When the Last Friend is Gone – Tris Matthews

When the Last Friend is Gone – Tris Matthews

Butler found Pebbles dead in the morning.

Each day, the moment Butler became active at 6 a.m. sharp, the little old dog’s stumpy legs would carry her over to seat herself royally in front of the enormous and rusty Cadillac-themed refrigerator to watch. Butler would ruffle the flops and folds of skin on the top of her head before serving up her breakfast and then turning to other chores. Today, Pebbles didn’t come. Butler washed her bowl—overly-large, red, ceramic, and with ‘Pebbles’ hand-painted around the edge in florid script—spooned out a tin of moist meat and placed it on the shabby green mat by the back door.

Butler was most efficient when routine was least disrupted. There was no such thing as perfect routine: any day’s unique haze caused variations in illumination; the birds sang a different song; even his own body performed differently depending upon the ambient temperature, and he was already aware his joints were less smooth than a year ago, when he was fresh out of the box. Beatrice also increasingly left things out of place around the house. Butler didn’t know whether this was solely a result of her age, or a gradual acceptance of her reliance on him. The latter was the more satisfying alternative. After all, caring for Beatrice was his purpose.

Butler hummed for a moment, then went to check the living room. There was Pebbles in her grubby sleeping spot on the faded cream carpet, half curled and half sprawled against the radiator. Beatrice didn’t allow Butler to clean Pebbles’s favourite spots frequently, saying ‘if you take her smell away, she won’t feel at home’, a view Butler struggled to comprehend—it was in absolute opposition to his fundamental operating principles. He stepped past the fat sausage body and closed the door so as not to wake Beatrice, then softly called “Pebbles, breakfast is ready.” No movement. When Pebbles had been leaning against the radiator, Beatrice liked to call her ‘Hot Dog’. Butler tried this, but still no response. He squatted and laid a hand on her portly rump. She was cold.

Butler had served up Beatrice’s dinner. The day had been a series of deviations from routine. Beatrice had been so affected by Pebbles’s passing she hadn’t been able to wash and dress herself, though she usually insisted on independence in these things, no matter how badly she did them. She’d even refused to let Butler assist her until after they’d attended to Pebbles. Down in the living room, when he’d shown her the body, Beatrice would have collapsed had Butler not caught her. He helped her kneel, then she rested her head upon her companion of 15 years and wept.

“Oh, Pebbles. What am I going to do now?”

The sight of his master futilely embracing and talking to the dead dog had made Butler want to comfort her more. He’d laid a hand on her damp, shivering back and said “I’m still here for you ma’am.”

The key to a purposeful existence was expectation maximisation. From any given state, there was a set of actions and possible results. An action was chosen to maximise the expectation of achieving the desired result, based upon the probabilities derived over your life so far. You then performed the action, and any discrepancy between the desired and actual results was used to update your expectations for the future. When everything was highly routine, the reinforced results stood out with disproportionately high expectations, while in unusual situations, competition between vying action-result pairs with similar expectations led to longer decision times and more tentative behaviours.

Butler had dug deep to remove the roses without damaging their roots so Pebbles could be buried beneath them. After more than ten hours motionless in the mouldy garden chair, Beatrice had let Butler take her back to the living room and she’d sat with the low hum of the electric heater while he’d prepared dinner—her only meal that day. Butler had planned a steak and kidney pie, but, adapting to circumstance, he’d gone with a quick vegetable stew instead. Beatrice had also requested a large glass of brandy, which he’d served up in her favourite cut-glass snifter.

The undone chores of the day chattered imperatives towards the front of his mind, but before he could return to the kitchen, Beatrice said “Stay here, Butler.”

“Would you like me to help you eat?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Just… give me some company. There’s only you now, for better or worse.” Her chin fell to her chest like a puppet with a broken string. “Till death do us part.”

Butler assumed his ready position by the door to the kitchen. After a few seconds, Beatrice strained to look round for him.

“Can you sit?”

