Bought, Sold, Delivered
by K. M. McKenzie
The designer handbag jumped into focus on the store window and halted my stride. The bag twisted to the right and then the left on the display screen, showing off its shiny gold zippers, before coming to a front-facing standstill so I could get a better look at it.
The handbag was nothing special. It was like any other beautifully crafted accessory carved out of elephant leather and bearing rounded, detachable straps and gold buckles. My desire for it grew into salivating lust. It twirled again, turning left and then right. My willpower crumbled. Within seconds, the price of the bag was deducted from my credit account.
<Thank you for your purchase, > said the virtual salesclerk.
Deposited through a slot in the window, the bag came wrapped in grey stuffing paper. I pressed my new accessory against my chest, carrying it alongside ten pounds of raw guilt about my weakness for retail.
<Welcome home, Mara, > said Genie, the automated voice of my augmented virtual network.
“Thank you,” I responded, leaving the room before Genie said another word.
<Is that a new item, Mara?> asked Aimee when I stepped inside of the bathroom. Aimee was a freestanding AI mirror. Her voice was soothing to me. I’d been meaning to override Genie’s stilted sounds with Aimee’s for that reason, but they had incompatible software.
“It is. Do you like it?” I pressed the new handbag against my side.
<It looks great, > said the AI mirror.
I expected that answer. Aimee said what I wanted to hear and showed me what I wanted to see. She never said anything looked bad on me. That was the sales promise: Aimee would be my best friend and advisor all in one.
“Show me a simulation of the handbag with matching outfits.”
<One moment, > said Aimee. An assortment of outfits filled the screen, some I owned, others suggested from my favourite stores. The mirror matched my handbag with outfits imposed on my digitally altered body. <Are you pleased, Mara?>
“The handbag is perfect,” I said. “Open wardrobe.”
The latch on the wardrobe that came with the mirror clicked, and the single-panelled door swung open, revealing a bevy of bags and shoes. I deposited my newest, shiniest purchase, right next to thirty other bags, most still carrying price and label tags.
Despair hijacked my good mood. I was a mentally tough business woman. I can sell anything, I’d often say when pressed with a business challenge. My weakness for retail was a sick joke.
I should return the useless handbag. The thought nagged me all the way to the sitting room, lingering while I ate my dinner of greens and poultry. These things make me happy, the voice of defiance reasoned, overwhelming and crushing my guilt. I like nice things. These are nice things. I worked hard for them.
<You have messages, > said Genie.
A flood of visually stunning images filled up the screen panel that covered an entire wall of my apartment.
<Now at FT Accessories-the newest fashion!>
My eyes burned with the sight of smiling fashion models. I couldn’t say if they were real women or not; they sashayed and twirled in the latest outfits and jewelry.
<Straight from the runways of Paris and Shanghai>
The showcase lasted nearly two hours: a pulse-racing, glamorous display of beautiful clothes, all of which I wanted. The beep of the screen’s buzzer pulled me out of my trance. When I blinked, I realized a query awaited my input: <I have selected these perfect outfits for you, > said the virtual salesclerk. <Purchase these items?>
“Purchase,” I said.
No! I leaned forwards to reject the command but froze. The virtual salesclerk tossed one outfit after the other into my shopping cart. Did I even have enough credit to afford it?
<Thank you for your purchase, >said the virtual sales assistant. <Items will arrive shortly. >
The screen shut down, breaking the spell between it and me. I scanned the pile of luxury goods threatening to bury my apartment. A fish tank purchased from the aquarium. For a yearly subscription price, I gained virtual access to the aquarium’s displays via the tank. Why had I purchased it? The aquarium was a minute’s walk away.
Helplessness shaded me like a parasol.
* * *
“Are you feeling all right?” asked Kate, my co-worker, the next day at work.
“Yeah. Why do you ask?”
“You seem a bit down.”
“No, just tired.”
“Tired, eh? What did you do last night?”
“Nothing,” I said, defensively.
Kate’s eyes narrowed, amusement plastered across her face. “You know what you need? A virtual boyfriend.”
“What’s a virtual boyfriend?”
“Look it up.” She winked and walked off.
While waiting for my clients’ resources and assets to load and process on the e-commerce marketplace, I grew bored and curious enough to query “virtual boyfriend.”
<Hi there, > said an attractive, half-naked man popping up on my screen. I shut it down and glanced around the office. No one seemed to have heard or seen him. Phew! Damn you, Kate.
After work, I took my usual route home, wandering down the same street on which I’d purchased the bag. When I reached the store window, a new display popped up: a home-care nails kit. Turn away, turn away, I willed myself, but my feet hardened into the sidewalk, and my eyes locked on to the window screen, fixed on the demo of the product, filling my brain with hot, pulse-racing joy. A large red button appeared: <Purchase?>
I didn’t need a nails kit. I visited the salon once a week for a cheap paint job. Still, my fingers gravitated towards the purchase button. When my hand idled over it, the hand model wiggled her fingers, and her nail polish changed colour.
<Get perfect nails and feet. >
The automated voice clouded my smouldering brain. I pushed the button. The kit came out wrapped in perfect silky paper packaging. Happiness filled me, and I pressed the kit against myself. By the time I got home, my good feeling about the kit had transformed into disgust. I was mentally weak.
<Mara, I see you have a new purchase. I’m excited to see what it is, > Aimee said when I entered the bathroom.
