Prompt: A detective finds a hidden underground technological race pulling all the strings
It was proving to be a very rough year for detective work, something especially discouraging because of the three rough years that preceded it. Mauritius Cook dealt with the lack of business by picking up a few hobbies. There was no money to facilitate the picking up process, so he chose free things like bird watching and sketching the ocean from the beach.
He was doing the latter, trying to let the waves take his anxiety out to the horizon, when he was approached by an older woman with one of his business cards. Mauritius was old enough to have earned his gray hair and the privilege of not noticing the people around him. When he didn’t respond to her shadow she leaned down and pressed the business card against his sketchbook.
“Are you Mauritius Cook? The detective?” she asked. Her voice sound like the swaying of a bucket hanging over a well perpetually full of tears. He looked up to her, seeing hair as gray as his own and eyes made tired form worrying more than age.
“I suppose I still am a detective,” he said, standing and shaking her hand. He didn’t like that one particular wave got away from him before he’d drawn it, but that was life. It had lived and died before his pencil could make a record, so it was just gone. Like his family. Like his livelihood. He wondered what pulled the waves of life back from the beach. “I haven’t had a case in six months. I’m getting my eating like a college student. Instant noodles and boardwalk pretzels. Don’t dip one in the other by the way.”
“I’m here because of a college student,” she said. “My daughter Raina has gone missing. I want you to find her.”
“How about the police?”
“You don’t understand. She’s missing. Missing from where she’s supposed to be. All photographs of her have vanished. I can’t find her on social media. The police say she doesn’t exist, and when I went to look for her birth certificate, all I found was this.” She handed over a very strange object: a red line. It was a little like a brick in its proportions, but longer. Its surface was also far smoother. Though it was solid, touching it made Mauritius felt like his hand might pass through it at any moment.
This wasn’t a case. It was a crazy woman who’d found some unidentifiable thing and associated it with her fantasies. It was just the shred of a case, the last floating bit of confetti after the parade of his storied work. The object was a mystery though, and it was the last mystery that hadn’t pulled away from him. He shook hr hand again, taking the case, if only to figure out what the red line was.
The real problem was in finding a starting point. The woman had no evidence her daughter even existed. Cook spent a few more hours watching the water, it looked so much calmer than it did years ago, while he mulled strategies. What could be left of a person if every conceivable trait was removed?
The answer came with the next day, over his boardwalk breakfast of a sausage on a stick wrapped in sticky pancake. The red line was in his pocket, but it had no weight. No conceivable trace and no conceivable weight. He needed to approach it from an inconceivable angle. What was a trace of a person that nobody would ever think to erase?
If anyone had this power they would’ve destroyed her online presence, belongings, official documents, and scrubbed every last hair and dead skin cell out of the world, so what could be left? This Raina was supposedly young; that meant she had access to things that older people, the people who love deleting things, would not yet be aware of. Fads. Slang. The newest computer programs and apps.
The first thing Mauritius did, after tossing the sausage’s stick into the sea, it needed to be a little dirtier on the beach, he found the nearest thirteen year old and asked them what the hippest newest thing was on his cell phone. The answer was an app called ‘Cloud Dance’, where one could upload footage of themselves dancing and have it immediately integrated into footage of swirling clouds matching the steps, making them look like a celebrating weather god.
Mauritius thought this was idiotic, which meant it was perfect. He never would’ve thought of such a thing in a million years. He dug out his own phone, which would have its service cancelled in about three weeks, and looked up ‘Cloud Dance’. He searched Raina’s name; there was an account! There was her face, all smiles, looking like her mother minus several decades of anxiety. He was so shocked that he couldn’t think of anything to do, but then he realized that if he figured it out, the offending eraser might do it eventually as well. He had to act while the account was still up.
On a whim he pulled out the red line and touched it to the screen, to Raina’s smile. The sound of the beach was gone. No more gulls cawing. No carnival game with sputtering music. It was all replaced by the sound of old typewriters. They weren’t typing though. They were going back. Redacting. He whirled around to see where the red line had taken him.
It was space that made him immediately uncomfortable. Sterile as a waiting room. Walls of green felt like a hunting lodge out of 1975. There were machines at small desks arranged in perfect rows. They weren’t typewriters or computers. They were just metal sculptures somewhere between an abacus and a legend for a very large confusing map.
Entities that he could only call robots tapped away at them at incredible speed. They had white shells covered in flashing symbols, either grammatical or mathematical. Only one took notice of him, steeping away from its machine and walking over. He had nothing to defend himself with, so he simply held out the red line like a stun gun.
“Greetings,” the machine said. It didn’t wait for acknowledgement. “You are Mauritius Cook. You have deduced us: the editors.”
“We are advanced machines stored deep under the Earth’s crust. We fix the world’s problems by redacting them. They are extracted via quantum untangled computing. The world has vastly improved in the years we’ve been at work.”
“Improved? I guess that’s why I can’t find work. Nobody is cheating on anybody. Nobody’s getting killed or framed.” He looked down at the red line. “What’s this thing then?”
“That is a strike-through,” the robot informed. “Editing does leave a trace. We removed Raina and put her in the wastebin. The world is better without her according to our database. You will be joining her, as knowledge of us cannot spread. Thank you about the tip with ‘Cloud Dance’. We will be integrating these fads into our programs as soon as they are born.”
“You’re going to kill me?”
“No. Enjoy the wastebin.” The editor walked back to its machine and tapped a piece that looked just like the strike-through. Mauritius was gone again, pulled away from his beach so much that he would never see its like.
This new beach was filthy. There were people everywhere, arguing, building, fighting. All of the world’s problem children, including Raina. He told her her mother missed her, and she barely seemed to care.
Mauritius smiled. Now here was a world filled with mysteries.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by Besmarques during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!