SHORT STORIES, HORROR
The follower of my blog may remember that I have been entering the NYC Midnight competitions, last year reaching the finals of the Flash Fiction contest. A few months ago, I entered the Short Story contest.
The premise is the same, although the stories are longer in length. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, entrants are given a prescribed genre, setting and object, all of which must feature in the story.
Unfortunately, I didn’t make the next round, but received some very encouraging feedback. So, here’s my story for your delectation.
Setting: A fad
Object: A scientist
A data scientist is interviewed by police for creating the viral craze, the #BloodCupChallenge. Contrary to the claimed health benefits, however, it turns out drinking a cup of blood can lead to carnivorous consequences.
Story (some bad language, sorry mum):
An officer pressed the record button on the antiquated tape deck. The police seemed to rely on old-fashioned methods of capturing suspect interviews. Less chance of tampering, I supposed.
‘Interview started at 10:11am.’
Each officer introduced themselves to the recording and asked me to do the same. I had declined a solicitor. I’d done nothing wrong. At least, the law wasn’t modern enough to recognise my actions as a crime. The male officer spoke.
‘Do you deny creating the viral hashtag, #BloodCupChallenge, Mr Stokes?’
‘It’s not illegal to create a hashtag, but for what it’s worth; I am sorry.’
I was sorry. I was especially sorry those actually responsible for the dismemberments and deaths had vanished behind an army of corporate lawyers. It’s not my fault the kids went cannibal.
‘Sorry won’t resurrect a generation of teenagers, Mr Stokes. Can you explain your position within the organisation, Oxford Academia and Health?’
‘I’m a data scientist.’
The usual look of bemusement.
‘A data scientist looks for patterns and trends in data where patterns and trends aren’t ostensibly apparent. Like an astronomer searching out an exoplanet, or a biologist identifying a cancer-causing genome, we unearth the unearthable from the billions of zeros and ones captured from every computer, every mobile phone and every social media platform.’
This made me sound like a digital deity. In truth, I was the puppet of the Pharmaceutical division; the team that came up with the ‘bright ideas’; the team which made the company one of the wealthiest on the Stock Exchange; the team whose theory started the fad which caused the mass mutilations. The second officer flicked through her paperwork.
‘Our investigations traced the source of #BloodCupChallenge to your IP addresses, Mr Stokes,’ she said. ‘Can you explain why a data scientist would be responsible for such an action?’
‘Data scientists need data. My job was to seed the theory, monitor the events and correlate the outcomes. If the outcomes proved successful, the company would release the product. If the outcomes failed, we’d shut the campaign down and move on.’
‘Except the campaign wasn’t successful, was it, Mr Stokes?’
‘No. No, I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted what happened.’
It was a simple enough idea. A pseudo form of homeopathy, using blood as the diluting agent. Cases of diabetes and leukaemia were on the rise, as were virulent and incurable STDs like penicillin-resistant gonorrhoea. If healthy blood, or blood naturally resistant to certain diseases could be shared across wide demographics in small doses, it would create a form of super-blood. The company could synthesise the blood and sell it as a miracle cure; the concept was worth billions. Clinical trials were expensive and lengthy, so we needed a quicker way to test if this was even feasible. That’s where I came in. The male officer slid some photographs over the table. I didn’t look.
‘Was it your intention to target the youth with the #BloodCupChallenge, Mr Stokes?’
‘Kids are stupid. Teenagers especially so. We’ve seen them engage in fads before, like swallowing detergent capsules or driving blindfold. The only way these idiotic crazes got attention was via social media and hashtags, so I made my own. The Pharma guys asked if we could target specific demographics and encourage them to consume one another’s blood. We could map the effects on the target groups by examining their medical records, then use our algorithms to capture feelings of health and wellbeing.’
‘The effects? Like teenagers gnawing off each other’s body parts?’ He tapped the photographs. I kept my eyes on his.
