(cover art by amoxli)
“Decidedly worse than death.”
That’s what the local news says about it.
It’s a bit of a hyperbole, isn’t it? Being “killed” on social media.
Seems like only yesterday when robots were the new invention poised to make a social revolution, when the internet was for computer nerds and deviants. Back then it would have been hard to imagine today, a world where social networking is so pervasive, so important in society that it could ruin people’s lives if used improperly. That it could really be like murder.
But it must feel a lot like death to the victims. A few strokes on a keyboard, a hard press on an enter key… That’s all it takes. Something like walking at night, the street lights sparse and the air cool around you, and then someone grabbing you by the shoulder and plunging a virtual knife into your virtual body, your not-so-virtual secrets spraying out like blood.
That is the handiwork of the Social Media Killer.
Nobody really knows what they want, or who they are, or how they’re doing it. It’s without a clear pattern, without any sort of motive– it’s just a person and their dirty laundry revealed. To really twist that nonexistent-knife, the hacks are typically done right on the victims’ own accounts on Netnect. Whatever misdeeds they performed, whatever crimes they committed, it all ends up online on their public profiles.
People are excited as much as they are terrified. Walking around town, it’s easy to see people strolling past the news terminals, talking in hushed whispers about who could be next, about whose skeletons will be tossed out of the closet. As long as you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t have anything to fear, but it looks like everyone’s afraid.
Ironically, that’s what’s made the Social Media Killer so popular. They swoop in, slice up a few cretins, and drop off to let the news media take care of the rest. Whether it’s a barista stealing from the register or a retail CEO screaming at his wife, the Social Media Killer’s only discrimination is if you’ve done wrong. With no real identity, they’re like a vigilante superhero, or maybe supervillain. And with every digital corpse littering the digital streets, their fame, digital or not, only grows.
I don’t care much for any of it.
To me, the internet, social media, is all a waste of time. It’s not like I’m too productive a member of society; in fact, I have made very firm plans with the couch cushions to meet them at precisely seven o’clock to catch the new episode of The Scott Stutzman Show. And it’s not like I’m a luddite quested with destroying technology, either. I for one believe, no matter how many laws and regulations we have, that eventually all the world’s computers are going to merge into some sort of hivemind and ascend to a higher plane of existence or whatever. But I think it’s a pretty big drain on your own life to spend so much of it posting online, especially when people like the Social Media Killer can take advantage of that.
If everyone wasn’t so obsessed with their own social lives we wouldn’t have a social media serial hacker in the first place. But that is asking a lot in today’s world.
All I’ll say is I knew I was going to get wrapped up in all this nonsense, and the day has finally come, because I’m answering five phone calls a minute redirecting panicked clients and trying to reassure them that, no, they aren’t about to lose all their money.
Oh, I should probably tell you about that. You might have heard the word “clients” and asked, “What do you do?” I’m not some young stockbroker or drug kingpin or anything. Just Morgan Harding, a part-time assistant clerk at the Peach Towers branch of the Atlanta Cares Bank, the seventh-biggest bank in the city.
Not the type of revelation that blows anyone away, I know. Perfectly regular, with absolutely nothing to hide, nope, definitely not.
I’m supposed to be organizing some paper files today, but this week was apparently the perfect time to fire half the part-time staff to cut costs. So now I’m the one stationed at the phone redirecting everyone’s calls. I have no expertise to help any of these people, but it seems like not one will let me explain that without going on a three-minute rant before I can put them on hold.
My boss, Mr. Gheb Larkins, is here too, but right now he’s in his office taking a call of his own, his veins popping as he speaks. A short and pudgy man who has only grown more testy as his hair has receded, Mr. Larkins is usually the type of boss to yell at any and every person that gets in his way.
Today, that person is the Social Media Killer.
Yep, this bank was targeted, indirectly, earlier today; five employees from our biggest investment client, Blyth Industries, were “killed” on social media. It may not be as big of a headline as a pop singer bribing her way out of a DUI, but it has sent a shockwave through the financial sector. These employees had been, according to the Social Media Killer, avoiding paying income taxes for years, using the Blyth accounting offices to cover it all up.
