Contest #182 shortlist ⭐️

107 comments

Horror Science Fiction Speculative

With any luck I’ll be able to eat today. The food court of the Silver Gardens Mall is notorious for the greasy factory produced shit that corporations insist is technically edible, but a bottom feeder like me doesn’t have much choice.

I see the place is packed with squirming bodies. Seniors, students, families. Lots of have-people. A band of high school boys throwing fries at each other. They don’t even know they’re haves. A couple more years and they’ll learn.

All of this, under the watchful eyes of the PanoptiSafe surveillance system. Beady black golf balls polished to a mirror sheen, spread everywhere, covering walls and hanging from ceilings, like some kind of spores. There’s at least a hundred of them just in this food court.

Out of habit – because I hate myself, because I hate – I check if any of the restaurants are hiring on my phone. Most of the small junk peddlers don’t employ meat anymore. The sit-down Italian Sicilian Dreams does have a flesh-and-blood maître d’, but no postings. I bet she would kill to keep that job.

I sigh.

I open the HeyStreamer app and my thumb hovers over my phone. Finally, I click “Active.” My status changes to green and I’m on the clock. I hear the app’s jingle in my AuralMax ear implants – headphones without needing headphones. HeyStreamer Hannah says, “Welcome! Have a profitable day today.”

I check my enabled channels. Food, yes. Everyone’s in food. Shopping, yes. Errands – boring but steady. Modelling, singing, demonstrations, events, support, pets, extra-ing – okay. I check my list of no’s. Again, as every day, my thumb hovers over sex.

No. Not yet. This is just temporary, until I get a job.

Oh boy, that’s getting harder and harder to believe.

I confirm my channels and close the app. The wait begins.

I take a stroll through the court. “Be visible!” Hannah tells us. “Be interesting!” I reopen the app like an addict and see my viewer list is empty. But due to the PanoptiSafe integration, it does report that 34 cams and 255 mobile devices have an angle on me. Not bad.

I weave between eaters, making exaggerated eye contact and over-friendly greetings. I make ridiculous pantomimes and dance the odd jig. They ignore me and the stench of salted fat makes my stomach rumble.

There’s other streamers doing the same. Our shameful morning ritual. Not FatBen though. He’s already at the donut place, laughing loud and stuffing his craw. Praising the product. He’s branding. I’m glad for him but I also hate him. He’s branding, and I don’t even have a single subscriber.

I check his stream and almost drop my phone. His tip jar is up to $103.25 already, and someone’s started a challenge! All he’s got to do is eat a dozen bear claws in 90 seconds and he’ll earn another $50. My gut roils.

“Hey streamer,” a woman says through my implants. My viewer list says her name’s tanya98145.

“Hey Tanya!” My voice drips with sales cheer. “How are you doing?”

“No chat.” Fine, bitch. Nobody ever wants to chat. How am I supposed to convert subscribers?

“Go to AcroSport,” she says. I see $0.10 appear in my tip jar.

It’s going to be a day.

I pass through the sliding doors of AcroSport and follow her directions. “Left. Right. Past the tennis stuff. Left.”

“Where are we going?”

“No chat.”

She directs me to a wall of Yoga mats, and I get another $0.10 tip. Yay.

“Run your palm along the Minkware one,” she says. “The blue one. Slowly.”

I obey, fondling the rolled up Yoga mat. This is not how I imagined my life, when I was a kid.

“Now do it again, on the Plex-2. Also the blue one. Navy blue!”

I resist sighing.

“Which one feels better?” she asks.

“The Plex-2 is firmer,” I say, “but I like the softness of the first one. Makes me feel welcome.”

“Hmm,” she says. That’s it.

I check my stream and see she’s no longer viewing. Fuck! And she didn’t leave a thank you tip.

Well, since I’m here anyway I check if AcroSport is hiring. Nope. I feel my organs twisting. Nearly 10 AM and all I’ve got is $0.20, which won’t even cover the HeyStreamer fees. Again.

