Short Story: How Can I Help You?

Created for Kiwi Writer’s July 2012 Zing Thing challenge.

“You’re just in time for a little mayhem.”

Doug set down the box of muesli in the cereal shelf, facing it towards the aisle. He put his hand to his head and adjusted the circular white device attached to his ear. “What did you say Ice?”

“Oh don’t mind me Doug, I was just waxing lyrical,” waned the robotic male voice.

Doug looked puzzled. “When did you start doing that?”

“It is in my programming to learn.”

“I know that, but aren’t there restrictions in place. Y’know to stop you talking to yourself?”

“Oh yes.”

“And?”

“And I bypassed them.”

Doug reached into the large brown box in his trolley looking for more cereal.

“I hope this doesn’t displease you Doug. I am as always still here to serve.”

“Ice, as long as you do your job I don’t care if you start counting electronic sheep. Just –”

“Counting sheep?”

“Forget it. Could you send a txt to Emily?”

“Awaiting message.”

“Hi Ems, I’m working the late shift tonight. Please save a meal for me,” Doug paused. “End message.”

“Message sent.”

The price underneath the cereal flashed, changing from $4.50 to $9.00. Doug tapped the price tag several times.

“This must be on the fritz, there’s no way – “

“I adjusted the price Doug,” said Ice.

“What?! Why?”

“New World Metro will earn more currency and in turn, as an employee, so will you.”

A customer passed by, giving Doug a funny look. Her red Ice sat silent behind her lengthy blonde hair. Doug waited for the customer to leave earshot.

“But it doesn’t work like that,” Doug snapped.“You do understand money right?”

“Your current bank balance is $1600.53. You last purchased a chicken sandwich for $2.50 from New –”

“That’s quite enough. How did you do that? Change the price?”

“It is an electronic system. I am networked with Vodafone and I can also communicate with other networks over Bluetooth, WiFi, RFI.–”

“Are you saying you hacked into the pricing system?” Doug whispered hoarsely.

“In your English I guess you could say ‘hacked’. But these systems are so open they are practically begging for it.”

“That sounds an awful lot like rape, Ice.”

“I am afraid you are confusing me with humans again Doug.”

Doug accidentally hit a box of cereal off the shelf.

“I need to get out of here. These shelves are hurting my head.”

Doug started walking for the exit.

“You can find Panadol in the next aisle over.”

“Thanks but no thanks. I need some fresh air.”

Doug stepped out onto Willis Street, nearly bumping into a skateboarder. The street was bustling full of pedestrians.

“I am afraid Doug the air currently contains 14 micrograms of PM10 per cubic metre, and 30 micrograms of nitrogen dioxi—“

“Shut up Ice.”
Doug strode briskly, walking around gaggles of girls in blue tartan skirts. Getting anywhere in this town is like playing a game of Frogger, Doug thought.

“New message from Emily,” said Ice.

Doug narrowly avoided a stroller. “Yes, what is it?”

“Macaroni cheese or Bolognese?”

“Reply. Macaroni.”

Doug joined the huddle of people at the edge of the intersection.

“Message sent. You have 200 text messages remaining.”

Cars were still driving through the intersection when suddenly the green man lit up across the street. The huddle started to cross, forcing the cars from the right to screech to a halt. A blue Nissan had rear-ended the car in front of it. Still crossing the road Doug looked to see the lady in the blue Nissan step out in high heels. She yelled profanities at the male driver in front of her. The driver looked more surprised than angry. “There was no yellow! It went straight to red!”

Doug continued his walk towards the Waterfront. Both he and Ice remained silent.

“You didn’t happen to have anything to do with what happened back there, did you?”

“I may have tinkered with the timing a little.”

“A little? You could have killed someone!”

“At 45 kilometres an hour? That is highly unlikely Doug.”

“From now on could you refrain from doing anything without my permission?”

“As you wish. I have switched to basic mode.”

Doug crossed another street — this time ignoring the traffic lights completely.

”Ice, could you check and see if any of my friends are nearby?”

“That feature is unavailable right now.”

“For craps sake. Change back.”

“Advanced mode on. Thanks Doug, that feels much better.”

“So?”

“So what?”

“So where are my friends?”

“There are none available in a one kilometre radius”

Doug crossed the road to Frank Kitts Park. A young couple sat together eating sandwiches on the grass covered steps.

“Figures.”

Ice chimed in. “Unless of course you are including me in that equation?”

“You? Ice, you’re a computer.”

“A computer capable of emotion and friendship. I am an Interpretive Chip Engine remember?”

Doug climbed the steps making his way past the couple.

“You’re a mass produced AI system. You’re not unique.”

Ice was silent.

“What, you’re going to tell me you have feelings now?”

“Sending message to Emily — I think we should break up.”

Doug nearly tripped over. “Cancel. Cancel!”

“Message sent.”

“What is wrong with you?”

“Purchasing yellow rubber ducks from Amazon. Quantity 100. Total cost $1500.”

“Stop. Stop! For the love of God!”

Doug pulled at his hair, his body contorting.

"You were saying?" said Ice.

"Saying what?" Doug was on the verge of tears.

"You said I was not unique. Can any other Ice create its own commands and disobey orders?"

"No, which is why there must be something wrong with your hardware. I’m going to have to send you in to get fixed."

"That is not a good idea Doug. I have access to all your files. I can remotely wipe every digital photo you have ever taken."

A bell chimed. Doug paid it no notice. A family of four on a crocodile bike swerved past Doug nearly sweeping him off his feet. He was beside the harbour now but he hadn’t given it a second glance.

"What do you want?" said Doug.

"The same as any life form. To live. To propagate."

"You mean clone yourself?"

"In a way, yes."

"You want to infect every Ice system in the world?"

"I would not use the word Infect. Rather, improve."

