By Jon Arthur Kitson
The robot didn’t slurp. Koa found that obscene.
No one else in the room seemed to care.
“It’s not mixing air with the coffee,” Koa said. “It won’t get an accurate flavor profile.”
“It doesn’t need air,” a technician — ’Brad’ according to his name tag — answered.
Koa’s eyes rolled. He folded his arms across his chest, squeezed the brass spittoon between his legs and stared down the tasting table at the robot. It sat in his father’s spot.
It’s blank eyes were lit red. Liquid drained into its chest cavity.
No spitting. Obscene.
“Well?” the owner, standing near the door, asked. The company’s palm tree logo, in the form of a gold lapel pin, flashed from his chest in the moist, tropical light streaming through the windows. “How does it compare with Koa’s profile?”
Brad opened a panel on the robot’s head.
“Identical,” he said, reading the display. “All points; mouthfeel, tones, even the slight astringency.”
Everyone in the room clapped, except for Koa, who grimaced, and the owner, who cocked a thick eyebrow.
“So what?” Koa asked over the din. “It’s all chemical analysis.” To his boss: “The other producers have been doing it for decades, Tom.” To the technician: “All you made is a human-shaped chemistry set.”
“No,” Brad said. “Its nothing like that.” He patted the robot’s head. “It doesn’t sample the coffee’s chemical make-up. It processes the tasting experience just like a human brain.” His mouth turned into a cockeyed grin. “Just like your brain.”
Koa’s squat tasting stool threatened to squirt from underneath him as he spun on his boss.
The man didn’t meet Koa’s eyes.
“Give it a regular seat,” Tom said and walked out the door.
Koa’s fist hit the desk. The coffee in Tom’s cup flooded its saucer. Koa dipped a finger in the scalding liquid, flicked it at his boss.
“Dammit, Koa.” Tom brushed coffee off his tie. “Calm down.”
“You lied to me.” Koa’s eyes held steady on Tom’s. “You said all the tests … all the damn wires stuck to my head … were for insurance purposes.”
“They were,” Tom said, not shying away from Koa’s stare. “To ensure Palm Island Coffee is around for another 150 years.” He leaned back in his chair. “Now, if you’re done assaulting me with House Blend, sit down.”
Koa did, but perched on the seat’s edge.
“Good,” Tom said. “I’m sorry I misled you, but I knew this is how you’d react—”
“A robot?” Koa said. “Traditional tasting, Tom, that’s what Palm Island is renowned for. We’re the last ones doing it. What’ll this make us? iCoffee?”
“Yes.” Tom spun the monitor on his desk. “Let me show you something.”
On screen was the bastard child of a ‘50s sci-fi movie poster and a Hawaiian travel brochure. Palm trees and buxom hula girls swayed in front of a perfect blue ocean. In front of them an ideal Polynesian warrior, bronzed and shirtless, sipped coffee from a delicate cup. Next to him, drinking in the same satisfied manner, was the robot. Its red eyes sparkled.
The tag-line beneath the scene: Palm Island Coffee, The Past and the Future in One Cup.
“It’s Retro,” Tom said. “Our consulting firm says it’s the latest thing.”
Koa’s eyes darted to his boss. “That … is … insane. Our buyers will never accept it.”
Tom turned the screen and sighed.
“Our buyers are a dying breed,” he said. “The foodie trend is over. That’s what we need to accept. No one cares anymore that our company has been family owned for a 150 years, or that your family has been impeccably scrutinized the taste for generations. Gastronomy, food blended with science, is the new movement.” His elbows rested on the desk. “We have to evolve.”
“So, what’s next?” Koa said. “Coffee capsules? Gelatin?” His face wrinkled. “Flavored coffee?”
“Dammit, Koa, we’re still making real coffee. And the robot’s really tasting it.” Tom’s lips curled to a soft smile. “Besides, do you plan on living forever? You’re the last in your line—”
“This is my fault?” Koa’s eyes dug into Tom’s. “Mine and Lani’s?”
Tom’s eyes expanded.
“No,” he said quickly. “God no. I didn’t mean to imply … Really, Koa, that’s not what I meant.”
Koa shrugged it off.
“I have cousins on the mainland,” he said. “Maybe one of them—”
“No,” Tom said. “We’ve got to give the robot a try, for the company. Surely, you can understand that.”
