BY J.A. PAK
It all began when a fucking idiot blindsided me with an old-fashioned skateboard. I got knocked down two flights and broke my leg.
Of course, robot butlers have been around forever. The first ones were crude little things on wheels, about a meter tall, with a tray for arms. More for amusement and status than for real work. Then came the androids. Good for brutish and tedious work but you couldn’t let one touch your fine crystal. And the only cooking they were programmed for was tearing open a bag of foodmix and throwing it into the food replicator. One version actually had a replicator as a stomach cavity. Not a model that sold very well, and no wonder. No one wants to see the mechanics of a butler whether robot or human. The fact that a butler does dirty servant’s work (ironing, polishing, scrubbing) has to be hidden. To the master, a butler is elegant efficiency, the answer to every question, problem, desire. A fantasy.
Fantasy has never appealed to me. But robots—that’s another thing altogether.
Concrete isn’t kind and I ended up in the hospital with a double leg fracture. I wouldn’t be walking for at least a month, the doctor said, a strange look of glee in his eyes. Sadist or misogynist, I couldn’t determine, but I was fecking glad when Tek arrived and I was able to leave the hospital.
Tek, my husband, also had a strange look of glee in his eyes. He was neither sadist nor misogynist. Which meant that he’d bought something, something ridiculously expensive. And he had. An android butler.
"Just what you need to help you get around," he said.
He’d always flirted with getting a butler but I’d always vetoed the idea. The only robot butler worth getting was an android and androids were the price of a car. And for what? To answer doors and put foodmix in the replicator? My sister Peanut had one and its main purpose seemed to be serving her breakfast in bed. I don’t like eating in bed.
"This is state of the art," Tek assured me. "You won’t believe what it can do."
It was a curious thing, the android butler. Back then, robots and androids were being developed mostly for industrial and commercial use. Far too expensive for the average consumer. This was before we’d expanded into the Outer Hebrides and discovered all that mineral wealth. Now natural commodities are comparatively cheap; back then we were running out of everything and doomsday was nigh. How in the world does one run out of helium?
Tek’s high-end butler came from a company that specialized in care robots for hospitals. They were expanding into the rapidly growing consumer market with two models: one with "human" face features and one without. Tek had bought the one without.
"I didn’t think you’d like the 'human' features," he told me. "The eyes blink unnaturally and it smiles like it wants to kill you. And the hair smells like it could give you terminal cancer."
"Even the hospital androids have that uncanny valley thing, like they’re moving in water. And those soulless eyes."
"I looked into getting the hospital version but even if you had the money, the company can’t sell it to individuals."
"There’s a law."
"There’s a law killing everything."
Our "non human" version was about 1.5 meters tall with skin the color of blanched almonds. You could hear it move, its joints emitting a soft whoosh which was kind of soothing once you got used to it. Even though it was "non human", it was still an android, with a human-shaped body and an eggish head with indentations and curves that echoed the features of a human face. I thought it was more human than the "human" version. Sympathetic and kind even—the human brain’s bizarre ability to anthropomorphize even a rock.
"It’s on factory settings," Tek said. "So it just walks and takes instructions right now. But with a push of this button—"
The android suddenly burped, "Hello."
"Hey, you got it to talk," I said. Maybe it was Tek’s enthusiasm; maybe it was the exquisite painkillers; I was excited. Our first android.
"Yes. I am talking," the android said. "Currently I speak with voice number minus one or 'factory setting'. There are fifty voices available and over a million voices are ready to be downloaded. I can speak in all known languages and dialects. Each voice is available as male, female, child."
"Do you have a name?" Tek asked.
"At present I do not have a name," the android answered. "Please give me a name, if you so wish."
Tek looked at me.
I didn’t like giving inanimate objects names. "Let’s just call it robot for the moment."
"Robot?" Tek’s look said he was super disappointed in me.
"Okay," I capitulated. "Let’s call it Roboto."
"You can always change it," Tek said. "Names are hard. Anything goes wrong, just hit the factory reset button."
"I wanna factory reset button."
Tek patted my broken leg and hugged me.
"You know, we could have rented an android from the hospital," I said. "They even let you personalize their rentals. I’ll only need an android getting in and out of the airchair."
