The Automated Ones by Hugh C. Howey
Melanie entered the foyer of Beaufort’s, leaving the reek of wet pavement behind and replacing it with a fog of fine-cuisine smells. Rain shimmered on her floor-length coat; she stripped the garment off and folded it over her forearm, looking back for her fiancé.
Daniel was still outside, fiddling with the umbrella. One of his shiny loafers was half-buried in a puddle, propping the door open. A cascade of water from the striped awning, a perfect line of downpour in the drizzle, was pattering across the back of his blazer.
“Darling, bring it in here and open it.” Melanie moved to grab the door and urge him inside.
“It’s bad luck,” he said. A yellow cab flew by, spitting up old rain from the gutter—adding another layer to the puddles.
“You don’t believe in that nonsense, now get in here before you ruin your new suit.”
“Almost got it—damn.” Daniel stepped through the door, the umbrella, broken and inside-out, was limp in his hand. “I’m sorry,” he said, shrugging his wide shoulders and twisting the corners of his lips up.
Melanie put her hand on his arm and reached for the ruined device. Even through the damp jacket, she could feel his warmth, his strength. “Forget it, sweetheart, we needed a new one anyway. It was ancient.”
“No—yeah. I just—I got frustrated with the stupid thing, that’s all. Tried to force it. I’ll buy you a new one tomorrow. Hey, a wedding present. I’ll get you one of those automated one’s that does everything with the press of a button.”
Melanie laughed at the joke and helped Daniel out of his jacket. Normally someone would have already been here to check their coats, but the nearby stall was empty. Melanie slid the broken umbrella into a barrel full of fancier ones. With interlocked arms, the couple crossed the large entrance to the maître de, who seemed lost in his large ledger of clientele.
“Bonsoir Robert,” Melanie said. She was careful to slur the last half of the Frenchman’s name, dropping the “T” entirely and leaving the “R” clinging desperately to the “E.” Robert took the meticulous and exacting slurring of the French language to its absolute extremes.
He looked up from his book with a mask of mechanical surprise. Melanie suspected at once that he’d seen them enter, that he’d been hiding in his matrix of Washington’s who’s who of politics and law. “Mademoiselle Reynolds. What a surprise. We weren’t expecting you—“ His eyes were welded to hers as he let the rest trail off. He was ignoring Daniels so blatantly, he may as well have been shining lasers on her fiancé.
The fib flipped on the lawyer switch in Melanie. She could feel the adrenaline of confrontation surge up inside. “Don’t pull that crap on me, Robert.” She stressed the “T” this time, ticking it between her teeth with a flick of her tongue. “I’ve eaten here every other Friday for two years— I called in and specifically requested a private table for—”
Robert held up his hands, cutting her off. “Oui. Of course. I’ll make an exception, just—merci, don’t create a scene.”
Melanie ran her hands down the sides of her blouse and over her hips, composing herself. “There’ll be no scene tonight, Robert. We’re just here to celebrate.”
There was finally a flicker of movement in the maitre de’s eyes. A twitch to Daniel and back. The Frenchman’s thin lips disappeared in a grimace. “But, of course, Mademoiselle. Congratulations,” he barely managed the word, and he couldn’t help but add, “I understand it was a very close decision you won. Four to three, no?”
“The important decisions are always close. Now, if you’ll show us to our table—”
“Of course. Right this way.” He grabbed two leather-bound menus and a wine list from the side of his stand. Then he made a show of looking at Daniel and smiling, but there was something unpleasant about the expression.
More bad looks followed. As they weaved through the tables, heads swiveled, tracking them with the precision of computer-guided servos. The din of jovial eating faded in the couple’s wake. The clink of excited silverware on thin china ground to a halt. Dozens of eager conversations, all competing with one another, faded into a hiss of white noise. It was the sound, not of air escaping, but of grease popping on hot metal. A buzz interspersed with spits of disgust.