“These five have been a leech on Atlanta,” the manifesto posted on each of the employees’ accounts reads. “I am seething in anger that they can live in their comfy houses in the suburbs without giving a cent to anyone else. What about those that can barely survive a week on their paychecks? What about the underfunded schools with underpaid teachers using outdated standards? These people don’t care. And they were using their own company to hide their crimes, as if the corrupt corporate system is the ultimate safety net. They were wrong.”
The Blyth Industries stock price has dropped twenty percent in the last six hours, and now we are really trying hard here at Atlanta Cares to convince people not to withdraw their entire accounts at once because that would be a very bad, very stupid idea.
There’s a small CRT television nestled up in the corner of the room for employees and customers to watch while things are slow. Right now things ain’t slow one bit, but everyone’s gaze is still fixed on the news broadcast as they go over today’s revelations. The robotic anchors, delivering the headlines with the fervor only a local news reporter could muster, prattle on about this and that and of course the Social Media Killer themself.
What’s more interesting to me than the TV though is the small analog clock next to it, displaying the time as 4:57 PM. Just three more minutes…
The TV begins blasting breaking news, a new speech by City Councilman Kendrick Deal where he blasts Mayor Epstein for allowing all this corporate corruption and moral infidelity to fester in Atlanta, urging him to resign now. The next election isn’t for over two years, but that won’t stop him from transparently angling for the position.
This kind of stuff is the reason why I’m leaving Atlanta.
I’ve just had too much of it. All the drama, all the politics, all the intrigue– there’s nothing that epitomizes living in Atlanta more than hearing about tech companies floundering and the mayor cheating on his wife or a serial hacker celebrity. It wears on you after a while, and you just want to get away. Or I do, at the very least.
I begin packing my bags and take a bite of a granola bar I’ve been saving all afternoon. “Zany Bar: Now with Cyber-Proteins,” the label reads. I can barely comprehend my own food anymore…
As soon as that clock strikes five, though, I’m jetting out of here, and it doesn’t matter how many calls I have on hold right now. There is still one person at my ear, yelling into the receiver about how loyal they’ve been to Atlanta Cares all these years and how they are demanding to talk to the manager, or his boss, or anyone who will listen. I can’t wait to hang up on them.
Or better yet… Right on time, Mr. Larkins bursts out of his office, shoulders shaking and his right fist clutching his cellular phone.
“Damn it all to hell!” he shouts to nobody in particular. His accent is rough, that kind of urban New Jersey tone that makes everything sound just a bit angrier. Everyone in the bank turns to him, giving uniformly confused glances before turning back to the TV.
“Sir… Sir?” I call out.
He continues stomping around the office for a moment before turning around to face me. “What, Harding?”
“Uh, phone call.”
He turns his back away. “I’m done with that bullshit! Tell them to screw off!”
“I apologize for any technical difficulties we may be having,” I tell the caller. “I’ll connect you to someone the moment anyone’s available. Your call is important to us, but we are–”
An angry click.
Larkins continues to yell but I try to ignore it while I end the calls on hold that hadn’t gotten a banker to talk to. “I’m gonna find ‘em and kill ‘em myself,” he growls. He tosses his cellular against the wall and it breaks into two pieces right along the hinge. Then he storms back into his office and slams the door shut. While he gets mad as easily as most short people, this time really is different. He’s taking this harder than usual.
The moment five o’clock hits, metal bars automatically lower into the entranceway, blocking us from the rest of the mall. I guess it’s time to go home, then. And it’s been a long day. Tonight is Tuesday Night Laughs, so all the best sitcoms and sketch comedies have their new episodes airing, and that is the comfort I will collapse into. I think after The Scott Stutzman Show I might take a nice bath, assuming my hot water is working tonight, and then never think about social media ever again until my shift tomorrow.
Or I could just quit.
As I grab my bag and stretch my legs, I look back into Larkins’s office. He just sits at his computer desk staring at the monitor and clicking on his mouse, expression blank. One of the straps to his suspenders is hanging precariously off his shoulder. I’d ask him about it, but… I’m off the clock.
