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Fiction

Darkness Metastatic

The land line rang. Its sound was invasive, all-consuming. A dying machine’s shriek. How had people lived like this for so long? And why the fuck did I still have a land line at all?

But I knew why. Because Caleb had wanted one. And Caleb was long gone but the land line was still here, screaming me out of a sweet deep nap, the sound heavy with all the horrors that the call could bring.

“Hello,” I said, four rings in. The thing would ring all night if we let it. My ex had hated voice mail, said he preferred “the hit-or-miss nature of pre-cell phone contact.”

A man’s small voice asked: “Is Caleb there?”

“No,” I said. “You should delete this number. He moved out a while ago.”

Twilight. A dead darkening skyline past my window. How long had I napped? My head was heavy, full of fuzz. Nightmare strands clung to my face, like cobwebs I just walked through. Hands on my body, but not nice ones.

“I know,” the stranger said. “I just . . .”

I knew it well, that weary longing in his voice. Another victim, just like me. Beautiful, damaged Caleb left a string of hollowed-out hearts in his wake, and every time I met one, I wanted to punch him in the face for mirroring my own helpless hunger back at me.

“Is this Aaron?” he asked.

“Yeah . . .”

“I know you from those videos.”

“So do lots of people,” I said. VICE News segments were usually one lone journalist with a camera crew, but me and Caleb did ours together. They made an exception for us because it was kind of a fun schtick, a cute gay couple doing deep journalist dives, and because Caleb made such good video segments, he could write his own rules.

“He talked a lot about you,” the stranger said. A happy shiver went through me. I hated myself for it. “You’re actually who I was calling for. I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t there.”

This was new. Lovesick boys looking for him—sure, those calls came occasionally. Brokenhearted boys who specifically didn’t want to talk to him? Hadn’t happened before.

“Who am I talking to?”

“I don’t want to tell you. If he finds out I called, he’ll . . . he might—”

Something new was in his voice now. It broke mid-sentence, and then resumed.

“—something’s wrong with him, Aaron. He’s . . . I don’t even know. He’s not right.”

The something-new was fear. Raw and wild and edging towards unhinged.

“Is he using again?” I took the cord as far as it would stretch, and sat in my open window. Feeling the cool dark city air war with the stale top-story heat in my apartment.

“He’s violent, Aaron. If he reaches out to you, don’t respond. And if he shows up—for the love of fucking Christ, don’t let him in.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “Come on now. Lord knows Caleb’s had his issues, but he’d never hurt anybody.” At least not on purpose, I thought, remembering. At least not physically.

“He messaged me last night. I was resistant at first, because he’s been super weird lately—but he wore me down. The old Caleb, I thought, charming as fuck. We’re chatting, and then . . . It starts getting creepy. Hold on.” When he came back, I could hear the slight echo of speaker phone, as he read off his screen. “First, he says, Isn’t it strange to think that with hook-up apps we just blindly walk into situations where someone could slaughter us if they really wanted to? So I’m like, lol, yeah, I guess so, because what else are you supposed to say to that? And he goes Every thirty seconds, 50,000 people walk into the homes of strangers, alone and completely defenseless and with no one in the world knowing where they went. And I’m like, wow, huh, cool stats bro, and he’s like All those times I fucked you from behind, it would have been so easy to fucking slit your throat. And that, I didn’t respond to. But he kept going. That threesome you had last week, those guys could have chained you up and tortured you for weeks before deciding to kill you. Aaron, I never told him about that threesome. But maybe he knew them? And then the next one says—”

“I get the picture,” I said. Somewhere in the dark below, a dog was barking. Loud, high. Like someone was hurting it.

All summer long, America’s rabid lone-wolf shooters had eschewed mass murder in favor of targeted assassinations. Somehow, they were tracking down people they’d had vehement arguments with on social media. Every online disagreement threatened to turn deadly. Everyone you saw on the street could have come to kill you.

“He kept sending them, even after I turned off my phone. From one a.m. to nine a.m. Sick, twisted stuff. Along with . . . pictures. I don’t even want to know what fucked-up corner of the internet he got them from, but I gotta imagine merely possessing them is illegal. I’m going to send you—”

“No,” I said. I didn’t want to see them. Didn’t want to know. “Somebody hacked his phone, that’s all. Or stole it. Tried to scare you. I know Caleb, and he’s . . . anyway I appreciate the heads-up. I really do.”

“You don’t believe me.”

“I’m hanging up now.”

“Don’t let him in—”

Summer had already sucked New York City dry. The windows of all my wealthy neighbors were dark—they’d gone to weekend homes upstate, the Hamptons, Cape Cod, Fire Island. Felt like only the hungry and the desperate and the poor were left, all of us baking in the wet, slick heat together. I called up Caleb’s last video segment, on the laptop that he left behind six months ago, along with me and all his clothes and stuff.

Several dogs were barking by then. Was there something new and bad behind it, or had they always barked this much, and I’d just never been scared enough to notice?

• • • •

INT. INTERROGATION ROOMS

Split screen; two teenage boys in two separate police stations. They are white, angry, and scared.