“We can go somewhere else,” Daniel pleaded.
Melanie shook her head. They were led to a small two-top close to her usual table, but sticking out in the traffic of the servers more. She didn’t return any of the stares, just focused on getting seated before she answered Daniel.
The chairs were not pulled back for them; Robert waved at the spread of white cloth and meticulously-arranged eating tools and strode away without a second glance. Melanie allowed Daniel to hold her chair and waited for him to settle across from her.
“We can’t let them change us, dear,” she finally explained. “If we didn’t come tonight, would it be easier next week? Or the week after? And where would you have us go, if not here?”
Daniel leaned forward, moving the extra glasses out of the way and groping for Melanie’s hand. They found each other and squeezed softly, throwing water on the grease fire popping around them.
“We could’ve gone out with my people,” Daniel said quietly. “Gone to Devo’s or Sears, or—”
“Please don’t whisper,” Melanie begged him.
“Does it sound strange?”
“No. Of course not—it’s… it’s just that I don’t care if they hear what we’re talking about.” She forced herself to say it with an even tone, but the effort made her voice sound abnormal. Mechanical. She didn’t care, but the interruption brought a halt to the conversation.
The silence that fell over their table created a pit, a depression into which a dozen hushed conversations flowed.
Unfortunately for Melanie, she’d become an expert at hearing through the noise. Twice a month, while her friends talked about things that didn’t interest her, she would sit here in Beaufort’s and try to tease single strands out of the tangle. She’d learned to concentrate on the lilt or cadence of a solitary voice, winding that conversation in, honing the ability to drown out the rest.
That skill was now a curse. And Daniel, no doubt, was hearing them as well as she. Dangerous and mean-spirited shards of conversation crowded the already-cluttered table. More utensils meant for cutting. Supreme Court. Android. Marriage. Shame. God. Unnatural. It was a corporate meeting on intolerance carried out by the finest minds in the city. A brain-storming session on hate and ignorance that sounded no more informed than the crowds outside the courthouse. Each vile and familiar word probed Melanie’s defenses, attacking the steeled nerves that convinced Daniel to come and slicing at the ones that were for communicating pain.
Daniel squeezed her hand. So gentle. The tissue around his mechanical frame was soft and warm to the touch, no different than hers. She looked up from their hands to his eyes and blinked the wetness away from her vision.
“We can go somewhere else,” he suggested again.
Melanie shook her head and pulled her hand away from his. She reached for a cylinder of crystal and saw there was no water in it. Looking around for their waiter, she fought the urge to wipe at her eyes.
The sweep of her gaze, as she scanned the room, had a repellent effect. Heads swung away with disdain. All but three that were seated right behind her. Her old table. Her old friends. She couldn’t help herself, Melanie bobbed her head slightly in greeting.
“Linda, Susan, —”
She didn’t get a chance to say hello to Chloe—the woman was already accosting her. “You’re disgusting,” she spat. “You’ll burn.”
She wondered what Chloe meant, taking it literally. It took her a moment to realize her friend was speaking of the old prophecies. Superstitions she couldn’t possibly believe. She turned back to her table, the waiter forgotten.
Meanwhile, Chloe’s words stoked fires under the other tables, turning up the heat and popping the grease with force. Insults were hurled, mixed with foul language. Screwing. Bestiality. Fucking. Hell. Damnation.
Daniel’s eyes were wide, pleading with her. They glanced over her shoulder toward the exit.
Melanie wondered what she’d expected. Awkward silence, perhaps. An organized shunning, at worst. Or maybe one person she hardly knew saying something rude, and the rest of the country’s elite and mighty feeling ashamed for the worst example among them.
The empty chair at her old table would likely be filled by the time they returned from their honeymoon. Melanie could see another potential calendar of court dates looming as Beaufort’s attempted to refuse them service. Daniel had been right about this being a mistake.
