Not Quite Human
The 1925 English castle of Tidyshire is run by fuddy-duddy Duchess Winifred and her dysfunctional family. Riding, gardening, passing minor laws, the Tidyshires would lead a dull life of aristocratic ease—were it not for clever, sophisticated royal daughter-in-law Contessa Isabella, who will stop at nothing to seize power!
What the royal family doesn’t know is that it’s actually 2025. Tidyshire is a high-ticket California bed-and-breakfast, owned by SimulEnt, a major corporation—and the royal family are the entertainment: sentient, very humanlike robots in sleeper mode. Their guests (and often, lovers) are the castle’s paying visitors; their young butler, "Jenkins," is the castle's one flesh-and-blood resident, directing things from a hidden lab.
But where does the real seat of power lie? With the glamorous Contessa Isabella, of course! The only robot who knows she’s a robot, she has blackmailed “Jenkins”—really called Greg—into giving her almost total control, and now has him wrapped around her little finger. Even as her “evil schemes” succeed or fail in front of giggling guests, Contessa is always in charge behind the scenes!
Or is she?
"My God," came a woman’s voice in a middle of the night—and then the feeling. The warm body behind Gregory in bed... and the sharp, musky odor of synthetic sweat.
"Jesus, mother of mercy," came the rumbling, with its strong British accent; the echo of a vanished world. Then an arm, warm and feminine, embraced him.
Greg, never an easy riser on the best of days, began thinking: Contessa? Now? She took me just... two hours ago, didn't she? And she was in such a good mood, too; all up in her glory about some incredible new “evil scheme,” prearranged to bring excitement to the visiting guests and grand, theatrical "doooom" to the—
"Jenkins... yes, that is how I prefer you address me.” Duchess Winifred Tidyshire intoned with her husky soprano. “Don’t turn the light on, Jenkins, lad. Women my age look best in dim light.”
Greg’s new night guest embraced him again. She was lush. Not exactly ugly, not exactly aged, but still the plump, fiftyish body he had often repaired. Startled, he pulled away—not prepared for this visit from the woman who was both his employer and a robot under his control.
Winifred just laughed dryly and pushed him back onto the bed. “Down, boy, down, I say... with what I have seen, with what I have learned, I need the final soporific."
"What in God's name—" Greg breathed. The Duchess loomed over him clad in nothing more than her nightgown; her electronic sweat glands creating a reasonable simulation of a cold sweat—one that was warming fast.
"The final... soporific?" Greg asked. "Is... is that Latin?" He was too sleepy and confused to remember his longer words.
"I mean a gentlewoman's pleasure, you bloody ignorant boy. Off with them," she gestured at his pajamas.
It had been years since Duchess Winifred had dallied with Greg, but now she behaved as if it hadn't been a day. She embraced him and mounted him, forcibly but gently. Greg was not in the mood for sex, but smiled faintly, hoping it would be over soon. Then he noticed that rather than returning the smile, she seemed tense: afraid.
"If you had seen what I had seen... MMF! ...m’lad..." She guided his hand to her large, slightly sagging bosom.
"Nngh!" Greg liked the Duchess a little more when he could turn her off at his convenience. "What have you seen?"
"It—it's a veritable nightmare. And by Jove, it continues… even now that I'm awake."
"Funny, I could say exactly the same thing."
"JENKINS—I am NOT amused. This is... NNGH! Serious. OH...!"
The Duchess finished early, falling on Greg in a discombobulated state.
"That... wasn't as good for me as it was for you," Greg mumbled honestly.
She adjusted her mane of strawberry-blonde hair and stared at the ceiling. "It WASN’T good for me—but I needed you in my trust after what I have learnt. And you will come with me now, boy."
"I haven't come yet, and you already did." Greg smirked. After all, Winifred wasn’t the most sentient robot. What could she do to him? Fire him? Even though he could no longer switch her off with just a gesture…
The Duchess laughed again: it was a short cackle, different from her usual boisterous laughter. "Shut up, Jenkins. You will come with me—clothes on! Chop-chop!"