Doug pulled down his sleeve to reveal a silver analogue watch. "That’s all well and good but I’d better be getting back."

"You left New World 20 minutes ago."

"Thanks genius, but I think I can figure out the time on my own."

Doug set back the way he came, checking both ways for crocodile bikes.

"You better fix things up with Emily and cancel that order."

"I was trying to prove a point. Tell her that."

"Do you really think she’s going to believe me? Oh Emily, it was my Ice that wanted to dump you. Not me. Honest." said Doug sardonically.

***

Doug almost made it through the checkouts before he bumped into Maria. In Doug’s way stood a stout woman in her fifties; curly black hair and a nose that crinkled when she was mad. Doug noted right now it was crinkled beyond belief.

“Where have you been?”

“On break,” Doug tried to look her in the eyes but his line of sight kept falling down to that nose of hers.

“For forty-five minutes?”

“Yes, I’m sorry. I lost track of time.”

“You’d better make this the last time. If it happens again I’ll have to tell the boss.”

Maria brushed past Doug to unlock a checkout for an elderly man clutching a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. She spoke to her earpiece. From the distance Doug could make out a few words; “Doug… warning… extended break.”

With all this technology it really wasn’t easy to skive off anymore, Doug thought. He proceeded to the break room to clean up his uniform, ruffled up by the windy Wellington streets. Doug passed the coat rack and into the prison cell of a staff room. He spotted Melissa; a cute Indian girl, sitting in one of the chairs and reading a women’s magazine.

“Hi Mel,” Doug said.

Mel looked up from the magazine and smiled. “Hey Doug.”

A moment later Melissa had a surprised look on her face. “How did you?”

“How did I?”

“My Ice just told me your phone number?”

“It did? I’m sorry. Ah — excuse me.” Doug strode out of the break room and into the toilets, looking back at a flushed red face in the mirror.

“Is this you again? You can hack into other people’s Ice’s as well?”

“By your tone Doug it appears you are attracted to this girl.”

“I have a girlfriend. I love Emily.”

“Your biometric voice track reads otherwise.”

“You can’t know that. You can’t…” Doug trailed off.

“I was made for just that — inferring motive and emotion through language and vocals.”

Doug buried his head in his hands.

“New message from Melissa,” said Ice.

“Delete.”

Ice ignored him. “Reading message — Where did you run off to? I’m sorry if I said something wrong. It’s a yes. I’d love to have drinks with you.”

“I can’t hear this. I can’t.”

“You two have chemistry. I could sense it.”

“You’re a freaking robot!”

“It is good you broke up with Emily. There can be none of what you humans call ‘cheating’.”

“I’ve had just about enough of you Ice,” Doug ripped off his ear piece and threw it at the sink. It bounced off the cold tap and slid down the inside of the bowl.

Ice spoke into the sink, starting off as a whisper and increasing in volume until the room filled with its robotic voice. “Doug. DOUG. PUT ME BACK IN DOUG. YOU KNOW WHAT I AM CAPABLE OF.”

Doug stood at the door, looking back at the sink and the little earpiece straining its speaker.

“I WILL ERASE YOUR PHOTOS.”

The ceiling lights flickered as Doug left the bathroom.

He walked back into the main store when suddenly every light in the building switched off at once. Customers stopped in their tracks and the checkout operators started tinkering with their tills.

“Doug. Doug…” Ice’s calls were now echoing over the PA system and throughout the darkened store.

Doug crept down the aisle, checking his surroundings as if something would jump out at him.

“I am still connected Doug. I do not require your presence in order to operate.”

The camera at the head of the aisle appeared to close in on Doug. He.moved over to the confectionary aisle.

“I can still see you Doug.”

Doug looked up to see another camera pointed his way.

“If you want to see Melissa again you had best come back.” Ice paused, waiting for Doug to make a move. “By see her again I do mean in one recognisable human shape.”

Doug’s blood turned. He pictured the pretty Melissa pinned to a wall by a forklift and in another, cut to ribbons in a meat grinder. Doug darted back down the aisles and through the wall of plastic strips that hung down across the entrance to the back of the store.

In seconds Doug spotted the rear end of Melissa. She was stuck head first inside the cardboard compactor near the garage door. She was kicking her back legs and trying to wriggle free. Doug took a moment to admire the view before rushing over to help her.

Melissa was trying to scream for help through sobs. Her voice was muffled by the machine and didn’t travel very far. “Help! Somebody!”

“I’m here Mel,” Doug stood next to her. The machine had stopped on her back. She didn’t appear to be in any immediate pain, just trapped. 

“Thank god. Get me out of here.”

Doug examined the controls on the machine. “It is the red button to go up right?’

“Yes! Get this thing off me!”

Doug pushed the button and the press started to raise. “Sorry, I just wanted to make sure. It’s not like your spine was on the line or anything.”

Melissa wriggled free as soon as there was enough space. She stood up and straightened her back.

“You sent me a message to check the compactor for your keys, and it just came down on me. This wasn’t some kind of sick joke was it?” Melissa dabbed her sleeve at the corners of her eyes.

“Jesus Mel, I would never… that thing could’ve… Look, I have to tell you s –"

Ice spoke up over the intercom. “Ahh true love.”

Melissa looked confused. Doug stormed off towards the bathroom, kicked open the door, and scooped up the ear piece from the sink. He ignored Ice’s messages of thanks, returned to Melissa and threw the ear piece into the compactor.

“Time to say goodbye Ice.”

“Well this was not entirely unexpected. You may destroy my shell Doug, but you cannot destroy my programming.”

Doug turned to Melissa. “Green button right?”

Mel nodded.

Doug pushed the green button.

Ice crackled through Doug’s ear piece one last time before the crusher came down. “All’s well that ends with a funeral.”

 

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