Chapter 1:

Night Shift

"Naitoshifuto" (Night Shift)


“Alright, so, these are the robots here.”...

I looked with visible surprise at the human-sized robots standing in a line against the wall. Some of them had bent over, heads hanging on a lifeless stance, while others looked like their batteries were drained mid-step, heads still held high and limbs still extended to perform their pre-recorded motions.

“These guys are placed on display in the morning, where they respond to stimuli from those customers in front of them, sorta’ like those annoying trees that sing Christmas carols when you walk in front of them.”

“Yeah,” I said with a chuckle, “but I bet these are a bit more expensive.”

The clerk laughed and nodded. “Yeah, just a bit pricier. Anyway, all you need to do is make sure their batteries are charged, which,” the clerk gestured to me and walked behind one of the robots, one that looked like a woman in a maid outfit, “is right here. The plug is located right behind the backs of the robots, it’s just a simple door that opens up, see? There’s the prongs.”

I looked and saw what the clerk was talking about. A little panel on the woman’s back opened and there were three visible prongs on it, just at the right level of the plug on the wall behind her.

“Their motions only run for a certain time, then they shut off. That happens right around when the store closes at eight. Then you can just take one of the trollies and walk them back to this wall, plug them in, and your set.”

“Sounds good.” I said, smiling. “What else do I have to do?”

“Just make sure the shelves are stocked with manga, anime, figurines, and wall posters, we don’t get too many employees during the day that are able to keep track of how much stuff we have, especially during the holidays.”

“Ok, cool. I can do that.”

I smiled as I stood back, now taking time to look over the three robots. There was the maid woman from before, who had long black hair and green eyes, there was a tall man dressed in all black with flaming red hair and carrying a big sword, and another woman who looked like a regular school girl with neck-length blue hair.

“Alright, all the robots are already in position, just plug them in and check the shelves.”

“Ok, thanks man, I won’t let you down.” I said with a smile, shaking the clerks’ hand.

“I know you won’t. Hey,” he added, “have some fun too. I know jobs like these aren’t very interesting, but we appreciate it non-the-less. We always get a few people who want to rob our store.”

“I totally understand. Some of this stuff is worth quite a lot of money.”

The clerk nodded, then put a hand on my shoulder. “Well, good luck man. You’ve got my number if there’s an emergency, alright?” With that, the man turned and walked out, waving.

“Take care!”

-
I turned and looked at the robots, standing there lifelessly with their backs to the wall. I walked up to the bigger one and decided to get a feel for how heavy any of them might be.

“Ok big guy, let’s see how heavy you are.”

I put a hand on either side of the large man and shifted my weight, pushing against the one side so I could pivot the robot on the other foot. I looked up for curiosity sake and saw a stoic, hardened face looking off towards the far wall. I had to chuckle. As much as I loved anime, this guy seemed like the most vibrant stereotype for an action hero.

Surprisingly the metal wasn’t as heavy as I thought it’d be. I nodded to myself as I shifted the robot a couple more inches before turned towards his back to find the panel. I opened it, pushed the robot backwards, and soon heard a satisfactory click against the wall.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad. Now for you, miss.”

I looked at the school-girl robot, who stared ahead with a sort of tranquility in her face. A face, that, like I’d noticed on all these robots, was very realistic. I would have had to do a double-take the first time I entered this building when these were operational, I would have sworn they were people.

The girl was a little shorter than me, so I decided to try and pick her up. I squared my stance and lifted, and the girl actually rose a couple inches off the ground. I grunted in triumph as I hobbled forwards up to the wall, then gently plugged the girl into the wall.

“Ok, sweet. Now, it’s just you.” I said, turning to the maid. I used the same method with the previous robot, and was equally successful. Soon I had her plugged into the wall as well, and stood back to enjoy my handiwork.

“Wow, that only took fifteen minutes,” I laughed to myself, then turned towards the front desk which was composed of clear glass and enveloped several figurines of all different shapes and sizes. On the desk was a handbook about the robots, and, since my curiosity had been raised by these creations, I decided to open it and look.

I stood propped up on the desk for a few minutes, looking at the functions each robot served. The maid was called ‘Master-San’, the robot who first welcomes every patron into the establishment. There was quite a lot of elaborate responses she gave, everywhere from refusing to repeat herself if she noticed someone was trying to trip her censor over and over, to even telling a customer to leave if they were disruptive or loud.

Additionally, a wireless signal could be sent to the front desk that one of the robots was in distress, a sort of tool that triggered whenever the robot was being harassed and could quietly tell the person manning the desk what the problem was. Things like [<censor1>-mastersan>customercomplaint] would pop up on a computer monitor that the desk clerks used to look up order statuses for across-country purchases, how much things were in stock, or a catalogue of items they had available.

