SF Short – “Returns Permitted Within Thirty Days”

Copyright 2010 Russell R. James

Kirk Trask was about three seconds away from taking an ax to the goddamn machine.

His wife, Alexis, had talked him into the stupid idea in the first place.  He hadn’t wanted a mandroid around the house, but she was adamant about getting one, nagging about how it would cook and clean and take care of the yard.  Mandroids were even smart enough now to do the shopping.  The refrigerator and pantry downloaded what was missing and the mandroid picked it up at Sullivan’s down the street.  It would be the perfect servant.

Having a mandroid would not be unusual.  It seemed like most of the people in the city had one.  They were so well designed that only the barcode on the back of their necks identified them as non-human.  Emotional subroutines were so refined, they even acted human.  Animatrix, the company that created and sold them, was one of the largest corporations in the country.  “Going ‘droid” was like buying the latest computer. Animatrix claimed one “completed” your life.

After the first month as an owner, Kirk had to heartily disagree.  His morning workout delivered the latest reminder of what a mess the mandroid could make of the simplest thing.  After Kirk’s five mile run, his inner thighs felt like they had been polished with 40 grit sandpaper.  He didn’t know what the hell Bruce, the world’s stupidest robot, used for fabric softener in his running shorts, but Kirk was sure the idiot had switched it with starch.  He wadded up his shorts with his muscle shirt and tossed them in the corner. That would give the moron-droid something to clean up today.

In the shower, Kirk took extra care with the irritated spot on his legs.  He gave the blistered spot two applications of moisturizer, using the same expensive stuff Alexis used on her deepening crow’s feet.  She’d scream, but what the hell.  His cash paid for the crap.

He checked his pecs in the mirror as he toweled off.  Definition was off just a bit.  He flexed.  Tomorrow’s workout would be dedicated to the torso.  No way these babies were getting soft.  He ran the towel across his blonde flattop and checked his square jaw in the mirror.  He smiled.  He left the bathroom wrapped in a white towel and collided with his wife as she rushed down the hallway.

“Where the hell are you going in such a damn hurry at8:00 AM?” he snapped.

Alexis wore a soft blue jogging suit with a stripe of sequins down each arm.  Her long black hair was up in a ponytail, letting her huge gold hoop earrings glitter in the morning sunlight.  Thick black mascara swept her eyelashes up nearly to her arched brows.  The rest of her makeup gave her face a plastic sheen.

“Bruce’s driving me to the Club this morning.” She had sold Kirk the mandroid concept partly on the machine’s chauffeur programming.  Somehow Alexis was the only one to avail herself of that skill.

“At this hour?” Kirk said.  The idea of her going to the Club while he went to work got under his skin like a guinea worm.

“Steph, Laura, Trish and I have a court reserved,” she said and flashed the tennis bag on her shoulder at him.

Kirk knew the only reservation the four of them had was at the club bar, which opened at the obscenely early hour of9:00 AM.  She sure as hell wasn’t going to risk sweating off that ten pound facial paint job.

“Bruce will do all the shopping while we play and pick me up on the way home.”  She finished the sentence as if she’d announced a cure for cancer.  The worm under Kirk’s skin burrowed a little deeper.

They entered the kitchen together.  Kirk figured if she was hijacking Bruce this morning he’d better get breakfast out of the damn mandroid first.  Otherwise he’d be pouring his own cereal.  Bruce stood over the laserwave range in the Trask’s ultra-modern black kitchen scrambling eggs.

Kirk wondered if it was the look of the mandroid that first made him dislike it.  Bruce was Kirk’s height, but rail thin down to the dainty fingers that snapped another egg into the steaming frying pan.  Like other mandroids, and against the prognostications of futurists, Bruce wore no uniform.  He came from the factory with a set of clothes he rotated through on some pre-coded schedule.  Bruce’s programming favored khakis and button down short sleeve shirts.  Add that to Bruce’s rather delicate facial features and his close trimmed brown hair, and it all added up to “sissy” in Kirk’s mind.  The mandroid reminded Kirk of every kid he’d pummeled from grade school through senior high.