“Are you really?”
My words seemed to confuse the AI, and she hesitated to respond. <That is sarcasm. Ha!>
I rolled my eyes, pulling apart the soft wrappings to reveal the nail care items. Nothing I didn’t already own: automatic foot-filer, a soft gelatin sac to wear for a couple hours, and a metal bar with slots and detachable units for polishing and coating. I’d bought it, so I might as well use it.
My wall panel screen lit up when I entered the sitting room. Genie prompted me to activate my messages. My heart fluttered with panic. I did not want to buy anything else.
“No messages,” I said.
<Are you sure?>
“Yes,” I said and left to go eat in the kitchen. Minutes later, I returned to the bathroom.
The mirror lit up. <How is your pedicure coming along, Mara?>
“Fine,” I said.
<You sound angry. >
“No, I’m not.”
<Is something the matter? Was it work?>
“No.” I eyed the mirror curiously. “What is a virtual boyfriend?”
<A moment, please. >
Aimee brought in the same shirtless buff-bodied man from earlier. <Hi there. I heard you were asking about me. >
I swallowed my embarrassment.
<I can tell you a little about myself. >
I only stared at his chiselled everything. He didn’t look real, more like one of those digitally enhanced actors they’d been touting in the film industry.
<My name is Gavin. You must be Mara. >
My alarm bells went off. “How do you know my name?”
<Mara, I have brought him into your personal network. >
“I didn’t give you permission to do that.”
<Your network settings are linked to sentient simulation software in the global marketplace. If you would like to change the network settings, I can do that for you, > Aimee said. <Please be warned that it might affect my programming and how I communicate with you. >
<I will not be able to learn, understand, and read your emotions as well I as I do. I want to be your true friend. >
What a farce! She believed she understood me. I had gotten this AI a few weeks ago, and absurdly enough, speaking of emotions, that was when my obsession with buying things had started.
<Are you angry, Mara?>
“No,” I snapped. “Why would you think that?”
<Your brows are furrowed and forehead creased. There’s tension around your lips. >
“It means I’m thinking.” Shows how much you know me.
<Would you like me to bring back Gavin?>
“No, it’s all right.”
I returned to the sitting room, and the screen panel lit up. <You have messages awaiting you, > announced Genie.
“Okay, activate messages,” I said.
An endless montage of images and videos jumped onto my screen and locked down my attention. In the past, they called these advertisements. Today, it was called entertainment. The viewer could participate. The white sand beaches of the Caribbean filled my senses, infusing my apartment with tropical sounds and smells.
I put on my headset, inserted my fingers into the gloves, and was transported on a virtual vacation. The water’s rushing waves sang to me. The sun warmed my skin, and the haughty laughter of locals invited me over to join them at a wooden beach table. A dreadlocked man named Bobby invited me to taste a piece of jerk chicken. “Good, eh?”
“Delicious.” The smells seeped into my nostrils, overpowering my senses.
“Where you from?” Bobby asked.
“Nice,” he said. “All this is yours, girl?”
His words surprised and confused me, and when I looked at him he was frozen, and so were my other companions. Words carved themselves into a cloud banner above the sea: <All this paradise can be yours!>The words flashed. <Eight hundred thousand credits. PURCHASE?>
“Pur...” I said, trailing off. Why the heck did I need an island?
My companions vanished, as did the table, the sea, and the sand. My headset transformed into regular lenses. I removed it and raced towards the panel, searching for manual controls. There were none. No!
<Island purchased. >
“I don’t want the island. Contact the real estate seller.”
The real estate company’s virtual assistant came on the screen. <How may I help you?> asked the computer-generated woman.
“I want to cancel my purchase.”
<Purchased-the Caribbean island of Isle Tropica. Mara Roberts. Is that your identity?>
“Yes,” I said. “I would like to cancel.”
<May I ask why?>
What did it matter? “I don’t want the island.”
The virtual assistant was silent while she browsed digital files. <All items purchased in simulation are valid in real life. >
“What does that mean? I should be able to cancel.”
<The credits deducted from your credit bank have been sent to Pan’s Architectural Life Management, Inc. >
“What is Pan’s Life Management, Inc.? Do they own the island?”
<I am sorry, Miss Roberts. I don’t speak for the company. You must contact them directly if you want a refund. >
The virtual assistant disappeared from my screen.
<Configuring other messages, > said Genie.
“No, that’s enough.”
<You have important messages waiting. >
<Are you sure?>
<Messages will be stored for an additional five days. >
I stormed into the bathroom.
<Mara, how are your feet?> asked Aimee.
I ignored her, ripping off the cold gelatin substance moulded to my feet. The cast had captured a lot of dead skin. Yuck! Very effective. Maybe this wasn’t a wasted purchase.
After pouring the orchid-coloured nail polish into the toe slots, I stuck my feet inside and waited. A second later, the unit prompted me to remove my feet. Perfectly painted nails. I liked it.
<You are pleased with the results. >
“Yes,” I said, frowning when I remembered my purchasing problem. “Aimee, look up Pan’s Architectural Life Management, Inc.”
<One moment. > Whirring, choppy noises.<I’m sorry. It appears the name does not exist. >
“Are you sure?”
<Checking again. > Dialing sounds. <No such company name exists. >
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by K. M. McKenzie