A little taste...
Blue paper leaflets rained down from the sky most mornings, sometimes in torrents, blanketing the streets like snow. Throughout the rest of the day, the odd leaflet here or there freed itself from the branch of a tree and helicoptered to the ground. People ripped the leaflets off telephone poles and discarded them freely in the streets, clogging the grates of sewer drains and leaving pools of murky water standing throughout the city. From above, all the world below looked painted in blue. Entire forests must have been leveled and tankers full of blue ink exhausted to make the campaign possible, to print fifty million posters each week, to shroud an entire nation in color for profit.
On the leaflets, above the slogan “C’est MOI,” a silver sphere sat on a blue background like a planet resting in space. And although the phrase “Mobile Organizational Interface” slipped out of favor almost as quickly as it was coined, everyone understood what an M.O.I. was—even if they couldn’t agree on how to pronounce the name. Teenage girls were in the habit of calling them MWAHs, which sounded like a kiss. Their hapless parents called them MOYs and chafed at (or relished in) the groans they got in return. Eventually, Unison Technologies had to declare “EM-OH-EYE” the official and correct phrasing, condemning all other variations.
Frank Cingrani blustered out of the Unison building, his eyes scanning the horizon and his M.O.I. rolling quietly behind him, crumpling leaflets as they went. It was remarkable what a blue model could do for your confidence. Two months earlier, he was slouching around with an old yellow model M.O.I., like a sucker, his eyes glued shamefully to the pavement. Now, crowds seemed to part when they caught a glimpse of him with Computer. Cingrani had kept his M.O.I.’s default name. He saw no reason to change it.
His friend was waiting for him at the restaurant across the courtyard, near the fountain on Red Street. Derrick Fowler didn’t have an M.O.I. (something Cingrani would surely remind him), but Fowler was too comfortable without one and too leery of the novelty to change. His phone worked just as well as an M.O.I., he explained, and a phone was private. M.O.I.s just rolled around for all the world to see—big metal basketballs, trailing dutifully after their owners.
Cingrani and Fowler took a table outside, where the M.O.I. would be less of a nuisance to the other patrons, and Cingrani reached for the wine list. Fowler extracted a blue leaflet from between the pages of his menu and dropped it to be taken by the wind, as he had done countless times before. The leaflet skipped along the ground and lodged itself under a nearby table leg, where another leaflet soon blew over to obscure it.
Computer rested near Cingrani’s ankle and slid its solar panel open to gather energy. Other M.O.I.s occasionally passed by and Computer paid them no notice. The machines rarely displayed an interest in one another.
“Well, what are you thinking?” Cingrani asked, nodding to the menu.
Before Fowler could answer, Cingrani looked back down to Computer underneath the table. Computer’s eye strip flashed lightly, observing its surroundings.
“You see that short flash?” he asked, with the doting smile of a father. “His brain operates just as fast as a human’s.”
“Faster than some,” Fowler said, watching Cingrani’s face for a reaction. The barb went unnoticed. He looked over at Computer, but the M.O.I.’s gaze was trained up at its owner. Fowler was being ignored by both of them. He adjusted his silverware self-consciously. He never knew what to do with these awkward silences. These silences caused by other peoples’ fixation on their machines.
He cleared his throat. “Fish sandwich,” he said pointedly, answering the question Cingrani had already forgotten he’d asked. “I’ve had seared ahi on my mind since eleven.”
Cingrani lingered on Computer a moment longer before he returned his eyes across the table. A simple, distracted smile remained. He obviously hadn’t heard a word of what Fowler had said.
“I’m gonna tell him to run an atmospheric test,” Cingrani blurted out momentously. He set his menu down to concentrate.
“That’s one of his features. Might as well use it.” He looked down to the floor. “Computer, please conduct an atmos—”
Computer had already processed the command and had merely been waiting for Cingrani to issue it. M.O.I.s sometimes seemed like well-behaved children, who adults forgot were waiting quietly and listening for verbal cues. Cingrani watched transfixed as a two-inch long antenna telescoped from the top of Computer’s spherical body and retracted five seconds later.
“I’ve completed the atmospheric survey, sir,” Computer said. “Would you like me to relate the results?”
Sir. Fowler snorted. No one who knew Cingrani well—or well enough—would ever have shown him that kind of deference. He’d programmed his machine to give him the respect the rest of the world wouldn’t.
“Please continue,” Cingrani said, grinning with pride. “Let’s show my friend here what he’s missing without a blue model.”
But the waiter came to take their drink order and the experiment was halted for the moment. Fowler asked for an iced tea and Cingrani took advantage of the relaxed Unison culture by ordering red wine. Salesmen could be half drunk in the office and no one would care, as long as the orders kept streaming in—and they did, at a rate so voluminous that salesmanship seemed quaint.
And even before the waiter turned to leave, Cingrani returned his focus back to the task at hand. “Okay, Computer, continue with the atmospheric test.”
“I’ve detected a spike in a carcinogenic airborne substance within the last thirty seconds,” Computer said.
“Please identify it.”
Cingrani turned to Fowler. “Now tell me that isn’t incredible! Guess the waiter’s a smoker.” His enchanted smile slowly faded. “You know, it’s illegal to smoke in a public restaurant.” He paused, and his face contorted in a devilish way. “I bet we could get the waiter fired. What do you think, Computer?”
