Earl walked with a spring in his step despite his arthritic knee. No aches and pains were going to ruin this morning. He followed the smell of breakfast to the kitchen, where Marta was already seated.
He glanced disapprovingly at the house robot before sitting beside his wife. “Why didn’t that hunk of tin wake me? Janine’s coming over with the grandkids today, y’know.”
Marta shrugged. “I guess old Sparky’s clock is off again.”
“Well, we shouldn’t rely so much on the worthless contraptions. One day we’re going to wake up and find we serve them. Didn’t you watch sci-fi movies as a kid?”
“Oh, now, don’t fuss. You can have the grandkids reset it.”
“Well, they shouldn’t make the darn things so hard to program.”
Marta’s aged eyes lit with a playful sparkle. “Remember back when you were a kid? I bet your grandparents always had their VCR flashing twelve o’clock.”
“Heh. I always had to set the time for them.” Earl’s lips parted with an involuntary smile. “When did we turn into Gram and Pop?”
The robot loaded the breakfast plates into the dishwasher. Earl gave it a brief scowl and retreated to the family room, where the wallscreen automatically flipped to his favorite morning newsnet. The bucket of bolts couldn’t spoil today for him. The grandkids were coming.
“Janine’s early,” Marta said.
Little Donna loved to play with the doorbell. Earl pictured her finger on the button, her face bright with delight, and his face took on a glow of its own. The door burst open and Tommy charged into the family room.
“Gram! Pop! Look at my new dinosaur!” He put the mechanical monstrosity on the floor, took a few backward steps, and shouted, “Fido, here!” The toy raptor dutifully walked toward the little boy, pausing occasionally to roar menacingly. “I programmed him to recognize his name, and he knows a bunch of tricks.”
“Give me a hug first,” Marta said. She squeezed Tommy until he began to squirm. “How old are you now, eight?”
“Gram, I’m nearly nine!”
“Oh, how forgetful of me.” She gave a playful wink to Janine, who just then waddled through the door with a heavy travel bag under each arm.
Donna pushed past her and ran to Earl. “Pop! Today’s a big day! We’re gonna—”
“It’s a surprise, Donna,” Tommy scolded. “Don’t tell.”
Earl laughed. “Keep your little secrets,” he said playfully. He put a hand on Tommy’s shoulder. “I have a job for you. Seems the old robot needs to have its clock reset.”
“Again, Pop? I just fixed it last month.”
“Goodness,” Marta said. “Is it hard to do?”
“Naw. A second grader could do it. If you want, I can even download a fix that synchs Sparky’s clock to internet time. All the newer models do it.”
“Let’s have some ice cream first.” Donna looked up into Earl’s eyes and his will melted.
Janine’s didn’t. “I told you on the ride over, not before lunch.”
“But I want it now!” Her voice rose in pitch and volume at the end of the sentence, and she punctuated it with a stomp of her foot.
“One more word and you’ll get a time out. Now go help your brother with Sparky.”
Earl turned his attention to Tommy, who was tapping on his sat phone’s keypad. The boy seemed to sense the attention. His head snapped up and he pulled the phone’s screen to his chest. “Just texting some friends.” He folded the phone and returned it to his pocket. “C’mon Donna, time to fix Sparky.” He scurried to the robot’s recharging terminal in the kitchen, a pouting Donna in tow. Earl watched them go, amazed at the way kids took to gadgets.
Marta and Janine started in with the latest gossip. Earl sat back in his chair, contentment warm in his chest. An image on the wallscreen broke the mood—police cars outside a suburban home. Had the announcer just said the word “robot?”
“Hush a second,” he said. Marta gave him a cross look. “I want to hear this.” He turned the volume up.
“…wave of robot malfunctions sweeping the country this morning,” the reporter said. “Victims are being held hostage inside their homes.”
“Didn’t I tell you?” Earl thrust a finger at the robot stock footage on the screen. “Those confounded machines are going to make us their slaves one day.”
A loud clank from the kitchen drew all eyes in that direction. Janine’s face twisted with barely-suppressed panic. “The kids!”
Earl leapt to his feet, ignoring the twinges in his back and knee. He’d managed no more than one step toward the kitchen when the robot lumbered through the doorway.
“Household security locks are engaged.” The mechanical affability of the robot’s voice sent a chill down Earl’s neck. “Entrance and exit are restricted. You must submit to your new masters.”
Earl craned his neck to see into the kitchen, his heart aching with dread. He heard Marta sobbing. “We’ll do anything,” he said. “Just don’t hurt the children.”
“Don’t be silly, Pop,” Tommy’s voice said. He and Donna stepped out of the kitchen and stood flanking the machine. “Sparky won’t hurt us.”
Earl’s knees weakened with relief. He heard Marta mutter, “Oh, thank goodness.”
“All it took was a simple override routine coded into the safety protocols,” Tommy said.
“What are you talking about?”
Earl looked into the innocent eyes of the child, a new dread growing in him.
“You will bake a chocolate cake,” the robot said.
Donna knocked on the robot’s flank. “Don’t forget the ice cream,” she said.
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