Science Fiction Coming of Age Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

Discussion of a war.

“Hello? Is this the party to whom I should be speaking?”

“It must be for you,” says my mom. On a landline? I’m thinking. Mom is baking chocolate chip cookies and I’m getting ready to go. To get a cookie and still get out the door is the objective. An unexpected phone call isn't going to be helpful.

I fumble with the phone while slipping my jacket on, shoes sidling away from my feet, need my hands for those! No speakerphone, ancient contraption this thing, hideous yellow with festooned buttons. At least there was a long cord, I can drape that where I need it to be.

“We were wondering if you would like to take a survey. We will pay for your time. Are you interested?”


“It pays a hundred dollars.”

Now a hundred dollars could just as well be a thousand! Unemployed computer programmer. How those words do not go together! Yet here I was living at home, with Mom.

“Mr. Jordan?”

“Are you sure you have the right person?”

“Mr. Jordan, 295 Elmvale Crescent?”


“Well, Mr. Jordan, as a goodwill gesture and to demonstrate that we are serious, we will send five dollars to your bank account just for talking to us. The remaining ninety-five dollars will be remitted when we receive your survey.”

“Uh-huh.” Mom was waving a chocolate chip cookie in front of my nose. My cell phone was vibrating too. I cradle the phone handset between my shoulder and head and sit down while simultaneously fishing my cell out of my pants pocket. Emma is leaving a message.

“What is your email address?”


“We’ll send the five dollars through Interac.”

And they were legit. Five dollars for answering the phone. The survey was stupid, with lots of bogus questions asking me for my opinion. The ninety-five showed up later.


Jeff was such an idiot. Starting up a computer biz in his dad’s garage!

“You are a dufus! Steve Jobs did this back in the last millennium! It’ll never work!”

He eyed me while fussing with a motherboard. I could swear it was the Asus board I helped him install five years ago, AMD processor, Nvidia 1060 video card or was it a 1080? Whatever.

“I have to keep busy,” he says. “This old hardware could be worth something especially now that China is blockading Taiwan.”

“Are you serious? A couple of hundred tops! Are you even sure this old stuff still works?”

He dropped the memory chips he was installing back on the antistatic pad. “I’ve got to keep busy you know. What do you do?”

“I answer surveys! Do you want me to set you up?”

“Does it pay?”

“You’re damn right it does!”


My mystery caller wanted me to be a regional contact. They wanted me to sign up certain people. They thought I could get some of my dad’s old work friends to answer surveys. I couldn’t track those people down but the money kept showing up just the same. But I had to say, the questions were getting harder. And the error checking. That was on me too. It got so I asked that everything be emailed so I could take my time and get things right. Surveys were being rejected and sent back to me. How did they know that I wasn’t being careful with my answers?

“You didn’t call me last night,” sighed Emma.

“I was busy with my new job!”

Emma was getting ready to go out. With me of course. I was starting to wonder if she would stick around because I had been out of work for so long. We walked to her car.

“Todd's Treats? That’s where we are going?” I asked.

“Yeah, Jeff and Sarah are already there.”

“What is this? Seventh grade over again?”

She didn’t take her eyes off the road. “I lost my job you know.”

“You too! It’s that damn artificial intelligence! I just know it!”

But she didn’t want to talk about it. We entered, and Jeff and Sarah are toying with shakes. The floor was filthy, and fries were everywhere. We must have just missed the food fight. Emma and I slide into the cubicle.

“Aren’t you having anything?” Jeff asked.

“Here? Are you joking?” I said.

Jeff shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

Sarah was quiet. Her sad face trumped Emma’s glum looks. What a great evening we were going to have. Jeff got tired of the silence.

“The Gerald R Ford carrier got hit by Chinese missiles today. I heard it on the news.”

“Dong-Feng 21 missiles? Was it ten that hit her or fewer than that?” I said.

“Latest report. Fewer. Only a couple. The strike group downed the others. USS Normandy got hit too. I would guess that the whole fleet had to veer off, returning to port. But I'm just guessing."

“USS Normandy is a really old ship.”

Emma got angry. “So, all you guys want to talk about is war with China?”

