The pressure tube locks clicked behind them, as the train moved on. It was a strange, sighing click and to Joe it sounded like, “She’s not right--she’s not right--she’s not right--”
So, finally, he said it. “She’s not right.”
Sam, who was riding with him, looked over wonderingly. “Who isn’t?”
“Vera. My wife. She’s not right.”
Sam frowned. “Are you serious, Joe? You mean she’s--?” He tapped his temple.
“Oh, no. I mean she’s not what I want.”
“That’s why we have the Center,” Sam answered, as if quoting, which he was. “With the current and growing preponderance of women over men, something had to be done. I think we’ve done it.”
Sam was the Director of the Domestic Center and a man sold on his job.
“You’ve done as well as you could,” Joe agreed in an argumentative way. “You’ve given some reason and order to the marital competition among women. You’ve almost eliminated illicit relations. You’ve established a basic security for the kids. But the big job? You’ve missed it completely.”
“Thanks,” Sam said. “That’s a very small knife you’ve inserted between my shoulder blades, but I’m thin-skinned.” He took a deep breath. “What, in the opinion of the Junior Assistant to the Adjutant Science Director, was the big job?”
Joe looked for some scorn in Sam’s words, found it, and said, “The big job is too big for a sociologist.”
Sam seemed to flinch. “I didn’t think that axe would fit alongside the knife. I underestimated you.”
“No offense,” Joe said. “It’s just that you have to deal with human beings.”
“Oh,” Sam said. “Now it comes. You know, for a minute I forgot who you were. I forgot you were the greatest living authority on robots. I was thinking of you as my boyhood chum, good old Joe. You’re beyond that now, aren’t you?”
“Beyond my adolescence? I hope so, though very few people are.” Joe looked at Sam squarely. “Every man wants a perfect wife, doesn’t he?”
Sam shrugged. “I suppose.”
“And no human is perfect, so no man gets a perfect wife. Am I right, so far?”
“Sounds like it.”
“Okay.” Joe tapped Sam’s chest with a hard finger. “I’m going to make a perfect wife.” He tapped his own chest. “For me, just for me, the way I want her. No human frailties. Ideal.”
“A perfect robot,” Sam objected.
“A wife,” Joe corrected. “A person. A human being.”
“But without a brain.”
“With a brain. Do you know anything about cybernetics, Sam?”
“I know just as much about cybernetics as you know about people. Nothing.”
“That’s not quite fair. I’m not sentimental about people, but it’s inaccurate to say I don’t know anything about them. I’m a person. I think I’m--discerning and sensitive.”
“Sure,” Sam said. “Let’s drop the subject.”
“Because you’re talking nonsense. A person without faults is not a person. And if--it or he--she were, I don’t think I’d care to know him or her or it.”
“Naturally. You’re a sentimentalist. You’ve seen so much misery, so much human error, so much stupidity that you’ve built up your natural tolerance into a sloppy and unscientific sentimentality. It happens to sociologists all the time.”
“Joe, I’m not going to argue with you. Only one thing I ask. When you--break the news to Vera, break it gently. And get her back to the Center as quickly as you can. She’s a choice, rare number.”
Joe said nothing to that. Sam looked miserable. They sat there, listening to the swishing, burring clicks of the airlocks, two friends--one who dealt with people and had grown soft, the other who dealt with machines and might not have grown at all.
As the car rose for the Inglewood station, Sam looked over, but Joe’s eyes were straight ahead. Sam got up and out of the seat.
There was a whispering sigh of escaping air and the sunlight glare of the Inglewood station, synthetic redwood and chrome and marble.
Sam was out of the cylindrical, stainless steel car and hurrying for the Westchester local when Joe came out onto the platform. Sam was annoyed, it was plain.
Joe’s glance went from his hurrying friend to the parking lot, and his coupe was there with Vera behind the wheel. It was only a three block walk, but she had to be there to meet him, every evening. That was her major fault, her romantic sentimentality.
“Darling,” she said, as he approached the coupe. “Sweetheart. Have a good day?”
He kissed her casually. “Ordinary.” She slid over and he climbed in behind the wheel. “Sat with Sam Tullgren on the train.”
He turned on the ignition and said, “Start.” The motor obediently started and he swung out of the lot, onto Chestnut. “Sam’s all right. Kind of sentimental.”
“That’s what I mean.”
Joe was silent. The coupe went past a row of solar homes and turned on Fulsom. Three houses from the corner, he turned into their driveway.