“The public consumption of cigarettes outside designated smoking areas is a violation of California Labor Code section 6404.5,” Computer said.
“Are you serious?!?” Fowler muttered from across the table. He felt his grip tighten around his water glass. He knew all about Cingrani’s easy life, couched comfortably at Unison, indifferent to the common waiter and the release a stolen cigarette break must have brought him.
“Relax, I’m kidding,” Cingrani said. A benign smile returned to his face. “But I’m just saying…we could.”
Dinner wouldn’t be ready for another hour, so John Glover spent some time decorating his unfamiliar room with familiar things. He pulled a cardboard box toward him and rummaged around inside, as though he would find his old life somewhere within.
Everyone was taking the transition well, it seemed, except for him. His mother remarried the year before and his new step-father Michael moved them across the country, intending to mold the new trio into the kind of family he’d belonged to growing up. Michael spoke with vitality about smoky bonfires on the sand and the warm, dry night air of his youth. But here, under the eternal lamp of Los Angeles, the light pollution stained the skies orange-gray and blotted out the stars John used to marvel at from his backyard in Virginia. He imagined the homeless camped out on the same beaches Michael romanticized and paused to let the hollowness roll over him.
The television was the first thing to get power in John’s room, and it served as the central feature of his universe while he unpacked. He left space between the end table and the bedroom wall—just enough for an M.O.I. to hide away and recharge itself. The M.O.I. that he didn’t have. He looked at the empty space and thought about the blue model, without longing. He sometimes felt that an M.O.I. would be a useful thing to have, as adults think about a new dishwasher. But he was getting by without one. As long as M.O.I.s were trendy and popular—and as long as stories kept surfacing about people who sold their cars or re-mortgaged their houses to buy a blue model—he was fine with the empty space.
Other members of his family didn’t share the sentiment. His mom’s older sister Helene had a yellow model she named “Honeycomb.” She never did train it properly, so whenever John visited, the curious M.O.I. rolled up eagerly to engage John in unsolicited dialogue, as if he were half owner. And whenever John was face to face with an M.O.I., particularly one willing to interact with him, his indifference to them evaporated, forgotten until later.
“Guess what?” Honeycomb had asked him before the move. “Even though I’m a yellow model, my color is gold.”
Its voice was soft and young and feminine. John thought of it as a fourteen year-old girl. It eased the nagging artificiality.
“How’d you figure that out?”
“I found a mirror and determined that the MOY I saw wasn’t another MOY, but myself.”
“You know, you should really refer to yourself as an EM-OH-EYE. I know Aunt Helene calls you a MOY, but that’s not the right pronounciation.”
“Pronunciation,” Honeycomb corrected. “And I think ‘MOY’ suits me.”
“Because that’s what you hear the most?”
“Because it makes Helene happy.”
Helene entered the room with a plate of sliced apples and offered it to John before setting it down on the coffee table. “Honeycomb is always adjusting to my preferences,” she said. “And if I tell her something, even once, she remembers it. Not like those idiot red models.”
“I have sixteen times the processing power of the red model,” Honeycomb boasted.
“And in a much cuter package,” Helene said, in a sing-song way. Honeycomb registered its appreciation with a green sweep of light over its eye strip.
John ignored this scene of mutual admiration and tried to recapture Honeycomb’s attention. “How did you realize the reflection in the mirror was yours, instead of another M.O.I.’s?”
“Topographic analysis of my chassis.”
“Oh! And see how smart she is?” Helene said, proudly. “I suppose she picks it up somehow.”
Helene thought of herself as a positive influence on Honeycomb. She often took credit for glimpses of genius that were fundamentally integrated into the circuits and present when Honeycomb rolled off the factory line. The M.O.I.’s vocabulary so far outstripped her own, to speak nothing of her self-awareness, that the thought of her teaching it anything beyond her own tedious preferences was comical. But John indulged her.
“I want my grandchildren to live around MOYs,” she continued. “I’m glad you’re good with them, John. That you treat them right. That says something about your character.”
He scowled. He could respect the engineering behind M.O.I.s, as well as the inspiration that gave birth to them. But character—his character—didn’t enter into the equation. M.O.I.s like Honeycomb were toys for bored housewives—stunted by the simplicity of their owners, who viewed them either as trophies to exhibit to their inane friends, or as tools to reaffirm their own inflated opinion of themselves. M.O.I.s weren’t even pets. They were rolling paperweights.
John gathered his things as they prepared to leave. His mother was squeezing the last of the family gossip out of Helene in the other room when Honeycomb approached him again. It had overheard talk about the move to California.
“How often will you be visiting, John?” it asked, looking up at him like a child finding the eyes of a grown-up.
“Maybe never,” he answered moodily.
Honeycomb paused to process something. “You’re being rhetorical. You’ll visit again.” It spoke with a confidence that bordered on certainty. It had already weighed the likelihood that John would cut off ties with his only aunt, regardless of geography.
“Maybe we’ll fly back over the summer,” John admitted.
“In that case, I won’t erase our history from my memory.”
John thought for a moment. He realized he was processing something, just as Honeycomb had. “Then neither will I.”