Contest #182 shortlist ⭐️

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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

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103 comments

Charlie Osborn
16:06 Jan 30, 2023

Hi Michal. I'm a narrator and would like to use your story on one of my new YouTube channels. I was wondering what you would charge for the rights to use your story. You would be fully credited for the story on any channel I used it on. Thanks in advance for your response!

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Michał Przywara
22:22 Jan 30, 2023

Hi, Charlie! Please contact me at przywara.michal@gmail.com.

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Mike Panasitti
23:42 Jan 27, 2023

Michal, you must seriously consider making this story the premise for what would surely be a hit novel. It deserves all the accolades you have received so far and more. I suspected the use the golf club would be put to from the moment it was mentioned, but was horrified when Jack finally makes the demand to bludgeon the hapless victim. Genius storytelling. It makes the reader crave more. Be kind and give us our next dose!

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Michał Przywara
21:57 Jan 30, 2023

"Chekhov's golf club" :) Glad that caught your eye. It was fun going a different direction this week. I'd not considered a novel, but maybe I'll need to add this one to the "potential longer work" box. Thanks for the feedback, Mike!

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Mike Panasitti
12:07 Jan 31, 2023

At the very least, I could envision a longer version being published in a "best North American short science fiction and fantasy" collection.

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Michał Przywara
00:32 Feb 01, 2023

Thanks for the vote of confidence! Maybe I'll have to shop around.

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