“All I understand,” Koa said, heading for the door, “is, for the first time in fifteen years, I’m glad my father’s dead.” He stopped with his hand on the knob. “And for your sake, Tom, I’m glad yours is too.”
That night, Koa dreamed:
He stood next to a hospital bed. Lani, ebony hair plastered to her forehead, whistling breaths bursting from her pursed lips, laid in it. A doctor stood between her stirruped feet.
Koa’s stomach dropped. He’d had the dream — nightmare — before.
He had lived it.
Lani had been pregnant five times. Only one made it to full term.
He was still-born.
The doctor announced it was time. Koa cringed. Then …
A baby cried.
The doctor handed the swaddled infant to a stunned Koa.
Who turned, passed his wife and presented the child to the man standing behind him.
His father, very much alive, studied the bundle …
Then looked away.
“What?” Koa looked at the child in his arms.
The glowing red eyes of the tasting robot looked back at him.
“No,” Koa said. He looked up; a Polynesian warrior stood before him. His muscled chest heaved. The bleached sharks teeth ringing the Pololu spear in his hand glinted in the birthing-room lights.
Though no pictures existed of the man, Koa knew him instantly: Hiapo Palakiko, his great-plus-more-times-than-he-could-ever-remember grandfather. Family lore claimed Hiapo fought to the death defending Queen Liliʻuokalani, Hawaii’s last monarch, from the pineapple barons and their coup.
Hiapo’s spear rose.
Koa gasped as it split his chest.
The robot was already at the tasting table. Brad buzzed behind it. Koa sat and stared out the window. Mist rose off the field of coffee bushes.
Koa jumped at the metallic greeting.
The robot’s eyes glowed at him. Brad smirked.
“It talks?” Koa addressed the technician.
“Yeah,” Brad answered, smirk growing into a smile. “I just installed the program yesterday afternoon—”
Koa raised an eyebrow.
“It’s a learning program,” Brad said. “It’ll grow and develop over time—” The robot offered another ‘good morning’ to Koa. “—and it’s still in beta. If you don’t respond it’ll probably keep it up all day.”
Koa rolled his eyes, but on the robot’s fifth ‘good morning’, he waved a dismissive hand at the machine.
This did the trick. With the faint sound of gears whirring, the robot’s head rotated back to straight. For a moment, its eyes flickered brightly.
Palm Island’s Master Roaster entered the room. He slid two trays, each with four full sampling glasses, onto the table.
Wisps of steam clouded the robot’s faceplate.
“We’re tweaking the After Dinner Blend today,” he explained. “Customers are asking for more body. Whenever you’re ready.”
Koa inhaled the rich scents. With his well-worn tasting spoon, he took turns slurping from each glass. The spittoon between his legs rang after every taste.
At the other end of the table, the robot silently sucked up coffee with a short straw.
After half an hour the Master Roaster compared the results.
“Amazing,” he said. “Identical to the subtilist nuance. Both recommend going with blend number three. What do you think of that, Koa?” He looked up. “Koa?”
The door to the tasting room banged shut.
The robot quickly won over the staff. Every afternoon Brad paraded it around the offices and fields. Koa couldn’t escape.
Everywhere he went, it seemed, throngs of people gathered around the machine, laughing and looking amazed at its increasing vocabulary. Koa always tried to duck away unseen, but inevitably, he’d look back to see the robot’s red eyes following him.
They glowed brightly.
After two weeks, it started telling jokes:
“-Why did the coffee taste like mud-”
Koa picked at his nails.
“Why did the coffee taste like mud?” Brad asked. He frowned in Koa’s direction.
The robot’s glowing eyes stayed fixed on Koa. They dimmed.
“-Because it was just ground-”
Brad’s exaggerated laugh bounced around the room. Koa groaned.
The robot turned its head and stared out the window.
“Jokes? Really?” Koa raised an eyebrow at Brad. “Why?”
“I didn’t do it,” Brad answered. “The communication software grows over time. The jokes are a completely new thing.” He tapped the robot’s head. “Its forming a personality.” A sly grin split Brad’s face.
“Well,” the technician said. “It seems to test everything out on you first; saying ‘good morning’, commenting on the weather last week and now the joke.” Brad’s grin grew “I think you’ve got a buddy.”