“Hey streamer,” I hear a man’s voice, and with it, a shot of adrenaline courses through my veins. His name is Jack9Jack.

“Hey Jack! How can I serve you today?” Is this another antisocial asshole?

“Wow, love that attitude!” he says, with a laugh and a $1.00 tip. “So, I’m going to need you to buy some things. First off, a golf club. A Maxfield Professional driver.”

My eyes widen. “The thing is, I can’t really afford…”

“Comped.” A feed to his account appears in my stream. Okay, maybe this guy is serious. I have to turn him into a subscriber.

I get the club and buy it, and at the checkout I see I’m up to 7 viewers. “Mm, we’re cooking up something interesting!” I say.

“You bet,” says Jack. 8 viewers.

He tells me to buy a box of chocolates next, and a bouquet of roses – comped. We chat and have a couple laughs as I obey, and my viewer count rises to 26. Tips are up to $31.85 too, so maybe this’ll be a good day after all.

“What do you need this stuff for anyway?” I ask. It’s getting awkward holding the club, chocolates, and bouquet.

Jack laughs. “You’ll see. I’m trying to put something together. Should be worth your while.”

I can’t complain.

“Okay, now go to the north exit to the mall,” he says. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

I find a middle-aged woman sitting on a bench, looking absolutely wrecked. Her eyes are puffy, there’s a crying kid tugging at her arm, and a bag of shopping lies spilled on the floor.

“Looks like she’s had a shit day,” Jack says. “Give her the chocolates. With a flourish.”

I gulp. A quick check tells me she’s not streaming. So, we’re doing candid now, and when you poke a stranger anything can happen. But this has caused a buzz and my viewers are over 100. On with the show.

“My dear madam!” I say with a deep bow. I present the box of chocolates to her, a knight offering treasure to his queen. “Might I interest you in a box of joy?”

She eyes me in her daze. This could go either way, and I hear Jack make an excited sound.

“Thank you!” she finally bursts, blubbering. A moment later she’s hugging me, utterly overwhelmed like nobody’s ever shown her kindness. It’s wet and snotty, but my viewers love it. They’re cheering and the tips are up to $57.01.

What kind of an ass tips a penny?

Anyway, I extricate myself from her grateful grasp, and we part ways.

“You have a bus to catch,” Jack says.

I’m buzzing. I’m seeing the kind of success right now that the blog jockeys all rave about, but us streamers almost never see.

My viewers are chatting, calling me some kind of angel of mercy. I wonder if I can brand that? I can think of worse careers than swooping in and giving sad people chocolate.

“Good news,” says Jack. “It looks like my project’s going through.”

I get on the bus and my fare is comped.

“I want to do an event,” Jack says.

My eyes light up. Events are big business. Ticket sales, advertising, lots of incidental viewers. And always, the chance to go viral. My heart’s hammering as I look for a seat.

“Don’t sit,” he says. “I need to know you’re right for my event.”

“I am!”

“I want you to sing.” He starts a poll in my stream, and the viewers – over 200 now! – pick an older pop piece. Jack comps the rights.

Damn it, why did I ever enable the singing channel? I hate singing and I’m crap at it.

“Sing,” Jack says. “You don’t have to be good, just entertain the bus.” The beats start streaming from the bus’s speakers, the company no doubt getting a cut.

So, I sing.

My voice is rough without a warmup and I can’t really carry a tune. I get eye rolls from some of the passengers who would prefer to do without streamers, but hey, you’re on public transit. You knew what you were getting into.

Some people laugh though, and I put my heart into it. And then, a miracle happens. A group of young people start singing along and the laughter starts catching, and for the next four minutes the bus grows louder and jollier as we all just belt out trash pop.

“You can sit now,” Jack says, when I finish. My viewers are over 500 and my tips are a solid $137.76.

“You’re trending,” he says. “Did you know that?”

