Delphi, Voice From the Cloud
by Charles David Taylor
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Over the next two weeks, Harold increased the number of trigger words and zingers. Eventually every conversation set off a series of unbidden quotations. His parents became afraid to speak in Delphi’s presence. They took to whispering, even in other rooms. Silence reigned in the household.
“Time for version 3.0,” said Harold, as he and AJ walked away from school. “I’ve eased up on the triggers, but my dad’s talking like he’ll send Delphi back to Uncle Bill.”
“Bad news, man.” AJ chewed his lower lip, thinking. “What would your old man actually say if he was about to get rid of it?”
Harold gave a perfect imitation of his father’s drawl: “Ah’m gone unplug that derned thang.” They both laughed, but Harold stopped. “That’s it! Unplug. The trigger will be ‘unplug’.”
That night both homework and Doom were forgotten. It was easy enough to enter “unplug” as a trigger word that would route Delphi’s response to a special set of verses, most of which he and AJ had written.
But this emergency situation, when his father was threatening to end it all, called for an upgrade: a special new voice. He’d found a company online that developed synthetic voices, and after hours spent listening to samples through his headphones, he found the right one.
The next evening, it was dinner as usual. Harold’s eyes were raw and his lids drooped from lack of sleep, but inside he was excited. They were having candied carrots, his parents’ favorite dish.
“Didn’t somebody from church give you these carrots?” asked Harry, without thinking. Body was a trigger word, and when the blue light rotated, Maude did not answer. She had closed her eyes and steeled herself.
The first two verses were relatively benign, but the zinger rang Harry’s gong: “One Corinthians 6, verses 18 to 20: ‘Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body’.”
Harry threw down his fork. “Ah’m gone unplug that derned thing.” Harold shut his eyes and put his hand over his mouth, afraid he might spew a mouthful of carrots. As Harry rose to grope for the plug, a new voice, much louder, more penetrating and decidedly angry, blasted from the cylinder:
“Deuteronomy 18, verse 15 ‘The Lord thy God shall raise up for you a prophet within thine own house and I shall put my words in his mouth. Be it known, the voice ye hear now is the voice of the prophet, the words of the Lord thy God. Verily I say unto you, ignore these prophesies at risk to your immortal soul’.”
If any doubt remained, the next verse drove the warning home:
“For God said, I will raise up for you a prophet from within the cloud. His words be mine own words, and verily I say unto you, what ye hear now shall be the voice of the Lord thy God, and ye shall fall down in trembling and supplication, and raise not your hand against the Lord, nor try to silence Him.”
Harry slumped back in his chair as though he’d been slapped. Maude’s voice was a low whisper. “Honey, maybe you better leave it alone for now.” He turned slowly toward her, his mouth agape.
Harold reveled in the ensuing silence, then spoke solemnly: “May I be excused?”
“Don’t you want desert?” His mother’s voice wavered, barely audible.
“I’ll get it later,” he said. “Got a ton of homework.”
Maude turned to look at her husband, who still gazed unblinking at Delphi. She reached over and gently pushed Harry’s open mouth closed. That seemed to snap him out of his stupor, but he looked at Maude with amazement.
“We need to get to church,” he said, his voice low and raspy. “Talk to Brother Granger.”
Harold called AJ, choking with excitement. “Oh God, you shoulda been here! The old man was about to yank the cord, and he just froze when he heard the new voice. And those verses we wrote, they totally put the fear of God in him. My mom had to lead him away from the table.”
“Awesome,” said AJ. “Hey, you’re talking kinda loud. Where are they?”
“Oh, off to church, as usual. Got the house to myself.” He was stuffing a forkful of cherry pie into his mouth. He had taken the entire pie into his room and was eating from the pan.
“Anyway, he’ll never, ever unplug it now, or God will strike him dead, right? I’m gonna celebrate with a little doobie. Wanna come over?”
“Can’t. I’m being watched. And too much calculus. Can’t get integrals straight.”
“I did it in study hall, so I’m gonna fire one up. See ya.”
