The robot looked down at the middle-aged man who was still busily drawing. This time it was a large purply fruit, bumpy, like a blackberry. Or… “Boysenberry?” the robot asked.
The man looked up, frowning. “What did you say?”
“Boysenberry. A cross between a blackberry, raspberry, dewberry and loganberry.”
The robot’s voice was female. Pleasant.
“And this one?” the man asked, now showing her another of the various pictures littered across the table. There was a pause for a few seconds while the robot said nothing. Then, “Looks like the inside of a kiwi fruit. And a little like a gooseberry.”
“Yes, that’s what I thought.” The man huffed. “And I suppose this one looks like a strawberry?” he said, pointing to another of the pictures.
“A cubic strawberry,” answered the robot. “But the pink coloring is most attractive. In my opinion, at least.”
The man stared at the contraption serving him. “You things have opinions now?”
The robot hesitated.
“Would sir like some more coffee?”
The robot bent her smooth white arm downwards, the coffee jug held firmly in her long metallic fingers. The jug hovered above the man’s cup but failed to pour, awaiting his orders.
“So, in your opinion,” the man asked, eyes fixed on the drawings, seemingly unaware of her action, “which of these fruits strikes you as the most original?”
“The most like no other fruit that exists.” He spread the drawings across the table, lining them up. “Which of these says to you, Now that’s a fruit I’ve never tried.” He looked up at her blank face. A visor over a head of shiny white. The visor glowed in a warming tint of amber-orange. “Okay, want to try,” the man said. “I mean, you’re a robot with opinions, and I’d like to hear them.” Noticing the hovering coffee jug, he gestured for her to top him up. “Come, come,” he said. “Let me have it.”
The robot’s visor flickered.
“Well… as a robot who is unable to eat real fruit, I would say the strawberry is the most aesthetically pleasing.”
The man huffed. “The strawberry.”
“I like the color. And the shape.”
“The square shape.”
“And the speckles. I like the speckles.”
“But it’s still a strawberry. That’s what you’re calling it.” The man took a sip of his coffee, looking again at her smooth, oval face. “If you’re already calling it a strawberry, then that’s what it is and I’ve failed already.”
“How about pink square berry?”
“Pink, square…” The man laughed. “A robot with a sense of humor, eh? If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were making fun of me.”
“Just trying to cheer you up,” came the reply. Incapable of smiling, the robot just stared at the man, and in spite of himself, in spite of his tired mood and the stress of having to come up with something original by dawn, the man was beginning to warm to her.
“So what d’ya say we work with that? Give it some fancy Latin name. What’s Latin for pink and square?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“Thought you robots could access the net in an instant?”
“I’m not that sort of robot.” She hesitated. “But I could do a search.”
“Not that sort of robot, she says.” The man gazed down at the picture of the square pink strawberry. “Seem to know a lot about fruit though; for a robot who never eats.”
The robot’s visor flickered again in the orange tinting. “I work in a diner. Food is my expertise.”
She watched as the man huffed, pushing the picture to one side, then gathered up the others into a neat pile which he folded together and handed to her.
“Trash,” he said. “If you please.”
“Of course, sir.”
“And get me a… what do you serve in this joint?”
She waved a robotic hand over the tabletop’s IR and a holo-image of blueberry pancakes on a large white plate spun slowly in front of them.
“You choose this?”
“It’s the most popular serving for this time of the morning.”
The man looked at his watch. “Five-fifteen a.m,” he sighed. “Two more hours.”
“You have to come up with something by seven fifteen?”
“Meeting’s at eight. But I’ll have to go home and change. Pod to my building, pod to the office. Even two hours is cutting it fine.”
Her visor flickered again. “And you have to present a drawing of a fruit?”
“That’s right,” the man said. Reaching out, he swiped away the pancakes and a menu appeared. With a series of further swipes he brought up a Key lime pie, a fat slice with cream that now spun in front of them. “It’s a winner,” the man said. “Original recipe, never bettered.”
“I see,” the robot said.
“I understand,” she answered. “I think I know what you’re doing. You have to design a fruit. Something unique, like an original dish.”
“Exactly, doll.” The man hit at the pie and in turn the robot beeped. Her visor turned green. “Right away, sir,” she said, and spun around, heading for the kitchen.
The robot stopped in her tracks, turning back to face him. On her feet were a set of rollers; it was the way the robots here moved. They were short but not dwarf-like, the perfect height to be standing next to a table talking down to the seated customer. Their bodies were fat and round, their legs stocky.
“Yes?” the robot asked.
“It’ll be you bringing it to me, yeah?”
The man gestured around the diner, to the other booths and other robots serving.
“Of course, sir. I am yours for the night.”
When she returned with the pie, the man had begun on a new picture.
“Looks like a chocolate apple,” she remarked, handing him his desert.