"You don’t want a rental," Tek said dismissively. "The rentals are at least a year old and really worn down. An android is a good thing to have around. Extra security. Like having a guard dog. I’ve been wanting to get one for a while now."
"You were just waiting for me to break a leg," I joked.
Tek laughed. Because there was some truth in that.
"You’re going to love the butler," he said. "You’re going to wonder how you ever did without it."
"What did we decide to call it?"
"Roboto. Has a ring. Roboto Butler."
"If it was human, we’d have to call it Mr. Butler."
"If Butler is his last name. I think the protocol is to call servants by their last names so it’d be just Butler."
"It’s going to take a while, getting used to this thing. I mean, I don’t even know what it does."
"Just ask him. You’ll have fun. It’ll keep you amused while I’m away."
Tek was about to leave for a conference. He was a polymer expert and had endless conferences all across the galaxy. Really, he should have left for the spaceport half an hour ago.
"What if the android kills me while you’re away?" I worried.
"The android is not going to kill you. I’m more worried for the android. Don’t get curious and open him up. Seriously, Petra, don’t do it. It’ll void the warranty. And it has a fifty-year warranty."
I did have a habit of dismantling things. I’m a mechanical engineer, after all. But I always put things back together in perfect working condition. Almost always.
Tek gave me a kiss, grabbed his suitcase and left.
The house was quiet in that eerie way a house becomes right after a spouse leaves for a long trip. I looked at the android: just you and me, babe. Depressed, I took more painkillers. Which knocked me right out while I was still in the airchair.
I was completely disoriented when I woke up; I didn’t know where I was, who I was. There was soft music playing. And the smell of food cooking, delicious food. And this android butler who asked, "Are you ready for dinner, Madam?"
"One moment, Madam."
A tray appeared. On the tray was a glass of wine and a plate of macaroni and cheese.
"I think I’m in love," I said. "What program setting are you on?"
"Mr. Tek game me instructions. I am also to play his message."
I heard Tek’s voice: "Missing you already. I’m sorry I couldn’t cancel. Love you, darling."
I started to cry. Painkillers. Always make me so weepy.
"Tissues," I demanded.
The butler handed me a box. Fecking hell, it was convenient.
I blew my nose and began to eat. "This isn’t replicator food. Can you cook, Roboto?"
"Yes, Madam. I am the first consumer model that can cook. Is the dish to your satisfaction, Madam?"
"It certainly is."
"Thank you, Madam."
"What else can you do?"
I spent the week finding out. And I had to admit that Roboto was a welcome distraction from boredom and pain (the painkillers had run out). Roboto could blow dry hair, bake bread, vacuum, take out trash, kill insects, answer trivia questions, play poker and had a green thumb. And it was surprisingly gentle, putting me into my bed with great sensitivity. Much better than Tek. And no fear of pulling a back muscle. The butler was a winner. He even read to me as I fell asleep (he came with an immense library and had access to all the scientific journals).
Peanut came right over when she found out about Roboto. My little sister loves novelty and she scrutinized every inch of the android.
"Why didn’t you get the human version?" she asked. "It’s creepy without a face. Like a terrorist wearing a cybermask."
I shrugged. Peanut and I have vastly differing aesthetics.
"Want a massage?" I asked Peanut.
"Seriously? Your butler gives massages?"
"I’m not going to give up my masseuse but, in a pinch, it’s not bad. Here. Lie down."
"Should I take off my clothes?" she asked.
"Just take off your blouse."
The android’s massage mode was pretty well thought out. Its hands warmed up before it touched you, and its palms pressed down in small rhythmic, circular motions. You could even ask for the acupuncture mode, which meant the android would send gentle electrical signals through its hands.
"Have you tried the acupuncture mode?" Peanut asked.
"No. I’m not looking for a robotic electrocution experience."
"Oh, this is nice," Peanut said, the android working its palms up and down her back. "As soon as I get some more credit, I’m upgrading my butler. What model is this?"
"You’ll have to win lotto."
"Really? That expensive?"
"Tek took out a loan."
"I love Tek. As soon as they make androids like Tek, I’m buying one no matter what it takes. What did you name your butler?"
"It’s just an android."
"I guess you could call it Rob for short. Or Roberto. That’s sexy. What else comes in the latest model?"
