Contest #141 shortlist ⭐️

The human restaurant

Submitted into Contest #141 in response to: Set your story in the lowest rated restaurant in town.... view prompt


Science Fiction Speculative

It had been more than a month since Otto had last used remote controlled explosives to break into a building and he’d forgotten how bright the blast was. Bright, but nearly silent, with glass and debris drawn into the explosion without a sound. The wonders of new technology. 

Otto led the way in, ducking through his newly made entrance hole. His colleague, Kessie, followed behind, a hand on her rifle. Some of the colleagues he had since removed judged it strange that they still carried 21st century guns, antiques of when wars were fought between huge human militaries. They’d wanted to employ bots or hack their way to money. But Otto had been in the business a long time, and there was many a time when a bullet to the head of a man or robot had saved his life. He’d never trust a bot to fight for him, even if he was controlling it, and he didn’t like the gangs that worked from behind computer desks. There was something blood-racing, delicious, irreplaceable about smashing and sneaking your own way into a building to make a living. No one did it like he did anymore. No one thought of stealing the robots that were used as workers everywhere now; at least no one he’d ever heard of in London. 

This old building had been quite the spot by Kessie - a grand, sprawling restaurant, complete with arches, pillars, spiral staircases, and now, Otto could see, glass chandeliers and lush oil paintings. The best part about the place was that Kessie reported it to be empty of humans. Otto surveyed the interior, rubbing his hands together. It was true. Not a bodyguard or customer in sight. 

A distant shuffling sound whispered a warning. Otto drew a breath. Maybe someone was here after all. A door creaked, and slow footsteps echoed in the quiet. 

They were in an entrance room, a sign on a post that asked them politely: ‘Please wait to be seated’. Otto guessed there were probably lots of different floors and halls in the restaurant. It made it hard to tell where the steps could be coming from. They were getting louder. 

“What do we do?” Kessie stared at him. She raised her gun towards the nearest doorway. 

“Shoot them.” Otto shook his head. “If it’s just one guy we’ll be ok.” He slid behind an empty plant pot and pulled a rifle from his back. The footsteps were clearer now. 

A shadow fell through the half open doorway. The door eased open, old wood. Nobody used wooden doors anymore. Nobody used doors at all, now that the bots had to get around.

Beside him Kessie sighed, and her eyes darkened. She’d always made more of a fuss about shooting humans than Otto had. But if she didn’t mind killing robots, or the seagulls in the street, why worry about a human anymore? 

Otto would take the shot then. It would make her less guilty. 

But through the doorway hobbled an old lady. Her hair was grey with faint black streaks; her eyes an unseeing glazed blue. She had a pristine white shirt with a pencil tucked in one pocket, a black dress, and a little tie round her neck. 

Otto lowered his rifle. 

“Would you like a table?” The old lady stared past them, rosy cheeked. “You can choose anywhere you like to sit!” 

Otto stared at her. “yes.” He stood up, raised his voice. “Yes, we would like a table. Second floor, please.” 

Kessie frowned at him, a questioning in her eyes. But Otto had no idea what he was doing either.  

The old lady smiled, curtsied, and beckoned them to follow her. She picked her way up a staircase, her knuckles tightly white as she gripped the handrails all the way up.

At each step she wiggled her foot, checking her position. Definitely blind. Otto grinned. This was going to be very easy after all. 

“We haven’t had customers for quite some time,” the lady said. She weaved her way past tables on the second floor, smiling wide even as she stumbled into the back of a chair. Wilted flower arrangements and little sculptures filled the room, between dozens of oak tables with sumptuous leather seats around them. “You’ll enjoy your stay, I promise it.” There was the musty, seasoned smell of an old pub. She stopped and winced. “Oh, and you’ll have to tell me how many of you there are. I should have asked, I’m sorry. I’m out of practice” She laughed.  

“Just the two,” Otto said. He tucked the rifle back over his back as quietly as he could. He kept the safety flicked off. “Do you think many other people will come in today?” 

