The Machines Have Won – a scary short story for Christmas

Today we welcome American author and family history expert writer / researcher Tom Bartlett. Originally from Boston MA he now lives with his family in Milton Keynes (my UK home town) and very kindly has shared this funny-yet-slightly-scary original story … a writer’s perfect nightmare. And if you know the Boston MA area, you will recognize some of the places Tom names.

The Machines Have Won - a scary short story for Christmas

The machines have won … but have they, really?

Cameron tilted his head forward from its reclined position in the driver’s seat, and lifted the remote in his left hand up to his line of vision. With unhurried ease, he moved his right hand to the remote and punched the blue button.

Instantly, the driver’s door whooshed open and the driver’s seat, through a complicated set of movements, eased Cameron past the car door and gently next to the wheelchair that was parked beside the car. With heavy effort, Cameron completed the transfer and settled into the chair (with an audible gasp) while at the same time silently thanking his brother for remembering to programme the chair such that it was ready and positioned for him when he arrived home.

From inside the house, Cameron’s father Davis looked through the barred window next to his cage at his elder son, a wistful expression on his face. There was a time when the boy was a normal weight… There was a time when the boy played catch with his Dad… There was a time when…

A whirring sound came from the kitchen and into the living room, as Davis’ other son Giles rolled in on his wheelchair. The wheelchair stopped in front of the cage door, and Giles peered through the bars dully.

“Cam back?” he muttered.

“Yes. Maybe he’ll have news? He’s been gone a long time.”  Davis’ hopeful expression had no effect on the young obese boy in the wheelchair. Instead, Giles lifted his right arm, flabby underarm jiggling as he grabbed one of the cage bars and rattled the whole structure. Although clinically obese, the teenager with stringy black hair had a strength born of passion.

“If it were up to me,” he shouted, “you’d stay in there until you learned! Not get released, with one of those stupid light sentences for re-programming, which doesn’t always work anyway. People like you are a menace… you rant and rave about progress, and try to hold the rest of us back. When will you come to your senses? Technology is TOPS!”

Davis had heard that mantra many times before, but it no longer made him sad or angry. In fact, it didn’t make him feel much of anything, other than a desire to get far, far away from his sons, and the Orwellian nightmare they’d both been sucked into… and now had a role in sustaining.

The Machines Have Won - a scary short story for Christmas

“There’s good techno, and bad techno,” Davis answered calmly

The entire wall behind Giles was a television, and it was showing a bizarre, Rollerball-type game involving skates, body armor and large mace-like weapons used homicidally by two teams, as they skated around an oval track. The sound had been turned down by Giles, using a remote built in to one of the wheelchair arms, at the start of his verbal assault on his father. Normally the sound was at full volume, the TV on 24/7.

“There’s good techno, and bad techno,” Davis answered calmly, as the front door machinery clicked into gear with the approach of Cameron. “Bad techno is like what they did to those Iraqis in Abu Ghraib. Lesson learnt: don’t let hillbilly jarheads loose in the middle of Islam with the destructive power of decibels, and a bunch of Fleetwood Mac CDs.”

Even as he said this Davis reflected that Giles had been born long after Iraq, never mind the Mac. And had he heard of the Luddites? Important historical markers meant nothing to these kids, other than what they might encounter and kill on a video game. They lived for now, and ‘now’ was always happening one blink ahead in the future, a never-ending arrival of upgraded or brand-new gadgetry.

‘Home’ for the family was the small town of Hanson, Massachusetts, southwest of Boston. Miles from any highway, the town selectmen had created a new town motto: ‘Off the Highway, But Right On the Information Superhighway.’  Further isolating the town from the metropolis to the north was the bullet train which sped through the middle of town; a town formerly a stop on a quaint commuter line, high-speed freighters and triple-deck passenger stock now sped past, the journey from Plymouth to Boston non-stop in 15 minutes.

