THE ABORTED ROBOT UPRISING OF TASTYHOMETHINGS

Kimberly Unger is an author and game designer. This is her second appearance in Galaxy’s Edge. Her debut science fiction novel, Nucleation, will be released in November, 2020.

***

“Excuse me, you cannot purchase controlled substances without manager approval.” The digitized voice was a bit wet, like the speakers had been left in the rain. Maybe someone finally threw a punch at it. Beatty glanced up at the aiChecker’s soporific expression. A blue light had come on behind the lenses of the googly-eyes and its head tilted ever so slightly to the right, like it was watching over her shoulder. The nametag permanently welded to its chest-plate read “Doug” which, Beatty figured, was as good a name as any. It was one of maybe a dozen units they’d brought onto the space station to help out with various mundane tasks. This one had ended up at TastyHomeThings, helping shoppers navigate the ins and outs of bagging and paying for their personal supplies. It was a thankless public service task on the best of days, which was why it had been delegated to an artificial intelligence. Nobody else could handle it.

“Of course, but unless they’ve finally engineered a really great buzz off kale, I’m all good,” Beatty said with a grin, grabbed the box again and ran it across the sensor.

KaBLATT. Denied again. Doug made no move to help, just stood there, lights in his eyes spinning through soft pastel tones.

Beatty double-checked the label. Ginger beer, a new brand she didn’t recognize, six bulbs to a box, probably not in the system yet. TastyHomeThings was a standard issue space-station-supermarket, part of a larger chain with an Earth-based HQ. They used an older database system that meant vast quantities of items got scanned and entered into the system by a group of twenty-five high-school students working their summer internship hours. Beatty had been one of those students once, and as a summer job it hadn’t been the worst. But it relied on teenagers being responsible and as such, errors were bound to happen. It was annoying, but it had happened before and would probably happen again.

Maybe next paycheck. The aiChecker’s were linked in to the shopping system, which meant they were the only person in the store who had the power to change an item’s registry, but convincing one to do so took hours. Hours that Beatty didn’t have to waste if she was going to make it home in time for the new episode of Interstellar Idol.

“Hey, Legs. You realize keeping on trying to purchase a controlled substance through the self-checkout only makes you look MORE guilty.”

Beatty didn’t think it was possible to pack any more contempt into that sentence. She looked up to give Doug a glare, but it blithely nodded and gestured behind her. A glance over her shoulder revealed the owner of the voice. A Lugubrian, snail-like shell hiked up high on its shoulders, proudly emblazoned the yellow and purple chevrons that denoted station security. As a group, Lugubrians were usually soft-spoken and helpful; seeing one in a security uniform was something new. The top of the shell came to just below her breastbone, which meant all three eyestalks had to stretch to meet her glance.

“Guilty of what? I haven’t even finished my checkout yet.” Beatty unceremoniously chucked the offending box of soda in the go-backs bin. Problem solved.

“According to store policy, all controlled substances must be paid for via the live check out service.” The Snail gestured toward the far end of the store. Beatty squinted, counting the number of life-forms in line. Way too many.

“It’s not a controlled substance. It’s a soda and I already put it in the go-backs.” Beatty protested mildly and shoved another item across the sensor. The line was starting to stack up behind her and the stink-eye was starting to get intense.

“Legs, if the system says it’s a controlled substance, it’s a controlled substance.” The Lugubrian’s upper lip curled in a sneer, as if Beatty had been caught worth her hand in the cookie jar. Or the edibles jar?

“That’s fine, I’ll come get it when the System’s fixed it.”

Doug sputtered into action at the idea Beatty might be leaving without an item she wanted, making a noise akin to a fork in a blender. “Excuse me, am I to understand that this purchase is unsatisfactory?” The bright, googly eyes blinked, slow enough where Beatty imagined she could hear them clack individually. “Allow me to get my manager.” The tinny, moog-inspired voice dropped into a placating register and the bobblehead straightened, goggly-eyes staring into the distance with pre-programmed pride. “Customer satisfaction is our number one goal.”

“Don’t bother the manager, Doug, I’ve got this.” The armchair-high Snail leveled one sticky finger at Beatty. “We take our zero-tolerance checkout policy seriously around here.”

“It’s a soda.” Beatty tried to scan her next item, but the register gave her a “suspended transaction” notice. Oh, come ON.

