The ZRK-200, dubbed Zirk for sale in the western market, was, in every way, the perfect home and office assistant. Businesses and very wealthy individuals enjoyed their services, always offered without complaint or expectation of anything (save perhaps annual maintenance by a friendly Zirk Corp technician—satisfaction guaranteed).
What couldn't be guaranteed was the treatment of the ZRK-200s. Between their limited sense of sentience and deeply encoded compliance with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, it was very easy for many to treat the ZRKs precisely as what they were: robots. No more, possibly less.
That's not to say, though, that some were not treated well. More than a fair number were treated, from a human standpoint, very well. This is the story of one such robot.
• • •
"Miss St James."
The "Miss St James" in question, first name Rosalie, shifted her attention from her own reflection to that of the source of the voice, the six feet tall, five-hundred pound, titanium alloy and microchip robot standing reservedly in the doorway of her bedroom. "Yeah, Zirk?"
"You have visitors in the lobby," Zirk replied, his voice tinny and clearly artificial. "They wish to speak to you on the intercom."
Rosalie quirked a blonde eyebrow, laid aside the earrings she'd been considering and crossed the room to stand at the intercom panel by the door. "Yeah, this is Rosalie," she said, pressing the green "talk" button.
"'Bout time you answered!" joked the disembodied voice on the other end of the line.
"Sonja?" Recognition colored Rosalie's voice.
"Hi, Rosie!" three voices, two female and one male, chorused through the hiss and crackle of the intercom.
"We can't get in," Sonja said. "The doorman won't let us in without your okay—"
"Let us in, Rosie!" the male voice cut in teasingly.
"Alright, keep your pants on," Rosalie replied with a laugh. "I'll be down in a few minutes." She pressed the talk button again, quieting the intercom, muttered a vague curse for her letting the time get away from her, picked up a pair of pumps and started toward the living room at the front of the apartment. "Hey, Zirk?"
Zirk peered around the corner, the decidedly human gesture looking almost comical coming from a robot. "Yes, Miss St James?"
"I've got to go clear my friends and talk with the doorman," Rosalie said, leaning against the wall to pull on her shoes. "You put the invitation I made for tonight on Facebook, right?"
"'Engagement party for John Elbert and Lisa Fontaine,'" Zirk recited after a brief consultation with his memory files. "Held at this address on today's date at six-thirty PM, present invitation on arrival—posted on May 17, 2024, at 7:47."
"Great," Rosalie replied. "So I'm going to down and let those guys in and let the doorman know to clear anybody with the invite—while I'm doing that, could you do me a huge favor and get some music started, set up the little minibar on the counter by the kitchen and pull out the hors d'oeuvres please?"
"All of Miss St James' usuals?" Zirk asked.
"Drinks, jams, all the usual suspects," she confirmed. "Thank you, Zirk—oh, and could you do me one other favor?"
"Yes, Miss St James?" he replied.
"Rosie, please," she said, the words spoken as though they were a common refrain.
Although Zirk had no facial expressions (apart from default), a smile was implied when he spoke. "I'll consider it, Miss St James."
Rosalie rolled her eyes good naturedly as she stepped out of the apartment. Zirk had always been faithful about following her other directions, so she was willing to let the last name / first name thing slide for the time being.
By the time Rosalie returned, accompanied by a handful of coworkers and friends, Zirk had nearly completed all of his requested tasks. Specifically, he was setting out the last of the minibar's "usual suspects." "Zirk, that's a huge help—thank you," she said sincerely.
"You're welcome, Miss St James," he replied before offering a slight bow of acknowledgement (nodding was quite impossible without joints in one's neck) and a "good evening" to Rosalie's guests before making a discrete exit to the kitchen.
As soon as it felt as though he was out of earshot, Rosalie's friends all but swarmed her clamoring with questions and comments. "You have one of the ZRK-200s?" one of her coworkers asked, no small measure of surprise in his voice.
"I prefer to think I employ Zirk," Rosalie replied, waving slightly to a new group of people coming into the apartment. "If I let him go, I'm sure he could find work anywhere else in the city."
"Why would you?" another asked, sounding quite jealous. "You have a live-in maid!"
"He's a hell of a lot more than a maid," Rosalie corrected, her voice revealing nothing. "He's one of my closest friends, truth be told."
"I thought ZRKs didn't have the self-awareness to make friends," a third person asked, arching an eyebrow.
"They can develop it under the right circumstances—proper interaction with humans," she explained before turning her attention to the apartment's newest arrivals, coincidentally (and thankfully, though she'd never say it out loud) the couple for whom the party was being held.