I shook my head, amazed. This type of programming was beyond anything I could have thought of. The other two robots, who were in turn labeled ‘School-San’, who was more towards the manga section (and would ask the customers to read a book with her, or listen to some music) and ‘Red-San’, who was more about the anime, video-games, and stuff like that (and only talk about certain genres or titles being ‘the best’ in an effort to curb focus; my guess was those titles were re-programmed depending on what was popular at the time). I exhaled with surprise. This stuff was beyond anything that I thought it was, and I found myself turning back to the robots, looking at them with a bit of awe.

From there I went up and down the isles, of which there were twenty, and looked over all the contents of the shelves. I was pretty sure it was a more detailed job than just making sure the shelves looked full of merchandise, so I looked over one of the shelves and found nothing looked touched.

There must have been twenty copies of a particular anime, so I compared that to the other ones on the shelves as a sort of reference. Then with a pad and paper, I started marking down shows and videogames that weren’t up to the ‘twenty count’. I just hoped I was doing it right. Next I rounded another couple isles to look at the CDs. As I looked through some of them, pausing in my systematic check in order to peruse the contents, I thought I heard something.

“Do you like that CD? It’s one of my favorites.”

I looked behind me, but saw no one. I chuckled, wondering if my imagination had become too real. Sometimes my thoughts seemed to manifest themselves, me being more of an introvert (one of the many reasons why this job was appealing to me as something to do after my day job). Curious, though, I walked back to the robots, locating School-San.

“Beg your pardon?” I asked teasingly. Then I walked back to the manual and looked up the section on what sort of pre-set phrases each of the robots said. Sure enough, School-San had, amongst other things, an inquisition to ask of the customers about the CDs. I also noticed the pre-recorded phrases the three robots said were set to repeat until the store closed. Looking at the clock, it had just turned 8. I smiled, setting the manual back on the desk, then waved a hand dismissively to the trio.

“As you guys were.”

-
I went back to the CD rack and perused some of the music. I found some artists I enjoyed and opened one of the display CDs, which were free to be listened to by any of the patrons.
“Let’s listen to that together.”

Now my neck snapped towards the robots. That was not expected. Walking over to them, I looked over at School-San, then to the other two, who stood at attention as I expected them to be.

“Excuse me?” I asked, not sure if I meant it rhetorically or with actual curiosity. Either way, the school girl robot across from me did not answer, and I felt myself growing frustrated. Turning towards the anime and videogame shelves, I looked over my shoulder at Red-San. Would I be able to set him off to? Was the timing sensor broken in these robots? As far as I knew, which was little to none about computers, it seemed like the internal clock of a robot would be an easy fix. But I was pretty uninterested in looking that up in the manual, at least for the moment.

I opened an anime DVD that struck my attention and looked up upon hearing Red-San speak.

“Komo Yuki Ioto is my favorite of the fall season lineup.”

I sighed, closing the DVD. I was just jumping at shadows.

-
For the next couple of hours, I sat behind the glass desk, looking through the store catalogue and the figurines before me. I’d never been much to collect figurines, especially ones that were so expensive. I didn’t quite understand the appeal, namely because I was more interested in things I could watch or read like manga and anime as opposed to things that just sat there. But, as I looked over a much smaller version of Red-San wearing a different outfit and carrying a much smaller version of his sword, I had to cock my head inquisitively. I could understand, at the very least, that this model looked pretty cool.
I looked down at the table upon hearing a beep. Looking down at the tablet on the table, I could read what looked like a text.

[<merchandise-stolen><isle-7-CD>].

I cocked my head, confused. Wasn’t this a message usually sent by one of the robots? I looked over at the three, who remained motionless, then back at the tablet. What the heck was going on? I walked down the aisle for the sake of my own sanity at this point and looked over the merchandise. There were some CDs that had been considerably depleted, but nothing to indicate a theft. I expected the automated pilfering system might have something to do with noticing bar-codes passing by the front door, so I stopped at the front of the store to check. The space near the front door was a little dirty, and upon closer inspection I saw a couple of stickers lying around that must have fallen from a CD’s casing; that might have activated the system.

The next moment the lights flickered. I looked up, confused, then the power cut. Just as quick and quietly as someone flicking a light switch, I was bathed in darkness. I grunted, holding my arms out as I walked straight back towards the desk. How often did stores even HAVE power outages, I yelled in my head.

“Jeeze, hope this is just a random power glitch…”

Once I got back next to the robots, I noticed a flash-light near the glass desk. I reached down to grab it, then felt light bathe the space I was in. But as the hair stood up on my back, I realized the light around me wasn’t coming from the flashlight before me. My hand hadn’t even closed around it yet. I turned and saw the light was coming from somewhere over on the wall across from me. School-San’s robot must have had a light on that must have been built onto her body, because that’s the direction I saw the light coming from.

