She stared into a cup full of cold, milky-white liquid, a hazy reflection of her own face looking up at her with disinterest. Finally lifting the cup to her mouth, she closed her eyes as a streak of sweet, citric goo slushed down her throat.
Winter 04, the drink was named. Glancing around the small café outcove, she watched as a couple a few seats away on her right laughed and chattered. She shuffled on the bar stool as a gust of coolant blew beneath her feet on the metallic floor, and signaled her wrist to display a holographic digital clock. Still only 7:54 p.m.
Directly behind her was a long window panel, dotted with shiny advertisements and interactable digital storefronts. Beyond, towering buildings made of glass and metal filled her vision. Windows upon windows revealed a busy night: people riding up transparent elevators, dancing and shopping, workers and machines setting up one-way holographic billboards that covered the surface walls of the superstructures. People inside them could view things through the conglomeration of lights, though she had no idea how they worked. Peering below, she watched as innumerable dots of light sped past. She never owned a car before, but was told by a friend it was more trouble than it was worth. Staring down 24 floors made her dizzy though, and she quickly turned away.
“Need anything else?” asked a girl’s voice, and she looked up instinctively. A rotating screen had turned towards her, and the face of a cute, affable-looking young bartender beamed at her. She was dressed in a traditional black and white bartender’s outfit, complete with a red bowtie and gleaming belt. She had a flowing black head of hair, with some locks that fell over her eyes. An automated robot, designed to precisely guess when customers might need refills and act exactly like a real person.
“No, thank you,” she replied, smiling. She didn’t need to be nice to it, but found it easier that way.
The bartender in the screen frowned slightly, and the screen lowered to her eye-level. She looked extremely young, about 16 or 17 years old.
“You don’t sound so good,” she inquired, crossing her arms. “Is there something wrong with the drink? Or should I raise the ambient temperature?”
Truth be told, she found it slightly creepy how well the robot mimicked human responses. The auditory sensors had detected the smallest quiver in her voice, and ran her response through a series of digital emotion references that attempted to accurately catalogue how a person was feeling. In other words, it had a complete repository of the human experience, and its depth was impressive to say the least.
“I can’t hide anything from you, can I, Neelo?” she muttered quietly.
Neelo made a noise of approval and her eyes twinkled. The screen dipped down even more, until Neelo was looking up at her from the surface of the table.
“Fey,” the girl in the screen noted matter-of-factly. “I don’t need to use my emotion references to know when you’re troubled. You’re like an open book.”
Fey heard a series of whirls and clicks under the bar table, followed by the sound of cup being filled. Next to her right hand, a small compartment opened, and a tall glass of bluish juice rose up on a platform, releasing a small puff of cold gas.
“Ocean 09, with extra lemon. On the house.”
“You’ve always been bad at naming drinks.”
Neelo pouted with indignation.
“I am not! Everyone loves them!”
“They love the taste, not the names, Neelo.”
Sipping the blue drink, she felt a calm come over her. It tasted like a refreshing squeeze of blueberries, coconut, and a tinge of alcohol.
“Now.” Neelo’s screen swiveled over to her left side, and rested against the table. “Tell me who hurt you, and I’ll go beat them up for you.”
This absurd statement elicited a small chuckle from Fey.
“It’s nothing. I just… got stood up again, that’s all.”
Fey heard a small gasp, followed by several computer chirps.
Fey nodded. More aggressive chirping noises followed.
“Don’t worry about it. He wouldn’t have come anyways, he said he was probably too busy. I had nothing else to do, so I came out here in case… you know. In case he made it.”
The two of them sat in silence, listening to the ambient noises of the small, narrow bar. A visibly intoxicated man all the way at the end of the row burped loudly.
“Hey! Stupid robot! Gimme’ another drink!”
Fey gave Neelo a look of sympathy, and Neelo rolled her eyes in agreement.
“Be right back.” The screen lifted itself with surprising speed towards the drunk man, saying, “Alright, alright. Another Serpentine 02, then?”