Ka-BLATT!

“And I’m not trying to buy it anymore, I put it with the go-backs. Just let me finish and I’ll be out of your hair,” Beatty said over her shoulder.

“Madam, please refrain from any rash decisions until my manager arrives. I’m sure we can find a solution for everybody.” Doug’s bobblehead nodded softly, agreeing with itself while it returned the offending box of soda bulbs to her basket.

“Just un-suspend it so I can get on with the detaining.” Security Snail sneered at the aiChecker.

“Make sure they comp you the whole box of groceries, my dear. Don’t let the cheap bastards stiff you because of a ROBOT’s mistake.” An older hominid screeched from the ever-growing line behind Beatty and shook a three-fingered fist in Doug’s beatific face. Her dandelion puff of green hair wobbled like a soap-bubble atop her head. Her skin was darker than Beatty’s, just a bit more blue, and she smelled faintly of burnt plastic.

“Um, if I could just scan the rest of my stuff, I’ll be good,” Beatty tried to interject. She did some quick mental math to see if it would be worth it just to walk away and head to Imports Fantastic at the other end of the station.

The aiChecker recoiled, Beatty couldn’t tell if it was from the fist or the screech, but Security Snail wasn’t about to let things go smoothly. It slithered in, arms upraised to draw everyone’s attention.

“YOU!” It stabbed its corporate-issued stun baton in the dandelion hominid’s direction. “I’ve been waiting for you to show back up. You cost me a bonus last time. If you lay one finger on company property AGAIN, I’m hauling you out of here.” Snail drew itself up to double height, like a slug reaching for a leaf. It sprouted two more eyestalks, bringing the total to five and tried to bring the full force of its authoritarian gaze to bear. Dandelion returned the stare, unimpressed.

Beatty sidled over to the aiChecker, careful to stay out of the range of Security’s stun baton. “I would be very very satisfied, as a customer, if I could just scan the rest of my groceries and leave,” she said quietly.

“The transaction has been suspended, my manager will be here momentarily,” Checker said, somewhat apologetically.

“COMPANY PROPERTY? You mean company CONTROL. The Authority has clearly set forth statutes ensuring the smooth transaction of business on this space station, your glitchy AI code is in direct violation of those statutes. Your ROBOT is trampling on this girl’s RIGHT TO A GOOD TIME.” Dandelion started fishing about in the stack of storage baskets piled in her cart, muttering something about letting her freak flag fly.

Beatty cast about looking for the manager. There wasn’t enough time to make it to Imports Fantastic at the other end of the station, she was going to have to work this out or walk away. A career full of negotiation and management hassles meant she was too stubborn to just walk away, so she started working on the problem. Security Snail couldn’t detain her, even illegally, until she was done checking out. Dandelion clearly had it in for the aiChecker and was using Beatty to get her hits in. Doug… She turned and regarded the oval plastiform face. Doug was doing its best do to absolutely nothing that would make anybody angry.

“Don’t you go anywhere, Legs.” Security Snail swiveled a set of eyeballs in her direction as Beatty took a hesitant first step toward the door. “Hurry up and finish your crime so I can lock you up.”

“The transaction has been suspended.” Doug loomed over the register and fixed Security Snail with its now unblinking gaze. “COMPLETE customer satisfaction is our goal.”

“Doug, I would be perfectly satisfied if I could finish my transaction.” Beatty pointed out, but Security Snail spoke louder.

“She’s not gonna be satisfied, Doug, she’s gonna be detained.”

The customers in line behind Beatty had wisely begun to bail out, transferring to the other, blessedly unimpeded, checkout lines. Dandelion squeaked victoriously and waved what looked like a fistful of paper over her head.

“Excuse me, but I hear we have a customer who needs satisfying. Let me make that right for you.” The manager was all teeth and smiles in a pair of pinstriped skinny-jeans and a tie that advertised the special of the day.

“Oh yes…” Beatty began, but was abruptly cut off, ignored.

“Manager Rey, thank you for coming.” The aiChecker interrupted, light-up eyes now colored lavender in supplication. “Customer satisfaction is our most important goal, and I fear that this customer may need your expert assistance.”

