Are you afraid of someone accessing your passwords? What if they got access to your person? The Heartbleed bug isn’t the most vulnerable part of your online identity, you are. Forget about someone hijacking your accounts. What if someone used your online profiles to replace you in the real world?
There’s more than one way to steal your identity.
If someone vague-booked on your behalf, would your friends know it wasn’t you? If someone took control of your tweets, would your followers realize you’ve been compromised? If someone commandeered your Instagram feed, would your friends notice a change in your point of view?
This story takes those questions to a whole new level. This is a preview of my work in progress, a millennial mystery, a social media thriller, a cautionary tale for those with a high connectivity clout score.
Headbleed: an information age horror story
Cyrus struggled to keep his eyes on the road, Garett was typing on a smartphone the size of a paperback. The damn thing made the brights look dim.
“Do you have to do that on the dashboard?”
Garett wiggled the pointer finger of his glove, drawing attention to the grey dot at the tip. “The thumbs never work. I’ll switch, if you’d like to type the poor bastard’s penultimate post yourself.”
“I’ll pass.” Cyrus shut his eye to find the screen had burned into his retina.
He could close both eyes if he wanted, so long as he kept straight. The plain was flat enough to see where the highway dipped over the horizon. Apart from their cargo, the tow truck was alone in every direction.
Garett clicked the roof of his mouth. “What’s another word for ‘deliver’?”
Cyrus scanned the constellations for an answer. “How are you using it?”
Garett was all too eager to read his work. “The course of true love is a one way street. There’s no wavering. There’s no going back. It’s my responsibility to deliver us to the end of the line.”
Glancing over, Cyrus found Garett holding the phone to his chest. Protecting his offspring, he wasn’t waiting on an alternate word choice, he was waiting on an opinion.
Cyrus humored him with a single nod. “Someone’s come a long way from rhyming ‘hole’ with ‘soul.’” He had to jibe his younger brother, how else would he know the compliment was genuine?
The G.P.S. chimed.
“We’re here.” Cyrus pulled over.
Plaque in hand, Cyrus stepped out of the vehicle, leaving his brother to refine his craft. It was a shame he had to leave the hazards on. Their blinking violated the serenity of the prairie. Still, the stars seemed so close, lights hung from the dome roof of a stadium.
Flaring his nostrils, Cyrus savored the breeze, a sweet perfume he’d been missing. Conditioning his nose to endure the stink of rotten eggs, he’d almost forgotten what fresh air smelt like. Taking the long way around the truck, he admired the fancy new hybrid on the hook, with its sleek curved hood and big dashboard display. He had been even more impressed with its trunk space.
Resisting the pull of the open prairie, Cyrus ambled to the sign on the shoulder.
Garett dangled a pair of latex gloves out the window. “You don’t want to catch a cold, do you?”
Cyrus traded the plaque for the gloves. “No, I do not.”
Wiping the magnetic side clean, Garett offered it back. “Disinfected.”
Cyrus slapped the plaque on the sign. It read: REST AREA CLOSED.
Stringing police tape across the entrance, Cyrus watched his brother pace the lot, searching for inspiration, cradling the phone in one hand, typing with the other. Garett read the words on his screen, a method writer feeling every beat of his precious monologue.
Cyrus pulled the lever to lower the hybrid, happy to find the hook hadn’t left any scuff marks on the bumper. “Hey Garett, what’s the word count looking like?”
With his chin lit up, Garett was Frankenstein’s monster on the verge of crushing villagers. “How many times do I have to tell you, you cannot rush these social media sign offs?”
Crossing the lot, Cyrus cracked his knuckles. “Sure you can, he’s in the heat of passion. The audience expects plenty of typos and spelling errors.”
Garett tapped the phone against his thigh. “It’s getting there, I just need another word for ‘destination.’”
Cyrus almost rubbed his glove across his chin, but caught himself before it made contact. He shook his head. “What’s the context?”
Garett read, “First she led me away from my destination. Then she led me on. It’s only fitting that she leads me to my final destination.”
Garett spun an invisible thread around the phone. “He’s an English major, he’s not going to use the same word twice. It’s redundant.”
Cyrus looked to the hybrid they’d parked diagonally across three spaces. “He’s a freshman, he hasn’t learned that lesson yet.”
Garett tongued his cheek. “How about ‘First she led me astray. Then she led me on.’?”
