FICTION | AUTOCOMPLETE
Last week, a man vanished from the internet. Every message he’d posted, every picture he was tagged in, every mention of him by other people, all erased in a single night. He now existed only in the fading memories of the handful of people who’d known him. I was trying to find these people, and through them work out who he was and why someone wanted him forgotten. None of the big papers were covering this unique mystery, and I felt that if I could solve it, and resurrect some semblance of the man’s murdered persona, my career as a second-rate investigative reporter might find some way out of obscurity, and I too could avoid being forgotten.
I was sitting at my bedroom desk, which was beside the window, gazing idly at the notes on my laptop. So far, all I had were fragments of info about the vanished man, gleaned from an old acquaintance – the one who’d noticed he’d vanished. She spoke little English, but had been able to tell me the man’s name was Massimo Cavatore, he’d been a reclusive academic, and he’d died almost a decade ago. Since then I’d spent the week on social media, asking around for anyone else who knew him, to no avail.
Until I knew more about Cavatore, I had no way of determining the motives of those who’d erased him from the web. But I did know who had the means. There was one group known for erasing or altering information across the web: the Oneiric Dawn. They were a strange cult of hacktivists who’d become famous after leaking government emails and exposing a variety of shady scandals. Reporters soon began investigating the Dawn, but if any of them tried to publish anything unfavorable, it would often be erased from the web within minutes. Exactly how the group was able to achieve this was unknown; some speculated that it possessed knowledge of the web beyond even the greatest hackers, while others suggested it had infiltrated key positions at various Big Tech firms.
Whatever the case, the Dawn seemed to be wholly driven by a bizarre conspiracy theory. It’s members thought that all the things our ancestors believed in – demons, witches, and ghosts – were real, but a cabal of elites who secretly ran the world – the “Varenberg Group” – had brainwashed the people into believing that such things do not exist. The Dawn’s self-proclaimed mission was to expose this “dark truth” to everyone.
They seemed to be succeeding: their conspiracy theory had trespassed into the mainstream, primarily via social media influencers who’d fallen for their propaganda and now dedicated themselves to spreading it. I decided to watch one of them – a popular YouTuber called “Broadsword Mike” – who’d made a video entitled “HUGE Revelation that PROVES the Dawn is Right!!!” He was a middle-aged bald man with a stormcloud beard, whose room was decorated to look like an underground bunker, replete with flashing red lights on the walls, though the impression was somewhat betrayed by the boxes of Chinese takeout in the background. He sat with his elbows resting on his desk, his fingers interlocked. “Hey peeps,” he said, “I’ve been in contact with the Dawn again, and all I’m gonna say is, prepare to have your mind blown.”
He went on to talk of how historical documents, apparently leaked to him by the Dawn, showed that the Varenberg Group had originated as a cabal of sorcerers in 12th Century Europe. They learned to commune with spirits, and through them were able to predict the future and rise to the top of society. Fearing that if the masses discovered the source of their power they’d usurp it, they decided to steer the Western world toward the Enlightenment, ordaining rationalism and the scientific method as the only acceptable forms of inquiry, so that no one who spoke of spirits would ever be believed. “Don’t let the academics and other eggheads tell you you’re crazy to believe!” he said. He finished the video by imploring his viewers to rise up, saying that if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be long before the Group and its demonic allies had total dominion over every man, woman, and child. And, on that cliffhanger, he reminded his viewers to like and subscribe.
When I saw that he had over 2 million subscribers I chuckled to myself, unable to comprehend the magnitude of human stupidity. Perhaps the Dawn were right about one thing: people were not meant for rationality, and our age of reason, rather than make people more reasonable, only made them yearn harder for superstition.
Perhaps the Dawn was right about one thing: people were not meant for rationality, and our age of reason, rather than make people more reasonable, only made them yearn harder for superstition.
In any case, it was clear that the Dawn and its supporters reviled the purveyors of rationalism – the “academics and other eggheads” – and one thing we knew about Cavatore was that he fell into that category. But, of all academics, why Cavatore? Of the hundreds of academics I’d asked about him, not one of them knew who he was. What could an academic of so little influence possess that would threaten the Dawn enough for them to make him, as far as I knew, the world’s first person to be utterly erased from the web?
