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Halloween Horror - Big Tech Edition

(posted in fiction)

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This week’s podcast features two spooky stories for your listening and/or reading pleasure.

Wake Words

The sun hung low over the horizon, its fizzled edges shimmering through the soup of thick brown smog obscuring the tops of distant skyscrapers. Three kids–Mohammed, Jack, and Wendy–stood facing each other, casting long dark pillars of shadow across patches of yellow-brown grass and frowning down at a smoking machine in the dirt.

“Augmented reality projector? More like augmented shit projector,” Jack said. He spat, missing Wendy’s foot by an inch.

“Eww, gross!” Wendy cried, taking a step back.

Mohammed shook his head, still looking down. “But it worked,” he said listlessly. “We had it working.”

“Yeah, for three seconds,” said Jack. He scuffed his foot across the dirt toward the broken projector.

“Maybe we can try again tomorrow,” said Wendy. She glanced hopefully at Mohammed.

Mohammed looked at Wendy, then back down at the machine. “Nah,” he said. “Jack’s right, it’s a piece of shit. I’m sorry I wasted our money, guys.”

“Why did you buy this one anyway?” asked Jack. “Kevin’s is a Samsung. Nobody’s ever heard of this brand. You shoulda bought a Samsung.”

Mohammed shrugged. “This was the only one I could afford with our allowances. Besides, Amazon recommended it.”

“Fuck Amazon,” said Jack.

In her pocket, the Alexa app on Wendy’s phone listened.

The three friends stood in silence around the metal contraption that had vexed them all afternoon. Oh, what promise the day had held–it had arrived! Their very own augmented reality projector! At last they would know first-hand the delights of AR gaming that, until now, they could only experience vicariously–watching strangers on YouTube, or hearing Kevin brag about his projector at school. But as the afternoon dragged on, the crisp, visceral excitement in the air gradually faded into bitter frustration. The projector was impossibly complex. None of its functions made sense. They pushed buttons, connected it to apps on their phones, swiped screens, screamed crude voice commands at it–all in vain. As the sun dimmed, dipping below the haze and signaling the onset of evening, it seemed all was lost. In what was to be his final attempt, Mohammed hit an untried combination of buttons on one of the projector’s control panels. There was a flash of light, and for a moment the field transformed into a vibrant AR space–a glowing playground filled with strange and exciting holographic toys. Then the machine sparked, fizzled, and the environment evaporated, taking with it the kids’ last glimmer of hope.

“Can you return it?” asked Jack. “I want my money back.”

“I dunno. Maybe. I guess I’ll take it home and see,” replied Mohammed.

“Well I’m gonna give it a shit review,” said Jack. “I’m gonna give it zero stars. Can you give zero stars on Amazon? I wish you could give negative stars.”

Wendy’s phone vibrated in her pocket. Mohammed and Jack watched as she took it out and swiped its screen. Wendy shrugged and put the phone back in her pocket. She glanced toward her house, then behind her at the fast-setting sun. “I gotta go, Mom gets mad when I stay out past dark.”

A small black dot rose into the air in the distance, accompanied by an almost imperceptible hum. It started moving, cutting through the smog hanging over the city center as it approached. None of the kids noticed.

Mohammed knelt and delicately prodded his finger at the projector, bracing for electric shocks or hot surfaces. Finding it safe, he gathered it up in his arms. Jack watched with a look of disgust.

Wendy looked over her shoulder at her two friends as she walked toward her house. “See you guys at school tomorrow.”

Mohammed waved to her, then headed to the path where he had stashed his bicycle and backpack.

Jack stood and watched them leave, grumbling to himself. “Fuck that projector. And fuck Amazon for selling trash.”

The hum was louder now, tickling the edges of Jack’s perception. He turned and looked out toward the city, not entirely sure why. His phone vibrated in his pocket. Jack pulled it out and saw a message from Wendy: See you at school tomorrow, it said. He looked back over his shoulder. Wendy had reached her yard, not so much as glancing up as she closed the tall wooden gate behind her.

“You said that already, weirdo,” Jack muttered. He slipped his phone into his pocket and returned his attention to the city. The smog hanging over the tall buildings had turned from brown to dark gray in the dwindling twilight.

