Back
Justin Lee
13 May 2022

KILLSHARE

You will become a democratic Rube-Goldberg device of justice.

KILLSHARE

“But that’s an urban legend, a scare story cooked up by paranoid reactionaries,” scoffed Senator Ralph Reeves at the pair of slickly dressed agents sitting in his office, wasting time that he should spend preparing for his presentation to the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee.

“I’m afraid not, sir.”

“But the New York Times covered this. They–”

“Were fed information to buy us time, let us get out ahead of this thing before there’s a public panic. We even planted real information on right-wing message boards so it would catch on among conspiracy theorists. You know, so no one would take it seriously.”

His interlocutor, Agent Carson of the Secret Service, was a tall, light-skinned black man with the physique of an Olympic swimmer which asserted itself through a trim, charcoal suit. The Senator had never seen the man before. He claimed to be part of an inter-agency investigative unit tasked with responding to cyber-threats that endangered high-value targets.

“We’ve been pursuing this for over three months at the NSA,” said the other man, Agent Fishman. Short and wan with dark hair that managed to be messy despite being closely cropped, he wasn’t much of a physical specimen beside Carson. The Senator assumed his pallor was a product of too much time spent indoors behind computer screens. “Before we got involved, the FBI had been working on it for six months with almost no success. I assure you the danger is very real.”

“How can you be sure I’ve been targeted?”

He wanted this problem to disappear. This afternoon he was supposed to walk the committee through the preliminary draft of the Digital Access for All Act, his signature legislation, what he hoped would be his legacy. He was still uneasy about the name – he could envision the headlines mocking DAFA as “DAFT” – but it was preferable to the previous incarnation, High-Speed Access for All, HAFA, which had elicited more than a few Jimmy Hoffa jokes from Republican colleagues.

Fishman removed a smartphone from his pocket and set it on the Senator’s desk. Reeves picked it up and saw that the home screen was barren save for a single fluorescent green app icon with “KS” in white block letters straight out of an 8-bit video game.

“Tap it,” said Fishman.

The Senator tapped the icon. The entire screen flashed the color of the icon and the word “KILLSHARE” appeared in the same retro font, flickering a variety of colors. Then the word faded and was replaced by two lines of text. The top line read: “Target Acquired: Senator Ralph A. Reeves (D, Mich.).” The bottom line read: “Await instructions.”

The text was superimposed on an unflattering picture of the Senator which had caused a minor scandal the previous year. It had been taken at the annual GLAAD Gala in Los Angeles and showed him posing with a well-known, though hardly A-list, actress. His hand slipped from her hip after the professional photographer had finished with them, and a random attendee had snapped a candid photo from just the right angle at just the right time to give the impression he was cupping her ass cheek. The actress had quickly set the record straight once the photo was released, but it was a damaging, panic-inducing news cycle, nonetheless.

“Are they trying to send some sort of message?” he asked the agents.

“We don’t know,” said Fishman. “Our assumption is that the photo is a joke. It’s set up to look like an internet meme.”

“Okay, walk me through what you know.”

***

The man eased his 1996 Toyota Corolla onto the shoulder of the old state highway a few yards beyond the gated service road. He left his car and stepped over the rusting chainlink gate and the profusion of cigarette butts scattered beneath it, and began a long hike through the state park. He returned two hours later, his face flush and breathing labored. The Toyota grunted as he turned the key in the ignition and after some coaxing sputtered to life. It sprang forward from the shoulder onto the road, its wheels kicking up pine needles which fell and were devoured by the small oil slick the engine had disgorged.

***

“As far as we’re aware, only twelve people have been killed, all by what at first appeared to be freak accidents,” said Carson. “It took three such ‘accidents,’ each separated by a month, before it got on the FBI’s radar. Every murder has occurred on the first of the month– ”

“That’s in three days!” exclaimed Reeves. “Why am I just now learning this?”