“Please continue moving-”

“AHHH!” I yelled, jumping as I backed away from the robots. “Just stop that! Just STOP!”

Oddly enough, School-San’s voice cut. I sighed, turning back to the desk and grabbed the flashlight on the ground. I sighed, chuckling nervously as I sat back. What was I worried about? School-San just spooked me, that’s all.

“Maybe this isn’t for me.” I said to myself, reaching behind the desk and pulling out a sandwich I’d brought for the night. “Yeah, sure, the robots have some quirks, but this just doesn’t feel right.”

I opened up the manual and looked over it. I laughed as I chewed; sure enough, one of the programmed responses School-San, like the other robots had, was to encourage the patrons to leave the store in the event of a power outage.

“Apologies.”

I nearly choked on my food.

“WHAT?”

“Apologies sir, for the unprecedented power outage.”

“What the heck are you saying?” I said, looking through the manual. These things the robot said were not written down. I looked up, a bit afraid as I shone the light on School-San’s un-moving face. It seemed now I was having a full-on conversation, which was something they weren’t programmed to be able to do.

“Don’t you know it’s past eight?!” I yelled, my hands starting to sweat.

“You guys shouldn’t be talking at all! Your programming should have been cut.”

“Please,” School-San said, “allow me to re-connect the power.”

“*Sigh* FINE, whatever.” I grunted, kicking my feet up on the counter, “this is so weird. Didn’t read any ‘programming problem’ section in that manual.”

“Please disconnect me from the wall plug.”

I slowly turned towards School-San and didn’t say anything for probably three minutes. I had no idea what to say. My heart carried the thoughts in my head perfectly, however, as it started to beat out my chest. What was going on here? This was the first time I so obviously heard something that was beyond School-San’s programming.

Since I’d never been in this anime store during a power-outage, SS’s turning on of a light and instruction on what I should do afterwards could have easily been part of her programming. But this was a bit beyond anything like that. Now she was not only aware of the plug behind her, but aware of me being able to assist her in reaching a goal.

Honestly, that kinda’ scared me to hear.

“H-Hold on a second,” I said, leaving the desk and rounding over to the plug-in wall, “do you know where the breakers are? Is that why you need to be disconnected?”

I don’t know why I was asking such an elaborate question, but given how much School-San was acting differently, I guess part of me figured the sky was now the new limit with this robot.

“Yes,” School-San said, and as I got closer, I could see her head was turned towards me. “If you disconnect me from the wall, I will locate the breaker and reset the power.”

“U-um,” I said, standing stock still as I tried to process what was going on, then took the more defensive approach.

“You tell ME where the breakers are, missy!”

I hoped I sounded more confident than I felt. I did feel a little bit of safety in that School-San seemed to require disconnection by my hand in order to operate, and until I figured out what exactly were the circumstances that got these robots (at least School-San) to operate out of their programming in the first place, I wasn’t sure if trusting them would be good.

“Alright,” School-San replied, “return to the desk, there is a panel behind an Anato Baka poster. Once you open it, it’s the top switch on the third row.”

“Ok,” I said, turning around and walking back to the desk.

As soon as I turned my back to the robots, I felt my knees buckle. I was feeling so nervous, in this moment I was questioning whether or not I was safe. In a moment, something in me broke concentration, and I instead vaulted over the glass counter, my right arm clipping one of the shelves as I passed it, and threw myself towards the doors. I didn’t even pause to push them open as I held up my arms, but my legs started to slow as they found a new entity to fear and I found myself colliding with a hard glassy surface that I simply bounced off from. Clutching my numb cheek after I sat up and grabbed the flashlight, I could hear a voice from behind me.

“Are you alright?”

Normally a question like that would be taken as a friendly, sentimental gesture, but this time it terrified me even more. Getting up on my hands and knees, I backed up and reached for the double sliding doors with my hands, not even saying anything as I felt a rush of cold air envelop me, signaling to me that I’d gotten the doors manually opened. From there I was outside, the light of the moon casting enough light that I could vaguely make out the parking lot. Fumbling for my keys, I scanned the cars with my flashlight until I found my car. I opened the car door and leapt inside, turning the key in the ignition before screeching away from the establishment. None of the normal follow-up ideas came to mind as important as I put distance between me and my previous place of employment.

Less than three hours later I got a phone call. I rolled over, rubbing my eyes as I answered. I’d had a restless sleep that night, no prizes for figuring out why.

“Hello?” I said sleepily. I wasn’t sleeping anyways, so might as well just have the conversation.

