Automata by Jacob Fiott
The night was vibrant. There was an electricity in the air that was tangible, and yet, there was something about it that felt dead. The city was visibly active in those dark hours, with people going about their individual activities, always the same, unchanging. Some were taking selfies, some were listening to music, some were just idling away watching videos. Pubs, offices and all kinds of buildings were bustling with people, many of whom were staring at one screen or another. The world was full of them, screens that is, all showing something, promoting some brand, praising some smiling individual. All of them built for one purpose, to ensnare the mind and show only the favourable truth. And amidst all this bustle were three masked people. Two adults, a father and a mother, and a child. Shrouded in shadows they walked silently between buildings, avoiding the line of sight of anybody they came across. Sometimes they had to duck or swerve to avoid the cameras lining the city streets. They had to be quiet and stealthy. They were trying to make their way to a nearby river, to a boat owned by a fisherman and his son, whom they had learned about through a radio broadcast before all methods of electronic communication were compromised. It was waiting to carry them off to an island far away from this technological trap. An island with no phones, no televisions, no screens, no virus. Paradise. They had almost made it, but the boy could not walk any longer and he nearly collapsed from exhaustion, his legs half buckling beneath him.
“Dad, why do we have to walk for so long? Are we there yet?” “We’ll get there soon sonny, it ain’t far off now.” He looked at his son, his face red with exhaustion and slick with sweat. His heart broke, having to watch his son go through this pain and trouble, but he assured himself that it was for the best, because he knew the alternative. The parents helped the boy to a nearby skip so that he could sit for a while without being seen. “Why do we have to leave?” the boy whispered, tiredness and sadness both evident in his tone. “It is no longer safe here.” Whispered the mother. “You know what happened. If we stay, we lose our humanity. Here, drink this.” She handed him a small canister of water and gently stroked a lock of hair away from his eyes.
“But I don’t know what happened! Not really. All I know is that the world somehow went to crap, and I’m caught in the middle of it. What happened?” Tears were trickling down his cheeks now. He took a swig from the canister.
“We don’t have time. Not now.” said the father. “Come on sonny, up on my back you go. I’ll carry you and explain on the way. And mind your language. Just because the world’s lost its head doesn’t mean you have to lose your manners.”
They helped the boy climb on top of his father’s back and off they went, getting closer and closer to the river.
“We never quite found out who did it, or why, and we can only assume when it started. All we know is how.” said the father. “They call it the Aergia virus, after the Greek personification of idleness I think. A fitting name really. The virus was spread digitally somehow. Some computer experts used to say that whoever they were that started it must have been a powerful bunch; some computer wizards with a keyboard, a smart brain and a cruel heart. They hacked big internet companies to gather data from people’s searches to see what the general population liked and lured the people with infected advertisements and popups. These computer wizards managed to hide some kind of code in the advertisements that, once seen, locks the brain, the world’s most magnificent computer, in a perpetual state of screen addiction and idleness. Those affected by the virus seem to lose all motivation to do anything other than sit around and look at screens. They seem to be absorbed, drained of all life. If those that are infected ever do something, it is only because the super hackers order them to do it through a message on some screen. Otherwise they just wander about from screen to screen.”
“But the city seems so active tonight. So many people walking about, all seeming so happy.” noted the boy.
“They’re just looking for screens.” emphasized the mother. “Laughing, walking, it’s all just muscle memory when they’re afflicted. Most continue to act like regular people, especially if they used to work in the television industry. The doctors used to theorize that it was just to help spread the virus, as the code started randomly popping up on various channels, even during live filming. They’re not happy sweetie. They’re alienated. There’s a big difference between being happy and being alienated. You only need to look at their eyes to see it. They’re desperate. They want out, but many of them were raised with screens in their hands since the day they were born. Others were distracted from reality by what was next on TV. The virus sealed their fate. They’re victims, but all we can do now is escape the same fate.”
They could see the river now, if you could call it that. It was more like a giant, man-made channel to direct water to the sea to the west. “Ain’t this a pity. I remember a time when we used to go to the riverside, and there’d be an actual river, with sand and soil and trees, birds chirping overhead. This ain’t a river. This is a concrete sewer. Guess beggars can’t be choosers though huh?” said the father. He could feel his son tensing up. The boy always had a fear of water, and now they were about to subject themselves to its mercy. “Don’t worry sonny. It will be over before you can say the word boat.”
“There they are! I can see them! Right there behind the barrier. That has to be them.” exclaimed the mother excitedly. “Let’s get out of this hell hole.”
“I’ll drink to that, ma’am.” replied the father, his excitement equalling that of his wife.
“Guys hold on a second.” said the boy. “We’ve gone through quite a lot to get here.” he said whilst sliding off his father’s shoulders. “I want to remember this moment.” He slid his fingers into his jacket pocket and proceeded to pull out a mobile phone. “Line up guys. Time for a selfie.”
“Where’d you get that?” asked the father, terrified.
“I found it on our way here.” The boy could see the look of fear in his parents’ eyes. “Don’t worry. I only turned it on like ten minutes ago. I haven’t even connected to the internet yet. This is a big moment and I want to remember it.”
The previously dark and quiet buildings on either side of the river now came to life, slowly lighting up one by one.
“They can track you using the phone. They’re connected to every screen. They can use that phone against us! What have you done?!” cried the mother. P.A. systems in various buildings rang, and a cacophony of voices, some so distorted they sounded inhuman, blasted out into the night sky shrieking three drawn out words.
” We see yoouuuu! ”
The mobile phone vibrated, and an advertisement popped up. The father swung his arm a full half circle, swatting the phone out of his son’s hand. It struck the concrete floor and shattered into a million black shards of glass, metal and plastic.
A booming laugh came out of the P.A. systems and echoed off the walls of the buildings. The image on an electronic billboard flickered and distorted. It was quickly replaced with a chilling message, flickering every now and then into static. “GET. THEM.” it read. Half a minute later faces started popping out of everywhere. Every doorway, every window, every street. They were all quickly filled with people on their phones chanting in unison “Join us! Join us!”. The infected marched in near perfect unison towards the trio. They fought back. They shoved, pushed, kicked and bit. Blood was shed, not all of it theirs.
The infected grabbed the boy and dragged him into the fray, ads and pop ups ready to infect him. In their frenzy to get out, they saw the fisherman’s son charging in like a bull. He was screaming like a madman, brandishing a pipe. As he swung the pipe, it connected and someone went flying backwards. He swung it again and someone crumbled to the ground. He pulled the boy back with one arm whilst beating the infected back with the pipe in the other. “Run to the boat! It is ready! I’ll be right behind you!” he screamed, his voice barely audible over the chaos. They ran. For anything they held dear they ran like mad. They got on the boat, but as soon as the fisherman’s son was about to do the same, he was yanked back into the horde. He was gone. The fisherman started steering the boat down the river whilst the infected fell one after the other into the river in their mad pursuit of the uninfected. The old fisherman remained silent, steadfast in his efforts to save the remnants of humanity, but his tears, as they mixed with the water in the river, spoke infinite volumes as they drove the boat to salvation.