‘By effects, I mean data. Data is everything. Kids and teens were targeted because they share everything online. Our organisation pays good money to the health service for access to medical records. It’s not exactly ethical, but no one gets hurt; it’s win-win. We created algorithms to recognise language and images within every piece of text, and every picture posted online. Little Johnny isn’t feeling too well, he blogs about it. Stacey has a sore on her back, she posts a selfie, literally warts and all. If people were feeling better or worse drinking each other’s blood, we’d know about it.’
The problem was, it wasn’t just a skin lesion or an upset tum. Human blood is addictive; highly addictive. Historical science and even modern quack medicine have advocated the beneficial health properties of drinking blood. It had just never happened on such a scale before.
I’d seeded #BloodCupChallenge via my pseudonym blog. I extolled the beneficial health qualities of drinking a cup of another person’s blood, then challenged people to try it and share how great they felt. I used a few hundred zombie social media accounts to like, share and re-post the hashtag, then waited. Within hours, videos appeared of teens siphoning blood from open veins into mugs, glasses and bone china. Some sick fucks even drank it from a baby bottle. One video depicted a group of jocks sinking entire pints of cocktailed blood, then bench-pressing one another. The female officer spoke.
‘Weren’t you worried about the health risks, Mr Stokes? Mixing blood types is dangerous; rather than cure disease, it can spread it.’
‘That’s the whole theory of homeopathy, isn’t it? Use small, diluted doses so the body can attack the virus, or repair any damage. It’s fundamentally the same as a vaccine. At least that’s what the guys in the Pharma division said. One cup is barely anything at all, and it wasn’t like the kids were intravenously trading blood; at least not in the beginning.’
A lot happened in the beginning. As the #BloodCupChallenge craze went viral, health groups and do-gooders began to highlight the risks involved in drinking blood. But kids don’t listen, do they? They especially don’t listen to full page articles in the broadsheets, political debates on TV, or interviews with Health Ministers on the radio. No, they listen to social media, bloggers and whatever they can find on Internet search engines. That played right into my hands.
Like a politician buries bad news on a day of catastrophe, or a tabloid editor crops a picture to alter its context, I used my data analysis skills to influence the Internet search engines. It’s not hard to determine whether the user of a computer or mobile phone is male or female, old or young. I manipulated the search queries for anyone within a 12-17 age bracket. A kid typing ‘Is drinking blood…’ would be presented with autofill options such as, ‘good for me?’, ‘going to make me live longer?’, or ‘a cure to end all disease?’ Then I directed them to the pages and videos I wanted them to see. It’s something that’s been going on for years. The responses and information collected from the campaign were easy enough to keep track of, but then the results started coming in. The male officer must have been reading my mind.
‘So, if you’re a “data scientist”, Mr Stokes,’ he air-quoted ‘data scientist’ – I hated that. ‘You must have been aware that this campaign was creating carnage in homes, schools and on the streets?’
‘No, not at first. On the contrary, our evidence suggested it was working. GP and hospital appointments for the teenage demographic were down, and school attendances were up. Even the fitness data we collected from mobile phones, like step-counts and heart rates, demonstrated kids were stronger and healthier.’
The female officer pushed more paperwork toward me; reports, graphs and charts.
‘Our evidence suggests kids weren’t going to GP and hospital appointments,’ she began, ‘because they were more interested in attacking one another for chunks of flesh. School attendances were up because classrooms had become abattoirs and a rich source of fresh blood. The argued reason for increased heart rates and step-counts was because your targeted 12-17-year-old demographic were either chasing down victims, or it was their victims running like fuck from having their arteries emptied.’
‘That’s a reasonable hypothesis given the evidence in hindsight. However, that data wasn’t available to us at the time. May I have some water?’
‘Only water?’ The male officer sneered, as the female officer fetched me a glass.
