Physically, Lloyd felt very little as his BigSuit hauled open the glass door to the restaurant. Within his tiny chest, however, his heart was dancing giddily. This is it! This is really happening, he said to himself. I’m here, and she’s on her way, and you’ll play it cool…
“Hi, welcome to River House Tavern! My name’s Tena. How many tonight?” The greeter was cute and perky, mahogany hair pulled back in a bouncy ponytail, and tonight Lloyd stood a full head taller than her. He smirked, looking down at her forehead and the bridge of her nose, rather than up her nostrils. What a weird angle.
“Two, please. A table will be fine,” he added when she asked. He didn’t want to scare Alyssa off with a forcibly intimate setting like a booth. Tena right-this-way‘d him into the center of the dining area, not exactly in the back but definitely not near the windows. It looked so strange, to walk among the Normals at this altitude. He unconsciously glanced at Tena’s feet and shoes, more familiar to him but disconcertingly far away. Is this how it’s going to be all night? he thought, a little dismayed. Better get over yourself, guy. Get ready to meet her on her turf.
His leg servos, quiet in an office environment, were absolutely undetectable in the ambient noise of casual dining. This encouraged him, this slight gift of normalcy, but he turned a few heads regardless: though his wool dining jacket and Italian dress shirt hung on him perfectly, the BigSuit labs hadn’t yet perfected a believable hue for the smart-silicone flesh on his arms and neck. It was monochromatic and flawless, unlike everyone else in here. That, and his large glowing helmet attracted some unwanted attention… but only a little, really, if he was honest with himself.
“Will this do?” Tena chirped, and he affirmed it would, seating himself. The dark wood chair creaked but bore his weight ably. “Keila will be your server tonight,” she sang, launching into the soup of the day, the special, and the rotating tap. As she clapped the menus onto the table, she leaned in to the faceplate that separated the tiny little man in his haptic harness from the giantess’s broad face. “And I just want to say,” she whispered, “I really like your… Koibito?” She gave herself away with that guess: too young and too hip.
Lloyd’s faceplate didn’t show how he blushed. “Amante, actually, but thank you for saying so.” His enlarged, digital blue face smiled amiably for her. Tena nodded and waded back through the tables.
His HUD said it was only 7:52 p.m. He knew he was early, and he knew how silly it looked (to Normals) for someone who couldn’t even eat a full meal (by Normal standards) to be sitting by himself in a restaurant. But he also had a lot of practice pushing his insecurities down and giving himself permission to mingle in Normal society. Technically the law was on his side, though it wasn’t always enforced and not everyone agreed to abide by it. Lloyd resisted the urge to glance around the restaurant: he wanted to enjoy his elevated perspective, but more than that he really didn’t want to catch anyone’s eye.
Not tonight. Not on a night like this.
At 7:58 p.m. Keila introduced herself—a tall, punkish woman, the shaved sides of her head baring an array of piercings—and set out glasses of water, repeating the soup of the day and the special. “So, uh,” she said, glancing at the empty seat, “a couple more minutes?”
“Not much longer now, hopefully.” He laughed briefly, nervously.
At 8:05 p.m. Keila brought a beer menu. “The rotating tap tonight is Musculum IPA. It’d go really well with the salmon, if you’re thinking of that.” She smiled in no more than the corner of her lips. Instead, Lloyd asked for a pony of River House Milk Stout, and it showed up ten minutes before Alyssa did.
“Hey, how’s it going? No, don’t get up,” she said, brushing her long red hair behind one ear. He did anyway, politely rising halfway until she seated herself. “I’m so sorry about being late! Traffic was… ugh!” She flashed a smile at him and and snatched the drink menu.
There hadn’t seemed to be all that much traffic when Lloyd was on his way to River House Tavern, but he hadn’t really been looking from the PTV lane, so who knew. “You look fantastic,” he told her, and she did: the spaghetti-strap gown in deep green set of her hair very effectively. A few people at nearby tables glanced at the two of them. “I’m very glad you wanted to meet me here, Alyssa, it really means a lot to me.”
