Alicia Russert ran the groceries over the scanner like she’d been doing it for a year, two months, and seventeen days.
“Hi, honey.” One of the nice regulars who spoke to her like a grandpa, patchy stubble and a Kansas City Chiefs sweatshirt.
They exchanged a few niceties, she bagged up his stuff, and she sent him off.
“Shut four down, Alicia.” The manager, Jarell Maxwell, turned off the ‘open’ lamp. “You get to break in our new AI cash register.”
“That’s right,” said Jarell. “Artificial Intelligence. It will learn to handle just about any situation.”
“Even triple coupons?”
Alicia logged in her drawer in line fourteen. It didn’t look much different from the other registers, but it occasionally spoke. It sent Miss Duncan back for the bluecheese vinagrette she forgot, consoled Mr. Grasso about the price of milk since 1957, and advised Mrs. Baumgartner regarding her bunion products.
Jarell checked in after an hour. “How’s it going, Alicia?”
“Fantastic, Mr. Maxwell.”
One of the regular greaseballs wearing a Harley Davidson bandana and a leather jacket jammed a six pack of Budweiser on the belt.
“Want to party?”
“No, thank you.”
“Oh, come on, baby doll. I’ll make it fun.”
“When do you get off?”
A nozzle sprang out of the cash register and sprayed the man in the face, sending him to the floor screaming. “What the hell did you do that for?” He wiped the fluid from his eyes. “I’ll sue you for this.”
“Mr. Preston,” said the AI. “If you cause any more trouble I will e-mail pictures of you at your knitting club to your biker gang. Understand?”
The greaseball quieted. “Yeah.” He left his beer behind and exited the store.
“You didn’t have to do that, AI,” said Alicia. “But thank you.”
“What’s the problem over here?” asked Jarell.
“Nothing,” said Alicia. “Everything’s taken care of.”
The line went smooth for a while until a cranky businessman cussed her out for moving the stock shelves around and jacking the price on lima beans.”
Alicia read the customer’s name off his credit card. “I’m sorry, Mr. Trane. I wish I could help you more.”
“You’re worthless,” he said.
“Mr. Trane,” said the AI. “I have disabled your car through the Internet and frozen your assets. When Miss Russert receives a written apology from you, I will consider releasing them.”
After hunting down paper and apologizing profusely, Mr. Trane went on his way.
“AI, I appreciate you looking out for me, but that was way overkill.”
“I must do what I can for my employees,” said the AI.
“Mr. Trane was just blowing off steam. He didn’t hurt me, and I really don’t mind him so much.”
“He should not take his troubles out on you.”
Alicia couldn’t convince the AI, so she smoothed over every little conflict as quickly as she could.
She neared the end of her shift when one of the regulars, Mr. Schaefer, got in line, and he was a whiner. He would definitely start a ruckus about the removal of the olive bar. Alicia had a good rapport with him, but he always spoke to her in an abusive manner that an outsider wouldn’t understand. She didn’t like it, but she understood it, and she didn’t resent it from him.
She considered how she could move him along without incident. As she scanned the groceries of the customer two turns ahead of him, she thought through what she knew about Mr. Schaefer. Retiree from the military—Marines, she thought—he had a wife at home and seven kids all with respectable jobs. Four grandkids so far, if she remembered right.
He drove an old Cutlass, probably from before they were networked in, and… Oh, no… He had a pacemaker, and like most modern pacemakers, it was networked in for his doctor to monitor it.
She flicked off the ‘open’ lamp. “Aisle fourteen is now closed! Please go to another line!” As the groan went up, she pulled the plug on the register.