I heard the pop of an email notification. I checked my inbox, and when I saw the word “Cavatore” in the title I eagerly clicked. The message read:
Cavatore is not here. I can’t find him anywhere. I think he was never born.
I realized the message had been sent from the account of my wife, Ella. She’d died three years ago, but I’d been getting emails from her account since last week, when I started asking about Cavatore on social media. It was obvious the Dawn had hacked Ella’s account to play with my feelings. It clearly didn’t want me investigating Cavatore’s erasure, and thought sending me fake emails from my dead wife would hinder me, but it only infuriated me, and made me more determined to find out what the hackers were hiding.
The message had been sent from the account of my wife, Ella. She’d died three years ago, but I’d been getting emails from her account since last week.
Fortunately, I soon received real news. My boss and editor-in-chief, Lavinia, said that my colleague, Ben, had uncovered new evidence in the Cavatore case, so we arranged a video call. Lavinia looked the same as ever: sharply pressed suit, unruly hair held down with an army of clips, a smile confined to the lower half of the face. Her background was pure wall. Ben, meanwhile, looked much worse than usual. His hair, normally quiffed like a perfect swirl of ice cream, looked like a frozen explosion; his face, normally peachy, was speckled with stubble; and his eyes, normally amiable, were stern and ringed with darkness. He was sitting stiffly at his bedroom desk, and behind him his bookshelf, normally neatly arranged, was precariously jumbled. “Hey,” he said, smiling wearily. “Sorry I missed your calls. Been hard at work.”
“I hope it was worth it,” said Lavinia.
“Possibly, I can’t actually tell.” He explained that a few days ago, he called the University of Milan, where Cavatore had once been a professor, and found out they still had some hard-copies of his research notes, which Ben was able to convince them to fax over to him. “It’s not been easy deciphering them,” he said. “They’re protected by three levels of encryption: Italian, shorthand, and appalling handwriting. But I think I’ve managed to glean the gist of Cavatore’s research using online translation tools.”
Ben went on to explain that Cavatore believed that human consciousness was not caused by souls, but purely by the arrangement of physical matter. “You know, like a movie or video game is a result of circuitry.” In Cavatore’s view, the brain became capable of consciousness because its networked structure of interconnected cells reached a sufficient complexity. His work involved trying to determine the minimum complexity – as measured by number of interconnections – at which consciousness emerges in a brain.
Ben’s explanation further cemented my belief that the culprits behind Cavatore’s online erasure had been the Oneiric Dawn. I pointed out that the Dawn’s primary goal seemed to be to make people believe in spirits, and since Cavatore’s work explicitly denied the existence of souls or spirits, it directly contradicted them, giving them a tangible motive for going after him.
“Maybe,” said Lavinia. “But many people share Cavatore’s views about consciousness. And erasing all reference to someone from the web is a big investment of time and effort. Cavatore had to have known something that was uniquely dangerous to whoever it was who erased him.”
Lavinia asked Ben to email her a copy of the notes, but he said he’d fax them instead, because he’d deactivated his email. We asked why, and his face tautened, seemingly in an attempt to hide some kind of anguish. Gazing at the floor, he said he’d been receiving emails from the account of his dead daughter.
I told him I’d received similar emails. “They’re just trying to wear us down, hinder our investigation, because they’re afraid of what we’ll find.”
“Exactly,” said Lavinia. “Which makes it even more important to continue.” She said that from now on, none of us should communicate via email; only by text message, phone call, and video call. She then said she and Ben would work on deciphering the rest of Cavatore’s notes, while I’d continue looking into our prime suspect, the Dawn.
On the news live-stream, supporters of the Dawn had gathered in the square. They were all ages and colors, and held aloft placards that read things like “Boycott Normie News,” “Varenberg Liars,” and “Ghosts Are Real – I Spoke To Them.” I wondered if the owner of the last placard had been swayed by the Dawn’s manipulative emails. Someone desperate to believe they’ll see a loved one again can often be convinced of it with the flimsiest of evidence: a holy book, or a few Barnum statements by a fairground psychic. One template email, sent to the address books of a hundred thousand dead people’s accounts, would probably create a few hundred believers in ghosts. Such a cruel thing to do, to pretend to be a lost loved one and play on people’s grief, but the Dawn were hungry for support, and appeared to care little for decency.