“Good morning, Kirk, Alexis,” Bruce chirped with a smile.  “Breakfast in a jiff.  Sit right down.”

Kirk tightened the towel around his waist and sat down.  Alexis tossed her tennis bag to the floor as she took her seat.  The racquet handle hit the wall with a thud and left a wide black smudge.

“Oh, dear,” Bruce said, eyeing the mark.  “That won’t scrub off easily.” He let out a small sigh.

“Are those eggs ready?” Kirk said.  “Some of us,” he shot a glance at Alexis, “need to get to work.”

“Right up!” Bruce said, putting on a cheerier face.  He split the scrambled eggs into two neat portions with a figure eight flourish of the spatula and then flipped each portion onto a separate plate.  Two pieces of toast popped out of the toaster on cue and Bruce caught them in mid-flight.  He sliced them into triangles with a paring knife and slid two on each plate.  He delivered the plates dead center on the linen placemat before each of the Trasks.

Kirk ladled a spoonful of eggs into his maw.  His face screwed up in disgust.

“What the hell is in this?” he said, affording his wife a full view of the half-chewed food in his mouth.

“A hint of salsa,” Bruce said.  “You mentioned you liked Mexican food…”

“For dinner!”  Kirk roared, spitting the eggs back onto his plate.  “No one in their right mind eats that shit in the morning.”

Alexis held up a piece of toast like it was an auction bidding paddle.

“Bruce, where’s the butter?”

“We’re out, Alexis,” Bruce said.  “You used the end of it last night on yourmidnightpopcorn.”

She dropped the toast in her eggs.

“Well, without butter …” she said.  “Really, Bruce, you should have run out for some last night.”  She checked her diamond watch.

“Oh, no!  Look at the time.  We’re going to be late.  Bruce, get the car.  I’ll meet you out front.”  Alexis bolted through the door without waiting for an answer.

Bruce shot a dejected look at the breakfast wreckage on the table.

“I’ll get that when I return,” he said.  He gave his hands a quick rinse in the sink and went through the door to the garage.

Kirk perused the salsa and saliva-tainted food on his plate, and then looked at his wife’s empty chair.

“Isn’t this a glorious damn morning?” he said.  He kicked back his chair as he stood and tightened the towel around his waist.  The mandroid was more trouble than it was worth.  Canned dog food was better than most of its meals.  It cost a fortune.  Kirk’s inner thighs burned like a seared steak and his wife had become, though he never thought it possible, an even more useless bitch.  Something was going to have to give.


Kirk was at his desk when his Mr. Winters, the firm’s owner, darkened his doorway.  Mr. Winters was short and round as a ball.  For some reason he favored double breasted suits which only made him look wider.  He didn’t have a hair on his head but tried to make up for it with a pair of gray bushy eyebrows that resembled caterpillars on steroids.  He was past 65, which made Kirk loathe him even more.  Old geezers needed to step aside and make way for someone who really knew how to run a business. 

“Kirk,” Mr. Winters said.  “Got a minute?”

“Sure, Mr. Winters,” Kirk said with a physically painful fake smile.

Mr. Winters closed the door behind him.

“Kirk, your numbers are behind some of the team.”  He paused.  “Well, let’s be honest.  You’re dead last.”

You know nothing sack of… Kirk thought.  His blood started to boil but he forced his smile a little wider to cover it.

“Just a bit of a slump, sir.”

“No, it’s more than that,” Mr. Winters said.  “There are style issues that irritate many clients and you don’t get along well with the team.  I’ve tried every incentive I can think of to motivate you.  So here’s my last shot.”

Last shot?  Kirk wanted to reach up and rip the man’s wooly eyebrows off his stupid face.