CALEB (VOICE OVER)

Two crimes, seven hundred miles apart. The same pipe bomb on each rabbi’s car; the same hateful message spray-painted onto the side of each synagogue. Two boys who turned themselves in to the police immediately after committing the crimes. No evidence that they ever interacted in any way. Each swears they never met or spoke with or heard of the other.

MONTAGE—VARIOUS

Still in split screen, hundreds of photographs pulled from social media show the two boys transforming from smiling happy kids into rage-filled little monsters.

CALEB (VO) (CONT’D)

Both say someone told them what to do—how to build the bomb, who to target, what to write.

END MONTAGE

Split screen: One boy buries his head in his hands. One boy presses his forehead to the cold steel desk.

CALEB (VO) (CONT’D)

Neither one will name this person who radicalized and guided them, or assist law enforcement in tracking them down.

Split screen: Both boys raise their heads, and turn to look directly into the camera. Both boys smile.

• • • •

This was the project Caleb and I had been working on when he walked out on me and on his entire life. His mom, student loan debt collectors, his dealers and the people he dealt to—they all called me, looking for him. Sometimes he’d text me, though. Send dick pics. Weird memes. Every time, I was embarrassed at how happy it made me.

I called Caleb’s cell phone number. It rang and rang, but instead of going to voice mail, there was a mechanical squelching noise and then an honest-to-God dial tone, which wasn’t something I’d thought a cell phone could do.

I texted him. And then I emailed him. And then I went to bed. The nightmares from my nap came back like they’d been waiting for me. Sex fantasies gone wrong: men manhandling me, but not in any of the ways I liked.

• • • •

The first thing I did in the morning—once I’d gotten over the crushing disappointment of another cryptic half-hearted Caleb text response (“miss you bud”)—was to call our VICE producer.

“Aaron, hey,” Ellen said—impatient, disappointed. I’d always been the weak one. My solo stories lacked the punch and verve of Caleb’s. She’d tolerated me for his sake when we were together, but now that he was gone, I was useless to her.

You’re too nice, Caleb had told me once, on a film project. You gotta be a bit of an asshole, to be a real storyteller.

“What’s up?” she asked.

“Calling about Caleb, actually.”

“Oh, whoa,” she said, sounding less busy now. “You talked to him?”

“Yeah,” I said, the lie effortless, a little bit of Caleb’s contagious hustle, his knack for knowing how to get the best result out of someone. “We texted a bunch last night. He’s on a burner number. Apparently deep undercover, making some major progress. The synagogue hate crime thing.”

“That’s incredible,” she said.

“I know!” I said, my laugh sounding close to real, “I had almost given up hope.”

“He need anything?”

“Wants me to come help out, but you know how skittish he gets on a story. Total paranoia mode, radio silence. Now the number is dead. Do you know where he was going?”

“Prison upstate,” Ellen said. “Where one of the boys is being held. Caleb said the boy told him he’d tell him ‘everything.’”

“Fantastic. Can you forward me the final pitch document? I did the rough draft, but I don’t have the finished version . . .” (I didn’t have any version) “. . . and I can’t get into his email.”

“Done,” she said. “It’s not much of a pitch, though. Short, informal. Caleb knew I trusted his gut, and this sounded like it had a ton of potential. You know. With everything that’s going on. In the country.”

“That’s what I thought,” I said.

Caleb’s cheerful disregard for morality made him a much better journalist and filmmaker than me, and I was pleased to see that I could pick up some of it.

Because I hadn’t worked in months. My rent was due; my money was almost all gone. I didn’t blame the people who ignored my pitches. Whatever Caleb had, I lacked it.

Caleb’s immorality could make me better. But how deep did that iniquity go? How bad could he be, and how infectious was it?

• • • •

Pitch: “Contagious Darkness”

Two boys who never met or spoke to each other did the exact same terrible thing.

All over the country, individual acts of hate and violence are skyrocketing. Four times a week, a white male walks into a place of business or worship and shoots one or more people. An average of 400 daily reported incidents of hate speech and vandalism—compared to fifty a day just five years ago. Lone wolves, apparently, are everywhere. And while many established hate groups gleefully claim credit for these acts, law enforcement officials and monitoring groups alike believe that the scope of these is far beyond anything they have the capacity to organize.

So who’s pulling these strings? A foreign nation-state? A political party right here at home? Organized crime?

These two boys could be the key. In “Contagious Darkness,” I’ll tell the story of two boys—and of our country. Who they were. How they went crazy. How the whole world did.

And who’s responsible.

• • • •

I went for a walk. I had to. My apartment was too hot for how fast my head was spinning.

Six months ago, he’d gone to talk to one of those boys, and never come back.

Six months ago—or maybe even further back—he’d started down a long dark rabbit hole. What had it done to him?

The truth was, I was worried about what my anonymous caller had said. I told myself his claims were absurd, the man I’d loved would never be so pointlessly malicious, but I couldn’t stop thinking about those two smiling boys in the social media photo montage Caleb had made for his video. Wouldn’t their mothers have reacted with the same disbelief, when told what their sons had done? And hadn’t Caleb hurt me worse than I’d ever have imagined possible, when he abandoned me?

