Manners of the Age - Cover

Manners of the Age

by H. B. Fyfe

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: With everyone gone elsewhere, Earth was perfect for gracious living--only there was nothing gracious about it!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The red tennis robot scooted desperately across the court, its four wide-set wheels squealing. For a moment, Robert’s hard-hit passing shot seemed to have scored. Then, at the last instant, the robot whipped around its single racket-equipped arm. Robert sprawled headlong in a futile lunge at the return.

“Game and set to Red Three,” announced the referee box from its high station above the net.

“Ah, shut up!” growled Robert, and flung down his racket for one of the white serving robots to retrieve.

“Yes, Robert,” agreed the voice. “Will Robert continue to play?” Interpreting the man’s savage mumble as a negative, it told his opponent, “Return to your stall, Red Three!”

Robert strode off wordlessly toward the house. Reaching the hundred-foot-square swimming pool, he hesitated uncertainly.

“Weather’s so damned hot,” he muttered. “Why didn’t the old-time scientists find out how to do something about that while there were still enough people on Earth to manage it?”

He stripped off his damp clothing and dropped it on the “beach” of white sand. Behind him sounded the steps of a humanoid serving robot, hastening to pick it up. Robert plunged deep into the cooling water and let himself float lazily to the surface.

Maybe they did, he thought. I could send a robot over to the old city library for information. Still, actually doing anything would probably take the resources of a good many persons--and it isn’t so easy to find people now that Earth is practically deserted.

He rolled sideward for a breath and began to swim slowly for the opposite side of the pool, reflecting upon the curious culture of the planet. Although he had accepted this all his life, it really was remarkable how the original home of the human race had been forsaken for fresher worlds among the stars. Or was it more remarkable that a few individuals had asserted their independence by remaining?

Robert was aware that the decision involved few difficulties, considering the wealth of robots and other automatic machines. He regretted knowing so few humans, though they were really not necessary. If not for his hobby of televising, he would probably not know any at all.

“Wonder how far past the old city I’d have to go to meet someone in person,” he murmured as he pulled himself from the pool. “Maybe I ought to try accepting that televised invitation of the other night.”

Several dark usuform robots were smoothing the sand on this beach under the direction of a blue humanoid supervisor. Watching them idly, Robert estimated that it must be ten years since he had seen another human face to face. His parents were dim memories. He got along very well, however, with robots to serve him or to obtain occasional information from the automatic scanners of the city library that had long ago been equipped to serve such a purpose.

“Much better than things were in the old days,” he told himself as he crossed the lawn to his sprawling white mansion. “Must have been awful before the population declined. Imagine having people all around you, having to listen to them, see them, and argue to make them do what you wanted!”

The heel of his bare right foot came down heavily on a pebble, and he swore without awareness of the precise meaning of the ancient phrases. He limped into the baths and beckoned a waiting robot as he stretched out on a rubbing table.

“Call Blue One!” he ordered.

The red robot pushed a button on the wall before beginning the massage. In a few moments, the major-domo arrived.

“Did Robert enjoy the tennis?” it inquired politely.

“I did not!” snapped the man. “Red Three won--and by too big a score. Have it geared down a few feet per second.”

“Yes, Robert.”

“And have the lawn screened again for pebbles!”

As Blue One retired he relaxed, and turned his mind to ideas for filling the evening. He hoped Henry would televise: Robert had news for him.

After a short nap and dinner, he took the elevator to his three-story tower and turned on the television robot. Seating himself in a comfortable armchair, he directed the machine from one channel to another. For some time, there was no answer to his perfunctory call signals, but one of his few acquaintances finally came on.

“Jack here,” said a quiet voice that Robert had long suspected of being disguised by a filter microphone.

“I haven’t heard you for some weeks,” he remarked, eying the swirling colors on the screen.

He disliked Jack for never showing his face, but curiosity as to what lay behind the mechanical image projected by the other’s transmitter preserved the acquaintance.

“I was ... busy,” said the bodiless voice, with a discreet hint of a chuckle that Robert found chilling.

He wondered what Jack had been up to. He remembered once being favored with a televised view of Jack’s favorite sport--a battle between companies of robots designed for the purpose, horribly reminiscent of human conflicts Robert had seen on historical films.