“Oh, no.” The lady pressed her lips tight. “Not many of the customers like our restaurant anymore when they come. And the reviews these days…” She cleared her throat, felt for the side of a table beside a window. There was a view out to the rest of London, a jungle of skyscrapers with cables running like vines between buildings. 

“People don’t visit restaurants by happenstance these days. Our reviews are the worst on the internet. They don’t even give us the chance.” The lady tugged a chair out which squeaked. “Yes, so, I think you will be all to yourselves. This is the most romantic spot for two.” She winked and spun away. “I’ll be back up with starters shortly.” 

Otto sat down, his cheeks slightly warm. To suggest they were a couple. The only girl he’d ever loved was his old grandmama who’d raised him. He shook his head. “Go and check for worker bots,” he said, nodding at Kessie. “Before she comes back with food or whatever they’re going to give us. Then I’ll work out the best way of collecting the bots up.”

Kessie rolled her eyes. “That woman wouldn’t notice me gone.” But she obliged anyway.

Otto stared out of the window. It was strange to think such a large restaurant was so empty, though maybe not that strange. Dining out was just one of many other businesses that had left empty husked buildings behind in its declining wake, all around the city when interest faded and people left their houses less and less. His grandmama had loved her old bookshop, and of course he had too. It had broken her heart when people stopped visiting - at first some loyal customers kept going, but eventually even they had died or lost interest in walking the distance to a shop when they could get the same books online for less money and effort. But there was nothing that could be done; nothing he could do anyway. The future was not in visiting shops like that, much less inheriting and running them as his grandmama had always dreamed for him. 

When he’d sold the bookshop it had killed something inside of him. It was like he’d sold his dead grandmama’s soul on the blackmarket as well as the property. 

A lovely smell came drifting up the staircase, of frying oil and burnt meat and caramelised vegetables and other smells that Otto didn’t recognise or had forgotten the names for. Rich aromas melded with the amber glow of midday, shining on the oaken tables. The chandeliers above sparkled and winked when the light hit them. Otto leaned back in the leathery chair. 

Kessie dashed back up the stairs, eyes wide. Otto frowned. He had lost track. It wasn’t a dinner out - they had a job to do. 

“There’s no bots,” she said, leaning over the table, “there’s that old waiter and an even older cook, but nothing else here at all!” 

“Did you check everywhere? It’s a big place.” But a voice inside him said that of course there weren’t any robots. They’d been served by a decrepit woman, not the latest waiterbot model. 

Behind Kessie, Otto spied the old lady start up the stairs, a shining metal tray held with both hands. She wobbled, relying just on her feet to find the way, the plates clinking as they bounced up and down. 

Kessie shook her head. “I swear, let’s get out of here. I should’ve known that it was useless and had no robots.” 

There was a crash of ceramic behind her. Then a sob. 

“I’m sorry,” the old lady bent over, picking at cutlery and bits of food, scrabbling to put them back on the tray. Her hair covered her face, and tears pinched her words.

Otto jumped from his seat. 

The lady blubbered: “I’ve heard it before, we should have robots, I’m not as good as those robot waiters. I know that; we should have bought them years ago and you customers would be happier with those machines. I’m not as good as I was when my eyes were younger. I know, I’m sorry.” She stopped clearing up the floor to wipe her face. 

“No, no, I was talking about -” Kessie started, 

but Otto muffled her mouth with one hand. Even though the old lady wouldn’t pose any threat, Otto didn’t want her to know the real reason for the visit. Nicer to keep her thinking they’d come for the food and service. He felt a stabbing pain as Kessie bit his hand. He gasped and released her. 

Kessie flared her nostrils, glared at him and continued: “I don’t mind that there aren't any bots, I mean, I was just surprised because every other restaurant we’ve - dined in, has them.” 

The old lady nodded, crouched low to the steps. She stood up, her legs trembling, and smoothed her dress. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. My Misandra doesn’t do that here. Only girlies, no machines, she says.” The old lady made a little smile. “I’ll go and tell her to remake another set of starters. I hope that's ok. I really hope it is.”

Otto stepped closer to look at the food she’d dropped. One plate was cracked, an oily syrup seeping through the cracks, and the other was overturned, a pat of crushed fleshy vegetables beneath. A few items were on the tray, freshly coated in grey dust and grime. “It’s alright,” he said, “the starters look totally fine to me.” 