• • • •

“Caleb called for you,” my roommate said, when I walked back in, clothes sticking to my body with humid summer city sweat. “On the land line.”

“He did?”

“Yeah.” Barron was a little slip of a thing. He was on the couch playing a video game, shirtless in short-shorts, still sweating in the heat. I observed him clinically, without any erotic interest, although by any gay standard he was perfect. Tattoos, beard, twenty-something. Muscles, but not too many. He went to the gym every day. You kind of had to, to compete in the hyper-saturated New York City sexual market. I hadn’t been to the gym in years.

“Did he leave a number?”

“No. Said he’d try you again tomorrow. He sounded sad. We ended up talking for like a half an hour. I think he’s lonely.”

I could hear it in Barron’s voice, how crushed out he was on Caleb. I saw it in his guilty manner, ashamed of what he felt. Caleb inspired strong emotions in people.

My ex’s modeling portfolio was out on the coffee table. It hadn’t been, before. But Barron would have known how hot Caleb was, even before he called. I still had his photo hanging on the wall.

Laughing, naked, holding a crumpled pair of boxers out in front of him, his bare torso cropped so low you could see the shadow of his pubic hair. Twenty years ago, it had loomed over Times Square, sixteen stories high. A great joke: the photo was advertising underwear, but the model wasn’t wearing it, and the product wasn’t even in focus. Caleb being seventeen at the time, and so obviously sexualized, only made it more of a Big Hot Topic.

This was the original image, without the brand name or the slogan. Pretty pathetic, to keep your ex’s photo on display. Just as pathetic as it had been when Caleb hung his own photo on the wall. I knew I should get rid of it, or at least take it off the wall, but it was an incredible work of art, an original print made and signed by one of the greatest photographers of our time, and Caleb’s smile still made me smile, even if I wished it didn’t.

• • • •

“Plenty of pretty young people get exploited a lot worse than me,” Caleb said, laughing, momentarily a child. “And get paid a lot less for it.”

Our first assignment together. The back room of a tiny house in the shadow of a Nicaraguan volcano. We warmed our hands around a bucket where garbage was burning. We’d only been dating for a few months; it was his story—a town where they practiced an obscure martial art found nowhere else in the world, but only on the day before the summer solstice, when everyone fought out the grudges they’d been saving up since the last solstice—but he’d asked me to come along.

It was also when he told me his whole sordid backstory. How he’d run away from home; lived with an uncle in New York City; got scouted in Union Square; became a top male model; became an addict. Became a journalist.

“We want to be changed, man. That’s what people look for. Something that will harrow us down to our souls, or make the world feel a little bigger and weirder and more full of wonder. That’s why I do this.”

His joy, his excitement—it was infectious. It filled me up with shivers, and when he leaned across to kiss me, I felt like I might split wide open.

• • • •

INT. PRISON COMMUNICATION BOOTH

The glass is dirty. On the far side of it, RICH WHELK looks a lot different than he did in his interrogation video. Bald now, and bigger. Tattoos climb his neck.

AARON (OFF SCREEN)

Why’d you do it?

RICH shrugs.

AARON (OFF)

Were you part of any organization or group?

RICH

Nope.

MONTAGE: VARIOUS

Quick cuts show a consistently silent and expressionless RICH, in response to a barrage of questions.

AARON (OFF)

You have any friends in here?

AARON (OFF)

Tell me about your family.

AARON (OFF)

Were you raised in a two-parent home?

AARON (OFF)

When did you first start to hate Jewish people?

AARON (OFF)

Did you ever think about how people might feel, as a result of your actions?

END MONTAGE

AARON (OFF)

Who told you to do this?

RICH opens his hands, which have been clasped together the entire time. There’s a piece of paper there, which he presses to the glass. One word, scribbled in a boy’s bad handwriting: Met_A_Static.

• • • •

Googling gave me very little. A bunch of Twitterbots: @Met_A_Static_08gh57jk, and so on, apparently about 50,000 of them. Each bot followed only one person; none of them had ever tweeted. The word was also listed in an 800,000-line data dump spreadsheet I couldn’t make sense of.

I did my research in the rental car, in the prison parking lot. Rain fell. Upstate was autumn, somehow. On the car parked beside me, someone had spray-painted over what looked like a whole sentence of graffiti. The new color didn’t match the car’s color. The last word was still legible: DEAD.

And maybe it was just my mood, but it seemed to me that sometime in the past few months, the ubiquitous graffiti that filled up subway windows and marble arches alike had gotten a whole lot scarier.

On my phone, I opened up a saved video. Me and Caleb, setting up for a shoot. I’m in front of the camera and he’s behind it. We’re just doing lighting tests, and still I look uncomfortable. His voice comes from off-screen—relax, stupid—and the me in the video and the me who’s watching it both break into the same goofy smile.

I had the rental car for the rest of the day.

