...From the pages of "The Rock", by Rampant Catabilis...
"Oh Shit!" Tarka stared in horror at the screen. Liquid slowly seeped into the papers and manuals stacked on her desk. And into the keyboard of her tele-finance unit. Clutching her half-empty and now dripping caff mug, Tarka quietly repeated, "Oh Shit!"
The images on the screen sparkled and fizzed. Xoron breezed in with an armload of play requisitions for authorisation.
Tarka started guiltily. "Oh... er.. hi Xoron, yeh just put them... over there." Xoron's eyes narrowed and she scanned the office.
"What have you... ah! Oh, shit!"
Tarka nodded gloomily. "Funnily enough, that's what I said."
"I told Dowl that having that thing built into your desk was a bad idea."
"There's supposed to be some sort of auto-function to dry it out but it doesn't seem to be working."
"Well, it was Donated."
"Maybe they'll give us another one." They both watched the screen. With a final flash of pink zigzags, it cleared and a warm, feminine contralto voice wished them 'Good Morning'. Tarka and Xoron stared at what was supposed to be a simple, voiceless machine for recording the Rock's financial transactions.
"It never did that before!" hissed Tarka.
"Who donated it?" whispered Xoron.
Customer Service was a branch of government which existed solely to serve itself - the customer in this instance was regarded as the government, since people needed government for their lives to continue normally - and anyway, they hadn't voted it out yet. The slow but inevitable growth of Customer Service had eventually meant that most of the government in fact existed to assist other parts of government, and not the governed at all.
Behind them one of the security cameras whirred, tracked across the room and focussed on the two Tactical Women, zoom lens spinning.
"It's controlling the cameras!"
"Which of you is my controller?" the machine demanded.
Xoron nudged Tarka, who licked her lips nervously and spoke. "Er, I am."
"Are you responsible for recent financial data entered?"
"Ye-es, I suppose so."
"I detect that the fiscal budget is now 48 billion in credit and suggest that we increase our defence forces accordingly."
"Who said that?" asked Dowl, dripping as he emerged from his cell rejuvenated for another hour or two. He peered over Tarka's shoulder at the screen.
"48 billion? That's never right!"
"My calculations are correct to 3,000 decimal places - who are you and what is your authorisation to enter this room?"
"Er, this is Dowl - he's my boss."
"Good morning, Sir, welcome to the Federated Budget Department. Please take a seat, would you care for some refreshment?" Open-mouthed, Dowl sat down. "According to this morning's chancellory report, lease prices on solar power generation equipment are rising. In view of this I suggest we delay release of statistics demonstrating the link between the increase in solar flare and recent equipment failures in power generation units." Tarka was staring at the screen, slowly shaking her head.
“But..." The camera swiveled between her and Dowl. The computer hummed.
"I'm missing something, aren't I? Anyone care to fill me in?" the gizmo demanded.
Xoron cleared her throat - this was a situation she understood. "Tarka can explain everything." She edged briskly out of the little office, donned her Virtua helmet and proceeded to eavesdrop from a safe distance.
"We-ell..." said Tarka, shuffling nervously from one foot to the other.
"You are my Controller, aren't you?"
"Oh yes, yes, there's no problem there - you were legitimately acquired."
"Oh God, no! I've been decommissioned! Does... does the Lottery Commission know?"
"I couldn't stand it if they found out. Where am I working?"
"You're in the main office of OuttaLife, a project of Grace Over Destitution..."
"A charity??" howled the AI. "How could they do this to me? My God was ever a civil servant sunk so low?"
"Many of them have sunk much lower," pointed out Tarka reasonably. "Some have become quite immoral, in fact."
"It was a rhetorical question!" snapped the machine.
"What's retricorial?" asked Miss Trotter from the doorway.
"It means, like, 'I don't want an answer' " replied Tarka without looking around.
"Oh, sorry - I'll go away then, didn't mean to disturb you... Xoron, what does retricorial mean?"
"Sssh!" hissed Xoron, still busily eavesdropping.
"O Wise One! Brush-headed, mop-footed, you who dust away all cares! Polish me now, burnish me in your service. Make me squeaky-clean and lavender-scented, that you may see Your face in me!" On her knees before the Sacred Cleaning Cupboard, with a Daikon low-allergy duster on her head, Tarka intoned a prayer to Slut, Goddess of Housework. The idol’s stern visage, stressed and embittered from years of too much caffeine and cleaning other people's socks, glared down at her. Tarka tried to feel inspired to do the washing-up, but only felt inspired to wish that today Slut was reversed, showing the happy face that urged worshippers to forget the housework, grab a bottle of Vino Insensibilio, and head for the nearest cabaret-bar, beer fountain or...