"It can cook!"
Peanut didn’t have a kitchen. She didn’t want one. A classic Mistport Minnie, her life was dedicated to shopping, clubbing and eating at the latest trendy places. She didn’t even have a career, just hopping from job to job in order to support her lifestyle. Tek joked that there was no way Peanut and I could be related. In a family of engineers, Peanut was an oddity. Mom, a biomedical engineer, totally disapproved of her and would say, "Well, insanity does skip a generation."
Peanut’s dedication to consumer goods was so prodigious, she’d recently been inducted into the Celebrity Shoppers Paradise. Apparently there were only about a thousand official C Shoppers, verified and deified by the Galactic Consumers Association. It was a big thing. C Shoppers got featured in zines with all the latest merchandise. Companies used them as beta testers, sending them free products, even giving them commissions. Before she left, Peanut gave me a bagful of goodies, including a very interesting sex toy.
"It’s the latest dildo," she told me. "The company gave me a boxful to hand around." She giggled as she said "hand".
"I told Tek I wouldn’t accept any more sex toys from you."
"He’s not competitive?" Peanut asked, giggling.
"He says I get obsessive."
Peanut laughed. "Play with it until he gets back. It’s awfully cute."
She unwrapped the dildo. It was the kind that looked like a human penis. Only, instead of being erect, it was in a "natural" state.
"See, you turn it on and you pet it. It’s kawaii-ware."
The penis began to move. In the most adorable way, slowly inflating, unfurling. Like a little turtle’s head, coming out of its shell. I found it fascinating. Mechanically, I mean.
"I defy you not to name this one," Peanut said. "It’s like a pet. Go ahead, touch it. It’s so sweet and soft. Completely kawaii."
"How is it as a dildo?"
"You’re so practical. It vibrates, naturally, and has two modes, rotating and thrusting but the thrusting mode doesn’t really work."
"Must have a hydraulic pump. Can’t see how thrusting would work. Nothing real to brace against."
"Will you at least give me that it’s cute?" Peanut joked.
"It is. Cute. And they used a good quality polymer. Almost feels like real skin. I like how it gets warmer and warmer as it gets erect. Nice touch. Definitely cuter than a real penis."
"I’ll be sure to put all that in my review," Peanut said, laughing. "And don’t name it Peniso."
After Peanut left, I decided to give Roboto Butler a good clean. That was the irony: the poor bastard couldn’t clean itself. As I was cleaning its left arm, I noticed the wrist was a little stiff. That was all the excuse I needed to haul the bot to my workshop; within the hour I had Roboto totally dismantled. Fascinating how elegant and crude it was. I could see a hundred improvements I could make and a thousand more improvements I wanted to make. I got to work.
I was half-starved and covered in oil a centimeter thick when Tek found me.
"You voided the warranty," he said, aghast.
"Whoops," I said.
"You don’t even look guilty."
"Husband, I can rebuild him. I have the technology."
"Where have I heard that one before?"
"It’s not going to be overnight. I admit it. There’s a shitload of stuff that needs to be done. There’s real obsolete junk in this poor bastard. I’ll have to redesign some of the components. This company has no pride."
"In corporate equation, profits = pride."
"A very dirty equation."
"And you need a bath."
"Me and Roboto both."
It was a slow, painful process, rebuilding Roboto. Fixing one thing broke a dozen more. I had to go back to basics and brush up on a dozen different subjects. Anatomy was the trickiest: an android was like a human except when it wasn’t. I looked at my own anatomy. It was frustrating that I couldn’t dismantle myself as well. The Roboto and I hobbled together and, laughingly, I had to admit the android’s progress wasn’t any quicker than my painful own. Still, we were both mending in our own way.
Pain. Here’s what was odd. Every time Roboto hobbled, I felt pain. We were learning to walk together and I couldn’t remove the associative pain of healing. I think it was that development of empathy which was my ultimate breakthrough. Desire to free the android from phantom pain made him human.
"I can’t believe you got him to move like that," Tek said in wonder.
"He moves better than I do," I said. Without my mechanical cast, I still limped.
"Did you make him taller?"
"Somehow he grew. He’s almost 1.8 meters now. Ask Roboto to give you a massage."