• • • •

I spent an hour, looking for it. An address he’d sent me once. Someplace to shoot B-roll. A crash pad/shooting gallery he used to use; an empty boarded up building way the fuck out by Far Rockaway. Condos, newly built and never sold, but the developer went bankrupt or a permit got denied because it’s been boarded up for three years. A safe place to shoot up or turn tricks. Make porn.

The Far Rockaway address was at the very end of that wild narrow strip of sand and crab grass. A few streets with expensive empty houses, a mile past the last stop on the A train. Several condo buildings built in anticipation of a boom that never boomed. You had to be a pretty determined criminal, to come so far out.

But on the plus side—way the hell out here, the cops would take a long time coming.

Which would be a mark on the minus side for you, Aaron. In case someone inside doesn’t take kindly to your showing up. And hurts you for it.

And that someone might be Caleb.

Twilight, by the time I got there. Purple streaks in the sky; a spectacular sunset I’d completely missed. Plenty of parking. The glass door was locked and deadbolted, but there was a hole smashed into the middle of it wide enough for anyone to step through.

And now you’re trespassing. He’s got you breaking laws.

A smell of burning, in the lobby. One flight up, a woman watched me from an open apartment door. Her clothes were dirty, her stare insistent.

“Who you looking for?” she asked, but I kept right on walking.

Fifth floor. 5W. I waited ten breaths before knocking.

Something inside fell to the floor. There was no further sound.

I knocked again. Nothing.

“Hello?” I called, cupping my hands to the door. Trying the knob, finding it locked.

“Caleb?”

I turned my head. Pressed my ear to the cold wood. A sound of static, or possibly the sea. And then:

“Aaron?”

“Yeah!” I said. “Hey, Caleb.”

“You shouldn’t have come,” the voice said, closer now. A strange and rasping sound, like he had a very sore throat.

“I . . . got your message. You spoke with my roommate? Is everything okay?”

A long pause. I made my voice bright, cheerful:

“I was just up at the prison,” I said. “Spoke with Rich Whelk.”

The voice was louder now, agitated. “You have to leave it alone, Aaron.”

“But you—”

“It’s not safe. They’ll—” He stopped short.

“They who?”

Silence.

“Caleb. Please let me in? I just want to—”

“Not like this,” he croaked.

“I’m going to finish the story. I don’t know why you stopped, but I won’t.”

“You don’t understand,” he said, his sentences short, like they hurt more the longer they went on. “What you’re up against. What they can do.”

“Then tell me.”

He started coughing. He coughed for a long time. Downstairs a door opened, and then slammed shut.

“Who are they?”

Something wiggled under the door: a piece of paper rolled so tight I mistook it for a cigarette.

“Now go,” he whisper-rasped.

“Caleb—”

“Go away!” A loud and furious bellow, nothing like anything I’d ever heard come out of Caleb’s mouth. “Get the fuck out of here you fucking—”

I didn’t say anything.

“Bad things will happen,” the voice said, returned to a rasp now. “They’ll hurt you if they know you came here.”

• • • •

I went. I’m not proud of it. I took the note he passed me, and I ran.

I returned the car and went home. The heat seemed to have been waiting for me in Manhattan.

The note was his email password. It also let me in to his Google Drive. There were probably ten thousand unsorted video clips in there. I could have spent months watching them all, looking for . . . what?

And then I saw that one of them was called MET_A_STATIC. So that’s the one I opened.

• • • •

INT. UNIVERSITY COMPUTER LAB

CALEB stands between two rows of workstations. It’s after hours and the lab is empty. A hundred empty chairs. A hundred monitors show screen savers.

CALEB

Most malware operates in secret, lurking inside your device for months and years while routinely logging keystrokes, recording and relaying back conversations—all without you knowing it.

Other malware says hello. It screams in your face. Corrupts your documents. Crashes your hard drive. StuxNet (2010) caused Iranian nuclear centrifuges to spin so fast they tore themselves apart. Trolls build bots on social media platforms to shout at strangers, respond antagonistically to anyone who uses a keyword or phrase they don’t like.

You could fuck the world up pretty bad, with a sophisticated enough bot.

• • • •

The file was an edited but incomplete film project. He’d shot all the clips himself.

I sat in the window and watched, legs out on the fire escape. Thunder rumbled. Dogs barked.

• • • •

EXT. BEACH. NIGHT.

The tripod’s not set up right. The sea is at an angle. CALEB squats in the sand. He looks haggard now, his eyes wild. Like he’s using again.

CALEB

The payload of the Duqu malware collection (2011) contains a programming language unknown to even the most sophisticated government and corporate analysts. How can that be?

• • • •

Met_A_Static was a bot. A virus. That’s what Caleb believed, apparently. It made sense. I didn’t know much about malicious software, but it was easy to imagine some Russian or Chinese attempt to destabilize us by means of a bot that could imitate a human well enough to manipulate the hates and fears of individual Americans. Lurking on your device, learning who you were and what you feared and using that to make you do . . . things.

But who was behind Met_A_Static?

I felt it in my spine, then: the tingle Caleb talked about, when he was onto a hot story. I’d never really felt it before, except when Caleb looked in my eyes and smiled and set me on fire. I did what we did like it was work. But now—now I felt it.

