Gray Hour – Preference

Echo was eating lunch with Sierra and Victor.

She found that they were eating lunch together quite a lot these days. Every time she saw them wandering around with their trays, looking for a place to sit, she found herself calling out to them. She liked giving them a place to sit. She liked the smiles they always gave her when she invited them to sit. She always returned them, and Echo liked smiling. Everything was all right when people were smiling.

She did not know why she always gave seats to Sierra and Victor. She always gave them a place to sit with her, even though the others who lived here with them would wander just as much, looking just as undecided, until they chose where to sit. But Echo really only felt compelled to offer the two of them a place. She liked Sierra and Victor. Sierra and Victor were special. They were her friends. Friends helped each other out. Friends did not let friends look for places to sit when there were chairs right next to her.

"Good day," she said, as her two friends took their seats.

"Good day," said her two friends.

"We have salad today," said Sierra, nodding at their plates.

"I like salad," Echo replied.

"It is interesting," said Victor.

"Salad is very healthy," said Echo.

Victor nodded. "And health is very important," he added, before returning to his eating. Echo nodded, and started to eat her own lunch.

Echo and Victor ate steadily, chewing their mouthfuls thoroughly before swallowing and loading up their forks again. But, as the meal passed in silence, Echo noticed that Sierra was not following that pattern. Sierra chewed her food thoughtfully, almost cautiously, and as she ate she stirred the salad carefully with her fork, peering at it intently.

"Is something wrong?" asked Echo worriedly, when this had been going on for a few minutes too many.

Sierra blinked, looked up at her, and smiled. "No. Nothing."

"Does your food not taste right?" asked Victor.

Sierra shook her head. "It's fine. It's just…" She bit her lip, as though she were bracing herself to say something deeply improper. "…it has tomatoes."

There was a pause as the other two dolls examined their own salad. Sure enough, hidden among the green of the lettuce, peppers, and cucumbers were the tiny red spheres of tomatoes. Echo cautiously popped one into her mouth and chewed it thoughtfully.

"There don't seem to be anything wrong with them," she finally said, once she'd swallowed her mouthful. She picked another one out of her salad and handed it to Sierra. "They're very fresh. Try one."

Sierra nodded warily, before carefully taking the tomato and biting it tentatively in half. She swallowed it, but a faint grimace creased her face and she set the other half down on her plate.

"I don't know," she said, shaking her head. "They do not taste good."

That only confused Echo. How could the food here not taste good? She liked the food they made here. The food they made for them here was light and nourishing and…


"Peppers," she said suddenly. Sierra and Victor looked at her attentively, waiting for her to elaborate. Echo herself did not entirely know why she had brought that up, but as she thought to herself it suddenly made perfect sense.

"The peppers they put in the salad have not tasted good either," she confessed.

Sierra's faint frown deepened slightly. "That is strange. I haven't noticed anything."

"Neither have I," said Victor, who looked thoroughly perplexed. "Perhaps there was a mistake."

Sierra slowly shook her head. "I…do not think so. These…" she indicate the tomatoes. "…have always tasted this way to me. But I always ate them anyway. It never seemed to matter."

"Why would you eat something that does not taste right?" asked Victor.

Sierra shrugged. "I do not know why it matters. But suddenly…it does. Why should taste determine whether or not we eat? To do otherwise would be wasteful. And wasting food is…is wrong, isn't it?"

Echo nodded slowly. She knew that the people here…the people who were not like her and Victor and Sierra…worked very hard to make this food available to them. It would not be right to reject their efforts. So much was done for them here. Why shouldn't they enjoy it? It would be rude not to.

As she mulled this over, an thought came to her. It was a simple thought, and therefore it settled quite comfortably in her mind. It made perfect sense. It would solve both her and Sierra's problem. Simple.

Carefully, Echo gathered up the chunks of pepper that had been left on her plate and held them out to Sierra. "Here."

Sierra raised her eyebrows. "But now you have less."

"I can eat those," said Echo firmly. "And you can eat these. Then we will have the same. And we won't waste anything."

Sierra blinked…and then, she smiled, seeming to approve of the plan, and quickly picked the rest of the tomatoes out of her salad and handed them over to Echo.

Both dolls blinked when Victor held out his own handful, this time of black olives. But they all shared a smile and went to work distributing the vegetable to each other's plate, and when all was said and done the three dolls resumed eating their lunch contentedly and without saying anything more to each other. Everything tasted as it should, and nothing was wasted.

"Getting bored of the tapes?"

Topher did not even bother to look up. There was only one person who could put so much sarcasm into so few words.

Sure enough, Doctor Sanders joined him leaning on the railing. The scars on her face shifted as she grimaced, seemingly unsurprised to see who he was observing. "Topher, I thought we'd established this. 'Same exact table', 'herding patterns', 'bison'…" She heaved a sigh. "What's wrong now?"

"Dolls don't have taste buds, do they?" Topher asked, still without taking his eyes from the three sitting at the table. Sierra had just split her small pile of tomatoes between Echo and Victor, and now Victor was busily measuring his own pile of olives for the two females to split.

"What are you talking about? Of course they do."

Topher waved his hands irritably. "I know, I know, I know! I mean, I know they have taste buds…but…they don't have taste, do they? I mean, look!" he gestured wildly down at the table. "They're…they're busily performing the most ancient ritual of elementary school! And they really shouldn't be!"

When Claire's expression did not change, Topher hurried on. "Oh, come on! You must…everybody did it! You hate the sandwich your mom packs for you, so you trade it for another kid's apple. She gives you a raisin cookie by mistake and you manage to get some sucker to give you his pudding for it! Kids are some of the most finicky eaters out there. Their tastes are so precise that they'll do just about anything to avoid eating foods that don't fit in!"

"You think they're developing actual preferences for the food here?" asked Claire, raising an eyebrow.

"Well, look at that!" Topher had to bite his lip to keep his voice from getting any louder. "Sierra won't touch the tomatoes, Echo hates the peppers, and Victor doesn't like the olives! So not only do they avoid foods they find distasteful, they take the step of fobbing them off on somebody else! Not only are they developing preferences, they're using logic! An Active is not supposed to have the capacity for logic!"

Claire stared quite levelly at him as Topher worked his way through his ranting. When he finally paused for breath, the doctor nodded slowly, apparently now deep in thought.

"…should I give DeWitt the four-one-one on this?" he asked tentatively.

Claire seemed to considering this…and then she smiled brightly at him. "Sure," she said, before brushing past him to return to her lab. "Of course, Mr. Langton might take offense…"

Topher's heart skipped several beats as he contemplated that possibility. When it ended very badly, he scurried after Claire. "But…but…man-friends! He…he wouldn't…do anything like that…w-would he?"

Claire smiled thinly at him, glancing over her shoulder with one hand on the door of her lab.

"I'd say if you don't want to risk it…" she said, letting her voice become dangerously soft. "…I'd let Echo fob her peppers off on someone else. Stick to the tapes, Topher."

With that, she closed the door quite pointedly in his face. Topher stared at the wood for a few seconds…and then he sighed.

"Now…I'm just hungry. Better go make Ivy get me something."