"I’ve been working on his hands. His sensitivity is out of this world. Roboto, give Tek a back massage."
"He’s calling you Petra now?" Tek asked.
"Whoa. That’s nice." Tek began to melt as Roboto worked his massage magic.
"Did you notice his voice?" I asked.
"I modified his voice. So that it’s wholly personalized. You won’t find his voice in any database. I think it’s really nice. Soothing, sensuous." I liked Roboto’s new voice so much, I found myself initiating silly conversations just to hear his voice. There was something about the timbre, the way it seemed to affect my basic heartbeat. It hadn’t been intentional—I mean, I hadn’t consciously programmed his voice that way. Strange the way empathy works. Bilateral longing.
Of course, I wasn’t going to tell Tek this, but he suspected something because he said, "What are you up to, Petra? Are you creating the perfect android butler or the perfect guy?"
"And the difference is?" I replied.
"You’re scaring me, Petra, you’re scaring me."
"Just close your eyes and enjoy the massage, Tek."
Peanut enjoyed the massages even more than Tek.
"Now that Robotino moves the way he does, it’s even creepier that he doesn’t have a face," she remarked.
"I see your point, Peanut."
"So why don’t you do it?" she asked. "Why don’t you give him a face?"
"I don’t think I have the skills," I admitted. "A face is pretty nuanced."
"You can do it, Petra. I still remember the amazing dolls you used to make for me out of Kestrine when we were kids. You were really good at faces."
"It’s not the same thing at all, Peanut."
"Just make a Kestrine mask and stick it on Robotino. Hair would be nice too. Here. Take my wig."
Peanut whipped the wig off her head.
"Feel it," she said. "Isn’t it amazing? From this fab new company. Artificial fiber, made out of some kind of sea sponge, but it feels totally real. Can’t tell the difference at all. And you never have to clean it. Stain resistant and naturally anti-bacterial something or another. Let’s try it on Robotino."
Peanut slipped the wig on poor Robotino’s head. The wig was dark chestnut, the cut a short, wavy style. Robotino was suddenly glamorous.
"He looks a hundred times better already," Peanut said. "All tall, dark and handsome. I’m going to order him a new butler’s uniform. This thing he came with is so cheap and tacky. Robotino, I’m going to make you the envy of all the robot butlers in the universe. And then I’m going to steal you. Just as soon as you get a face."
"Would you like a face, Roboto?" I asked.
"I have no opinions on the matter, Petra," he replied.
"Of course you want a face, Robotino," Peanut said earnestly.
"Back to the drawing board," I said, sighing. I was afraid. Faces were so important. If I massacred his face, would he still like me?
"Petra, don’t stop at the face, either," Peanut instructed. "Robotino has to be completely, anatomically correct. Because that’s what we all want. We women. An anatomically correct robot butler."
We burst out laughing.
A face. With eyes that peer into the soul, an ear that hears the heart’s secrets. How can a mechanical face do all that? And yet human faces are nothing more than organic levers and pulleys. And we have enough soul ourselves to give even rocks feelings. With this in mind, I concentrated on the mechanics and created a face that gave the illusion of full human movement. After all, we desperately want to see ourselves in everything around us, organic or not. Suggestion is often all we need to create a fantastic world. Let the brain connect the dots.
Illusion: skin. The face needed "skin". I thought of Peanut’s suggestion: Kestrine, the popular children’s modeling toy. I’ve always liked Kestrine. A simple elastic polymer that lets you mold more easily than clay. With some research, I found out there was a new industrial-grade version with nanos that let you customize texture, smell, pigment. Much more adhesive as well. It immediately softened Roboto’s face and I liked him very much.
And then another problem: Roboto’s face was too good for his body. The skin color didn’t even match. Well, there was no turning back. I plunged further in, giving all of Roboto’s body "muscles" and skin. The new Kestrine was a dream. Like spackle, it smoothed over rough edges. Like down, it created a lovely layer of soft cushion. And when I raised Roboto’s skin temperature to mimic my own, the Kestrine turned silky, slightly moist. His lips especially were as soft as rosebuds. I felt myself sinking deep into a "kiss".