He’s right. There’s already some remixes of my stupid little dance out there, driving more viewers.

“So, I’m doing a charity event, and I think you’re perfect for it.”

I laugh out loud, full of nervous relief. “Oh man, that sounds awesome, Jack! I’d love to be an extra.” This is how careers start.

“No. Not an extra. You’re the primary.”

“The primary!?” This is unbelievable. All eyes are on the primary. I’m going to carry the show, and if I do a good job I’ll brand.

Oh, god – I need a name. How can I feel both hot and cold at the same time?

“Yeah, that’s right,” says Jack. “I like your attitude, and I think you’ll be a good fit. So, you interested?”

It takes me a moment to find my voice, but I finally stammer out a “Yeah!”

“Good.” My phone dings. He’s sent me an overview of the event, and tickets are already selling. “So as I said, it’s a charity thing. A guy I know is in a bit of trouble.” He sends me a contract. Jesus, I can’t breathe – I’m projected to sweep about $1500 today! “See, he’s poor, and his grandkid just came down with cancer. The curable kind, but you know. Cures ain’t free. Most of the sales go to medical. You fine with that?”

“Yes! Definitely. It’s a great cause.” I see the breakdown. 10% processing fee, 20% medical, 22% investors – so Jack, presumably – 45% legal mitigation, and then 2% me and 1% extras. Whatever, more money than I’ve seen in years.

“Good. Sign.”

I do.

“Get off at the next stop.”

I do.

“So, what am I going to be doing?”

“You’re an angel of mercy,” Jack says. He chuckles. “I’m really digging that name. You have some great viewers today.”

He directs me down a couple streets. I see a crowd gathered at a basketball court, surrounded on three sides by skyscrapers. The crowd is massive and I feel a shiver. The dream of streaming is millions of eyes, of course, but it’s different when they’re anonymous. This is a live crowd.

“Keep going.”

The crowd parts for me. They cheer. Their noise is intoxicating. Up above I see a banner with “Save Charlie!” written on it, and confetti fills the air.

The centre of the court is clear. There’s an old man and woman there. They look miserable, so I assume this is Jack’s friend. No sign of the kid, but I do see a sound system is set up. I assume I’ll be singing again.

“Give her the flowers.”

With another flourish, I present the roses to the old woman. The crowd cheers. She doesn’t take them though; not right away. She’s halfway to sobbing. The old man whispers something to her and she picks up the bouquet.

I guess cancer’s a hell of a diagnosis, especially for a grandkid. I’m sorry she’s going through that. But hey, we’re here to fix it, aren’t we? I hope she doesn’t ruin my debut, and I hate myself for thinking it.

“Okay, now what?” I say.

The old man hugs the old woman and she steps away from him.

The speakers bounce. Same song as in the bus, only now the cheery bass rattles my bones.

The crowd goes wild.

If it weren’t for my ear implants, I wouldn’t have heard Jack.

“Wave to the crowd,” Jack says. I do. “Medical bills are expensive, but this guy’s going to do whatever it takes to make sure his grandkid gets help. That’s where you come in. Raise your golf club.”

I do. The crowd cheers even louder and the beats keep banging.

“Now, the old man,” Jack says. “Kill him.”

What!?

The crowd is singing the song, a deafening tide of human noise. The old man trembles, but raises his head high with a stiff upper lip. He closes his eyes.

I swear, I think. I don’t know what I say. None of this makes sense.

“Kill him,” Jack repeats. “He’s given consent.”

Someone’s set up a three-stroke challenge in my stream, and the pot’s already at $379.50. Three strokes. Fuck.

“Nobody gets paid,” Jack says, “until the old man dies. So choose. Either he dies, or his grandkid does.”

The bass thumps. The crowd roars. The pot grows. And when I look at him, the old man with his haggard, half-lidded eyes – he nods to me.

“Let’s go viral, angel of mercy,” Jack says.

I raise the golf club.