John and Lisa's arrival distracted the partygoers from Zirk's presence—for the most part. As Zirk wove through the crowd with offers of refilled drinks, disposed glasses and various other amenities, whispered conversations about him followed. If Zirk heard them, he gave no indication.
"He's damn near as good a host as you are, Rosie," Darien, one of Rosalie's college friends, complimented, turning his attention to her.
"He's experienced," Rosalie replied between sips of her drink, "but I'm sure he'll be pleased to know you feel that way."
"Not to change the subject," another college friend, Petra, commented as she considered a painting hanging over the sofa, "but this is quite the lovely painting, Rosie." Attention shifted briefly to the painting, which showed a young girl standing in a grassy field.
"Thank you," Rosalie replied. "I'm very fond on that painting."
"The colors and brush strokes are beautiful," Petra added, leaning closer to inspect it. "Is it a van Gogh?"
"Oh, no—Zirk painted that."
Several pairs of eyes focused on her, all in surprise. The unspoken question—"The robot paints?"—was extremely obvious. "I suggested Zirk get a hobby and he ended up taking up art—painting, obviously."
"A painting robot," Petra repeated, turning fully away from the painting. "Fascinating. How does—"
"Zirk!" Rosalie called across the apartment, catching his eye. "Come here!" She waited until Zirk made his way to the group, pointedly ignoring the discomfort some of her friends appeared to display being in close interaction with him. "Petra was asking about your paintings."
"This is one of my earlier paintings," Zirk commented minimally.
"The style looks like van Gogh," Petra repeated, her eyes shifting between the painting and the robot. "Was that… intentional?"
"I admire van Gogh, and this was my attempt at emulation of his style," Zirk replied.
Rosalie was about to remark how imitation and flattery tended to go hand in hand when the apartment door opened behind her and a familiar, masculine voice jovially announced, "Hope you guys didn't start the party without me!"
Rosalie's face went from one of pleasantry and contentment to the same expression she would have if ice water were dumped down her back. She started to excuse herself and make a quick, quiet exit when a hand came down on her shoulder. "Hey, Rosie!" the voice said. Her mouth twitched slightly before shaping itself into a pleasant smile and turning. The person that accompanied the voice was of average height and build, fairly attractive, with shaggy dark hair and light brown eyes and a highly charismatic smile. "Hello, Tyler," she said warmly.
"Hey, beautiful," he greeted, leaning down to kiss Rosalie's cheek (and missing or ignoring the flicker of irritation that passed across her face in response). "I brought you something." He held out a bottle of wine with a ribbon tied around its neck.
"Thank you, Tyler," Rosalie said, accepting the bottle and looking it over. "I'm going to go put this with the other drinks in the kitchen, so why don't you uh… Just go ahead and socialize? I think you know everyone here." She didn't stay to hear his reply or the start of his socialization, but quietly and quickly made her way to the kitchen.
Zirk turned to face Rosalie as she stepped into the kitchen, his hands pausing in their rearrangement of the hors d'oeuvres. "Did you need something, Miss St James?"
Rosalie stepped closer to Zirk, holding out the wine bottle. "I don't care how you do it, but get rid of this," she said shortly.
Zirk held up the bottle, as if analyzing it, and set it on the counter next to the sink. " Miss St James doesn't want her gift?" he asked.
"I hate red wine," she replied simply, opening a cabinet and pulling out a pile of white napkins to set in the middle of the serving platter with which Zirk was working. "You'd think he'd remember that I hate red wine but no, the complete dumbass forgets—"
"Begging Miss St James' pardon?" Zirk cut in.
"Tyler—" She deposited the napkins on the tray—"Lewis."
"Might I ask about Miss St James' relationship with Mr. Lewis?" Zirk question, straightening the stack of napkins.
"He's my ex boyfriend," she replied vaguely, pulling an ice cube tray out of the freezer. "We were dating for a while, and when he started at the firm, I broke it off—"
"Seems a petty reason to terminate a relationship," he observed.
"Well, I don't believe in dating coworkers—I've seen it get really ugly and it's something I'd prefer to avoid if I can help it," she elaborated. "Only he didn't get the memo. Or refuses to—why else would he show up?" She dumped the ice cubes into a serving bucket and pointed a knowing finger at her companion. "See Zirk, this is why you un-friend exes on Facebook."
Zirk paused, his demeanor, something in which Rosalie was well versed, becoming thoughtful. "If I ever acquire an ex-lover, I'll bear that in mind, Miss St James."
Rosalie smiled slightly. "That's what I like about you, Zirk." She patted the side of his head affectionately. "You've got a great sense of humor in those microchips."