He soon made an excuse to break off and set the robot to scanning Henry’s channel. He had something to tell the older man, who lived only about a hundred miles away and was as close to being his friend as was possible in this age of scattered, self-sufficient dwellings.

“I don’t mind talking to him,” Robert reflected. “At least he doesn’t overdo this business of individual privacy.”

He thought briefly of the disdainful face--seemingly on a distant station--which had merely examined him for several minutes one night without ever condescending to speak. Recalling his rage at this treatment, Robert wondered how the ancients had managed to get along together when there were so many of them. They must have had some strict code of behavior, he supposed, or they never would have bred so enormous a population.

“I must find out about that someday,” he decided. “How did you act, for instance, if you wanted to play tennis but someone else just refused and went to eat dinner? Maybe that was why the ancients had so many murders.”

He noticed that the robot was getting an answer from Henry’s station, and was pleased. He could talk as long as he liked, knowing Henry would not resent his cutting off any time he became bored with the conversation.

The robot focused the image smoothly. Henry gave the impression of being a small man. He was gray and wrinkled compared with Robert, but his black eyes were alertly sharp. He smiled his greeting and immediately launched into a story of one of his youthful trips through the mountains, from the point at which it had been interrupted the last time they had talked.

Robert listened impatiently.

“Maybe I have some interesting news,” he remarked as the other finished. “I picked up a new station the other night.”

“That reminds me of a time when I was a boy and--”

Robert fidgeted while Henry described watching his father build a spare television set as a hobby, with only a minimum of robot help. He pounced upon the first pause.

“A new station!” he repeated. “Came in very well, too. I can’t imagine why I never picked it up before.”

“Distant, perhaps?” asked Henry resignedly.

“No, not very far from me, as a matter of fact.”

“You can’t always tell, especially with the ocean so close. Now that there are so few people, you’d think there’d be land enough for all of them; but a good many spend all their lives aboard ship-robots.”

“Not this one,” said Robert. “She even showed me an outside view of her home.”

Henry’s eyebrows rose. “She? A woman?”

“Her name is Marcia-Joan.”

“Well, well,” said Henry. “Imagine that. Women, as I recall, usually do have funny names.”

He gazed thoughtfully at his well-kept hands.

“Did I ever tell you about the last woman I knew?” he asked. “About twenty years ago. We had a son, you know, but he grew up and wanted his own home and robots.”

“Natural enough,” Robert commented, somewhat briefly since Henry had told him the story before.

“I often wonder what became of him,” mused the older man. “That’s the trouble with what’s left of Earth culture--no families any more.”

Now he’ll tell about the time he lived in a crowd of five, thought Robert. He, his wife, their boy and the visiting couple with the fleet of robot helicopters.

Deciding that Henry could reminisce just as well without a listener, Robert quietly ordered the robot to turn itself off.

Maybe I will make the trip, he pondered, on the way downstairs, if only to see what it’s like with another person about.

At about noon of the second day after that, he remembered that thought with regret.

The ancient roads, seldom used and never repaired, were rough and bumpy. Having no flying robots, Robert was compelled to transport himself and a few mechanical servants in ground vehicles. He had--idiotically, he now realized--started with the dawn, and was already tired.

Consequently, he was perhaps unduly annoyed when two tiny spy-eyes flew down from the hills to hover above his caravan on whirring little propellers. He tried to glance up pleasantly while their lenses televised pictures to their base, but he feared that his smile was strained.

The spy-eyes retired after a few minutes. Robert’s vehicle, at his voiced order, turned onto a road leading between two forested hills.

Right there, he thought four hours later, was where I made my mistake. I should have turned back and gone home!

He stood in the doorway of a small cottage of pale blue trimmed with yellow, watching his robots unload baggage. They were supervised by Blue Two, the spare for Blue One.

Also watching, as silently as Robert, was a pink-and-blue striped robot which had guided the caravan from the entrance gate to the cottage. After one confused protest in a curiously high voice, it had not spoken.

Maybe we shouldn’t have driven through that flower bed, thought Robert. Still, the thing ought to be versatile enough to say so. I wouldn’t have such a gimcrack contraption!

He looked up as another humanoid robot in similar colors approached along the line of shrubs separating the main lawns from that surrounding the cottage.