Fey checked her watch again. 8:03 p.m. The time they had promised on had passed. Fey stirred her drink, feeling stupider by the second. Why was she getting upset? He had specifically told her that there was a good chance that he would not be able to make it. And she had said yes to it.
But she was still upset. And she didn’t understand why.
A few seconds later, Neelo flew back to her and assumed her original position on the table. Her face was full of worry, as if she was thinking of the best way to console her.
“Maybe if you show me a picture of him, I can beat him up for you if he ever visits?” The girl in the screen asked innocently.
Fey shook her head, and smiled.
“Really, I’m good Neelo.” Fey stood up, her boots clanking against the floor. “Thanks again for the drinks. I already transferred the credits to you, and keep the extra tip.”
“Fey…” Neelo whimpered sadly. Fey walked past the drunk man, now completely asleep, and stepped out the door.
She was met with a bustling and lively pavilion, the 24th floor of Commerce Transhub #2. Fey, thinking about what she wanted to do next, gazed around her surroundings. To her right were a series of transparent elevators that moved at high speed, and would take her either to the bottom level or to the very top. Curling her short hair of black and orange with her finger, she decided to take the subsound transit system; essentially a monorail train that hovered over electromagnetic railing to partially reach the speed of sound. This was how she had come here from her apartment.
As she walked closer to the elevators, she heard a shriek in front of her, and froze.
“Stop! I command you to stop!!”
Moving through the crowd that had formed, she saw that a hysterical young girl, 19 or 20, was standing in front of an android assistant, arms raised in a T-position. Behind her was a young man crumpled on the ground, beaten and bloodied. He was spitting out globs of blood, and was glaring at the android.
“Step aside ma’m,” the android responded bluntly. “He is a known criminal with a lengthy history in-”
“I don’t give a fuck if he is a criminal, he’s my boyfriend and you just beat him up to near death!”
“Shut up! Shut your fucking mouth!”
The crowd, murmuring and recording the event, stirred restlessly. Fey knew what was on their minds. Robots who disobeyed their owners would be subject to immediate dismantlement, and the company that manufactured its artificial intelligence network would face some serious allegations in court. AI was not a perfected product yet, and the populace was painfully aware of it.
“Ma’m. According to regulation 1044B, it is the civic responsibility of all members of the public to apprehend and subdue dangerous lawbreakers. The metro police have already been requested. Please step aside, your life may be at risk.”
“You’re nothing more than a assembly of circuits and metal. How dare you touch a human being? My dad is going to scrap you and turn you into a toaster. You hear me? You-”
At that moment, Fey was gently but firmly pushed aside by a couple of hands. The metro police had arrived. They all wore a black outfit over which they had a tight vest and various tools, as well as a repulsor gun designed to control large crowds by pushing objects away with a concentrated force. Some of them wore a visor which covered their eyes, and lights flashed around the circuitry on their uniforms.
“Are you the owner of this android, ma’m?” one of them asked. A few others rushed over to the bloodied man, and began triage.
“Yes. He’s clearly malfunctioned. I want him broken apart and scrapped!”
The android, still unmoving, stood down and faced the officers.
“Officers, that man is a known felon in 3 separate districts. I ask for your assistance in his arrest.”
He scratched his head and sighed in exasperation. “Shit, you’ve done a pretty good job of that already. Both you and he will come down with us to the precinct, and we’ll have a little talk, yeah?”
As the girl broke down and the man and android walked away with the officers, the crowd was corralled away from the scene. Fey was one of the first people to enter one of the elevators, and in less than a minute had reached the subsound transit station.
As she got off the elevator, she felt a hand grab her shoulder and turned around. An unknown man wearing a hooded shirt was staring at her intently, and she felt a chill run down her back.
“Quite a scene, eh?” he asked seriously. He must have witnessed the event as well.
Fey nodded vigorously, wanting nothing more than for him to take his hand off her.
“Wonder who’s gonna be blamed for it this time. You take care of yourself.” With that strange remark, he blended into the crowd and disappeared.
Fey stood in place for several seconds, paralyzed by what had just occurred.
And then, she ran for the train.