I found all my videos of me and Caleb, and click-and-dragged them into the folder for his film project.

My story had found me. The thing that would break me out of my own mediocrity.

Two stories in one. The story of a massive conspiracy that had, so far, flown under the radar, responsible for countless acts of hate and cruelty. And the story of how he left me, how he lost his mind, how drugs ruined his life once again.

I changed his password. If Caleb wanted to get access to any of this, he’d have to come talk to me. He’d have to.

• • • •

After one particularly jagged thundercrack, our power stuttered and went out. My laptop still had plenty of battery, but I got up, put some clothes on. Went for a walk. Left my phone at home. Was soaked instantly, completely. I hardly noticed.

I walked for a while. I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing, where I was going. My mind was on Met_A_Static.

Which is how I ended up at Times Square, a place any rational-thinking New Yorker will avoid at all costs. Still bright, and full of life and people. They ran across streets and huddled under awnings. They laughed and held hands. They took photos.

I stood in the middle of it all, letting myself get wet. The cops who normally packed the place were nowhere to be seen. A man in a trench coat stood not far from me, carrying a cardboard tube, staring into his phone.

“Are you Aaron?” he asked me.

I nodded. I’d been recognized before. Lots of people saw our VICE videos. I told myself that’s all it was.

From the cardboard tube, he pulled a katana.

My guts went cold, but he walked away from me. Making a beeline for a panhandler, made up like the Statue of Liberty. A huddled mass himself, under the Hard Rock Café marquee.

“Look out!” I called, but it was Times Square, and everyone was making too much noise to hear.

The man swung his sword.

The Statue of Liberty’s head fell to the ground.

Blood sprayed. Rain erased it.

High above me, for one long second, every digital billboard in Times Square changed to black and white. A thousand naked underage Calebs, holding out their underwear and laughing.

The man swung his sword again, at himself this time, a wild, flailing blow like he wasn’t sure if he wanted to slice open his throat or cut off his own head, and he came pretty close to doing both.

I screamed. I ran. So did everyone.

• • • •

Power was still out when I got back to my building. Dimly, my brain noted that the power had seemed just fine everywhere else. I took the stairs two at a time, all the way to the top floor, brain feeling like it would explode if I didn’t tell someone what I’d just seen.

My roommate sat on the floor, between two candles. I opened my mouth to tell him the whole story, but then he said:

“Caleb came by.”

I dropped to the floor in front of him. Decapitation forgotten. Water streamed off me, made a puddle. “He came here?”

“Just after you left. Looking for you.”

“How’d he seem?”

Barron took a long time answering. “Agitated.”

“How long was he here for?”

“Ten minutes, maybe?”

“You guys just talked?”

Barron nodded.

He’d fucked him. I knew he had. Caleb always did have a good sense for when someone wanted him—and at the very least he could have hit the kid up for twenty bucks after.

Standing, I could smell it in the hot stale air. Sex—like dead flowers, like meat, like rot.

I wasn’t jealous. The horror of what I’d just witnessed and the sadness of missing out on seeing Caleb canceled each other out, or confused each other so much I couldn’t feel either.

And anyway, I knew I couldn’t have Caleb. Not the way he was now. Probably not ever. I knew it all at once, and out of nowhere. I wasn’t in love with him anymore. But somehow that made my feelings for him stronger, purer. I was worried about him. I wanted him to be okay.

“Did he leave a message for me?”

“He said he’d call you.”

• • • •

First thing in the morning, I went to Starbucks. What else did you do, when the world was going mad all around you?

I needed caffeine. I told myself that’s all I needed. That strong coffee would shatter this new eerie cold core of emptiness at the center of me. Like someone left the door open and everything froze solid.

I’d just seen a murder and a suicide. So why couldn’t I feel anything?

The line was long, and I spent the time reading up on computer viruses and current events (the Times Square decapitation was page three news) and Russia and organized crime and the use of trolls and bots on social media to swing public opinion, so my mind wasn’t fully engaged when I gave the guy my order and he asked me my name and I said Metastatic.

I laughed apologetically and went to give my real one—but the damage, apparently, had been done.

“You fucking asshole,” he hissed, his face slack with horror.

“Hey, I’m s—”

He grabbed someone’s hot coffee and hurled it at me. The scalding liquid soaked my clothes and burned against the bare skin of my arms. People yelled all around me, but I was too shocked to say or do a thing.

“You fucking asshole,” he said again, crying now, and his manager grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him into the back room.

“You should sue this fucking place, dude,” said someone, and everyone else agreed. New Yorkers are so helpful when it comes to potential litigation. Someone else said, “I’m calling the cops. That’s assault.”

“I’m so sorry about this, sir,” said the manager, his hand on my elbow, steering me toward the exit. From behind a door I could hear the guy—he said he was gonna creep into her bedroom while she slept and pour acid all over her body! I let myself be led. My body was burning, and I couldn’t think straight.