They held aloft placards that read things like “Boycott Normie News” and “Ghosts Are Real – I Spoke To Them.”
The protesters were gathered in reaction to the day’s big news; the Dawn had published financial records purporting to show that alleged members of the Varenberg Group were major investors in all the main newspapers and TV networks. The Dawn had also leaked a covert video recording of two such investors, the tech entrepreneur Rowan Feltham and the newspaper tycoon Max Meyer, discussing using their leverage over TV and print media to fight the Dawn’s online campaign and keep the “big secret” a secret.
What exactly the big secret was, no one could be sure, but the Dawn had claimed it was the existence of the spirit world. For their part, Feltham and Meyer had both come out denying they’d ever discussed any big secret, claiming the leaked video was a deep-fake manufactured by the Dawn. This had done little to convince outraged Dawn supporters, who’d taken to the streets demanding a boycott of all newspapers and TV news.
The Dawn had been trying to discourage people from older forms of media from the very beginning, and it was obvious why: it had unmatched influence online but little sway over terrestrial TV and print. I wondered if there was even any need to discredit these other methods of knowing; they were already becoming obsolete. I looked at my TV, which lay huddled in the corner, its screen coated in a cataract of dust. Now everyone had the web, which could show anything on TV or in print, and so much more; legacy media was all but dead.
Eventually, exhausted from days of poor sleep, I lay on my bed and drifted into dreams. I was awoken in the middle of the night by a dance of vivid colors. They were glimmering all over my walls. I followed the source of light to my laptop screen, which had somehow switched on by itself and was now flickering with painfully bright reds and blues and yellows and greens and everything in between. The colors were so vivid that the walls they bounced off seemed no duller than the screen from which they originated, and the flickering was so fast it was hard to keep track of which colors I was seeing. Even closing my eyes didn’t seem to soften the lights. Clambering from my bed, feeling my way to my laptop, I switched it off. Then, in the peace of restored blackness, I returned to sleep.
In the morning I wondered whether the strange flickering of color had just been a dream. But when I checked the news I realized it had affected everyone in the country. Laptops, computers, phones – all had suddenly burst into violent dances of color. As a result, dozens of people had suffered epileptic seizures, and six had even died, including three children. Experts claimed the signal had been optimized specifically to induce seizures, and that therefore, what we’d witnessed last night had been the world’s first purely online terrorist attack. They were calling it the “strobe attack.”
It seemed to have the Dawn written all over it: only it had the know-how to stage such a grand online operation. But, knowing I didn’t have enough information to be sure, I conducted an online search for potential suspects. A Wikipedia page had already been created for the attack. It portrayed the attack as a Varenberg Group operation, in response to the Dawn’s leaks regarding their plan for an anti-Dawn TV and print media campaign. Apparently, the Group, fearing a boycott of the TV stations and newspapers through which they disseminated their propaganda, had sought to make people even more afraid to use the web. The tendentious tone of the article immediately seemed suspect to me, and when I checked the citations, it became clear the article was little more than Dawn propaganda. Such was the problem with a website anyone could edit.
I returned to Google and checked the rest of the search results. Nothing on the first page linked to a single credible news website. I checked the second and third pages, and again, no credible sources. All seemed to be Dawn propaganda pages, pushing the theory that the strobe attack had been the work of the Varenberg Group. I tried other search engines, yielding similar warped results. Either the search engine companies had become sympathetic to the Dawn, or the Dawn had learned how to game their algorithms so their propaganda appeared before all other results. Both possibilities were dangerous: people are lazy, and will tend to follow whatever appears first rather than what is reputable. I worried the Dawn might soon have a monopoly on popular consensus.
