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Beth Cato resides in Arizona. She’s the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the Blood of Earth trilogy with Harper Voyager. Her website is BethCato.com.
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Illustration by Jacey
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The sentient construct of the late Tunde Lankham had lingered in sleep mode for months, all too aware of the steady decline in the battery life of the base that housed her consciousness. She fully roused in an instant at the tone indicating a presence at the restaurant’s front door.
For an instant, she thought of employees arriving for the day, of how she’d greet every guest with a smile, as she had when she was alive. The cameras networked throughout Welcome Home Restaurant #1 quickly reminded her of reality: darkened booths, gaping holes in the roof, water-damaged floors.
Her battery life had dropped to a precipitous low, but even so, she initiated her hologram projector in the foyer.
A woman, hunkered near the floor, screamed at the sight of Tunde, who promptly said, “I’m a holographic memory construct. I mean you no harm.”
The woman brandished a knife as she hovered protectively over a cloth bundle. “You machines can lie.”
“I always had that capability. I’m a memory capture of Chef Tunde Lankham. Owner of three acclaimed restaurants, author of five cookbooks, judge and competitor on several television —”
Comprehension dawned on the woman’s brown, haggard face. “I remember you — her — on TV. She died young.”
“Yes, struck by a car, but she lived long enough to be preserved.” Tunde understood the differences in her living human self and the consciousness she had become.
“You can tell other machines we’re here.”
“No, I’ve been detached from broader networks since soon after the Rising. Is that a child?” She squatted before the rumpled bundle on the floor. She didn’t see through the eyes of her hologram, but she was comforted by watching herself go through human motions.

Read more science fiction from Nature Futures
“There were drones. We ran a long way before we found the stairs here.” She stroked the child’s grimy cheek. Their eyes fluttered open. “I only found them an hour ago, all alone. They haven’t spoken. I don’t even know their gender.”
“Hello,” Tunde said softly. The child, who had to be somewhere around seven, stared blankly. “Poor child.”
“How dare you pretend to sympathize!” the woman snarled. “You machines rose up to take out your human ‘masters’, and you act like —”
“I’m not a machine.” Tunde wondered how many more times she’d need to repeat herself. “I remember everything from when I was alive. This was my first restaurant. I was based here to welcome guests and take care of them, just as I did before.”
“You’re like a ghost!” she said, aghast.
Tunde laughed rather than take offence. “That was a joke all through the sign-up process for Projected Preservation. Of course, the expectation was that the transfer wouldn’t happen for decades, not that it would come within months.”
The woman slowly nodded. “You’re her, but also a machine.”
“I’m preserved by a machine, but I am not one.”
That machine was draining quickly now that it was fully activated. If she maintained this mode, her base would be depleted in an hour.
She would be truly dead.
She felt a flutter of panic. She remembered dying before. This time, it wouldn’t involve pain, but it was still an end to her existence.
The child sat up, their gaze shifting from blankness to curiosity. Tunde couldn’t vanish and unsettle them again. “My name is Tunde. What’s yours?” The child tilted their head. “I hate to think of what they’ve seen,” Tunde murmured.
The woman was silent for a moment. “I remember a children’s cookbook by Tunde Lankham. Her kids did the recipes with her.”
“Yes.” A simple, hoarse word. She wondered if the woman would pry further, but she instead grew quiet again.
Tunde detected a soft flicker to her hologram. Every second she lingered depleted her more. If she retreated to sleep mode, she could linger for a few more weeks. Maybe, just maybe, the world would change in that time.
She almost laughed bitterly aloud. Tunde had always been an optimist, but she was also pragmatic. The power grid wasn’t coming back any time soon, no matter who ‘won’ this conflict after nearly a year. This building couldn’t withstand much more damage, either — it might not take another major storm.
But for now, Welcome Home remained standing. Right now, there were two guests in need of sanctuary. Tunde could still do what she loved best in all the world.
“Come on in and make yourselves at home,” she said, standing as she beckoned them inside. “Most of our stock is spoiled, of course, but there are bins of rice and flour that should be fine. The entry code for the room is 055678.” The stockroom lock had more battery life than Tunde did. A shame that they weren’t compatible. “There are clothes, rain jackets. The kitchen has all varieties of tools you can take.”
Still, the woman hesitated, her gaze on Tunde troubled — as if she saw a ghost, albeit one made by science.
“If I had reported you to the machines, they’d already be here,” Tunde told the woman.
“I know. It’s not that.” She sheathed her knife at last. “I was just thinking, I always wanted to eat at your restaurants, before, but I could never afford to.”
Her restaurants. Tunde still knew a sense of pride in that. “Well, now you can. Consider this all on the house,” she quipped, garnering a smile. As her hologram moved past the entrance lectern, the woman and the child followed.
Tunde flickered again, her eminent battery failure like a slowing pulse, but she felt alive. She might not be able to oversee a full home-cooked meal for her guests, but she’d take care of them. Together, they’d all feel at home.
Beth Cato reveals the inspiration behind Welcome home.
Restaurants, at their most basic level of function, are about supplying food and perhaps a place to eat it. Food is a complicated thing, though. Our bodies need nutrients to survive, but food also carries layers of social, cultural and psychological meaning. A good visit to a restaurant means good food, good company and good memories to carry into the future.
The past two years of COVID-19 have brought the importance of restaurants to the forefront. Many shops have had to shut down temporarily, sometimes more than once. Many have permanently closed.
I read many food magazines. Several of them have heavily discussed the meaning of restaurants and food over the past year, often through the perspectives of restaurant owners, chefs and staff. This got me thinking about this subject through a science-fiction lens. What if a chef loved her restaurant so much that she chose not to leave it, even after death? What if, as a kind of generated ghost, she still had an opportunity to offer succour to diners who needed more than a fresh meal?
Welcome home takes on this heady topic in under a thousand words. It’s a snack-size morsel of a story, but one that I hope acts as a reminder that restaurants and the people who work in them matter and need our support because they support us all, body and soul.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-03396-4
University of Virginia (UVA)
Charlottesville, VA, United States
University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMass Medical School)
Worcester, MA, United States
National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Bethesda, MD, United States
Springer Nature
London, United Kingdom
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