“You’re awfully quiet,” Vera said.
“About what?” Her voice was suddenly strained. “Sam didn’t try to sell you--”
“A new wife?” He looked at her. “What makes you think that?”
“You’re thinking about me, about trading me in. Joe, haven’t I--darling, is there--?” She broke off, looking even more miserable than Sam had.
“I don’t intend to trade you in,” he said quietly.
She took a deep breath.
He didn’t look at her. “But you’re going back to the Center.”
She stared at him, a film of moisture in her eyes. She didn’t cry or ask questions or protest. Joe wished she would. This was worse.
“It’s not your fault,” he said, after a moment. “I’m not going to get another. You’re as ideal, almost, as a human wife can ever be.”
“I’ve tried so hard,” she said. “Maybe I tried too hard.”
“No,” he said, “it isn’t your fault. Any reasonable man would be delighted with you, Vera. You won’t be at the Center long.”
“I don’t want a reasonable man,” she said quietly. “I want you, Joe. I--I loved you.”
He had started to get out of the car. He paused to look back. “Loved? Did you use the past tense?”
“I used the past tense.” She started to get out on her side of the car. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But I do,” he told her. “Is this love something you can turn on and off like a faucet?”
“I don’t care to explain it to you,” she said. “I’ve got to pack.” She left the car, slammed the door, and moved hurriedly toward the house.
Joe watched her. Something was troubling him, something he couldn’t analyze, but he felt certain that if he could, it would prove to be absurd.
He went thoughtfully into the living room and snapped on the telenews. He saw troops moving by on foot, a file of them dispersed along a Brazilian road. He turned the knob to another station and saw the huge stock market board, a rebroadcast. Another twist and he saw a disheveled, shrieking woman being transported down some tenement steps by a pair of policemen. The small crowd on the sidewalk mugged into the camera.
He snapped it off impatiently and went into the kitchen. The dinette was a glass-walled alcove off this, and the table was set. There was food on his plate, none on Vera’s.
He went to the living room and then, with a mutter of impatience, to the door of the back bedroom. She had her grips open on the low bed.
“You don’t have to leave tonight, you know.”
“You’re being very unreasonable.”
“I wasn’t trying to be intentionally cruel.”
His voice rose. “Will you stop talking like some damned robot? Are you a human being, or aren’t you?”
“I’m afraid I am,” she said, “and that’s why I’m going back to the Center. I’ve changed my mind. I want to get registered. I want to find a man.”
She started to go past him, her grip in her hand. He put a hand on her shoulder. “Vera, you--”
Something flashed toward his face. It was her slim, white hand, but it didn’t feel slim and white. She said, “I can see now why you weren’t made Senior Assistant to the Adjutant Science Director. You’re a stupid, emotionless mechanic. A machine.”
He was still staring after her when the door slammed. He thought of the huge Domestic Center with its classes in Allure, Boudoir Manners, Diet, Poise, Budgeting. That vast, efficient, beautifully decorated Center which was the brain child of Sam Tullgren, but which still had to deal with imperfect humans.
People, people, people ... and particularly women. He rose, after a while, and went into the dinette. He sat down and stared moodily at his food.
Little boys are made of something and snails and puppydogs’ tails. What are little girls made of? Joe didn’t want a little girl; he wanted one about a hundred and twenty-two pounds and five feet, four inches high. He wanted her to be flat where she should be and curved where she should be, with blonde hair and gray-green eyes and an exciting smile.
He had a medical degree, among his others. The nerves, muscles, flesh, circulatory system could be made--and better than they were ever made naturally. The brain would be cybernetic and fashioned after his own, with his own mental background stored in the memory circuits.
So far, of course, he had described nothing more than a robot of flesh and blood. The spark, now--what distinguished the better-grade robots from people? Prenatal heat, that was it. Incubation. A mold, a heated mold. Warmth, the spark, the sun, life.
For the skin, he went to Pete Celano, the top syntho-dermatologist in the Department.
“Something special?” Pete asked. “Not just a local skin graft? What then?”
“A wife. A perfect wife.”
Pete’s grin sagged baffledly. “I don’t get it, Joe. Perfect how?”
“In all ways.” Joe’s face was grave. “Someone ideal to live with.”
“How about Vera? What was wrong with her?”
“A sentimentalist, too romantic, kind of--well, maybe not dumb, exactly, but--”
“But not perfect. Who is, Joe?”