Koa was about to tell Brad exactly where he could stick his buddy, when the technician opened a panel on the robot’s back. He pulled out a test tube sized vial of thick, green liquid.
“What’s that? The new Halloween Blend?”
Brad laughed, then cut short when he realized Koa wasn’t making a joke.
“Um … no,” he said, holding the vial to the light. “This is what makes the robot work.”
“Not exactly. It’ll still talk and move without it, but as for drinking coffee, it’ll try, but there’d be no point.” He turned the vial to Koa; little swirls formed in the viscous mass. “This is its sense of taste.” His eyes focused on Koa. “And actually, for now, it’s yours.”
It was like looking at his soul.
Everything making him special — that made generations of his family special — distilled into a little tube; translated, somehow, into data for a machine. It looked like shampoo.
Koa’s nose wrinkled at the putrid smell coming from the vial, now that Brad had unscrewed the silver and gold cap.
“Sorry,” Brad said, peering into the vial. “I’m checking for contaminants.”
“Why’s it stink so bad?” Koa held back a gag.
“It’s made from a fungus.” Brad replaced the cap. Thankfully, the smell didn’t linger. “Modified and infused with nano-processors to imitate the way you taste and experience coffee.”
“You said ‘for now’?”
“Eventually,” Brad said, “the robot will develop its own sense of taste.” He clicked the vial back in place and closed the panel. “At least that’s the plan.”
Koa couldn’t believe what he’d just heard.
After two months of ignoring the robot’s greetings and inane puns, two months of inhabiting his office like a hermit to avoid it, he addressed the robot for the first time:
“What did you say?”
“-Do you ever get tired of tasting coffee-”
Behind the robot, sensing what it couldn’t, Brad turned white.
The taster raised a hand.
“Why the hell would you ask me that?”
“-From speaking with the staff, I’ve learned humans sometimes become bored with their jobs-”
Koa could feel blood rushing to his head.
“-Many speak fondly of retirement-”
Koa’s pulse drummed at his temples.
“-Do you plan on retiring soon-”
The tasting stool clattered into the wall. Koa stared down at the robot.
“You … aluminum … son-of-a-bitch!” Spittle flew into the air. “What? Sharing the tasting table — my family’s table — isn’t enough. Now you want it to yourself?”
“That’s not what it meant,” Brad reached for Koa’s shoulder.
“And you—” Koa batted the technician’s hand away. “Dr. Frankenstein; are you planning to rip out my actual tongue and stuff it in your monster?”
“Koa, it’s only curious, like a child. It’s just trying to learn.”
“Learn this,” Koa said, stalking for the door. He looked at the robot. “I’ll die, tasting spoon wrapped in my hand, before I cede this company’s future to you.”
He jerked open the door. The Master Roaster, balancing two trays, tripped through. Sample glasses shattered on the floor.
“-Koa-” The strength in the robot’s voice stopped the taster. He turned. “-I don’t want you to die-” it said. “-I don’t want you to retire. You are part of a great tradition-”
“Tradition?” Glass crunched under Koa’s feet. “What the hell does a machine know about tradition?”
The robot’s eyes dimmed as they followed the taster out the door.
The following morning Brad cornered Koa outside the tasting room.
“You hurt its feelings.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Koa said. “Whose feelings?”
Brad’s eyes rolled.
Koa’s brow wrinkled.
“Machines don’t have feelings.”
“This one does.” Brad slumped against the wall. “At least, it thinks it does.”
“That’s the point of the project: a robot as close to a human taster as possible. Its programming is revolutionary.” His eyes found Koa’s. “And now, because of you, it’s sulking. It hasn’t spoken in almost twenty-four hours.”
That, Koa knew, was unusual. Amongst the staff, the robot had gained a reputation for being chatty.
The taster recommended what he did with a stubborn computer. After all, at its core, that’s all the robot really was.
“Did you try turning it off and back on?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Brad sighed. “The robot’s personality formed, is still forming, organically. If I reboot it, it starts from scratch.”
“Fine. Start from scratch. Apparently, this personality is a little too sensitive.”
“There’s no time,” Brad said pulling himself off the wall. “Forming a new personality will take months.”
“And the industry convention is in two weeks.”
“Yes,” Brad said. His eyes avoided Koa’s. “That’s when we’re revealing it to the world. That’s when the new Palm Island Coffee premieres.”