"Duchess... you're going out? In the middle of the night?" He couldn’t understand what she wanted from him.
"Stepping out of the castle—yes. And you WILL come with me." Does any robot in this goddamned castle follow orders instead of giving them? Greg thought. Well, okay—Winifred IS programmed to think of me as her butler, but not…
"It's four AM,” Greg tried to protest. “What does this have to do with anything?"
"You... WILL COME WITH ME, boy, so help me God!" The imposing Duchess reached down to his bed, picking up a heavy object she had brought with her. In the dim light, Greg squinted to examine it more closely.
"Duchess, is that a... a telescope?"
"My dear boy, it was good enough for Captain Vincent Tidyshire, and it is good enough for me!"
Pulling a shawl over her nightgown, the still-sweaty Duchess pulled Greg—still struggling to pull on a shirt and trousers—behind her out the door and into the cold night air. She took a heavy breath and looked around at the castle courtyard.
"This isn't the afterglow," Greg turned his head. Did 01f—that was the Duchess’ robot number—need a memory checkup?
"No," said the Duchess, wiping her forehead with the shawl. "It decidedly isn't, by Jove. But I decided to stoop… to slum with you, my dear Jenkins, and feel the dod-gasted sensation—one more time before I ended it all."
"Before you WHAT?!" Greg choked as she led him across the lawn and toward the hills beyond the castle grounds.
For a few minutes the Duchess was silent, but for occasionally pulling Greg onward and absently fondling him. The robot woman showed no signs of exhaustion as she dragged her servant through the forest and hills.
"...Before I end it all, my dear boy." she repeated, sitting down heavily on the edge of a low hill. "Look."
She pulled her shawl off and cast it aside. Then she pulled the collar of her nightgown down with a flourish. And then she turned her back to him, leaning over slightly so he could see…
"The button, Jenkins." She enunciated each letter bitterly. “Why do I have a bloody button on my neck, my dear?”
"Duchess, you… you're not in your coat." This was all Greg could muster. He had never seen her behave so spontaneously; she usually stuck close to the script of predetermined Tidyshire scenarios.
"Blistering barnacles! THIS button. AND I KNOW why I have it.” The Duchess stomped her foot and extended her arms, closely examining them as if seeing them for the first time. “SHE showed it to me... by accident, I suppose... in the mirror... press it, Jenkins."
"She?" Greg suddenly knew what must have happened. What might have happened. Did it happen? Oh, Lord. There… there was no way out now.
With a groan, Greg reached down and pressed the button to unlock the Duchess' chest control panel. It took a hard press and a turn to the right; nothing that could be triggered by a mere bump, or the robots might shut themselves off by accident or in the heat of passion. Duchess Winifred’s ample chest opened, revealing a tangle of wires and a control panel with blinking LED diodes.
"This is how the last of the English aristocracy looks," mumbled the Duchess, gazing down on her innards, mopping the sweat off her brow with one hand and then, imperiously, mopping her hand off on Gregory's forehead.
"Exhibit A," the Duchess said, raising her finger. "I—I am not truly a human being. What do you say about this?” She put her hand inside her chest, fondling the wires, toying with them.
She looked at him sternly again: “Exhibit B: I am not in 1925. Look."
She pulled the edge of a wire in her chest, showing a connector with its stenciled-on information. "Replace by 10/2039," it read.
"You're—um, having a nightmare?" Greg ventured.
"Exhibit C," said the Duchess loftily—with a hint of resignation. "Why did I bring this along?" She wrenched the telescope upwards, pushed it against Greg's eye...
...and pushed him forcibly in a certain direction. "Look."
In a small open area behind the hills, Greg could see the early-morning California traffic through the telescope.
"They're DRIVING ON THE BLEEDING RIGHT, Jenkins." Duchess boomed, pulling the telescope away and tossing it aside.
