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The Trap

This is Matt Cowan's third appearance in Daily Science Fiction. A former columnist for Cracked, his fiction has also appeared in The Arcanist and Reflex Fiction, among others. He won first prize in the New Deal Writing Competition and was shortlisted for the TSS Flash Fiction 400. He is the author of more than ten novels which, depending on where you are situated within the Multiverse, are either international bestsellers, or are festering away on his hard drive and in various slush piles.

The little girl lies hunched over in the rain, crying, yet nobody stops to help her.
I take an involuntary step forward, and check myself. A couple of indistinct faces from the crowd pierce the downpour and look at me as if I am mad, then hurry off into the descending grayness.
"Mommy?" she wails. "Help!"
Tears mingle with the rain streaming down my face. I can't walk away.
Which is suicide.
It's been explained to us over and over: these crying children are not real. It's a trap. Our uninvited alien guests quickly transformed themselves into the most pitiful thing as a lure. And what makes a person react more than a weeping child?
At least, it used to.
Millions of us were duped. Nobody knows what happened to them. Were they blown up? Digested? Teleported to another planet where everyone lives in peace and harmony? All we're sure of is that they disappeared in a flash of light, along with the distressed child they stopped to help.
We who have survived assume the worst.
A perfect technique, you must confess: using our empathy against us. I wonder how many worlds it worked on before they came here.
But, as I look down at the little girl, wet hair molded to her face, eyes scrunched shut, snot dripping down her chin, it dawns on me that the trap is twice as good as I once thought. Now I see that they're breeding our empathy out of us. What will society look like in a handful of years, if all the people who live in it are unable--or unwilling--to stop and check on a weeping infant?
"Help me!"
The rain is relentless, but I stand rooted to the spot as the crowd trudges through the torrent, filing past me with their heads down.
What if this is a real human child in real pain? What if it's not?
I make my decision.
The little girl lies hunched over in the rain, crying, yet nobody stops to help her.
I take a deep breath.
I bend down.
And hold out my hand.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, May 13th, 2021

Author Comments

When I saw the children of migrants and asylum-seekers being separated from their parents at the US border, I saw the future: the greatest test our species is going to face is having empathy in a changing world. We need to learn how to offer our hands to those who are different. Yes, this could harm us. But it could also lead to our salvation. I left the story ambiguous for that reason, though I like to think the narrator is welcomed to an extra-terrestrial paradise at the end. So maybe this story should be called "The Test" instead....

- Matt Cowan
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