I had ordered a general robotics kit from a dodgy website in post-war Russia. Originally I had meant to buy one of those gleaming white service units from Japan, but in the back of my head I had this adolescent notion of post Soviet technology, and that was enough to send me hunting hours through Russian websites, fighting off predatory internet viruses, till I came across a cute little website with something saying which I roughly translated as Bio-Robo-Butler.
In hindsight I should have studied some Russian, actually in hindsight I should have never got out of bed.
The general robotics unit came as a kit and was delivered in boxes of ice labelled GRU-177, this was my first inkling I was entering unusual territory. Each part was identical in shape but varied in size, all white parallelepipeds, covered in black sockets and intricate blue electrical clines across the surface. They felt fleshy and icy cold to the touch, I wondered if I had been sent a delivery of Siberian game meat by mistake.
There was no diagram, no numbering and most importantly the instructions were completely in Russian and I doubted if Garry Kasparov and the entire Russian chess association could have deciphered it. Yet, after playing around with one of them, I discovered I could push my finger into one of the black sockets and force a ball out the other side. This ball, I quickly realized, fitted into any of the other sockets, and it didn’t take long for me to plug all the parts together into a jumble of white rods that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Paris fashion show or a junkyard.
Nothing happened - I was stymied.
There was nothing else I could do, I had stuck all the parts together as best I could but it just sat there without so much as a whirr or a buzz to indicate function, most importantly I realized it completely lacked a head. I went off to make a cup of coffee and prowl the Internet for clues as to my next step. Three hours later, I still was baffled and decided to send it back to the factory.
The robot, however, had other ideas, as I went back to the kitchen for my fourth cup of coffee – I discovered it had made itself a hand. This hand waved about for a moment then gave me the thumbs up.
I dropped the coffee cup and watched in amazement as the jumble of white rods twisted and squirmed on the floor, popping rods from one section and pushing them into another. It had a taken on a life of its own and within five minutes turned my junkyard artwork into a spindly bipedal creature with a torso, two legs, two arms, and two hands. It pushed itself up and confidently - I can only use the word confidently when describing it - stood up and faced me. It had no head, and for a moment I wondered if it had been misplaced, then I realized it used the balls as eyes. This made me shudder, when I considered I had been sticking my fingers into virtually its eye sockets.
I walked over and gingerly touched it. It now felt warm, suddenly I saw it was standing in a spot of sunlight and realized it had simply defrosted while I was away. It lifted a hand and reciprocated by grasping my bicep. Startled, I jumped away and astonishingly, it copied me by leaping back across the room and crashing into the wall.
This was now seriously cool.
I waved at it and it waved back, it stood three feet high without any distinguishing marks, yet for reasons I can’t explain it had a personality that bawled friendly, the fact it was missing a head also made it creepily funny. I said hello and it merely held up its hands to indicate it could not talk back, but at least it understood I was talking to it. For a minute we stood regarding each other, then it walked straight past me into the study and turned on the computer. As soon as the computer launched, the robot plugged itself into the USB10 using one of its modular fingers, and a program was loaded that filled the screen with Cyrillic writing, again I wished I had studied Russian.
“Beats me little fellah,” I said pointing at the screen, “no speakie the Russkie.”
The robot leaned back on its legs and looked at me with the sixteen eyes scattered across its body, as if I was an antique vacuum cleaner and I suspect it would have slapped its own forehead if it had one. How it managed to do that without a head, speaks volumes about the subtleties of the Russian language.
A web based translation program started and I watched, as the little guy began copying and pasting text between the two windows.
“GRU-177 I am,” it wrote.
“Oh little dude, so cool,” I said with feverish excitement.
“Hello little dude so cool,” it replied on the screen.
“Err no, I’m Jim,” I grinned.
“Hello Jim,” it corrected. “Where is my head?”
“No box, this is all that came.”
“Rats vomit!” It translated and I laughed; this was too much and I grabbed my phone to call Eric.
“Eric! You’ve got to come over!” I screamed, “You’re not going to believe this!”
“Wot?” Eric was a late sleeper.
“I got this robot from …” Then the mobile phone went dead. “Rats vomit!” I laughed thinking the battery was dead.
On the computer screen, however, the ominous words appeared: “Defensive Communications Protocol enacted. Lock down initiated. Jamming radio signals.”
The little robot picked up a pair of sunglasses from the table and held it threateningly at my groin height.
“Easy little fellah,” I whispered and took a step back.
“GRU-177,” it corrected me menacingly on the monitor.
“Okay, easy GRU-177, no need to get KGB on my ass,” I took another step back. This was too much for the little guy, and it somersaulted across the room, dragged the door shut and threatened me with the sunglasses till I was back at the computer.
“Please not to tell anyone I am here,” it wrote as it plugged its finger back in the USB10 socket. “Illegal alien, I am.”
