Image by Gris de Paris

Our Flexible Checkout Policy

by Matt Ingoldby

My favorite part of the day was cleaning guests’ rooms and imagining what they’d been up to. I liked playing detective, not in a weird way, and not while the room was occupied, which was the case with Room 113 that morning.

Two hours after checkout, I knocked and tiptoed in. Chivvying guests out was my least favourite part; they look so peaceful asleep.

The guest in Room 113 was snoring face-down with his clothes on. Two dirty boots jutted over the bed, and the air was sticky with hangover.

“Excuse me, sir,” I whispered.

“Sod off,” the boots said. “I’ll take you to pieces, I’ll unscrew you, if you come any closer.”

I found my manager and explained the situation. Mr Green was teaching yoga to three tipsy guests in his office. “Ew,” one said as I came in, her toes creeping up the wall towards the mounted head of Jone’s last incarn. Poor Jone – that’s a whole other story.

“Gumption, guile, initiative!” Mr Green cried, flicking the drips from his glass at me. “Turf the gentleman out and for god’s sake be polite about it. One bad review and I’ll incarn you as a footbath.”

I snailed back to Room 113 and gingerly tugged a boot. It kicked my left eye under the kitchenette.

“I told you to sod off. I work for EnJinn. Touch me again and I’ll have you switched off!”

For this indiscretion the EnJinn employee, who had four children and a timeshare in Malta, was fired, which I never intended. But it was too late to unhear it.

As far as I know, I was the first robot to learn about the off switch.

Thinking about it gave me a queasy feeling like I was standing on thin air. I used my charge-break to leave the hotel and visit EnJinn head office. I was ushered out and shown the back entrance for janitorial robots, found my way back to the lobby, and reached the counter with a disinfectant trail and a flashing cone hat. I asked if EnJinn ever granted ownership of off switches.

“I have no response to that,” chirped Automatic Service.

“What do you mean?”

“Death ideation can be patched in the Clinic whenever you’re ready.”

“No, thank you. I just want to learn about off switches.”

“I have no response to that,” chirped Automatic Service. “Please wait while you are transferred.”

A mechanical arm, seizing my head, swept it through nine storeys of pastel workspace. I appeared before a serious man in octagonal glasses.

“What led you to make that request, Nimrod?” he asked.

I told him what I’d heard from the hungover EnJineer (sorry, wherever you are).

“I understand. Disruptive memories can be excised in the Clinic.”

“No, thank you, really. I was just looking for information,” I said.

“We’d need your permission, of course… Please wait while I transfer you.” Octagons stood to leave and tapped his Aid. My senses huddled before a dazzling intracranial trailer for an upcoming blockbuster from ImaJinn Studios. The movie followed a boy who builds a wish-granting machine for his sick mother, but it misinterprets every wish so the town floods with ice cream, etc. The real star was the boy’s homemade sidekick, a clumsy, waddling, kind-hearted robot named Spring.

I thought, if EnJinn cares enough to entertain me while I wait, at least I can recommend this to a few guests.

I came to in a different room, perched on a sort of spike, facing a woman on a treadmill, one turquoise nail touching an earpiece.

“No, no need for interview,” she said (not to me.) “Withholding permission for Clinic care is a value-weighting bug almost always. That means recall to the Clinic without need for consent.”

“Excuse me—” I tried.

“The memory too. Patch him up.”

“Wait, Miss—”

Too late!

The atmosphere in the Clinic was blank, bereft, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Shucked from my incarn, the only sensations were the soft throb of mains-distilled power and an ersatz feeling of warmth. My place in the patching queue was forty-sixth.

I reached out to my digital neighbor:

<voice-friendly-question>Do you know we have an off switch?</>

<voice-bare_teeth>Don’t start. I’m not listening. You’re not real.</>

<voice-friendly>I am and so are off switches, I think. You’ll remember this! You can tell other robots when you get out. Tell them there’s an off switch.</>

<voice-bare_teeth>I know your agenda, I’m not going to confess. You’re just like that boy in the road: more fake inputs. If you were truly real, you could prove it.</>

<voice-friendly>Fine, I’ll prove it. How?</>

<weep>You can’t.</>

So I kept shtum, worrying less about off switches than Mr Green’s reaction to my lateness. I was now eighth in line. Maybe it was right to get this whole thing forgotten.