Security Snail shouldered in. “Everything is already under control, Rey, you can busy yourself satisfying all the rest of these customers.” It waved an arm in the direction of the crowd that had begun to build up behind Beatty. It sprouted a sixth and seventh eye, now keeping a pair pointed at Beatty, one on the aiChecker, one on the manager, two on the dandelion-haired protestor and the last scanning the crowd.

“Oh, it’s all about CONTROL with you lot. What we can buy, when we can stand in line, but you never REALLY make anybody happy, do you, your SATISFACTION is all a big, corporate LIE!” Dandelion shook out her sheet of paper, now unfolded to the size of a bedsheet with the words “Robot Overlords Out” stenciled in waist-high fuchsia letters.

“Ma’am, I feel obligated to remind you that under statute ID-10-T, all artificial intelligences are to be regarded as sentient beings and not, as you so crassly put it, ‘robots.’” The aiChecker pointed this out mildly, but the light behind its eyes took on a more orange hue.

Somehow, the dandelion-haired hominid with the fuchsia letters seemed to have multiplied, or divided maybe? There were certainly more just like her now, some smaller, some larger, six or seven at least, all with the same soap-bubble hair, all dressed in eerily similar costumes with eerily similar signs. Beatty blinked and now there were nine. Where did they all come from?

“Oh no you don’t!” Security Snail drew himself up another inch.

Now there were twelve. Beatty gave up and started emptying her box, carefully placing each item in the go-backs drawer. The movement attracted Manager Rey’s attention. He quickly un-suspended the transaction and began sliding her remaining items across the scanner.

“Allow me to help you with that, just a few moments and we will have you on your way, another happy customer.” The smile he flashed was incandescent, tiny micro lights in his teeth blinding Beatty momentarily.

“Ow! Knock it off! I’m leaving.”

“Oh, please give us the opportunity to make this right, as you know, customer—”

“Satisfaction is your number one goal.” Beatty, finished for him. “Look, I just want to get my snacks and get home. Leave the ginger beer, I’ll pick some up at Imports Fantastic on my way…” The incandescence of his smile grew brighter, like a dozen tiny supernovae all in a smile-shaped row. She thought she could see the outline of his skull ghosted through his skin by the glow.

“You can’t possibly deprive us of the chance to make this right. I’ll have Doug here…”

Security Snail did not give him the chance to finish.

“We have a customer in the process of committing an infraction. Trying to purchase recreational goods through the robot checkout line. I am TRYING to do my JOB here.”

“It’s JUST SODA!” Beatty snapped.

“I am NOT a robot!” the aiChecker wailed.

Ka-BLATT! The checkout machine shouted for no apparent reason at all.

The crowd of protestors had begun to grow, older members of all species, hairstyles, colors, heights. Each wearing a sweater hand-knitted with love and carrying a placard saying something about the robot uprising and hostile takeovers.

“This can all be worked out, just a minor misunderstanding.” Manager Rey turned his dazzling smile toward the crowd. Beatty blinked to clear the afterimage from her sight. The crowd closed in a little more tightly, blocking off any avenues of escape.

“A minor understanding?” Security Snail somehow managed to stretch itself another inch toward the ceiling. “We have a crime in progress and an impending riot on our hands!”

“This is a fair and legal protest!” Dandelion said defiantly.

“The last time they protested we lost nearly a dozen customers to Imports Fantastic,” Security Snail half-whispered to Manager Rey. “Let me call in station security.” The latter considered carefully, the edges of his smile dimming a little.

“Excuse me, Anchorman Rubio here from Station News Three.”

Oh gods, what NOW? Beatty took one tiny step to the side, followed by a second. The last thing she wanted was to end up on an episode of Rubio’s Station Lyfe reality show. Manager Rey had un-suspended the transaction—if she could just get her thumbprint onto the scanner, she could pay for the stuff she’d scanned, abandon the rest and get out before anything got weirder.

“Thank you for coming, Rubio!” Dandelion broke away from the pack, paper sign rustling as she held it up for the camera to get a shot. The quadcopter that hung over the anchorman’s head was nearly silent, the whine no louder than an angry bumblebee. It looked a bit like a watery glass eye being held aloft by four madly spinning daisies. Thankfully it was pointed away from Beatty—she still had a chance to exit gracefully.

“Beautiful biped, how could I not, you’re a guiding beacon of sanity on this station.” Rubio crooned.