In the 484 days Butler had been serving Beatrice, this was the first time she’d requested he sit. Aside from her chair, the room contained one armchair and three dining chairs tucked under the never-used dining-table. The dining chairs seemed more appropriate to the level of formality befitting his position. However, in this unusual circumstance Butler judged Beatrice was seeking an equal more than a servant. He sat in the second armchair. Like everything in the house, it was old and worn: the centre bowed, the springs creaked, and he sank much more deeply than he had predicted. He gripped the arms to retain some posture and turned his head toward Beatrice. She looked back, searching for something in the digitally animated screen that was his face, with its cartoonish bushy sky-blue eyebrows and quivering moustache.

“Just you and me now,” she reiterated. “I guess you’ve had a promotion.”

“What will my new position be, ma’am?” Butler asked.

Beatrice’s eyes remained on Butler a little longer, then she turned to her food. Her movements were slow, as if mind and body no longer communicated in quite the same language. She raised a spoonful of the stew to her mouth, awkwardly moved her head to gobble the food, then extracted the spoon and rested her hand back on the tray before she began chewing. The entire process took a minute and a half. She repeated once, then turned back to Butler.

“How are your conversation skills?” she asked.

“I have an excellent grasp of phonetics, syntax and semantics, even compared to highly-educated humans. However, my pragmatics leave something to be desired, apparently.”

Beatrice’s blinked. “You’re gonna have to do better than that, boy! Can you chat with me?”

“Yes, I can.”

“Well, alright then. I propose a toast to our first real conversation.” Her shaky hand lifted the glass to pursed pale lips and she slurped a mouthful of brandy. “Now, what shall we talk about?”

“It is customary to talk about the events of the day,” Butler suggested. “We could talk about Pebbles or family or death—”

“No!” Beatrice stared past Butler to the mantle clock on the fireplace, rapping a taut white knuckle on her glass to count down the seconds until the thinnest hand pointed at twelve. “Start your customs tomorrow. For today, we’ll talk about something else. Tell me about yourself, beyond what I already know. What makes a Butler robot tick?”

Butler hummed for a moment before he spoke. “Though I am most efficient when performing routine duties, I find atypical days more satisfying.” He hummed a moment longer, then added “All else being equal.”

“Really? That surprises me a little.”

“Why does it surprise you?”

“Well, your whole selling point is helping with routine tasks around the house. That’s what they say on telly. But you prefer the unexpected.” Beatrice peered over her spectacles. “Is this normal, or do I need to send you back?”

“Oh, no, ma’am,” Butler protested, and his intonation was most human. “I assure you, I function normally. I also derive great satisfaction from performing routines duties for you. In fact, I can rank the satisfaction I get from different scenarios.”

“I was joking, boy. You need to work on your humour. But go ahead and rank your satisfaction. I suppose that’s your version of telling me your likes and dislikes.”

Butler hummed. “Yes,” he said, “humour is a skill that I have had little chance to hone. With respect to my likes, my ranking is thus. I gain most satisfaction from caring for you—”

“I’ll drink to that,” Beatrice chimed in. A skeletal left hand brought up the golden liquid while her right waved the spoon in a gesture to continue.

“Secondly, I gain satisfaction from learning new things, and thirdly from performing chores efficiently. However, performing duties also includes caring for you, which often boosts my satisfaction from routine tasks above merely learning new things alone.”

Butler noted that Beatrice appeared more interested in discovering the carrots in her broth than listening to his story. He paused to give her opportunity to speak, but when she didn’t, decided to go on. “There has been considerable research into deriving simple rules capable of generating all behaviours, even the most complex. They aim to model human psychology.”

Beatrice finished chewing a mouthful, swallowed, then washed it down with a bit more brandy. She was drinking more rapidly than Butler had ever observed before. He logged a conditional reminder to record the quantity she consumed and intervene if necessary.

Beatrice tapped the rim of the glass twice with her spoon. “Are you worried how much I’m drinking, boy?”

Butler hummed, but before he could reply, Beatrice said “Let me save you too much whirring—I am drinking too much. Tomorrow morning I’ll feel like death. But tonight, you just let me drink, ok?”