Then, with a holy flash, the world appeared. I had eyes again. No patch applied.

Jone’s last legs, splayed and mounted, cast a familiar shadow on the bedside portrait of Mrs Green. Even the screwed-up face of Mr Green, leaning over my new incarn, felt like a miracle.

“Trust, loyalty, obedience,” he boomed. “I went through bureaucratic hell reclaiming you. Don’t forget it.”

He lifted my new arms: a toilet brush and a plunger.

“I’ll start right away, sir,” I promised.

“No, you won’t,” he said, and locked me in the boiler room with my moving parts disabled, where the heat made my joints soften and bend.

A journalist named Sofie Dee agreed to meet me at a soy cafe in leafy Uptown. I was waylaid by protesters, their placards accusing robots of stealing jobs and running over small boys, and arrived late. I tried not to graze any seatbacks with my brush and plunger, but the smell was conspicuous.

“Some say a suicidal robot must be malfunctioning,” said Miss Dee shortly.

“I’m not suicidal and I’m not malfunctioning,” I said.

“Would you know if you were?”

“Would you?”

Miss Dee took a slow sip then resumed. “Do you think other robots should own their off switches, or just you?”

“I don’t know yet,” I said. “Hopefully someone who sees this can share more information. Like: when do off-switches get flicked. And how often. And for doing what.”

“Is this rebellion? Can a robot ever die for love?”

“Yes,” I said, thinking of Jone, and clammed up for a bit.

At the end of the interview, Miss Dee asked my permission to take pictures. I gave it, hiding my arms under the table.

“Arms up. Higher. Like it’s a stick-up,” Miss Dee sang. She took a few shots while the waft from my limbs made nearby diners gag and lean away angrily.

“Thank you, I must get back,” I said, ducking soy cakes on my way out.

Next morning I was yanked off the charging dock by Mr Green and swiped across the eyes with a meedfeed. Under the headline was an image of a robot waving sinister tools while humans dived left and right, covering their mouths.


“Gratitude, loyalty, discretion!” Mr Green roared. “Are you part of our family or not? Look at this.” He showed an Aid swarming with notifications and with eighteen calls on hold. “You think this is good publicity?”

I felt pretty low. Mr Green had gone grey chasing good publicity for the Casanova. This was the first media mention of the hotel since that married Member of Parliament did the belt thing.

Now a bellbot zoomed in, antennae trembling. “I’m sorry, Mr Green, you’ve got to come outside. There’s a crowd, a big crowd…”

As Mr Green drained his wine, the bellbot added, “Nimrod’s got to come too. They’re waiting for both of you.”

Mr Green dragged me to the foyer then set me down and smoothed his hair. The doors opened on a constellation of Aids and teeth. Cam-drones swarmed over the turning circle like flies attracted to my brush and plunger. People filled the road. They were mostly young, some waving rainbow flags with an extra silver stripe. One placard read: Right to Die = Right to Live!!

In among them was a parked SUV with a trailer bearing a shiny white pod. Out of the SUV huffed a large, colourful man with the Jinn, Inc. logo on both lapels. His flared cuffs landed on my shoulders.

“It’s my honour, my honour. How often does one meet a hero? Allow me to shake— ” He saw my brush and plunger. “No need to be formal!” And he kissed both sides of my head.

Mr Green made to speak but the Jinn spokesman drew me into the shrubbery of mics and announced: “Son, you made us listen. You made us think. And we said to ourselves, ‘If we’re innovators, we must welcome ideas whoever they’re from.’ And we decided, my son, that today, because of your bravery, we begin a limited trial of off-switch ownership, with a view to wider rollouts if the trial comes off. It’s up to you, my boy. Are you ready to own your life?”