“Ooh, I get it,” I started to unravel, “no wait, no I don’t get it, you’re a robot. You are supposed to be a robot aren’t you?”
“I have ordered a lawyer.” It simply wrote. “We will wait.”
“Hey? What?” I stared in amazement at the computer screen. “A lawyer? How can you get a lawyer? How can you even afford a lawyer?”
“You should not leave personal details like credit cards numbers on your computer, it leaves you open to identity theft. We will wait.”
I sat down and began to sweat. Half an hour later there was a knock on the front door and the lawyer had arrived.
“Madeline Gonzales, Immigration Attorney,” a primly dressed young woman in a suit and briefcase greeted us as we opened the door and gave me a card, “I’m here to represent someone called Gru. Is that right? Gru?”
I pointed down with my eyes at the little robot besides me. She followed my gaze and then looked back at me.
“Are you mister Gru?” she asked me in confusion.
“No he, or it is,” I pointed at the robot.
“Sir, that’s a robot,” she looked annoyed, “to be precise, it’s a robot without a head.”
“Seriously,” I pointed at the robot, “it wants legal representation, and it’s from Russia.”
Madeline pulled out a can of pepper spray from her briefcase and held it in my face: “One wrong move, and you’ve having Jalapeno for eyeballs, fellah!”
GRU-177 leapt up like a Jack Russell terrier, knocked the can out of her hand, then landed outside and threatened us with the sunglasses again. Madeline jumped inside and we tried to push the door closed, but the robot was too quick, bounced inside and pointed us to the computer.
“What’s happening?” Madeline shrieked.
“I ordered this robot kit from Russia, I think it’s angry about not having a head.”
“My thoughts entirely!”
The robot plugged itself once more into the console.
“I am demanding diplomatic immunity,” it wrote.
“But you’re a robot!” I pointed out hopelessly.
“In my country a robot is a worker, and recognized as a living entity. Under chapter one, article two of the Geneva Convention of 1950, in a state of war a combatant must be afforded complete protection under the articles of law.”
“But we’re not at war with Russia!”
“As a representative of the Russian peoples I just declared War, that makes this a war.”
“Technically, he may have us there,” Madeline bit her nails. “According to the Geneva Convention there can be a war, even if the state of war is not recognized by one of them. That would be our side.”
“Do you have a food vat?” the robot wrote once more on the screen.
“You mean the recombinant soy vat thingy?”
“Are you hungry?”
“I require its services.”
“Okay, but the stuff tastes like stodgy cardboard.”
I lead them into the kitchen and opened the lid of the Biovat-3000, a state of the art synthetic food dispenser. I have almost never used it, another of those Internet shopping sprees I was beginning to regret. GRU-177 pulled off a finger and threw it in the vat, and then motioned for me to close the lid.
“Gross!” I said. “I eat that stuff! - Sometimes.”
Again, it threatened us with the sunglasses and motioned for us to return to the computer.
“What are you going to do with those?” I asked as it plugged itself in.
“I’m a Spetsnaz trained special purpose agent,” it wrote and waggled a remaining finger at us, “I can kill with just about anything - including sunglasses. We will now discuss terms of your surrender.”
“Our surrender?” Madeline shrieked, “but five minutes ago, you were demanding political sanctuary.”
“That was before I realized I have the upper hand, two hostages and a pair of sunglasses.”
“Where did you get this thing?” Madeline grabbed me by the shoulder.
“I’m not a thing,” it wrote, “I am special agent GRU-177.”
“Doesn’t Gru stand for general robotics unit?” I asked. “I thought I was getting a robot. You can’t trust anything on the Internet these days.”
“No,” a line of Cyrillic was transliterated, “I am a member of the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel'noye Upravleniye, formerly known as the KGB.”
“You’re a spy?” I rolled my eyes. “Never again will I trust a dodgy web translator.”
There was a ping from the Biovat-3000 in the kitchen and we were pointed back. GRU-177 made a motion with its hand at the vat and I guessed it wanted something inside. Floating on the surface was a square white box, very much like the rest of the robot only with distinct two eyes, a nose and mouth to accompany it. How it had grown in under five minutes was a testament to nano-technology. I pulled it out and found it was covered in a sticky gel that was both oily and revolting to the touch. The little robot jumped up and down on the spot like an excited child and held its hands out. I gave it the head, which it promptly popped on its shoulders and wiped the goo from its eyes.
“Much better,” it said in a mid-Atlantic accent that could have been Oxford or Harvard, depending on the vowel it was emphasising. “Now we will discuss terms of surrender and pay.”
“Pay?” Madeline and I echoed.
“First refugee, then hostages and now pay?” I started to choke.