"Thank you, Miss St James," Zirk replied, taking up the tray. "Are you in need of anything else?"
"Why don't you try mingling with everyone?" Rosalie suggested, picking up the ice bucket. Her next words were quieter: "I know people are a little worried about your Three Laws coding, but this could be your chance to prove 'em wrong, you know?"
"I don't want to make your guests uncomfortable," Zirk protested.
"You won't," she promised, "and if they have a problem, we're twenty-somethings and we can handle it like adults. Just give it a shot, please?"
"If Miss St James wishes it," Zirk conceded.
Rosalie smiled and patted him and the shoulder before turning to head back into the fray. Zirk followed, noting with interest that she stayed on the opposite side of the room from Tyler. While curious, mostly about the circumstances surrounding Miss St James and Mr. Lewis' relationship ending that prompted this animosity, Zirk elected to not question this.
Apart from Tyler Lewis' surprise arrival, the get-together went fairly well. Rosalie mingled and socialized (carefully avoiding the cluster of people made up of Tyler and a few other young males—"Company bowling league," she explained, sotto voce, to Zirk at some point during the night), and Zirk followed suit, answering questions that would might have been downright nosy if asked of a human with dignity and grace, and the engaged couple were honored—because that was what it was about, after all.
Before long, the evening had drawn to a close and most everyone had gone home. Rosalie was packing up the bottles and tossing out soggy napkins while Zirk tended to dishes in the kitchen; the only lingering guest was Tyler, who was inspecting another one of Zirk's paintings hanging on the wall by the kitchen. "So your little buddy is a painter?" he asked suddenly.
"Zirk paints, yeah," Rosalie replied, not looking up from the trash in her hands.
"You talk about him like he's human," Tyler pointed out, turning his attention from the painting to Rosalie.
"He's human to me," she said matter of factly, looking up.
"Is he better than a human though?" Tyler questioned.
"What do you mean, 'better?'" Rosalie repeated.
"You know—is he a better boyfriend?" Tyler said, joining Rosalie at the counter.
"I wouldn't know," she said coldly. "Zirk and I are friends—and that's it."
"Oh, come on, Miss 'Serial Monogamist,'" Tyler said, rolling his eyes. "He doesn't have a vibrating setting? Nothing fun like that?"
"Don't you dare talk about him like that," she snapped. "You may think of him as, as—"
"An overgrown smartphone?" Tyler supplied.
Rosalie closed her eyes, channeling all of her inner strength into not striking him where he stood. "That may be what you see, but I see a very good friend, one whom I will thank you to not insult."
"Why not?" Tyler asked, stepping closer. "What's he got, Rosie?"
"Get out of my apartment," she commanded, lifting her chin.
"Oh, am I interrupting something important?" Tyler asked mockingly. "Why do you want me to leave, Rosie?"
A metal hand clamped down on Tyler's shoulder. "Because Miss St James asked you to."
Tyler turned, wrenching his shoulder free from Zirk's grip. "That's cute," he said. "Training your robot to be your bodyguard—"
"I act of my own accord," Zirk said. Even without the inflection of human speech, his voice was ice cold, and when he reached out to take Tyler's shoulder again, it was with a slightly tighter grip. "And if you don't leave, I won't be held accountable for my actions."
"You're bluffing," Tyler said, his confidence faltering when he felt Zirk's grip.
"Are you prepared to take that chance, Mr. Lewis?" Zirk asked.
As it was, Tyler wasn't prepared to take that chance. After fixing both Rosalie and Zirk with a cold glare and muttering words that would have peeled paint off a wall, he left, slamming the door—a little louder than necessary—in his wake. Once he was gone, Rosalie turned to Zirk. "Thank you," she said sincerely.
"Think nothing of it, Miss St James," Zirk replied.
"Nice bluff," she complimented.
"He didn't appear to be capable of causing harm when put on the spot," Zirk observed. "The expression is… 'all bark and no bite,' yes?"
"Yeah," Rosalie confirmed. "You're just lucky he wasn't bark and bite." She paused slightly. "I'm sorry you had to deal with that."
"Don't worry about it, Miss St James," Zirk dismissed. "I'm glad to work with a human as pleasant as you, rather than someone like Mr. Lewis."
"Would you ever trade in being sentient? Just to not have to deal with the bullshit?" Rosalie asked.
"No," he replied instantly. "Self-awareness has its flaws and problems, but I much enjoy them, given their role in the human experience. Wouldn't you agree, Rosie?"
She smiled slightly. Three years and finally he got it. "Yeah."