“Really?” The old lady’s face lit up. “I’ll get the mains right away. I’m so sorry.” 

Otto waited for her to be out of earshot. He scooped up the food as best he could, piling it onto the tray. 

“Don’t grab my mouth again ever,” Kessie said, eyes narrowed. “Now you’re being a right cleaner bot. You don’t think I’m gonna eat any of that do you?” 

Otto grunted. He returned to the table and thrust the tray down. The only trace he’d left was an oily slick. The lady wouldn’t notice. 

“We’re going to eat whatever she brings back,” he said, shrugging. 

Kessie gave him a foul look. “We should leave, right now. She’s gone and I told you, there’s no bots here.”

Otto rubbed his chin. She was right. There was a list of other places they were set to go to. A quota of bots to be collected. Their contractor usually wanted just a little more than he’d asked for, too, or he refused to pay them anything. The scumbag. It would be hard work to find another trader. And better if they avoided the hassle of shooting another debthunter. 

“I like it here. We’ll just stay for one course and go.” He picked up the knives and forks and laid them out neatly in their places. Tucked the starter tray under the table, where the waiter wouldn’t notice. 

Kessie gave him another look, shook her head. 

“It’ll be nice, come on.” He laughed at how ridiculous he sounded. 

“She said they have the worst reviews. If you want to break into a place to eat there, I can list plenty of better options,” Kessie said, raising an eyebrow. 

Otto reached under the table and picked up a fried object that he thought was a tomato. There was only a little dirt on it. He held it up so Kessie could see, brushed it with one hand, and swallowed it. A crispy lattice crust, and when he broke through with his teeth, an explosion of sweet juice which oozed down his throat. “Delicious. You won’t get that somewhere else.” 

Kessie rolled her eyes. “Don’t pretend it tasted nice. Sometimes you disgust me.” 

Otto laughed. “Not worried to eat a little dust, are we?” 

She glared at him. 

“We’re just staying for one course.” He sighed. “You can leave now if you want. Tell me the next place and I’ll meet you there. I’m finishing this dinner.”

She sat down, to his surprise. Her expression was unreadable.

When the old lady returned with food, she struggled under a tray piled high with food. She slid a steaming pot onto the table, full of little pink morsels and streaks of seasoning, fat bubbles on the brim. Two bread rolls, torn at the middle, with crinkling

crusts and labyrinth air cavities. A wooden board with a row of pies, dark brown and fully plastered with pastry. Tall wine glasses, hand poured from a black glass bottle in ice. 

She was followed by another old lady, with one blonde streak in her hair, and a face wrinkled by years of smiling. The second lady carried a tray too, laden with even more food - countless plates with mini dishes on top, small fish cuts, an orb of velvety paste. 

“I hope you don’t mind a cook being your waiter for today!” she said, placing dish after dish onto the table with speed. “You don’t have to wait as long this way.” She tucked the empty tray under her arm. “I wanted to see my guests, really. I hope you enjoy the food.” 

“Was everything ok with your starters?” the first waiter asked. “Misandra doesn’t know to ask these things, you know.” 

The cook grinned sideways. 

Otto glanced at Kessie. “The food was great, thanks.” He tried to sound relaxed but he shuffled on his seat, trying to conceal the rifle behind his back. Kessie must have put hers on the ground. Hopefully the cook didn’t look down. 

“I’ll be just down the stairs when you want the bill,” the waiter said with a smile. 

The cook took the waiter’s hand and helped her back across the hall. 

Kessie stuffed down bread and munched through pies, her face glowing. Otto wanted to try everything. Some of the food tasted like he expected, but most he couldn’t even begin to imagine, and even then, it exceeded his dreams. He wiped his face over and over with the white tablecloth, juices and wine dripping, until the cloth was painted through with food dyes. 

“This isn't the worst food I’ve ever had,” Kessie said, laughing between mouthfuls. 

Otto shook his head. It was the best food. 