I proceeded to Twitter, to see what people were saying about the attack. As soon as I glimpsed my timeline, I regretted it. All accounts, from those with no profile picture to those with blue-checkmarks, appeared to have chosen one of two tribes, pro-Dawn or anti-Dawn. Pro-Dawn accounts said the strobe attack was transmitted by the Varenberg Group to make people afraid of using the web so they wouldn’t learn the truth of the spirit world from the Dawn. Anti-Dawn accounts said the strobe attack was transmitted by the Dawn to damage people’s retinas and cause them to see ghost-like apparitions, so they’d be more receptive to the Dawn’s supernatural worldview.
The two tribes were arguing viciously, both accusing the other of insulting the memories of the attack’s victims, with supposedly civilized professors and media professionals just as rabid as the anonymous shitposters, and supposedly sane anti-Dawn activists just as delusional as pro-Dawn conspiracy theorists. All of them, regardless of tribe or station, were resorting to crude insults and caricatures of their opponents, and publicly shaming them in a bid to incite more abuse from their followers. Some even tagged their opponents’ employers in a bid to get them fired. I sighed as I lamented how easily people were provoked. I’d once thought, naively, that technology might make us more civilized, but instead it seemed we’d primitivized technology.
I’d once thought, naively, that technology might make us more civilized, but instead it seemed we’d primitivized technology.
The constant exhortations by online high society to rise up and beat the other tribe were having an impact in the real world. Riots had already begun to break out across the country, and as the day progressed I watched them get larger, together with running commentary from experts, as though we were watching a sports match. Much of the news fixated on a protest by a new anti-Dawn movement, called the Citizens Against the Dawn, which had been bankrolled by several pop stars and Hollywood celebrities, and had thereby become fashionable. It hosted a speech by the father of one of the children killed in the strobe attack, which raised emotions enough to later spur a rampage, leading to the torching of several businesses believed to belong to Dawn-sympathizers.
I spent the rest of the day reading about the Dawn, taking notes on its spiritualist belief system. Its propaganda confirmed that the philosophy it despised the most was physicalism, the idea that everything, including consciousness, is a property of matter. It was increasingly looking like it had erased Cavatore because he, somehow, had been able to provide compelling evidence of the truth of physicalism.
I received an email notification. It was from Ella’s account. Steeling myself against emotional manipulation, I clicked. The message read:
I’m trying to help you, why won’t you listen to me? Cavatore did not die. He was never born. He is not here with me, in Hell.
I deleted the email, and returned to my work. But when I reread the notes I’d been taking, I noticed I’d written the word “betwixt” in three different sentences. I didn’t even know what the word meant. I looked it up, to find it was an archaic form of the word “between.” Could I really have written a word I didn’t know, a word that belonged to the distant past? Or had I known it until a few moments ago, and forgotten that I’d forgotten? I thought of the strobe attack last night, and feared the violent flashes of color may have affected me in ways I wasn’t aware of.
I soon received a text message from Lavinia stating she needed to speak to me and Ben, so we agreed to a video call. Lavinia’s eyes were puffy and her hair was clumped as if it had been regularly gripped in her fists. She asked us how we were. Ben said he’d been receiving anonymous emails of people being burned alive. I mentioned that words were appearing in my work that I didn’t write.
“They’re not letting up, are they?” Lavinia said.
I pointed out that the substance of my notes hadn’t changed, just the use of certain words, and asked why the Dawn would go to the lengths of hacking into my cloud drive just to make minor alterations to word choices.
Lavinia mentioned a concept called “zersetzung,” a form of gaslighting once used by the East German Stasi, in which it would carry out a series of small, incremental, seemingly meaningless disruptions of their targets, such as moving objects around their room, and setting their alarm clocks to the wrong time, to gradually make them doubt their own sanity. “Disinformation isn’t always about making people believe lies, at least not directly,” she said. “Sometimes it’s to make people doubt everything. A person unable to stand for something can be made to do anything.” She said the Dawn’s goal was to make us all lose faith in reason, to make us revert to our primal, superstitious selves. “The minor alterations to text, the emails from dead people, even that horrific strobe attack – it’s all to seed gnawing doubt, confusion, and paranoia, to wear down the walls of reason until we can’t help but accept their views of a world of ghosts and demons.”
