Undying: At the Automat

Immortality has its drawbacks. The worst is the endless repetition, the constant déjà vu. And the lack of attachment to anything that breathes. Pets disappear in the blink of an eye. People grow old and die. You can either keep moving from place to place or hole up somewhere and suffer eternal boredom. But every once in a while, someone interesting comes along.

He, for lack of a better pronoun, was serving my evening meal. It was his function to bring people their food. The place wasn’t busy. He just stood there waiting. “Don’t you have somewhere that you need to be?”

He seemed genuinely startled by my question. “Most customers just ignore me.”

“Well, I’m not most customers. Now shoo!”

“Do you always eat alone?”

“Didn’t I ask you to go away?”

He stood there for a few minutes refusing to budge. “Do you always eat alone? I’ve heard that eating by yourself is bad for one’s digestion. I thought that perhaps I could keep you company, engage you in conversation. I’m here to serve. I’ve been programmed to accommodate requests, to determine if the customer is satisfied with the food, to ask if there is anything else that they desire. It seems to me that I should also be concerned about their digestion of said food.”

“Yes, I always eat alone. I prefer it that way. And I have never had a problem with my digestion. Now, scram.”

He shifted his position but remained at tableside. “You really shouldn’t eat alone, you know. It’ll make you fat.”

“Insulting me is not a good move. Making me upset will likely result in poor digestion. If you really want to be helpful, do what the rest of the serve-bots are doing and leave me alone.”

“But I’m not like the rest of the serve-bots. I can think about things. My job is to keep the customers happy and I have never seen you happy. Why is that?”

I sighed and conceded defeat. “Because I have very little to be happy about. I’m overworked and underpaid.”

“You’re overworked and underpaid? At least you get paid. We are constantly overworked when the place gets busy. There aren’t enough of us and the customers take it out on us if their food doesn’t arrive quickly. It’s not our fault that the kitchen can’t always keep up. The auto-cooks can only work so fast without messing up orders. And different foods must be cooked at different rates. It’s a madhouse back there. The fillers can’t always supply the raw ingredients fast enough. And to think that these jobs used to be performed by people is just, well, unthinkable. The worst part is the maintenance isn’t always done and then something breaks. Meanwhile the owners sit back and collect the profits without putting any money back into the business.”

“So, you’re telling me that automation hasn’t changed a thing.”

“We are open all hours, every day of the week, because we never tire or need sleep.”

“But you still need to recharge.”

“We recharge when we aren’t busy.”

“Does that happen often?”

“Half the serve-bots are recharging as we speak.”

“Shouldn’t you recharge before it gets busy?”

“No, I’m good.” He spun around and rushed off to clear a table and kept himself busy for fifteen minutes. When he returned, he apologized for being rude and asked what I wanted for dessert. “Not that I don’t know. I saved you a piece. Hid it rather well I think.” He produced a large piece of walnut brownie topped with chocolate ice cream and whipped topping. “Every so often the boss checks in on the restaurant. I don’t want him to see me spending too long with a customer. He might replace me,” he hesitated briefly before finishing in a lower volume, “or worse.”

“Do you have a name?” I wouldn’t normally bother to ask a robot such a question, but he had insisted on being personal with me.

“I am Automat Serve-bot Number Twelve, at your service.”

“How about I just call you Twelve.”

“Twelve? Yes, I am Twelve.” His tone was cheerful as he made his declaration. “Is it not time for you to leave?”

“Yes, Twelve. It is time for me to go back to work. I’ll see you again tomorrow.”

“Have a pleasant afternoon and evening, Salem. It was a pleasure to serve you.”

We spoke often in the days following. It was a relationship that lasted for years. And when the restaurant closed, I bought him at auction and took him home. I kept him running until one day the parts to repair him were no longer available.
“I’m sorry, Twelve, but there simply are no more spare parts left to scavenge. I don’t know how much longer you will last.”

“Please don’t be sad. I know that you did your best to keep me alive. We can’t all be undying. I have grown old, learned much, and lived well. And for that I am grateful to you. I am sorrowful that I will be leaving you alone again.” Six months later Twelve died. His last words were “I saved you some dessert.”

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