He screwed up the paper – watching him, the robot held out the jug of coffee. “Another top-up?”
The man sighed, tapping at his cup appreciatively. He took the pie and sliced off the nose with the dessert fork provided, shoving the morsel into his mouth, chewing.
She topped up his coffee again.
“You’d think it would be easy,” he sighed.
“To design a fruit that doesn’t exist? No,” she stated. “I would say, that wouldn’t be easy at all.”
He looked up at her flickering visor. “There you go again with the opinions.”
Bending down, she placed the coffee jug next to him. “So, this task of yours is important?”
“Could say that.” The man was slicing off another portion of pie. “But only if I’m chosen.” He chewed again, hungrily. “If my design’s chosen, I’ll be getting a fat bonus. Could even end up leading the team.”
She stood straight again. “So, there are others, competing for this bonus? You’d like to be the winner, I think.”
The man appeared irritated for an instant. “Doll,” he said, “in business the competition never ends.” Looking across at her blank expression however, the man’s temper began to melt. He smiled. “Look, doll,” he said, “this is kinda hush hush, but I’ll tell you anyway. What the hell?”
The robot waited.
“What we’re working on. It’s a new idea, selling them the fruit first, before the flavor. You understand?” he asked.
The robot’s visor flickered.
“Take this pie, for instance,” the man continued, gesturing at the Key lime. “Now you can’t tell me that this is just about the taste. Got hardly nothing to do with it at all. It’s about the design, you see. What’s on the outside. The aesthetics. And the name. Key lime pie.” The man smiled. “Has a ring to it, don’t you think? Brings up an image?”
“Sell them the image and the taste will follow.”
“An original flavor,” she confirmed.
“Yeah, but give them a new flavor and they’ll say it tastes like sweet blueberries with a hint of lime and ginger. They’ll say it reminds ’em of mangoes, of pineapple. But sell the image first and you’re on to a winner. An original fruit. Original flavor.”
The robot said nothing again, but with a silence that seemed encouraging to the man.
He went back to his pie.
“You know apple flavoring’s nothing like real apples,” he mused. “And banana flavoring’s based on some breed that went extinct some two hundred years ago. But they associate…” the man trailed off. “Look at me here, talking like this to a robot. What would you know about flavoring anyway?”
“One can imagine.”
“Well, that’s just it.” The man huffed, sticking a fork into the last morsel of pie. He shoved it into his mouth, washing it down with a hefty gulp of coffee. “The power of association,” he said.
“A first impression, that one cannot forget.” The robot’s visor flashed green. “Another customer,” she said. “Call me if you need anything else.”
The man watched his new friend slide across the room. Taking up a fresh piece of paper, he began to draw her; at first slowly, but then feverishly. Her body was elegant, smooth and white; her joints shaded silver and her face a pleasant oval. Her visor tinted into a deep shade of amber as she addressed the new customer.
Finishing his sketch, the man placed it to one side and began a new one. An oval white fruit with checked lines of amber tinting. He drew a dissected image beside it, with pips of bright green and a warm, silver stone at the center that blended in with the white, fleshy pulp. It was basic, but the design was clean – all it needed now was a little personality; a little flavoring.
The man sat back, satisfied. Scanning the picture to his pad, he looked around for the robot to thank her. But she’d disappeared into the kitchen.
He looked at his watch.
“It makes no sense,” said his boss. “It’s got pips, it’s got a stone. Unnatural colors. And what are these lines for?”
The man hesitated.
“But that’s exactly why I love it,” the boss continued. “It’s subtle, it’s mysterious. And like no other, no other fruit at all.”
They were sitting in a small think tank on the seventh floor of the company building. The other designers had been dismissed – in a matter of no less than five minutes the boss had walked past each and tapping at their designs, naming the fruits that one and every image reminded him of, he’d called, “Out, out, out!”
But when it came to the checked white and amber offering, he’d stopped.
Now it was only the two of them, the man and his boss that were left in the room.
“You know what I like most about this?”
The man sat silently, holding his breath.
“It’s that it says nothing to me,” the boss continued. He began to laugh hoarsely. “I mean, it’s attractive, sure, but in an unfamiliar way. It’s incomprehensible. It’s like a…”
“A clean slate?” the man offered.
“Exactly right!” The boss patted the man on the shoulder, hitting him hard, enthusiastically.
“All it needs now is a little personality.”
The boss grinned at the man. “Personality. That’s exactly what I’m going to say to our flavoring department. “Give this shell some personality…”
With bonus credits now deposited, the man could have dined out well that evening. He could have afforded a grade one restaurant, and had in fact received a company voucher for himself and a plus one to do just that. But he returned instead to the diner. He wanted to thank the robot. Sure, it was just a hunk of metal with wiring and algorithms, but it’d helped him.