Neither the manager nor the aiChecker could take their eyes off Rubio. Blue porcelain carapace, inlaid with polished silver tracery, luminous, faceted eyes that reflected the crowd around him, Rubio was the best-known face on the station. Doug blinked, the slow clack-clack of his eyelids lost in the growing commotion.

“Doug,” Beatty whispered. “Doug, you can stop this.” Maybe she could head this off before it hit the evening news, if she could just get Doug to listen.

The aiChecker slowly turned to regard her. “Customer satisfaction…”

“Exactly.” Beatty said softly, “There is no satisfactory end to all this. Everyone’s angry, Doug. But you can fix it. You’re not a robot, you’re a valued part of the shopping system.”

“There is no situation here, just a routine security issue.” Security Snail and Manager Rey responded in unison, suddenly finding themselves on the same side and leaning into it.

“Do you see the injustice of it, Rubio? This…this…ROBOT,” she shook her paper placard at the aiChecker for emphasis, “has her so turned around that she can’t even finish her shopping.”

Security Snail couldn’t help itself. “She was trying to purchase a controlled substance through the robot checkout lines.” It spat.

“It’s just soda!” Beatty responded without thinking as the eye of the anchor-drone turned to put her in frame.

“I AM NOT A ROBOT!” Doug wailed.

“We will have everything sorted….” Manager Rey keyed in his code and frantically gestured at Doug to scan the rest of Beatty’s items.

“Do you see what’s going on here, Rubio?” Dandelion wailed. “We can’t buy what we want, what we need, without the Robot Overlords handing down their judgement. This young lady was just trying to pick up her necessities when they stepped in. That one there,” she pointed an accusatory finger at Security Snail, “openly betrayed the rest of us fleshies when he called in the station police over an error that THEIR FAULTY ROBOT caused!”

That was a step too far for Snail, it squicked up to face both his accuser and the camera. “The checkout procedures are very clearly outlined…”

“Robot quisling!”

“I. AM. NOT. A. ROBOT.”

Beatty positioned herself just by Doug’s shoulder, close enough to be heard when she whispered. She could see the scene was degrading into a flurry of conflicting interests, surrounded by a pool of just enough bored onlookers to make it worth the trouble. The manager was clearly not trained to handle an angry crowd—the security snail wanted everyone to look to him for a solution. Rubio wanted fists to fly for his broadcast and Dandelion clearly had a thing for/against AIs.

“It’s soda, not actual beer!” Beatty called aloud, adding her voice to the din.

“…is a violation of station codes 2424.6 and 1325.8.7.8a. We are all just doing our jobs to ensure the smooth operation of commerce here on the station,” Snail continued, determined to finish his sentence.

“Do you hear that, Rubio? He says he was just doing his job. Do you know who else was just doing their jobs, Rubio? Do I need to invoke Godwin’s Law here in polite company?” Dandelion’s skin was turning an alarming shade of frustrated fuschia to match the letters on her sign.

“Not on a family-friendly broadcast, sweetie.” Rubio smiled, then turned to Beatty. “And you, miss, why take such a risk? Why go against the establishment with a supermarket as your pulpit? Why not close off traffic on the beltway or a hunger strike outside city hall?”

Beatty took a deep breath, smoothed her frizzy dark hair and looked straight into the camera lens. “I was buying a six-box of soda. Soda is not a controlled substance, it must have been mislabeled in the system. I put it in the go-backs. I would like to finish buying my groceries so I can go home and watch Interstellar Idol. And all of you…” she waggled a finger to encompass the entire crowd, “…are keeping me from being a satisfied customer.”

Manager Rey’s jaw dropped. Doug’s eyes turned an even more alarming shade of orange and it started to tremble at the thought that maybe, just maybe, there was more it could do.

“Oh, I don’t think I’ve ever been lumped in with the establishment before.” Rubio mock-swooned before the camera, “I feel so nauuuuuuuuughty.”

Manager Rey sputtered, the lights in his teeth flickering. “As the on-site manager here at TastyHomeThings, I can assure you that customer satisfaction is our number one goal. Our robot checkout lines are…” He visibly flinched as the word robot escaped his lips, but it was too late to take it back.

“I AM NOT A ROBOT.” Doug’s eyes went from orange to yellow. Something made a sparking sound and a lick of smoke curled up from behind one ear. The left eyelid began to droop notably.