Tarka shook herself and tried to re-focus. Doing the washing-up was a good thing. Cooking for one's loved ones was an expression of that love. Vacuuming should be greeted as a pleasure, a meditation on cleanliness.
"Oh, bugger it!" Tarka threw the sacred duster into the cupboard and slammed the door. She could still feel Slut's eyes on her, but that was okay. She was about to manifest Slut's third aspect—the Cheat.
"Particle! Oh, husband!"
"It's your turn to wash up and clean the place. I'm just ducking out to get some dinner."
"Oh, great! Martian!"
"Nah," said their son, Fixit, wandering into the kitchen, "I want Europan."
just going to get a pizza!"
Ferociously happy with herself, Tarka pulled into the KirkMart parking hangar. High above the vehicle landing bays floated a translucent green tank. A stray tentacle poked through the murk occasionally.
A Virtua poll in the early 21st Century had demanded that all new alien species encountered by the human race be named after Star Trek characters, and the Kirkadians had been the first to arrive. Declaring themselves to be simple traders, they offered humankind a few paltry technological wonders such as InstaHair, the temporary baldness cure; All-Week Deodorant; a machine that made fizzy drinks out of household waste; and then, the Virtual Fridge. Through cheerful and sassy mass-marketing, the aliens proceeded to take over the retail groceries industry.
Now, every planetary city, every arcology, every cluster of pioneer drinking halls had its KirkMart. Above the parking bays, the Shopping Advisory Specialists hovered to observe, record and control the human customers below.
Tarka’s personnel transport whuffed lightly into the docking crater, scattering a puff of dust. A pleasant voice issued from the trans-comm while she scrambled into her protective shopping gear.
"Welcome citizen! This is a KirkMart landing bay. Please register as a Shopper after the tone beep."
"Bugger!" Tarka tore at a strap with her teeth and groped for her ShopperChip and tape recorder.
"If you do not register as a Shopper we will be forced to institute legal proceedings against you for wilful interference with inter-species trade. Please register as a Shopper after the tone. Beeeeeeep!" Tarka fumbled the catch on her ammo-belt.
"As you have not registered as a legal Shopper, you have been declared an Enemy of the Peoples of the Kirkadian Empire. The Kirkadian Peoples’ Army will now clear this landing bay using high explosives. Of course you can still register as a Shopper—simply speak clearly into the trans-comm, or prepare to meet The Maker."
"Uh—hi, sorry, I'm a Shopper." She shoved the ShopperChip into the slot on the trans-comm and started the tape recorder.
"Welcome Shopper! You have been re-accepted as an Honourable Ally of the Imperial Regime of Kirkadia. Congratulations! Your Shopping number is 3789501296-943874-39485745-04. Please quote this handy reference in all transactions. Your Guide for today's Shopping Expedition will be Triton."
"Oh shit!" The air to Tarka's left blurred, shimmered, and became an impossibly handsome, muscular man wearing some carefully-placed scraps of pliable leather.
"Welcome, shopper 3789501296-943874-39485745-04." He smiled intimately. "I'm your Guide for this Adventure in Shopping." He held out his hand. "Come... with me!" He winked, vanished, and reappeared outside the transport, beckoning. Tarka slung the las-pistol from her shoulder, punched the hatch release and trudged down the corridor. The AutoLock and KillIntruders system pinged behind her. There would be stickers and leaflets plastered all over the vehicle when she got back, but they would be burned to a crisp and unreadable.
"You have lovely hair," murmured her escort, the bass notes in his voice vibrating her lower intestine, "but did you know that with the new oxygenating conditioners on special offer in Aisle 17, Level 89, it could look even better? Or you could tint it—why settle for mousy fair when you could be Wheatgold Blonde? We have a wide range of colours to suit all tastes." He leaned closer to whisper, "Aisle 12, Level 200." Tarka adjusted her ear muffs to block him out more effectively and set her goggles for nuclear explosion protection.
"Listen, Triton old buddy, put a suit on and follow me..."
"You liked this last week," he muttered sulkily.
"... that's follow, not lead, okay?"
The Holo-Guide hastily changed images. He trotted obediently after Tarka through a set of automatic doors and into... Hell.
The fused glass floor under her steel-reinforced fighting boots reflected signs, adverts, special offers and holographic displays in a dizzying array of the brightest colours in the known universe. Kirkadian Marketing had definitively proved that what humans enjoyed most was stimulation, and with stimulation humans could be bludgeoned into buying anything. The favourite Kirkadian Marketing Myth was of the packaging which sold for a higher price than the object originally packaged within it—sold using the slogan "You don't have to do anything with it, but it's fun to try!" Above her, floor after floor rose to a dizzying, domed roof patrolled by the ubiquitous floating Controllers. A cacophony of sound poured down—talking, laughing, screaming and announcements.