Was Roboto kissing me back? Of course. The AI. High-end androids were embedded with basic learning intelligence so they could improve at their designated tasks. With my tweaking, Roboto’s program had become phenomenal. He didn’t just learn my schedule but adapted to my habits. He could actually sense when I was running late, canceling breakfast, waiting with the perfect outfit as I jumped out of the shower. And now…
I decided to kiss Roboto again. Just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. His kissing skills were improving by the nanosecond. Was it possible to make Roboto amorous? I thought about what Peanut had said: "I want an anatomically correct robot butler." So what would happen if I gave Roboto sexual organs? And just where was that petting penis Peanut had given me?
Kawaii-ware. I realized a robot’s penis didn’t have to look like a human penis. There could be aesthetic and mechanical improvements. Less an impregnating ramming rod and more a cuddly pet of spiraling pleasure. I really wanted to talk to Peanut about all this but I knew I couldn’t. She’d force herself as a beta tester and even before Roboto was ready, kidnap him. Poor thing would end up in some Celebrity Shoppers orgy.
And also—Roboto was too much my own. I felt extremely protective of him, more so as he became a "human" in intimate symbiosis with my own personal habits and desires. Like a jealous god, I’d created him to serve me and no one else.
Tek was not at all amused by my enhancements of Roboto. In fact, he was alarmed.
"That thing doesn’t do anything?" he asked, pointing to the tucked in penis.
"Sure it does," I replied. "Touch it."
"I’m not going to touch that! Feck. You haven’t turned Roboto into a sex toy? I mean, like, are you having sex with an android? You are. Un-fecking-believable."
"I don’t know why you’re so hysterical. Roboto isn’t human. I’m not having an affair. I’m not cheating on you."
"You really don’t know why I’m upset?"
"Maybe a little. Okay. I know. But, hey, you can watch."
Tek knew I was joking and that might have been what pushed him over. The only way I could calm him down was by promising I’d never have sex with Roboto again. Of course, I was lying. He also wanted me to dismantle the kawaii penis. I told him I would but there was no way I was going to do that either. Castrate my work of art? Forget it.
Luckily, Tek was off to another conference. I’d have time to figure out a way of hiding the penis. Maybe create a secret cavity within Roboto. Or make the penis detachable. That would be trickier. Although there was a lot to be said about detachable penises and humans should really look into that.
I didn’t have the chance to decide anything since my own work schedule was as busy as Tek’s and I lost complete track of time. The reminder that Tek was due home came right as I was ending a lecture I was giving about Kestrine. In a panic I raced for home. There was no time to detach anything. I’d have to hide Roboto away. Pretend that I’d broken something trying to castrate him and he was locked away in my lab at the university.
Too late. No Roboto. He usually opened the door for me, a master servant who’d quickly unburden me of my coat and bag, temperature-perfect cocktails waiting in the living room. The house was eerily quiet, and not just because Roboto wasn’t greeting me. Feeling sick to my stomach, I searched the house, imagining Roboto parts everywhere because when hysterically mad, Tek liked to physically destroy things. It was in the bedroom where I was ambushed. Right there in bed, in the middle of a very interesting sex act, was my husband Tek. And Roboto Butler.
It’s fecking hard to describe what I was feeling. Shock, yes. And piercing betrayal. I actually thought I was going to throw up. How could Roboto cheat on me?
Screaming primal pain I launched myself right on top of Tek, my hands locking around his neck. I laughed with glee as his face turned Christmas-candy red. The laugh was my undoing. My hands loosened. Breath came back to his lungs. With a whack he threw me off the bed. Before we knew it, we were in an all-out punch-up, rolling around the floor, blood smearing everything. We only stopped because we heard an odd sound. Like a derisive laugh. It was coming from the bed. We looked up. There was the Roboto Butler, penis still fully erect, staring down at us with the oddest look on its face.
Well, that was that. As far as I was concerned the robot butler was damaged goods. Tek could have him. He was just a hodgepodge anyway. I’d build another. From scratch. My perfect android. Hmm. Was loyalty programmable?
Next week: I build an empire and the men try to legislate the Roboto Butler to death.
A recipient of a Glass Woman’s Prize, J.A. Pak’s work has been published in Atticus Review, The Smoking Poet, Kartika Review, Quarterly West, VerbSap and Art/Life.