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You Always Have to Ask

Philip Apps is a data scientist who lives in California with his wife and daughter. He has been published in Daily Science Fiction and McSweeney's Internet Tendency.

"So Bill," she said, and leaned in close so I could hear her over the noise of the bar, "How about we get out of here?" I felt her hand on my shoulder and I was thinking about it, when Doug came by. I'd seen Doug around in the neighborhood, and we'd chatted a bit--nice guy, friendly, but we hadn't talked too much.
"Bill!" he said. "What are you up to?"
I made a gesture which I hoped would express that I was with someone and didn't really want to be interrupted, but Doug was not to be deterred.
"Oh, Bill," he said. "No, no, no. You have to be careful these days. Have you asked her?"
"Asked her what?"
"If she's a bot," he said, exasperated. "Bill, you always have to ask. You don't want to wind up kidnapped and having to listen to some four-hour timeshare presentation, do you?"
"It's OK," I said. "You're not a bot, are you, Julia?" I asked.
"Do I look like a bot?" she asked. It was hard to tell if she was amused or offended--it looked like a bit of both.
"No, of course not", I said, but Doug cut in. "Not like that," he said. "You've got to ask properly. Like this," and he took a breath, looked Julia in the eye, and spoke, reciting clearly and loudly from a script he had memorized--"Julia, this is a formal request under the Informed Consumer Act. Are you a bot in the employment of or under contract to any organization, governmental or civil, profit or non-profit?"
Julia rolled her eyes, and replied, as if reciting from the same script, "Doug, I formally acknowledge your request, and thank you for making it. I am a bot under contract to Precaution Life Insurance Services. I will now leave these premises."
I turned to Doug and stared at him, mouth wide open like an idiot. "Wow! I would never have guessed. How did you know?"
"You just always have to ask," he said. "And it has to be in exactly the right form. My friend Josh missed a word and ended up having to sit through a Peace Corps recruitment video."
"Doug," I said, thinking, "you're not a bot, are you?"
"Uh uh," he said. "You have to ask properly, remember?"
"Doug, this is a formal request under the Informed Consumer Act. Are you a bot in the employment of or under contract to any organization, governmental or civil, profit or non-profit?" I said. I stumbled over a couple of the words, but got them all out in the right order in the end.
"No, Bill," he said. "You're safe."
"Let's get out of here," I said. "This place is giving me the creeps."
"Sure," he said, and we left.
It was going to be a long night for Doug while I pitched him on the latest products available from Precaution Life Insurance Services, but they are good investments, and he could always just make a purchase to get out quickly. It's like he said, you always have to ask.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 8th, 2022

Author Comments

When I wrote this story, I had been getting more spam emails than usual. First they would go to my regular inbox, then Google started to mark them as Likely Spam, then it marked them as Likely Spam and moved them to the spam folder, and finally it moved them to the spam folder unmarked. I didn't quite understand the difference between Likely Spam in the inbox, or Likely Spam in the spam folder, or Unlikely Spam in the spam folder, but I'm glad I'm getting fewer spam emails--at least until they get smarter.

- Philip Apps
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