I exit through the back of the bank. From there I take my usual route out of Peach Towers. By this late in the afternoon, the upper floor offices are mostly deserted, but the lower floors consist of a mega-sized shopping mall and the crowds will soon grow to insane levels. From what I remember, there’s some promotion this evening for those Dreamtech Helmets that are about to come out, with some demos set up and free cans of Bustable lemonade to give out to participants. I better get out before then.
Luckily, my trip isn’t that far; I just take an elevator down to floor forty-nine, where there’s a movie theater multiplex as well as a few hologram booths set up, all of them occupied with people playing online games or calling their families overseas. The main feature of this floor, though, is that it’s doubles at the skylift platform for Peach Towers.
Atlanta’s sky rail system is only available in the downtown areas and mostly exists for tourists and high-rise condo owners to travel between skyscrapers. It runs on par with any other form of transit around here, but the only reason I use it is because it takes me longer to get to the ground floor and take a bus to my apartment than it does to take the sky rail and get off a block away.
In this city, something brand-new is strange, almost alien. We’ve been the number-one city in the world for decades now, and everything’s kind of ground to a halt. The highways are cracked, the fences are rusted, and the public computers run operating systems older than me. Even the sky rail, once hailed as an icon of progress, is now regarded as an eyesore in the skyline. Atlanta looks practically the same as it did twenty years ago, right down to the crop-tops and dumb-as-doornails robots.
A reflection of my own damn life, is what it is.
I imagine I’m far from the only twentysomething to get this sudden burst of ennui, but it still really sucks. What the hell am I doing here?
I get on the zipline bus, inhabited mostly by bored salarymen reading newspapers and a few robots returning to their charging ports. There’s one teenage girl standing by the window; she presses a button on her watch and it expands into a full keyboard and touchscreen combo; it’s one of those fancy portable PCs that’s become a lot cheaper recently so now suddenly everyone has them. It looks unwieldy and is in a boring cream color, but the ability to use the internet and play games on the go without having to balance a laptop on your knee makes it worth putting up with the kinks.
I don’t particularly want one, but I sure wish I could AFFORD one.
You see, that’s the real kicker. I quit school after my A-levels because I thought university was useless and I wasn’t interested in any trades. I thought it’d be better to get straight to working… and now I’ve been stuck in an endless cycle of going-nowhere slave wage jobs and I can still barely afford to make rent every month. If I had stayed in school, I’d only be graduating this April, but at least I’d soon be making enough money to afford anything.
I glance at the teenager’s computer screen, where she is reading an article about– drumrolls, everyone– the Social Media Killer. She sends a message to her friend asking if she’s seen the news about the Blyth employees, and then they reply to each other in a rapid series of emoticons. That they even care about some tech company employees is a testament to how popular these “killings” have become.
This city might have become a cultural capital in recent decades, but currently that culture is captive to the caustic whims of a computer hacker, dangling the city like a marionette puppet. And we just keep dancing.
Or, they just keep dancing, I guess. I’m certainly not going to. Not a single jig.
The skylift bus glides down the rail, smooth like a roller coaster, but louder than you’d hope for. It zooms around skyscrapers and descends towards the ground, the scenic view disappearing into a blur. Soon it stops in front of the local Yum Mart, where I swipe my card and step off. Most of the others on this bus are headed for the parts of the city worth visiting, and not the shitty eight-hundred-a-month apartments for poor people, so I’m one of the only ones to exit. I would be going to Yum Mart first, but I’m actually headed towards their fiercest convenience store competitor Fami, partly because it’s closer to my place, and partly because they’ve got much better eclairs.
My cellular beeps. Uh-oh. Is it Larkins, trying to summon me back for overtime? I answer the phone. “Hello?”
It’s the baritone vocals of my older brother Mark. “Hiya, Morgan,” he says.
“Oh, hey. How are you doing?”
By the time I was born Mark was already fifteen, and he left home before I started elementary school. Now he has a wife and three kids and his own graphic design firm down in Tallahassee. We’ve grown closer in the past few years, and he stays at my apartment when he comes into town for meetings, but we’re still a generation apart, and our conversations always have that disconnect.
“Been good enough,” he tells me. “I’ve been working on all the stuff you asked about. I’ve found a few listings you might like, right near the streetcar lines and still pretty cheap.”