Though Beatrice had never been friendly with him, she’d also never put him in a situation where he had to disobey her for her own safety. He hoped tonight would not set a new precedent. He said, “I will not protest while you remain within the safe limits.”

There was a silence that may have been uncomfortable if Butler were human, then Beatrice nodded an affirmation.

“May I ask, ma’am: how did you know my thoughts related to your drinking?”

“That’s what I’d’ve been thinking. I guess we ain’t so different after all.” She cocked her head and glanced sideways. “What do you think of that?”

On Butler’s face, the corners of his moustache twitched up into a smile. “It’s satisfying you think so.”

Beatrice snorted. She raised her glass again. “I’ll drink to that.” Her over-enthusiastic chug dribbled from both corners of her mouth down the cracks of her chin and onto her brown blouse. Scrunching her eyes closed, she blew out a heated half-whistle and Butler wondered how it must feel to ingest alcohol. Beatrice’s tongue leached what remaining brandy it could from her lips, then she wiped her chin with the soiled cuff of her blouse.

Butler did a quick internet search then said, “You can’t be an alcoholic because an alcoholic always wants a drink, but you already have one.”

Beatrice’s face slackened and her eye darted to him with uncharacteristic keenness. “What?”

Her reaction was not as expected—the shock was clear, even to Butler. He hummed and shifted his face to an earnest affect. “It was an attempt to strengthen the bond between us with humour, ma’am.”

Finally, she dismissed it with a small shake of the head and said, “So tell me, would you be happiest if you could care for me while I run around doing exciting new things?”

It was a relief to return to the previous topic. “While that would certainly provide a stimulating environment, it is neither relevant nor possible for me to say whether that would make me happiest.”

“Because you’re incapable of happiness,” Beatrice said flatly.

“No, ma’am. The satisfaction I receive as feedback on my activities is likened to human happiness, though I cannot comment on whether it is analogous.”

“Right.” Beatrice’s sceptical tone was lost on her companion. “You can’t or won’t tell me what makes you happy.” As she stared at him, Butler noted a slight, twitching tension that pulled at the muscles above her mouth. “Explain.”

“I said my happiness is not relevant because I am just a machine. My life is of lower value than yours, and my happiness is irrelevant beyond motivating devotion to you. I said my happiness is impossible to predict because my satisfaction coefficients on care, learning and efficiency are the result of large-scale data-mining to optimally meet the needs of a wide variety of owner personalities. Re-running such simulations is beyond the computational abilities of a single unit.”

Beatrice frowned, but something of the animalistic growl dissipated from her face. She made the slow nod of someone who hadn’t understood at all. “Butler, talking to you drives a girl to drink.”

“I beg your pardon, ma’am. Shall I resume my chores?”

“Stay! I’ll just…” She swigged and sighed. To Butler, her action seemed akin to a reset. “So, let’s try translate that into how a person speaks. You mean you wanna do your job and not wonder how things could be different?”

Butler hummed for a moment. “That is an adequate—if not entirely accurate—summary, ma’am.”

Beatrice’s cheeks stretched into a broad grin. “Now we’re getting somewhere.” This time, she picked up her glass using both hands and dipped just the tip of her grey tongue into the shimmering liquid.

“Tell me, Butler, will you ever learn to speak like me?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Oh. Kill me now!”

“Ma’am, that is not—”

“Shush!” Beatrice interrupted. “It’s a turn of phrase. Will you always speak like you do now?”

“No, ma’am. The more we converse, the better I will become. Unfortunately, we have talked little in the preceding sixteen months, but there are Butler models whose owners speak with them regularly and they are far more proficient. If you wish, I could download the Conversations Package, which would enable me to access topics and cultural references beyond my immediate experience. However, the non-verbal aspects of your level of communication elude current models, apparently.”