The Machines Have Won - a scary short story for Christmas

…to the north was the bullet train which sped through the middle of town

For families like the Borriellos, however, going anywhere or doing anything outside the house had become nearly unnecessary; theirs, like every other house, was now fully wireless and nearly autonomous. Each of the small white clapboard dwellings on Halifax Street bristled with a prickly array of antennae and dishes.

Children no longer went to school: they ‘attended’ IT Academies online. Grownups no longer left the house to go to work: everything needed was on laptop or on-hand/on-demand via home delivery. Most of the neighbours were employed in software or hardware development; several, like Cameron and Giles, in video game construction. Before his house arrest and homebound incarceration, Davis had been a plumber ; nanotechnology had made that profession all but obsolete.

Overseeing these services and ‘outputs’ were the town Selectmen, an elected group of technicians and specialists who required regular visits from a representative of each household.

The Board issued programming updates from state and national government. It was from just such a meeting that Cameron was returning.

Davis eased himself into the armchair provided with his cage; he also had a small cot and fridge, but not the writing desk that he craved. He was allowed one toilet break every two hours, and a shower and shave every two days. Not that he cared; personal hygiene had fallen off his list of priorities, and he had no one to clean up for. His wife Courtney, the boys’ mother, had tragically electrocuted herself two years earlier, the victim of an ill-advised interlude involving a plugged-in laptop and a bubble bath.

The front door had barely lifted into the ceiling when Cameron and his motorized wheelchair rolled forward and pulled to a stop next to Giles.

The Machines Have Won - a scary short story for Christmas“Result!” he shouted. “Just the answer we’ve been looking for. The Selectmen have voted to allow each household, keeping a rebel captive, to allow that criminal the choice of re-programming… or to be put to a peaceful sleep. No more uncertainty… no more tension within these four walls… no more cage!”

Davis jumped to his feet, an angry snarl distorting his features, as Giles started an annoying slow handclap.

“That’s no kind of result, no decision,” he growled. “Simply a choice between a living death and the real thing… ‘rebel captive’…’criminal’ … ‘peaceful sleep’… Nonsense ! I’m your father, dammit! Listen to me!”

Giles continued his rhythmic clapping as Cameron leaned forward in his wheelchair and pushed his palms outward against two of the cage bars.

“Dad, don’t you realize this is for us, to keep us together as a family? Once you do things our way, we’ll all get along just fine. No more of your emotional, grouchy outbursts; you’ll be as impassive and smooth-running as a machine.”

Davis stepped forward and touched his son’s fingers, meeting them with his own at the bars, but the boy shrank back with uncertainty.

“I’ll never give up my feelings,” he replied evenly.

“Angry at the trash forced on us by three levels of government. Crying when your mother died. Smiling when a bird flies by that window over there. It’s these things that make us human, and keep us superior to the machines. And you two (as he stared intently from one to the other); you’re not so different. I’ve heard you each crying in the night. I’ve felt your anger at the things I’ve done. I’ve seen your eyes eagerly following Polly, next door. You can’t be machines, and they can’t be you – you’ve got hearts.”

Before either boy could answer, a loud metallic voice blared out in the street, filling the neighborhood with noise: This is a test. This is only a test. The emergency warning system will be testing for the next ten minutes. This is only a test.  The nuclear plant in Plymouth had had a minor meltdown several years earlier, and the authorities were taking no chances. In addition to loudspeakers attached to what used to be telephone poles, each house, and each occupant, was fitted with an early-warning alarm system. All energy was now supplied by nuclear plants.

Giles flicked a button, and his wheelchair turned away to face the television wall.

“C’mon Dad, what’s not to like? There’re five-thousand channels to choose from. We’ve given you a Kindle 2020 with a lot of great books to download. And Mr. McCreary next door is part of a team developing the body sensor microchip ; soon, all commands will be controlled by facial and bodily movements, eliminating the need for remotes and panels of buttons. Before long, our own personal video screens will be flashed before our eyes, both the projection and the viewing controlled by our brains, and the blink of an eye. We’ll even have split-screen and 3D vision, and … “

The Machines Have Won - a scary short story for Christmas

You can’t be machines, and they can’t be you – you’ve got hearts.

