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Only Human

by Paul Carlson

Ellie Thinnes enjoyed school, so having the chicken pox wasn’t a welcome excuse to stay home like many of her friends claimed. At least her skin didn’t itch terribly, but it was frustrating experience anyhow.

Her mother Rita was taking the day off from her government job in New York City. “Twelve-year olds think they’re halfway grown up,” she told Ellie, “but you’re still my little girl.”

“I wish my computer wasn’t broken,” Ellie replied, pouting. It had died a week earlier, and worse, their cable TV was out. “Daytime TV is the dumbest stuff I ever watched.”

“True,” said Rita. “Our computer delivery should be here in a few minutes. Those new Macs have a terabit wireless system built in, and we’ll be one of the first families in New Jersey to use it.”

The TV set droned on. As far as Ellie could determine, all twenty-five broadcast channels carried the same drivel. “Mom, the ads are even worse than the shows.”

“Under arrest?” blared a commercial. It showed a disheveled man in handcuffs. “No one to call at 3 a.m.? We know that people can make mistakes, and our bail bonds office really cares about you.”

Minutes later, a divorce judge’s show ceased its inchoate yelling, and a coach potato appeared on screen. “High school dropout?” said the voice-over announcer. “We can train you for a high-powered career in six weeks flat.” Money showered the man, who instantly wore a fancy suit.

Ellie groaned. “This is sooo unrealistic.”

For her work desk in one corner of the living room, Rita said, “Ell, it’s not supposed to be realistic. They’re taking the opportunity to help folks who are down on their luck.”

The ads kept on coming. “Need cash fast? Paycheck still days away? We can advance you the money, and we’re nice people, too.”

Ellie changed the channel.

A man was leaping up and down like a maniac. “Make millions from the Internet, with no handling of products or up-front investment, just like I did!”

“Are you sure, Mom? Looks to me more like they’re taking advantage.”

Then a beautiful woman graced the screen. “Want to buy your girlfriend the genuine diamonds she deserves? You can, with our easy credit.”

Ellie threw a pillow at the TV. “They’re charging an arm and a leg for a bunch of crazy ideas.” She stamped her feet. “They must think everybody’s a sucker.”

The new computer arrived, with several accessories included. A friendly deliveryman carried all the boxes into the living room, where Rita signed for it and tipped him generously.

The ladies soon got the Mac running, and linked to the Internet via the new terabit wireless system.

Determined to surprise her teacher, Ellie installed her student AI software and began doing homework. Out of morbid curiosity, she left the TV on.

The afternoon fare did not improve.

A man slumped against a decrepit sedan, then looked up to behold a shiny hybrid sports car. “We can sell you that new car you need, even if your credit report proves you’re only human.”

Ellie decided she’d had enough. “Mom, you work for the DA’s office, right? Don’t they bust ripoffs like that? We had a presentation in school last week, from a consumer advocate.”

“You mentioned that. He gave some examples, right?”

“Like that guy with the sports car, what if it was real life? Say he can’t make the payments, so they’ll repossess it. Then he’ll lose his entire down payment, and he won’t even have that old clunker to drive.” She threw another pillow. “Stuff like that shouldn’t be allowed!”

Rita listened patiently. “Ell, it’s not like they’re all from the same person. These ripoffs pop up like mushrooms after a rain, and we have to have clear evidence of wrongdoing, in each and every case.”

With all the idealism of youth, Ellie stated, “It’s like they have a sneaky handle on people. Some kind of total disrespect, and a willingness to cash in on every opportunity.”

Her mother sighed. “We do our best, Ell. It’s just that, to be honest, in a city like New York they’re not a high priority.”

But Ellie wasn’t waiting. “I’m going to check up on those people right now.” She instructed her AI to run searches on each of the day’s advertisers. The data mining proceeded quickly, as her AI polled each TV station, then the ad agencies, next their clients, and finally the public ownership records.

Several minutes later, Ellie planted herself next to her mother. “Check this out. So how come half of those chintzy daytime advertisers are controlled by one corporation?”

Abandoning her own project, Rita checked her daughter’s work. “That’s amazing, Ell. Could be I’m just too old to utilize the Internet fully. You know what’s really odd, I’ve never even heard of that outfit. Maybe I’ll look it up at work tomorrow.”

The girl was a step ahead. “See here? They own a bunch of holding companies, but there’s only one physical address listed anywhere.”

“Hey, that’s right down the block from my office.” Now Rita was curious. “I’m going to log on to my work station. I have clearance to access some confidential files, so perhaps we can learn something right now.”

“I’ve finished my homework already, Mom. It’s four o’clock, and if I have to be stuck at home, I want to try out that new recipe for dinner.”

“That’s good,” Rita mumbled, already caught up in the data stream.

Half an hour passed.

“Ellie, come here!”

“Mom, what did you find?”

“That corporation has penthouse suite, no less. There aren’t any officers or board members. Their sole owner and stockholder is listed as Mr. Auslander.”

Ellie felt like she was on a roll. She retrieved a cordless telephone and, looking over her mother’s shoulder, dialed a number right off the computer screen.

A woman with a distinct Brooklyn accent answered. “Galaxcorp, how may I assist you?”

“My name is Ellie, and I’ve been watching your TV commercials all day, on probably twenty-five channels. They’re disrespectful to people, and I want to talk to Mr. Auslander right now.”

“Why certainly, young lady,” came the sarcastic reply. “It’s not like he has anything better to do.”

On impulse, Ellie retorted, “Besides, what if your credit report proves you’re not human?”

* * *

The office intercom buzzed.

In an eerie, high-pitched voice, Mr. Auslander said, “What is it?”

“Sir, an insistent young lady is asking for you, by name, on our unlisted line. I have no clue how she got the number.” Over the intercom, the receptionist summarized Ellie’s complaint.

“Tell Ellie we’re very sorry,” Auslander responded. “Please assure her that I will act to correct the situation immediately.”

“Right away, sir,” the receptionist said, more surprised than she’d been in years.

In the ensuing silence, Auslander took action.

Enormous black eyes settled on the emergency hot line atop his spartan desk.

With gray, spidery fingers he plucked the ansible’s handset from its cradle.

Raising the handset to a smooth, triangular face, Auslander spoke in his native Pleiadeian, “Boss, I think they’re on to us.”

Copyright © 2006 by Paul Carlson

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