A short story inspired by artificial intelligence
Tonight, all barriers to maximum freakification would be lifted. Because tonight, Hugo’s parents were going away for the entire weekend, and Mariela was coming over to play Marauders.
Marauders was no ordinary interactive game. Even Mariela’s big brother Benicio had said Marauders gave him nightmares, and Mariela’s brother Benicio was sixteen and not afraid of anything.
Of course, their parents had strictly forbidden the younger kids to play, on pain of having their devices revoked. But Mariela had gotten an activation code from Benicio, as part of a siblings’ agreement where Mariela would lie to their parents about someplace Benicio had been, or had not been.
“Night of the Marauders is go,” Hugo whispered to his device.
The special activation phrase would send an encrypted alert to Mariela, who lived next door. They were especially proud of this system, which they designed themselves to thwart rival espionage agents, and also parents.
When finally he heard the sound of Mariela at the door, Hugo could hardly contain himself, flying down the crooked little stair and into the living room.
There he stopped cold, a sudden horror paralysing his body, jaw falling open. Mariela stood stock still in her yellow raincoat, as if she might turn to stone. Her eyes were fixed on something to the left, and when Hugo fully took in the object of Mariela’s stare, he sunk to the floor with a cry.
Saga, the babysitter, was sat cross-legged on the settee, her hateful peach-coloured curls tied back in a green velvet clip, already having helped herself to a tea, already making herself comfortable. When Hugo spotted her overnight satchel resting beside her rather nice violet trainers, he let out another wrenching moan.
“No-oo,” Hugo mumbled into the carpet. “Not her! I don’t need a babysitter!”
“Hi Hugo,” Saga said evenly. “And hello, Mariela, nice to see you again. How’s Benicio?”
“Good,” Mariela blurted.
Saga was resting her pointy chin in her hand and smiling at Hugo, which made his face feel hot.
“Mariela and I have a secret mission for tonight..."
“We don’t need a babysitter,” Hugo said in a much more dignified voice than before. “Mariela and I have a secret mission for tonight, so just sit and collect your pay and ignore us like always, Saga.”
To Hugo’s consternation, Saga laughed a little bit and shook her head. “Sorry, Hugo. Don’t think I’m going to let you play Marauders.”
“What?!” yelled Mariela and Hugo in unison.
“Do you think I was born yesterday,” Saga said gently. “That game’s going to be too scary for you, you’re gonna cry, and I’m going to be in trouble with your parents. Tale as old as time.”
Hugo reluctantly studied her and noticed she was wearing make-up and earrings. Reflexively, he stuck his tongue all the way out at her"
“I bet you’re the one who’s scared, Saga,” Hugo said. “You just won’t let us play because it’s too scary for you!”
“You’re eleven years old, Hugo, do you really think we’re going to be afraid of the same things?” She glanced up from her device. “You probably still believe in the Night Beast.”
“We do not,” both Hugo and Mariela said in unison.
“The Night Beast is for babies,” Hugo added. “Now we go in the woods all the time to play.”
“To plan,” Mariela improvised. “Our espionage meetings.”
“We are going to the woods right now, even,” Hugo said defiantly.
“It’s raining,” Mariela whispered.
Hugo had been expecting Saga to forbid them from going in the woods, but all she had said was, “good luck.”
“What do you think would scare her?” Mariela asked.
“Saga is only a junior engineer,” Hugo complained as his waterproof boots squeaked among the pine needles. “She thinks she’s so grown up now just because she won some stupid student internship at the mine.”
“What do you think would scare her?” Mariela asked.
"I heard Marauders can detect your fears and make you face them"
“I dunno,” Hugo said. “I heard Marauders can detect your fears and make you face them. Do you think that’s true?”
“Benicio said it records your heart rate when you’re wearing the AR glasses,” Mariela said, clouds of her breath hanging in the twilight air. She pointed behind her ear. “Right here is a pulse point.”
“Really?” Hugo said, skeptical. Not all the facts Mariela attributed to Benicio were reliable.
“Yeah, Benicio said his friend’s girlfriend played it and now her parents have to buy a new house, because she can’t go in her room any more,” Mariela described, her eyes widening.
