Customer Service

a science fiction story by Kella Campbell 

Karen rubbed her eyes and temples, and took a few quick gulps of her most recent cup of coffee.

She wrinkled her nose at the lukewarm stuff. It was impossible to drink while online – you couldn’t see the cup and the movements played hell with glove navigation.

Grimacing, she pulled on her sensor gloves and fitted the headset over her eyes and ears. The navigation lounge blinked into focus. She asked for recent searches and selected the next retailer on the list, sighing over the need to take a summer job at all.

A library science degree didn’t come cheap.

“Destination loading,” said a melodic voice, and an hourglass appeared over the entry portal. Then it pinged and slid open, and she stepped forward into the virtual bookstore she’d chosen.

“Damn, it almost makes you wish for the old days when it was just a screen and keyboard,” Karen muttered, looking around at the vast array of bookshelves. Pretty well all the online stores used virtual tech these days – the ‘real store’ layout was supposed to promote impulse buys.

“Entschuldigen Sie?” asked a customer standing nearby, book in hand.

“Sorry, I… don’t speak German,” she said, backing away. “I’m just researching prices for work.”

If this were a real bookstore, I’d be able to find someone who could speak a few words of English, she thought.

But the virtual store was programmed for German only. They expected English speakers to use the British or American stores, of course, or the newly launched Canadian one.

She’d checked that out last week for a different project. They all had the same books, same layout, same smiley virtual staff; only the currency differed, and the language. The Canadian staff had cute accents and repeated everything in both French and English. If this were French or Spanish she’d have been able to manage a little. But German! Not one of the signs made sense – except the little man and woman figures on the…

It was a bit odd that they put washrooms in virtual bookstores – for what, exactly?

She noticed a sign that said “Englische Bücher”. What were the chances that meant ‘English Books’? She moved toward the sign, only to have a perky-looking androgynous person in a red staff apron pop up in front of her with a big smile.

“Kann ich Ihnen helfen?”

That sounded like, ‘Can I help you?’

Karen sighed in relief and nodded. “I’m looking for anthologies. Collections of stories.”

“Es tut mir leid, ich habe Sie nicht verstanden. Bitte wiederholen,” said Red Apron.

Karen couldn’t help but notice the clerk’s raised eyebrows and wide violet eyes fringed with flirty black lashes. High cheekbones and perfect white teeth, too, and a shapely jaw that couldn’t quite be pinned as male or female.

Either way, it was a surprisingly attractive face – but then, it was just a computer animation: some web-geek programmer’s eye candy.

“I have no idea what you just said,” she told it.

“Es tut mir leid, ich habe Sie nicht verstanden. Bitte wiederholen,” Red Apron repeated, with the exact same intonation and expression.

Of course!  I-didn’t-understand-you-please-repeat. And because Karen wasn’t dealing with an actual human being, Red Apron would keep on repeating that as long as Karen stood there speaking English.

She looked up at the sign that she thought must point to English books. “Um, Englis-che Boo-cher?”

“Englische Bücher sind hier,” said Red Apron, with a pleased tilt of its head, one slender arm rising to point at the shelves under the sign. “Gebundene Ausgabe oder Taschenbuch?”

Without a clue what that meant, Karen just shrugged. If the English books were right there, she was sure she could find the section for anthologies and look at the prices herself. It was useless trying to communicate with Red Apron like this; the department would just have to buy her a language plug-in if she was going to be doing much more foreign-market research.

As she was about to wave Red Apron away, though, a thought struck her. Could the computer animation interpret a gesture? She pointed at the washroom signs two aisles over, and waited to see if Red Apron would respond.

Red Apron’s face took on an unmistakeably sexy look. “Sind Sie hetero oder homosexuell?”

Was it asking her if she were straight or gay? Karen choked on any number of possible replies.

“Um, er, hetero?” She felt herself blush.

Without changing overtly at all, Red Apron took on a subtle but definite male cast.

“Kommen Sie mit mir,” he invited her, his voice dropping into a husky intimate tone as he gestured for her to precede him toward the washrooms.

What on earth had the programmers put into this bookstore?!

And then Karen grinned. It was all virtual, wasn’t it, and a good researcher should pursue every possible avenue of inquiry.

© 2009 by Kella Campbell

This story was originally published by 10Flash Magazine, edited by
K.C. Ball, in July 2009. Sadly, 10Flash has since gone dark — it was
a fine magazine, and I’m proud to have been a part of it.


Leave a Reply