“My new wife is going to be.”
Pete shrugged and began putting together the ingredients for the kind of skin Joe had specified.
They’re all the same, Joe thought, Sam and Pete and the rest. They seemed to think his idea childish. He built the instillers and incubator that night. The mold would be done by one of the Department’s engravers. Joe had the sketches and dimensions ready.
Wednesday afternoon, Burke called him in. Burke was the Senior assistant, a job Joe had expected and been miffed about. Burke was a jerk, in Joe’s book.
This afternoon, Burke’s long nose was twitching and his thin face was gravely bleak. He had a clipped, efficient way of speaking.
“What do you mean?”
“Not hitting the ball, not on the beam, no zipperoo.”
“I’m--yes, I guess you’re right. I’ve been working at home on a private project.”
“Anything in particular?”
Joe took a breath, looked away, and back at Burke. “Well, a wife.”
A frown, a doubtful look from the cold, blue eyes. “Robot? Dishwasher and cook and phone answerer and like that?”
“More than that.”
Slightly raised eyebrows.
“Completely human, except she will have no human faults.”
Cool smile. “Wouldn’t be human, then, of course.”
“Human, but without human faults, I said!“
“You raised your voice, Joe.”
“I’m the Senior Assistant. Junior Assistants do not raise their voices to Senior Assistants.”
“I thought you might be deaf, as well as dumb,” Joe said.
A silence. The granite face of Burke was marble, then steel and finally chromium. His voice matched it. “I’ll have to talk to the Chief before I fire you, of course. Department rule. Good afternoon.”
“Go to hell.”
Joe went back to his desk and burned. He started with a low flame and fed it with the grievances of the past weeks. When it began to warm his collar, he picked up his hat and left.
Click, burr, click went the airlocks. Very few riders, this time of the afternoon. The brain would go in, intact, and then the knowledge instiller would work during the incubation period, feeding the adolescent memories to the retentive circuits. She would really spend her mental childhood in the mold, while the warmth sent the human spark through her body.
Robot? Huh! What did they know? A human being, a product of science, a flawless human being.
The rise, the big hiss of the final airlock, and Inglewood. Joe stood on the platform a second, looking for his car, and then realized she wasn’t there. She hadn’t been there for a week, and he’d done that every night. Silly thing, habit. Human trait.
Tonight, he’d know. The flesh had been in the mold for two days. The synthetic nerves were plump and white under the derma-ray, the fluxo heart was pumping steadily, the entire muscular structure kept under pneumatic massage for muscle tone.
He’d thought of omitting the frowning muscles, but realized it would ruin the facial contours. They weren’t, however, under massage and would not be active.
And the mind?
Well, naturally it would be tuned to his. She’d know everything he knew. What room was there for disagreement if the minds were the same? Smiling, as she agreed, because she couldn’t frown. Her tenderness, her romanticism would have an intensity variable, of course. He didn’t want one of these grinning simperers.
He remembered his own words: “Is this love something you can turn on and off like a faucet?” Were his own words biting him, or only scratching him? Something itched. An intensity variable was not a faucet, though unscientific minds might find a crude, allegorical resemblance.
To hell with unscientific minds.
He went down to the basement. The mold was 98.6. He watched the knowledge instiller send its minute current to the head end of the mold. The meter read less than a tenth of an amp. The slow, plastic pulse of the muscle tone massage worked off a small pump near the foot of the mold.
On the wall, the big master operating clock sent the minute currents to the various bodily sections, building up the cells, maintaining the organic functions. In two hours, the clock would shut off all power, the box would cool, and there would be his--Alice. Well, why not Alice? She had to have a name, didn’t she?
Warmth, that was the difference between a human and a robot, just warmth, just the spark. Funny he’d never thought of it before. Warmth was--it had unscientific connotations. It wasn’t, though.
He went upstairs and fried some eggs. Twice a day, for a week, he had fried eggs. Their flavor was overrated.
Then he went into the living room and snapped on the ball game.
Martin was on third and Pelter was at bat. On the mound, the lank form of Dorffberger cast a long, grotesque shadow in the afternoon sun. Dorffberger chewed and spat and wiped his nose with the back of his glove. He looked over at third and yawned.
At the plate, Pelter was digging in. Pelter looked nervous.
Joe said, “Bet that Dorffberger fans him. He’s got the Indian sign on Pelter.”