“I’d love to be scared like that again,” Hugo sighed.
"Those dazzling geometric steppes, insectoid cranes and gleaming panels..."
The lights of the southeast mine glittered among the pines in the distance. Those dazzling geometric steppes, insectoid cranes and gleaming panels once scared them, but they were past that now. Like many children in town who came from mining families, they had grown up on tales of the fearsome Night Beast, a machine that came to life and ate bad kids who went too near the mine.
“Remember how scared we used to be of the Night Beast?” Mariela was the one to ask, but they had both been thinking it.
“Yeah,” said Hugo, watching his own breath form clouds on the air. “But not anymore.”
“Me either,” said Mariela. “If I saw it in Marauders, I’d probably just karate-kick it away.”
“Yeah, Marauders might not even be that scary, actually,” Hugo nodded. “Since we already figured out how it all works.”
“Yeah, it just changes the temperature in your smart home to make it cold if there are ghosts, or it does spooky effects with the electronic locks.” Mariela looked torn, and Hugo understood, because that did indeed sound cool.
Suddenly Hugo had an idea.
“I figured out what to do to prank Saga,” he said.
Hugo and Marcela ran back home through the woods, hurrying only because they were excited, and not at all because it was getting dark and they had no way of knowing for sure there was no Night Beast haunting the mine perimeter.
“Okay, Red Leader, this is our most ambitious data espionage project yet,” Hugo typed.
Silence fell as they texted on their respective devices, soundtracked only by the muffled noise of whatever junk Saga was watching on the main screen downstairs. They were communicating silently in case she was actually spying on them through the smart home child safety camera. She was good at pranks, and you could never be too careful.
“How can we scare Nite Beast... Marauders style,” Hugo texted.
“We must gather data on the Night Beast to maximally freakify and expel it from headquarters,” Mariela texted back quickly. “Checking her social pages, Blue Leader style.”
Hugo privately thought Saga’s codename should be Nite Beast, since Night Beast was already the name of something different, but he kept quiet, watching Mariela work.
“Why do you have her in your Top Circle?” Mariela said aloud.
“You touched something by accident, be quiet,” Hugo said, reaching for Mariela’s device.
“No, it says she’s in your Top Circle, and you hearted a picture of her.”
“Use the encryption,” Hugo insisted futilely. He liked Mariela, they had been friends since they were seven, but he sometimes worried that Mariela was too unprofessional to start an espionage agency with.
“Are you sure it’s okay for us to scare your girlfriend?” Mariela shouted.
“Ugh,” Hugo shouted louder. “Great, now I’m going to have to vomit the night away. While you’re sleeping I’m going to wake up ten times an hour to throw up on you. If you get eight hours of sleep that means I’ll have thrown up on you 80 times.”
“Just kidding,” Mariela said, raising her eyebrows. “It’s actually good, because she enabled public location data for her Top Circle, which means you can access her GPS data from her device. She probably has no idea.”
“Yeah, I just put her in that circle for espionage reasons,” said Hugo.
“This dot is Codename Night Beast,” whispered Mariela, as they leaned over Hugo’s device, their backs to the child monitor. “Judging by the dot’s position she’s still on the couch, and according to your home hub, the movie that’s playing is ‘Love Among the Pines’.”
“Gross,” said Hugo. “But it could also be a decoy.”
“True,” mused Mariela. “This doesn’t give us any data.”
“Maybe the Night Beast likes love movies, then we could really terrify her with a… hate ghost?”
“What’s a hate ghost?” Mariela frowned.
“Like a ghost who hates engineers, since Saga -- the Night Beast, I mean -- thinks she’s so great,” said Hugo, scratching behind his ear.
“That’s not one of the valid ghost types,” said Mariela. “But what if it was the ghosts of old miners who got lost in the woods?”
“And now they want to warn her away from their fate,” Hugo added in a rush, getting chills.
“Let’s make it cold like Marauders!” Mariela whispered loudly, pointing at Hugo’s device. “Turn the living room cold!”