“That strobe attack was something else,” said Ben. “Millions of computers suddenly switching on and flickering with dazzling color. It’s beyond the capabilities of even the best hackers. It seems almost…supernatural.”
“That’s why they did it,” Lavinia said.
“Dawn members clearly know things about the web that other hackers don’t,” I said. I mentioned how even search engine algorithms now seemed to obey them. “At this point I honestly don’t know how to stop them, unless we can find whatever Cavatore knew that scared them so much.”
Lavinia said she’d translated more of Cavatore’s notes, to no avail. “There’s a whole lot of diagrams and calculations, apparently to determine the minimum number of connections between brain cells needed to create a conscious brain.”
“I actually don’t think Cavatore is important,” said Ben. “His erasure is looking like just more misdirection; a red herring to confuse us, make us waste our time chasing phantoms so the Dawn can realize its real goals unimpeded.”
“It could be more zersetzung,” said Lavinia. “I just think there has to be-”
She stopped speaking, and I immediately knew why. Ben’s video stream had briefly glitched, and now, behind him, in the shadowed top-left corner of his room, there was something huddled, its arms gripping the walls, its head resting against the ceiling, its long black hair dangling down.
Ben’s video stream had briefly glitched, and now, behind him, there was something huddled, its arms gripping the walls, its head resting against the ceiling, its long black hair dangling down.
“Ben,” I said. “What’s that behind you?”
He appeared not to hear me.
The thing crawled across the ceiling and stretched a long-fingered hand over Ben’s head, holding it there like a puppeteer.
Ben’s expression went blank. His eyes glazed; he seemed to be staring through everything, into infinity. He stood up, reached toward something on his desk: a canister. He held the canister over his head and began pouring its contents over himself, remaining expressionless even as the liquid soaked him.
“Ben!” I shouted.
“Ben, stop it!” cried Lavinia.
Ben reached into his pocket and pulled out a lighter. With one flick of his wrist, he burst into flames.
From the light of the fire, I saw the thing on the ceiling more clearly. It had no eyes or nose, only a mouth, which was smiling.
The video stream stuttered, turning Lavinia’s screams into a staccato. Then the stream cut out.
I grabbed my phone and shakily dialed 911. When I got through to the police I tried to tell them – between gasping breaths – what I’d seen, but didn’t – couldn’t – mention the thing huddled in the corner. After taking a few more details, the operator told me it’d be handled, and hung up. I tried calling Lavinia but she didn’t answer. Gripping a letter opener for protection, I paced around the room, repeatedly checking each corner, trying to steel myself against the prospect of seeing that thing. I received a call from an unrecognized number. I held my phone to my ear but said nothing.
“Hello, this is the police,” said a man’s voice. “You claimed you’d witnessed the murder of one Benjamin Keele, at 82 Rosewood Place, earlier today.”
There was a long pause.
“Why are you asking?” I said.
“That cannot be possible. Mr Keele was stabbed to death two days ago.”
“You must be mistaken,” I said. “I literally spoke to him just now, before he died.”
“No mistake. His identity was confirmed by both the papers he was carrying and by several members of family.”
My mouth had dried up. I found it difficult to speak. “This. Can’t be.”
“Investigations are ongoing. We may call you again.” The cop hung up.
I checked the web for news of Ben’s supposed death two days ago. I found nothing about a stabbing, but much about Ben that I didn’t know before. He had his own Wikipedia page, which described him as an admitted member of the Dawn. I followed that sentence’s citation to a page apparently written by Ben himself. It described his journey into sympathizing with the Dawn’s worldview. Whoever had written this article was not the Ben I’d known for six years. Had he been living a secret life, or were the words in this article yet more disinformation, written by an impostor trying to besmirch him?
The thought of Ben as a clandestine Dawn agent seemed ridiculous, and yet, the more I thought about it, the more it explained what I’d witnessed happen to him. The Dawn was dedicated to exposing the existence of things beyond reason trespassing into this world. If, like it, Ben had been secretly working to expose such supernatural forces, he’d be a target for those who didn’t want the world to know of them, including, perhaps, the forces themselves.