“Thanks a lot. Send them to my e-mail and I’ll look them over next time I’m off work.”
“Aren’t you off work already?” Mark asks.
“Well yeah, but…” I was gonna watch TV and take a bath… “I’ll, uh, look at it tonight if I can.”
I pass a liquor store and then reach the eight-story run-down shack that one could technically call my apartment complex. I exaggerate a little; sure, the apartment might be kind of musty and sometimes I can’t get the doorknob to budge without shoving it, but I do get to live in the downtown. There’s only a few gang members gathering in the parking lot tonight, to boot.
Of course, first I’m headed across the street to the local Fami. I greet the human cashier (not using robots is a big part of their marketing plan, for some reason) and pick up this glorious snack we call an eclair.
“Good to know,” says Mark. “How’s your progress on… well, getting ready to leave?”
Yeah, about that.
I haven’t done jack shit.
“It’s going pretty well, still in the early stages,” I say. “I still haven’t done much packing.”
Or told my boss.
Or told anyone, for that matter.
A knot forms in my stomach.
“Just remember, even if you don’t find a place immediately, my home is always open to–”
“I couldn’t accept it,” I tell Mark. “But thanks.”
“Just keep me informed,” he says, with a more formal tone. I hope I didn’t hurt his feelings. It’s just… I would genuinely feel terrible making his family put up with me like that.
“I definitely will. And… I’ll say hi to the sister for you.”
“You… don’t have to,” he says.
I have no idea what I’m doing in my life. I want to leave, I want to change something about this cycle of work, home, sleep, work, fight, home sleep, but I have made no forward motion. Mark seems so enthusiastic about having me down there, but… the inertia has been strong. I’ve got to change that soon.
Today is March 21st, the second day of spring, and the trees look to be in full bloom. The weather is warm but not yet fiery, and the air is nice and fresh. It gives me a pretty good feeling just to walk around. However, after a long day of dealing with the Social Media Killer and all that that entails, I feel more than tired enough to just go straight home and lay down on the sofa. And that’s what I do.
My apartment is on the sixth floor. The elevator never works, naturally. I try not to complain about my living situation too much, but it never works, as you have just witnessed. I can’t resist a good opportunity to complain.
As I open my apartment and a bland odor enters my nose, I realize I do have a lot of junk and trash laying around. Not quite hoarder level, but I’d have a hard time getting past my landlord’s inspection if I tried to leave with everything looking like this.
The kitchen is particularly dirty. There’s a lot of dishes left over from the last time my friend Karina and I made a shepherd’s pie. That was almost two weeks ago…
It’s such a pain… but so is living in Atlanta as some sort of aimless layabout. I need to make something of myself. Do something that actually matters in life. Besides all the… you know, the stuff with risking my life and limb all the time.I’d prefer that not be my sole purpose in life, either.
Might as well start tidying up now, I suppose. It’s Spring Cleaning time, isn’t it? I’ll start wiping down the cabinets and countertop while I heat up a can of spaghetti and dice some canned ham. Together with my eclair I’ll have quite the well-rounded meal. I open up the pantry and–
It’s not here. My canned ham.
On cue, I hear some rustling in the bedroom.
Three men in all-black and ski masks, each of them holding baseball bats, emerge. One of them is also holding an empty can that held what was going to be my dinner. I wouldn’t be angry if he had just asked.
“What are you fellows up to?” I ask, smiling but balling up my fists.
“Is your name Morgan Harding?” the man in the center asks, clearly the leader of this trio. He has some other weapon attached to his belt but I can’t make out what it is.
“No, it’s not,” I say. “Sorry.”
The guy on the left turns to the guy in the center. “Crap, did we get the wrong place? I could have sworn–”
“Shut up,” the leader says. “Morgan Harding, we really don’t want anything to happen to you or your–” he glances at some dirty underwear lying in the corner of the living room. “–your lovely place here. But we need you to answer a few questions.”
“Of course, I’m open to anything,” I say. “Especially since you asked so nicely.”
“Alright. What do you know about the Social Media Killer?”