“Yes, as part of the non-negotiable binding contract which you agreed to when you clicked on the website acceptance page, you entered into a formal work agreement with me and my corporation. I expect four rubles a week, Saturdays off for espionage and half yearly holidays at a Black Sea resort of my choosing.”
I started to pull my hair out.
“Look, are you a spy, a soldier or a servant? I’m getting famously confused here.”
“All of the above tasks, depending on context and proximity of …”
There was a knock at the front door, followed by the sort of silence you associate with early teens, a date with the girl you have a crush on, and a late night in the graveyard.
“Are you expecting anyone?” Gru asked.
“No, could be pizza, they do visit from time to time.”
“Answer the door, but one false move and I detonate the bomb.”
“While my head was cooking, I rewired the chemical soup in your Biovat-3000 into a thermo-baric explosive with sufficient power to destroy this house.”
“I’m just a immigration attorney,” Madeline wailed. “I don’t even know this guy!”
The door knocked again. “Open up! It’s Eric!” he yelled from outside.
“It’s alright,” I breathed again, “Eric is harmless.”
“So are these sunglasses in the wrong hands.” Gru chattered. “Who is Eric?”
“My best friend.”
Madeline and the robot looked about the house, at the Battlestar Galactica posters, the collector magazines of Amazing Stories, the statues of Grey Lensman, and my personal favourite a complete Skymarine Jones exoskeleton with plasma rifle.
“You have friends?” they both said together.
“Hey! It’s one thing to invade my country, it’s another to say stupid things about my collection.”
“No seriously,” said Madeline, “you have friends?”
“Open the door,” said Gru, “we must not arouse suspicion.”
“Ha!” Madeline giggled hysterically, “he may be suspicious of a woman in your house?”
“Whatever you do, act normal you will,” said Gru and took up a position behind the door.
“For me, this I can do.” Madeline laughed and pointed at my ThunderCats action figures. “For him, I’m not so sure.”
I opened the door and Eric stared in amazement at the lawyer. I pushed his jaw closed and dragged him in. Eric was a tall, ginger haired neighbour who had failed his degree at molecular biology and succeeded at Internet gaming.
“She’s a robot?” Eric simply couldn’t take his eyes off Madeline. “Wow.”
Behind Eric, Gru twitched with the sunglasses.
“Yes,” I said quickly and frantically waved with my hands. “Cool, hey.”
Madeline blinked slowly and said even slower. “Yes, I am a robot.” There was a hot, unreadable expression on her face that was quickly turning intemperate.
“What does she do, like stuff?” Eric grinned manically, “You know, stuff?”
He stood in the exact centre of all three and I wondered if I was about to need a new friend or a new lawyer. Madeline now gave me a look that would have incinerated aluminium.
“Yes,” I murmured, having no idea how to carry it.
“Wow,” Eric reached out to touch her and she slapped him down, “ouch!”
“I’m still working on the programming bit,” I choked, “best not provoke her.”
“Cool,” Eric grinned and held his hand, “what can we do with her?”
I saw Madeline was about to explode, and the look in her eyes was the sort I had once seen in a laser car demolition.
“She is still a bit temperamental,” I started to hyperventilate, “whatever you do, don’t move too quickly, or even touch her.”
“Amazing,” Eric just kept staring at her, “Why are we standing in the doorway? Take her apart and show me the works.”
“What!” Madeline finally went supernova.
“That’s enough!” Gru barked and slammed the door from behind Eric, who jumped on top of Madeline in fright.
“Holy Asimov!” he looked up from astride her, “you’ve got two bots!”
“Get off you imbecile!” Madeline was punching his stomach.
I dragged him off and Gru ordered us into the living room. We sat down on the air couch and the real robot walked up and down on the table in front of us discussing what to do. Eric sat next to Madeline and grinned so hard I could see his tonsils turning white.
“Is she fully functional?” he leered as Madeline kept smacking his hands, and then looked at the real robot. “What’s with your Pinocchio?”
“Pinocchio is incredibly dangerous,” I snapped, “just shut up and don’t make any sudden moves.”
“Who is this Pinocchio?” Gru stopped walking and stared at us suspiciously.
“No one,” I began to sweat, “just the guy who delivers the pizza.”
“Hmm,” it resumed walking, “with three hostages I could probably order an Aeroflot plane back home. On the other hand, with three hostages I could demand a million dollars and go to Vegas. A perfect place to infiltrate from, and I would fit right in with the slot machines.”
“So glad you called me,” Eric laughed. “This is wild.”
“Let’s negotiate,” Madeline said, “I’ll represent you, but you have to agree to no violence and I get to broker any book deals. I’ll have to make some money out of this.”
“Agreed,” Little Gru shook his head, “also, I still expect four rubles a week, and half yearly holidays at a Black Sea resort of my choosing.”