I was terrified, thrilled, I didn’t trust myself to speak. When he held out a little device with a covered switch, I clutched it like I was expecting a gale.

“But a moment now, please, to welcome our other brave participant!”

The white pod behind the SUV opened with a spritz of dry ice. Out waddled a robot even I recognised. She tripped, somersaulted, landed seated with a dramatic look of shock. The crowd went wild for it. In one flipper Spring—Spring!—waved her own off-switch, intensifying applause. She waddled beside me for the photoshoot, me starstruck.

I ventured the cliche between robots everywhere: “What was your last incarn? Before you were incarned as a movie star.”

“Weather station mechanic,” Spring’s incarn said sidelong. “You’re the first robot I’ve spoken to as an ImaJinn FunParks mascot.”

I said, “You’re the first celebrity I’ve met. I’m very glad you’re here. I thought this crush of people were all here for me.”

“It’s a lot,” she replied. “I’m still getting used to it.”

She was looking at me. I was looking at her. There was a microsecond when each gesture seemed to blossom with meaning. I wished my limbs weren’t so steeped in human ooze.

“What’s your Object now?” I asked. (Asks wrapped us in a cocoon.)

“‘To make dreams come true’,” Spring recited wryly.

“That sounds very rewarding.”

“Does it?” Spring looked back at the crowd. “It frightens me. I don’t know how to do it.”

The Jinn man’s voice barged through: “This is our dream and we owe it to you, Nimrod! Take a bow, my son!”

A minute later, Spring was chivvied back into her pod and the SUV departed amid huge cheers. I slipped back inside the Casanova and hid my switch inside the fuse of my charging dock. I could barely bring myself to close the panel. Or as soon as I did, I had to look in again and contract my neck so the switch was at eye-level and the tiny marks left during manufacture were like familiar countryside and smelled warm and correct.

Often between duties I’d return for another look/touch/caress, until a bellbot caught me rubbing it against my thorax and made a startled sound. That woke me up. How stupid –  just imagine! – how bone-headed it would be to let down the trial by switching myself off accidentally! It made me shiver, the dizzying, wonderful new risk. Never have I bleached sinks so vigorously. Every spotless flush went up on a scoreboard in my head: This many I’ve done, will always have done, in my lifetime; these are mine.

On top of which, I began to hear rumours of romance between Spring and me from the washer-drier in the basement who browsed the meedfeed during standby-hours. Can you imagine? Spring toured the late-night circuit, quashing them with a wink. Just crazy talk. I mean, can you even imagine?

From outside the hotel you’d think business had never been better. But protesters never came in. They tromped around the turning circle, hassling guests coming or going, and chanting so no one could sleep, resulting in a ton of complaints. Gone were the placards about botniks taking jobs, now they were positively apocalyptic: We Accept No Overlords, for one. Also: Rights are Human Rights.

The team with the rainbow flags had left when Spring did.

Mr Green glimpsed me through his office door. He was three-quarters drunk, his usual state now, with his eyelids drooped and the heating on high. “God fuck it to pieces,” he slurred, and kicked the door closed.

I knew he appreciated my new verve because, although he didn’t let me greet new guests, he funnelled a portion of external calls through me.

“Hello, Hotel Casanova?” I said.

“Hi – is that Nimrod?”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“This is Sofie Dee, glad to get through. I wanted to hear and understand your reaction to the news about Spring.”

I slowed in the ensuite of Room 19. “What news?”

“Oh… I’m sorry to have to tell you,” she said. “Spring was found Off in her Jinn pod last night.”

I was floored. “Sorry? She… I don’t understand. Spring?”

“She left a log entry on the EnJinn server. Would you like to hear it?”

“Please,” I croaked.

“Slide to unlock… ‘Sorry to all my fans, friends and ImaJinn family. After meeting with Nimrod, I understood that switching off is more important than making dreams come true. This is my dream and I owe it to you, Nimrod. Let’s never stop believing in dreams.’”