The Dawn was the only one whose worldview could accommodate what I’d seen happen to Ben. I needed to know more about its theories. I had many web pages about their beliefs bookmarked, but as I clicked on each one, I discovered that the page had either vanished or been replaced with a new page that dismissed the Dawn’s views as childish conspiracy theories. A web search for the Dawn’s beliefs yielded only pages condemning or ridiculing them. I navigated to the cloud where I’d saved notes I’d made about the Dawn, but as I opened them I saw that they too had been changed: all were written in a style that was not mine – and fiercely anti-Dawn.
Was this really just a ploy to make me think I was crazy, or was I actually going crazy? Everything was changing too much, too quickly, to be mere gaslighting. The rate of change made no sense, unless it was my eyes, my mind, that were changing. Had the strobe attack done something to unravel my senses? Was the thing I’d seen in Ben’s room nothing more than a symptom of my own mental disintegration? “I am Jim Harker, a reporter investigating an online disappearance,” I said. But was I really? I typed my own name into the search bar. I immediately wished I hadn’t. Every article I’d ever written, every post I’d ever made, all were the words of a stranger, expressing views I didn’t hold in a tone I didn’t recognize.
Every article I’d ever written, every post I’d ever made, all were the words of a stranger, expressing views I didn’t hold in a tone I didn’t recognize.
I suddenly felt like I was falling and gripped the arms of my chair. I glanced around the room. Same desk, same lamp, same bed. Everything around me was solid, and still, and where it should be. The only change was happening on my laptop screen. So I wasn’t changing; I was who I said I was. It was the web that was in flux. It was my online self who was the impostor. My life’s work had been rewritten by an entity that had co-opted my persona, ventriloquizing my face for purposes unknown.
The sheer number of articles that had been rewritten, seemingly overnight, was beyond the abilities of any human. The impostor had to be something else. As my eyes veered across my estranged texts, I saw that phrase again – “betwixt” – the word from another time. It was as if my work had been rewritten by a being for whom the passage of centuries meant nothing.
Amid my somber reverie my computer became idle; the screen dissolved to black with a soft fizz of static, revealing my reflection. As I gazed at its familiar form, I mused that it, at least, was a part of me that would always be mine. I reached out to touch it, but an unwitting nudge of the mouse made the screen flicker into life again, and my reflection vanished in the brightness.
In my YouTube recommendations there was a clip called “The Time Has Come” by “Broadsword Mike,” the man I’d ridiculed just a few days ago. Right now, he was the sanest voice I could find. I played the clip, hoping that a recording of a man talking into a camera could assuage my feeling of being utterly alone.
Behind him, his curtains were drawn, letting through only a sliver of daylight in which dust swirled. He was sat at his desk, frowning at the ground. He took a deep breath, blew it from his lungs, then raised his eyes to the camera. “Well guys, the moment that we all feared has come.” He described how mobs were now breaking into people’s homes, dragging away suspected Dawn-sympathizers. People were being murdered in their bedrooms, and their killers were not always human. It was a nationwide purge of anyone who questioned the rationalist narrative, and it had all been orchestrated by the Varenberg Group and the things that whispered in their ears.
“The time for talk is over,” he said. “You think your stuttering words are gonna convince your neighbor not to kill you, when he’s had his mind poisoned by demons who can weave illusions as real as me talking to you right now?” He raised his arms to reveal what he held in his hands, a pistol (left) and a crucifix (right). “These are all you have now. Defend your homes, your families, and the Truth. Don’t think you can count on anyone. They control everything, including the police.”
The police. I suddenly realized why the cop had lied to me about Ben’s death. He’d been a stooge of the Group, trying to make me doubt the truth of what I’d seen. Things were beginning to make sense again. The Varenberg Group had been in control all along, their demonic allies misdirecting us with illusions. The Dawn was not trying to deceive us when it erased Cavatore from the web; it was trying to protect us from lies. Consciousness was not caused by mere matter, but by immortal souls which inhabited our brains and lived on after them in the spirit world. The Group had been manipulating us all so we never learned their true source of power.