Besides, he wanted to see her again. He wanted to hear her voice, and tell her what had happened.
When he arrived at the diner, there were a dozen robots scuttling around the tables. He sat down and one came up to him.
“Good evening, sir.”
“Yes. I…” the man hesitated. “There was another… another of you,” he said. “And I wanted to, to thank her for something.”
The robot stood motionless. It seemed to be computing this information. “Oh, you mean Sheila,” it said suddenly. “Yes, I’ll get her for you.”
In a short time the robot was replaced by a model of the exact same appearance. Only the voice was different. Sure, it had the same synthetic twang, but there was something warmer about this one. More feminine.
“And how did it go?”
The man laughed. “You remember me?”
The robot’s blank expression seemed to smile at the man. “Coffee and Key lime pie. The fruit man. Did they like your drawing?”
“Yes, yes they did.” The man fumbled around at his pad and brought up the image of his design. “I wanted to show you. And thank you. Last night, or rather this morning, before you talked to me, I really didn’t think I could do it. But… you like it?” he asked.
“I do,” she said warmly.
“You know I based it on you. On your appearance.” The man held his hands out wide. “I guess one could say you inspired me.”
The next evening the man returned to the diner.
Her voice was as affectionate as ever.
“Here I am,” the man replied. He ordered something or other. It didn’t matter. “So tell me,” he asked jovially, “what a robot like you does on her days off.”
“Oh, I don’t have any of those.” She paused and it seemed she was happy to linger around his table.
“You enjoy your work?”
“It’s all I’m capable of.”
“All you’re programmed to do?”
“Well, no, not exactly.” The robot’s visor turned green. “Be back in a moment.”
“Sure. I mean, you don’t have to.”
“I want to,” she replied. “I like our conversations.”
They began talking of what he would do next in his project. As he continued to go there regularly, he’d give her updates on how things were progressing. There was much talk of what the texture of the fruit should be like. “Although,” explained the man, “the fruit itself will not be created.”
“No, not at all. That’s a given. It’s purely the idea of the fruit. That’s what we’re selling. Getting that idea into the mind of the consumer. The image, but not the fruit itself.”
“A shame though,” she said. “That it won’t physically exist.”
“I guess so,” the man admitted. “But like I say, that’s not the idea.”
There was much debate at his workplace over the flavoring–whether it should be sweet, bitter, sour… and because of the importance of this, a final decision was taking its time, a decision not made easy by the flavoring department daily offering up new samples.
“So you’re waiting?”
“Mostly. But the design department are kept busy with producing visual images for possible commercials.”
“Oh, yes?” She poured him some more coffee. “They’re not overworking you, I hope.”
“No, no,” he waved away her concern. “It’s simple really. A young girl drinking juice with a picture of the fruit on the carton; a man biting into a donut with a green and white centering; a mechanic holding out a slice of pie… a cartoon grape cracking a joke to an animated lemon and then our fruit comes in with the punchline…” He laughed. “Look at me, going on.”
“They have a name for it yet?” she asked, interested, encouraging.
The man paused. Then, “Well, if it were up to me, I’d call it Sheila.” He began to blush, but then covered his blushes with a friendly wink. He looked away.
“Funny name for a fruit,” she remarked, taking in his blushes. Her visor flickered.
“But of course it’s not, not up to me at all.” The man sighed, looking back at her. “Out of my hands. Flown the nest.”
“Yeah, you know. When you have kids and they grow up. Become independent and fly away.” The man did a little motion with his hands. “Like a baby bird going out on its own.”
“And as its parent, you have to let go.”
The man grinned. “You’re a smart one, Sheila, a smart one indeed.”
It was about a month later when he was called into his boss’s think tank.
“Oh, yes,” the boss coughed, waving the man in. “I wanted to pick your brain.”
The man bowed. “Of course, sir.”
“Yes, the… goddammit, can we get this music to stop?” There was an opera concerto coming from the walls, which halted as the automated response picked up on the words music and stop.
“Thank God for that.” The boss went over to a pad in the wall, to the controls for the holo-projector.
In the center of the room an image of the fruit now displayed itself, white and speckled with subtle amber-orange checkering, it grew in size to that of a watermelon, then shrank to the size of a small lime.
“Like that,” the man said. “But slightly larger, a little. Yes, that’s right.” Suddenly he was by the holo-image, commanding it and the boss watched him, impressed.
“And the taste?” the boss asked.
The man turned to face his superior.
“The taste? You’re asking me?”
“Of course I’m asking you, man.” The boss chuckled. “Amount of snazzy ideas coming at us… tangy, fizzy… that seems to be the most popular; but I’ve gotta admit,” he said, looking at the man, “I gotta be straight in saying that I’ve no confidence in putting through any go-ahead without asking you first.” He smiled, showing the man the palms of his hands. “It’s your baby after all.”