“You were only named as a target two hours ago. We came to you directly when we learned.”

“These others who were killed, who were they? Were they warned ahead of time?”

“They were all either public officials or government contractors in the tech sector. You’re the first target whose name has been released beforehand. We can only speculate as to why. Our working theory is that whoever is doing this is running a sort of stress test, challenging the system to see if it can handle a radical influx of variables.”

“Testing what system?”

“We don’t know for sure,” said Fishman. “We hope it’s a decentralized network of super-computers. A large network. The nightmare scenario – which seems increasingly likely – is that someone, some foreign power, has produced one or more working quantum computers. We have no intel suggesting that’s the case. But if it were, and an adversary wanted to keep it secret, it’s unlikely we’d learn about it directly. A fully operational quantum computer could cut through our communications networks effortlessly and hide evidence of its existence.”

“We were briefed on this two years ago,” said Reeves. “They told us it would take at least fifteen years before anyone could pull it off.”

“Fifteen years for us to pull it off, yes,” said Fishman. “We assumed we were at the forefront of quantum development. Maybe we were wrong.”

Carson cleared his throat and leaned forward. “Perhaps it’ll be more helpful if we explain what these terrorists are doing rather than how.”

Fishman nodded.

“How much do you remember of that Times article, Senator?”

“Only broad brush strokes,” he said, mildly embarrassed. He had seen the headline in a tweet and caught a brief report on CNN, but hadn’t actually read it.

“That’s probably for the best,” said Carson. “Means we don’t have to sift the signal from the noise. Like I said, this has been going on for a year, but we don’t know how long the app was around before then. This could have been years in the making. In addition to being available for direct download, the app has been appearing on the phones of people who didn’t seek it out. We think whoever’s behind this has built dozens of seemingly innocuous apps containing code that can convert the app into KILLSHARE after an update. Whatever the case may be, in its first iteration, the app included a FAQ page explaining what it does.”

Reeves imagined the green app icon appearing as if from nowhere on his daughter’s smartphone, the announcement of his assassination only a finger tap away. He had always felt uneasy about Jess having a smartphone, but his wife had insisted. “She’ll feel like even more of a freak around the other kids,” Mindy reasoned. “The daughter of a U.S. Senator doesn’t need anything else setting her apart.”

Carson removed a tablet computer from his bag and, after a few moments of tapping, passed it to the Senator to read.

“These screenshots were obtained by the FBI’s Philadelphia field office early in their investigation.”

Reeves began to read.

WHAT IS KILLSHARE?

The world is filled with criminals who possess enough power and money to ensure they will never be punished for their crimes. KILLSHARE exists to serve them justice. But to do that, we need the help of people like you. No, we aren’t asking you to don a mask and cape and become a vigilante. But we are asking you to take action in small, perfectly anonymous ways. This could mean one day parking your car in a spot different from your usual one. It could mean feeding birds in a public park or shouting the name of a stranger in a crowded shopping center. It could mean leaving a cup of coffee on the steps of a building on your way to work. It will never mean doing something illegal. With enough people taking action together, no one person will bear any responsibility, but the sum total of your actions will result in the execution of an evil person. You will become a democratic Rube-Goldberg device of justice.

WHO WILL BE TARGETED?

Only those people who have committed grave crimes and escaped justice. We mean the worst of the worst, the Jeffrey Epsteins you’ve never heard of.

HOW DO I KNOW THIS IS REAL?

You don’t! Not yet, anyway. But you will.

HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?

[Guy Fawkes emoji]

Senator Reeves slid the tablet towards Carson. “What nonsense. I’m not some Jeffrey Epstein who eluded justice.”

“Of course not, Senator,” said Carson. “We think that was just a pretense to get people over the moral hurdle.”

“What do they want? Why are they doing this?”

“We don’t know. Aside from holding elected office or working in tech, we haven’t found a common thread linking the victims.”

“It isn’t related to policy, or anything political?”