“No, that’s not all!” I huffed. “Look you should start answering these surveys I’m getting…”

“No way!” Sarah interrupted. “Those surveys are creepy! My dad got one. They ask way too many personal questions.”

Sarah’s dad was the mayor of our town. That was weird.


I still talked to my mom. Yeah, not cool, but it was the thing to do with Dad gone. She is stuck in the past. Doesn’t even own a cell phone. It was like the day Dad left was the end of everything.

“How much money have you made?” she asked the next night, cradling a tea in her favorite easy chair.

“Three hundred dollars!” I grinned. “But they keep rejecting this last one. I can’t get them to accept it.”

“What is the name of the company you work for?”

“I don’t know. They never said.”

Mom frowned. “Well, how will you pay your taxes if you don’t even know who you are working for?”

“Mom everything will be alright. The money is in the bank. I’m already spending it.” Here I am working on my laptop, and she is grilling me! Mom took a sip of her tea and sighed.

“Your father would never approve of this you know.”

I didn’t answer. Yeah, my dad, the spook. Always paranoid. He thought we didn’t know about his job, what he did for the CIA, but he’d leave stuff around the house. And we weren’t stupid. It wasn’t that hard to figure out.

We were quiet for a long time. Mom knew she had overstepped. She didn’t want to fight again. It was always the same thing; my life and where it was not going.

“Try one of those questions on me. Maybe I could help.”

I nod. “Ok, this one is a doozy. Why did you not go to university?”

“That’s not a fair question for a survey! Do you have to write a paragraph or something?”

I shake my head. “No that’s the weird part. And what is even weirder is one of the answers I can check off says something about Dad leaving as the reason for why I didn’t go!”


I finally quit that survey thing. It was too much. They sent me another survey full of questions about my friends and relatives. Mom said it was like the survey people wanted me to gossip about the people I knew. Gossip. What an odd word. I didn’t feel uncomfortable about it except that just like the question about why I didn’t go to university, the answers I could check about the people I knew were so personal. Like the survey was set up with things that no one should even know about except the people who were closest to me!

Sarah was right. This was too creepy. I regretted getting involved. Then one day there was a knock on the door. Right around supper time. Two police officers with a warrant.

“Are you Mr. Jordan?”


“You are under arrest.”


One officer handcuffs me and the other steps into Mom’s house. Mom is so upset. She starts crying.

“Where are you taking him?”

“Ma’am, there is a war on you know. Where is Mr. Jordan’s laptop?”

She goes into the living room and returns with it. She was trembling and nearly dropped it when she handed it over.


Civil liberties were suspended. No one read me my rights. The scuttlebutt at the station was that China’s invasion of Taiwan was on and that young men my age would be called up for military service. But that was not why I was arrested.

“Do you work for the CIA?” One police detective was in the interrogation room with me. Classic. I had seen it on so many TV shows.

“I want a lawyer! My lips are sealed!”

“Listen you young punk! Everyone is in on this. Now you either answer my questions or stuff you could not imagine might start to happen. Do you work for the CIA?”

“My father did. I don’t know where he is.”

“Fine. I doubt the CIA would employ someone like you anyway. Now about this laptop. You have been collaborating with the enemy…”

“Stupid questions on surveys is collaboration?” I sputtered. “What next? Will you start arresting people for watching TikTok videos?”

He smiled. “That’s a Chinese company. We might do that. Wait and see.”


My life was under a cloud for the longest time. Years later I learned what was really going on. Artificial intelligence was being used to gather even more information about people than could be obtained from social media or the internet. Something no one hardly even understood was being used in a war. To do this, artificial intelligence processed unbelievable amounts of information. Everything was being looked at and analyzed in a way that even millions of experts could not do. When you used your laptop or cell phone to answer survey questions, everything on your device went to China too! This shows us one thing and one thing only. Something people had been doing for a very long time had changed for the worse. As that old saying goes, "Gossip is a wildfire that spreads destruction."