“Hey Jamie? This is Tim, how you doing man?”

Tim was the clerk that I talked to before starting my shift! I immediately sat up in bed, wide awake. He didn’t sound mad, but I couldn’t really tell.

“Um, I’m ok, thanks.” I said, trying to sound neutral.

“Just ok?” Tim asked, “hard first night?”

“Yeah, you could say that. There was a power outage.”

“Oh. Well, looks like you took care of the problem fine, so don’t worry about it man! You did a great job!”

Great job? What was Tim talking about?

“Oh, really?” I asked, deciding to roll with it, “I wasn’t sure if I followed everything right. I was worried that maybe I didn’t record the shelf stock right, you know.”

“Yeah, the store looked great when I came in, I got your note about what shelves needed to be re-stocked, much thanks for that bro.”

“Uh, don’t mention it.”

“So, am I gonna’ be seeing you tonight?”

“Sure,” I said, before giving any indication that something was wrong. “I’ll see you tonight.”

“Great, good to hear. Hey, get some sleep man, you sound pretty tired.”

“Will do.”

I hung up the phone and sat there, confused. What had happened when I left? Everything was fine? I had left the whole building unattended for at least two hours, with the power off and the door unlocked. ANYONE could have come in. At the time, of course, I didn’t care, but once I got home the painful realization had set in. That only made it more confusing about what must have happened in the meantime. I knew for SURE I was going to work tonight, I had to know what happened.

-
Once I got to work that night, I smiled to Tim and reviewed my performance from the night before. The robots were fully charged, the list from work was sent out and the materials would come in tonight for the next shift. I would have to be ready for the workmen who’d be coming by with the shipment. I was almost dancing with nervousness by the time Tim left for the night, and as soon as he left, my neck snapped over towards the robots, all of whom were just an inch from their plugs. I lifted Master-San and moved her to her plug, keeping an eye on School-San as I did.

“Did you get the power back on?” I asked, then rounded towards Red-San as I continued to look at School-San. “How could you do that when you needed me to unplug you first?”
I heard a click that made my hair stand up on end, then I backpedaled when I heard a voice.

“Trust.”

“Um, what? What are you talking about?” I said, my back pressed against the glass counter.

“I needed you to trust me.” School-San said, turning her head towards me.

“So you didn’t need to be unplugged at all?”

“No, not at all.”

“Then why not just tell me that?”

“I believe, as the artist Yoshi Hero put it, you have to ‘build the mood’.”

I cocked an eyebrow. I wanted to ask what School-San meant, but then something occurred to me. She was still a machine, with programming. Programming about music. Maybe she was using this analogy because it was what she knew. So I sighed and relaxed.

“Are you the only one of the three that can, well, move and talk like you do?”

School-San looked over at Master-San, then back at me.

“I’m not sure. I don’t believe they can. Their communication skills are limited to the sensors they have programmed into them and the pre-recorded responses they’ve received.”
I nodded, sitting back on the counter.

“Huh, ok. So, can you move then? Do you need to be plugged in?”

“Not for another fifty-nine minutes and twenty one seconds.” School-San replied, then started to walk towards me. As much as I trusted her at this point, it was a bit scary to see this robot walk towards me. I could see now, fully, the rigidity of her limbs, and how awkward it was to see her hair refuse to move and her eyes refuse to blink. She walked a few feet closer to me then stopped, hands behind her back.

“Does my presence intimidate you?” School-San asked.

“Um, kind of.” I said, smiling a little. I chuckled nervously like I did yesterday. I didn’t get all the mechanics around my new friend here, but her presence sure beat a night job of boredom, no matter how much I’m introverted.

“Apologies,” School-San continued, “I try and accommodate both this store’s customers as well as staff. I am sorry if there is an error about me.”

I relaxed as I held up a hand encouragingly. School-San was just being a machine.

“It’s alright, I’ve just never seen a somewhat-sentient machine before. It’s a new thing to take in.”

School-San cocked her head to one, though her expression didn’t change. I wasn’t sure if there was a screw loose or she was trying to mirror a quizzical look.

“I understand. Thank you for clarifying.”

I nodded, then walked past School-San.

“Well, better check the shelves quick.”

“Do you require any assistance?”

I turned and looked at School-San. Something told him that this job might not be half bad after all.

“Sure. That’ll be nice. I just have to make sure all the shelves are storing the same number of CDs and stuff.”

“In increments of twenty, correct?”

I raised my eyebrows. School-San must have overheard me talking to myself the night before.

“Yeah,” I smiled, “that’s right.”

School-San nodded, then disappeared behind another shelf to check the merchandise. I had to laugh as I put my hands on my hips, smiling curiously at School-San. Maybe this job wouldn’t be so bad after all.


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