Bob Martin was trying to hide in the supermarket. He’d been looking (a little sadly) at the high-fibre cereals and wondering if he should pick one or just buy them all when Dr. Malmstein walked past the end of the aisle. He was carrying one of those wire shopping baskets that support much more weight than the arm carrying can, in which was a restaurant-sized can of palm oil and a box of tissues. He glanced down the aisle just as Bob glanced up it, and though their eyes didn’t meet, and Dr. Malmstein walked past apparently not seeing Bob, Bob knew from long experience that it would only take about ten seconds for Dr. Malmstein to realise what he’d seen and come back. He’d bolted out of his end of the aisle and run in the opposite direction until he collided with a trolley being pushed by a frazzled-looking woman with a small crocodile of children behind her.
“Ugh!” he gasped, the wind knocked out of him. The woman ran a hand through red frizzy hair and let loose a torrent of swear-words that would have made a Tourette’s sufferer look askance. None of the children behind her, even the two clutching her skirt, looked at all shocked.
“Sorry,” he managed, the word sounded half-strangled as he tried to get enough air in his lungs to breathe again. “I have to hide!”
He crab-walked into the aisle out of her way, and discovered he was in the home baking aisle. He looked up it, checking that Dr. Malmstein wasn’t at the top, and his gaze stopped half-way along as he realised that the eggs were all held in metal cages that could be easily pulled out and replaced. His heart nearly skipped a beat as he realised his opportunity, and he struggled over to them as quickly as he could, one hand still clutching his stomach and his breaths short and laboured. He elbowed a short man in a loud, check sportscoat out of the way and pulled the egg-box cage forwards until he could slip behind it, and then he pulled the cage back after him. Then he sank to the floor, confident now that no-one could see him without actually pulling the cage out.
“That’s him,” said a whiny voice as the cage was pulled forward, barely thirty seconds later. “He’ll be playing with himself, he’s disgusting.” Bob looked up, and found a shelf-stacker looking down at him through thick-lensed glasses that made their eyes look terrifyingly huge.
“You have to come out from there, please,” said the shelf-stacker. Beyond the glasses she was a handsome woman, probably in her early thirties, with blonde hair and the beginnings of a blonde moustache.
“Has he gone yet?” asked Bob, not moving.
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” said the handsome woman. “I was told that you were playing with yourself back here, and that’s unhygienic and against store policy.”
“I’m not playing with myself!”
“I don’t really care,” said the handsome woman. “Come out now or I’ll get security and tell them you’re aggressive and refusing to co-operate.”
Bob had seen security taking people out of the supermarket before, usually for breaking things accidentally, or asking too many questions about the contents of some of the more heavily processed foods, and was not keen on the idea of them deciding that he was undesirable. He got back to his feet, hunching over because of the shelves above the cage, and crept out.
“Thank-you,” said the handsome woman.
“Bob?” said Dr. Malmstein, who was standing nearby holding a single egg that he’d apparently taken out of a box of a dozen.
“Ye Gods,” said Bob, putting his hands to his face.
Bob sat down at MSPARKER’s keyboard. MSPARKER was a quipping machine, built by the university for anyone to use, and in actuality mostly used by Bob because she unnerved everybody else. Even the undergraduates seemed scared of her, and classes that offered a chance to use her were now barely attended. And Bob wasn’t sure when she’d become a She and a Her to everybody instead of the It that she so clearly was. He’d been avoiding Dr. Malmstein for weeks because he’d not wanted to have to talk to her any more, but having been accosted in the supermarket he had a new task for her, which Dr. Malmstein wanted results from by the end of the week. As Bob would have expected, it was already Thursday.
“MSPARKER?” he said, hoping that she was broken, or in scheduled downtime.
“Good evening,” said a slightly feminine, heavily robotic voice. They’d used an undergraduate for the syllabary, the collection of syllables that MSPARKER created her spoken answers from, who’d been on a bet to lisp inconsistently. It made MSPARKER sound vaguely sinister, and Bob usually preferred to use the keyboard interface. The keyboard, however, was missing.
“MSPARKER, where is the party at?” Dr. Malmstein had a list of rhetorical questions that he wanted putting to the quipping machine to see what answers came back. Bob had reason to believe that this was a bad idea (a list of ways to end the world that he found both fascinatingly inventive and scarily prescient), but Dr. Malmstein wouldn’t listen.
“If you wear a short enough skirt, the party will come to you,” said MSPARKER. Bob wrote it down, read it through, and shivered. Surely the machine was just looking these things up? Perhaps in a dictionary of quips?
“MSPARKER, what time is now?”
“The rain is falling and the days run together like droplets on a window-pane.”
“MSPARKER, if a pig loses its voice, is it disgruntled?”
“Are you feeling disgruntled?”
Bob set down his pen and very carefully, very slowly, absolutely not running at all, left the room. Dr. Malmstein was waiting outside in the corridor.
“Ah Bob, I didn’t want to disturb you!” he said, sounding much more jovial than his saturnine countenance would suggest.
“I wish you had,” said Bob. His looked at his shoes. “I think she just called me a pig.”
“That was nice of her,” said Dr. Malmstein. “Have you asked her about the party yet?”
“She said that if you wear a short enough skirt, the party will come to you,” said Bob.
“Ah. I see. Um, I appreciate this is a rather personal question, but how short a skirt do you own?”