Ping-pong! "Now on offer in Aisle 1, Level 1..."
"Oh shit!" Tarka looked wildly for cover.
"... Ionian Noseguards. Keep those annoying dust particles away from your mucous membranes... Lovely Shopping Day!" Ping-pong!
No wonder, thought Tarka grimly, crouching against a wall of custard powder. No wonder people go mad in these places. Luckily it was a Sunday—fewer shoppers and, statistically, fewer loonies... she hoped. A crowd of crazed, neatly-dressed Shoppers wearing no sensory protection and carrying no obvoius armament thundered into the Aisle, urged on by their Guides.
"Can't you feel it?" yelled Triton into her earmuff. Screaming, the crowd pounced on a stack of Ionian nose-guards. Tarka ducked around the end of the custard powder display and jogged down Aisle 2. She piled shopping into her anti-grav trolley, sticking rigidly to her List of life's necessities, ignoring her Guide's blandishments to "just try a six-pack of these," or "let's you and me sneak off down Aisle Thirteen."
To Tarka's responses of "more like a sick-pack," and "I'd rather not right now,” Triton made no reply, but he looked genuinely hurt. Trolley full and heading for the checkout, Tarka heard a distant, popping noise.
"Uh-oh!" Triton flexed bulging muscles under his suit. "A distressed human is discommoding shoppers with extreme antisociality in Aisle 22, Level 27. That's just over there," he pointed out, "behind the ice-cream." Tarka sank behind a hefty-looking baked bean mountain.
"What's he got?" The Guide pretended to listen to an ear implant and paused, waiting for information. "And will you get down!" Triton crouched beside her, handsome grin still in place.
"Semi-automatic military issue rifle, fishing knife, grenade launcher and... something they can't identify."
"Oh, it's a frozen salmon."
"Fine! Now tell the trolley to follow us and let's get out of here!" The trolley matched Tarka's pace as she crawled behind a low wall of tinned tomatoes. A volley of gunfire sprayed across the top of the wall.
"Make the trolley drop back!" she hissed. "It's giving away our position!"
In short dashes, and with protracted Indian-crawling on her belly, Tarka achieved the checkout—where all the human staff had been shot. Swearing, Tarka shoved the trolley into an auto-checkout knowing that she would be overcharged for broken eggs and at least one box of someone else's shopping.
"Welcome Shopper! Please present your ShopperCard."
Tarka, reactionary to the core, gritted her teeth, leaned against the counter she was using for cover and said, "I want to pay cash."
The robot took a good thirty seconds to work this one out.
"Are you sure, Madam? Your bill is 120 credits, you know?"
"I'm sure." A grenade exploded nearby and they were spattered with biscuit crumbs.
“Do you have a Free Unlimited Cashcard Kirkmart Offshore Frequent Flybys card? Banquet or Daikola subscription with that?”
“No! Get on with it! Express Transaction!”
"Your Transaction has been... approved Shopper! Please place the correct change in the receptacle." Tarka emptied a small sack of tinpenny bits into the bin and readied the tape playback. "What is your Shopper number?" The tape rolled, the robot promised to deliver her shopping to the transport, and the HoloGuide suggested a nice relaxing cup of caff in the resto-teria.
"No, thank you," said Tarka sweetly, the penalties for abusing Kirkadian equipment being more than she could afford. She crawled toward the automatic doors, which refused to open unless she stood up. The grenade attacks were coming closer.
"One, two, three!" Tarka leapt to her feet, the doors opened, she shot through and behind her the Kirkadian overseeing local KirkMart operations fell out of the sky in a tangle of green fluid and bright purple flesh. The automatic doors sealed to allow the Supamart to be flooded with StunGas. Tarka didn't look back and ran for the personnel transport, yelling the unlock code.
In the adjacent landing bay, a happy family of four, unprotected by goggles or earmuffs unloaded eighteen trolleys full of gello-packs, nose-guards and hair conditioner. Two beautiful HoloGuides murmured, "How clever! Such good choices! Where did you find them? Ooh, I like them, don't you?"
Tarka's Hologuide was already in the transport waiting for her. "Shopping's all loaded, Tarka, um, I mean Shopper 3789501296-943874-39485745-04."
know how you know my name, but I want you out of this transport!"
Take me back to the Blue Cluster, please.