Our fourth #SFSwap submission is from @aaronweight, and deals with a prompt that crosses the genre boundary into supernatural horror. While this story obfuscates the science behind its premise in order to focus on its effects, I really like the effect – to me at least, this really nails the sense of anxiety that can come from flailing with inscrutable software.
STORY NUMBER: 4
PROMPT PROVIDER: Anonymous
PROMPT: A wacky viral list of spurious statistical correlations functions as a grimoire of working voodoo.
Jaime sits in the computer room, scrolling through endless pages of text but by now, after the 7th hour, hardly anything is sinking in. Her eyes are aching and her back is struggling as a result of the terrible chairs provided in the lab. She has reached the end of a page and takes the opportunity to kick back for a bit, shuffling the chair away from the desk she looks around the room.
It’s not full, but there are plenty of people siting at the various terminals dotted round the edge of the cavernous room. Nine, perhaps ten other lost souls of various ages, working out of desperation through the night. The fluorescent lighting gives everything a cold and clinical tone, which only serves to heighten the isolation that Jaime feels.
She turns back to the screen but it’s gone blank. She shifts the mouse to close the screensaver but nothing happens. She uses the three-key combo and still nothing. The computer flashes up a message, “hello Jaime” in dark blue text. She is taken aback but when she looks again she sees “H://0.Jam.exe” in its place. She quickly reaches for the power button but the screen now changes to pure white and for the first few moments she can’t bare to look at the intense brightness.
When her eyes have adjusted to the glare she looks again and is faced with a series of graphs. Each one a set of bars comparing values of unusual varieties. The first one she notices is age, arranged sporadically with numbers on each of the bars. One is flashing, and Jaime reads the number 94 next to it. Glancing above her she notices the number 94 on the wall behind her terminal and returns her attention to the graph. Scanning with her eyes she follows the bar to the key on the Y axis and it points to 27, her age. The other bars all have seemingly random numbers but looking around she realises that they all correspond to someone sitting in this room at a computer right now.
Jaime returns her attention to the screen and the next graph along is marked balance. Again the bars are sparsely varied and she realises that it’s actually referring to bank balances, given that the Y axis is marked with a £ symbol. As she scrolls down the page (paying considerably more attention to this one) she comes to a graph marked simply, comfort. This one seems to be figurative rather than numerical but as she is examining the range her mouse pointer passes the top of one of the bars and it changes briefly. The adjustment arrows appear. Surely she can’t affect the values? She scans the numbers, quickly matching them to someone in the room she can test her theory with.
A youngish looking boy is a few desks over talking excitedly on his phone. She notices his comfort bar is very high so drags it down a little bit. The boy doesn’t seem to notice and certainly shows no physical signs of any change but the tone of his voice has definitely shifted. Only slightly, but it’s definitely there. Jaime pulls the bar down further and further the boy’s conversation slows and eventually it just stops and he hangs up the phone, glumly. The bar is empty now. He sits silently. Jaime tries to move the bar back up again but since it is no longer there she finds she can’t get he adjustment arrows to appear again.
Quickly she scans the graphs to find another one with his number on, seeing if there’s anything else she can do to help, but none seem to have his number. Eventually she returns to the age graph. His number, 13, still appears there. His age is on there too, 16. She has a silly thought. Perhaps if she raises the age bar so that he can buy alcohol or something, make him feel more comfortable? Is that even possible? She could give it a go. She moves the mouse pointer to the bar and it changes again, this time a plus symbol. She cautiously drags the slider upwards while keeping an eye on the boy. He doesn’t move but it’s clear he’s getting older. Jaime watches as his hair grows as if in time lapse, his arms are filling out and he soon sprouts a semblance of a beard.
Then from nowhere one of the other people in the room sneezes loudly and it makes jaime jump. Instinctively she snatches her hand away from the computer and then realises what she has done. She looks at the bar. It’s now showing 287. She nervously turns to look towards the boy, or rather, towards where he used to be…