by B. Garden
At exactly seven AM the auto-locks on the front door disengage. Patrons trickle into the café as tame jazz swells from the speakers. You can tell by how the first customer is staring at you that this is her first time seeing a Mod up close.
“How do I—” she says. She reaches over the counter and tries to grab one of the pressure valves embedded in your skeletal system.
“Please,” you say. You gently push her hand away from your body. “I’m not self-service.”
She screws up her face and yanks her hand back as if you bit her.
“What can I get started for you?” you ask, trying to sound companionable enough to salvage the interaction. You don’t have the energy for conflict this early in the morning. Or ever, really.
“It’s so rude,” she says, turning to the man behind her as if hoping for backup. But he’s engrossed in his phone. So she shrugs and tries to play it off by scanning the menu.
Earlier in your tenure, you would have objected to the word it. But you’ve already spent a large portion of your emotional energy asking her not to touch you.
The door opens again and another three people join the line. You try not to think about how long it’s going to take to make everyone’s beverage, because you kind of need to pee.
Legally speaking, you’re allowed to disconnect yourself for a fifteen-minute break every four hours. But it takes so long to safely unplug the suite of medical-grade tubing connecting you to the water line, the milk fridge, and the wall of syrups behind you, that it hardly feels worth it. And the owner has been riding your ass about efficiency metrics lately. He’s joked that you’re easily replaceable. You think you can hold it.
You catch the customer’s gaze and smile expectantly. “Oh,” she says. “Yes. I’d like a half-caff soy latte. Extra hot.”
You almost tell her that making the drink extra hot would involve scalding the milk and ruining the flavor. Instead, you nod, smile, say, “Coming right up,” and then activate your somatic espresso routine.
The twin hoppers straddling your shoulders grind equal portions of regular and decaf beans through chutes embedded in your cheeks. A device in the orifice under your jaw tamps the coffee grounds into a perfect little puck. Distilled water sloshes into the boiler vessel in your gut.
It always feels a bit like butterflies in your stomach at first, until the water heats and the vessel builds pressure. Then, the feeling becomes a hot, liquid cramp, just barely distinguishable from how it felt the last time you had food poisoning.
After it reaches temp, the pipe that straddles your esophagus injects the water into your mouth, where your jaw has been strengthened to withstand the pressure needed to brew quality espresso.
The temperature-resistant taste buds that you have developed through gene training probe the dark, foamy liquid. You approve. So you send it down through the vascular tubing in your left arm.
There’s a hairline leak in the tubing, so with each shot that you pull, you dose yourself with a small amount of caffeine. This early in the shift, it’s invigorating. But by the end of the day it makes you an irritable, anxious, puddle of a person. You have not been sleeping well.
You made an appointment with your occupational health tech to discuss the leak and the cramping, but he keeps rescheduling. You haven’t pushed the issue.
A separate vessel in your abdomen dispenses and then heats the soy milk. The temperature-sensitive organ in your frothing cavity signals a sort of nausea to your brain to warn that you will soon scald the milk. You ignore it.
You dispense the espresso into a paper cup with your left hand, and with your right hand, you pipe in the milk, adding a flourish to draw a flower in the ruined foam.
“Lovely!” says the customer.
Her entire demeanor has shifted. She seems genuinely pleased. A small pride blooms in your heart.
You thrust forward the payment terminal embedded in your torso.
“Oh. Right,” she says, scowling.
She smacks her phone against the terminal so hard that it hurts. The forms at the workplace integration center had warned you about the rare side effect of nerve endings sprouting in unintended places. But it’s not like you could have backed out of the procedure. None of the jobs where you could actually use your degree had gotten back to you, and the student loan enforcers had already trashed your apartment once.
You try not to glare down at her as she scrolls through the payment prompts. Still, you notice her manually press the custom tip option, before typing in zero-dot-zero-zero on the keypad.
You lean over the garbage bin and drop the spent espresso puck through the slot under your chin. Then you swallow the rest of the sludgy residue in your mouth and say, “Thank you so much, have a wonderful day.”
* * *
You are three vodka sodas deep at the neighborhood bar. Most of the bar’s other regulars are modded in some fashion, from kitchen workers with retractable knives in their wrists to heavy-set mechanics with reinforced skeletal systems.
“How are you faring with that recall?” the bartender asks. He is one of the last unmodded bartenders in the city, unless you count the ReLiver brand artificial liver that juts from his side. He’s usually drunk, mostly silent, and always slow. You tend to tip him very well.
“What recall?” you ask.
The bartender takes a sip from his own drink. You hear the sloshing, churning sound of the ReLiver kicking on. Then he squints at you.
“You’re a coffee Mod, yeah?”
“Yep.” You think that if the pressure gauges sticking out of your forearms didn’t clue him off, he probably could have guessed from the lingering smell of stale coffee and rancid milk.
“And you haven’t heard about the recall.”
This month, the phone and Wi-Fi bills had to be sacrificed at the altar of the water bill.
“I must have missed it,” you say. “Been trying to unplug lately.”
“Hmm,” says the bartender. He makes another vodka soda and slides it over.