Drawing his butterfly knife, Cyrus approached the hybrid. “It’s perfect, I love it. Just don’t forget to add the location tag.” Reaching into his pocket, Cyrus drew a clicker.
The hybrid chirped, the lights flashed, and the trunk popped open. A boy crawled over the rim, a caterpillar with his limbs in a cocoon of plastic wrap.
“Looks like we’ve got ourselves a runner…” Cyrus shouted, feigning alarm.
The boy squirmed toward the underbrush, moving from hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder. Working his chin into the mix, he gave himself a goatee of gravel.
Cyrus shrugged, “…or an incher.”
Peaking over the phone, Garett cocked his head. “He looks chilly, you should give him some powder burns.”
Huffing into his garbage bag gag, the boy slithered out of his captor’s shadow.
Cyrus’s attention turned toward the trunk. “I don’t tell you how to make your art, don’t tell me how to make mine.”
While his brother wrote prose, Cyrus worked in a visual medium. The lot was his canvas, everything had to look just right. While the plastic wrap caterpillar writhed on the pavement, the one in the trunk was about to get her wings. Her trash bag muzzle bubbled at the sight of his blade. With the eyeshadow streaking down her cheeks, she had no idea how right she looked for the picture he was painting.
Squeezing her shoulder, Cyrus felt the butterfly shaking all the way up his arm.
Slicing her wrapping, he paused to read the calligraphy running down her bicep.
“Hey Hemingway,” Cyrus called out, “Did you see this? Her tattoo says, ‘For the light to shine so bright, the darkness must be present.’ You should try to work that into the note.”
Garett dropped his hands to his sides. “Dude, seriously. You haven’t been paying attention to a God damn word I’ve said. That’s the thesis for the whole thing.”
Cyrus widened his eyes at the quivering butterfly, a coworker sharing a look regarding a pushy boss. “What a diva, right?”
Peeling the wrapping down her forearms, he exposed a spaghetti strap tank top. It was perfect: amber, alluring, and absorbent. He kept cutting until he revealed the bungee cables around her hands and feet, exactly the kind of things a first time killer would find in a trunk. He unwrapped the garbage bag gag from her face.
The butterfly shrieked.
By the time Cyrus drove his fingers into his eardrums, they were already ringing.
Garett winced. “Ah, there’s my muse.”
Closing the blade, Cyrus bit his lip. “Every God damn time.” He spun on his heel.
The boy was gone.
“Where did Romeo run off to?”
Garett stretched the limits of what qualified for an English accent, “Oh Romeo Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”
Romeo’s sneakers jut out from the bushes. Garett arched his eyebrow at his older brother. This had to be a distance record.
Reaching into the shrubs, Cyrus pulled Romeo up by the scruff of his plastic cocoon. His caterpillar coverings had taken on branches. Cyrus kept the kid on tilt, keeping control of the boy’s center of gravity, in case he got bold and tried to throw a shoulder at his captor.
Dragging this ruffled Romeo to his Juliet, Cyrus found she’d gotten her hands out from behind her back. He didn’t mind if she’d adjusted her pose in the middle of the portrait. He had yet to commit any paint to the canvas.
Her panicked eyes shift from her captor to the boy, then back. “Why are you doing this to us? We followed your rules. We didn’t do anything wrong.”
Cyrus shrugged, there was no malice in his face. “Nothing personal kiddo, you’re just cursed by proxy.”
Mouthing his note, Garett unlocked the passenger door, and slid inside. He needed a fortress of solitude to compose his final verse.
Cyrus flicked the butterfly knife back open. Biting down on his garbage bag gag, Romeo tried to muster up the strength to push his elbows through the plastic. Juliet rolled deeper into the trunk.
She spoke from the shadows. “Please, my father can afford a king’s ransom. That’s not an exaggeration,” she let out a frightened chuckle, “he’s worth more than princes. I know this because he’s checked. My dad’s a senior executive at Sustainable Petroleum.”
“No shit.” Cyrus slapped Romeo on the back. “So is his.”
Juliet froze, struggling to process this revelation about her would-be boyfriend.
Cyrus called to his brother. “How’s it coming Hemingway?”
A sigh came from the driver’s seat.
Cyrus tapped his watch. “We’re on a deadline.”
Flinging the door open, Garret made a beeline for Romeo. Positioning himself behind the boy, he wrapped his arms around the kid’s neck.
Cyrus pressed Romeo’s chest, feeling for his sternum. “So, is it done?”
