Tastes Like Chicken
It was sometime after the world had ended and the food was running out. In a small suite of rooms deep under the England-Wales border, Moxie Laker, Chief Food Scientist and former cupcake entrepreneur, placed a plate in front of her I-Bot Hybrid 5.0. She met his blank stare with one eyebrow raised.
‘Well go on then, try it,’ she said.
The I-Bot, whose name was Morgan, looked at her, and then looked down. He carefully picked up the fork and stabbed at the plate, locating the meat and planting it on the prongs before bringing it to eye level for closer inspection.
‘It’s fine. You’ll be fine. Just give it a try, Morgan.’ Moxie put down a glass of water next to him, straightened her lab jacket and wondered if she shouldn’t try wearing an apron and a chef’s hat tomorrow to get him in the mood. Morgan was composed of a bionic body, donor human organs and a billion trillion gigabytes of processing power, creating a mind of such epic intelligence that it made hers look like dog food. All that brainpower hadn’t given Morgan much in the way of personality, though. It was one thing the techs hadn’t managed to get right. The I-Bots may look human, but they were a long way from being human. Moxie had requested she have one as a partner for exactly that reason. She wanted someone who would tell the truth, who could give her the precise feedback, but who wouldn’t freak out at the prospect of starving to death if she couldn’t find anything that worked. Even if he wasn’t much company, Morgan was a perfect candidate for the task in hand.
She wondered what he was thinking.
‘What are you thinking Morgan?’ She might as well ask, just in case he came up with anything insightful.
‘It smells of squirrel.’
Damn, it was like having dinner with a five year old. Moxie grabbed the fork out of his hand.
‘Morgan! What did we talk about earlier?’
‘Roasted, with pearl onions and baby carrots and a light jus made with the squirrel juices and a glass of Cote du Rhone – ’
‘ I told you last time, please don’t list the ingredients out, it’s really not going to help things at all if you tell people they’re eating rodents – ’
‘ – And a sprinkling of fresh sea salt and parsley to garnish.’
Morgan raised his hand and Moxie gave him back the fork with a sigh.
‘Just eat it.’
He put the fork to his lips, his nostrils flaring.
‘What does it taste like?’
Moxie, frustrated, grabbed the fork from him and shook it in his face. ‘I’ve been working on this for a month trying to get it to taste like anything but squirrel! Failing that, get you to say that it does!’
Morgan stared at her while his mouth worked on masticating. Moxie growled at him, wishing he would say whatever it was on his mind, but then decided that might take too long.
‘Morgan, I know this is hard, but you really have to try. People are going to starve if we don’t get this right, you know that, don’t you?’
‘Affirmative,’ said Morgan, which just annoyed Moxie even more. She prodded another piece of meat with the fork and handed it to him, before whipping away the plate and putting another one down, on it a pile of translucent grey meat masquerading as a chicken kiev. Morgan stopped to swallow the squirrel, before sipping his water. Palette cleansed, he turned to the second plate.
Moxie placed her hand over his and met his eyes.
‘Morgan,’ she said,’ this is really important. You have to remember what we said, about what the people need to hear.’
‘That it doesn’t matter what the meal is made of; only what it tastes of.’
‘That’s right, Morgan. If we’re going to avoid full-scale dystopia and certain starvation we need to offer a way to put food on the table that’s nutritious and delicious, even if the ingredients differ slightly from what they’re used to. And preferably make them believe it’s made from something else except holocaust squirrels and stem cell slops.’
Morgan nodded and began to cut into the kiev. Moxie sighed. It looked terrible. She wasn’t getting through to Morgan, either. All this research, all these months perfecting lab-mince, test tube poultry and rodent recipes, and all of it would be useless unless she could convince people to eat it. Stem cell meat had been attempted before, of course, decades ago; but the market hadn’t been there at the time and the idea had been abandoned. Moxie was pretty sure she knew why; it was desperately unattractive and had a flavour like soggy cardboard.
She turned her attention to the kiev and Morgan, who was mid-mouthful, and figured now was as good a time as any to ask.
‘What does it taste like?’
There was a pause. Moxie held her breath and waited as Morgan considered his answer. Finally he placed the fork down on the plate and looked back at her, his eyes unblinking and humourless as he gave his reply.
‘Chicken,’ he said.
Moxie’s heart stopped.
‘What did you say?’ She said.
‘Chicken,’ he said. ‘You asked me what it tasted like and I replied ‘chicken’.’
Moxie moved around to Morgan’s side of the table.
‘Do you really think so, Morgan?’
‘Affirmative. Tastes like chicken.’
Moxie kissed him in delight, ignoring the recoil, which she hoped was a programmed response rather than instinctive. ‘We’ve made real progress today,’ she said, unbolting his torso from the chair and lifting him onto the bot-legs waiting for him by the door. ‘Just a few more weeks of taste trials and we’ll be ready.’
Morgan gave a nod and headed out of the door towards his docking pod. Moxie watched him go with fondness. He really wasn’t so bad for an I-Bot and he had helped her an awful lot. She would bake him a cheesecake next week to say thank you. She looked down at the plate he had left behind and scooped up a large forkful into her mouth. As she gagged and ran for the bathroom, Moxie realised that she had achieved what the techs had not been able to. They were no further from starvation than before, but out of sheer desperation to avoid eating any more of her cooking, Morgan had finally learnt to lie.