Then he realized he was talking to himself. Damn it. On the telenews screen, Dorffberger looked right into the camera and nodded. He was winding up, and the director put the ball into slow motion. Even in slow motion, it winged.
“Ho-ho!” Joe said. “You can’t hit what you can’t see.”
Pelter must have seen it. He caught it on the fat part of the bat, twisting into it with all his hundred and ninety pounds. The impact rattled the telenews screen and the telescopic cameras took over. They followed the ball’s flight about halfway to Jersey and then the short-range eyes came back to show Pelter crossing the plate, and Martin waiting there to shake his hand.
Joe snapped off the machine impatiently. Very unscientific game, baseball. No rhyme or reason to it. He went out onto the porch.
The grass was dry and gray; he’d forgotten to set the sprinkler clock, Vera’s old job. Across the street, Dan Harvey sat with his wife, each with a drink. Sat with his human wife, the poor fish. They looked happy, though. Some people were satisfied with mediocrities. Unscientific people.
Why was he restless? Why was he bored? Was he worried about his job? Only slightly; the Chief thought a lot of him, a hell of a lot. The Chief was a great guy for seniority and Burke had it, or Joe would certainly have been Senior Assistant.
The stirring in him he didn’t want to analyze and he thought of the days he’d courted Vera, going to dances at the Center, playing bridge at the Center, studying Greek at the Center. A fine but too well-lighted place. You could do everything but smooch there; the smooching came after the declaration of intentions and a man was bound after the declaration to go through with the wedding, to live with his chosen mate for the minimum three months of the adjustment period.
Adjustment period ... another necessity for humans, for imperfect people. Across the street, the perfectly adjusted Harveys smiled at each other and sipped their drinks. Hell, that wasn’t adjustment, that was surrender.
He got up and went into the living room; fighting the stirring in him, the stirring he didn’t want to analyze and find absurd. He went into the bathroom and studied his lean, now haggard face. He looked like hell. He went into the back bedroom and smelled her perfume and went quickly from the house and into the backyard.
He sat there until seven, listening to the throb from the basement. The molecule agitator should have the flesh firm and finished now, nourished by the select blood, massaged by the pulsating plastic.
At seven, she should be ready.
At seven, he went down to the basement. His heart should have been hammering and his mind expectant, but he was just another guy going down to the basement.
The pumps had stopped, the agitator, the instiller. He felt the mold; it was cool to the touch. He lifted the lid, his mind on Vera for some reason.
A beauty. The lid was fully back and his mate sat up, smiled and said, “Hello, Joe.”
“Hello, Alice. Everything all right?”
Her hair was a silver blonde, her features a blend of the patrician and the classical. Her figure was neither too slim nor too stout, too flat nor too rounded. Nowhere was there any sag.
“Thought we’d drop over to the Harveys’ for a drink,” Joe said. “Sort of show you off, you know.”
“Ego gratification, Joe?”
“Of course. I’ve some clothes upstairs for you.”
“I’m sure they’re lovely.”
“They are lovely.”
While she dressed, he phoned the Harveys. He explained about Vera first, because Vera was what the Harveys considered a good neighbor.
Dan Harvey said sympathetically, “It happens to the best of us. Thinking of getting a new one, Joe?”
“I’ve got one right here. Thought I’d drop over, sort of break the ice.”
“Great,” Dan said. “Fine. Dandy.”
The event was of minor importance, except for the revelation involved.
The Harveys had a gift for putting guests at ease, the gift being a cellar full of thirty-year-old bourbon the elder Harvey had bequeathed them at the end of their adjustment period.
The talk moved here and there, over the bourbon, Alice sharing in it rarely, though nodding when Joe was talking.
Then, at mention of someone or other, Mrs. Harvey said tolerantly, “Well, none of us are perfect, I guess.”
Alice smiled and answered, “Some of us are satisfied with mediocrities in marriage.”
Mrs. Harvey frowned doubtfully. “I don’t quite understand, dear. In any marriage, there has to be adjustment. Dan and I, for example, have adjusted very well.”
“You haven’t adjusted,” Alice said smilingly. “You’ve surrendered.”
Joe coughed up half a glass of bourbon, Dan turned a sort of red-green and Mrs. Harvey stared with her mouth open. Alice smiled.
Finally, Mrs. Harvey said, “Well, I never--”
“Of all the--” Dan Harvey said.
Joe rose and said, “Must get to bed, got to get to bed.”
“Here?” Alice asked.
“No, of course not. Home. Let’s go, dear. Have to rush.”