The coffee shop was busy this time of day. Too busy. The morning sunlight glinted off the bronzed wood of the sign above the doors, silhouetting the patrons seated at the tables within. The lone android paused with his slender, plastic-grafted hand poised to push open the door.
For several moments, he didn’t know why he had stopped. Perhaps it was a malfunction in his arm? He’d taken care to troubleshoot his joints before making the walk down the riverside market, so nothing should be amiss. Yet there he stood, frozen in place, in time, like a fly caught in amber.
“They clearly aren’t closed…” muttered a man to his right. The android craned his neck to observe the couple glancing oddly between the crowded shop and him. Furrowed brows…frowns…dissatisfied expressions! He was clearly doing something wrong.
The android forced his static arm forward, shoving open the door with perhaps more force than necessary and letting himself inside. The array of sensations startled him—the bell tinkling daintily above his head, indicating to all his arrival; the distinct aroma of coffee beans and wafting vanilla from behind the countertop; the undulating waves of human conversation blending into a hopeless muddle against his sensors.
The lone cashier barely glanced up at him, too busy writing down the next customer’s order in the long line before him. Lest his joints froze a second time, he hurried to a window booth just recently vacated by a mother and her squealing toddler. As he sat, fingering a small cookie crumb, he both glanced at the dusty wall clock and checked the timer he’d set in his internal computer.
Five minutes. He would have arrived sooner had the marketplace not been so crowded. It was a mistake not to anticipate the popularity of human interactions on Saturdays and Sundays. Yet it was the only day he could arrange to meet with—
“Welcome to The Grind! Cup ‘a coffee, or something exciting?”
The android risked a glance at the waitress. Chewing on the tip of her pen, half her attention was fixed on the notepad already dark with ink scribbles. He kept his eyes trained on the pen, just in case she happened to glance up at him.
Don’t look them in the eyes. His extensive research leading up to this day had warned him of this. The emotions writ within eyes was a telltale sign of humanity. Only a second’s gaze would reveal the glint of machinery behind his own.
The waitress sighed. “Listen, mister. You see the line? If you’re still deciding…”
The android jolted back to attention. Right, she had asked a question. What to consume? He quickly surveyed the other patrons of the café. A woman sitting at one of the round tables, jotting down notes with a latte stationed beside her hand…the man in the business suit at the booth just past his own, shouting into a flat phone while handling a small, clear glass of what could only be alluring espresso…the bedraggled young man on one of the stools, typing away furiously on his laptop while sipping a black, heavy drink—coffee. Now there was the Golden Fleece of drinks, the worshipped treasure that had so claimed the hearts of innocent passerby. It was the drink no one would question, certainly not his visitors.
He spoke the magic word, like a prayer in the breeze. “Coffee.”
The waitress didn’t even look up. She made a little scribble on her notepad and went to greet the newest set of customers.
Now, all that was left was to wait. The android awkwardly folded his hands together on the table, the gesture awkward compared to the humans busying themselves with their phones while waiting for their own drinks. He had no need of a phone—not when his motherboard could access the Internet as easily as a human clicking on an application. And, well…it wasn’t like he had anyone to speak to, anyway.
But that might change, he reminded himself, his circuits sending zaps of electric excitement throughout his body. It was the reason why he had stationed himself in this coffee shop in the first place: crowded, yet commonplace, normal. The perfect place for a group of human friends to meet and engage in conversation and camaraderie.
The android had successfully managed to infiltrate a small pod of humans. Or, perhaps infiltrate wasn’t the correct term. Too militaristic. Oh, if he messed it up when the others were actually here—
The bell atop the door jingled as three college-age customers swept in on the edges of a conversation, the morning breeze skittering discarded napkins at their feet. The android took one glance at them and thought his joints would freeze again. It was time to see if all his research paid off.
He forced his arm to move, extending it in a standard greeting to get their attention. The three of them—two boys, one girl—jostled one another as they made for the booth, tucking themselves into the worn leather seats with an ease of familiarity.
“Got here right on time, huh?” Markos nudged the android’s metal side. His eyes widened; he proceeded to dig his elbow deeper. “Wow, you’ve got some abs. You work out?”
The boy across from him, Adrian, rolled his eyes behind his glasses. “Stop making him feel weird.”
Quicker than the android expected, the waitress appeared once more at the foot of the table. Her eyes brimmed with excitement—old friends, he guessed. “Welcome back, gang! Usual drinks?”
The trio mumbled their affirmations, but not without warmth. As the boys struck up a debate on the ethics of pointing out if one has “worked out”, the android’s vision strayed to the girl. Her name was Cara, and her fingers were fiddling with something on the table, a bit of machinery that she dismantled and reconstituted, over and over. Her skin was pale against her freckles; she spent little time in sunlight, despite the warm embrace of summer just outside.