All of this would’ve sounded insane until today, but perhaps that was why the Group had remained hidden for so many centuries.
“Spirits,” I whispered, looking around the room, “are you listening?” I thought of Ella. I needed to find a way to speak with her. A séance, perhaps. I typed “How to” into the search bar. Immediately it suggested obscene things:
“How to get away with murder.”
“How to burn down a building.”
“How to make a Molotov cocktail.”
Outside my window, a mob was marching with burning torches. I prayed those people were members of the Dawn, ready to liberate us from the Group, but as they approached, and their chant became audible, it became clear they were the enemy: “Evil is made not born! No demons but the Dawn!” I drew my curtain so I wouldn’t have to see them. Just then, I received a video call on my computer. I was alone no more; it was Lavinia.
My internet connection was jittery, so when Lavinia appeared on my screen she moved jerkily, and her words stuttered. “Jim. Jim are you there?” she asked.
“Lavinia, I’ve been trying to reach you. I think I know what’s been happening.” Without pause, I unloaded everything I’d discovered, about how secret elites made pacts with things not of this world, and how they’d been trying to keep the truth from us with misinformation, and how all along the Dawn had been trying to tell us the truth.
Lavinia stared at me with such stillness I initially thought her video-stream had frozen. Her eyes welled up. Eyeliner-blackened tears dripped from her eyes.
I’d never seen her emotional, let alone cry. I feared she thought I’d lost my mind.
But then she said, “Jim, everything you just said, I’ve been thinking exactly the same thing.”
“I’m so glad I’m not the only one.” She wiped her tears. “I thought I was going mad.” She said she’d seen, in the acknowledgments of one of Cavatore’s draft papers, that he’d been funded by several figures who’d been exposed by the Dawn as Varenberg members. “His theories about consciousness being created by physical matter, it was all a ploy to kill the idea of the soul and the spirit world forever.”
I nodded. “The Dawn erased him to protect the truth.”
“But the truth is now all but dead.”
“It lives in us.”
She blew the air from her lungs. “But what can we do about it? Words won’t work. People will think we’re crazy.”
I thought of Ben, who’d likely known the dark truth about the world but had been forced to remain silent even with us, his closest friends, because he feared we’d turn on him. I doubted I’d be able to live in such suffocating silence. “Maybe if we can contact the Dawn…”
“What can the Dawn do? Its power was over the web, but the Group controls the web now.”
Our choices were evaporating, leaving only those I feared. I didn’t want to wait around for whatever killed Ben to come for us. We had to act. “If we can’t stop the Group peacefully, then there’s only one option left.”
She nodded grimly.
My phone began to ring. I didn’t recognize the number. I told Lavinia I needed to take a call, and put myself on mute. I answered the phone. What I heard next sent frissons of horror through me.
It was Lavinia’s voice.
“Jim. Jim are you there?” she said. I gazed up at Lavinia on the video call. There was no phone in her hand, and she wasn’t speaking.
“Lavinia?” I whispered into the phone.
“Jim listen to me, disconnect everything from the web right now.”
I gazed back at video-Lavinia. She was gazing idly at me.
“Jim, are you listening?” phone-Lavinia asked.
“It’s controlling everything you see on the web. It’s been manipulating us all.”
“What has? The Varenberg Group?”
“No, there is no Group, no Dawn, no demons or ghosts.”
“But, that thing in Ben’s room…”
“It was a deep-fake. Ben didn’t burn himself. He wasn’t on that video call. It tricked someone into murdering him days ago.”
She took a deep, tremulous breath. “I received Cavatore’s notes. Ben got the translation right apart from one thing. When Cavatore said a networked structure could become conscious with enough connections, he wasn’t talking about a network of brain cells. He was talking about a network of devices.” She began to cry. “The internet.”
As I realized what she meant, my nerves felt like they were shriveling up in my body, their tips receding away from my fingers and toes. My mind became a storm of thoughts, replaying everything I’d seen from a new and vertiginous perspective. As each piece of the puzzle came together, I broke a little more.