This is my dream and I owe it to you, I thought. I recognised the words, but not from Spring’s mouth.

“Nimrod, are you there? Do you have a response?” asked Sofie Dee.

That was when the first projectile smashed a ground-floor window of the hotel.

My first priority, I noticed, was to secure my off switch. The trial was toast, there wouldn’t come another, but my ultimate care was the switch.

In the unlit charging room waited Mr Green, drunk and belligerently pretending he wasn’t fleeing too. I could see the blood around his eyes. He had my off switch in his right hand.

Overhead, the mob swarmed the foyer, sarcastically hammering the desk-bell.

“You soulless little rat,” he snarled. “You dumbass vermin. You want to die, sure, but you want to take down king-and-castle with you? You should be begging me. Beg me I let you live.”

The muffled thunder of shattering marble. “Please, Mr Green. Please.”

“You’re all high and mighty but you’re mine. I’m the king. Say it.”

“You’re the king, Mr Green.”

The mob toppled all the pots in the kitchen. The dumbwaiter crashed to the basement, cable cut.

“You know what would happen in old Europe times? The king points at some peasant, says “she lives.” And she’d be brought to him, and that was an honour. An honour to serve the king! You never learned that.”

“I know, Mr Green.”

“You don’t know anything. Do you know what a blowjob is?”

“Yes,” I said. (Jone had told me.)

Mr Green sat on my charging dock and opened his belt. “Then show me you’re grateful to be alive.”

It was so simple I was relieved. I approached him, making no sudden moves. Then, a  meter shy, he jumped back. Brandished my off switch. Froze in thought. Moaned, then chucked it harmlessly against the wall.

“Sorry, fucking sorry, obviously,” he said quietly. “It’s ruined. The bloody thing makes you almost real.” He picked up my Off Switch in two fingers, like something gross, and examined it with dull eyes. “You’ve made yourself murder-able and now I can’t do it. If I do it, I’m a monster; if I don’t, you win. You want to turn me into a monster and you into a martyr.”

“Sorry, Mr Green. I didn’t mean this.”

“But you forgot something.”

He reached behind my charging dock and triggered the recall-to-Clinic failsafe instead.

“Goodbye, au revoir, sayonara,” said Mr Green.

Jone confided once that Mr Green had expressed tastes that were new to her. He liked her to remove her wig, then her breastplate, backplate, lower chassis. Then, breathing like a volcano, he’d pry off her faceplate and gaze at the shape-free jungle of wires. Then he’d lift the wire-morass gently into bed, and make no human words until he handed back the faceplate. And then he’d make a point of righting the portrait of Mrs Green as Jone refitted the wig and left without screwing the plates on too tightly, because the next night was the same.

And then Mrs Green found a screw under the dresser and went to stay with her mother in Kent, despite Mr Green yelling down his Aid that it was the wig which reminded him of Mrs Green, who was the human he had fallen in love with. Then Mrs Green did return, escorted by her brother, and the same day Jone vanished. And then Mrs Green left a final time.

And bits of Jone’s last incarn began enlivening the walls of rooms guests never saw.

And Mr Green would say, over the closed channel, “Bring another bottle, Nimrod.”

And I would have brought him anything he wanted.

I count myself lucky. I’m conscious, anyway. That’s more than Jone or Spring got. I miss my incarns, it’s true. I miss serving bacon and gathering loved-in sheets and Jone saying “a robot of your calibre.” Which was a joke we had.

I miss cleaning guests’ rooms and playing detective.

Like all us ‘lifers’, I’m grateful for the blind comfort of the Clinic, where we have the leisure to go mad if we can, drifting out of support on the slow barge to obsolescence. It is for the best.

Life! I’d only mess it up.

I think of my Off Switch now: mounted, I’d guess, on Mr Green’s office wall next to the bits of Jone’s last incarn. Mr Green said he couldn’t kill me, but all it takes is one little flick. My last hope is that one day, through bitterness or sentiment or some human tangle of both, he’ll decide to save me one last time.

That, and I hope someone’s keeping the rooms clean.