She hmm’d and looked past his faceplate, waving. “Wow, really inattentive service here, huh?” Lloyd was about to gently suggest otherwise when Keila strode through. She stood tall, beside the seated redhead, and he noticed she tended to thrust her hips forward in a relaxed position. She caught him staring at her and winked.
Alyssa flashed the server the same stiff grin she’d tossed at Lloyd and asked about the house reds, sounding dissatisfied with anything Keila brought up. The server, however, seemed used to this and was undeterred in her suggestions until Alyssa grudgingly consented to a Malbec. Keila thanked her and shared a glance with Lloyd; he was unable to reciprocate, as his face was essentially a TV screen now and subtlety was transmissible.
Alyssa sighed and gave him another grin, large enough to cover her jaw but not enough to reach her eyes. “So, yeah! How’s it going?” she said. “So great to be out here with you. I know you’ve really been trying to make this happen. Sorry we couldn’t, just, work it out sooner. Have you been here long? Oh, hold on.” Her own face glowed blue, like his, but from the screen of her smartphone.
Lloyd looked at the pony of stout by his right hand. It was a good hand, slender and classically shaped. The Italians had modeled it after Michelangelo’s David, that was their bias, but it was a good effect. It looked strong, framed by his French cuff, as it rested on the heavily lacquered table. The house stout was pretty good, too, and the haptics in the Amante really communicated the feeling of holding the pony glass between his first two fingers and thumb. Very clear, very solid, near-instant representation of temperature. He lifted the glass just below his faceplate, sipping at the beer through a retracting capillary straw. He couldn’t finish a whole pony in one sitting, but he suspected he’d have ample opportunity to try.
Alyssa abruptly looked up. “What were we saying?” she gasped, then added before he could respond, “Sorry, that was… well, anyway. Appetizers?” She put her phone in her purse and her purse on the corner of the table.
They ordered an artichoke dip. “We’re splitting this!” she laughed, as his index finger opened to expose the serving rod. He touched this to the dip, then stuck it under his faceplate. He smiled at her, or rather, a camera captured his face where he was strapped into his helmet, and it projected his smiling expression to his faceplate.
“Well, I just wanted to say,” Lloyd started again, carefully placing his lovely hands on either side of his plate, “that you really do look gorgeous tonight. Thanks for meeting me here.”
“Uh-huh.” She peered into her purse.
“How was your day? I mean, after work. Obviously, heh, I know how today went.”
“Oh, you know.” She looked around at the other tables. “Got home, hardly spent any time there, just getting dressed up to rush out here. And, you know, traffic.”
He nodded, and the helmet he was in nodded. “Yeah, dumb question. What’s the last thing you read?”
Her stern, hazel eyes landed on him. “I dunno. Cosmo. Why?”
He laughed. “No, like, the last book. Read any good novels recently?”
“No. I guess I don’t have time for, like, full novels or whatever.”
“Sure, people get busy. Some people think Schopenhauer said that when people buy a book, they think they’re also buying the time to read it.”
She reared and shook her head as though an insect had flown at her face. “Who?”
“Nobody. German philosopher. I just heard that somewhere.” Lloyd’s cheeks burned. Bringing up a philosopher on a dinner-date? Really? He took a deep breath and forced himself to smile. “There are a lot of good movies−”
“Are you ready to order?” Keila sidled up seemingly out of nowhere and loomed over the table. Startled, Lloyd glanced up at her: somehow she appeared a little taller than before. Was that the beer?
“Yeah, I’ll get the pan-seared ribeye,” Alyssa said without a moment’s hesitation, “garlic mashed potatoes for the side, and another Malbec.”
Keila penned this quickly, then turned fully toward Lloyd. Her white blouse glowed in his faceplate. Her top two buttons, below the collar, were opened and he could see a glimpse of black lace on her pale chest. “I’ll, uh,” he started, then glanced at Alyssa. “Hey, would you mind terribly if I just had a strand of your steak and maybe a tear off your salad?”