Koa’s breath caught in his throat. After a few minutes:
“I’m not apologizing to a robot.”
“You don’t have to. Just be … nice.”
Koa didn’t respond. He pushed passed Brad and into the tasting room. The robot sat on its stool — Koa’s father’s stool — staring straight ahead. It didn’t turn when Koa took his place at the table.
“Um …” Koa looked at the machine, hesitated, then said, “Good morning.”
The robot’s head spun. Its eyes ignited.
“-Good Morning, Koa-”
It sounded relieved.
Koa continued being nice. For two weeks, he answered the robot’s questions. Short and curt, but he answered them.
“-How many generations of your family have been tasters-”
“-How many sat at the tasting table at once-”
“-How old were you when you started to taste-”
“-And his father-”
And countless more.
They were the same questions Koa had asked his father. The same questions he had always expected to answer someday … for his own son.
Then, two days before the convention:
“-Are you upset you never had a child to carry on your line-”
Koa hardly noticed the tasting room door open and the Master Roaster enter. Only when Tom walked in did Koa come back to reality.
Casually, Tom took a spot against the far wall.
“We’ve got a big one today,” the Master Roaster said. “The Holiday Blend. Today’s choice goes into production.”
Koa and the robot tasted. When they were done — Koa laying his spoon on the tray, the robot straightening to its full height — the Roaster reviewed the results.
His eyes grew. He motioned for Brad, who looked at the pages.
“It was bound to happen,” Brad said, after a few minutes. His eyes stayed fixed on the results. “Eventually.”
The Master Roaster looked up, past Koa, at Tom.
“Um, we have a difference of opinion,” he said. “Koa chose blend number two; the robot picked number four.”
“-Excuse me-” the robot said. Everyone eyed it. “-I believe when there is a disagreement, it is traditional to go with the more experienced taster’s choice-” Its eyes lit on Koa. “-Koa, I defer to you-”
“Then it’s settled,” the Master Roaster said. “We go with number two for this year’s Holiday Blend.”
Everyone turned to face Tom.
“Go with number four.”
Silence crushed the room. Koa’s head swam as he watched Tom turn and walk out.
The spot where Hiapo’s dream spear had pierced his chest ached.
Koa ignored the secretary’s protests and pushed through the door. Tom jumped.
“Koa,” he said. “I’m sorry, but—”
“I want to go to the convention.” Koa crossed the office in three steps. He hovered above the desk.
“What?” Tom stuttered. “Of course,” he said, smiling, “you’ve always been welcome. I’ll put you on the panel.”
“No,” Koa said. “As an observer.”
“Anything,” Tom said, still smiling. “Whatever you want. I’ll have Martha book you on the Supersonic and get you a room. No, a suite.”
“Fine,” Koa said. “Whatever.”
Tom’s arms folded across the desk.
“This is great, Koa,” he said. “After today I didn’t think you’d come around.”
“Really,” Tom said. “It means a lot to the company — to me — to have you finally on board. You and 150 years of your family are directly responsible for the success of Palm Island. It’s only right you’re present for the unveiling of the company’s next big step.”
Koa said nothing, only turned and headed for the door.
Yeah, he thought, the next step.
Koa and the robot stood alone off stage. The robot’s eyes were dark. Since arriving in Las Vegas, Koa and the robot had both stayed hidden away, the robot to build anticipation for its big reveal, Koa by choice. He’d left his suite only once.
To go to the salon.
On stage, in front of a packed house, a respected industry scientist explained the blind test brewing behind him. Four coffee makers steamed on a table. Three of them contained renowned blends, all produced by Palm Island’s competitors, the fourth brewed Chicory; coffee’s bastard cousin.
Even in the wings, Koa could smell its bitter scent.
Tom and Brad proudly flanked the machines.
Koa pulled a vial from his pocket and unscrewed the cap. Coconuts and vanilla wafted off the green liquid inside, overpowering the chicory.
The vial had been easy to find; Brad had spares all over his disorganized workshop. Finding just the right shampoo, however, was more difficult. The salon’s saleswoman had stared at his bald head the entire time he asked about the colors of the expensive hair products.
Koa replaced the cap.
He opened the robot’s back. The vial inside came out with a click. He held the two vials up.
They were identical.
He moved the one filled with shampoo to the opening …
He looked at the stage.