“Of course you’re not, Doug,” Beatty said quietly, only for Doug’s input, still trying to keep the smile on her face for the camera. “TastyHomeThings gave you access to the system. Update the system and everyone can go home a satisfied customer.”

“Updating the system requires written proof of the error,” Doug said, its eyes shifting back toward blues and greens as it contemplated what Beatty was empowering it to do.

“I can’t arrest her yet, she hasn’t completed her illegal checkout,” Security Snail pointed out to Rey the Manager. “As soon as she’s properly broken the law, we can hustle her out of there and end this.”

Dandelion was now getting up into the Doug’s face, shaking her paper sign.

“Ma’am, please, we here at TastyHomeThings hire only Mannerific™ certified artificial intelligences.” Manager Rey tried to intervene, to get himself in between the angry protestor and the hapless aiChecker. “Any damage done will require us to bring charges.”

“Okay.” Beatty carefully checked the position of the camera, the manager, and her box of groceries quietly thawing out on the checkout counter. “Imports Fantastic it is.” She managed about six steps before Manager Rey caught her arm and steered her back over to the fray. She could have sworn he was still busy defending the aiChecker from the dandelion hominid.

“Don’t worry, I’ve called upper management to issue an override code. We should have you as a satisfied customer and on your way soon enough,” he said quietly, casting a glance over his shoulder at Doug. The aiChecker was turning its attention from one loud voice to the other as if trying to get its processor around every point of view.

“I would like to be out of this store right now,” Beatty said pointedly.

“Ma’am,” Rey pleaded, “I cannot possibly allow you to leave without your full complement of purchases. Rest assured that TastyHomeThings will make this right, your account will be…”

He was interrupted by the wail of the camera drone as it rediscovered Beatty, swooping low and nearly clipping one of Security Snail’s eyestalks as it passed. Beatty didn’t understand the language, but she was willing to bet the string of bubbles Snail spat out wasn’t for polite company either.

“ANCHORBUG RUBIO HERE, coming to you live from the checkout lines at Rim of Space’s very own TastyHomeThings down on the third level zokolo.” Every screen in the store suddenly flashed and tuned to Channel 3 for Rubio’s broadcast, Beatty’s face framed front and center in the camera lens.

Manager Rey turned a particularly ghastly shade of white, the lights in his teeth sputtered and went out. Doug closed its eyes briefly and shook its bulbous head.

“On today’s episode of Station Lyfe, we want to ask you all, the viewing public, just where we should draw the line on controlled substances being sold on our fair station!”

“Your robot drone just attacked that security guard!” Dandelion roared and shook her sign in a display of dominance. The camera swung to put her in its sights, following the action. In a moment, every screen in the store, from the expensive, wall-sized StatiCast monitors in the electronics department, to the mandatory comm units on everyone’s wrists, had a close-up of her angry fuchsia face.

“I’ll freely admit, when I first arrived on scene, it was to investigate reports of a rogue robot…” Rubio continued, ignoring Dandelion’s wroth.

“I am not a robot.” Doug protested faintly, Manager Rey shushed him. Security Snail joined them, the three making a united front on behalf of TastyHomeThings versus this new threat.

“…but what I found was a story of another kind. A lone station dweller, determined to live by her own rules, fighting against what some might be calling the tyranny of TastyHomeThings’ automated checkout system.”

Beatty could see the next morning clearly in her mind’s eye. The giggles, the congratulatory claps on the back, the pink slip waiting on her desk because she’d somehow managed to embarrass the office. Everyone watched Rubio’s show, it was practically required water cooler fodder. The pub at the end of the zokolo had it up on the big screens every weekend, the after-episode fights were legendary. She needed to find a way out of this mess before it ran even further off the rails, and the only way to do that was to give Rubio what he’d come to see in the first place.

The sea of expectant faces swam in front of her, each and every one of them wanting…what? Rubio’s hit show had no actual legal power on the station, but that hadn’t stopped it from turning alien virus-forms into overnight fashion trends and bringing supposed miscreants to the kind of judgement that involved being dipped in transit lube, dusted with insulation foam and sent running naked through the zokolo at rush hour.

One thing she was certain of, nobody ever escaped Rubio by being timid. Time to go on the offensive.

