Delphi, Voice From the Cloud
by Charles David Taylor
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
When he woke, it was dark outside. Tea and toast were on a tray next to the bed, just like when he was sick. His entire backside, from shoulders to feet, was covered with striped welts, and he wondered how he could dress and go to school. Then he remembered he wouldn’t be going to school for another twenty-nine days. Plenty of time to heal, he thought bitterly.
And a second, angrier thought: Plenty of time to get back at them.
For the next three days, he did not leave his room while his parents were home. He left his mother’s food trays untouched for two days, until he realized that going hungry was pointless and only added to his misery. On the third day, when his parents left for work, he ransacked the refrigerator and left a mess in the kitchen, food wrappers scattered across the floor and salad dressing smeared on the counter. But he cleaned it up before they came home. He felt like a stranger in their house, and he did not want to leave himself open to censure for any reason.
Left alone all day, he spent most of his time standing at the computer because he could not bear to sit. He fantasized about calling the police, or the FBI. Wasn’t child abuse a crime? After some research, he discovered that corporal punishment was allowed in his state, both at home and in schools. No federal laws touched on it. He pictured his parents standing humbly before a sympathetic judge, making a plea based on religion.
Several days later, in the evening, he lay on his bed in the dark, listening to his parents in the kitchen. His mom was cooking dinner, and Delphi was playing The Old Rugged Cross. He hated himself for giving them the “Scriptures to Live By” app, and he resented how Delphi had become such an integral part of their lives. Worse, he hated his helplessness, knowing he would eventually have to emerge from his room and resume a semblance of normal life.
He heard his mother’s voice. “Delphi, recite a Bible verse.” Harold gritted his teeth.
“Matthew 6, verses 33 and 34 says, ‘But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself’.”
“Ain’t that a wonderful notion, Harry?” said Maude, banging her spoon on the side of the pan.
“Yes it is, dear,” said Harry. The paper rustled as he turned the page.
An idea glimmered within the bitterness of Harold’s mind, and for the first time in a week he almost smiled. He didn’t yet know how, but Delphi would be the instrument of his revenge.
But first he had to fool them into thinking everything was back to normal. When he heard plates being set on the table, he steeled himself and opened the door. Not making eye contact, he walked past his mother and sat at his accustomed place across from his father.
“Well, look what the cat drug in,” said his father with the slightest smile.
“Harold, you want gravy on your potatoes?” chimed his mother. Harold nodded and stared down at his plate. He maintained that gaze throughout the meal. There was no reason to rush things. His plan was still unformed, gestating. But his first step was an expression, however false, of contrition.
He woke the next morning to the clatter of dishes and more Bible verses. He wanted to stay in bed until the door slammed behind his parents, but a large envelope had been thrust under his door and curiosity got the better of him. It was a packet of college materials, the usual glossy brochure and admission forms, but he was alarmed by where it was from: Silas Burdine Christian College, a small fundamentalist Bible school located in a tiny upstate community a hundred miles from the nearest city. A note in his mother’s handwriting said, “Harold, please fill out these forms.”
Forgetting his vow of silence, he stormed out of his room and threw the packet down on the living room coffee table. His parents were putting on their jackets, preparing to leave the house.
“I’m not going. It’s a crummy school and a waste of money.” His voice was trembling.
His father zipped up his jacket and spoke calmly, clearly expecting this reaction. “Then you ain’t goin’ at all, son. It’s there or nowhere.”
“Brother Grainger went to Burdine,” said his mother, reverentially. “We prayed over it. He said it was a life-changing experience.”
“And he says he could get you in,” echoed Harry. “In spite of your record.”
It was a mean jab, but Harold spat out his own cruel retort as he marched back to his room: “As if you two know anything about college.”
Back in his room, he kicked the trashcan, scattering detritus across the floor. He cursed the mess, then cursed himself for losing his temper. He was supposed to be faking contrition, not making the rift worse. His parents were extremely sensitive about not having any college and flinging that deficit in their faces was a tactical mistake.