“Is that really the all-important question?” I ask. “You’re going to break into my house to ask me THAT?”
“Tell us what you know.”
This has got to be the dumbest home invasion of my entire life. Well, top three. “Get out of here. I don’t need this crap tonight,” I say. “My favorite show is on in twenty-five minutes.”
“Oh yeah?” the guy on the left scoffs. He swings his bat into my TV and smashes the glass. Shards fly out all over the floor.
“That cost me two hundred dollars! What are you doing?”
“You idiot, we weren’t at that part– Whatever.” The leader sighs and shrugs. “Just… tell us everything you know about the Social Media Killer. If you don’t, we’ll be forced to take more, er, drastic measures.”
I don’t respond. I just attack. I reel my fist back and launch forward, pummelling the leader in the face. He goes flying and crashes into the wall, knocking over all the books and video tapes on my shelf.
Still conscious, the thug lifts his head up and shouts, “Alright, boys! Rough’em up!”
The other two start spreading out, trying to get me on all sides so I can’t escape. The one trying to get behind me is too slow– I extend my leg underneath him and he trips, falling on his face.
The man still standing comes at me and sends a volley of swings and kicks. I dodge each of them, my reflexes too fast for him to respond to. I kneel down and uppercut him, pushing my fist into his chin and sending him flying twelve feet in the air. He crashes against the ceiling and tumbles back down. He’s not getting up for a minute.
You know what? I’ve got this. I can win this, as–
–as long as I’m paying attention…
A baseball bat definitely hit me on the back of the head, coming from the thug I tripped.
The world starts rotating around the way you see in the movies when a newspaper headline appears on the screen. Only there’s no newspaper. I crash onto my coffee table. It collapses under my weight.
A moment later I spring back to my feet and shake it off.
While my head continues to spin, I swing my arms wildly in any direction they’ll go. I get hit with a few more baseball bat swings, but I’m able to push him away and step back to create some distance.
The leader, now fully back on his feet, drops his bat and pulls out a wand. Oh, it’s one of those Magitek weapons– those stupid novelty items designed to mimic a fantasy novel. It’s not as innocent as it seems, though, because it shoots out a jolt of electricity that hits me and surges through my body.
It didn’t do anything.
The leader tries to zap me again, but the shock doesn’t do more than tingle. So I lunge forward and punch the guy next to him; he lights up in sparks of electricity before stumbling over and falling against my countertop. That’s what you get for bringing a taser to a knife fight…
…is what I’d say if I had a knife.
Instead– Oh crap!
The leader raises his right hand and a bunch of sharp claws in place of fingers extend outwards, lashing at me like chains. Someone DID bring a knife to a knife fight!
I narrowly dodge, though one of the claws nicks my shirt and cuts a hole near the stomach. Just an inch closer and that would have really hurt.
With the right hand’s glove torn to shreds, I see that the leader possesses a jade-green robotic limb, extending at least to his wrist. He isn’t someone to tango with, then.
I ought to get serious and finish him off before he can do real damage. So I rush up to him and try to punch him in the stomach–
Except that he catches my arm–
And now his robotic hand is right above me–
Clocked right in the forehead.
That’s me who got that, for the record.
The hit must have knocked me out pretty hard, because it’s the crack of dawn before I wake up again. The men are gone. But…
My apartment is completely trashed.
The sofa is ruined, ripped apart as if an unruly cat were dropped in. The TV has a baseball bat in the middle of its shattered screen, my desktop computer is a pile of parts, and my Flash Gordon poster hanging up on the wall is now missing. It wasn’t signed or anything– why would they even steal that?
The kitchen utensils seem to be all here, but they took random bits of food from my fridge and freezer. That eclair I bought at the Fami is lying on the floor, chocolate side down. Tragic, isn’t it?
This–all of this– is infuriating for two reasons.
One, because I was legitimately going to start packing up to get ready for moving. It’s going to cost me hundreds of dollars to replace everything, I’ll fail the apartment inspection for sure, and most importantly, my weekend plans (to watch TV) are ruined.
Two, because they were trying to torture and threaten me for information about the Social Media Killer, which means I’m now officially involved in this business for real.
Why does this ALWAYS happen?