This story is by Joe Streiff and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
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In the dim light of his home office, Charles Groeger carefully turned over an ancient smartphone. Its cracked screen and weathered casing spoke of a bygone era. This wasn’t just any old device. He believed it to be the long-lost personal smartphone of Eva Zestwinko, the elusive First Adopter. If his hunch was correct, the secrets locked within this digital time capsule could shed light on a significant chapter of the late 21st century.
He connected the phone to a battery using a microwelder and saluted his grandfather’s photograph on the wall for good luck.
How much the job had changed, Charles thought, since Vern Groeger had been a historian. The old man had crawled through dusty archives of tattered files. Now the job was mostly IT-archaeology: restoring old drives and hacking into ancient accounts. One thing had not changed, however: you still had to be a bit of a voyeur at heart.
Charles activated the phone and hacked the PIN. While the phone booted, Charles imagined the fame this would earn him. The smartphone of the once-trusted assistant to the Prime Innovator Jest Vobes himself. This might grant Charles the coveted professorship.
The display said, “18698 days since the last update. Check for updates?”
Now, the second, voyeuristic phase of rummaging began: going through the data stored on the device. Many files were corrupted, but the first few pics he could open supported his thesis: This was the smartphone of Eva Zestwinko! Charles leaned back in his chair, a smile on his face that bordered on debility. They might make him a Revealer in his local Hub, maybe even allow him to unbox one of ACCE’s products! Nothing big, of course, the biggies were reserved for the Prime Revealers. But maybe an accessory. Carol and the kids would be so proud!
Three days later, Charles repeatedly played a video he had found. It showed Jest Vobes performing the Great Unboxing of the NeuraLink. But it was different from any depiction of the sacred ritual Charles had grown up with. And yet, it couldn’t be a fake; Charles had run all the tests. There on the screen was Jest Vobes himself, shortly before undertaking the ceremony that had produced millions of followers. He was fiddling with the box containing the NeuraLink.
“I wouldn’t put one of these brain fryers on my head for a million dollars,” Vobes sneered. His voice had nothing of his characteristic holy profoundness. Vobes sounded like an arsehole.
“Is everything prepared?” Vobes asked.
“Yep,” Eva answered from behind the camera, “I still don’t think it’s right to fake it.”
“I am not paying you to think,” Vobes snapped, “Just make sure it looks real.”
What followed was an uncut version of the setup to the legendary Unboxing and implementation of the NeuraLink, but in this version, Jest cut open fake skin on his temple and glued parts of a fake NeuraLink onto it. After they were done, Jest ripped it all off and threw it into the corner.
“Careful,” Eva said, “This is still expensive stuff.”
“Who cares?” A dark glimmer in his eyes spoiled what kindness might have been in Vobes’ smile. “Once the video is online, these idiots will throw money at us till we drown in it.”
Charles stared at the screen. He knew a group of Iconoclasts claimed Vobes had been a fraud. But until today, Charles had deemed them mere haters.
A week later, Charles finished his paper. Nobody knew of his findings yet, not even Carol. “Jest Vobes, Impostor,” the title said. He didn’t like it one bit. But what else could he do? Bury the proof in the yard? He glanced at Grandpa’s photo, searching for guidance. A storm of doubt and determination raged within as he logged in on the International Research Hub. His fingers hovered over the submit button, trembling. With a deep, shaky breath, he made his choice and pushed the button. For better or worse, the truth about the First Great Unboxing was now out there for everyone to see.
It didn’t take long before the first calls came in. His dean told Charles he was suspended until further notice. An infamous law firm representing Vobes Unboxing Infl. told him they were suing. Friends and family asked if he was out of his mind, and complete strangers made death threats. Eventually, Carol called, too.
“Honey, the principal asked me to pick up our kids; they were being harassed on account of something you did. A colleague told me you threw dirt at Jest Vobes. What is this all about?”
“My latest research. V
obes was a fraud.”
“Oh honey, even if it’s true…” Carol used the same voice she used when talking to their children.
Charles flinched as glass shattered. Someone had thrown a cobblestone through his kitchen window! He rushed to another window and peered outside, his heart pounding with a mix of fear and disbelief. There was a crowd gathering out there. Charles had expected that his findings might go viral, but this was awfully fast.
“Honey, pick up the kids, go to your parents’ and stay there,” Charles whispered into the comm, “There’s people outside the house, and someone smashed in a window. I’ll call the police,” he said and hung up.
“Darlington Police Department,” an officer with a routined voice answered the holo-call, “How can I help you, Mr. – oh, it’s you.”
“Please, Sir, send someone over! There’s a mob in front of my house,” Charles pleaded, “And they already destroyed a window.”
“I’ll send someone.”
The officer’s voice made it clear that while he would indeed do it, he was not the least bit willing to. He hung up without another word. Outside, the mob was starting to move in, chanting a single word:
Not too long before they would pull out pitchforks and torches. What now? Sweat was flowing from Charles’ brow into his eyes. The house had no panic room, not even a basement. He could try to escape by car. But what if the mob attacked the car? He might have to run people over…
A blue light flashed outside, accompanied by a short howl of a police siren.
“Please disperse, there is nothing here to be done or seen,” a voice from a speaker croaked.
Exhausted and overwhelmed, Charles slumped into the nearest chair. Tears of relief mingled with those of fear and despair.
An hour later, Charles walked up and down in the living room, talking to Carol via vidcom.
“What did the officer say?” Carol asked.
“Since I did not see who had thrown the stone he could not arrest anyone for it,” Charles said, then sighed deeply. “I think he believed the broken window served me right.”
“Well, you can’t blame him…”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Charles snapped.
“Nothing, nothing,” Carol said, again speaking in the voice she used to calm down the kids.
“Listen,” she went on, ”I decided I am staying here with the kids until you sorted this out.”
Charles swallowed hard. “And if I can’t?” he asked.
“Please do it.”
The next morning, after a sleepless night, Charles sat in his office again, rewatching the video over and over, his sole companion an almost empty bottle of whiskey his grandfather had given him at graduation, to be opened when Charles would have his first big breakthrough.
“Now look at me, old man,” Charles slurred, “Look what I got for that precious integrity of yours.” Charles threw the bottle against the picture frame, which came crashing down.
“Truth must be told, you said. Fuck the truth. Fuck history. Should’ve become an engineer.” He slumped over and, finally, fell asleep.
When Charles awoke that evening, out of sheer habit, he opened his email inbox. His spam filter had taken care of all the hate mail. As a result, there was only one unopened mail in the inbox. Charles read with eyes watering from the drink:
Dear Mr. Groeger,
We at the Galileo University of Pregrose have been observing the developments surrounding your recent publication and ensuing events with considerable interest. It appears that your expertise and recent experiences could enrich the academic landscape of our Historical Institute. Should you find our institution aligning with your future aspirations, we would be open to discussing the potential of your integration into our faculty.
We invite you to reach out to us at your convenience to explore this possibility further.
Hypatia Lysenko, President
Pregrose. He hadn’t even dared to dream of this.
A month later, Charles sat in his new office at Pregrose after his first lecture. Next to the photo on his desk that showed him and his family in front of their new house stood the now whiskey-stained photograph of his grandfather in a new silver frame. He smiled and raised a mug of coffee to the old man.
“Guess you were right after all, Gramps.”
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