“Not that we can determine,” said Carson. “It doesn’t appear to be partisan. Both Republicans and Democrats have been targeted, even an Independent.”

***

It was an odd request, swapping the RFID tags, but the Logistics Specialist” fulfilled it with aplomb. He hated the RFID system, which had claimed the jobs of several of his colleagues and, he was sure, would soon claim his own. His job title was a joke; the new system had reduced him to little more than a tag scanner. He didnt know why someone wanted two metric tons of Carter Plantation peanut powder shipped to VeoSans Labs in place of surfactant, but he hoped it would fuck over someone that mattered at his own company.

***

Surely there is some political motive, thought Senator Reeves. Its not being partisan doesn’t prevent it from being political.

“How close are we to finding who’s behind this?”

Carson and Fishman shared a brief, uncomfortable glance.

“We’ve had minor success scrubbing the app from servers,” said Fishman. “And everyday we’re identifying new phones carrying it. We’ve tried monitoring individuals who have the app, but those behind it must be able to detect when we do so, because they never send instructions to those phones. What information we’ve gathered has come from individuals willing to talk to us after receiving instructions. And there haven’t been many. Instructions seem to be sent primarily to people likely to carry them out. Naturally, such people won’t be interested in cooperating with us.”

The Senator took a few moments processing this information. “I assume you have a strategy for keeping me safe?” he asked.

“We’re developing one currently,” said Carson. “We will need you to deviate from your normal schedule in unpredictable ways. However – ” he gestured to Fishman to pick up where he left off.

“This presents certain problems,” said Fishman. “Normal security protocols can’t be relied upon in this case because they’re predictable. We know that we need to keep you away from public spaces, anywhere at all with a lot of human traffic. This will mean fewer variables for KILLSHARE to work with. But, again, this is predictable. From what we’ve pieced together from the prior assassinations, it’s clear that KILLSHARE creates contingency plans. There’s the possibility that rational deviations from protocol, or even rational action based on what we know about KILLSHARE, could lead us into a trap.”

“So we’re faced with a dilemma,” said Carson. “We could find ways to truly randomize your behavior over the next three days, or we could evacuate you to a secure, isolated location. Or some combination of both.”

“And we mean very isolated,” said Fishman. “We need to be able to control as many variables as possible, so that means a location that is in no way networked to the internet. The ideal is that it be somewhere that no smartphone or any other smart device has ever come near.”

“Have you selected a location?” Already he was thinking of his wife and daughter, what he would tell them, whether he would be allowed to tell them anything at all.

“We have several options.”

“Such as?”

“We aren’t able to tell you that, not until you’re there,” said Carson. “We have to assume your office, your own phone, etc., are compromised. We’ve only been so candid thus far because we’re confident KILLSHARE already knows everything we’ve said, that it’s already been incorporated into the algorithm.”

“Why can’t I simply leave the country?”

Carson and Fishman shared another uncomfortable glance.

“We have several phones with the app installed that we’re monitoring,” said Fishman. “About fifteen minutes after you were identified as the target, we received a message warning us there would be consequences if we chose that course of action.”

Carson queued another image for Reeves to look at on the tablet. It read:

IF THE SENATOR ATTEMPTS TO FLEE THE CONTINENTAL UNITED STATES, THREE THINGS WILL HAPPEN: 1) HE WILL DIE SOONER THAN MONDAY; 2) THE NUMBER OF MONTHLY TARGETS WILL BE DOUBLED; 3) UPON THE SENATOR’S DEATH, THE PRESS WILL BE PROVIDED A FULL REPORT OF HOW HE WAS ASSASSINATED AND HOW FEDERAL AGENCIES MISLED THE PUBLIC ABOUT THE EXISTENCE OF KILLSHARE.

“What if we call their bluff?”

“Scroll down to the next slide,” said Carson. “We received this message fifteen minutes after the first.”