Avoiding eye contact, Garret tightened his grip. “I told you, I don’t like talking after I’ve been writing for a while.”
Cyrus raised his blade to the boy. “Can you believe this shit?”
He sliced the wrapping from Romeo’s chest down to his hands. Beneath his cocoon, the boy’s wrists were still bound in plastic. They’d bought in bulk, might as well put the rest to use.
Garret shift his grip to Romeo’s wrists, freeing Cyrus to draw a pistol from his coat. The boy tried to lunge away, to break Garret’s nose with the back of his head, but Garret had already side stepped. He’d done this dance before.
Cyrus slid the gun into Romeo’s fingers. The brothers cupped their hands around it. The boy fought back with what strength he had left, growling into his gag, an animal frothing at the mouth. Together, the trio took aim at Juliet.
Cyrus whispered. “You can resist, and we can fill her full of holes, or you can let go and she can go clean. It’s up to you.”
Juliet screamed for help, pleading to her captive lover, despite his restraints. The moon turned a blind eye. The prairie turned a deaf ear. There were no heroes here.
When Romeo let go, the gun went off. Juliet’s skull burst open, adding color to Cyrus’s painting.
Garret peeled Romeo out of his cocoon. The kid lunged forward only to find his ankles bound in a second layer of plastic wrap. Cyrus caught him before he could fall. The bastard tried to head butt him for his troubles, Cyrus dodged it in time. This wasn’t his first rodeo.
The boy unleashed his impotent rage into his gag, shouting as Cyrus put him into a full Nelson.
Picking the phone off the driver’s seat, Garret flicked the screen from left to right. “Not flattering… Too much chin fat… That one’s got so much red eye you look like you’re possessed. Um…” Holding it high, he smiled at this last image. “What do you think of this one?” Garret turned the screen to his captive audience.
The boy refused to look.
The picture was a close up of Romeo and Juliet, cheek to cheek, with big smiles that didn’t quite align with their eyes. It was a Christmas card photo if Cyrus had ever seen one.
He squint at it. “It’s good, but you’re going to want to crop it.”
Garret flipped the phone back. “Why?”
Cyrus raised his chin. “You can see the gun barrel sticking into the frame.”
“Oh shit, good call.” Garret pinched the screen. “Now for the hard decision: do we go with the X-Pro filter, or Lo-Fi again? What do you think Romeo, or are you a no filter kind of guy?”
Romeo’s garbage bag gag puffed out like a bullfrog’s cheeks, shrinking and expanding. His nostrils squeaked with each exhale. Cyrus could feel it, the kid was hyperventilating. The boy’s pulse throbbed, quickening until his limbs went limp. The garbage bag went slack. Romeo’s head sank.
Garret nodded, “No filter it is.”
Cyrus set the boy in the driver’s seat. “Good night, sweet prince.”
Garret waved the phone. “I’ll need to borrow his finger.”
Cyrus raised Romeo’s index to the screen.
“And…post.” Garret admired his Facebook farewell: the tragic couple’s selfie, a poetic explanation for their actions, and a tag to mark the location where to find them. It was a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It left little room for an epilogue, little reason for an investigation.
Setting the phone on the far side of the dashboard, Garret gave it a gentle pat, a ghost writer giving away possession of his creation.
Cyrus waited with the pistol at the ready.
Garret nodded. “Alright Van Gogh, paint me a picture.”
Threading Romeo’s finger through the trigger, Cyrus raised the gun to the boy’s chin, and made his masterstroke.
The story only gets darker from here.
We live in a world where you could be kidnapped without anyone ever realizing it. If you don’t show up to work, a quick “I need to be alone right now” status update will keep coworkers from checking on you. If no one sees you on Friday night, a change to your relationship status will explain everything, especially if there are photos of you making doe-eyes with your new cuddle buddy. At gunpoint, someone could make us pose with strangers. They could fake our affairs.
If someone had your phone, with all your passwords automatically entered, they’d have access to your entire life. They could learn your lingo from your text messages. They could pose as you to all of your friends. They could forge your last will and testament.
The story picks up, when these profile killers abduct someone who’s online presence is more than they can maintain: a young writer at the dawn of her career, doing everything she can to build a brand. Cyrus and Garret are just foot soldiers in the army our hero is up against. Why are they abducting college freshmen? Why are they setting them up in staged romances? Why are they leading their digital footprints toward their untimely ends?