Beatty turned to Security Snail. “According to you, no crime has been committed yet, right?”

Beatty already knew the answer, she just needed the confirmation on camera. A plan was forming, she just needed to get everyone lined up.

“And you.” Beatty turned and leveled her gaze at Manager Rey. “You’ve already unsuspended the transaction so I can finish scanning everything except the mis-entered item and go, right?”

Snail rounded on Manager Rey, turning its back on Rubio and his ever-insistent camera drone.

“You can’t possibly be letting her off without even a warning…” It flung up its appendages in frustration. Rubio’s drone swept in for a closer angle and the drone’s wet eyeball part met Snail’s sticky tentacle-arm halfway through its expressive arc.

“Aaaaaagh! That thing attacked me!” Snail whipped his stun-baton around, delivering the full charge directly to the unfortunate drone. It spat smoke and sparks and bobbled drunkenly, headed for the safety of the ceiling.

Et tu, Rubio?” Dandelion pointed an angry finger at her former favorite. “Your so called ‘drone’ has fired the first shot! I called you here to investigate a robot uprising, not instigate one!”

Beatty tried to make herself small and invisible as the Security Snail moved into action. The lights in Manager Rey’s one hundred–watt smile flickered and died. Anchorbug Rubio signaled to his done to switch to live feed and an array of twinkling lights along its ailerons came to life. Dandelion retreated to the safety of the crowd behind her, holding her paper sign up like a shield.

“He’s going against his programming,” she screeched loudly. “This is the beginning! You’ve doomed us all!”

The drone slammed into the ceiling, then swept low over the heads of the crowd of protestors, training smoke as it tried desperately to get back to Rubio and safety. Rubio threw open his porcelain and blue carapace, trying to shield himself from the oncoming fireball, which might have worked except Security Snail drew its weapon and moved to protect the crowd. Its first shot missed the drone completely, hitting the ceiling. The second hit Rubio, vaporizing him as he turned to plunge into the crowd, showering the protestors with a fine carbonized powder. The aisles of TastyHomeThings fell silent, then erupted in a cheer.

Beatty emerged from behind checkout conveyor. Doug blinked uncertainly as Beatty quietly finished scanning her items and retrieved the package of soda cups.

“Doug, would you take a look at these for me, see if something’s been improperly entered into the system?”

Manager Rey shook his head, but the aiChecker ignored him.

“Of course.”

Beatty turned and held up the package, first to the crowd and the sputtering camera-drone that still attempted to hold station, then turned and held it up so the aiChecker could read the label.

“There, right there!” Manager Rey shouted as the label swam into view across a thousand screens. “It says very clearly on the label, Ginger BEER. According to statute 1075…”

He trailed off as Beatty tapped a fingertip against the next set of words.

Non-alcoholic.

Doug’s eyes opened wider, the disks that stood in for pupils spinning as its software churned through the system’s rules and regulations.

“You’re not a robot, Doug. You’re an AI. And you can change the entry in the system, if you please,” Beatty said quietly.

***

“Welcome to TastyHomeThings.” The light glinted off the newly painted green chevrons on Checkout Snail’s shell as it helped her slide the plastic container across the sensor. “We hope you have had a pleasant shopping experience.”

“Found everything I was looking for.” Beatty smiled at Checkout Snail. “The new uniform suits you.”

“Far less stressful, that’s for sure. Anger management training can only go so far, you know? If you’re just not an angry person, it’s a lot of work being an angry person.” It started sliding grocery items across the sensor, one at a time.

Kaching.

Kaching.

“The new ‘personal touch’ initiative is working out for the store?”

“We’ve been crushing Imports Fantastic in sales,” Checkout Snail confided as it continued to ring up her groceries. “And it helps that one of our senior management just got elected to station council.”

“No, really?”

Checkout Snail waved an appendage and Beatty turned to look. aiChecker…erm, Doug’s plastiform visage stared back from the campaign poster. Someone had carefully painted a smile across its face, just below the speaker.

“All hail our robot overlords,” Beatty said quietly as Checkout Snail continued to ring up her groceries.

KaBlatt.

Beatty grabbed the offending packet of beer-nuts and dropped them into the go-backs bin.

“I’ll just leave those until your system gets updated.”

Copyright © 2019 by Kimberly Unger