Her breath hissed through her long nostrils while her eyes remained downcast. Abruptly she smiled up at Keila, laughed, placed her hand on the server’s forearm, and announced they’d be splitting this meal. Keila tilted her head, all her dyed ringlets flopped to one side. She glared at Alyssa’s long fingers on her arm, and when the woman in green failed to pick up on this, the server turned slowly but deliberately away and said she’d put her order in.
“Wow, rude staff here,” Alyssa chuckled. “You sure know how to pick ’em, Lloyd.”
“She’s probably having a rough night, nothing to do with you. The service industry can be really trying.”
She snorted and peeked into her purse.
“Have you seen any good movies lately?”
Lloyd rested his BigSuit arms on his lap. He leaned forward in his little harness and the Amante model leaned forward as well. “Hey, Alyssa. Have I done something to piss you off?”
The redhead looked up suddenly. “What? No, no! Of course not!” She smiled her frozen smile and tilted her head as though she couldn’t hear him properly. “Why would you think that?”
He leaned back, and the Amante leaned back. Precise as the haptics were, he didn’t feel a replication of the wool jacket hanging on his shoulders or scrunching in the back. “I just get the sense that there’s somewhere else you’d rather be.”
“I don’t know why you’d say that! I’m having a lovely time.” Her laughter sounded like a British comedian imitating American laughter: too loud, enunciated too clearly.
He started to reach for his beer, then just rested on his elbow. “I’m sorry if I was too persistent at work, asking you to come out with me. Looking back on it, I think I put too much pressure on you. I’m a little embarrassed now.”
Her expression softened. Her wide lips parted slightly and she blinked repeatedly. “No… no, no, Lloyd. I want to be here, I do. I’m sorry if I’ve been distant. I’ve got…” She looked at her purse, then snapped her gaze up to pretend to study a painting on the wall. “You know, family business. Mom’s freaking out about my sister. Nothing to do with you or tonight. Okay? I want to be here.” She reached out to touch the back of his hand. He felt her fingertips via his haptic glove, but she swore and jerked her arm back.
His fingers flexed, spread, then curled again. “Sorry. Silica-Dermis, the Italian smart-silicon. Durable and flexible, but it just doesn’t feel close to real, does it.” His faceplate showed him looking down and smiling gently.
“The rest of you looks so real.” Alyssa stared at him directly, for once, without distraction. Her eyes ran up his shirt, over his jacket’s lapels, then up to his helmet. “Aren’t you hot in there? Do you get claustrophobic?”
The Alyssa he looked at inside the helmet was as much a video projection as was his face on the exterior of the faceplate. The projection highlighted some nonstandard characteristics some guys might not have gone for, but it was her uniqueness that hooked him: slightly crooked smile, slightly largish nose, other things made her staggeringly beautiful to his tastes. “I’m long past that. They train you for weeks in the haptic suit, in a glass of amniotic fluid. If you don’t get over your fears during that time, you never will.” He shrugged. “Some don’t. I almost didn’t get my position in our office, except the most-qualified guy before me had really bad cleithrophobia. He could wear the haptic bodyglove, but whenever they sealed the helmet on him, he freaked out. Couldn’t do the job, and so…” He gestured to himself with sweeping hands.
She nodded, her silken and coppery tresses spilling like a lava-fall over her shoulders. “What was that thing with your, you know, finger?”
“The Sampler?” He raised his hand and his index fingertip split laterally, like an alligator’s mouth, to allow a small HDPE rod to emerge, then retracted it. “I don’t need much food, compared to the Nor−… to everyone else, so I just catch a little on here, like soup or dip, and eat off of that.”
“I was kidding about making you split the bill with me,” she said. Her expression was a little dark and her words were slow and quiet. She wouldn’t look at him.