Find out, when the story continues.
Help me name my next novella by voting or suggesting something in the comments.
20 thoughts on “Headbleed: an information age horror story”
I was torn between Captive Commentators, Hashtag Hostages, and The Social Media Murders. I enjoyed this. What I found most horrifying was the brothers’ flippant regard for the sanctity of human life. I mean that in how they played cat and mouse with Romeo and disregarded the suffering of their victims, because I do think they take their “art” very seriously and that really strengthens the story.
They’re the villains of something I’m working on. I wanted to set up the stakes before introducing the hero who will give them a whole set of unique challenges.
It’s hard to slip inside the skin of people who kill with such detachment. I wanted you to hate them, but also see everything through their Cyrus’s point of view. Going forward, there will be hero chapters and villain chapters.
Oh, I hated them, and I was intrigued by their mindset, so I think you accomplished portraying their point of view very well. I really want to know why they do what they do. Good stuff! 🙂
I’ll give you some hints: when Cyrus takes in the fresh air, happy to find it doesn’t smell like rotten eggs, that’s relevant. When Cyrus points out that both of the victims are children of oil barons, that’s relevant.
Third hint: in this story water will burn 😉
Well, I’m in Texas right now and I know there are tons of oil fields…so there is sulfur and I know sulfur smells like rotten eggs. So I’m sensing something like environmental activist extremists, and possibly the oil fields intoxicated the air and killed loved ones of Cyrus! I’m guessing, lol, I don’t know 🙂
So, how far along are you with this WIP?
I’m just getting started.
I had the abduction concept for some time. I’d tinkered with a few scenes a while back, but had trouble motivating the villains. Hydrofracking has contaminated their water supply given them neurological damage, killed loved ones, and ruined the property value of their town. They’re part of a desperate relocation plan.
Our hero is targeted because of her father’s role in Sustainable Petroleum.
Eco-terrorism won’t be the central theme, but rather our dependence on social media and how it connects AND isolates us
I don’t know what hydrofracking is, so I had to google it. And I think that is a great theme to write a story around, the way in which social media can connect us with masses of people yet isolate us at the same time.
Just brilliant. When you hinted at this the other week on Twitter I thought the concept was brilliant. The execution of the idea is, as expected, fantastic. (felt a bit Natural Born Killers-ish). And the premise of what is to come or rather what could come, truly terrifying. I for one, will not be leaving my phone with its passwords constantly logged in anymore! Amazing work. Can’t wait to read the finished Novella.
Natural Born Killers is a good comparison. I watched that VHS one too many times back in the day.
I’m really happy people are liking this, rather than just turning away in disgust. I can’t way to show you all some more.
Wow! Your story is giving me chills, as it is a bit too close for comfort. The plastic wrap cocoons, and Romeo trying to get away…you can feel how afraid they were. I hope this never happens! Great story…thanks! (I like the Social Media Murders)
If it makes you feel any better, this scenario will play out again later in my novella, with vastly different results. Don’t worry, you haven’t met the good guys yet. 😉
Can’t wait to read more! I love a good story that you know could actually happen…very suspenseful. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks so much for reading it. I think I’ll post the next two chapters and the rest will come out at the same time as the audio book version.
I love this. Especially because, for a few months, I’d created a phony WordPress blog that I was eventually going to use to lead unsuspecting blog-followers to my novels. I gave up on the scheme, but this level of identity theft is fascinating. I really fun concept for crimes that could plausibly go unsolved. Looking forward to the rest of it
Were you creating an alternate reality game to promote one of your books. I tried to do that a while ago, but it was hard to draw people to it without owning authorship.
This story get’s so much more messed up. I could only plant so many hints, but the smell of sulfur reference and the oil tycoon parents factor in a big way. Hint hint.
The more messed up it gets, the more I’m sure to love it. I’ve got a trilogy of unsolved murders planned, but they aren’t anything like this.
I’m mapping out everything now. This story is requiring a fair amount of plotting. When you see what they’re doing behind the scenes, it’s even more horrifying (don’t worry there’s no torture porn, it’s socially bizarre and crazy).
I’m not completely opposed to some scenes of torture. In fact, there are brief bits of it in my first novel. But there’s a bit of a twist to it, in a sense. And as for the third book in the series…well…
Title for WIP: “Status – It’s complicated”???
Scary story. Very scary.
I’m still debating different names myself. I’m sure it will have a new one each week.