Davis cut him off before he could finish. “ … and you two will be dead before you reach fifty, making all of this pointless for your own personal experience and quality of life. And, as the saying goes, ‘You can’t take it with you.’  Heart disease, diabetes, destroyed hip and knee joints. All the gadgets in the world won’t make a difference when your bodies have completely broken down. And my Kindle? Great, except I can’t read my REAL favourites: Hardy, Frost, Eliot…”

“… Lawrence, Steinbeck, Heaney,” intoned Cameron in a robotic voice. “And DEFINITELY not Orwell. No, Dad, you know very well those authors have been banned by the President. They have nothing constructive, and plenty DEstructive, to say about the future, and the benefits that technology brings. All they write about is sad, depressed people doing stupid things.”

Davis sank back into his easy chair, weary. Giles had started channel surfing as a low rumble started to shake the house – a bullet train was speeding through the town center half a mile away.

The nuclear warning system had begun blaring its siren in a rhythmic staccato.

“And to think this was the year we were all going to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims down in Plymouth 400 years ago,” said Davis morosely. “Your poor mother, in a direct line of Pilgrim descendants, had so looked forward to it.”

Giles wheeled his chair around angrily and glared at his father. “You jerk, she might still be here to celebrate if you hadn’t nagged her so much about using her laptop. Maybe that day she brought it into the bath, she was trying to hide from you!” His voice ended in a choke; Davis knew his younger son had never recovered from the shock of his mother’s death ; was still grieving.

Cameron, looking at his brother in sympathy, raised his hands in a querying gesture. “What the hell do the Pilgrims have to teach us, anyway? Half of them dead after the first winter. Namby-pambying with the Native Americans. Maybe if they’d used home delivery they’d have had a better time of it…”

The Machines Have Won - a scary short story for Christmas

Davis knew the boy was working on a new video game

Davis knew the boy was working on a new video game called “Avenging Custer”, in which cowboys zapped Natives with lasers, and also knew the futility of lecturing either son on historical accuracy. They just didn’t get it, so he kept quiet. He’d long ago given up trying to explain to the boys the condition known as ‘Gadgetiction’ or ‘Gadgetism’ which had been made famous by a Dr. Henry Zeisel three years earlier. There were therapists still treating the condition in secret locations… although Zeisel himself had disappeared shortly after publishing his work. It was widely believed that The Deleters had paid him a visit.

Giles had regained his composure, and wheeled his chair over to the side of the cage, a determined expression on his face.

“Nuff said, guys, we’re just wasting time here. I’m sure the Selectmen need a decision; whether to send over The Re-Programmers, or The Deleters. Dad, just let me remind you of the choice: join us, or join the departed. Just a bit more mental re-programming and you’ll come around to the amazing beauty of cyborgs, avatars, augmented reality, and all the rest. Continue to resist, however, and we call in the people you don’t want to see. They’ll come over, attach electricity to your cage, tie you down on your cot, and off you go to permanent dreamland. It’s all over in a matter of minutes. So – what do you say?”

Davis rose to his feet and stepped over to the side of the cage next to one of the front windows. All the noise outside had stopped, and a gentle wind was blowing leaves off the maple tree in the front yard.

A Detection car rolled slowly past on Halifax, two officials pointing dishes at each house to try to locate inappropriate online content.

The father turned slowly around, suddenly feeling very tired, and faced his two sons in their chairs. He had lost them, he realized, but knew that he still loved them – and that whatever decision he made would be done out of a sacrificial love for their well-being.

Without further hesitation he addressed them: “I’d like to write down my decision. Could you give me a pen and paper?”

The Machines Have Won - a scary short story for Christmas

Tom Bartlett

Cameron and Giles turned their heads, and looked at each other quizzically.

If you or someone you know wants to preserve their family’s history in words and also digital formats, get in touch with Tom on