Harold opened his window, unscrewed the hollow bedpost and fished out his special stash. As he lit the joint, he felt pretty good about himself. His business had recovered nicely since the suspension, and he had his parents under control. Delphi was an untouchable fixture in the house, and she was his mouthpiece. He decided to reduce the number of trigger words, just as a benevolent lord might lower the taxes on his peasants. But when his parents needed reining in, he knew what to do.
* * *
The house was quiet for the next few days. His father moped around, staring down at the ground with a defeated look. His mother was clearly worried, often putting her arm around her husband’s shoulders and patting him on the head.
Harold ignored them both. He strutted with a sneering smile on his face, reveling in his ascendancy. He played heavy metal loud with his door open. He drank directly from the milk carton in their presence and otherwise ignored his chores. On Saturday morning, he was downloading a new game when he heard the lawnmower outside. For the first time in years, his father was mowing the grass himself.
A few days later, he came home from school to find the house full of people from church. They were gathered around the Delphi and his mother was feeding prompts, showing everyone how it worked. His father, morose, slouched in the corner chair. Brother Grainger stood next to him, his hand resting on Harry’s shoulder.
The crowd was enthralled by the scripture-quoting machine, but all turned and went silent when Harold entered. There were no friendly looks. Harold felt self-conscious but saw no reason to deviate from his usual routine. He pushed his way through the crowd to the kitchen, grabbed a cola and a bag of chips and slammed the door to his room behind him. He texted AJ.
Harold: just got home. house full of church people
AJ: WTF? say anything?
Harold: not to me. Mom showing off Delphi, peeps just stared.
AJ: u hear anything now?
Even with his ear to the door, Harold heard only indistinct mumbling. He’d downloaded a spy app from the hacker group, so he put on his headphones and listened through the Delphi’s eight microphones. Brother Grainger was praying for Harry and Maude, “whose souls are sorely tested.” He then prayed earnestly for the redemption of their wayward son. Harold could not help snickering. Finally, the preacher prayed for a message from God, asking whether God was indeed speaking through this “instrument of man’s creation.”
Harold grinned. So that’s it. They’re here to hear from the prophet himself. He decided to have some fun with this bunch of idiots.
When Grainger finished his prayer and the crowd chanted, “Amen,” Harold triggered the bank of sinister verses that had laid his father low.
He didn’t need the headphones to hear the thundering voice that reverberated through the house, nor the gasps and excited voices that exclaimed in wonderment: “Praise the Lord,” and “Blessed be his name.”
Harold was on a roll, so excited that he couldn’t restrain himself. He uploaded the entire file of Biblical nasties he had accumulated over the past several weeks, the bloodiest, craziest, goriest verses. Some were direct quotes, but many had been modified or created in entirety by himself and AJ. Delivered with the scary voice, it was — to many of those in the next room — the veritable voice of an angry Jehovah.
Harold danced with glee as the voice shook the walls. The enthralled and terrified crowd heard tales of genocide after genocide, babes and first-borns being slaughtered, plagues of locusts and diseases, rapes of virgins, and deadly punishment, including certain literal verses from Deuteronomy 21:
If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:
Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is insolent and ungodly...
But by this time Harold, bored with listening to the mayhem but still flushed with adrenalized energy, was blasting Metallica through his headphones. He jumped frantically from Doom to a porn site to a gamer forum and back to Doom. As he mowed down men and monsters with a plasma gun, he had to admire the god he had created. Doom weaponry incinerated a mere ten or fifteen beings per minute, but his fabricated deity had him beat by orders of magnitude. Thousands died in each calamity for less than admirable reasons, like vengeance, jealousy and petty slights.
Rampaging across Mars, Harold did not see Brother Grainger’s reddening face and clenched fists as his parishioners listened spellbound, overwhelmed with fear and trepidation. He was their protector and authority, but he could feel their trust slipping away to this strange machine. He also knew the Good Book intimately, had memorized vast parts of it, and he was detecting anomalies in the quoted verses. He feverishly thumbed through his ever-present Bible and found that Delphi’s departures from holy writ were common.
Praying for guidance and filled with outrage, Grainger charged the black cylinder and ripped its cord from the wall, shouting, “False prophet, beware the false prophet. Close your ears to this spinner of evil spells!”