Reeves read the second message”

AS A DEMONSTRATION THAT WE ARE SERIOUS: AT 09:30 EST WE DISABLED THE FLIGHT CONTROLS OF AMERICAN AIRLINES FLIGHT 4378 FOR ONE MINUTE AND TEN SECONDS. FAA WILL CONFIRM.

“This has been confirmed?” asked Reeves.

“Yes. It’s being kept out of the press. Only the pilots and a handful of FAA officials know. There were over two hundred people on that flight. That KILLSHARE would risk their lives just to make a point, well … We have to assume they won’t hesitate to carry out their threat against you.”

“Jesus.” The Senator leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. The entire briefing possessed a dream-like quality which was keeping fear and anxiety at bay. How long would that last?

“Where does this leave us?” he asked finally.

“We will take you to a remote location late Sunday night.”

“In the meantime?”

“We’re still debating that,” said Carson. “Most likely, we will want you to engage in random activities we hope will create disruptive variables. We’ve brought in experts in game theory to hash this out with us.”

***

The boy was delighted to learn that the large package on the front porch was addressed to him. He brought it inside to show his mother, who was mystified by it. Open it and see whats inside,” she said. He did so eagerly. What he found was a sophisticated flying drone large enough, he thought, to lift him into the air. It had two manipulable arms with pincers that reminded him of the claw machine in the food court of the local mall. His mother opined that the drone looked industrial grade.”

Can I keep it?” he asked.

I dont see why not.” She would regret this later, after a little Googling revealed the machines resale value; but she was good to her word.

It proved great fun for precisely two weeks. And then it disappeared.

***

That afternoon they sent him to the Smithsonian, where he wandered for perhaps half an hour. Then they sent him across town to watch a French film at a theater he had never heard of, and had him leave after only ten minutes. They had him make several random purchases: a red-eye flight to Los Angeles for that evening, three seats for a Dodgers game the following day, scuba lessons for Sunday afternoon. When they told him to go order a drink at a gay dance club, he decided he had had enough.

“You have no idea what the hell you’re doing, do you?” he barked through the phone at Agent Carson.

“We’re doing our best, sir.”

“I’m done with this nonsense. If I’m going to die on Monday, I refuse to spend my last days on this earth jumping through hoops. I’m going home to be with my wife and daughter. Make whatever arrangements you need to.”

“This limits our options for isolating you.”

“So be it.”

***

Jesus Christ, this is the second time this month theyve fucked up our order,” said the Food Services Officer in the stockroom of the base’s mess facility. What the fuck am I going to do with all these peanuts?”

***

A private flight was arranged and the Senator arrived at the small airport outside of Grand Rapids in the early hours of Saturday morning, a beefed up security detail in tow. He had tried to sleep on the flight, but the question of how to explain the situation to his wife had kept him up.

She was there at the door to greet him when he made it home. A member of his detail entered first, index finger pressed to his lips, and collected her smartphone and placed it in a pouch woven through with metal. He then began combing the house for other devices.

“I’ve been so worried,” she said.

“I know, Mindy. I’m sorry I couldn’t say more on the phone.” After their brief conversation, his smartphone had been remanded to the desk drawer of his Capitol Hill office. One more variable removed from the equation. “Let’s talk on the deck.”

They sat in a pair of Adirondack chairs behind the house, looking out at the blue-blackness of Lake Michigan and listening to the calm lap of waves against the beach.

“Frankly, I don’t understand how they could be caught with their pants down on something like this,” she said after he updated her with a version of his plight rinsed of need-to-know details. 

“What good is the NSA if it can’t protect against threats firmly in their wheelhouse?”

“I don’t have a good answer to that. Neither do they.”

“So we have until tomorrow night, then they sneak you away to the wilderness?”

“Yes.”

“What will we tell Jess?” asked Mindy. “Should we wake her up?”

“We’ll tell her more or less what I just told you. And no, let’s let her rest. Speaking of which, I’m bushed. Let’s go in.”