But he was wrong to think it’d be much different at Devo’s. She’d seen the looks from the court stenographer and the bailiff bots. There’d been plenty of androids in the gallery as advanced as he, each of them far more flesh than machine. And not all of them were pulling for change.
It was a lesson Melanie absorbed from experience: you can’t be hated without learning to hate back. The system fed on itself. The tension as jobs were lost turning into ire on both sides. Defensive hatred turned into offensive hatred. Tribes turning on each other. They were all programmed this way.
Daniel was mouthing his silent plea once more as the chorus of derogatory remarks grew louder. She nodded her resignation and leaned forward to push her chair away. The sudden movement prevented the attack from landing square—the wine streaked through the back of her hair and continued in its crimson arc, splashing to the carpet beyond.
There were gasps all around, more from the anticipation of what might come next than at the outrage of the attack. Several men slapped their palms flat on the table, expressing their approval. China sang out as it resonated with the violent applause.
Daniel was out of his chair in an instant, rushing to Melanie. He slid one arm around her while the other went to the crowd, palm out. He was defending the next attack before it started. Several larger, inebriated men took the defensive posture as an invitation. The gesture of peace was a vacuum pulling violence toward it.
Someone grabbed a corked bottle of wine and held it with no intention of drinking it.
Chloe was the closest. She would have landed the first blow, if she could. But Melanie’s rage gave the mob pause.
“Enough!” she yelled. “ENOUGH!” She screamed it as loud as she could, her voice high and cracking and her hands clenching into little fists with the effort. She glared at Chloe, who still seemed poised to lash out. “How am I hurting you?” she asked her old friend. She spun around as much as Daniel’s grip on her would allow. “How am I hurting any of you?”
“It’s not natural!” someone yelled from the back, the crowd giving him courage.
“He’s a machine,” Susan said. “He’s nothing but a—“
“Does your vibrator hold the door open for you, Susan?” It felt good to say this out loud She’d thought about it hundreds of times when the relationship first started. Always wanted to bring it up. Melanie switched her glare to Linda. “How many times have I heard you bragging about how good your “little friend” is?”
“We aren’t marrying our dildos, you bitch.” Chloe was visibly shaking with rage.
Melanie nodded, her jaws jutting as she clenched and unclenched her teeth. “That’s right,” she said. “You married a man forty years older than you. And how much of him is original, huh? We sit here every week and listen to you bitch and moan about your inheritance being wasted, on what? Replacement hips? New knees? A mechanical ticker? Dialysis machines and breathing machines and heart-rate monitors?” Melanie pointed to Chloe’s bulging blouse. “Is it unnatural for the old bastard to love those? Does he kiss your collagen-injected lips and marvel at how real they feel?”
She pulled herself out of Daniel’s protective embrace and whirled on the crowd of ex-friends and old colleagues. She placed her hand flat on her chest. “You people think I chose this?” She turned to her fiancé. “You think I could stop loving him if I just tried hard enough? Could any of you choose to fall in or out of love by force of will? Do you really think you’re in control?”
Daniel reached for her again, trying to comfort her. Melanie grabbed his hands and forced them down, but didn’t let them go. “We’re staying,” she said softly.
“We’re staying.” Louder. For the crowd. “And we’re eating. And you can hate us for being the first, but we won’t be the last. You can go get your surgeries and implants, you can medicate yourselves according to some prescription-language program, and you can all go to hell with your hypocrisy.
The crowd swayed with the attack, held at bay even if it would take years—generations—for them to become convinced. Daniel guided Melanie to her seat, willing to stay if she was.
“Things are going to change,” she said to herself.
“I know, sweetheart,” Daniel said.
Melanie leaned to the side to scoop up her napkin which was fringed with the red wine it wicked from the carpet. Daniel reached it first and handed it to her, careful to fold the stains away where they couldn’t spread any further.
“It’s coming,” Melanie repeated. “And if they didn’t hear it today, they need to check their hearing aids.”