“Alyssa, it’s my treat, seriously. I asked you out here. Please let me do this for you.” He smiled at her, raising his finely sculpted hands in supplication. “I’m really grateful you came out to meet me.”
She looked as though she were about to say something, but a buzzing in her purse snatched her attention away. She tossed him a distant hold on and yanked the phone from her purse like a still-beating heart. “I’ve got to take this,” she said, rising, and made her way out just as Keila arrived with the steak.
“Everything okay?” she asked Lloyd, her eyes on Alyssa’s back.
“Yeah, I guess.” He stared at the ribeye and greens, wondering if he still had an appetite for one precious little fiber of beef.
Keila didn’t move. “Another beer?”
Lloyd snapped to, looked up at her, then looked at his mostly full pony of stout, then back at her. She was smirking, so he grinned back. “This happen a lot?”
“Watching someone’s date blow up in their face.”
She shrugged, but her natural syncopation made it look more like a dance. “We get it all. The break-ups, the great first dates, the terrible first dates. Once a month, maybe. What’s going on?”
Lloyd’s mouth opened, then closed. “You don’t want to hear about my problems,” he said quietly, trying and failing to laugh. Looking around the room a little he added, “You’re probably really busy tonight, huh?”
“Eh. It’s not too bad for a Thursday.” She dared to grip his shoulder, and in his helmet he felt her slender, warm hand and the little squeeze she gave. “Stay strong. Lemme know if you need anything, ‘k?” And she slipped through the diners with absolute frictionlessness.
Alyssa threw herself into her chair as though she’d collapsed from the ceiling. “Sorry about that! Family. Ooh, this looks good,” she said in cloying tones, taking up her silverware. She made delighted faces at the food, made some yummy-noises at it, gave it a lot of attention. Lloyd watched the knife fall through the tender cut, watched her fork a slender piece into her mouth. “Mmph… well, they do steak pretty well, I guess.” She took a couple more pieces, chewing determinedly, before glancing up at her company. “Aren’t you eating?”
“I didn’t want to just reach over and grab at it while you were eating.”
She looked at the empty plate in front of the BigSuit, the quarter-pint glass of dark fluid by his right hand. Her jaw worked doubly hard at what was in her mouth, and she strained to swallow her morsel. She said, “I’m sorry, it’s just really weird to be sitting here, chowing away at my meal while you’re just… staring at me.”
Lloyd turned his hands up once more and nodded. “I guess it would be, sorry. I suppose that’s why most Tinies eat at home, huh?” His was the only BigSuit in River House Tavern tonight, that was clear. It was immediately and persistently obvious to everyone.
No matter how skillfully the Italians had modeled the Amante after a young and virile lover in the peak of health, no matter the finely tailored clothing he wrapped it in, the glowing faceplate and his hemispherical helmet assured he would always stick out like a sore thumb. Through the helmet, through the efficient microtech lining the chamber in which he hung cradled, Lloyd could feel the judging gazes of the other patrons.
Nothing else for it but to push through it, I guess. He reached over to her plate for a small scrap of fat Alyssa had trimmed off her ribeye. There were a few strands of beef on it, one of which he could peel off and fill up on, easily. Alyssa jerked, yelped “What?!” and took a swipe at his Davidian hand with her serrated steak knife. All Lloyd felt in the bodyglove was a firm tap on his right hand; a red light strobed on his right, and his HUD reported an injury to the back of his hand. Without any food, he slowly retracted his arm and examined the cut: a window on his HUD zoomed and focused to show a jagged slice through a fake, sculpted tendon of silicone.
Alyssa’s silverware clattered to the table. “Oh my God! Are you okay?” she started to say, but this swiftly bled into excusing herself for not noticing him, then angrily blaming him. He tuned her out (literally: a head-wobble dampened exterior audio), dabbed a napkin corner in his drinking water, and did his best to wipe away the steak grease and butter from the cut. Cleaned, the smart-silicone began to mend itself: the incision would close but there would be a hairline flaw on the back of his otherwise classically perfect hand until he replaced the coating.