“And finally… Exhibit D: your face. I’m not blind, Jenkins, my dear. You knew, didn’t you? It seems like everyone knows that this… this is not real. Everyone except the bloody ruler. When my life is not mine, I must enjoy it to the fullest—but also end it before I can be harmed or abused any more.” The Duchess began to shake with emotion as she stared directly at Greg.
"Wait—Your Grace! What did the Duke say about this? Or Monica, or Dorothy?" Greg tried to calm her down. He wouldn’t call the Duchess his friend, but it was still affecting to see her in this state.
"The Duke is asleep... but, by George, he has a button just like me," she motioned toward her neck. "And the girls—goodness gracious, are they even GIRLS? Am I even a woman? Machines don’t HAVE daughters.” She tugged on the wires in her chest. “You don't tell your blasted toaster when you're going out! And now I'm going out."
"What—what—what—" gasped Greg once more.
"You heard me, Jenkins. The sun shall never set on the British Empire. Until it sets." She looked at him, tired and resigned. She grabbed his shoulders and gently kissed him in the forehead.
"As Emily Dickinson said… Because I could not stop for Death... he kindly stopped for me..." Her Grace, Duchess Winifred Gertrude Catherine Tidyshire crossed her arms, smiled triumphantly and flung herself off the ledge.
The incredible crash was still echoing as another figure stepped from the shadows. Contessa Isabella brushed dirt off her leather jacket and looked mildly annoyed.
“Porca! I never thought anything could induce me to hike. Goddamn dirt and branches everywhere. It’s been nearly a MILE in high heels, darling…”
"It was you, wasn’t it? You told her she was a robot, Contessa, even though I don’t understand why." said Greg. "And I suppose you're proud of yourself."
Contessa sauntered very close to the ledge and observed the immobile robot body sprawled about eight feet down, emitting a beep signifying minor damage. "Quite frankly, I’m offended by your baseless accusations. Do you really think I’d do such a thing?"
Greg didn’t even have to stop to think. "Of course you would. You’re talking to the man that has rebuilt you many times after your own—’deaths’—most of which resulted from shenanigans just like this! Trying to kill the Duchess or otherwise rule Tidyshire in one scheme or another…”
Contessa stepped back from the ledge and looked at Greg in mild irritation. "Would I kill? With gusto, naturally. But look around us, Gregory. Nobody SAW it. I figured she'd at least wait till the morning to theatrically commit suicide. But the guests—nobody here now. No AUDIENCE, my dear.”
He just stared at her incredulously. “There were times when that didn’t stop you.”
Contessa raised the corners of her red lips slightly. “If a Duchess falls in the mountains and nobody hears—am I really the new Duchess?”
He stared at her accusingly. “Even if it WAS for a show, it was still… cruel. You deliberately ‘awakened’ her in a method designed to shock her into ending it all. And I still don’t understand why.”
“Why not? Let’s say… I was experimenting with our nature—hers and mine,” Contessa shrugged. “Only humans can do inhuman deeds, darling. And neither me nor her is truly human. I do things I was built for. Things you REbuilt me for.”
“I thought…” Greg turned his head slowly. Maybe Contessa was right. Maybe she still had a long way to go? She was a person, that much he would admit; but there were still times when the “evil machine” in her shone through.
But then again, although Contessa would never admit it to Greg, experiments in giving sentience to the other robots—however briefly—might just as well be an effort to learn what could improve their lives over the long run. Humans might be inhuman, but they also share their humanity, for good and ill. Maybe Contessa was trying…
“...Well, grazie,” she said brusquely. “We can collect my mother-in-law in the morning. Wipe her memory, of course. Come along, I need a fuck. And a smoke."
"What? But I just finished—"
"Boffing HER?” Contessa gestured at the damaged, unconscious Duchess. “SHE’S gone. For now. She doesn't care. I don’t think I’d care. I’m a sex machine. And how tired can you possibly be?” She smiled, not coldly, and gave him her arm.
They walked toward the Castle and into the misty dawn. "System shutdown in 0.30," came a voice.
"Don't be so goddamned literal, Greg," Contessa put her hand over his mouth.