Burdine would be more than a disaster. He doubted they even had a computer science department. With his grades and test scores, the school counselor had assured him he could expect at least a partial scholarship to the state university, where he hoped to lose himself in its vast student body and rarely, maybe never, go home again. But that plan required at least some support from his parents, both cash and co-signing of loans. Now they had ruled that out.
He had to pull himself together, set aside the anger. It was time to get to work.
* * *
For the rest of the day, he scoured the internet, his creative energies fueled by a mad mixture of fear and anger. A plan was forming in his mind. He found a large community of Delphi hackers, but most of the tools he needed to get started were on the company’s home site. They were encouraging developers to create their own apps in order to increase the Delphi’s usefulness.
By mid-afternoon, he’d written pages of notes and made a dozen flowcharts. He worked harder than on any school project. He was hellbent on constructing a fiendishly clever app that would shake up his parents’ world.
A few minutes before four, the doorbell rang. He jumped, startled out of an intense concentration. But it was only a smirking A.J., who had volunteered to ferry assignments and homework between school and the exile. Harold was more than ready to relax and brag about his plan.
AJ barged in and dumped a load of papers on the couch. “Whatcha waiting for, asshole? Fire it up.”
While they smoked, careful to exhale out the window, Harold explained.
“I’m doing a mod on the scripture app. You know how it just pulls up any old verse from their database of inspirational crap? Well with my app, you can ask for specific topics. I found a website where they’ve categorized a zillion Bible verses under hundreds of categories, anything you can think of.”
“Like what?” asked AJ, trying to hold in his breath.
“Oh, standard religious stuff, like ‘church’ and ‘prayer’ of course, but also tons of weird topics like ‘alchemy’ and ‘phobias,’ even ‘zombies’.”
AJ’s exhale came out in a whoosh. “What?!” He giggled. “Zombies in the Bible?”
“Yeah, Zechariah 14, verse 12. Look it up. They don’t call ’em ‘zombies’ but same concept. Living dead, rotting flesh.” He inhaled quickly and coughed.
“Anyway, here’s how it’s gonna go down. Let’s say my mom asks it for a Bible verse about ‘the future’ or the ‘prophets’ or ‘sex’—”
AJ snorted. “Your mom? Sex? Not in a thousand years.”
The thought made Harold uncomfortable, too, and he forced his swirling mind back on topic. “So... the app goes to the website, searches that topic and reads off the verses.”
“Sweet,” said AJ, sucking in another lungful. “But sounds like you’re just making the old app better. Where’s the revenge in that?”
“Right, but here’s the cool part,” said Harold. “I’ve been collecting bummer verses in a special database. Creepy, crazy stuff about murder, rape, incest, genocide. I call these my zingers.”
AJ shook his head. “I don’t remember no ‘zingers’ in Sunday school.”
“You wouldn’t, not in your goody-goody church.” AJ’s parents were Methodists, far removed from the New Life fundamentalists. “You think your teacher’s gonna expose you kids to murdering babies or killing gays?” AJ looked doubtful, but Harold grinned. “I’m telling you, man, the Good Book is full of it.”
AJ shook his head. “Great idea, yeah. Sounds like a lot of work though, digging up all that evil inside the Bible.”
Harold laughed. “No, no, it’s totally easy. Seriously, there’s more Bible crap on the internet than porn! Just Google ‘scary Bible quotes’ and see what you get.”
AJ closed his eyes to think. “Let’s back up. You’re gonna feed your parents grim and gross when they’re expecting sweet and inspiring. I get it. But they’ll just stop listening, is what I think. Your dad’s gonna unplug Delphi and toss that bitch out the window.”
Harold looked thoughtful. “Yeah, could happen. But I’ll sneak it up on them. What about this: the app always reads one or two verses, so the first ones are normal, only the last one will be a zinger. Dimwits are thinking about the first verses, so when the last one comes along, zap! They won’t know what hit ’em.”