We had known. Rather, I had known, and the Pharma guys pretended not to hear. What started out as a stupid prank quickly developed into a carnivorous addiction. Blood wasn’t enough; the kids started craving flesh. Our voice-detection algorithms identified lisps, suggesting tongues had been shortened. We observed selfies and videos of kids crunching their buddies’ least-valuable extremities; a pinkie toe here or a ring finger there. Even mobile phone gyroscope analysis indicated malformities in hand dexterity and gait movement within the target demographic.
Then the first recorded death. A gang of cannibalistic kids had hunted down a 10-year old boy and drained him dry. They hadn’t stopped there. His body was found missing every finger and toe, along with significant proportions of flesh missing from his flanks and thighs.
It was never our intention to affect those outside the demographic. The weak and vulnerable found themselves under attack. Homeless sleepers woke surrounded by blood-crazed gangs, intent on chewing fingers, tearing cheeks and gouging eyeballs. Nursing homes were next; the elderly initially delighted to receive their youthful visitors, until it was apparent the kids hadn’t come to hear their old war-stories.
‘So, at what point did you realise this had gotten out of hand, Mr Stokes?’ Asked the male officer.
‘Probably when the army was drafted in.’
‘And what efforts did you make to stop the #BloodCupChallenge campaign?’
‘It’s not easy to stop something like that after it’s begun. It’s like a pandemic that spreads across continents. At least with a pandemic, it’s possible to contain borders and restrict travel. The Internet doesn’t work that way. The hashtag even breached China’s state firewall.’
International outbreaks had occurred before; bird flu, Ebola, Zika. Even digital viruses had taken down multi-national organisations’ computer systems, affecting government and healthcare facilities. This virus was unique. It crossed the digital-human divide; a thought, an idea that infected the mind and plagued the body.
Across the world, armies rounded up blood-thirsty gangs; many were exterminated. Hospitals restrained maniacal groups of teens. However, with no cure, physiological or psychological, they were granted orders under law to euthanise. Now, and for generations to come, pockets of feral, flesh-hungry savages will inhabit every corner of society.
The female officer collected the papers from the table and tapped them into a neat pile.
‘Your initial statement,’ she said, ‘stated the Pharmaceutical division of Oxford Academia and Health instigated the campaign. However, their representatives claim you went rogue on some sort of personal vendetta.’
‘They would say that, wouldn’t they?’
‘I was just doing my job. When I saw everything getting out of hand, I told them. I showed them the results, the brutalities, the deaths. They just shrugged their shoulders and said it wasn’t their problem. Their forecasts had anticipated such a scenario as one of the outcomes, but their fiscal analysis suggested the risk was worth taking. They would “learn lessons” and incorporate the variables when they embarked on their next venture.’
‘So, you did nothing?’ Demanded the male officer.
‘No. I had a plan. A new campaign, a new fad to introduce a new mindset. You see kids get bored; they’re keen on one thing, one minute, then start looking for the next craze. I was about to seed a new hashtag, modify the Internet search engines and manipulate the social media feeds when you lot swarmed my office and took my equipment.’
‘And this new campaign?’
‘I had a few ideas. Some sort of drive to make people go vegan for a month or give up booze for January. Sounds kinda silly now, I guess. But people will do anything to fulfil their narcissistic tendencies and boost their social media presence. That’s something the data does agree on.’
The officers terminated the interview with some formalities, then released me. I was right.
They couldn’t prosecute me for creating a craze, however catastrophic it turned out to be. Estimates predicted the world’s population had been reduced by up to 10%. Tabloids sensationalised the #BloodCupChallenge as a zombie or vampire outbreak, suggesting movie deals and video games in the works. It was easy to forget the atrocities; to move on, to ignore the missing generation. A generation lost to an ideology that spread like a disease throughout countries and across continents.
Outside the police station, I switched on my mobile and found an email from the Pharma division. After a brief apology for my incarceration, they wondered if human intelligence could be augmented by directly exchanging lobes of the brain. Could the data analysis of people’s blogs, social media posts and vocabulary in podcasts indicate an uptrend in cognitive ability? Interesting idea, I thought, as I sat in the taxi to the office, jotting down ideas for new hashtags.