This is one of a collection of stories that are like “Final Destination” meets “The Monkey’s Paw” (W. W. Jacobs, 1902). As such, they are tragedies more than either mysteries or horror, and would appeal most to readers who enjoy the inexorable pull of a story arc that leads to doom. In each story, a protagonist makes a wish that comes true with fatal results for someone, often the person making the wish. Nothing supernatural, but just how things work out. (Or is it?) The technical details surrounding the fatal (or near-fatal) event are drawn from real cases in the US OSHA incident report database or similar sources and are therefore entirely realistic, even if seemingly outlandish. The plots draw lightly from cultural beliefs around actions such as pointing at someone with a stick or knife, wishing in front of a mirror, or stepping on a crack.
As the saying goes, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, but in this game, people were getting killed. It had started as an art project using a webcam, but it ended in death.
Rory was a modern and multiformat artist who had constructed a “dung-saint” using epoxy, fiberglass, and cow dung. The result was a 7-foot high dark brown statue of a man in flowing robes, outstretched arms, and a leer that would do Dionysius proud. The pose was suggestive of a serial innuendo that made Rory feel his piece was edgy and provocative. It unsurprisingly drew a wave of outrage and anger from some of the public, which of course led to more media coverage, higher ticket sales and visibility for the gallery, and more demands to stand firm in the face of cultural Luddites. Rory upgraded the statue to hold a rosary in one hand and an apparently used condom in the other. In reaction, outrage escalated, media attention spiked, ticket sales soared, and Rory was invited to be interviewed on prime TV. This cycle continued until a group of investors and donors got cold feet, and the college and gallery, reluctantly, asked Rory to find another gallery. Far from outraged, Rory was delighted, and decided to have a moving virtual gallery and sell the tickets himself. By locating the statue in public spaces for limited times, and without warning, he could maximize the sense of adventure while reducing gallery and exhibition costs. The profit and exposure would be phenomenal, he reflected privately.
While the average salary for the hospital IT staff was over $80,000 a year, Jimmy got just over federal minimum wage as the hospital website manager. As a biomedical student, Jimmy was always on the lookout for side gigs building websites, managing and updating old ones, or creating graphics for some of the PhD students to cover part of his tuition costs, or to give him a slightly nicer grade of low-budget food and entertainment. His newest project was one of those cheapskate UpWork gigs that paid just enough to be interesting, but not enough to really make a dent in his monthly bills. It blew his mind that he was essentially swinging a full-time job at the hospital, but would eventually be homeless if he didn’t run several side gigs to earn extra money. But here he was, at midnight on a Friday, building a web page for … he glanced at the electronic work order … a “dung saint.” Jimmy shook his head, pasting in the text around a box on the page containing the live feed from a webcam.
Jimmy had been one of those genius children who spoke their first clear English word at 4 months who could speak in perfectly constructed sentences by their first birthday. By 18 months, Jimmy had a vocabulary that was nearly a quarter that of the average adult. By fourth grade, he tested out at college level on standardized tests, and at 13 he took the SAT and scored 1150. A firm favorite team member at college pub trivia night, the “walking Google” was a dependable pinch hitter to name some obscure statesman, the purpose of a Roman artifact, or the distance between two implausible places. Although his first study choice was wildlife biology, and he had spent time before college working in the Wyoming mountains identifying invasive weeds, the financial realities of state budgets, federal funding, and study grants nudged him toward a biomedical engineering career.
Part of the biomedical syllabus was web design and information science. Jimmy had a knack for it and soon found himself almost addicted to the intricacies of subnet masking, coding, and information security. This proved very handy, because it could be used directly to design, build, and manage websites. This particular website was not too technically challenging, and the subject was about as boring as humanly possible; the client was some edgelord “artist” putting up statues of a saint made out of poop and plastic. As far as Jimmy could tell, the whole thing was some kind of practical joke designed to wind people up and get them engaged and spending. At its core, the site design included credit card and ticketing transaction processing and donation management, with some boilerplate text, an event calendar, a blog, and a live video feed.
The video feed was the only element with technical challenges, but Jimmy soon figured a way to strip all the camera metadata before splashing an embedded feed on the page. Jimmy automatically deidentified the video stream by removing all exchangeable image file format, or EXIF, metadata such as the camera ID, IP address, and GPS location. Visitors could see the feed in almost real time without any spillover of the camera identity, location, or even type. The most fascinating part of the project to Jimmy was the social reaction and interaction. Each time the client gave him the new text and the video feed address, it would be minutes before the chat would erupt in hot exchanges extolling or denouncing the piece, the artist, or the supporters.
An army of online sleuths and statue hunters emerged, using various social media channels, networks, and boards, people were collaborating to find the location of the statue, and then destroy it before the event date by setting fire to it, shooting it, or beating it to pieces with a variety of handheld tools. In turn, the artist would simply send a new feed location, with a brand new statue leering out at the world through the video feed from a new undisclosed location. Some feeds showed a frontal view, but some varied the view from side, overhead, or underneath.