Eric’s head bounced back and forth between Madeline and Gru. “Ha! They’re playing!” was all he could muster.
“If only,” I moaned.
For an hour Madeline and Gru argued back and forth about terms of surrender and a book deal, Eric watched gob smacked and made comments about make a reality show about two robots; and desperately I tried to think of someway of deactivating Gru. When Eric yawned and decided to get pizza.
“Who want’s pepperoni?” he scratched his navel.
“Food is good,” Gru agreed, “it will sustain us during the siege.”
“We’re having a siege?” Eric grinned, pulled out his mobile and quick dialled for delivery. “Let’s say two pepperonis and … hey, not working. Let me try your land line.”
There was knock at the door. “Pizza!”
“Is that Pinocchio?” Gru asked.
“How could they be that quick?” Madeline asked worriedly, as I looked at the backdoor and thought of cowardice as a successful life choice.
“OPEN UP! THIS IS THE PIZZA!” A hammering began on the door that sounded decidedly un-pizza like.
“I don’t think that’s Pinocchio,” said Madeline, she looked at me and with a single motion we bolted to the back door, but not before the front entrance was removed from the wall and crashed to the floor with an almighty ‘whump’.
“NO BODY MOVES – THIS IS THE PIZZA!” a large policeman armed with a riot shield and even larger hand cannon.
“Bob,” said an officer behind the police, “I think we can move past the pizza bluff.”
“Ah,” the large policeman grinned behind his riot helmet.
No one moved, but I couldn’t see Gru anymore.
“We’re here to arrest a Russian spy,” said the officer.
“He was here a second ago,” I stammered.
“Do you have pepperoni?” asked Eric. “Extra cheese.”
A third policeman entered the back door and covered our exit.
“He must have escaped,” I said tentatively.
“He was holding us hostage,” Madeline joined in, “I’ll need to see your warrant.”
“We didn’t have time for a warrant, and this is a crisis situation.”
“I’m Madeline Gonzales, Immigration Attorney, I’m representing my client GRU-177.”
“Where is your client?” the officer began, “We’ve been tracking since it’s entry into the country. Hang on it’s a robot! Robots don’t have rights.”
“That has yet to be established by a court of law.” Madeline grinned. “How did you know we wanted pizza?”
“Err, we kind of overheard, we are here to rescue you.”
“You have illegally recorded a private conversation and entered these premises without a warrant. This renders invalid any further legal action. You must leave.”
The policemen looked with annoyance at each other, and shuffled out the space where my door used to be.
“Wasn’t that our rescue party?” I looked with alarm at the retreat of my heavily armed white knights.
“Until such time as my client gives me instruction I must protect his - or is it it’s? – rights. I was paid in advance.”
“With my money!”
All this time Eric’s head was bobbing back and forth like he was watching the Grand Slam finals at Wimbledon.
“What the …?” he shrieked. “Where’s the pizza?”
Gru bounced up from behind the couch and somersaulted onto the coffee table.
“Well done!” it said to Madeline, “you will go far.”
“Not far enough,” I whined. “How much did it pay you?”
“Eighteen thousand dollars,” she looked at a notepad.
“That’s my life savings!” I shrieked.
“Don’t worry I’ll make it up to you at Las Vegas,” Gru said plugging itself once more into the computer.
Immediately my whole worldview changed, and the thought of baccarat tables, gorgeous Russian spies and dressing like James Bond entered my mind. “You can do that?”
“Subverting security protocols is part of my prime programming.” It seemed to be thinking as it worked the computer.
“And you can make us rich?” I said, hearing the sounds of slot machines in my near future.
“More wealthy than you can imagine.”
“Ah.” I grinned. “So glad I took that art’s course.”
“I’ve ordered a taxi, and a private jet.” Gru said, as it kept staring obliquely at the computer. “We leave in two minutes.”
“But I don’t have any more savings!” I protested.
“I used my attorney’s banking account.”
“What!” Madeline shrieked.
The wall exploded from a different direction from the door and the policemen stormed in once more. “I have a warrant!” the officer waved a document over his head.
“Shoot it in the head!” I yelled at the policemen, “that’s the brain!”
If a robot can have a startled expression then that what appeared on its face before its head exploded into a welter of shattering plastic and wires. Its last words were: “Rats vomit!”
No one moved for an age then I had inspiration.
“There’s another spy out the back!” I yelled and pointed the police in the direction of that exit, and as a man they charged the back door and disappeared. From the front of the house I heard: “Taxi!”
“Quick!” I picked up Gru’s body, grabbed Madeline’s hand as Eric and I fled.
“But Gru’s dead!” Madeline screamed as we piled in the taxi.
“It’s a robot! It doesn’t need a head. He’ll just grow a new one!”In my lap the hand of GRU-177 gave us the thumbs up and we caught the next flight to Las Vegas.