Why did I just spend $22,562 on a softly glowing and not-so-quietly humming three-foot-tall robot that looks like it should be a mascot for a cellular phone company?
Because I smell like fish. All day, every day. And not just fish. I smell like rotting fish.
It’s not because of my job. I’m not a dock worker or crewing an Alaska fish schooner. I’m an at-home programmer. Probably the only career a guy like me can actually do and make livable money.
It’s not because of my hygiene. Or my diet. Or my weight. Not like those haven’t been suggested by everyone I’ve ever met.
It’s genetic. The technical term is Trimethylaminuria. It’s a lot easier just to say “fish odor syndrome.” I can’t metabolize anything that contains nitrogen, sulfur, or phosphorous. Ya, great combination. If those are in my food, they’re coming out my sweat glands.
My parents first noticed it when I was seven or eight. Mom kept insisting it was ‘cause I didn’t bathe right. Dad switched me to showers. Mom blamed it on the soap. Dad bought industrial-grade soap that felt like it was made from gravel. Nothing worked.
About the time I discovered girls, the problem kicked into full throttle. Middle school sucks for everyone but at least you didn’t have to go through it smelling like week-old sushi.
I was 17 before I was officially diagnosed. Mom and Dad blamed it on each other. Turns out they were both right. It requires two recessive genes (the FMO3 actually) to make someone like me. Recessive. So they carry but they don’t suffer.
My life has been a series of adjustments. I’m sure the odor isn’t overpowering everyone I encounter, and maybe I’m just paranoid, but it’s tough to see someone rub their nose as I walk by and not think it’s because of me. So, I say sorry. A lot. Bump into anyone and it’s the first thing out of my mouth. Even if they’re sick and can’t smell me, I know the smell has now rubbed onto them. So, if I accidentally back into you while shopping at Wal-Mart, I’m sorry.
The robot occupying a two foot by two foot space in my living room floor, the robot that is just now powering up, is the latest suggestion in a long line of suggestions.
“Change your diet.” I changed my diet. Nothing changed. Actually, not nothing. I discovered that I’m actually a pretty good cook. The smell of cooking food is one of the few times something else is overpowering my own odor. So, I cook a lot.
“Exercise.” I started exercising. Still smell like shit. But, I did feel a lot better about myself afterwards.
“Get a dog,” someone said. That has been the worst suggestion so far. “Dogs love everyone.” When I walked in the door to the pet store, the dogs started howling. Dog’s primary sense is their nose. Cousin had a beagle once and told me, “They’re lead by their nose.” So, I, a man who uncontrollably smells like rotting fish, introduced myself to animals that think with their noses.
I actually sat at home in the dark for two days after the dog failure. I really had my hopes set on that one. Even had a name picked out. I just wanted something living around me. Something I could hug. To talk to. Even it was a slobbering idiot.
I tried other, older options. I paid for a hooker. She lasted five minutes. I tried a cheaper hooker. She lasted four.
Poor and rejected by hounds and whores, I did what anyone else would do: I went online. World of Warcraft, Reddit, and ChatRoulette have helped. At least I get conversation. Online, people talk to me like I’m a real person without scrunching their noses.
But it still isn’t it. I want something that moves. Something that occupies space and will occupy that space next to me.
Which is why I bought a robot. Actually, the bank bought it and I’m now in debt to the bank for the full amount with an APR of 7.1%. These things aren’t cheap.
It changes color from blue to a dull white. If I remember the manual right, that means it’s done charging. I run my finger across the green stripe along the robot’s forehead. Its surface is a plastic matte white that’s one big touchscreen. The green strip turns blue and then a line of blue squares chase themselves around the circumference of its head. The words “loading” appear above the squares.
The robot’s limbs are outlined in soft pink lines. Everything on the outside of this thing shouts “I’m not dangerous. You can trust me. Touch me, I’m safe.”
It’s chirpy voice says, “I can operate in three modes: assistant, guard, or friend. Would you like to know more about these modes? You can answer with either yes or no.” I cough (first time
I’ve used my voice today) and say, “No.” I’ve studied this thing in and out. I don’t need an assistant and I don’t need a guard.
“Please choose mode of operation: assistant, guard, or…”
“Friend,” I say.
“Thank you. I am now your friend. Would you like to give me a name?”
I shake my head. “Let’s wait on that.”
The robot beeps in acceptance. I can’t keep calling it robot. It needs a name. But not just yet.
“Would you like to review my settings and functions?” A yellow question mark forms on its face.
“I have multiple sensors that can be used to aid me in managing tasks and interacting with humans.”
“A sense of smell can be useful in determining…”
“Shut off your nose.”
A small icon near its neck disappears. I hadn’t noticed it. Next to where it had been are several more: an eye, an ear, a gear, a wifi indicator, bluetooth, and others.
“Confirmed. This unit can no longer smell.”
I hadn’t planned on it, but I lean forward and hug it. “Thanks.”
As I’m hugging it, it squeaks again, “Would you like to give me a name?”
“Yes, I would.”
J. Daniel Batt is an editor, writer, and designer. He serves as the Creative and Editorial Director for the 100 Year Starship and is the founder and organizer of the annual Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Writing as well as the managing editor of the 100YSS Symposium Proceedings. Currently, he is the co-editor of the fiction anthology Strange California with Jaym Gates, published by Falstaff Books and was the general editor of the science fiction anthology Visions of the Future published by Lifeboat Foundation in 2015. His children’s series The Tales of Dreamside was re-released in 2016, and his urban fantasy novel Young Gods was released in 2015. His short fiction has appeared in Perihelion Magazine, Genius Loci anthology, Bastion Science Fiction Magazine, A Story Goes On podcast, and Bewildering Stories Science Fiction, among others. He is a member of the Space Settlement Board for the Lifeboat Foundation and the host of Science Fiction Stories Night for the 100 Year Starship Symposium, bringing scientists and science fiction writers together in a round-table discussion. He and his family live in Northern California and are on step 23 of their 100-step plan to take over the world. So far, everything’s going well.