January 24, 2023 00:12

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

107 comments

Molly Kelash
16:22 Feb 07, 2023

Oh, sweet Jesus, this was chilling! Such incredible world-building in a short space--the perfect Black Mirror episode! Masterful blend of sci fi, comic moments and slow burn to horror, along with so many memorable lines, I wouldn't have room to paste them here. I bow to you, sir.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Story Time
17:30 Feb 06, 2023

Michal, I was actually hoping you would choose this prompt, because I felt like it lent itself to your style of writing, and I wasn't disappointed. Just a great, terrifying read.

Reply

Michał Przywara
02:52 Feb 07, 2023

Thanks, Kevin! It did end up being one of those ideas that demanded to be written. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Kathryn Kahn
16:23 Feb 06, 2023

I loved this story. The technology-dystopia was so well drawn. It reminded me a little of some of Dave Eggers novels, where the characters adapt to always being monitored. And then that very dark turn at the end. Great story.

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:36 Feb 06, 2023

Thank you, Kathryn! Yeah, it was fun venturing into something darker. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Arielle Baines
15:57 Feb 06, 2023

Oh my god. Thank you for sharing! It was good enough to be an episode on one of those shows. The inner dialog you have is just perfect.

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:37 Feb 06, 2023

Thanks, Arielle! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Marty B
00:55 Feb 05, 2023

When going viral is the goal, then the extremes are worth it, even if it brings shame, despair and death. Dark one!

Reply

Michał Przywara
18:06 Feb 05, 2023

Thanks, Marty! Make it or die trying, I suppose :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Philip Ebuluofor
08:50 Feb 04, 2023

Either you it them. One person connected to you must leave. New trend nowadays. Congrats.

Reply

Michał Przywara
17:52 Feb 05, 2023

Thanks, Philip!

Reply

Philip Ebuluofor
08:08 Feb 06, 2023

Welcome.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
V. S. Rose
22:51 Feb 03, 2023

Hi Michal, this piece was beautifully done! I loved the creativity and the slow build of suspense, only to hit that climax towards the end - the one line that jars you and pulls the whole story together. It felt like I was reading a short written by Stephen King. I thought the way you placed language for world building was really well thought out as this can often times be tricky for sci-fi and fantasy. Amazingly well done! Looking forward to reading more of your great work👍

Reply

Michał Przywara
20:12 Feb 04, 2023

Thanks, V. S.! Yeah, definitely right about the world building in sci-fi/fantasy. It's all too easy to start exposition-dumping, so I'm glad this story worked for you. I appreciate the feedback!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Laurel Hanson
20:10 Feb 03, 2023

Well deserved!

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:34 Feb 03, 2023

Thanks!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply

Congratulations on the shortlist, Michał! It was well deserved. This story was incredible, and I’m so happy you got recognized for it!

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:36 Feb 03, 2023

Thank you :) It was welcome news this morning :)

Reply

Hello Michał, I hope I am not bothering you. If you have time, I have another request for your help. I am unsure of the ending of my newest story, "Who Would Dare Suppose?" [The accompanying Polish prisoner assigned to remove the bodies turns and flees the room. Lukas decides he will not summon that one back for a minute or two. It will not take longer for this man to die.] My character, Lukas, is finally seeing the prisoner who is about to be killed as a man, when throughout the whole story Lukas has thought of him, and many others, a...

Reply

Michał Przywara
01:22 Feb 06, 2023

I gave the story a read and left some comments. In short, it works, but I think it could benefit from a specific event that disrupts Lukas's POV. In my comment I suggested when Kolbe initially volunteers, but the songs could do it too. Basically, an event that Lukas finds disturbing, which challenges his views about the prisoners. This justifies his later tiny act of mercy.

