jerk awkwardly across the living room.

“Oh, Ronald! The fishbowl!”

Ronald stabbed knowingly at several buttons.

Pascal pivoted toward them, but not before his right arm swung out and, almost contemptuously, brushed the fishbowl to the floor.

Corinne closed her eyes at the crash. Then she scooped up several little golden bodies and rushed for the kitchen. When she returned Ronald was picking up pieces of glass and dabbing at the pool of water with one of her bathroom towels. Pascal, magnificently aloof, was standing in the center of the mess.

“I’m sorry.” Ronald looked up. “It was my fault. I got confused on the buttons.”

But Corinne’s glances toward the rigid Pascal held no indictment. She was only mystified. There was something wrong here.

“But Ronald, he’s so ugly without a head. I thought that all robots--”

“Oh, no,” he explained, “we would put heads on them for display purposes only. Admittedly that captures the imagination of the public. That little adapter shaft at the top could be the neck, of course...”

He waved Corinne aside and continued his experiments with the home-made robot. Pascal moved in controlled spasms around the living room. Once, he walked just a little too close to the floor-length window--and Corinne stood up nervously. But Ronald apparently had mastered the little black box.

With complete confidence Corinne went into the kitchen to do the dishes. Not until she was elbow deep in suds did she recall her dreams about the octopus. She looked over her shoulder, and the curious, unwanted feeling came again.


The following afternoon--after Ronald had cancelled their Sunday drive into the country--Pascal, with constant exhortations by Ronald at the black box, succeeded in vacuum cleaning the entire living room. Ronald was ecstatic.

“Now do you understand?” he asked Corinne. “A mechanical servant! Think of it! Of course mass production may be years away, but...”

“Everyone will have Thursday nights off,” said Corinne--but Ronald was already jabbing at buttons as Pascal dragged the vacuum cleaner back to its niche in the closet.

Later, Corinne persuaded Ronald to take her to a movie, but not until the last moment was she certain that Pascal wasn’t going to drag along.

Every afternoon of the following week Ronald Lovegear called from the laboratory in New York to ask how Pascal was getting along.

“Just fine,” Corinne told him on Thursday afternoon. “But he certainly ruined some of the tomato plants in the garden. He just doesn’t seem to hoe in a straight line. Are you certain it’s the green button I push?”

“It’s probably one of the pressure regulators,” interrupted Ronald. “I’ll check it when I get home.” Corinne suspected by his lowered voice that Mr. Hardwick had walked into the lab.

That night Pascal successfully washed and dried the dishes, cracking only one cup in the process. Corinne spent the rest of the evening sitting in the far corner of the living room, thumbing the pages of a magazine.

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