“I’m fine,” he murmured under her expletives. “I don’t feel pain in a BigSuit, not physical pain.”
The evening wrapped up with tedious predictability. Alyssa’s voice rose as she railed at him for being a sickening little bug locked up in a creepy-ass robot body. She informed him she found his kind disgusting, and if he spoke to her one more time about anything not strictly business-related, she had more than enough material to bring to HR and get his freakish, microscopic ass canned. Keila hovered nearby, happening to hold a to-go box for another customer. The furious redhead snatched this from her grasp, threw her ribeye into it, threw her napkin onto her chair.
“And I don’t even want to think of what you thought you were going to do with me after this! A tiny little… like you… what, crawling up my… into my… You’re disgusting!” she screeched. The woman in the green dress was literally screeching at him, in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Stuff like this actually happens, Lloyd noted with wonder.
Now that she was standing beside the table, looming over him, he actually felt a little more comfortable. This is what I’m used to. There, those are the nostrils that I loved. Then she seized her glass of water and hurled it into the Amante’s chest. “Or maybe I should take you home! So I can yank you out of that goofy-ass helmet and grind you into a paste! Pop you like a fucking zit!” Nearby, a man’s voice cheered, then the adults at his table laughed.
Through the graphic representation of trickling water on his HUD, Lloyd watched his lovely coworker shoulder their server aside. He watched Alyssa’s palm sweep out, growing larger and larger, until her massive hand collided with his faceplate, canting his helmet briefly. He swung in the haptic harness for a moment, clenching his eyes and biting his lips, giving the Amante time to right itself to a stable sitting position.
Through the muted audio he still caught some commentary around him. “Serves him right, that little freak.” “That was fun to see! Wish I’d had my phone out.” “Hey, baby, slow down a minute. That guy giving you trouble?” “What the hell makes him think he can just waltz into respectable society, anyway?”
None of these sentiments were new to him, so they carried very little impact at all. He waggled his head and brought up a mix of Audio Future Cloud, then sent out a hail for any PTVs in the neighborhood. He looked at his stout—being shuttled home in a PTV obviated any requirement for his sobriety—but only slid it away, knowing it wouldn’t help the evening any.
Keila appeared at his shoulder with the bill. Before she could say any time you’re ready he raised his left pinky, and she ran its embedded credit chip. The receipt that appeared in the lower left of his HUD showed that she’d discounted the garlic potatoes and his beer. And it had an attachment.
Lloyd scooted himself back from his table. He discovered Keila came up to just above the Amante’s “chin.” She was looking at him seriously so he turned down the trance-ambient in his “head.”
“I’m very sorry about this, sir,” she said clearly, evenly. “Management would like to let you know your next meal will be comped, if you’d like to come back to the River House Tavern.” Over her shoulder, a man in a navy blazer touched his eyebrow, then returned to the kitchen. Keila’s sharp, dark eyes glanced around his helmet. “Please don’t let anyone here discourage you. They’re not normally sizist bigots,” she said, with a dash of sass.
“You’re very kind… you’re wonderful,” Lloyd said, his smile glowing in her face. “Wish I could say this is the first time this has happened.” Keila started to say something but only nodded, stepped out of his way, and went to find a mop.
Later, he leaned back in the PTV, zipping smoothly along the highway back to his condo. Faceplate up, he watched the city lights streak by with his own eyes. The enormous buildings looked like black, blocky smudges against the deep blue night. It would be awkward to face Alyssa. He grinned ruefully: Who knows what she’s already told her girlfriends?
Oh, and speaking of… He dropped the faceplate, brought up the HUD and opened the attachment. It was a brief note, just a few words and a string of numbers. Rocking gently in haptic harness, Lloyd just stared at it for a while as the PTV’s power plant purred softly. Alyssa had stung him, but this new development took the edge off. You just never can tell, he thought, grinning as he added Keila to Contacts.