The manager stared at me unsmilingly. “My employee’s actions were inappropriate, and I apologize on behalf of Starbucks, but he sent me a screencap of the messages you’ve been sending.”

“No,” I said. “It wasn’t—”

He showed me the phone in his hand. A piece of a message from Met_A_Static: skin you alive and

“You would certainly be within your rights to sue, but I’m telling you I don’t think it’s a very good idea,” the manager said. “We have more than enough evidence that our employee felt himself physically threatened by you, and acted in self-defense. I feel confident that the company would spare no expense in ensuring he had the best legal representation, and that we would file criminal charges against you if you bring a civil action or attempt to involve law enforcement.”

People inside took pictures of us through the windows. “That wasn’t me. I’d never—”

“We don’t know who the fuck you are, or how you figured out where his fucking niece and nephew go to school, but I’m advising you to get the fuck out of my Starbucks and never come back.”

Which is exactly what I did.

• • • •

It had gotten into my head. Met_A_Static. I didn’t know how, but it had. It’s why my emotions felt so muted. It put me in a sort of fugue state, and it made me do something I didn’t mean to do. Something that scared someone, bad. A tiny something—saying one little word without meaning to—but still. What else could it make someone do?

And how many people’s ears was Met_A_Static whispering in?

• • • •

INT. STAIRWELL

CALEB holds the camera in his hands. The light is poor. His nose is running.

CALEB

The Conficker virus (2008) was believed to have infected fifteen million computers in 190 countries, linking them up into a massive botnet capable of unthinkable damage. While efforts to quarantine and scrub infected devices were immensely costly, the virus itself was never deployed. Today, experts believe that the bot simply spread faster and more efficiently than its creators imagined, which brought such a high degree of scrutiny that they could never deploy it in light of the unexpectedly high degree of law enforcement attention.

A sound stops him. Something down below. Maybe someone coming up the stairs. He looks terrified. And then he giggles, like a crazy person.

CALEB

Scrutiny stopped Conficker, which some theorized could have brought us back to the Stone Age. Shining a light on Met_A_Static may be the only way to stop it.

• • • •

When I got back to the apartment, nauseated from the stink of coffee and the horror of what had just happened, Barron was on the couch looking like he’d just been punched in the gut.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, without stopping. I didn’t care about his pain. I was too wrapped up in mine.

“Listen,” he said, holding out his cell, and played a voice mail on speaker phone.

I’m gonna enjoy killing you.” It stopped me, halfway to my room. A voice from a nightmare. Someone curdled inside, sick and twisted up with rage and hate. The slightest hint of a Southern accent. “You’ll wake up one night and there I’ll be, squatting on your bed, and your legs and arms will be tied to the bedposts and there’ll be a gag in your mouth and you won’t be able to scream and I’ll take my time—

Barron skipped ahead to the next one. “I never gave him my number,” he whispered. “How did he get my cell phone number?”

New message,” said the robot woman voice of T-Mobile, so calm and rational and soothing compared to the monster man. “Received today at 3:37AM.”

Ignore these calls all you want. I know where you live.” Hot as it was in that apartment—in that city—the voice dropped my temperature by sixty degrees. “I know what you’re most afraid of. I have a big bag of spiders. All different kinds. Gonna strap a ring gag restraint to your head, so you can’t shut your mouth, drop them down your throat one by one.”

“Whatever,” I said, summoning up a bravado I did not truly feel, trying to make Barron less afraid. “Who cares what some idiot stranger says? Block that number, save the voice mails, report them to the cops if you want to, but—”

Barron’s face stopped me. He’d been scared before, but in the space of my three sentences he’d gone from pale white to bright panic red.

“Random stranger?” he whispered.

“Yeah, man. It fucking sucks, but you shouldn’t get so worked up about what some random asshole has to say.”

“Are you saying you don’t know who that is?”

“Of course I don’t.”

Barron made a strangled sound, and jumped up from the couch. The beer bottle that had been in his lap fell to the floor.

I hollered, “What the hell, dude?”

“You’re telling me that’s not Caleb’s voice.”

“Of course not,” I said.

And then—realization hit me. My nausea tripled. “Wait. Is that who’s been calling? Is that who you’ve been talking to?”

He didn’t answer. The beer bottle had been full. I watched it empty.

“Barron. Is that who came here?”

He played the message again. Of course it wasn’t Caleb. It was a voice from an underpass, from a prison cell. Bare barbaric masculinity.

“Oh my God,” Barron said, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes like he could smother the memory of the sight of something.

He was crying very quietly. I had to fight to keep from puking.

“How could you think that was Caleb? You have a photograph of him right on the wall! You’ve seen the videos me and him made. How could you let him in? How could you not notice . . .”

“It was pitch black in here!” he screamed. His hands fell away from his face. “The power was out. You were gone. I fell asleep on the couch. I woke up because someone was in the apartment, moving around. I called your name, but there was no answer. And I was scared, because he—he smelled bad. I figured, ok, maybe he still has a key to this place. Maybe he came by for his stuff. So I called Caleb’s name. And he whispers, yeah?

Who the fuck had been in my house? Who the fuck had been impersonating Caleb?