The man bowed again, this time gratefully. “Thank you, sir.” His eyes sparkled, growing in confidence. “You know what?” he said, looking back at the holo-image. “I’d kinda imagined it sweet. Like…”
The boss watched the man circling the fruit. He watched him hesitate as he appeared to remember who he was talking to.
“Come on, man. Let me have it.”
Finally, the man spoke. “As it is with love,” he said, the words falling from his lips almost accidentally.
“Love?” the boss boomed. “Love?” He was on the verge of laughing out loud.
“Yes, I mean, no, not exactly love,” the man stuttered. “Not mushy, not that kind of love. Just, warm, you know? Friendly. Companionship.” He was muddling his words. “It should be luscious, and pure,” he tried. “But something to cheer you up.”
“Sounds mushy to me.”
“No, no…” More determined in his expression, the man looked his boss in the eye. “Over time I’ve thought about it a lot. And I can’t help associating this fruit with something strong, warm, sweet, addictive. Something new and wonderful. But long-lasting. A flavor that never loses that power of the first bite.”
“You sound like an ad man.”
“Well surely that’s what we are?”
The boss walked over to the man, putting a hand on his shoulder. “As a designer I can’t fault you,” he said. “But… love, love he tells me. My man, you need to get yourself out more.”
The man paused. “No, sir.”
“Sure, sure. A romantic.” The boss smiled. “So where you get the idea from anyway?”
“The idea, sir?”
“The fruit. The fruit, man. It’s a goddamn inspired design, I’ve gotta say.” The boss gestured to the circling holo of the fruit. “You know they’re still trying to come up with a name for it. Why I asked you… love, you say. I guess we could work with that. Amour, Eros…” the boss twirled his fingers theatrically and laughed. “What you do, base it on a girl?”
“No, not exactly. It was a robot. Downtown, there’s this diner. The robots there…” The man looked away, embarrassed. Then, “They just happened to be around me when I was working on the design.”
“A diner you say?”
The boss chuckled. “Well, wouldn’t you know. All this time.” He stared back at the fruit. “Now you mention it, I think I even know the ones. Been to places like that myself. Some of ’em can even be quite chatty.” He smiled. “But you understand they’re not robots, right? Is that why you–”
“Not robots, sir?”
The boss looked back at the man, puzzled at the expression of perplexity he was receiving. “They’re cripples. Disables. Most of them, no not most, I think it’s all of ’em. No control over their bodies. You know the type. Motor neuron disease… out in the country hospitals, tubed up and bedridden.” The boss did a vulgar impression, screwing up his face and holding his arms out crookedly. He did an “Ahhh,” sound and laughed some more, then caught himself and attempted a more solemn expression. “But it’s a great thing, sure, enabling those unfortunates… giving them something to do. Some can only move their eyelids, you wouldn’t believe it. But the technology these days. Rigged up at their remote locations, they control the robots just fine. “Can I take your order?” the boss said in a comically robotic voice, squinting his right eye and holding his arms out rigid. He began to laugh again, amused at the man’s expression of horror. “All this time,” he said, turning back to the revolving fruit, while beside him the man shrunk slowly into the padded flooring of the think tank.
The man spent the rest of the day in a haze. He was unable to draw anything. He got off work early, went home and showered. Later, turning on his bed, the man said out loud that he’d never go back there, that he couldn’t…
At eight o’clock the city neon sparked. Through the bustle of pedestrians, the man pushed his way through to the diner’s entrance, swiped his pad over the IR. Behind him the setting sun was large and a deep orange while wispy clouds moved slowly in the twilight.
The man entered the diner.
There they were, the white robots, shifting from one table to another while way out in the country, in God knows what hospitals and facilities, those patients, all but comatose.
Unable to eat real fruit.
“Good evening, sir.”
“Yeah, sure. Sure,” said the man, bleary-eyed, dazed.
“The usual table?” The white robot looked at him blankly.
“Yeah, yeah, sure,” the man replied. “Usual table. Usual one of you. Where is she, anyway?” The man huffed, looking around. “Sheila here? She busy?”
“I am Sheila.”
The man turned back at her. He opened his mouth but the words wouldn’t come. He just stood there, awkwardly.
“Is something wrong?” she asked. Her smooth white body was also motionless. Her visor flickered and for a long time neither man nor woman said anything.
Then slowly the man took her robotic hand in his own. “No, nothing at all,” he replied, the words finally coming to him, finally making sense. Her synthetic shell seemed to quiver in response as he clutched her hand tighter. “In fact,” he smiled, “I have good news. A promotion. Let’s go find a table and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Chris Morton is the author of two sci-fi novels, one collection of short stories and a few other scribblings. For more information you can check out his blog : newadventuresinscifi.blogspot.com