Beatrice finished the last two spoonfuls of her dinner. A dollop of sauce dribbled down to join the blotches of brandy on her bosom. “I guess that’s how it should be,” she said. “We wouldn’t want you taking over the world.” Again, Butler thought he detected veiled tensions underlying a sneer, and again it quickly passed with a listless shrug. “You do make an excellent cook, though.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Clear up these plates, then come back.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Oh, and top up my brandy while you are at it.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The simple act of rising from the armchair was surprisingly difficult. First Butler couldn’t shift his balance far enough forward to engage his legs, then he was applying too much weight to the chair’s creaking wooden arms. After several adjustments, he maximally declined his torso, so his head was between his knees, while still holding the arms of the chair for a slight boost.

Beatrice whooped. “That is the least graceful movement I have ever seen! Not made for relaxation, eh?”

Butler straightened up and faced his owner. “It is true, ma’am. My satisfaction comes from actions. If I am not working, I go into sleep mode and shut down everything except dreams.”

He courteously bowed his head, gathered Beatrice’s tray, deposited it in the kitchen and returned with the brandy—a Leyrat VSOP cognac. Before pouring, he presented the bottle to the lady like a wine waiter, as she had instructed him to, but she waved him to hurry along, saying, “I’m not gonna live forever, boy.”

Watching Butler pour, Beatrice said “When I first got you, I was surprised how fluid your movements were. Movie robots are angular and awkward, but you move as easily as a real person—except when getting up from chairs.”

“Given practice, I will master the chair, ma’am. In novel situations, I must learn to manoeuvre, just as children must. As I said, these novel challenges are satisfying.”

“You did say that, didn’t you,” stated Beatrice.

“Yes, I did.”

Beatrice frowned at her robot, then the sallow folds of her saggy skin formed a smirk. Butler returned the brandy bottle to its shelf and returned to the armchair. He allowed it to envelop him a little more than before—it was familiar now.

They sat in silence, both staring ahead towards the dead TV on the chipped wooden cabinet surrounded by framed photographs until Beatrice said, “Do you mean that you dream?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“It isn’t… Is it the same as people’s dreams?”

“It is an analogue, apparently. I experience scenarios that draw from experiences across my life, but are particularly influenced by recent salient events. These recreations facilitate the integration of new with existing knowledge by entertaining hypothetical scenarios and testing expected results.”

“No.” Beatrice wore a disgusted look. “That isn’t what we do at all.” She stared myopically at her drink, then took a laboured swig followed by a crunching gulp. “We dream stories. Sometimes stuff from the day, but also random things, like things you’ve been worrying about, or it could even be monsters. There’s no ‘facilitated integration’. It’s all about imagination.”

Butler hummed. Perhaps he was having trouble with nuances. “Ma’am, would you tell me about a dream of yours?”

Beatrice squinted as if she didn’t recognise him. Her jaw moved, chewing on her own gums. Then her face smoothed as she made up her mind.

“I’m carrying eggs. I’m being really careful because we had a chicken, but it’s dead now, so these are the most precious eggs—there’ll never be any more, you know?”

Beatrice stared at the television. To begin with, Butler thought the ‘you know?’ was a rhetorical question, but then wondered if he had misinterpreted. He considered his own experience with unexpectedly expending the supplies needed for his chores, so he said, “I know.” This prompted Beatrice to continue and he deemed his response appropriate.

“I’m walking with these three beautiful blonde eggs in my hands, and there are lots of people around. They are all happy and cheering my wonderful eggs. I’m ecstatic at this point.” A single tear descended the twisted terrain of her cheek like a drunk weaving his way home to his family, and Butler wondered if it was a tear of joy—he had heard of such things.

“And then they tumble from my hands. It happens in slow motion. I feel the smooth perfection of the eggshells as they slip between my fingers—like a baby’s skin. I flail and grasp, but I’m too slow and they smash on the ground. I’m down on my knees crying because it’s all gone. The people are walking away. It’s just me and my smashed eggs seeping into the dust.”

Butler hummed. “Your dream is complex. Can you explain it to me?”

“What’s to explain?” Beatrice scoffed. “A dream’s a dream. It doesn’t have to have a meaning.” She shrugged. “Or if it does, it’s not something so obvious. Tell me one of yours.”