Jack began his downhill trek, marching away from Wendy’s house and the neighborhood that Mohammed lived in and toward the street that led to his own. He narrowed his eyes and scanned the darkening sky. The hum was louder now. He thought he saw movement–a dark shadow gliding toward him through the distant haze. Jack shivered and increased his pace.

He noticed the Scouts when he was halfway down the hill; one coming from each direction. The small Amazon delivery robots looked like blue coolers on wheels, trawling along the sidewalk toward him. The Scouts were a familiar sight, rolling through the neighborhood most afternoons and sending their drones to drop small packages at front doors. He’d never seen them out this late, though. And never on this side of the street, where there were no houses.

Jack covered the final stretch to the sidewalk at a sprint, nearly tripping over a rock as he scampered down the hill. Once his feet hit cement, Jack paused to catch his breath. He watched one of the Amazon Scouts creep toward him under the dim light of the nearest street lamp. He turned his head and saw the second Scout–closer than the first, but matching the same languid pace as it closed in from the other direction. The humming noise in the sky grew louder. Jack looked up, and saw a distant silhouette against the deep blue hue of twilight’s final gasp before true darkness took the night.

A drone.

Like the ones the Scouts used, but a hundred times larger. An industrial drone–the kind Jack had seen used on construction sites, or making large-scale deliveries between Amazon warehouses. The long curved spikes of its vice claw hung down like the spindly legs of some giant flying spider.

Jack crossed the road and ran across the front yard of the nearest house, following a shortcut home he had taken a thousand times. He jumped and grabbed the top of a tall chain link fence with both hands. Another sound joined the deep hum of the approaching industrial drone–similar, but higher pitched. Still hanging, Jack looked over his shoulder. The Scouts had turned into the street, crawling toward him in a straight line. The rectangular drone bays on their sides had opened, and Jack watched as a dark blur shot from each, hovered for a moment, then flew at him like arrows through the darkness.

Jack’s feet scrambled against the fence and he hoisted himself up. As he swung his legs over the top, one of the Scout drones collided with the back of his head and sent him flailing forward. The leg of his jeans caught on a metal barb jutting from the top of the fence. Jack swung down, slamming into the fence hard enough to knock his breath out. His pants ripped and he fell the remaining distance to the ground, gasping for air as he somersaulted forward onto his back.

Darkness and confusion flooded Jack’s senses. His head pounded. The drones sounded muffled, like he was hearing them under water. Two dark shapes swam through the air above him, joined by a third shadow high above. As his breathing returned to normal and the shrill hum of the drones came back into focus, Jack heard the sound of jangling metal–like the sound of a loose, rattling chain. Something up there was coming down at him, fast. His eyes widened and he rolled to the side, feeling the ground shudder from a monstrous impact. He looked back and saw the industrial drone’s massive vice claw, buried deep in the lawn where he had been laying but a moment ago. The section of fence Jack had climbed was gone–shredded, crushed, and buried. The industrial drone’s chain tightened and the vice claw receded, raining chunks of metal, dirt, and sod into the giant pit left behind as the drone reeled it in.

In a panic, Jack struggled to his feet and rubbed the back of his head where the Scout drone had hit him. They were trying to kill him! He didn’t dare attempt another fence jump, but he needed to do something–he needed to find cover. The smaller drones blocked escape through the damaged fence, and the doors and windows on the house were all shut and certainly locked tight. His eyes landed on a wooden tool shed in the corner. He didn’t think it would stand much abuse from the vice claw, but he didn’t know what else to do. He stumbled across the lawn, ducking to narrowly avoid another Scout drone attack. He pulled at the shed’s door. A thick metal latch near the top clacked against the lock holding it shut. Jack screamed in frustration and slammed the shed with his fists. His heart pounded. High pitched buzzing sounds converged behind him. Tears flooded his eyes as he turned, blurring his view of the hovering Scout drones. He felt so pathetic and helpless. He thought about his mom, his dad, his baby sister. Would they miss him?

The drones burst forward. Jack backed into the shed, closed his eyes, and waited.

A loud bang, an explosion, shrieking metal, and a shower of sparks inches from his face greeted Jack as he opened his eyes in shock.

“Come ‘ere boy! Run!”

Jack looked to where the voice had come from. The back door of the house was open; in it stood a gray-bearded man wearing faded striped pajamas and holding a shotgun with a smoking barrel. Warm light spilled from the house as the man urgently gestured at Jack with his free arm.

“Quick! Before more of ‘em show up!”

Jack’s heart leapt and a wave of relief washed over him. He laughed, causing the tears in his eyes to shake free and stream down his cheeks. He took a step toward the house; toward the man who had saved him; toward the warm, welcoming light; and toward safety.

As suddenly as the man had appeared, he was gone. Replaced by an explosion of splintered wood, shattered glass, twisted sheets of vinyl siding, and the metallic sheen of the industrial drone’s vice claw. Jack raised his arms instinctively to shield himself as shrapnel from the demolished house rained down around him. He watched in a daze as the giant claw lifted from the rubble, swinging back and forth like a pendulum. A human arm in the tattered remains of a faded striped pajama sleeve hung from the pincers, gripping a bent, ruined shotgun as it sprinkled blood onto the wreckage below.

Jack’s stomach wrenched. Someone was screaming. He took a step back and stumbled on something behind him. He landed on his back, listening to the screams, not even aware that he was their source. The stars in the sky swirled, blurry through his welled up tears. It felt like the world was closing in–like he was trapped in a small box and couldn’t move even if he mustered the courage to try. The lid of the Amazon Scout slid shut, sweeping the maelstrom of stars away until only darkness remained.

Two Scouts rolled out of the yard into the empty lamp-lit streets, one leaving a dark wet streak across the asphalt as it went. A neural network at the Washington Post generated a news story. It described a freak meteorological event that destroyed part of a house–a gruesome but entirely natural tragedy that killed a man and shocked an entire neighborhood.

The next day, Mohammed and Wendy sat at the back of homeroom, glancing with idle curiously at Jack’s empty desk as the morning bell rang.

“Were you able to return the projector?” Wendy whispered to Mohammed.

Mohammed shook his head. “Nah, no returns,” he said with a sigh.

“Jack was right,” whispered Wendy. “You should leave a bad review.”

Mohammed nodded.

Wendy’s phone listened.

The Walled Garden

Zachery tosses a pine cone and watches it arc through the air between the trees before splashing into the river rapids and vanishing from sight. His eyes travel up from the water to the grey mountain cliff in the distance–part of the wall that enclosed the entire preserve.

“Why do we gotta go on this stupid hike anyway?” he complains. He swats at a mosquito and scowls.

Dad’s on the phone. He’s been on the phone since before they even got to the nature preserve, having paused his conversation just long enough to scan the tickets on his phone at the main entrance of the enclosure.

“Quit complaining,” sighs Dad. “Mom says I don’t spend enough time with you, so here we are. You should be happy, not many kids get to experience real nature with live trees and a river and crap like this anymore. This wasn’t cheap, you know. Just try not to annoy me too much, okay? What? No I’m talking to my kid, not you, Larry,” Dad resumes his phone conversation.

Zachery picks up another pine cone and tosses it like the last one. It hits a tree and drops into the leafy undergrowth. Something rustles the leaves where the pine cone landed and scurries out. Zachery steps off the path and walks toward the river for a closer look.

“Uh, I see nature all the time,” Zachery calls out to his dad. “Google Classroom makes us do VR nature walks like every week. They’re just like this, only without all the freakin’ bugs!” He swats at another mosquito on his neck and continues to move away from the path, hoping for a glimpse of whatever animal his pine cone had disturbed.

“What? No, it’s just my kid again,” Dad says into his phone. “No, I don’t care what Jacob says. That dinosaur wouldn’t recognize a good opportunity if it crawled right up his ass. He needs to hurry up and die already. The whole firm is disintegrating under his leadership.”

Zachery spots movement near the top of the river bank and moves closer. He peers down over the ledge at the rushing water below, mesmerized by the frothy white rapids and their deep thunderous roar.

“No, of course I don’t mean that. But we have to find a way to get Jacob on board. Hello? Larry? You still there?” Dad looks at his phone. Reception seems fine, but an error message he’s never seen before fills the screen. He dismisses it and goes into his call log to redial. A scream rings out over the roar of the river.

Dad looks up in alarm. “Zach? What happened? Where are you buddy?”

The hiking trail stretches behind him into the distance, empty but for scattered rocks and pine cones and tree roots jutting out of the dirt. He can’t see Zachery. Dad looks through the trees over the top of the steep river bank at the fast-moving water. He hears another scream–muffled this time, from further downstream.

“Oh, fuck!” Dad cries. He shoves his phone in his pocket and sprints through the trees to the river bank and scans the roiling rapids below. He spots Zachery’s red hoodie above the surface rushing away at an alarming pace. He watches small flailing arms; hears another scream.

“Zach!”

Dad is running, leaping over fallen logs, tree roots, and other debris littering the ground along the top of the river bank. His heart pounds and panic saturates every fiber of his body. He doesn’t let the bobbing red hoodie out of his sight as he sprints faster than he knew he could.

“Zach! I’m coming!” Dad screams. His eyes scout ahead, keeping the red hoodie in their periphery. There! The thick trunk of a fallen tree juts out from the edge of the bank and over the water, submerged and held in place by a cluster of boulders near the river’s center. “Zach! The tree! Grab the tree!”

Zachery doesn’t have a choice–his tiny body slams into the boulders and his hoodie snags on a tree branch. Zachery gasps a final soul-crushing scream before blacking out from pain. The water rushes over him and pins him in place.

Dad reaches the fallen tree, pulls himself up, then scampers across the suspended trunk toward his son’s submerged body. He descends the tree quicker than seems safe, until the river crashes against his shins, forcing him to slow down and take more care. Not once does he take his eyes off the flashes of red hoodie beneath the angry white foam of the rapids.

Time passes in a blur. Dad’s hands grip his son’s thin arms. He pulls Zachery free of the river. He doesn’t remember the return trip, or the limpness of his son’s body cradled tight in his arms. Nor does he remember desperately performing CPR–the feel of the tears rolling down his cheeks as he blew air into his son’s mouth, compressed his chest, pleaded out loud to the trees, the river, the last remnants of a planet that no longer existed to please, please oh god, don’t let him die. All he remembers is that quiet choking gasp as Zachery’s heart resumed beating and his lungs replaced water with air.

Dad runs his hand through his son’s hair, sobbing hard for the first time since he was Zachery’s age.

“Dad?” Zachery’s voice comes out a whisper.

“Don’t worry buddy, everything’s going to be okay.” Dad strokes Zachery’s hair again, then retrieves his phone from his pocket. He swipes up and finds the Google medevac app and opens it. The same error from earlier greets him. He dismisses the error and tries the app again. No luck.

“Fuck,” Dad mutters under his breath. He loads up his contacts and dials Mom. He winces and feels the panic returning at the labored sound of Zachery’s breathing.

“Hey, why you calling? You haven’t lost him in the woods have you?” Mom’s voice teases over the phone.

“Send a Google medevac to my location. Fast,” Dad says.

“What? Oh god, what happened?” Mom says. The urgency in Dad’s voice frightens her.

“Just order the medevac. Get my location details from the call. Meet at the E.R.”

“What happened!?” Mom yells.

“Medevac!” Dad yells back. “Now!” He hangs up.

“Dad, I’m scared.” Zachery’s voice is hoarse, wavering, and so quiet.

“Daddy’s here bud, you’re going to be okay,” Dad says, sounding more sure than he feels.

There’s a bend in Zachery’s leg where there shouldn’t be. Dad pulls his Swiss army knife from his pocket–the one piece of gear he brought with him to the nature preserve; not because he thought he might need it, but because he thought Zachery would think it a neat relic from the past. He delicately lifts the soaked fabric of Zachery’s pants and uses the knife’s scissors to cut the cloth. Dad nearly wretches at the sight of white bone protruding from Zachery’s pale, bloody flesh. What was he supposed to do now? Do you push the bone back in? Will that hurt? Do you make a splint? How do you make a splint? Dad’s mind races and heart aches.

Zachery’s eyes are closed, his breathing raspy and labored. Dad rolls Zachery’s shirt up. A dark purple stain under the skin mars the exposed chest beneath. What does that mean? Cracked ribs? Internal bleeding? That’s really bad, right?

Dad looks up, away from his broken son laying in the dirt, trying hard to swallow the panic that threatens to consume him. He sees a blurry glint of metal in the sky, clears his tears away with his hands, and squints. The medevac drone!

The drone arrives in seconds, navigating its way to a clear spot above the river bank. It lands and the cabin door slides open. Dad rolls Zachery’s shirt back down, then cradles and lifts his son in his arms. Zachery moans as spikes of searing pain rip through his leg and chest.

Dad scrambles to the drone and climbs into the cabin. He lays Zachery down on the small metal platform extending from the cabin wall. The door slides shut and there’s a slight shudder as the drone lifts off. “Please state the nature of the medical emergency,” a woman’s voice fills the cabin.

“My son, he’s had an accident. His leg’s broken, and I think his ribs. I don’t know how bad it is. He nearly drowned and he’s not breathing right. Please, help him!”

“Remain calm,” says the woman’s voice. “Are you a Google Platinum Plus member?”

“Yes,” says Dad. He looks at his son. His heart pounds.

“This drone is equipped with fully automated medical facilities,” says the voice. “Please scan your phone and link your Google account to begin emergency life-sustaining procedures while we transport you to the nearest Google emergency clinic.”

Dad pulls out his phone. “How long to the clinic?” he asks as he swipes his phone over the scanner on the cabin’s wall.

“The nearest Google emergency clinic is eight minutes away, and has an estimated wait time of zero hours,” says the voice.

Dad sighs with relief. “It’s gonna be okay Zach, you’re gonna be okay.” Dad is starting to believe that himself. The panic begins to ebb.

The woman’s voice cuts through the cabin. “Sorry, your Google account has been suspended.”

“What?” Dad is momentarily stunned. “No, that’s a mistake.”

“The nearest public emergency clinic is 42 minutes away and has an estimated wait time of 3.5 hours. Do you want to reroute?”

“What!? No. We’re going to the Google clinic. Help my fucking son, god damn it!” Dad feels heat rising in his cheeks.

“Remain calm. This drone’s medical facilities and Google emergency clinics are only available to active Google Platinum Plus members,” says the voice.

“I’m a fucking member!” screams Dad.

“Dad? I’m scared,” Zachery’s voice trembles. His eyes are still closed.

The panic and rage inside Dad threaten to split him apart.

“Sorry, your Google account has been sus…”

“Then open a new fucking account!” Dad interrupts the voice. “I’ll pay for another subscription. I’ll pay for ten subscriptions. Just help my son!”

“Remain calm,” says the voice–Dad is getting sick of hearing that phrase. “Opening additional accounts to circumvent suspensions is against Google’s terms of service, and will result in the immediate termination of all related accounts.”

Dad breaks. He falls to his knees and clasps his hands in front of his face. “Please, for the love of god, just help my son!” Tears flow down his cheeks as he begs. “I’ll pay whatever it takes.”

“This drone’s medical facilities are only available to active Google Platinum Plus members.”

Dad slumps to the floor, defeated. He never knew that eight minutes could feel so long.

The drone lands, and Dad rushes out to the emergency clinic door with Zachery in one arm and his phone outstretched on the other. He swipes the phone across the reader next to the door.

Like nails dragged across a blackboard, a voice emits from the reader–the same voice from the drone. “Sorry,” it says, “your Google account has been suspended. This emergency clinic is only available to active Google Platinum Plus members.”

“Suspended for what!?” screams Dad. His muscles tighten and Zachery moans. Dad inhales deeply, trying to control his emotions and relax his tense, trembling arm. “There has been a mistake,” Dad says. “I am an active member. This is a medical emergency–you can’t do this to me. Please, open the door.”

“Sorry, your Google account has been suspended. This emergency…”

“May I please speak to a human being?” Dad interrupts. Behind his calm voice is a seething ocean of blood-red fury. “I don’t know why you think my account is suspended, but there’s been a mistake. I need to talk to a person. I need to get in. My son is dying.”