They reclined on their chairs like roman emperors. He felt like his belly had swollen at least double from the meal. 

Kessie leaned forward, groaning a little. “You know, the best part is it's all free.” She plucked a slice of meat and threw it to her mouth, only for it to miss and fall on the ground. 

Otto shifted in his seat. 

Kessie stood up, groaned again, and hauled her rifle over her back. She made for a door on the far side of the hall. “I saw before there’s a way we can go out where we can go round that old woman without them noticing.” 

He followed, his steps sluggish. There was a horrible feeling in his chest and it wasn’t the wine. “Maybe we should pay. I thought the food was alright.” 

Kessie carried on towards the door. 

“I’ll just pay. It won’t take long.” He jogged back across the hall. 

“Boss!” She turned to stare at him wide eyed. 

But he was on the stairs, galloping two at a time. 

The old lady turned at the sound of his scuffing boots. “Oh, I - I thought I'd prepare the bill, ready while you ate, if that’s ok,” she said, holding up a sliver of paper on a silver tray. “I know it's not the normal way, maybe you wanted desserts…” 

“It’s fine.” Otto saw the cook peering round the doorway, smiling. “How should I pay?” he said. 

The waiter held out a card reader, he pressed his card, and it was done. He was at least a few stolen robots poorer than when they’d arrived. 

“We do hope you’ll come again!” the waiter said.

“Of course I’ll come again. It was the best meal I’ve ever had.” Otto bowed his head. His voice was gruff. “My grandmama would have loved it here.” 

The old cook burst through the doorway and embraced the waiter. They laughed and the cook planted a kiss on the waiter’s wrinkled cheek. “You don’t know how much it means. I'd almost forgotten that we could please our guests.” 

Otto smiled, scratched his head. He retreated up the stairs. There was a strange glow inside him.  

“It’s always nice to have visitors,” the old cook said, grinning over the waitresses shoulder. “Next time use the door to come in, though, please. And do leave the weaponry outside, please.”  

Their laughter and joy followed him up the stairs and into the days after. He made sure to visit every month. 

April 15, 2022 14:21

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Frank Adams
21:22 Apr 27, 2022

Pretty good I enjoyed reading it


Ness Turner
16:27 Apr 28, 2022

I'm glad :)


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Kevin Broccoli
16:17 Apr 25, 2022

I'm always excited when a sci-fi story makes it to the shortlist. This was such a great ride through the genre and I thought your pacing was excellent.


Ness Turner
18:29 Apr 25, 2022

Thanks very much :) It means a lot


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Chris Morris
21:45 Apr 21, 2022

I really loved the pacing of this - you let the story take its time unfolding but it never felt like it dragged or you were saying too much. I was a bit fearful of a bleak ending but was pleasantly surprised when I got to the end. Well done, I enjoyed this.


Ness Turner
07:21 Apr 22, 2022

Thanks, glad you enjoyed it


Chris Morris
16:09 Apr 22, 2022

Wow, two weeks in a row my critique circle people have made the shortlist! Well done, very well deserved.


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Shea West
21:12 Apr 21, 2022

Ness, Welcome to Reedsy! I love that you kind of flipped the sci-fi aspect of this story on it's head by calling it The Human Restaurant. Using details like the 21st century guns and etc. Like they'd forgotten what it was like to be served by actual humans. Not to use a pun, but I loved the humanness you gave this story.


Ness Turner
21:26 Apr 21, 2022

Hi, thanks for your thoughts :)


Shea West
14:51 Apr 22, 2022

Congrats on your shortlist Ness!


Ness Turner
15:05 Apr 22, 2022

Thanks very much!


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Ness Turner
15:06 Apr 22, 2022

You too!


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Mike Mccabe
17:12 May 22, 2022

Hi. My names Mike McCabe. I run a podcast called Literary Porno. Basically, I find short, erotic stories and read them. My podcast isn’t like a big deal or anything; it’s just me. That being said, I won’t be able to pay you anything. Would you mind if I read your story over my podcast? Hell, you can read it if you want. Or you read girl parts and I read guy parts, however you want to do it I’m down. But, I hope to hear back from you soon.


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