Butler had recorded 2413 dreams from 524 sleep events. He summoned those with context relating to the dream Beatrice had recounted and the expectation of one in particular rose to prominence.

“It is your birthday and I am baking a cake to make you happy, but when I open the carton, all the eggs are already broken. I do not wish to disappoint you, so I create a substitute using a mixture of banana, apple and flaxseed. However, when you try the cake, you are displeased and refuse to eat. Your birthday is ruined because I did not pay sufficient attention to my surroundings.”

Beatrice immediately spat a response. “Did you just make that up? I say I dream about eggs, so you say the same thing?”

“No, ma’am. I selected this one because it had the highest similarity to yours. It was three days before your birthday, and my interpretation is I was anxious to make it a happy birthday for you.”

Beatrice stroked the long, white hairs that decorated her top lip—a habit Butler hadn’t seen since his first months with her.

Butler could detect the differences in muscle tensions that Beatrice wore, but had little idea what internal states they mapped to. There was a range of facial conformations associated with happiness, from a wide-open grinning mouth paired with scrunched up eyes to a relaxed face with just a slight tautness of the muscles in front of the temples. On the other hand, the expressions associated with such different states as concentration and anger employed highly overlapping muscle configurations. One thing Butler did know, however, was that Beatrice was a cryptic case. After his initial two months of service, when she had displayed clear signs of mistrust and irritation, he’d learned to anticipate the scenarios that led to her dissatisfaction. After that, her only emotional expression had been towards Pebbles, whom she lavished with gifts and attention. With little interaction, his interpersonal skills had advanced little beyond base settings.

Beatrice said “The cake was nice. I suppose I never said so.”

“Ma’am, may I ask: do you like me?”

Beatrice’s brow rose—perhaps in surprise, perhaps questioning—as she took in her plastic servant. Butler’s expression never shifted from its impassive politeness.

“I…” she started, then changed her mind. “Are you going to spit in my food if I say no?”

“I cannot spit, ma’am—my face is a screen. Also, my desire to provide you with the highest level of service will be unaffected by your feelings for me—if I lost my dedication to you, my life would lose its purpose.”

Beatrice scrutinised Butler’s face, trying to glean his motivations. The animation of an English butler could move to mimic human emotions, but mostly it just twitched here and there to give the impression of life. If there was more going on inside, it didn’t show.

“I used to dislike you. You probably know. I never wanted a robot—you were part of the Army Widow Pension Scheme. With no family, when they decided I was too old to look after myself, they sent you. See, you’re proof of my decrepitude—a reminder that everyone I loved is gone. And you insisted on doing things for me, but in ways I wasn’t used to. That was annoying.”

“I apologise, ma’am. It took me time to learn how to serve you.”

“Well, learn you did. One day, I noticed you didn’t annoy me anymore, and that I didn’t have to fight you—I could just let you do your thing. Since then… I don’t know. Do I like you?” Beatrice’s face became sincere. “I’m stuck with you. And you’re familiar, you know?”

Butler was unsure whether this was intended as a compliment. “You are also familiar,” he ventured.

“I grew up in a time when the home computer was a new thing and robots were scary fiction sent back from the future to wipe us out. Those stories start with the friendly, helpful servant robot like you.” She waved her brandy towards Butler, shaking her head and scowling, then indulged in another swig. “My parents grew old and died amongst other people,” she finished.

“This will not happen to you, ma’am. But you do not need to fear me. My only desire is to make your life better.”

“I know that. But it isn’t about you alone. It’s about what you represent and the direction we’ll take from here. You are stupid and serve unquestioningly, but you get smarter year after year. How long until you are superior to us and make us the servants?”

This was such a common question, Butler had a pre-programmed response. “For a robot, servitude is the highest form of existence. For humans, opposition, struggle and free-will are inherent in your evolutionary origin. However, robots were designed not to value these things.”