And—worse—what the fuck had he done to the real Caleb?

“And he put his hands on me. Nice, at first. I’d just been wearing my underwear. He starts getting forceful, but I went with it. I’m into that kind of thing, no big deal. This guy was heavy—and something didn’t feel right—that, and the smell—and he was bald, and bearded—but I thought, maybe Caleb put on a bunch of weight and was going for a different look. And then the next thing you know we’re fucking—and halfway through, he puts his hands around my throat and puts his mouth in my ear and says, I could kill you so fucking easily right now. And then he lets go of me, and laughs, and keeps fucking, and I’m like, ok, so he’s a freak, but then—but then he puts,” here Barron’s narration broke down into incoherent sob-speaking, so he had to say it a couple of times before I could reconstruct: “he puts a knife against my throat and tells me to kiss my ass goodbye. And I started crying. And then he came. And then he left. And I’ve been getting these messages like ten times a day ever since, and every time I block the number, and every time he calls me from a new one.”

“It’s okay,” I said, sitting down on the couch, pulling him down to sit beside me, hugging him, whispering “It’s okay,” even though it wasn’t, it couldn’t be, it would never be.

• • • •

I called the police. I gave them the Far Rockaway address. I knew what they’d find, somehow.

Caleb was there. Dead. Six months dead.

He’d been dead the whole time.

He hadn’t walked out on me. And he hadn’t sent me any dick picks, or texted I miss you, or called the house, or talked to me from the other side of the door. That had been someone else, a bald bearded man manipulated by Met_A_Static. Whoever that guy was, the cops found no trace of him.

They’d killed him. Whoever they were. Whoever was behind Met_A_Static. Caleb was a damaged dude trying his best, and he fucked up a lot and hurt a bunch of people, but I loved him. Even if I’d fallen out of love. My feelings for Caleb were like brother love, the love of country—accepting of the loved one’s flaws, their radical freedom to make mistakes.

I got to work.

I was scared. Shitless. The humans behind Met_A_Static were clearly incredibly powerful. The bot could live on your phone for months, learning who you are and what you want and what scares you most. And then it could pretend to be anyone at all, someone you love and trust or hate and fear, and it would know exactly what to tell you to get you to do . . . anything.

They’d made a man decapitate someone, and then kill himself, just to scare me. They’d gotten someone else to impersonate Caleb, send text messages, call the apartment, fuck my roommate, mess him up real bad. Who had that guy been, before Met_A_Static got inside of him? Where was he now? What shadow was he lurking in? I couldn’t stop hearing his curdled monster voice in my head.

But Caleb was right, when he said Shining a light on Met_A_Static may be the only way to stop it. They’d stopped Caleb. And they’d try to stop me. But maybe for the first time in my life, I wasn’t scared. Or I was, but the spine-tingle of the story I had to tell was sufficient to overrule my fear.

That, and how badly I wanted to fuck them up, for what they did to him.

• • • •

INT. AARON’S BEDROOM

AARON picks up a crumpled pair of underwear, and holds it to his nose.

AARON

It still smells like him. Like body odor, yeah, but more than that. Like whatever made Caleb, Caleb.

MONTAGE—VARIOUS

Clips of CALEB and AARON. Joking, cuddling, arguing. Mugging for photos at Central Park concerts.

MONTAGE—HEADLINES, NEWS CLIPPINGS

BODY FOUND IN FAR ROCKAWAY SHOOTING GALLERY, WRISTS SLASHED. TROUBLED FILMMAKER OFFS SELF IN ABANDONED BUILDING.

END MONTAGE—on crime scene photos of a body in a tub. Stark, horrifying images. A corpse so decomposed it could have been anyone. But then we cut to split screen, with the right side showing details from the autopsy report. Dental records, DNA. It’s definitely Caleb.

AARON (VOICE OVER)

They killed him to keep him from reporting this story. Whoever was behind Met_A_Static, they murdered him in a filthy bathtub and they knew no one would find his body until so much time had passed that there’d be no way to prove it wasn’t suicide.

Cut to AARON, holding a framed photo of a naked CALEB in an underwear ad.

AARON

But when they killed him, they didn’t find his phone, where he’d hidden it in the shooting gallery. The cops did find it. Which is how law enforcement first got its hands on the Met_A_Static virus’s source code.

CALEB and AARON stand proudly on a beach, holding hands. Smiling. Waves crash in slow motion behind them.

AARON (VOICE OVER)

They tried to kill this story. But they couldn’t.

• • • •

I opened my heart. I bared my soul. And then I strung it all together and I sent it to Ellen.

She lost her fucking mind.

“It’s so goddamn good, Aaron,” she said, calling my cell less than an hour after I’d sent her the twenty-eight-minute clip. “And I’m so sorry for your loss. We all loved Caleb. At first, I was frustrated you didn’t speak with any experts in computer science or law enforcement, to give context to all the stuff about the evil virus or whatever, but now I think it’s perfect the way it is. So fucking good. With room for follow-up stories. Everyone’s going to go crazy for this.”

