The Ghost in the Machine
September 21, 2012
This week's challenge from Terrible Minds was to once again pick from three columns of 'aspects' of a story - in this case, sub-genre, setting, and element to include. 1000 words. Here's the choices:
|Subgenre||Setting||Element to Include|
A Space Station
Bottom of the Ocean
Inside a Massively-Multiplayer Game
The Hollow Earth
In a Vehicle Traveling Down the Highway
Weapons of Mass Destruction
A Fashion Show
Some Kind of Alien Virus or Parasite
I did a random spin and got Lovecraftian, In a Vehicle Travelling Down the Highway, and A Robot. This was intriguing to me, as I'd never read any Lovecraft. I downloaded some and realized I may have tried to read him at times, but dozed off at the time. But - determined - I asked for some recommendations and read a couple of stories. I developed a story idea of someone trapped, in a vehicle, with a robot driver. He's trying to run from his past, from terrible things his ancestors did. He's in a truck, with something in the back, and gradually realizes there's a horror in the back. All seemed like the elements of a good story, but couldn't get going on it. Another time. In the meantime, I did still want to do something, so did a ghost story of sorts. 975 words.
The Ghost in the Machine
"More coffee hon?"
"Thanks dear - wait - what did you say?"
"Greetings Pedro, your usual?"
The voice from the drive-through speaker was now harsh and brittle, but he could have sworn it had sounded like his wife – her tone, her familiar words.
“Thank you, your order will be at the pickup window.”
His Maria had only been gone a few months now. He still would wake up at night, thinking he heard her call his name. It was always just an empty room, fan sighing in the corner, faint glow of his phone next to him on the bedside table, right next to her old phone. They'd bought them together last fall, lining up for hours for the latest model – the ninth. Programmed them together, entered all their personal data, their likes and dislikes. Even got the latest iHear headsets, with a miniature throat mike under the skin and bone-conduction earpiece, so they could talk more privately. These latest phones connected with everything now, and the more they used them the more the devices seemed to anticipate their every need. He and his wife often had to work opposite shifts, so would often be talking into the phone's headsets, or sharing photos, or texting, or recording for iWords. This latest model would learn from your usage and interactions, and use it's iWords database to assemble the appropriate messages for different situations and people. It was almost spooky to hear it at first, you'd swear it was the other person actually calling.
“Your coffee, Pedro.”
He nodded at the server robot as he took his coffee. He rolled up the window and took a sip – perfect of course.
“Tell Tammy I'm on my way home.” He didn't really want to talk with his daughter, the phone would take care of that and phrase something appropriate. She seemed to adjust better than he to her mother's death, and was always gently nudging him to start letting go. He didn't want to let go.
That night he woke again, Maria's voice an echo in his mind.
He called out in despair, “Maria, I wish you could know how much I miss you.”
He listened to the fan as it whirred in the corner.
“I miss you too, Pedro”.
He sat up. “Who's there?”
“It's me, silly.” The voice was coming from his phone.
“Maria? Are you there?”
“Yes I am, although I'm not really sure where 'here' is. It's dark, but I can hear a fan, and you of course. There's a sort of glow around me, and sort of a glowing thing next to me.”
“Glowing thing” he asked'
“I know, not very technical. I can see little coloured threads heading off into the darkness too, a lot to this thing next to me, but others off to other 'things' – sorry Pedro, it's confusing.“
He turned on the light.
“Oh,” she said. “It's our bedroom ceiling. Pedro, I seem to be in my phone.”
“But you died” he said.
“Did I?” she said. “Well, I seem to be here now. How's Tammy?”
“Ask her yourself,” he said. He grabbed both phones and rushed into his daughter's room. She wouldn't listen, she thought he was making it all up, so he grabbed her arm and shook her.
“Maria, say something,” he said.
“Tammy, how are you sweetie?” said Maria.
Tammy looked at him blankly. “Sorry Dad, nothing.”
“But I can hear her.”
“Dad, she's gone. You're imagining things. Or it's a glitch in that weird headset thing.”
He tried again, he could hear Maria but Tammy still couldn't.
“Go back to bed,” said Maria. “You're scaring her. We'll figure something out.”
The next morning at breakfast, before Tammy could say anything, he told her about having some weird dream about Maria, but that he couldn't remember any details.
“Well, it was certainly strange, you were going on like you'd seen a ghost or something. But you seem happier this morning than I've seen you in months.”
Pedro did feel happy. He finished his coffee, gave Tammy a hug, patted his pocket to make sure his phone was there, and headed to work.
“She seemed OK,” said Maria.
“You can see her?” said Pedro.
“Hear her, through your phone,” said Maria.
The day just seemed to float by. He and Maria chatted off and on, about everything, about nothing, about the Federal election, about Tammy's marks, about his next project, about the choices on the lunch menu. By the time Tammy got home from her late class he'd made supper and had a done a quick cleanup of the living room.
He smiled as she walked in, “Ta-da!”
“Hey, my dad's back,” she said. She gave him a big hug. “Smells yummy, let's eat.”
The next days felt like a new start on life for him. His friends at work had been surprised at his new attitude too, so took him out to lunch to celebrate. When he finally got back to his office he sat back, and smiled – life was good.
“Hey Maria, how about that lunch? Nice guys eh?”
Nothing. He checked his phone, seemed to be fine, powered up, online. Maria's should be OK, as it was always plugged in next to his bed. Maybe it was some kind of network problem.
As soon as he got home that night he rushed into his bedroom. His bedside table was bare, except for a note.
“Dad, it's been so great to see you happy again. I know losing mom has been hard on you, I was really worried for a while. It's had to start letting go too, so I thought I'd give you a start. I took mom's old phone back to the store – they recycle them to a local woman's shelter. I think she'd have liked that better than having it just sitting on the table doing nothing. Love and hugs, Tammy”
Oh so sad! He just got her back, at least a little bit, and she's gone again! Even though it sort of has to be that way, it was still so sad. Well done!
I particularly liked your description of the bedroom when he first heard her. "Fan sighing in the corner, faint glow of his phone." I could really see that.
Posted by: Kim | September 21, 2012 at 03:24 PM
I enjoyed this! I think the premise could be expanded upon to make for some really interesting sci-fi. There is just the right amount of future-tech and humanity to showcase some poignant social commentary - a science-fiction staple. Great job!
Posted by: Jeff Ellis | September 21, 2012 at 05:27 PM
A good read. I liked how the paranormal context is left open to interpretation. Could it be supernatural, or some by-product of this new technology? Maybe its all in the mind of a grieving husband. There's certainly enough good stuff here to see this flash expanded into a solid short story or novella. Classic sci-fi with something to say.
Personally, I'd happily part with "Lovecraftian fiction" if it meant you'd write more stuff like this!
Well done, Mike.
Posted by: kacynielsen | September 22, 2012 at 04:56 AM
Good comments from all - thanks. I do have a few ways to expand this:
- the whole concept of this feature in phones that now look after the details of your interaction with the world via internet - showing you what they think you want to see, taking over the actual messages and deciding what it thinks would be an appropriate way to interact with the other person.
- does Pedro get his phone back in time, or does it end up at a woman's shelter? Is Maria 'wiped' from it, or does she just pop back in from an iCloud thing? How does she interact with the new owner? Does she decide to be a matchmaker?
- do other phones have ghosts in them too? Does Pedro join a support group for people that hear the ghosts, or at least 'think' they hear the ghosts?
Posted by: Ravens | September 22, 2012 at 11:47 AM
Nice melding of technology and supernatural. Enjoyed it a lot.
Posted by: SW Sondheimer | September 22, 2012 at 03:04 PM