“Marcia-Joan has finished her nap. You may come to the house now.”

Robert’s jaw hung slack as he sought for a reply. His face flushed at the idea of a robot’s offering him permission to enter the house.

Nevertheless, he followed it across the wide lawn and between banks of gaily blossoming flowers to the main house. Robert was not sure which color scheme he disliked more, that of the robot or the unemphatic pastel tints of the house.

The robot led the way inside and along a hall. It pulled back a curtain near the other end, revealing a room with furniture for human use. Robert stared at the girl who sat in an armchair, clad in a long robe of soft, pink material.

She looked a few years younger than he. Her hair and eyes were also brown, though darker. In contrast to Robert’s, her smooth skin was only lightly tanned, and she wore her hair much longer. He thought her oval face might have been pleasant if not for the analytical expression she wore.

“I am quite human,” he said in annoyance. “Do you have a voice?”

She rose and walked over to him curiously. Robert saw that she was several inches shorter than he, about the height of one of his robots. He condescended to bear her scrutiny.

“You look just as you do on the telescreen,” she marveled.

Robert began to wonder if the girl were feeble-minded. How else should he look?

“I usually swim at this hour,” he said to change the subject. “Where is the pool?”

Marcia-Joan stared at him.

“Pool of what?” she asked.

Sensing sarcasm, he scowled. “Pool of water, of course! To swim in. What did you think I meant--a pool of oil?”

“I am not acquainted with your habits,” retorted the girl.

“None of that stupid wit!” he snapped. “Where is the pool?”

“Don’t shout!” shouted the girl. Her voice was high and unpleasantly shrill compared with his. “I don’t have a pool. Who wants a swimming pool, anyway?”

Robert felt his face flushing with rage.

So she won’t tell me! he thought. All right, I’ll find it myself. Everybody has a pool. And if she comes in, I’ll hold her head under for a while!

Sneering, he turned toward the nearest exit from the house. The gaily striped robot hastened after him.

The door failed to swing back as it should have at Robert’s approach. Impatiently, he seized the ornamental handle. He felt his shoulder grasped by a metal hand.

“Do not use the front door!” said the robot.

“Let go!” ordered Robert, incensed that any robot should presume to hinder him.

“Only Marcia-Joan uses this door,” said the robot, ignoring Robert’s displeasure.

“I’ll use it if I like!” declared Robert, jerking the handle.

The next moment, he was lifted bodily into the air. By the time he realized what was happening, he was carried, face down, along the hall. Too astonished even to yell, he caught a glimpse of Marcia-Joan’s tiny feet beneath the hem of her pink robe as his head passed the curtained doorway.

The robot clumped on to the door at the rear of the house and out into the sunshine. There, it released its grip.

When Robert regained the breath knocked out of him by the drop, and assured himself that no bones were broken, his anger returned.

“I’ll find it, wherever it is!” he growled, and set out to search the grounds.

About twenty minutes later, he was forced to admit that there really was no swimming pool. Except for a brook fifty yards away, there was only the tiled bathroom of the cottage to bathe in.

“Primitive!” exclaimed Robert, eying this. “Manually operated water supply, too! I must have the robots fix something better for tomorrow.”

Since none of his robots was equipped with a thermometer, he had to draw the bath himself. Meanwhile, he gave orders to Blue Two regarding the brook and a place to swim. He managed to fill the tub without scalding himself mainly because there was no hot water. His irritation, by the time he had dressed in fresh clothes and prepared for another talk with his hostess, was still lively.

“Ah, you return?” Marcia-Joan commented from a window above the back door.

“It is time to eat,” said Robert frankly.

“You are mistaken.”

He glanced at the sunset, which was already fading.

“It is time,” he insisted. “I always eat at this hour.”

“Well, I don’t.”

Robert leaned back to examine her expression more carefully. He felt very much the way he had the day the water-supply robot for his pool had broken down and, despite Robert’s bellowed orders, had flooded a good part of the lawn before Blue One had disconnected it. Some instinct warned him, moreover, that bellowing now would be as useless as it had been then.

“What do you do now?” he asked.

“I dress for the evening.”

“And when do you eat?”

“After I finish dressing.”

“I’ll wait for you,” said Robert, feeling that that much tolerance could do no particular harm.

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