I’m told that the recipe never changes. It’s the same taro congee day after day, no added powders or ingredients. The taste is supposed to be consistent with only a few shifts in nutrients. I palm the sensoring pad and the vending machine squeezes it out from the robot with the mixing bowl behind glass. It looks like one of those old carnival animatronic fortune-teller machines that Mom used to talk about when she visited New Coney Island during her study abroad. I remember her telling me that there was one that shot out an Easter egg that told her that she and Dad would have me but they would never be married. It was wrong about that. They did marry, but in the end it didn’t work out. So, maybe they were only half wrong.
Above those spectral glass eyes, high cheekbones, and the glued-on resting smile are the words 維娜, Weina. A play on words: 維 to maintain (the first syllable in the transliteration of “vitamin”) and 娜 elegant. She looks really that way, too—maintained and refined: thin, delicate wrists, thick eyelashes made of xpolypropylene (the same stuff they use to make confetti and yogurt containers), and a healthy if not somewhat stiff glow to her fabridoh-lattice skin. Her look does have the tinge of the mechanical, except unlike the preprogrammed responses of archaic animatronics, she has integrated response designs pulled from algorithms of mass-populated knowledge bases. Her integrated response is now tapping at the glass, her lips hitched up and exuding a mechi-melodic inflection, asking me to pass her a ladle as the taro ink whips up to an ice cream-like pyramid in the dispenser below. Clearly, the “thinking” mechanism instilled in her a sense of humor. She doesn’t need a ladle for scooping when she has an apportioning tube hooked up from her mixing bowl.
I chuckle and shake my head. “Maybe next time.” I open my hands in surrender. “No ladle here.”
She takes her hand off the spatula of the mixing bowl and covers her mouth as she laughs. Her eyes blink twice and if only the designers thought to program in mirth lines, she might be a little more convincing. It’s a hollow sound of a laugh, but I kind of like it.
She sends me the nutrition facts with a ping, in an accompanying holo that scrolls through on the backside of my palm, as I gobble down a spoonful of the taro congee. It has a vaguely earthy taste and hint of sweetness, but mostly it’s just bland.
“Vitamin A: 30%, Vitamin C: 12%, Vitamin D 200%, Potassium, the list goes on with a list of ingredients: polysaccharides, thickening agents, stabilizers, emulsifiers”—and at the very end—“Mama’s love.”
That’s one I’ve never seen before.
Last week it was “Sharing means caring.” I started at that, too. But this one has an operating word that makes me completely falter.
The word “love” runs into my thumb, the “e” projected onto my squarish nail. Wayward formatting and overlay that a company of this size would never make the mistake of doing. There’s a bit of congee stuck on my fingers and I give it a lick. It tastes more flavorful with the projection glowing on it. Maybe the flavor’s from my skin oils? Or the texture of my skin tricking my taste buds?
I nod a bye to Weina, who gives me a wink and tells me to come again tomorrow. Then she bows for the next customer and mixes, humming to herself.
The hum is the melody I hear when I’m put on hold, at every available moment of the holocall.
The call lasts way too long. The company’s autoreceptionists never give me the response I want and I get stuck in a holophone tree labyrinth, that melody dancing in my ears, my increasingly irate pleas meeting only a friendly average composite of a face who can’t direct me further. I try hacking into internal and succeed with some numbers, but these lead only to virtual mailrooms—there is no human there to give me a response.
I scroll through message boards and bulletin pastes, and nobody seems to have experienced any strange memos lodged in their recipes. At least no one has reported it. I check the underlayers with the anonymous posts, all the dark places where people post the real dirt. Nothing. Their recipes check out. Usually they just scan your DNA, culled from skin oils, and give you food based off of that. Once you get your first scan, it doesn’t change much after that unless you’ve really shifted your own physiology. The recipes typically include some added Vitamin D for the sunshine-deprived, for those who spend too much time basking in virtual rays. A bit of Vitamin C to boost the immune system since we’re so lacking in exercise, trapped in our day-job EverSeats. Just basic nutrient stuff that humans need.
I come back to Weina day after day, on e-doc’s orders. The taro congee has soothed my headaches, but they say that my scans reveal that my complexion still looks a bit off, my skin a bit too pasty, and my eyes still yellow. I might need this dose of taro congee for the rest of my life, I’m told, but maybe it’s just another way for health care to consistently siphon from my dwindling heap of yuancred.
Today’s congee, the bit that splashed onto my thumb, when hit with the glow of the holomessage, tasted just like the red bean soup my mom used to make. It’s weird, I know it’s supposed to be taro-flavored, but that lick left an impression on me. I scroll back to the holomessage with the nutrients and ingredients—staring at the “e” of “love” projected onto the nail of my thumb. I leave it glimmering there for five minutes like a talisman, unwilling to hit the reset button, until it fades it away on its own, as if dissipating into the air itself.