***

As evening arrived, the young man finished refilling the push-mowers fuel tank and replaced the cap. Instead of returning the red gas can to its usual place in the corner of the shed, he left it in his parentsbackyard on a stretch of freshly mowed grass. The yellow nozzle curved skyward like the snout of some dumb animal lazing in the open, easy pickings for a bird of prey.

***

He slept poorly that night, despite his exhaustion. His wife’s worry had cut through the unreality of it all, made it concrete, and this had opened the door to his own anxiety, which needled him cruelly each time he began to drift off to sleep. Finally, he stopped fighting it and let his mind wander. It broke his heart to think about leaving his wife a widow, his daughter fatherless. He even felt guilty at the prospect of not shepherding DAFA through passage and ensuring that every American had access to the tools of the information economy. So he channeled his anxious mind toward speculations on the future of the country under this terrifying new threat.

If a foreign adversary had indeed developed a fully functioning quantum computer, there was next to nothing stopping them from utterly shattering American hegemony. They could shut off the economy with little to no effort. Or, God forbid, they could simply turn the power off and send us into a new dark age. The possibilities for destruction were endless.

It occurred to him that, were his life not at risk, his daughter would be endlessly fascinated by the KILLSHARE phenomenon. Jess devoured science-fiction novels and films and often shared with him her speculations about the strange futures our technologies were making possible. She believed that, being a U.S. Senator, her father must have knowledge of top-secret technology, and she was always watching for hints he might drop. In reality, he was privy to only the most mundane of technological secrets, but he encouraged her misconception because it cast a glamour over his work, which so often prevented him from being present in all the ways a father should. The thought that his presence might soon be denied to her altogether was more than he could bear. But, no, that wasn’t quite true. What he truly dreaded was his being denied her presence. Her future was guaranteed to be bright, and he longed to bask in its warmth.

He slipped out of bed and walked quietly to her room. The door was ajar and he looked in on her sleeping form, her chestnut hair a dark mass against the white pillow, a spill of moonlight highlighting her face from the bridge of her nose upward in a way that made him think of the visor of a fighter pilot. His mind wandered a flagstone path of associations to a memory of a recent conversation he’d had with her about UFOs and the possibility of intelligent life on other worlds. He had been surprised to find she was more skeptical than he was. She enthused over something called “Fermi’s paradox, which merely confused him.

Simply looking at his daughter had eased his anxiety, allowed it to become diffuse, abstract. A weariness like gauze began to wrap about his consciousness and he left her room for his own. Settling into bed, he reflected that the strange UFO sightings made by military personnel over the past decade, which had only recently been confirmed to the public, might also be evidence that an adversary had developed a quantum computer. It would take that level of processing power, he imagined, to create aircraft capable of thwarting the known laws of physics. How he wished he could speculate openly about this with Jess.

“UAPs,” he imagined her reminding him. “We’re supposed to call them ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ now.”

He pictured foreign scientists standing before a great machine which purred away as it solved the mysteries of the physical universe. If such a thing were responsible for the UAPs, that would mean it had been created more than a decade ago. This prospect was frightening, but also befuddling, for it meant an adversary had been choosing not to take more aggressive measures against the U.S., which suggested a long-term strategy was in play.

It was with that troubling thought in mind that the Senator finally fell asleep.

***

Saturday and Sunday were at once somber, dreamlike, and manic, filled in equal measure with a desperate need for his family’s love and with a rattling dread of his coming oblivion.

Jess took the news at first with bewildered numbness. Later that afternoon, however, she was overflowing with questions, very few of which he was able or allowed to answer. Come evening the numbness had returned. She behaved much like her mother – as if some slavering monster waited in the grayness just beyond her periphery and she was safe so long as she never turned to look at.

The Senator, however, had to look at it. He feared it would be the last thing he ever saw.

***

Does this detergent smell funny to you?” one private asked another in the base laundry.

