Mike’s Gas Stop must be the last place in the county where they still pump your gas for you. Mike does basic repair work, too — and his prices are good. He doesn’t believe in minimum labor charges: A ten-minute job is a ten-minute job. My summer place is nearby, so I fill up there when I can, even if I’m only topping up a half-full tank. But today I wasn’t there because of gas.
Mike, dressed in his usual blue overalls, frowned at the heat-ripples rising from my left front wheel into the crisp October air.
“Ouch!” he said. “Yes, Doc, I imagine you did feel a shimmy. She’s gotta be hurting. I see that, sometimes, on them old Ford hybrids. Probably a seized brake caliper.” He pulled out a much-scuffed diagnosticator from his pocket, pointed it at the hood and pressed the button. “Yep. Like I thought. Nothing else wrong, you’ve been taking good care of her.”
“Can you fix it?”
“Depends. If anything’s broken, or the brakes got too worn, I’ll need to order parts from town. But you might be lucky. Drive her onto the lift and I’ll take a look.”
I inched the car cautiously into the shadows of the service bay. Something was odd — but what? I set the handbrake, stepped out and looked around.
The place was just too tidy. Mike always kept the place neat, but today every tool was lined up like instruments on a surgeon’s tray. The walls were spotless, creamy white, like the salon where Ellie gets her hair done. The usual smell of grease and diesel was hardly noticeable.
Mike saw my stare. “Looks good, don’t it, Doc?” Was there something wary in his expression? He raised the lift ten centimeters, gently, carefully.
“Sure does. That’s a nice paint job. But how do you find time to keep it clean?”
Mike took a huge screwdriver and pried off the hubcap. He put the hubcap and screwdriver onto the floor, a meter or so away from him.
From the other room, home to the cash register and Coke machine, stalked a tall metallic figure. Its shape was humanoid, though skeletally thin; shallow dents and ridges on the front of its head hinted at features. Despite its size, it walked silently. It descended on the screwdriver, returned it to the rack, and laid the hubcap on the shining steel workbench.
“You’ve got a robot.” I’d never seen one before, not up close.
“He keeps the place tidy. He likes it that way.” The air wrench barked twice and came away with one of the wheel nuts. Mike put the nut down; the robot picked it up and put it beside the hubcap.
“Ah. Does he talk?” It was the first thing I could think of to say.
“Not much. He turned up here a few months ago.” Mike continued to remove nuts. “Went to open up, and there he was, sitting in front of the door, like a stray dog. A dog somebody’d been beating.” The last nut was off. The robot put it with the others, a perfect pentagon exactly the size of the ring of wheel lugs, then began to clean its hands with solvent and a rag.
“So I brought out an extension cord and let him recharge. But he just kept sitting there, till I opened up. Then he followed me in and started to straighten things up.” He took the rim and tire off the lugs, and rolled it towards the robot. The robot caught it and laid it flat, exactly in front of the bare hub.
I stepped toward the robot to take a closer look.
“Don’t do that, please. If you get too close, he freezes. It’s a safety thing.”
“Like the Laws of Robotics?” I wasn’t quite sure what they were, but I’d read about them in a book when I was a kid.
“Doc, there are no laws of robotics. The guy who made that up was a science fiction writer, not a roboticist. You can’t make a robot understand what harming a human means. All the factory can do is put in simple safeguards, like the safety system that stops you from driving your car into things. He’s programmed to freeze if he’s within half a meter of a human. And to do what he’s told, within limits.” He probed at my brakes with a tool like a giant dental pick.
“Never thought of it like that. So why was he there?”
“He wasn’t much to talk. But I looked up his model number and found out that he was designed for housekeeping. And I finally got out of him that he was owned by a family with a big house somewhere around Toronto.”
“Toronto! That’s a long way!”
Mike pointed at a complicated metal device riding the edge of the brake disc. “There’s your problem, Doc! Seized caliper, just like the box said. Let’s see what I can do.” He poked around some more and something moved. He consulted the diagnosticator. “There you go. Should be fine, at least for now. Anyhow, as I was saying, he didn’t like it there.”
“Let me guess. They were untidy?”
“Not just that, but they wanted everything left just where it was put. Got upset if he moved anything. Place musta been like a junk shop. Musta drove him crazy.”
“Why’d they want a robot in the first place then?”
“Damned if I know. Latest toy, probably. Anyhow, he was so unhappy, he left. Got onto a bus, can you believe it? Don’t know how he managed to do that without freezing up. Bus musta been half empty, or maybe he stowed away with the luggage. Rode all the way down here, anyhow, two days.”
“So you put him to work?”
“Sort of. Can’t get him to pump gas or learn car repair. He just tidies up. But I did let him repaint the place. He picked that almond, and that terry-cotta on the doorframes and floor, himself. That made him happy. Get in and pump the brakes, willya, Doc? Just to make sure she’s all better?”
“Aren’t you going to put the lift down?”
“Not unless you want me to. I fix the cars of most of the cops round here. They don’t give me a hard time about how I run my shop. It’s only a few centimeters off the ground, anyhow.”
I clambered awkwardly into the driver’s seat and pumped the brake pedal.
Mike nodded. “There you go, Doc. She’s fine. Hey, big fella — can I have those parts back now, eh?”
Carefully keeping its distance, the robot brought back the rim, then the five wheel nuts. Mike replaced them then lowered the lift. I backed out into the hard-edged October sunlight. I looked at the gas gauge: three-quarters empty.
I stuck my head out the window.
“Thanks, Mike. Tell me, did you ever try and find his owners?”
“He doesn’t want to leave. And I don’t think they’d want him back, anyhow.”
“I did check online, a few days after he got here. Found a news story, big house fire in Toronto. Nobody home, luckily, but the house was a write-off. The owners said there was a cleaning robot, but the investigators never found a trace.”
“Look, Doc, the place was full of junk. Maybe it just burned down on its own, who knows? And anyhow, he wasn’t happy there. He likes things tidy.”
“Mike. What do I owe you?” It would have been a couple hundred bucks in the city.
“Let’s see, that was fifteen minutes’ work. Fifty dollars sound fair?”
“Yep, that’s fine. Thanks.” I passed him a ten and two twenties, then stepped on the accelerator.
I was pretty sure I had enough gas to get me home.
Robert Dawson teaches mathematics at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In his spare time, as well as writing, he likes fencing, cooking, and hiking; and he volunteers with a local scout troop. His story, “The Widow,” appeared in AE #7.