Reply

Thank you so much for your quick feedback, Michał. I greatly appreciate it. I did add a bit, a story within the story that Lukas heard from other guards. I think it added a disruption to Lukas’s thoughts, as you suggested. Thank you again for your help. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Amanda Lieser
04:46 Feb 03, 2023

Wow! Michal, I devoured this piece! I immediately felt like I was watching an episode of “Black Mirror” on Netflix. It was absolutely giving technology gone a little bit bad vibes. I think that I loved that the story ultimately is about a person down on their luck. I loved that this person is checking job postings and trying to see what other options they might be able to find along the way. And I loved the way the desperation was portrayed. I felt like this story, just used it, but not in a self righteous way, but in a purely observational ...

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:42 Feb 03, 2023

Thanks, Amanda! I think you got it exactly. That whole "What are you willing to do?" question is fascinating, and it's not entirely fair, is it? Because not everyone starts on the same footing and with the same opportunities, and some people don't have the luxury to say "I wouldn't." You raise a good point with "how much of a persons life are we entitled to". I suppose if it were up to the viewers, we'll take a mile for every inch :) I appreciate the feedback!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Kenneth Kendall
23:54 Feb 02, 2023

Wow! I don't even know what to say. This was fantastic. I am very new to writing and brand new to short stories. This is the first story I have read that I was enthralled by. I felt the darkness building but did not see that ending until it hit me between the eyes. I am so glad I was given this to read through the Critique Circle. It was an absolute pleasure.

Reply

Michał Przywara
03:29 Feb 03, 2023

Thanks, Kenneth! I'm very glad to hear that :) "darkness building" was very much something I wanted to convey, like something sinister at the edge of vision. I appreciate the feedback!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Stevie Burges
09:05 Feb 02, 2023

Not what I was expecting at all. I got taken in by the Angel of Mercy earlier in the story and assumed foolishly you would save the world - but no turned into dystopian and dark - ooooh! Beautifully written but a terrifying story. Will he ever go back to feeling and comparing Yoga Mats after this?

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:44 Feb 02, 2023

Heh, the mats were a thankless job, but it was honest work :) Thanks for reading, Stevie! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Nathaniel Miller
01:57 Feb 02, 2023

Wow - what an interesting, thought-provoking story! The twisted ambiguity at the end, the sheer open-endedness of it all, is just so great. The world you created within the story is very well developed, too, and makes sense. Clearly well thought-out. Having that deep of a world adds a really great level of depth to the story itself; it's clear you're not new to this craft. This is brilliant - I loved every sentence!

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:52 Feb 02, 2023

Thanks, Nathaniel! I'm very glad the world came across clearly. That's always a bit of a risk with sci-fi, though maybe less so with near future stuff. I appreciate the feedback :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Rebecca Miles
06:28 Feb 01, 2023

This is as disturbing as it is important. We could potentially be here in the equivalent of a digital blink of an eye. Your story forces us to face this fact. What are we prepared to stream and monetize; things go viral all the time that are cruel; when you're just treated as " meat", aural implants egging you on with your earning potentials, would you rebrand yourself as an "angel of mercy"? Very Orwell: Ministry of Love and Truth: such hard-hitting irony. What else can I say? If we read, we can engage, think, prevent...reading your story ...

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:47 Feb 01, 2023

Thank you, Rebecca, that's made my day :) "What are we prepared to stream and monetize" - yes, an excellent question. And pretty complex, I wager. It's easy to say "don't do that, it's bad", but if someone has no other options? If food and shelter are on the line? Worth pondering. I appreciate the feedback!

Reply

Rebecca Miles
20:53 Feb 03, 2023

No surprise, take the stand again Michal. This is the story that has stayed with me all week so step up unto that podium and receive the well-deserved applause🤗🤗🤗🤗

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:47 Feb 03, 2023

Thanks :D

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Susan Catucci
15:02 Jan 31, 2023

Okay, I'll elaborate. Soooooooo good, Michal. Sooooooo good. Damn. Okay, I know I can do better. I was really speechless after reading this for the first time. I loved everything about this story - the tone, the subtle build to a stunning realization at the end, the MC walking us through his "world." Frighteningly plausible. It's beautiful work.