Man, I havent been able to smell shit since catching the rona.”

Thats fucked.”

Tell me about it.”

Im serious though. This soap smells like a PB&J sandwich. Its making me hungry.”

***

The Army helicopter arrived just after 7:00 PM on Sunday, landing on the long grass that separated the Reeves’s home from the beach. Agent Carson disembarked with two other Secret Service agents, all dressed in light tactical gear rather than their customary suits. Agent Fishman would be providing support from Fort Meade, Carson told the Senator as he explained the plan.

They had settled on a remote, forested region in Minnesota near the Boundary Waters. Reeves had always wanted to visit the Boundary Waters and thought it a pitiful irony he now might die there without even getting to enjoy it.

When he kissed his wife and daughter goodbye, the beast in the periphery came at last into view and they all three wept and clung anxiously to one another until Agent Carson insisted it was time to leave.

***

They landed in a clearing barely larger than a baseball diamond. A forward team had already secured the area and erected tents.

During the flight, the Senator had received a call from the President, who promised everything possible was being done to ensure his safety. He wished the President hadn’t bothered to call. He had sensed fear in the man’s voice, as if he felt just as vulnerable as Reeves. That, more than anything else, filled him with terror, not just for himself, but for his country, which, despite his occasional base-baiting anti-imperialist rhetoric, he loved dearly. He became suddenly sick at the recollection of his pandering, his unsavory politicking.

God, he prayed, if I make it through this, Ill change. Ill play no more games. Ill live and legislate with real integrity.

He was a Unitarian and it felt weird to pray, to bargain with the Almighty, like rediscovering a forgotten muscle that had atrophied from disuse.

As they climbed down from the helicopter, he and Carson were met by a couple of soldiers who led them to the largest of the three tents. They sat on thin canvas folding chairs, the tent vibrating ominously as the throbbing of the helicopter’s blades faded towards stillness.

“Now we wait,” said Carson.

“I wish there was something I could do,” said Reeves. “Anything to distract me from the dread.”

“I suggest you try and get some rest, sir. There’s a cot made up behind that partition.”

“How can I rest?” He looked at his watch. “Thirty minutes till midnight. It won’t happen until after midnight, right?”

“Correct. Assuming ‘it’ happens at all. I’m hopeful we’ll make it through these twenty-four hours without incident.”

Carson rose and spoke into his radio, some Secret Service jargon the Senator didn’t recognize. He disappeared through the front flaps of the tent.

The Senator stood and stretched. He selected a bottle of water and bag of peanuts – the only food that appeared to be on offer – from a table near the partition and then sat down on his cot and drank greedily. He hadn’t realized how thirsty he was until the water hit his lips. He tried to eat a few of the nuts, but found he had little appetite.

He lay back on the cot and stared at the ceiling of the tent, listened to the vague sounds of subdued soldiering which accompanied the insectoid hum of the Minnesotan wild. He was too anxious to sleep and his eyes felt dry and electrified. He counted down the minutes until midnight and the start of the day he was meant to die.

“Twenty-four hours,” he said to no one.

***

It was around 4:00 AM when the shouting startled him from an open-eyed and weary stupor. The air in the tent carried a pleasant hint of wood smoke. A moment later Agent Carson appeared, his face weighted by anger and resolve.

“Get those shoes on, sir,” he said. “We’re evacuating.”

“What?”

“Fire. The whole forest is on fire.”

***

The rich smoke assailed his nostrils the moment he left the tent. It cloyed the air in defiance of the helicopter’s blades and made his eyes water. All around him the forest glowed with a blaze that was still some ways off but closing in fast. The trees at the edge of the clearing appeared little more than silhouettes.

Reeves and Carson climbed into the helicopter and were joined by six other men, filling it to capacity. Another dozen men waited by the tents.

Carson noticed the concern on Reeves’s face. “Another chopper is inbound. They’ll be evacuated in minutes.”