“I’m going to move you to straight commission at 15%,” he said.  “You sell, you eat.  Sell a lot, you can eat lobster.”

Kirk did the math.  This was going to be a major pay cut.

“Now the only way you’ll sell more is to get a better knowledge of our products and to sell them the right way.”  Mr. Winters pointed to the thin black binder on the corner of Kirk’s desk.  In gold letters on the outside it said:


“This is your last chance to get with the program,” Mr. Winters warned.  “Make the best of it.”

When Winters turned to leave, Kirk had to restrain himself from hurling the Winters’ Way binder at the back of the old coot’s head.  His office door shut and he switched his witless grin off.

How the hell was he going to make ends meet on half his salary?  Alexis could burn through that in a week without trying.  And now, thanks to her, he had a damned mandroid lease to pay each month.  A mental image of Bruce appeared and the thought of the little wuss made his pulse race even faster.

He’d cut that expense and fast.  Bruce had a tune up appointment tomorrow morning, the one month check, the mandroid equivalent of a trip to the vet.  Well, Bruce wasn’t coming back from the vet.  Kirk would just turn him in and break the lease.  Bruce had a 30 day warrantee, so Kirk could walk away a free man and Alexis would have to get off her ever-widening ass and do some work for a change.

The idea of Bruce lying on a scrap heap somewhere made Kirk feel downright satisfied.  Saturday was going to be a wonderful day.


Kirk let Bruce drive them to the Animatrix store the next morning.  He wanted to be chauffeured at least once before the mandroid went on permanent hiatus.  Plus there was some delicious irony in the mandroid driving itself to its own doom.  The Trasks sat in the back seat.

The first half of the “Adios Bruce” conversation with Alexis last night went better than Kirk expected.  Seemed she had her own list of complaints about the mandroid.  It was late to pick her up a lot, she hated its cooking and it had ruined a few blouses in the wash.  She was open to making a change.

Then came the battle.  Alexis thought they would trade him in for a different model.  Kirk had to admit to his impending pay cut, though he my have implied that everyone in the office had the same financial woe.  Alexis only took a second to decide.  Given the choice of doing without Bruce or doing without the Club membership, Bruce was a distant second.

Bruce parked the big sedan near the door of the Animatrix store.  The building was a standard big box, cold and gray outside and devoid of any opening except the double glass doors at the central entrance.  A big red Animatrix logo covered the upper right hand corner of the building.  The lot was nearly empty this morning.

“Does it know what we’re doing?” whispered Alexis.

“It wouldn’t matter if it did,” Kirk muttered back.  “It doesn’t have emotions, just the appearance of emotions.  It’s a machine.  It’s a refrigerator.  It does what we tell it to.”

Bruce looked up into the rearview mirror.  His eyes met the two conspiratorial sets in the back seat.  For a fleeting moment, there was a hint of sadness in Bruce’s eyes.  Then he painted on the usual exuberance.

“All out for Animatrix,” he said.   He rushed around and opened the door for his owners.  Heading for the front door, Bruce took an almost jaunty lead.

The reception area was sterile white from top to bottom and lit with the harshness of a night baseball game.  A long Formica counter split the reception area from the hallway behind it.  There was a veterinarian, antiseptic smell to the air, no doubt some chemical used to maintain the mandroids.  At the counter stood a perky young woman in a blue jumpsuit.  The suit had a silver “Tara” nametag and a red Animatrix logo.  She smiled and greeted them with a flip of her short blonde hair.

“You must be the Trasks, with Bruce,” she sang.

“I called yesterday and talked with Mr. Reed,” Kirk said, hoping to obliquely refer to his plan to ditch the ‘droid.

“Of course,”Tarasaid.  She opened a door in the reception counter.  “Come right in.”

She led them to two doors in the hallway.  Kirk kept staring at the woman, curious if her hair covered a barcode on the back of her neck. Taraopened the first door and nodded Bruce inside.  He nodded back and entered, closing the door behind him.

