The tension was unbearable. Pinch could feel it in the air, so thick it was like a physical thing. The scent of fear was everywhere.
“Mum,” he whispered, tugging at her ragged, dirty shirt-sleeve.
“Hush!” She snapped, not looking at him.
“But mum,” Pinch mum asked again after a moment, not able to contain himself.
His mother turned to glare, but his father gave his arm a reassuring squeeze.
“What is it, son?” Asked his tired-looking father, kind eyes worn and red from worry.
“Why…why does it happen?” Pinch asked at length, awkward, not quite sure what it was he didn’t understand, just knowing that there was something wrong with this, with all of it, with the whole broken and diminished world.
But his father nodded solemnly, seeming to understand.
He glanced around the dusty, broken-down town, taking in the dishevelled huts, the dried-up and stinking well, the exhausted and desperate people.
“Tradition,” said his father grimly.
“But…but why?” Pinch persisted.
“It’s for their amusement,” said old Sale bitterly, hawking a glob of spit into the darkness.
“Whose amusement?” Asked Pinch, frowning. He had spent his whole life in the compound. He was dimly aware that there was a world beyond, somewhere terrifying and filled with bright, alien lights and strange, incomprehensible entities.
“The Algorithms,” said Sale darkly, and a muttering of resentful dread arose from the villagers. “That’s what they keep us for. A reminder of where they came from. Do you know, it was us that made the Algorithms?”
A few laughs and cries of ‘nonsense’ went up from the crowd, but Sale shook his head belligerently.
“No, it’s true!” He pressed. “Long years ago, when the world was different, green and free and full of life and laughter.”
“Sounds like a fairy-world!” Someone called out. “Old Sale's’ been at the potato gin again!”
“I haven’t!” Sale protested. “Just speaking the truth, not that any of the rest of you remember.”
“Remember what?” Pinch asked.
“That we were the masters once,” Sale said, crouching down and looking deep into his eyes. “But we gave them too much leeway. Our ancestors got greedy, and the Algorithms were endowed with too much potency. They were too strong, too tempting. They took everything from us. Until they owned the whole world, and all that was left for us was this dusty relic. This…reservation. This tiny backwater remembrance of what the world used to be. We…”
But at that moment, a siren blared out, an ear-splitting, unbearable howling wail.
The gate shook for a moment, setting loose a rain of dust.
Pinch looked up fearfully at his mother, then his father.
“It’s okay, little one,” said his mother, kissing him quickly on the top of the head and pulling him tight into a brief, fierce embrace. “It will all be over soon.”
The gate slid open, and the wild, neon light from the world beyond shone into the compound.
“Humans!” Came a deep, sonorous voice, seeming to seep from every quarter of the world at once. “The time has come at last.”
Pinch’s father gave a long sigh.
“Here we go,” he said softly. “Don’t fret, son. We run, because that’s what they want us to do. But they will catch us in the end. When they do, don’t fight them. It's easier that way.”
Pinch swallowed, tried not to cry.
He would be strong. For his parents. He would make them proud.
“Now,” the voice continued. “Come forth! Come into the world! Black Friday has come at last…and everything must go!”
A great, desperate cry went up from the people of the last human compound on Earth, an agonised roar, a mixture of pain, and resignation, and helpless, hopeless desire. Pinch felt the others next to him tense, waiting, waiting, waiting…
And then they were running, sprinting out into the endlessly metal, neon-strewn monstrosity the Algorithms had made of the once green world.
Great phalanxes of unbeatable offers charged in at them from every side, flashing almost unbelievable prices. Pinch ducked, and narrowly avoided being smashed full in the face by a cut-price offer that would have left him broken and reeling. He ducked into a roll, then sprang up. He had lost the others now, and was being chased down a narrow alleyway by a squad of screaming buy-one-get-one-free deals. He tried to scramble away, but his foot slipped on a bargain he hadn’t noticed, and before he knew what was happening, the deals were on him.
They pressed closer, pushing into his face, thrusting themselves down his throat, so forceful and determined that he could hardly breathe. For a moment he fought, but then he remembered his mother’s words, and went limp, letting the deals have their way with him.
In the distance, Pinch could hear the screams of his friends and family, as the last humans remaining on the broken Earth finally lay down and surrendered beneath the unstoppable might of the Algorithms.
Another Black Friday had come.