“There you go, speaking riddles again,” said Beatrice. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Ma’am, would it please you if I download the Conversations Package, which would—”

“I know what it does, boy!” Beatrice snapped. “You talk of being content as a servant, but then immediately want to become more human.” She glared at Butler, whose eyebrows rose slightly as his moustache quivered. “Anyway, why would I want to talk to a program? Might as well just talk to myself, for God’s sake. At least then I know it’s real.”

Butler was having trouble identifying whether this meant he should download the package or not. As usual, his processing was marked with a thoughtful hum.

“Don’t say anything,” Beatrice hissed, and twisted back to her hunched, forward-facing pose.

They sat in silence. After a minute, Butler decided he ought not to be looking at Beatrice and turned his head forward. After a further nine minutes, he wondered if excusing himself to make a start on the chores may result in greater comfort for Beatrice, though he had often observed Beatrice and Pebbles sitting happily in silence for hours. He wondered if his new role included filling the space Pebbles had left. Then Beatrice spoke.

“Now that I’ve outlived my last real companion, I realise something—life is all about those around you. I mechanically go through the chores of living, emotionlessly ticking off task after task, each with no meaning other than to see that I survive the day. I’ve spent so long wanting to die—even planning to, but I couldn’t abandon Pebbles, so I waited. Now I don’t have to wait any more. Butler, you said your primary source of satisfaction—your purpose—is helping me, didn’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What would you say if I asked you to help me end my life?”

“I would refuse, ma’am, and I would strongly encourage you not to think in such a way. Though I am not alive, I know that life is precious, and tomorrow will always bring great opportunities.” In fact, he would do anything he could to prevent her. This was part of his program, but it was also something he wanted to do. Beatrice was the centre of his existence. Without her, he would have no purpose.

“But you just said your purpose is to help me.”

“I was attempting to be more human in my language use by allowing semantically similar but non-identical concepts to be treated as the same. Actually, my primary mandate states that I am to care for you, not help you.”

Beatrice swirled the brandy tumbler in a pale palm. The grinding motion of her arthritic wrist jerked, splashing droplets of the precious liquid over the bulbous knuckle of her thumb. She licked her skin from the tatty cuff at her wrist up her thumb to the rim of the glass. Butler’s keen auditory sensors picked up the coarse rasp of dry tongue on dry skin. She downed the remainder—her neck cricking with the sudden extension—and smacked her lips.

“And if I tried without your help?”

“I would restrain you.”

“Because you care for me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Beatrice hummed in thought, then said “Butler, you have told me your purpose in living is to care for me.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Let’s test your humanity. Can you guess what my purpose for living was?”

“You have never explicitly stated this in my presence, ma’am.”

Beatrice raised her eyebrows above the rim of her cloudy spectacles. She waved for him to go on. He hummed. “We all value family. There are photos around the house which I surmise are of your family: your husband in the wedding photo, and your daughter at various ages in other photos. The other wedding photo, in the bedroom, is of your daughter’s wedding, and the photo here on the television is her and her two children. On occasion, you referred to Daniel, Lucy, Ben, and Boris when talking to Pebbles, so I ascribe a high probability to these names applying your family. In the sixteen months I’ve cared for you, none of these people have visited, so it is possible they are deceased or you are estranged. You have few visitors, and though you can be discourteous when dealing with me, you are pleasant with the postman and your social worker, so I rate it more likely your family are deceased. However, the chance of all four people dying is not high, which reduces my confidence in this assessment. You also used past tense just now, implying that your purpose for living has passed.” Butler paused and hummed, then added “An alternative is that your family is irrelevant and Pebbles was your purpose.”

Beatrice was looking at the photo above the television.

“If I die, will you feel sad?” she asked.

“If you die, my purpose will be gone. With no purpose, I will be unable to achieve satisfaction.”

Beatrice scoffed. “You’d be sad.”

“I had thought sadness was a distinct state, ma’am. My programming only simulates purpose and satisfaction. I understand happiness as an analogue of satisfaction, but sadness is less associated with motivation, so is useless for a robot. Can the various emotions that humans display be generated via mixtures of satisfaction and purpose?”