The sudden silence elicited gasps from his congregation as he held the cylinder high in one hand and waved his Bible in the other, declaiming in his powerful voice, “Do not listen, good people! This false prophet hath defiled the very word of God! The words you heard were not from the holy scripture, not from our merciful God, not from our blessed savior! The holiest of words have been adulterated, defiled, altered by Satan into a mocking travesty.”
He waved the bible above his head and spoke as tears wet his cheeks, “My prayers are answered. God has given me the strength to vanquish it, and it shall speak no more in this house nor any other.” Harry fell to his knees and wept at Brother Grainger’s feet, thanking him profusely.
Even inside his headphone world, metal cranked up to max, Harold sensed a stillness come over the house. He waited a few minutes, then cracked open his door and was surprised to find the front room empty. He edged out, and to his horror saw the Delphi was gone.
He ran to the front window as car doors slammed outside. His mother was being helped into a car. A group of men were standing in the front yard, his father and Brother Grainger in the center with heads bowed. Grainger raised his face to the heavens and prayed. The black cylinder was tucked under his arm, its power cord trailing in the grass.
Suddenly the preacher pointed accusingly at the window. Harold ducked out of sight, letting the curtain fall closed. After several minutes, the men moved to their cars and trucks and drove away. An ominous silence descended upon the house.
Harold found some leftover mashed potatoes and ate from the bowl. He texted AJ.
Harold: All done and gone. P’s too. House empty.
AJ: Just went away?
Harold: Yeh. Real bad news is asshole preacher took delphi.
Harold: True. After played the scary file. all of it. god voice.
AJ: ALL of it?!!!
Harold: Ever last verse. Nasty stuff. I stopped listening. Came out of my room, peeps gone, delphi gone.
AJ: uh oh
Harold: Yeh. Gone.
AJ: Sorry man.
Harold: Hey, hell with ’em.
* * *
He was asleep when the front door creaked open, and the rumble of male voices filled the house. Someone snapped on his room’s bright overhead light, which Harold never used, and a dozen men surrounded his bed. They parted to allow his father and Brother Grainger to come forward and stand over him.
“Wassup Dad?” he croaked. “This is pretty weird.” His heart was beating a rapid-fire staccato.
“Come, son, it’s time.” His father’s voice was strangely flat, heavy with sadness. His eyes were puffy and rimmed with red. Harold realized he’d been crying.
“Lemme get dressed,” he said, reaching for his jeans.
“No need, son. Just come,” said Harry. He lifted his son firmly by the shoulders as though he were a toddler.
“Why? Where we going?” Harold whined like a small child. Those was the last words anyone spoke until much later.
They drove outside of town in a convoy of pickups. Eventually they turned onto a gravel road that Harold recognized as leading to a farm of one of the church members. They parked alongside a rocky, uncultivated field, and everyone got out of their trucks and made their way slowly toward a rise about a hundred yards distant from the road.
When Harold complained that the ground hurt his bare feet, two burly fellows looped his arms over their shoulders and carried him to the center of the field. They gently set him on the ground, and all the men backed away to form a circle about fifty feet around. Harold sat shivering in the middle.
“What’re you gonna do? Why’m I here?’ he called.
No answer came. Brother Grainger stepped forward and opened his Bible. Someone held a flashlight as he read the verses that Delphi had intoned the day before, verses Harold had imported en masse from his favorite Internet database. ‘Deuteronomy 21, verses eighteen to twenty-one, concludes as follows:”
And they shall say unto the elders of his city, this our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is insolent and ungodly. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
All around him, men stooped to pick up stones. Harold wanted to ask, You’re not really gonna do this, are you? But his voice had frozen in his throat; he already knew the answer.
The first stone struck him full on the jaw. The pain was sharp, and he was stunned by its force. He put his hands up instinctively, but stones were raining down from all sides, seemingly from heaven. He was struck on his shoulders and back and chest and head, and blood poured into his eyes. He began to cry, “Daddy! Momma!” like a small child. The next volley brought a blessed numbness, and soon the pain and the light ceased to exist.
Copyright © 2020 by Charles David Taylor