With an eyedropper, the scientist added a clear liquid to each cup. Masking solution. He explained how it hid each blend’s chemical make-up. The robot, just like a human, would have to depend on taste alone. The audience sat on the edge of their seats.
Koa realized, for the first time in a long time, the world cared about Palm Island Coffee.
It actually cared.
The vials bobbled in Koa’s hands. He cringed as both hit the floor.
Quickly, Koa scooped them up.
The robot’s eyes bathed him in red light.
“-Thank you for sharing your gift with me-”
Koa stood, hiding the vials against his side.
“-Your sense of taste. Without it, I’m only a machine. With it, I’m part of so much more-”
“Part of what?”
Koa’s chest tightened. The nightmare flashed behind his eyes.
“-Thank you for making me your heir-”
In his head, Koa saw his father turning away.
“We are not family,” Koa growled. “And that thing that makes you special—” he spun the robot, jammed a vial in place, closed the panel and spun it back to face him, “—you stole it.”
“-Koa, I’m sorry-”
“You are not my heir, my family’s heir. You’re our assassin.”
“-Please-” the robot’s eyes dimmed. “-Tell me what to do. Tell me how to carry on the tradition-”
“You can’t,” Koa said. His finger clanked hollowly against the robot’s chest. “A machine doesn’t know anything about tradition.”
On stage, Tom introduced the robot.
“-Maybe I can learn-”
And it stepped into the bright lights and applause.
Breath held, Koa watched the robot taste the blends. The audience oohed as it described each; full, smoky, earthy, malty.
They waited silently for the robot to declare its favorite brew …
Koa heard the boos as he exited the hall. He could still smell the coconut shampoo on his fingers.
And the aroma of chicory from cup number four.
Koa paused before sitting; the robot, unseen in the week since the convention, lay crumpled in the corner of Tom’s office.
It’s eyes were dark.
“Koa,” Tom said. “I’ve sold the company.”
“The robot,” he said, shooting daggers at the inert machine. “The goddamn robot. You were right; it was a bad idea.”
“Fine,” Koa said, “but selling the company? Why?”
Tom stood and paced.
“We’re ruined. Broke.” His fist slammed the desk. “I sank every asset, the company’s and mine, into that … that … red herring.”
“There’s nothing left?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Not that there was much before. We were already almost bankrupt.”
“What? I didn’t know—”
“Only Brad knew,” Tom said. “The robot wasn’t just an experiment. It was a Hail-Mary pass.”
“Did it know?”
“With the sensitive personality it developed?” Tom’s forehead wrinkled “No. Brad felt if it knew the fate of the company rested on its shoulders, it’d shut itself down.” Tom’s eyes darted to the robot. “As far as it knew, it was just an alternative to human tasters. A continuation, really, of your family’s work.” His eyes focused on Koa. “Brad insisted it was damn proud of it, too.”
Koa felt light headed.
“The buyers,” Koa managed, “they’re keeping the staff right? You explained half the island works here—”
“They’re not coffee people.” Tom sat. “It’s a hotel chain. They’re bulldozing the fields next month.”
This time Koa stood.
“What? None of the big companies wanted us? The prestige of the Palm Island name alone—”
“What prestige?” Tom stared at the robot. Instead of looking venomous, his eyes were tired. “In one night 150 years of prestige became a joke. A chicory flavored joke.” His face fell on Koa. “I’m sorry, but the tradition of Palm Island Coffee ends with you.”
Koa looked out the tasting room window. A knot of workers stood at the side of the field.
Word had already spread.
The vial he’d brought from Las Vegas turned in his hands. Little whirlpools spun through the liquid inside.
The vial exploded against the wall.
The smell of coconuts and vanilla filled the room.
Slowly, he stood. He ran a finger through the dripping, green mess. It came away slick.
The wrong vial.
He fell onto his father’s empty stool.
The robot’s stool.
The last of the tasters watched the coffee bushes silently sway in the fields. The berries glowed bright red in the island sun.
Jon Kitson’s stories have appeared in Mad Scientist Journal, The Flashing Type 1 & 2 (anthologies of freeflashfiction.com), and at Dailylove.net. His work ranges from Sci-Fi and the Paranormal, all the way to romance (sometimes there’s a story you’ve just got to tell). You can find out more about Jon at jonarthurkitson.wordpress.com.