“Where are we going? What’s the contingency?”

Carson didn’t answer and instead barked an order at the pilot.

The helicopter lifted into the night and Reeves looked out on the fire encircling the camp. He could feel the heat of it even from inside the cabin.

“See?” said Carson, pointing out the window. “Right there. Right on time.”

Senator Reeves leaned over and peered out the window to see the lights of the other helicopter blinking in the near distance.

“Our boys are gonna be just fine,” said Carson.

The helicopter hitched suddenly.

Reeves assumed it was a consequence of the heat rising beneath them. Then it hitched again and began veering hard to the left.

The pilot was having some sort of fit. He was clawing at his throat and face, wheezing.

The co-pilot seized the controls and attempted to regain control, but it was too late.

They had dropped low enough for the blades to catch on the tops of the pine trees. The helicopter tumbled toward the forest floor, the blades snapping off with wrenching metallic screams that the Senator felt so viscerally it was as if they came from his own throat. Then a great shattering and a sound of shearing metal and the weight of struggling men pressing the wind out of him.

The smell of blood and shit filled his nostrils. Agent Carson was wedged against him. He moved erratically, frantically at first, and then slower, and still slower, and then not at all. Reeves tried to push Carson off of him, but his arms wouldn’t cooperate. His back felt wet and strangely cool. 

He didn’t understand why he couldn’t move.

Soon he was able to orient himself. He was facing upward, still strapped into his seat, looking through what remained of the windshield into the glowing boughs of an enormous pine. He began to move his head and look around the cabin. The entire right side had been ripped clean off, providing a lurid window into the approaching fire.

“Oh God,” said a quiet voice at his left. He tried to locate the speaker but could not. “Oh God,” said the voice again. “We’re gonna roast like honeyed hams.”

As the fire crawled toward him with tantalizing sluggishness, the Senator reflected that this was the last human voice he would ever hear.

He was wrong, though, for soon his head was filled with the sound of his own laughter. Mercifully, the dark took him before his laughter could turn to screams.

***

The Senate fell silent, so silent that the purr of the chair’s electric motor could be heard across the chamber as it approached the dais. The silence was less reverent than fearful, a silence that seemed to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Six months had passed since the attack on Senator Reeves. Six more people, including two congressmen, had been killed.

It was a miracle that Reeves survived the helicopter crash and the conflagration, but it was far from an act of mercy. By itself the metal wreckage that severed his spine at mid-back would have left him a paraplegic, but the fire also claimed his right arm. Ninety percent of his body was covered in third degree burns. His right eye had burst from the heat. In the end, it was the corpse of Agent Carson pinned against him that had preserved the left half of his face and his left arm.

He had considered letting Mindy or Jess wheel him to the dais, but his gut told him that the presence of loved ones would mitigate the horror of his state and thus reduce the rhetorical effect of his first public appearance since the crash.

The speech he had prepared was short for it hurt him to speak at length. Most of the details were now public knowledge: the endless contingencies KILLSHARE had prepared; the fire’s many points of ignition, including the gasoline-wielding drone; KILLSHARE’s prediction of the precise day when Lieutenant Owens would become symptomatic for an adult nut allergy; the inscrutability of the terrorists’ motives; the powerlessness of the greatest military on the planet to do anything to stop them. Beyond the details gleaned by the forensics teams, all anyone had were questions.

But as Senator Reeves came to a rest on the dais, he cared about one question only: Would the American people have the fortitude to do what was needful? Would they willingly dismantle the digital infrastructure that had made the terror possible? Dismantle the infrastructure he had formerly dedicated himself to expanding?

Whatever their answer – and he feared he already knew it – he would force them all to look at his boiled face, the ruin of his body, force them to see.

Subscribe to ENTER, our complimentary newsletter with exclusive content

About the author

Your RETURN membership unlocks exclusive benefits, products, and content, ranging from our private community forum to our premium print quarterly. Come join us and do digital life right.