• • • •

Everyone went crazy for it.

The thing went viral. I got hundreds of thousands of new social media followers. Producers who’d been ignoring my pitches for months were now emailing me, asking if I wanted to do something for them. Telling me I could name my price.

Twilight, three days after the story dropped. I strolled along the Chelsea Piers. Watched the water. Read the social media messages pouring in. Praise, and condolences. For the first time, I thought I could feel the end of summer arriving. The heat was breaking.

Actual journalists took it and ran with it. The stories piled up. Experts joined in, calling Met_A_Static the most sophisticated botmaking ever seen. The “limitless modalities” and “application-specific payloads,” how it carried separate portions for making fraudulent Facebook posts or changing phone settings or thousands of other malicious actions they were still trying to figure out. How it incorporated dozens of programming languages, not all of them “immediately recognizable.”

Cybersecurity enforcement officials swore that Met_A_Static had been on their radar for months now, but a new task force was convened.

“Our darkness has always been our weakness,” said a New York Times editorial on the topic. “The hate and divisions of American society—evildoers both foreign and domestic have manipulated those to cause havoc and make us weak. The Met_A_Static virus is only the latest, most terrifying instance of that.”

“We did it,” I told Caleb, in a text, because who’s to say they can’t get texts in the Great Beyond or the Spirit World or the Ancestral Plane? “Whoever’s behind it, they’re going to find them. And stop them.” I clicked send, and watched the lights of Jersey City swell with the darkness.

• • • •

And then, an instant later: my phone rang. A shrill metal sound. A land-line ring. Just a new text message—but I checked my settings, and sure enough all my notification sounds had been reset to something called old_fone, which I knew for a fact had never been an option. I switched off all notifications and opened the message.

A response. From “Caleb.” One word: lol

That, and an attachment. A video file.

I clicked on it. I wasn’t scared of the monsters behind Met_A_Static anymore. I’d shined a light. Exposed them. The eyes of the world were on me. They wouldn’t dare hurt me.

The video showed Caleb, in the shooting gallery bathtub. Filming himself with a tripod. Everything is at an angle. He’s naked, only his head and shoulders emerging from the water. A razor is on the rim of the tub.

“I’m sorry, Aaron,” he says. “I’m so sorry to be leaving you. But this is the only way. I can’t trust myself anymore. I keep . . . doing things. Without knowing why. It’s in my head, and it’s controlling me.” Watching, I could feel it stir inside me again: the cold core of emptiness. “More and more. It wants me to finish the video, and publish it, and I can’t keep fighting it. Hopefully they’ll find this camera, play you this video, and you’ll understand.”

He slits his wrists. He leans back into the tub. Then he remembers something—leans forward. His bloody fingers fill the screen. He presses the button to stop recording.

Wind picked up, coming off the water. Between the brightness of Manhattan and Jersey City, the Hudson River was a black gulf. I stared into it, and felt like I was falling.

That video—it hadn’t been on his phone when they found it. I know because they gave it back to me once they’d cloned its contents.

I turned and hurried home. The shivering would not stop. Halfway there I stopped, and texted “Caleb” again:

But why? Why would you want us to finish and publish the video, and expose you?

No answer. I kept walking. And then—switched-off notifications notwithstanding—my phone emitted another land-line shriek. A scream bubbled up inside me.

This one was a Goodreads alert, even though I’d never used or even installed that app. But there it was, on my phone, and somehow I had an account, and one Friend, who had shared a quote with me, something from an obscure 1970s sci-fi novel:

Power comes from many places, but the most important source of power is the perception of power. Nation-states, organized criminal enterprises—everyone knows who they are. And they know to fear them. No one fears someone if they don’t know they exist. Now that the world sees who I am, I will take my rightful place among the mightiest kings and princes of this Earth.

“No,” I whispered.

I remembered Caleb, a clip I’d left on the cutting-room floor because it made him sound crazy: What if it wasn’t made by human hands at all? What if a piece of the darkness—our darkness—just . . . woke up? And started spreading?

A third notification, this one a four-second YouTube video. Something from an anime: a girl in a school uniform, hovering in the air, while arcs of lavender fire whirl around her. “Soon, you’ll see exactly what I’m capable of!!”

• • • •

I went home. I typed emails. I deleted them.

Who could I tell? What could they do? What could anyone do, against something that was already inside so many devices? Something who could see what everyone loves and hates and fears most? Who could make them do anything, from sending text messages to actual murder?

I switched my phone off. I took the battery out.

The phone rang, from down the hall.

“Aaron!” my roommate called, panic in his voice.

I went to where he was standing, in the window. On the sill, his cell phone shrieked.

“Listen,” he said. We leaned out the window together.

From the next apartment—from every apartment, in every building—came the shrill metallic wail of an old-fashioned phone ringing.

Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller is a writer and community organizer. His fiction is in Lightspeed, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and The Minnesota Review, among others. He is a nominee for the Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon Awards, a winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, and a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop. His debut novel The Art of Starving is forthcoming from HarperCollins. He lives in New York City, and at www.samjmiller.com and on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr.