The steel barista was profiling him, he was sure of it.
There were exactly 1000 employees at ReCon, each of them with a 3×3 cubicle replete with headphones and monitors, each of them with a randomized set of communications between netizens to examine, each of them with a bathroom schedule, a lunch schedule, and a timeslot with the barista.
It wasn’t exactly a human voice that the barista had, Ron thought, and it certainly lacked a human visage, but it processed voice commands, and it poured hot coffees or teas colored from a weak green, through creamy browns, and on to a warm chocolaty color it called “black” from its little frontal spout. Ya gives it yer order, it gives ya yer coffee.
Only, for Ron, it only gave him water. Sometimes hot water, more often tepid water, one time ice-cold water that hurt his teeth.
The barista, he was sure, was testing him. Probing for weakness. Checking on his soundness as an employee of ReCon.
Ron was employee 736. His cubicle said 736, his time card said 736, even his check was made out to ReCon 736. But, quaintly, ReCon also used their employees’ given names. And even assigned you an alphabetic name if you didn’t already have one. Ron didn’t know for sure that Ron was his given name…he only remembered one woman from when he was a child, the person who made sure he had food for dinner and kept watch over him while he slept on a blanket in the corner of the concrete room they had lived in. He suspected she might not have been his mother. Her skin was quite a bit darker and richer than his, for instance. She called him Ronaldo sometimes, but usually just Ron. And, on memorable occasions, an echoey angelic voice called him Ron in his dreams.
Ron, heading for his 10:36 time slot with the barista, would sometimes 734 or 735 returning to their cubicles with their coffee cups. They always appeared to be full of some wholesome, steaming brew, and often had a nice, robust aroma as well. But not for Ron. Ron only got water.
He’d started to experiment, He ordered peppermint tea one day, coffee with cream the next, a mocha latte. Whatever. His order didn’t appear to matter. “How are you this morning, Ron?” the barista would say through its tinny little speaker. A nice bright welcoming voice. Research had no doubt specified that you could humanize the steeliest of baristas if it called you by name, Ron thought. “Fine. Thank you.” He’d overheard 735’s order this morning, and so he ordered the same: “Gunpowder, please; crystalized sugar.” And then the barista pissed out some lukewarm water. Ron caught it in his cup, and scowled.
There was no complaining to the barista. No do-overs. “Thank you,” Ron said, out of habit, and because he suspected that management graded folks on how friendly they were with the help. He tasted the water. It wasn’t fresh, but it wasn’t horrible. ReCon water. Just ReCon water. He headed back to his cubicle.
But then he had an idea. He’d noticed that 737…the employee that he’d once heard the barista call “Jim,” wasn’t in that day. Maybe he was sick. Maybe he’d been canned, and a new 737 would show up later in the week. It was rare that someone missed work at ReCon, because there were lots of folks who wanted jobs…as the management often reminded them. And wasn’t their job just pretty cushy, reading people’s private communications? The few communications that the AI wasn’t certain about, those set aside for manual handling? Their cubicles even had a small plastic seat on a hinge that could be folded out of the cubicle wall. How many jobs provided an environment sheltered from the elements, free coffee, and even a place to sit?
If 737 really had been canned, Ron would be in trouble. They would have programmed out his time slot with the barista as they escorted him to the door. But before he quite knew what he was doing, Ron turned, popped into the restroom (off-schedule, some part of his mind noted with alarm), and poured his lukewarm water into the sink. He waited a full minute, checking his watch, then went back to the barista. He took 737’s time slot. The 10:39.
“Good morning, Jim,” said the barista. “What’ll it be today?” The question sounded distant through the slight electronic crackle of the speaker.
Ron’s mind felt distant too. He didn’t know if 737 had a usual order or not. He said, weakly, “Coffee. Uh, please.” He stood up a little straighter. “Half and half!”
“Coming right up!” said the barista brightly. Ron held his cup under the plastic tube that extruded from the machine and waited.
The steel barista didn’t produce any coffee right away, but it certainly seemed chipper. “Beautiful weather this morning,” it said. Ron wondered if it was always so chatty with everyone but him.
“Yes,” he said. “Sunny.” He hoped it was something like what 737 might say. He held his cup under the spigot, under the eye of this damnable machine, wishing he had just gone back to work. They were going to notice that he wasn’t back before long.
Eventually, a white viscous fluid began dripping from the tube. Drip drip drip. Then nothing. The machine gurgled, then spurted out another yellowish-tinged glop. Then, while Ron stood there trying to catch it all in his cup, an eruption of white gobbets, intermingled with fart sounds. It filled the cup, then overfilled the cup. Warm, gelatinous goo overflowed onto the back of Ron’s hand. It crept down his pallid, nearly translucent skin. It looked like the congealed fat that ringed his lunch bowl as it was pulled from the fridge. It was unpleasantly warm. Congealed fat. No, Ron thought, and shuddered: Cellulite.
He shook his head at that, and grimaced. Maybe the machine was right to be profiling him. He set his cup on the counter and grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser.
“Have a nice day, Jim-Ron,” said the machine.
Ron froze. Had the machine really called him Jim-Ron, or had he mis-heard? He looked around. A young woman with short curly hair approached. His first thought was that she was from HR, coming to retrieve him from the floor. He tried to keep a poker face. But no, she had a coffee cup in hand. And then he recognized her. 738.
Ron coughed. He finished wiping his hand with the paper towel, threw it in the waste bin, and picked up his cup. It seemed unusually warm. And heavy.
He nodded to the young woman, and walked back to his cubicle.