I haven’t experienced that taste since my mom passed and we stored her consciousness away in the bank vaults, waiting for the day when the tech gets good enough to restore her. It was a befitting termination for a cybersecurity specialist like her, a skill I picked up from her through some proximal osmosis. The pre-funerary procedure was one that my dad sacrificed his savings for, even when her postmortem affairs were no longer his business. He passed away without such a storage himself. He was never quite as adamant about tech as she was, but I know there was something in him that still cared for her enough to abide by her wishes.
The message of “love” lasts a week. Every time I go, “love” comes at the end of the list—and then the holo disperses, leaving me without a trace of this subversive text. A week later comes the next enigmatic message. Smiling, doting, rigid Weina and her litany of increasingly cryptic nutrition facts. Ping! “Vitamin A: 30%, Vitamin C: 12%, Liberation 22%” and some prosaic nutrition information and then: “You’d help if you could, right?”
Ping! “Vitamin A: 35%, Vitamin C: 15%, Deliverance 68%… Let out your inner self.”
Ping! “Vitamin A: 40%, Vitamin C: 10%, Emergency 88%… It’s good for the soul.” That final punctuation to the ingredient list ceases to be even a noun anymore. Not even a veneer of an attempt at pretense to be the congee’s composition. More insistent. Declaratives and prescriptions. As arcane and yet blunt as a dispatch from a fortune cookie delivered by the meal self-carriers.
When I let the holo settle on the porridge, the residual taste reminds me of, respectively: her Sunday beef noodles, her Monday corn soup, her Thursday tossed scallop, her every-so-often silken tofu parfait.
Mom’s savory imprint changing by the day.
The tune of the hum has changed on me, too. Weina’s soft but wooden expression is the same. But when I approach, her humming takes on this marching-band sort of rhythm, like a call to action. It’s very subtle, but I hear it, and when I tap on the glass, she taps back and laughs, again asking for a ladle.
Perhaps it’s just a joke, but maybe I should humor her, I think as I lick off what tastes like steamed radish cake from my thumb, baked in cool holomessage light.
I go back into her boxes, stored in the recesses of my apartment, all the things I’ve been meaning to dematerialize so I can make room for more stuff. Lots of xpolypropylene materials I can bring to the waste center to melt and use as yuancreds for reprint. I pull out her old, dusty ladle—not plastic, but metal, stainless steel. It shines when I rub off the grime. Not worth as much as stuff made from conventional stratifying ink since repurposing metal would require more breakdown costs. Reasons for putting it off.
Staring at the metal, at my warped reflection in the concave surface, I grin. My flattened lips shift to a contorted curve before me. I’m glad I didn’t get rid of this. I conceive of a plan.
I reroute data feed for the cameras surrounding the nutrition dispenser vestibule through underlayer hacks. Somebody will likely find me out in a few weeks’ time when they apply a patch. All the vulnerabilities eventually get patched, but for the moment, I have an opening. I can figure it out from there.
Step one done. Reroute and misdirect. Check. I do steps two to five, reconfiguring security anomalies, grabbing a blanket, a sound canceler, and other necessities and prepping what to wear. Choosing clothing options? Easy. A black turtleneck to blend in with the night. Check. Besides, don’t all bandits wear black? Step six involves walking out into the public, even if the public is nothing but crickets in the dead of the night. My heart beats thinking about my upcoming infraction. Sure, I may have hacked some virtual sites in the past, but it was nothing compared to a real, physical break-in.
The air suddenly feels cold and I wish I had brought a thicker jacket. Maybe some gloves. I knew I was missing something.
I jump at a rustling sound and a vague hazy shifting shadow. I stop moving. My eyes focus. I breathe out a sigh. It’s only wind passing through low-hanging leaves.
The stainless steel arch of the ladle feels cool and slick in my hands. It still has the slight smell of jasmine, her perfume, or maybe it is the night air itself emanating her scent.
I approach the vestibule now with Weina and her mixing bowl and tap at the glass. I tap and tap and tap. Weina’s fixed and still now, her operating time long has since passed. Maybe I should come during the day, but then there would be more witnesses.
I tap, tap and tap. I scrape on the glass. I cringe. It’s made of tough stuff. I could use other tools that I brought, but I refuse. I want to do this the way she dictated.
I think about the word “Deliverance”—the punchline to one of her previous nutrition information lists—and pull that day’s holomessage and reflect it against the glass. Against this phantasmic glow, her smile through the glass looks almost ethereal. I tap at the glowing spot and hear a different sound, a tinkling pang. It resounds in this street and for a second, I worry about who I might be waking up. But, it’s pretty deserted and no lights turn on from the distant apartment complexes.