Reply

Michał Przywara
00:53 Feb 01, 2023

Thanks, Susan :) Thrilled to hear that! It was a fun one to write, and once the idea hit, it almost wrote itself. Sometimes the stars align.

Reply

Susan Catucci
00:55 Feb 01, 2023

What a lovely gift! I do know what you're saying - when it strikes, it does take the lead and that's the best kind of writing. This one of yours proves it's so. It's humbling, the best kind.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Susan Catucci
15:00 Jan 31, 2023

Damn!

Reply

Show 0 replies
KT George
02:11 Jan 31, 2023

I love the dark. It's my jam, and I half anticipated something like this with the golf club purchase. Great idea. Great descriptions. Very dystopian. A+

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:42 Jan 31, 2023

Thanks, K. T.! I'm glad you enjoyed it :) The club was a little incongruous with the other items, wasn't it? :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Cindy Strube
22:54 Jan 30, 2023

Brrr! Several comments already about “The Lottery” vibes. Horrifying, disgusting, fascinating! It’s mob mentality and Big Brother; each driving the other to mad extremes. I’m a fan of true crime documentaries, where often the ever-growing CCTV army participates in providing evidence. This story just turns that aspect around. Everyone is watching everyone being watched, and instead of revolting against it they’re addicted. Also, futuristic(ish) as it is, it also harks back to Roman arenas. Superb.

Reply

Michał Przywara
01:31 Jan 31, 2023

Thanks, Cindy! That's a couple times the Rome analogy has popped up. Honestly, it wasn't something I consciously included, but looking back on it, I can see it. There's concerns with food, and then of course there's the games. Maybe that really is a universal trait of our species. I think you nailed it with "addicted". Lots has been written about our digital entertainment, and we keep refining the algorithms that keep people glued to the screen. I wonder where it'll all end up.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Hilary R. Glick
22:02 Jan 30, 2023

DAMN! I love that twist. I was hoping for a nice ending, yay curable cancer, but the dark twist was so much more satisfying! LOL! I love a dark read. I am SO invested in this HeyStreamer app, aka the future of DoorDash and Uber. What a brilliant concept and absolutely something wicked humans would take advantage of in no time. This is my favorite type of dystopian / science fiction read, when it is almost so near to our present that it truly rises that line into horror. It’s easy to think this would never happen in my lifetime, scary to thi...

Reply

Michał Przywara
04:29 Jan 31, 2023

Thanks, H. R.! Yeah, to a lesser or greater degree, I'm sure the foundations for this are already happening. Hopefully this vision just ends up being an unrealistic extreme. I'm glad the dark twist worked! The whole time I wrote it, I was wondering, "how far would you go, to succeed?" Lots of ground for dark there. Thanks for the feedback!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Zack Powell
16:21 Jan 30, 2023

Everything from the moment of Jack asking the narrator to kill the old man onward really twisted this piece and recontextualized things. Before reading, I assumed the "Horror" tag was a surrogate for "Dystopia," but nope - this is some straight up Shirley Jackson stuff. An unsettling read, to be sure. But holy moly, there's some potent writing and social commentary in here. The scariest thing for me is how closely this mirrors the "Influencer" era that we're in. People desperate to go viral, doing and saying whatever on streaming services f...

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:46 Jan 30, 2023

But of course the grandchild wasn't there - the event had a PG-13 rating, after all. It would have been irresponsible to bring a child to such a spectacle :) "if this isn't at least a little prophetic" hope not, but who knows. Maybe by writing about possible extremes we can curtail the worst of it. I get you on influencers though. Kind of a bizarre business, but it seems to be working for some of them so there's definitely people watching. The meat line, I liked too. It already seems like human value is often expressed in terms of ROI, a...

Reply

Zack Powell
16:50 Feb 03, 2023

Congrats on the shortlist, Michał!

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:39 Feb 03, 2023

Thank you!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.