Jimmy started data mining of various feeds to find out how the statues were being located. He set aggregation apps to mine Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook, as well as Internet relay chat servers such as Undernet, DALnet, and EFnet. He also mined several topic sites such as chat servers for archery, guns, and survivalist discussion boards. Because users often changed their nicknames or tried to evade bans, Jimmy used AI bots to overlay semantic, sentiment, and syntactic patterning. With some users, he was able to identify a user with 50% probability within five words, 80% within 15 words, and 99.9% if they hammered on a page. Some of the more irate or radicalized users were so idiosyncratic that he could identify them and update their ID names list 100% of the time within 10 words. He configured the bot to post a “peekaboo” reply with their original and last five user names if the user was particularly irate.
It became an ongoing game of cat and mouse to find them, see how they were identifying the statue location, and then eliminate or confound that method. When they found the statue location using background landscape features, Jimmy started using randomly generated artificial backgrounds. When they tracked it using background sounds, he added a soundtrack from Penn Station. When they used astronomical navigation from the visible night sky, he swapped in a star map from a site that created Star Trek star charts. Each time there would be confusion for a week or two, and the army of statue defacers would catch on, and find it using a new method. Jimmy enjoyed the challenge, and still had plans for a multitude of potential confounders, when the game of cat and mouse changed and a new cat entered the game.
The game changed when someone got hurt. One of the groups of statue defacers got it wrong and fired a volley of shots at what turned out to be a wooden statue of Vasco da Gama, the historic Portuguese explorer. Several of the bullets passed by the statue, went through the wall of a nearby apartment building, and hit a young couple practicing dance steps. The husband died before reaching the hospital; the wife miscarried and needed extensive surgery and transfusions. Instead of this casting a pall on the ardor of both the artist and the legion of statue hunters, though, it inflamed them. They both blamed each other and pressed home attacks on the moral turpitude and infamy of the other.
Jimmy barely noticed that the site had been breached and an intrusion had occurred, but he caught a hint that something was sneaking through the backend of the site. The camera feed itself had been sniffed by something quiet and fleeting, like the brief touch of a bat wing on one’s neck as it glides silently past on a moonless night. Nothing seemed to have been altered, and Jimmy couldn’t be 100% sure, but there were tiny hints that someone had been behind the firewalls, roaming around freely. Someone was using tools with zero-day exploits, or security holes that hadn’t even been discovered yet and for which no fix was even known to be needed.
The first real sign of trouble was when Jimmy was watching a somewhat familiar scenario play out. The latest dung-saint had been found before its unveiling, and a burly guy in jeans and work boots was on the video feed striding towards the statue with a Molotov cocktail in his right hand and a BBQ firelighter in his left. He stopped about eight feet short of the statue, and brought his arms to waist height to light the wick. The wick took flame, there was a pause as the figure waited for the flame to gain strength, and then the figure vanished in a blinding flash that whited out the image. When the camera recovered and adjusted to the brightness, the figure was a blazing heap on the ground. As Jimmy watched dumbfounded, two figures ran into view to help the burning man. The one furthest from the camera spun in mid-stride and collapsed. The third man reached the burning heap waving his arms, then his head just vanished and he fell. Someone had assassinated all three of them. Jimmy suddenly realized that the silent intruder had gained the exact location ahead of the army of sleuths and ambushed them. That someone had used explosive bullets and fired with the cold precision of a professional.
In the next month, the scene was repeated twice, and the police were suddenly far more interested. They had apparently been indifferent to statues being vandalized, but when the vandals started getting picked off, it was evidently time to pay attention. It did not escape the attention of some of the press that one of the dead had been a sheriff’s deputy, and that police interest made a U-turn immediately thereafter. By the third time, seven people had been killed, and there was a national uproar to find the culprit. Then the new cat changed the game again. This time, as Jimmy watched, the video feed changed to a new location that he had not configured. It showed Rory at work, busy casting the next statue. Before Jimmy could finish dialing the workshop and warn the artist, the video blanked. When it readjusted, the studio and workshop were ablaze, and Rory was lying in a tangle of body parts and twisted metalwork.
In another city, obscured by millions of people going about their frenetic business, the godmother of the woman who miscarried was busy. She methodically removed the hard drive from a PC, decommissioned and replaced the router, and dismantled the network. Virtual machines in distant countries were wiped and dissolved, and all traces of their use evaporated. Hundreds of preset false trails crisscrossed the planet, and the guns, hard drives, and networking equipment were put through a furnace. The molten metals mixed, then were poured into a mold of a fierce woman holding a newborn infant who was holding out a palm of the universal sign for “halt.” It was seven lives for one and the root cause had been eliminated: the equation balanced, order restored.
Jimmy collaborated with the police, and twice felt he got close to understanding how or what had whispered through his network on silent cat feet, but ultimately the trail vanished in a dead end. Jimmy wondered if their paths would cross again one day.