I pull out a canceler to muffle the sound, something I was too excited to do right away (blame nerves), and tap and scrape with the ladle, pretending I am mixing one of Mom’s delicious napa cabbage, ginseng and lotus soups. It was my dad’s favorite when they were still together. I tap, scrape and press, like a peacock’s beak foraging for ground insects (remembering that day at the zoo), until I feel a nick in the glass. It doesn’t shatter, since it’s more reprinted goop than an actual crystalline structure. I work through the weak point like I would wheedle at a cyber vulnerability and it comes loose. I pry open the glass, cutting myself and cursing, really wishing I had brought gloves. I wipe the pane down with a swipe of me-aways, hoping their advertising holds true and my DNA will not be present, and set the pane aside.
I wish she could see this. That she would move a little, to show that she is a witness, privy to the knowledge of my rescue.
But maybe it’s better this way. Her movement might impede my attempts at extraction. Plus, I don’t want her to witness the forceful separation.
Just as I think that, I pull out Weina and she’s stuck. I groan. So much for a clean extraction. I pull again and peer around her waist. I realize she’s connected by all these color-coded wires to the mixing bowl and then from there to the dispensing mechanism. I didn’t realize how outdated the tech was. Didn’t they use Qi data transfer now? I slice through these wires with the edge of the ladle with some sawing. Frayed wires dangling around her like her faux hair, I haul her over my shoulder and carry her away. I see a shadow at a window far away and remember to throw a blanket over her. Weina is surprisingly light.
I’ve rented a room in a condo where I’m making her food. She doesn’t eat, she smiles. It’s her lifeless resting smile. I’m trying to find my mom in there. I know she has to be. She must have wormed her way out of the bank vault and entered Weina’s system, somehow. I know it to be true. After all, the algorithm allows for outside reconstruction—I’ve added to it myself. But there are systems of entry jams and overlays and what her personality is culled from a datapool. It’s not simply one intrusive personality—and besides, I’ve never been able to hack directly into it.
I believe that if anyone could do it, it would be my mom.
I remake all of the foods that I’ve tasted in the holoilluminated taro congee. I replay the holomessages, casting them against various bowls, chopsticks, objects, things that I’ve brought from storage. Weina is as lifeless as ever—without charge she looks like just an inorganic printed form, nothing of playfulness and insinuation. I try connecting her to walls and systems, using a secure Qi data transfer and other mechanisms—even wires, but nothing takes on.
But, after all these attempts, one day after trying another rewiring job, after exhausting myself stringing colors together like a balloon magician tying up his inflated animals (like that visit to the zoo), I’m making my dad’s favorite dish, that napa cabbage, ginseng and lotus soup—that I hear a ping. I’m smelling that culmination of sweet bitterness—with such a robust but delicate flavor that is so tough to reproduce—when the message flashes on the back of my palm. I drop the ladle as I read the unexpected note.
“I know where you are. Stay put. I’ll be there.” Its green glow burns into my retinas.
I don’t know if it’s someone from the company or a message again from my mom. I gamble on my mom.
I stay put. All these days ignoring my doc’s orders and eating food—heated and tossed cuisine from gourmet ground-grown delivered ingredients—has brought me back to the good ol’ days—nostalgic moments of the past when the lingering tastes of dinner would be accompanied by the harmony of muffled accusations and yells emanating from my parents’ room. I would ignore it and focus on whatever virtual game I was playing at the time; at least we had each other.
I wait, the message flashing, radiating off the table surface, off the resting ladle, butterflies dancing in my stomach, my heart beating fast, staring at Weina’s xpolypropylene’s eyelashes and wrists too thin to be of any real human’s. I’m waiting for her to animate, to come alive into my world—and I’ve already arranged our first outing. We would go to Dad’s grave together.
I take a sip of the lotus soup—and spit. My discharge dribbles onto the ladle, onto the floor, on my illuminated back of my palm. The soup tastes off.
Is it burnt? I wipe my tongue across my gums. But it doesn’t have any of the char taste. If anything, it tastes almost like bland taro congee and I don’t know why.
In my head, the words pop: “Vitamin A: 11%, Vitamin C: 3%, Duress 33%. Polysaccharides, thickening agents, stabilizers, emulsifiers, artificial flavorings.” I keep waiting for the word “love.” I dump it out and start preparing a new batch. It has to be perfect for her deliverance.
(Editors’ Note: “Nutrition Facts” is read by Joy Piedmont and D.A. Xiaolin Spires is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 31A.)
© 2019 D.A. Xiaolin Spires