Voice Activation
A Short Story by Doug Dean
Written using the suggestion "Tripping"
Originally featured on 10-03-2007
As part of our series "A Funny Thing Happened To Me on the Way to the Fall"

“Once the government gets a hold of this,” Fred paused. He wasn’t sure that Helen was paying attention. She looked over the monitor and made eye contact with him on the bed. She grinned. “Go on, Freddy baby. I’m listening.”

A hundred miles away, in a small room the size of a closet, a constantly-running software program began recording information onto a hard drive.

“Yeah. Like once the government gets a hold of this, they’ll be able to keep track of it. They’ll know everything.” He breathed deeply as he spoke, like an athlete. “They’ll be able to know how, you know, certain things affect the population. How to make the population feel a certain way. They’ll be able to — you know?”

“Know what, Freddy?”

“They’ll have it all.” Helen was typing an email to a friend from a week-long festival she just attended. The tone of the email was bubbly and overtly positive, as was the festival. She could see her positivism jump off the screen into her lap as she re-read her words.

“But don’t they have it all already? I mean, they know when people spend money — that’s really all they care about, when they vote, when they’re scared. Don’t they know it all already?” Fred sat up and pulled his tee-shirt down over his stomach. He tossed his cell phone onto the duvet behind him. He liked to discuss things like this. His voice sounded like it wavered on the edge of laughter or yelling.

“No, Helen! They don’t know it all already! They know certain things. But they don’t know it. Not like this!” Fred’s hands were on his thighs, thumbs pointed in towards his stomach. He exhaled.

“But honey, they can figure out without all the extra data anyway!”

“They’ll network it. They’ll make into a matrix of feelings and then use formulas and—you know?—algorithms on it and it will become so — you know — precise — that they’ll start to be able to predict it, you know? All from listening to people speaking in their everyday lives.”

“But Freddy, they won’t be able to monitor everybody. They’ll only be able to monitor those people that are surrounded by it. And that won’t represent everybo-“

“Yes it will! You know?”

“No. Know what?”

“Cause they’ll just have bugs all over. They’ll have bugs all over. In random places. Street corners.” Fred smirked in anticipation.

“Honey, they can’t bug all the street corners. It’s unconstitutional.”

“Oh, you think that’ll stop them.” He spoke quickly to keep from showing his emerging grin. “I bet they’ll have a bug in your store.” Fred waited. He had hit a button and knew it. He didn’t know what kind of button yet. But he would press it again.

“They will not-“ Helen clicked ‘send’ upon being interrupted and then got up from the desk.

“Yes they would bug your store and they’d know how the toy-buying public felt and then they’d graph it. Oh, did I mention that they’d graph it all. Yes! They’d graph the feelings.”

A hundred miles away, a series of ones and zeros were recorded onto a hard drive that a specific software would later read as ‘Angry.’

“There is no way they’d bug my store. People like me wouldn’t allow for that.” Fred upon being corrected and affirmed that had pushed a button, a good one, stood up from the bed with an exhalation.

“People like me, self-employed, constitution-loving people like me wouldn’t allow it. It would only take one of us to find one bug. Then the word would get out and we’d all find them. We’d start fighting.”

“With what?” Fred had taken two steps towards Helen and put his arms around her waist. His face had taken on an heir of mock superiority.

“With what! With the legal system.”

Fred chuckled to accentuate his next point. He said his next statement with a staccato rhythm. “You’re-going-to-use-the-legal-system-on-the-government!?” Helen put her hands, spread fingered, on his neck and cheeks.


They both laughed as the argument had reached its apex. Then, they hugged. Then, Helen asked a question.

“So what’s for dinner tonight? Did you get those pork medallions that I mentioned?”

Fred, who was slightly taller and could rest his nose on Helen’s brown hair, did so. Fred exhaled. His eyes searched the room. He looked over Helen’s head at the collection of mannequins and masks which decorated the room.

“You know-“

A hundred miles away, the ones and zeroes for ‘Fear’ materialized.

“Do I know what!” There was a pause. Smirks lurked beneath both the faces of Helen and Fred as they both contemplated their impending argument — one that included much more immediate danger.

Fred began again. “Okay-”

“Yes! Go on, Freddie. Tell me why you didn’t get the one thing I asked you to while I was working all day and you were off enjoying life.” Her tone included a mixture of many emotions- none that could be distilled down to a pure basic like anger, jealousy or love. Fred took another breath.

“Okay.” A pause. “So I was playing disc golf with Tim.” Helen exhaled and continued to look at Fred’s shoulder.

‘Sadness’ was recorded.

“Now honey wait- just listen to me okay?”

She barely opened her mouth to quietly say, “I’m listening.”

“And then I got a call from Avi, and he was having problems with his camper again. You know how he has problems with his camper-”

She nodded despite knowing that he knew she knew, and so on. She did so to move things along. “And so I was heading over to give Avi a ride, because of his problem —“ Fred’s tone of voice shifted suddenly, becoming more confident. “-And I then I was passing by Broken Muses, and I started thinking about that time that we went there and played games with Joey and Oliver. You remember?” Helen had lifted her face from Fred’s shoulder. Her nose slid along his collarbone and then she was looking at his face. She looked at the mixture of emotions — none of which could be distilled down to pure basics like fear, embarrassment or love.

“So it sounds like you’re saying that you didn’t forget, but you planned to take me and my sons out to dinner.”

Fred said in a high voice reserved for such occasions, “Yeah. Don’t you think that would be fun?”

Helen blinked slower and slower as she looked at him. The blinking of Helen’s eyes matched the pace of the improvised argument which had reached its apex and was now in a gentle laughless descent.

A hundred miles away, a software program graphed no such descent.

“Yeah. It’s a good idea Freddie. So what happened with Avi?”

Fred looked at her for a moment and then answered.

“Well. I took him to where he needed to go and then back to his camper.”

Helen looked at Fred for a moment to be sure.

“So he doesn’t have any way to get anywhere — don’t you think he’d want to come eat?”

Fred said, “Yeah, I bet he’d want to come too,” as he laughed out the remainder of his anxiety.

Helen’s arms were now wrapped around Fred’s neck. She stood on her tippy toes and said, without opening her mouth, “Give me a kiss, Fred.”

He did. Then he walked over to the bed and closed his cell phone. He would set the voice-activated commands later.

A hundred miles away, a file that included the words ‘fear,’ ‘anger,’ and ‘sadness’ as well as graph that included erratic peaks and plateaus but not the word ‘love,’ was saved for purposes unknown to Fred and Helen.

Read More By Doug Dean

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Portland Fiction Project

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