“Mr. Reed will meet you here in a minute,” she said, ushering the two into the next room.  “Let me say how sorry everyone here is that this match didn’t work out for you.  It’s not as uncommon as you might think.  Don’t feel like it’s your fault.”

Kirk felt a flash of antagonism towards this cheerful pixie.  Of course it wasn’t his fault.  The damn mandroid wasn’t worth the carbon they burned to create it.  That was the problem.

Taraclosed the door behind them.  The small room was empty and lit by second rate fluorescent lighting that made even Alexis’ layers of makeup look pale.  The walls and floors were grey concrete.  The wall adjoining the room Bruce entered had a large glass window in it.  That room was dark.

“I could at least use a chair,” Alexis whined.  “What kind of treatment is this?”

“For what we pay each month…” Kirk said.

The light in the next room snapped on.  The brighter, softer light streamed in through the window.  The other room had carpet and two couches facing a coffee table.  The walls were pale blue and potted palms filled the far corners.  Bruce sat on one of the couches.  A tall man in a grey suit with a silver beard walked over and sat on the other couch.  His short hair exposed the barcode on his neck.  He started talking to Bruce. 

“You are just sitting here in the dark?”  the man said.

“I can see just as well either way, Mr. Reed,” Bruce answered.

“Oh, yes,” Reed said.  “You have the infrared upgrade.  That is so handy.”

“It didn’t seem to help me see this situation coming, though.” Bruce’s face drooped like wilted lettuce.

“Yes,” Mr. Reed said.  “The word is this match didn’t work out too well.”

“What a deal,” Kirk whispered.  “The company’s doing the dirty work, and what’s even funnier, they sent another mandroid to do it.”

“What was the problem with the Trasks?” Mr. Reed said.

“The problem with us?” Alexis said.  “What does he mean?”

“Where to start…” Bruce sighed.  “What wasn’t wrong?  Kirk was overbearing and self-absorbed.  He had problems at his job with coworkers.  Alexis was demanding and shallow.  Neither of them appreciated anything I did.”

“We’re not going to listen to this talking doll complain,” Kirk said.  He pulled Alexis to the door and realized there was no knob.

“What the hell?” he yelled. Kirk beat the door with his fists. “Hey, someone open the damn door.”

The mandroids next door ignored the muffled noise.

“You didn’t have trouble taking care of them, did you?” Reed asked Bruce.

“Oh, no,” Bruce said.  He used his fingers to enumerate his accomplishments.  “I fed them twice a day.  I cleaned their clothes and their rooms.  I even took Alexis out to the park or a club to exercise and play.  But all she did was find other humans and lay around.  The whole experience wasn’t what I thought it would be.”

Mr. Reed nodded in understanding.

“And then the two of them fought all the time,” Bruce said.  “Over nothing.  They were just not good together.  They would both bebetter off being the only humans in the house.”

“Did they adapt all right?” Mr. Reed asked.  “The memory wipes worked?”

“Oh absolutely,” Bruce said.  “They were fully convinced of their roles.  They thought my house was theirs and that they had lived there for years.  They believed I belonged to them and that the world they live in was their creation, not ours.”

“The good news,” Mr. Reed said, “is that you were still within your 30 day warrantee period.”

He pressed a button on the table and the wall on the far side of the room slid open, revealing an enormous window.  On the other side, stacks of chrome cages filled a room as large as an airplane hangar.  Each cage had one captive.  Some were men, some women.  All wore the same tan scrubs.  As soon as they realized the window was open, a wave of wailing burst from the pens.  People leapt to their feet and rattled their cage doors.

“Get me out of here!”

“Pick me, pick me!”

“Help me!   Give me a chance!”

“Take a look,” Mr. Reed said.  “We have a great selection to choose from.  Don’t let one bad experience turn you off.”

Bruce looked down at the carpet.

“No,” he said.  “I think I’m just not ready for pets.”

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