The Children of the Dead City

Dusk is coming and walking at night is no longer allowed, but the children still loiter near the black windowless building that looks like a tombstone for a giant or a town. A year ago most of their parents worked there, their hands the AI-controlled manipulators of the self-managed warehouse, but since then artificial hands have become good enough, and no more than a dozen humans tarnish the algorithmic purity of the logistics hub.

With so many residents unemployed, the town can no longer afford the software usage licenses that keep the smart city infrastructure working. Traffic lights cycle blindly without regard for people or cars. Medical help has to be called for manually, phones and buildings callously ignoring emergencies and uninterested in saving lives.

No unblinking mind watches over children on the streets. Something does, something nameless and uncaring, and parents have tried to explain that it's just an analytics company the town is selling the video feeds to, but they also tell them to be home early, and fret over their health more than before.

Like every physically vulnerable life form, children know when they are being lied to. They also know when a place is haunted.

Night has fallen, and the children finally leave the familiar presence of the warehouse's continuously thinking walls. The walk back home is scary and thrilling, the well-lighted streets only increasing the menace from the once soothing eyes on every pole and wall. The children move in packs, wordlessly alert, but some must walk alone to houses out of the way.

Not all of the children arrive on time. When apprehensive parents eventually go out searching for them, asking the city in vain for help, not all are found. A camera last saw them, a neural network recognized them, a database holds the memory. But the city is silent.

For a while no child walks unaccompanied, yet that cannot last forever, and the black monolith keeps calling to them with the familiar warmth of a place where everything sees, and thinks, and cares.