That is something we have in common, the android mused.
“…your name again?”
He turned to see Markos looking at him sheepishly. The android had not recorded the ongoing conversation; he had no idea of the context. Markos took the weighed pause as an answer and blushed. “Sorry. I suck at names. And we only met you the once…”
Adrian, as if it was his cue, rolled his eyes a second time. “It’s Capar, right? Pretty unforgettable name, if you ask me.”
“Capar! Right, right…weird name. That Greek or something? Reminds me of capers, the food. You know?”
“That doesn’t make you sound clever, you know.” Adrian smirked.
Capar. CaPAr—Conscious Processor Android—was his technical name, with a few extra English letters thrown in to make it sound more human. But he didn’t care for the conversation. Something had locked his gaze on Cara’s deft fingers, screwing and unscrewing the bolt of her little machine, moving almost unconsciously.
“Pipin’ hot!” In the span of a breath, the tray-brandishing waitress efficiently deposited their drinks down before them, nary a ripple disturbing the surface of each. Adrian smacked his lips at the sight of his mocha, Markos throwing his hands up in excitement as he cheered his cappuccino. The android’s own coffee sat expressionless and steaming, a black mirror. And for Cara…
An elegant cup of herbal tea.
“Tea?” the android blurted out. The choice had betrayed his expectations; surely, someone with such unconscious energy would be turn more toward a drink with high levels of caffeine. But silence fell in the moments his outburst as Cara’s gaze slowly lifted up, her fingers ceasing their rhythmic dance. Fool. The stranger he acted, the more they would suspect something off about him, and the more likely it was that he would ruin any chance of being normal.
Cara took the moment in stride, owning it in a way he could never achieve. “What’s wrong with tea? Too delicate for you?”
His internal fan whirred rapidly. Own the moment. “Your energy level…does not correlate with your drink.”
Another pause. Markos leaned on his arm, sipping his own drink while observing him. “You know, there’s something about you I can’t quite put my finger on…something mechanical.”
The android’s computer whirred in panic. In the blink of a second, he calculated all negative outcomes to this scenario, all centered around the possibility of discovery. They would abandon him. Word would spread, and he would lack human companions, allies, in a world like this…
There were too many outcomes. He was overloading on the near-infinite gestures, expressions, words, that could shift the tide of opinion. Humans and their complexities; how did they survive one another?
Yet, as he picked through his options, he noticed that Cara was staring at him in a way that wrested all attention, with what he realized was intent. Don’t look them in the eyes, that was the golden rule, but Cara’s gaze was as strong as a directive.
He saw it, then. The glint in her pupils—that subtle gleam of a mainframe. The way the sunlight caught her skin, as if it was more plastic than flesh. And the small smile at her lips, almost calculated—indicative of one who has studied and mastered the art of human expression.
Finally, her fingers, once more taking up the rhythm of assembling and dismantling. The movement was almost automatic—mechanic.
“Come on, Markos,” Cara said smoothly. “It’s not like he’s some kind of robot.”
Markos scoffed, blushing. “Well, duh. But that would be sick.”
“…Sick?” the android questioned.
“He means it would be cool.” Adrian crossed his arms. “You sure you’re not a robot? Everyone knows that.”
“Not hip doesn’t equal robot.” Markos threw an arm around the android’s shoulders. “But if he is a robot, maybe he can help me with calculus homework.”
“I don’t think anyone can help you with calculus homework.”
“Try me.” The android spoke with ease, without thinking. Cara shared a secretive smile with him.
Markos howled with laughter. “The robot’s got some competition in him, huh? We’ll hit up the park after this. Maybe someone can finally beat Adrian’s smarts.”
Adrian tossed back a bit of his hair. “I doubt that.” But the android saw eagerness flush in his expression.
They drained their drinks quickly; the android managed to consume all of his coffee (though he couldn’t taste an ounce of it), and the other android did the same, sipping her tea with practiced ease. Once they had finished, they stood from the booth, leaving bits of currency tucked beneath their cups for the waitress to pick up. As Markos and Adrian bickered on their way to the door, the android paused before Cara. An expression of gratitude was in order.
“You have my thanks,” he said. He was still practicing his genuine inflection, but words were words.
Cara slipped her mechanical toy into her pocket, pausing to tuck the strap of her purse around her shoulder. She shook her head, but it was not without a soft grin. “Oh, little brother. You still have a lot to learn.”
-Meera Ramakrishnan, ’22