Our current issue is full of fantastic reads – for instance Mark Silcox‘s unnerving NutriMom, set in an unnerving near future. He’re the opening:
Emil discovered the plastic box beneath a sheet of flame-darkened steel that looked like it had been blown from the side of a container car. There was something about the strangely featureless artefact that made him want to dig it out and keep it. About a foot square and six inches deep, its smooth gray surfaces and perpendicular edges gave it an aura of austerely luminous perfection that set it apart from the rest of the surrounding debris, and from the ragtag collection of refurbished machinery scattered around his family home.
The other kids at the derailment site were all distracted, in the throes of some noisy game amid the scattered railroad ties and tangles of wreckage.
Emil laid on his belly, reached forward, and slid his discovery out from where it was concealed. Reflections of a couple of pale clouds from the late summer sky flickered across its polished exterior. Standing up quickly, he shoved it into his backpack before any of his companions could see. When they called him over to play, he made a hasty excuse about having to get home early to help with chores.
For the first few days after the City train had slid off the tracks and caught fire, Emil’s father and the other parents had forbidden the kids from going down into the valley to investigate. But eventually, after no helicopters had arrived and none of the wreckage had exploded or expelled toxic fumes, everybody’s curiosity got the better of them. Now, a month later, Emil and his friends spent most of their scanty free time there. The adults had already taken away all the stuff that was of any conceivable use to the settlement – sharp-edged fragments of steel for plowshares, delicate plastic crates full of coffee grounds and mysterious seeds, a couple of dented musical instruments, and a weird concrete statue of a man missing one arm that now stood outside of the Worship Hall. But somehow they had missed the mysterious gray box.
By the time Emil was back in his own room it was just past sunset. His father hadn’t returned home from their garden allotment, so he felt safe to dig out his prize again and examine it more carefully.
Nothing was written on the outside of the box, and there were no icons, buttons, or labels interrupting its surface: just a small rectangular window of tinted plastic on the front and two round holes in the back. When he pressed his hand against the glossy exterior, a fogged outline remained there for a few seconds before fading away. Emil leaned forward and tried to peek inside the dark window, but couldn’t make out even the faintest internal contour behind it. Then he tilted the box onto its side and took a closer look at the twin orifices on the back. They were clearly meant have something plugged into them, but at first Emil couldn’t figure out what.
It was only after he had already gotten a bit bored of his new toy and decided to walk out to the shelter to watch a video that it came to him. The black cables hanging from the back of the telescreen! He had never seen his father use them for anything, but the shiny metal plugs that dangled from their ends would be a perfect fit. He smuggled his prize out across the backyard to try out his theory.
The shelter was just a big metal container half-submerged in the earth, with a rusty squeaking door and barely enough room to stand up inside. In theory it was only supposed to be used for tornadoes, bad thunderstorms, and helicopter flyovers. But it was quieter there than in the house when Emil’s Dad was at home playing dice games with his friends or snoring in bed. And it was where they kept the telescreen and their collection of old videos. Most of Emil’s best memories were of sitting inside here watching the screen after the storm siren had gone off, or when the Weather was too bad outside to get work done.
After closing the door carefully behind him, Emil sat the box on top of a half-rotted wooden crate and slid the two steel plugs into the back. They entered with a quiet, encouraging click. A tiny green light that flickered on from somewhere beneath the box’s surface told him his guess had been right.
He sat back in a cluster of old cushions and blankets with the remote control in his lap. As the ’screen came to life, a few slender black squiggles appeared against a bright white background. Emil thought they looked similar to the markings inside of the big blocks of paper his dad used to start fires. But it was hard to be sure.
After that, a single musical chord played. It sounded like something strummed on the middle frets of a banjo, but with a more metallic timbre. Then the ’screen filled up with something that looked almost exactly like a human face.
“Hello.” said the face-like thing. “I am NutriMom! My serial number is Xt-3479c, and I was shipped from the factory on October nineteenth, 2096. Who are you?”