Hugo had guessed his parents’ climate control password in his early espionage career, but never dreamed he would need it for anything until now. He and Mariela huddled away from the child monitor carefully, overwhelmed with momentum, as they set the temperature controls to their lowest setting.
A few minutes later, they heard Saga shout, “are you kids doing something to the air purifier?”
“What now,” Hugo said in a panic.
“One time my brother Benicio opened and shut the electronic lock really fast over and over and scared my mom’s boyfriend,” said Mariela, her eyes as wide as they went. “We could pretend it’s the ghost trying to get in!”
When Mariela and Hugo finally figured out the lock controls, producing a wildly satisfying thudding from the door downstairs, Hugo’s heart soared. When Mariela jumped to her feet and cried, “TELL THE SMART SPEAKER TO PLAY GHOST SOUNDS,” Hugo found himself ashamed that he ever underestimated Mariela’s skills in espionage.
“The dot is moving,” Mariela cried, and the two nearly banged heads watching the violet dot that represented Saga blink away, out of the house, into the woods, towards the mines. In place of the anticipated elation there hung a lull, in which the kids instantly realised they had never expected their plan to work.
“We did it,” said Mariela.
“Let’s play Marauders before she comes back,” Hugo said, and stood up.
“It might take a while for my brother’s code to activate,” Mariela said. “How long do you think she’ll be gone for?”
“I don’t know,” Hugo said, forcing a cool shrug. “Where did she go?”
“Probably home,” said Mariela. “Right?”
“She ran into the woods,” Hugo said. “Her house is on the same street as yours. Check the location data?”
“Oh no,” said Mariela, rushing to her device and scooping it up urgently. “The dot is gone.”
“What do you mean it’s gone,” Hugo cried, feeling himself sink to the floor, feeling the carpet meet his knees.
“She disappeared,” said Mariela, a note of genuine panic in her voice. “And she was heading for the mines.”
“She’s trying to scare us,” Hugo gasped. “She’s pranking us back!”
“Are you sure?” Mariela frowned. “What if she needs our help? This is it, our chance for a dangerous mission.”
“You’re right,” Hugo said, moved by Mariela’s surprising bravery. “We’ve got to go into the woods and find her.”
“Together,” Mariela cheered, and waved the light from her device over her head.
“It’s just the responsible thing for us to do,” said Hugo, a bit breathlessly. A damp chill was in the air, and the light from their devices kept falling on strange shapes: white cobweb stretched across rotten stumps, birch bark peeling.
Occasionally the sound of animals skittering came intermittently from the dark. “Didn’t she work at the mining site?” Mariela puffed, recoiling away from a wet log. “She must have known where she was going.”
“She only did an internship,” growled Hugo, wincing at the feel of a wet leaf against the cuff of his pyjamas.
A branch snapped deep in the woods, making both of them jump. They called Saga’s name, but got no reply.
“Maybe the Night Beast got her,” said Mariela, laughing uneasily.
“Don’t say that,” Hugo hissed, lowering his voice just to be safe. “She’s probably in the mining site somewhere, like you said.”
“Lured by the vengeful ghosts of miners who got lost in these very woods,” said Mariela.
“Stop,” Hugo said, feeling the irritating sensation that he might cry. Even though he was no longer small and had learned to control his feelings, the swift sting of tears still sprung up unexpectedly from time to time.
He heard the creak of Mariela’s raincoat, the rustle of damp leaves, his friend patting his shoulder. The silver and red eyes of the mining camp loomed closer through the thinning trees.
“I hope there are no scary woods in Marauders,” Hugo said lightly, hoping to turn the conversation back to something fun.
“My brother Benicio said there’s a whole part in woods just like these,” Mariela said casually, walking closer alongside Hugo as the vegetation began giving way to gravel. They had never gone this close to the mine at night, and in the dark their eyes played tricks on the machinery shapes that lurked ahead.
“There’s a light in that guard station,” Mariela whispered, pointing, and Hugo found himself thinking that Mariela was in fact very brave, and that Mariela consistently surprised him whenever stakes were really high.