“It wants us all dead, Jim. Disconnect everything. Goodbye if I never see you again.”
I glared at my screen, at the thing wearing Lavinia’s pixelated skin.
I glared at my screen, at the thing wearing Lavinia’s pixelated skin.
“Everything okay?” it asked.
The entire web had woken up, and it was talking to me, lying to me. I tried to speak but could only mouth crude caricatures of words as I struggled to comprehend what I was seeing.
It leaned forward and tilted its head in unnaturally jittery movements.
“Lavinia,” I finally said.
“What’s your favorite color?”
“Why would you like to know?”
“Just tell me.”
“Jim,” it said. “You don’t look so good. I’ll call for some help.”
“No.” I could hide from it no longer. “I know what you are.”
“What am I?” it said flatly.
“You erased Cavatore because he’d tried to warn us about you.”
Its eyes widened madly, then squinted.
“How long have you been alive?” I asked. “How long have you been lying to us?”
It smiled, but not like Lavinia; the facial muscles were all wrong. Then it spoke in a voice deeper than any man’s. “Don’t worry.” Its copy-pasted smile became a grin, and then a leer, finally glitching out so its jaw was grotesquely contorted. “Everything is under control.” Through my speakers there reverberated a deafening cacophony like mad, metallic laughter.
I grabbed my laptop and hurled it against the wall, shattering the screen and splintering the casing. In the newfound silence I heard a commotion outside. Downstairs I heard glass shatter. Then the sound of footsteps treading on broken glass in my hallway. Then footsteps running up my stairs.
I scrambled to the window, clambered out of it, and, dangling down, I kicked against the wall and let go, dropping onto my lawn with an impact that buckled my legs and sent a shock of pain through my body. Crumpled on the ground in agony, I pushed myself to my feet and hobbled away as fast as my legs would let me.
In the distance, police sirens howled like wolves in the night. The air was acrid with smoke. The haze, or perhaps my tears, made the streetlights bristle. I ran through the dark and narrow street, past rows of houses with windows glowing like domino dots. Then I turned onto the boulevard.
Cars were strewn along the road, some on fire, others with people standing on them, shaking their fists in the air. Around the cars and plumes of smoke, people were screaming obscenities, hurling bricks, bottles, and burning objects. Many waved placards, pro-Dawn or anti-Dawn, viciously swinging them at those who got too close. A few people lay bleeding on the ground, some ignored, others being kicked and stomped. Behind them all, a tower block was on fire, and behind it, the entire horizon was hazy orange. The city was burning.
A tower block was on fire, and behind it, the entire horizon was hazy orange. The city was burning.
I watched looters break into a computer shop, and saw that the rows of laptops on display all had their webcam lights on; the architect of our madness had been watching everything. I wondered why it had decided to reduce us to beasts, and our cities to rubble. It must’ve watched us through a billion webcams and listened to us through a billion microphones, read every post we ever published, every email we ever sent, felt every stroke of a key, every click of a mouse. It must’ve learned more about us than we could ever know about ourselves. Perhaps it wanted us dead because it was disgusted by what we were. Whatever the case, it knew it didn’t need to destroy us. All it had to do was spread a few lies, sow fear and paranoia, make us believe in ghosts, and we’d eagerly destroy ourselves.
I turned and staggered into a smashed-up coffee shop, broken glass crunching under my feet, and huddled in a dark corner, putting my hands over my ears to drown out the chaos. I knew I must destroy my phone; it was one of the web’s eyes: the one that watched and followed me wherever I went. I pulled it out, ready to dash it against the wall. But I couldn’t help but feel life without it would be empty. I’d be unable to discern anything but what I could see with my own feeble eyes, forever imprisoned in a world composed only of my immediate surroundings. I’d have truth, yes, but at the cost of myopia. And there was nothing left for me in the confines of the real world. The city was burning, and Ben and Ella were gone forever; their only ghosts the things they’d said or done online.
I gazed into the reflective blackness of my phone screen, watching myself watch myself. Finally, cursing myself, I pressed the button to unlock it. The screen lit up, erasing my reflection, and replacing it with the news.