You shrug and thumb the last of your money out onto the bar. But he pushes it back. Then he pulls out his own cell phone, taps at it, and hands it to you.
He has searched for “Boiler Recall.” The page displays teaser thumbnails of several articles.
Herniated Boilers Plaguing Coffee Mods. Who’s to Blame?
Barista-borg Union Wins Major Payday!
What Are They Putting in Your Latte?
The bartender’s ReLiver clicks back off, leaving the bar strangely quiet.
“You should call your doctor,” he says.
You ask to borrow his phone.
The occupational health emergency line takes you down a labyrinthine menu of prompts. You’re a bit drunk, so it’s hard to focus on the options. At one point, the robot voice on the other end says, “Please press pound if this isn’t an emergency.” You press pound, because you aren’t sure this is an emergency yet. The line goes dead.
“Shit, can I make one more call?”
The bartender nods. You call your boss and mention the recall.
“I just couldn’t afford to close the shop,” your boss says. “Plus, you seemed fine. Tip-top shape. Didn’t your doctor say something?”
You weigh your options. On the one hand, this is a great time for you to lay into him. Quit dramatically. It would feel good.
But on the other hand, you’re not a part of the union, and not many other coffee shops would hire you. Your mods are already veering towards obsolescence, and consistent employment is the best way to get an owner to invest in your upgrades.
“Yeah,” you say. “He mentioned something. But nothing about a recall.”
“Give him a call, then, if you’re that worried about it,” he says in a tone that makes you feel selfish for bothering him.
You sigh. “I’m not that worried about myself right now,” you lie. “But some of these articles, they’re saying, um, organic particles. In the drinks.”
The bartender stares at you and raises an eyebrow. You avoid his gaze.
“I know, I know,” he says. “But there’s technically nothing in the health code about the amount of human fluids allowed in Mod-prepared drinks.”
“So what, it’s just fine, then?”
“Yep. Until it legally isn’t. See you at work.”
* * *
You work diligently for several more weeks. But you can’t stop thinking about the recall. Every twinge, every cramp, every strange gurgle from your gut sends you into a hypochondriac spiral.
So you call occupational health, wait on hold for a few hours, and sign up for the recall surgery. You promise your boss that you’ll be back to work as soon as you’re upright. He makes a passive- aggressive comment about how hard it’s going to be for him to work the old-fashioned analog espresso machine while you’re away. But he pays out your state-mandated sick time, and that makes you feel indebted to him.
Recovery goes by much quicker than you expected.
On a morning that it doesn’t hurt too much to stand, you decide to surprise your boss by coming in a few days early. There’s an uncomfortable tugging sensation in your stitches as you walk to the bus stop, but otherwise everything seems to be holding together nicely.
The line is out the door of the café by the time you arrive. Your boss must have his hands full. You think about how glad he is going to be to see you. You try to wade past the line.
“Hey,” someone says, “no cutting.”
“I’m just going to—” you try to say.
“We’re all just going to get coffee. Back of the line.”
You almost object, but something throbs strangely in your chest.
So you find your place at the back of the line.
Several of the guests stare at you. Most of them probably haven’t seen someone who is part espresso machine waiting in line for coffee. Maybe they think you have the supplies to make it at home, even though you can barely afford the freeze-dried shit.
As soon as you pass through the doors, you notice something is off. Your boss is nowhere to be seen, yet the queue is moving forward steadily.
That’s when it hits you. He’s hired someone else.
“You have got to be kidding me,” you say. Nobody seems to hear you. An angry tension winds itself into your body, painfully tightening the skin around all your various slots and ports.
The tide of customers brings you forward, step by step, as you try to figure out how to handle the situation. You want to find your boss and yell at him, ask him what the deal is. Except deep down, you know. He had been hinting at it all the while. You just never took it seriously.
You feel pressure building in your guts. You want to scream, to knock over displays, to leap over the counter and raise hell. This time you’ve finally had enough!
And then you reach the front of the line. “You piece of —” you start to yell.
“What can I get started for you today?” asks the barista, in a cheery, metallic voice.
You stare. The robot stares back at you, smiling. It has the strangely human features of newer model automatons. You’ve lost your steam.
“Uh,” you stammer. “A cappuccino. Whole milk. Please.” You think you can feel one of your stitches popping loose.
“Coming right up!” says the robot.
It grinds, it whirs, it pipes espresso from one hand and steamed milk from the other. It draws a little flower with the foam, and then it offers you the cup.
“Here you are,” it says.
Even from this far away, you can smell the scalded milk.
“Thank you,” you say.
“You’re so welcome,” it says. Then it thrusts forth the payment terminal embedded in its torso.
You tap your phone on the console. A little processing . . . icon flashes for a long time, and you find yourself wondering if you even have enough money in your account.
The transaction goes through.
Would you like to leave a tip?
20% - 15% - 10% - Custom Tip
You look the robot in the eye, and it smiles at you as it waits for you to input your response.
B. Garden is a bartender, baker, and aspiring ghost. They also write bleak fiction. Their work is upcoming or published in the Dread Machine. You can rifle through their belongings at www.godcompost.com