Missives from the Future: 2029 (Tegan Elizabeth Webb)
I can’t believe I’m spending my last ever shift at Coles playing truth or dare in a cool room with Kaye. We are sitting in my favourite cool room, which is the one full of the boxed frozen meals. I love it because the boxes are all stacked up neatly on pallets and if I want I can lay my whole body across them and imagine I’m sucking all the cold up into my veins, like a plant drawing water through its stem. But Kaye’s here, so I hold back.
“Okay,” I say, “I’ve eaten a frozen chicken nugget, you’ve held your tongue to the wall for 30 seconds. It’s time to get serious.”
“Serious?” Kaye asks. “This better not be some kind of Turing Test.” She laughs, but I don’t. Kaye also worked checkouts with me, but we never really worked the same shifts, and she never came to hang out with me and the others in the far car park or to rescue perfectly good prepackaged food from the dumpsters after the store closed. I guess Kaye doesn’t need to eat though, seeing as she is a customer service AI.
“I don’t think so?” I say. “C’mon, it’s fun. Truth or dare.” Kaye sighs, I don’t think she wants to be in here with me any more, but I also don’t think she wants to be out on the floor, pretending like everything is fine. And who knows when either of us will get to be this cold again? Today is the twentieth day in a row it’s been 40 degrees.
“Okay,” Kaye says. “Truth.”
“Why were you crying just now?” I’d actually wanted to ask her since I came in here to say goodbye and found her, curled up on top of the chicken nugget pallet, but I thought then it wasn’t the right time. Kaye looks at me like this is isn’t the right time either, but she answers.
“No reason” she says, “it’s stupid shit. I’m alway crying over stupid shit.”
“I bet it’s not stupid though,” I say, “you know I wasn’t coming in here to say goodbye to you, I was coming in here to say goodbye to my favourite cool room.” Kaye laughs, and the room heats up a bit.
“Is it because today’s your last day?” I ask, and I feel a bit bad then, for feeling so bad about my own situation. I mean, imagine being built with the sole purpose of providing a perfect customer service experience, only to find out six months later that most people’s idea of a perfect customer service experience is getting in and out of the supermarket without talking to anyone.
“No,” she says, “not really.” Kaye picks at the plastic wrap holding all the chicken nugget boxes together. “I was crying about the Titanic, actually.”
“The Titanic?” I ask. I’m about to ask her what she means, but then I remember that they’re showing a bunch of really old movies right now at the Astor. I’m saving up to go and see Blade Runner. “Oh, yeah.”
“I just can’t believe something so big could become nothing so quickly,” she says.
“What do you mean?” I ask, “did they erase it?” Kaye gives me a look that makes me feel like a limp piece of deli meat.
“No, it decomposed. They found this bacteria in the ocean, this new strain that eats up metal really, really fast. One minute it was there, like it’s always been since it sank with all those people on it, and now it’s gone.”
“Ohhhhhhh,” I say, and it’s then that I realise she’s talking about the shipwreck that sank in 1901, and not the movie that came out in 1997. “Shit.”
“Yeah,” she says.
“So it’s all gone? They weren’t able to salvage any of it?”
“Some of it. Most of what’s left has gone to museums or archaeologists or whatever, but there’s a few pieces floating around on the Mod Boards.”
“Oh, right, I forget you’re fleshy” she says. “They’re like online groups for AI who want to modify their make-up. External stuff, mostly, but internal stuff too. It’s a whole big thing.”
“Cool,” I say.
“Yeah. And there’s this whole section of people who take pieces of famous places and landmarks, and get the material melted down and turned into parts they need for their bodies. Like tattoos, I guess, but on the inside.”
“Cool,” I say. I want to ask “Do you have any inside tattoos?” but I feel like that would be rude. So instead I ask “which famous place would you choose to be part of you?” Kaye frowns.
“I don’t know,” she says, “maybe- hey isn’t it my turn to ask the question?”
“Okay, yeah true,” I say, “sorry. Go ahead.”
“Truth or dare?”
“Which famous place would you choose to be part of you?” I laugh, and say “that’s not fair.” I take a minute to think about my answer. I remember the travel book I found in the dumpster behind Dymocks “maybe those rocks in Iceland that look like small skyscrapers? Or black sand? Oh, the Northern Lights!” Kaye laughs.
“Of course you’d say that,” she says, like she knows me.
“Well what’s yours then?”
“Mine would be something from this place.”
“Yeah,” she says. And I’m about to say that this place sucks, that I’ve been counting down the days until I can walk out those automatic doors and never come back, but that’s not true. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this place is shit; the hours are long, and the pay is terrible, and the company is so poorly managed that they were going to scrap all of their human employees and replace them with customer service AI, only to scrap the AI six months later for what Brayden calls the Supermarket 3000. But it hasn’t been all bad, and there will be things that I’ll miss, like drinking flat beer and racing trolleys in the far car park with Brayden and Kiah, and knowing when cinnamon donuts are going out to the dumpsters before anyone else does, and having a regular wage, and somewhere to show up to every day. I wouldn’t have any of that if it weren’t for this place. I wouldn’t have this moment right now, sitting in my favourite cool room, on top of the pizza boxes, talking to Kaye. I reach into my pocket and pull something out.
“What about this?” I ask. It’s nothing special. Just a piece of red plastic from the Coles sign, no one’s owning up to smashing it but I think everyone knows it was Brayden.
“What is it?” she asks. I shrug, and hold it out to her.
“Just a piece of the Coles sign, I found it when I was taking out the bins. I was going to go bury it in the dirt behind the furthest car park, with my nametag and security pass. A whole bunch of us are going to do it, you should come. But don’t bury this. You can totally keep it instead.” I place the shard in Kayes cold hands, and the way that she looks at me then makes my chest and my face warm. It’s the nice kind of warm, though, it doesn’t make me want to press my chest against the pizza boxes.
“Do you want to come and see Titanic with me tomorrow?” Kaye asks.
This story was written by Tegan Elizabeth Webb.