“Did you say you wish to appeal your account suspension?” asks the voice.

“Yes!” exhales Dad. “For fuck’s sake, yes.”

A moment passes.

“After reviewing your appeal, Google has determined that your account cannot be reinstated due to repeated violations of anti-hate speech policies. Your Google account has been terminated.”

In shock, Dad looks at Zachery in his arm–barely breathing, shirt smeared with caked-on mud, pants shredded and bloody–broken beyond hope. The weight of insurmountable despair comes crashing down, and Dad sinks to his knees. All the birthday parties he spent holed away in his office; all the skipped school and sporting events; all the I can’ts, not nows, and don’t bother mes. He’d peppered countless disappointments across his son’s short time on this Earth, and now this–the ultimate failure as both a father and a human being. His son laying there, nearly dead in his arm, and not a god damn thing he can do about it.

Dad looks at his phone in disgust, and tosses it into the street. The phone clatters across the asphalt. A passing Google rideshare pod crushes it as he watches.

A hissing noise draws Dad’s attention. He turns back to the clinic door. It’s open! A boy stands in the doorway, gawking down at Zachery.

“Dad! Look!” the boy cries.

A man talking on his phone walks up behind the boy. His eyes go wide when he spots what his son is pointing at. “Oh my god!” says the man. “What happened?”

Dad doesn’t answer. He is on his feet, pushing past the man and rushing into the Google clinic. He sprints down the hallway, brushing past closed privacy curtains left and right until he spots the first open one. He rushes in and lays Zachery down on the Google Autodoc, then closes its clear plastic lid. He notices that his son’s chest no longer rises and falls. But it’s okay, it’s not too late–the Autodoc can still save him.

Dad glares at the Autodoc’s scanner. The small screen and blinking lights beckon him to swipe his phone. Shaking his head, Dad rushes out and throws back the privacy curtain surrounding the adjacent occupied room. He sees a girl in the Autodoc, not much older than Zachery. A woman–the girl’s mother?–sits nearby with a worried expression on her face. The woman looks up, startled by Dad’s sudden appearance. Dad doesn’t speak; he charges the woman and grabs her purse. The woman gasps and struggles, but Dad overpowers her and shoves her onto the floor.

“You monster! What are you doing?” the woman screams. “Help! Somebody help!”

Dad ignores her, fishing through the purse until he finds what he’s looking for. With the woman’s phone in hand, he tosses her purse aside.

“I’m sorry, I have no choice,” says Dad. “My son is dead.” Saying those words out loud summons a sudden overpowering sense of grief. He chokes back the urge to wail and turns to leave.

Zachery’s Mom stands in the hallway, staring back at Dad with wide, frightened eyes.

“What did you say!?” asks Mom. “Where’s Zach?”

Dad grabs Mom by the wrist and pulls her to where Zachery’s bloody and battered body lays motionless in the Autodoc. Mom shrieks and presses her hands against the clear plastic when she sees.

“Zach! Oh god Zach! What happened? What did you do… What did you…” her outburst fades into incoherent sobs.

Dad shakes her shoulder and points at the Autodoc’s scanner. “Phone!” he screams. Mom looks down, confused for a moment, then comprehends. She pulls her phone out of her pocket and swipes it across the scanner. Mom and Dad stand together, watching their lifeless son. Waiting. Hoping. The scanner flashes. Dad sighs, it will all be better soon.

“Sorry.” That infernal woman’s voice. Dad’s neck muscles twitch. His fists clench. “Your Google account has been terminated. This Autodoc’s services are only available to…”

“What?” Mom screams. She slams her fists against the Autodoc’s lid. “Turn on! Turn on! Save him!”

Mom slides to the floor, crying uncontrollably. Dad looks at his fists, still clutching the other woman’s phone. He swipes it over the scanner. The phone vibrates, and the image of an oversized fingerprint flashes across its screen.

Mom and Dad both look at the glowing fingerprint, then toward the adjacent room. Dad reaches into his pocket. The Swiss army knife feels cold against the palm of his hand.

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