May 27, 2023 05:39

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Susan Catucci
17:19 Jun 08, 2023

Gossip is a wildfire that spreads destruction. This is one frightening cautionary tale - let's hope it's still "cautionary" at this stage. We don't know what we don't know - and that's scary, too. I've noticed in "real life" that crime tends to ride the wave of technology. Criminals keep up with changing times according to what they think they can get away with. Seems to be a natural component of human nature, take advantage of what's available. Maybe we should exchange "information" for "gossip" in that wonderful line of yours. ...


Joe Smallwood
20:11 Jun 08, 2023

Hello Susan! What a long review. Thank-you. Yes as I was saying to Wally, I never had a story that I wrote scare me as much as this one did. Except for "My Stealth Assassin." Writing that one actually made me ill. But thanks again for the encouragement!


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Wally Schmidt
13:34 Jun 07, 2023

I feel like this is already happening and the future is here! Really thought you captured the insanity of what the world has become and how quickly things have evolved in the tech space and how we may not yet realize the consequences of all the personal information that we are constantly putting out there. I was really drawn in by the writing and the plot but felt like the last paragraph pulled me out of the story a tad because you started explaining what happened instead of letting the reader experience it like you did in the previous parag...


Joe Smallwood
18:16 Jun 07, 2023

Hi Wally thanks for reading. To tell you the truth Survey Says! scared me. I didn't realize it while I was writing it, but upon reflection it is obvious to me now. I would look at that last paragraph and I knew there was something wrong with it, but let it be almost to reassure myself. Like I needed to put the nightmare to bed or add closure. Weird.


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Viga Boland
14:42 Jun 04, 2023

Fascinating take on the prompt. I’m surprised I didn’t figure out what was going on till you told me. Either I’m just old and slow or you did an excellent job building us up for the big reveal. I’ll go with the latter. 😉


Joe Smallwood
15:35 Jun 04, 2023

Hello Viga, Thanks for reading and for your kind words. Artificial intelligence and what it is capable of is all very new. I read stories on here that astonish me they are so good. Then I look at what I am capable of and it is kind of hit and mostly miss. So thanks very much for the encouragement! I'll pay you a visit and have a look at something you have written. 😄


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Zatoichi Mifune
06:50 Jun 04, 2023

Is it fair to love 2 stories on the same prompt? Probably not, but I can't help loving this so I'm not going to care about that rule! Love it love it love it. Can I say it enough? Love the characters, love the simple, mundane-turned-sinister theme, love the writing, in short - Love it.


Joe Smallwood
11:28 Jun 04, 2023

Hi there Zatoichi! Thanks for liking my story, Survey Says! I've read your bio. If I were you, I'd just jump in. The water is fine. I wouldn't be too worried about your writing style. I'm all over the place myself. If you want to read a story of mine with a completely different style from Survey Says! have a look at "What Will Be." Anyway, thanks again for the comment. It put a smile on my face. 😊


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Helen A Smith
20:30 Jun 03, 2023

This made for great reading Joe. Spookily likely to be happening right now. Something seemingly innocent took on sinister overtones simply because the MC wanted to earn money. Very current and relevant topic. Also, thought the characters were well-drawn, especially the mother.


Joe Smallwood
03:01 Jun 04, 2023

Thanks a lot Helen! You are so encouraging.


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12:01 Jun 03, 2023

Such an interesting concept. The protagonist was so concerned with being able to make ends meet that he scarcely questioned what he was giving away in the name of financial gain until it was too late. Cool.


Joe Smallwood
14:35 Jun 03, 2023

Thanks, S N. I wanted to write a story about what artificial intelligence might do to millions of us in the near future. Thanks for the positive feedback about the central theme.


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Chris Miller
20:31 May 27, 2023

In the information age gossip is currency. And once AI gets going, well, you can't put that toothpaste back in the tube. It's a really believable scenario Joe. Like the things Dave Eggers picks out in The Circle and The Every, mundane things that are already happening but might have consequences that we don't appreciate yet.


Joe Smallwood
03:07 May 28, 2023

Thanks so much for your comment Chris! It means a lot to me.


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Mary Bendickson
20:10 May 27, 2023

Beware. You are being watched!👀


Joe Smallwood
03:07 May 28, 2023

Hi there Mary. I so look forward to you reading my stuff!


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