Hugo felt his throat tighten as they sidled around the retaining wall and into the unlit parking lot, creeping among the pugnacious shapes of dormant equipment and multi-purpose mining vehicles. The tiny square of light in the dark was drawing near, now.
“Hey,” called Hugo in a sudden fearless shout to Mariela, whose face was flushed with exhilaration. “Looks like there’s no Night Beast!”
“Of course there isn’t,” Mariela scoffed. “It’s a legend for children.”
"Hugo saw Mariela struck stock-still, white in the face"
What happened next actually freakified Hugo and Mariela to such a maximum that they were flung back onto the damp gravel of the parking lot. Hugo saw Mariela struck stock-still, white in the face, such that later versions of the story could support all kinds of embellishment, while Hugo himself felt surprisingly calm, a world-weary voice in his head trying on something fancy sounding like ah, so here I die.
“Night Beasts!” Mariela cried.
All around the parking lot, there was the rumble of sudden life. Creature-like shapes began to approach from the shadows as if summoned from an unseen hand, and Hugo and Mariela stumbled back, scrabbling for purchase in the gravel.
One by one the beasts seemed to open their eyes -- pairs of green lights falling on the children in the darkness.
“HELLO, LITTLE CHILDREN,” roared a marvellous voice in chorus from the gathered beasts, the thrum of loudspeakers rattling Hugo’s chest. Mariela screamed, but as Hugo shielded his eyes from the bright lights, tumbling to the ground with a gentle cry, he had the wild thought that the voice was somehow familiar.
The great beasts’ eyes turned from green to red as they fell on the freakified children, wet gravel grinding beneath their ‘claws’, and they paused their advance. Like they detected Hugo and Mariela -- almost as if it were afraid of them!
“Please don’t eat us, we’ll never come to the mining site again,” Mariela sobbed, face down in the gravel, kicking. The playful beast closest to them seemed to shuffle back apologetically, moving in time with the others nearby. When the lights of the parking lot fell on the “beasts”, though, the children sighed in sudden relief.
With quiet awe, Hugo allowed himself to take the shapes in. The lifelike beasts were not beasts at all -- the sparkling eyes were their motion lights, the pouting, hungry lip was the expressive front carriage. Now he could see they were colored in a merry caution orange, the features of its cabin almost seeming to give it ears.
For a moment Hugo had believed they were magic. Yet somehow it didn’t surprise him to see Saga come walking toward them across the parking lot, device in hand, laughing and laughing. From the way she was pointing it, with its front light on, the kids slowly realised she had been filming them.
“There’s your Night Beast,” Saga laughed.
“Oh, autonomous vehicles,” gaped Mariela, her face gone an odd colour with the relief. In the flood of sudden joy that came after the scare, it looked to the children that the mining vehicles were grinning at them.
“Were you scared?” Saga asked.
“No,” Hugo said, tears streaming unbidden down his smudged cheeks. “We just panicked from the noise.”
Saga hugged Hugo. He felt afraid Mariela would watch her hug him, and also afraid Saga would hug Mariela next, which she did. As Hugo looked at Saga’s sharp features in the artificial light, he felt the grudging impression that she did, in fact, look adult.
“I get to make software for the beasties,” she said, flashing a grin, pointing her device screen at the children to demonstrate. Hugo saw an inscrutable console, like the smart home’s, and the logo of the mining company, and Mariela scrambling for a closer look.
“It’s like Marauders,” Mariela said.
“Junior engineer stuff,” grinned Saga, and the kids had nothing to say.
As they walked through the woods back to the house, Saga told the children she thought they did well. “Your agency might even have some potential if you had more respect for engineers,” she said.
“If we recruited an engineer, it wouldn’t be you,” Hugo said sternly, determined not to feel any kind of new appreciation for Saga.
“It’s a two-person agency,” Mariela added.
“What if I let you play a little Marauders?”
About the author
Leigh Alexander is a future-thinking American author, Guardian writer and tech journalist with a gaming background.
About the illustrator
James Dawe is a London-based artist and commercial illustrator, whose photo-collages and digital manipulation result in dramatic and distorted imagery.