AJ was nodding, grinning, and Harold continued. “If they start getting bummed out, I’ll dial back on the hard stuff, maybe leave the zingers out for a while. I mean, how will they know a fiendish mind is behind it all, running the show?”
AJ beamed. “Like I always said, Harold, you are a genius. A genius fiend.”
They high-fived, and Harold grinned like the devil. That’s what he liked most about AJ, his open admiration.
Other problems were quickly solved. What if they just stopped asking for verses? He greatly increased the number of trigger words so that some normal words would call up a string of verses. If they stopped talking for a while, Delphi would spontaneously deliver verses, including a zinger, of course.
Some of the zingers were too lengthy or obscure, so he and AJ could edit them, or just write their own verses. He figured his parents were too gullible to check the citation.
What he didn’t yet have was a plan for the nuclear option: if and when his father had enough and just yanked out the cord.
* * *
That night he rolled out version 1.0 and explained it over dinner. “I improved the scripture program. Now you can ask her to quote verses about specific subjects.”
Harry gave him a blank look and continued chewing his meatloaf. His mother was at the stove, stirring gravy. “I don’t understand, Harold.”
A demonstration was in order. Harold said, “Delphi, quote Bible verses about church.”
The blue light rolled. “Finding Bible verses about church... Matthew 16, verse 18, Jesus says, ‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’.”
Two more innocuous verses related to the church followed. No zingers, not yet.
“She does two or three verses at a time,” he explained. “Isn’t that cool?”
His father nodded and actually stopped chewing. “You did that?” Harold explained that it wasn’t hard, just a little tweak. He thought they would like it. His mother’s eyes seemed to grow misty. “Well, I ’swan, Harold. I am so proud of you!”
He almost felt guilty, knowing what was about to descend upon the two of them. But when his mother squeezed his shoulder, the still-healing welts made him wince, and his resolve stiffened.
* * *
A few days later, the week before returning to school, he began adding the zingers. His mother was cooking, his father was sitting at the table reading the paper, and he was cloistered in his room, an ear to the door. He waited, pulse pounding.
After some small talk and deciding they would go to church around 7:30, his mother said, “Delphi, tell me some Bible verses about church.”
Harold was disappointed in his mother’s lack of imagination, and the soothing voice repeated the same first two verses from his demonstration. But the third quote was a zinger, though only a mild one.
“One Peter 5, verse 8 says, ‘Be sober-minded, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour’.”
Harold strained against the door but heard only silence. His mother’s chopping had stopped. He could imagine her exchanging quizzical looks with her husband.
A rustling sound as Harry lowered the paper. “Well, ain’t that somethin’ to ponder on,” he said.
His mother resumed chopping carrots. She did not ask Delphi for more verses.
On the other side of the door, Harold held his hand over his mouth to contain his laughter. He was texting AJ as his mother called him to dinner.
It worked!! Say who the baddest hacker ever was?
AJ came back: U the ONE the baddest fiendish genius!!
Predictably, his mother and father called on Delphi less and less over the next week, so he increased the number of trigger words. The night before he returned to school, Harold again sat with his ear pressed to the door crack. His mother was stirring the stew, his father rustled the paper. They said nothing for several minutes, then his mother spoke.
“Harry, you ready to eat?”
“Eat” was a trigger word. Harold held his breath.
In the other room, Delphi’s resonant voice quoted two innocuous verses related to eating, and in the brief pause that followed, his mother asked, “Did you ask her to talk?”
Harold pictured his father shaking his head, as Delphi ended the unsolicited recitation with a zinger: “One Corinthians 6, verse 12 says, ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body’.”
Complete silence ensued. Harold opened the door and asked innocently, “Dinner ready yet?” They both turned to him, shock writ upon their faces. It took all his self-control to hold in a guffaw.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Charles David Taylor