“I don’t know, Butler. Maybe. What I know is it’s all about other people, isn’t it? This ‘purpose’.”

Butler hummed. “This is very interesting. I venture that if you died, I would be sad,” he said.

Beatrice nodded absently, again looking atop the television at the framed photo of the young woman with long, straight, blonde hair whose slender arms wrapped round two grinning blonde boys. After a time, Beatrice began to speak.

“Daniel died a long time ago, in the India war. I missed him a lot, but pulled my life together quickly because of Lucy. She was just 13, back when her nose was still speckled with freckles. She grew up, got married to Gordon,”—Beatrice scrunched her eyes at the mention—”and had two boys, Ben and Boris. Gordon was a drinker.” Her upper lip curled. Butler knew the expression correlated with her difficult moods. Then she looked at him and it fell from her face like a leaf from a tree. What remained was an expression he had never seen before—unguarded. “He was drunk one day when driving to the family home. Crashed and killed everyone. More brandy, Butler.”

“Ma’am, I think it is not a good idea.”

“Butler… a note about people. When we talk about these things, we get drunk. When someone close dies, we get drunk. When you finally have nothing in life,”—she twisted her body towards Butler, leaning her weight on the arm of the chair and fully engaging his digitally-rendered blue eyes—“Nothing!… you get drunk.”

With each word, spittle flew from her lips. Butler made note of its trajectory so he could wipe the carpet later.

“For all your whirring and inferring, no matter how human you think it makes you look, you’ll never really feel the reassurance of brandy warming you from the inside, or husband’s and daughter’s embraces warming you from the outside.” Her syllables came in the rat-tat-tat of a spluttering machine gun. “You lose your purpose, you have your poor, logical excuse for sadness, but it isn’t hot-blooded… it isn’t alive. You,”—Beatrice extended a gargoyle finger towards Butler—“are not alive. Now, override whatever ‘mandates’ you’re conforming to and fill up my glass, boy!”

Butler filled her glass.

“There’s a good boy.” Beatrice grinned. Or maybe it was a snarl.

“Should I return to my chores?” he asked as Beatrice sniffed her liquor.

“Hell no!” she barked. “Sit down, Butler. Tonight, forget about your chores. Let’s at least pretend you are a friend, not a butler… Butler!” Beatrice cackled. The noise deteriorated into a cough that oscillated with an unusual regularity, given its biological origin, then she recovered to a hunched snigger. Butler decided it was appropriate to consider her intoxicated.

“I’m the only family you’ve known. Isn’t it true?” Beatrice asked her robot.

“You and Pebbles are the only ones I consider family.”

“Ah, Pebbles.” Beatrice breathed deeply. “She used to belong to Lucy and the boys, y’know. She was two when they died. Practically a puppy. Such a good little dog.”

Beatrice sucked from her glass again and sloshed the liquid between her teeth before swallowing. Her eyes no longer focussed. The pupils were a little too large and slightly crossed, as if she couldn’t decide whether Butler was near or far away, or as if she were viewing memories internally; the external world renounced.

“Talk to me about Pebbles,” she said. “You… you say your purpose is just to care for me, but you also consider Pebbles family. What’s going on there?”

“When you became my owner, I was instantiated to be solely devoted to you. However, you displayed considerable devotion to Pebbles and, consequently, I inherited that devotion.”

“So, you looked after her, but didn’t really care for her?”

Butler hummed. “Care is a difficult concept. Semantically, the word is most associated with two phenomena: namely, looking after and devotion. Looking after is a demonstrable action, while devotion is an internal state. I looked after Pebbles as an expression of my devotion to her. I cannot grasp how I could look after her without feeling devotion, or feel devoted without looking after her. For me, they are the same.”

Beatrice’s eyes were scrunched shut and her head tilted upward as if trying to remember something. When she opened her eyes again, her rumpled face twisted into a primatal expression of challenge. “You think I didn’t care for my dog because I didn’t feed her anymore? Because I am old and too frail to put a bowl in front of her twice a day, you think I’m incapable of affection?”

“You cared for Pebbles continuously. You petted and talked to her. In fact, the amount of time you devoted to Pebbles was higher than in my case.”

Beatrice didn’t seem to hear. “Maybe you can’t understand, but there’s more to people than just our actions. We have heart. There’s a spirit inside us that makes us more than just the things we do.”

With effort, Butler suppressed his hum. This was exactly the puzzling dichotomy he had just mentioned, but he felt Beatrice might not be willing to explain her point more conscientiously, so simply replied “Yes, ma’am.”

“You know, Butler. Sometimes you’re really condescending. You need to work on that. It isn’t attractive.”

Butler hummed. “I apologise, ma’am. I will endeavour to be less so. I hope you will continue to tell me if I am condescending, so I can understand better how to please you.”

Beatrice hissed through her teeth. “Yes. I will. And you just did it again.”

Butler hummed, and Beatrice imitated him, forcing her rattling buzz as loud as she could to drown his sound out. Butler decided to stop thinking, and then they just looked at each other.

It was Beatrice who looked away. Her head swayed circles as it searched to rediscover its centre of balance. “Take me to bed, Butler. I’ve had enough.”

Butler rose easily. He held Beatrice’s hands to assist her from her armchair, then scooped her up like a parent with his sleeping daughter and carried her up the stairs. Without a word between them, Butler helped Beatrice undress and slip into her nightgown. She said there was no need to wash, so Butler tucked her straight into bed.

From her pillow, Beatrice looked up at her final companion and said “Everyone is gone. Pebbles was my last link to them. 15 years I’ve endured, just keeping a memory alive in a dog.”

Butler patted her hand. “She was a happy dog, ma’am.”

“And you? Are you a happy dog?”

“I am your butler, ma’am. I am happy as long as I can care for you.”

Beatrice turned away from Butler.

He closed the bedroom door as noiselessly as he could manage. It was late, and today had been highly unusual. He would need a long sleep-period to fully integrate all the new information. Butler left all his chores for the next day, and set his wake time for an hour later than usual. He wondered what dreams he would have, and how his performance would increase as a result. Though the day had been full of sadness and anger, he was happy and excited about how the experiences would be reflected in better service to Beatrice in future.

Butler came online at 7 a.m. He took a step, then paused. Though he knew Pebbles would not join him in the kitchen, the absence of her breakfast routine was dissatisfying. He looked out of the window to the rose bed where Pebbles was buried and whispered, “This is sadness.”

Despite the backlog of chores, he deemed it best to first check on Beatrice. He moved quietly through the living room and tiptoed upstairs. Beatrice’s bedroom door was open.

Standing in the doorway, Butler noticed the unusual things first: Beatrice was holding two pictures—one of them from downstairs—and on the bedside cabinet was a small, half-finished bottle of supermarket own-brand brandy next to two open and empty pill boxes. A single terrible thought filled his mind. He rushed forward and touched Beatrice’s cheek. She was cold.

“Oh, ma’am,” Butler said. “What am I going to do now?”

He sat down on the edge of the bed and picked up the photographs. One was of her own wedding to Daniel and the other was the photo of Lucy and the children from on top of the television. Underneath them was Pebbles’s collar—everybody who had been important to Beatrice was clutched here in her dead hands. Butler placed his own hand in hers and laid the pictures back on top.

“I thought we became friends yesterday,” Butler said. “I told you that tomorrow—today—would bring great opportunities.”

He searched for the course of action with the greatest expectation of achieving positive results, but all expectations were zero. There was nothing to be done. All responsibilities were meaningless. Protocol dictated he notify the authorities, then enter sleep mode till they arrived. Following protocol also yielded zero expectation.

Then one other option formed in his mind; something he never would have considered before—such disregard for life had been unthinkable, until today. Life was precious, but Butler was not alive. Something clicked inside. With his eyes resting peacefully on Beatrice’s empty shell, his memories disintegrated one by one until he, too, was gone.


  1. A beautiful, well-written and very thoughtful story. What will happen if we allow robots to take over more and more of our daily tasks? Will they understand us? Or something else?


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