She was a sweetheart in person. But behind a keyboard, she was Machiavellian.
Some might call her small. Others might even say mousy. As she sat behind the twelve-monitor grid of screens comprising her terminal setup in her upstairs office, she resembled a tiny orchestra conductor, in control of the entire nation’s FeedNet. She was petite, with thin, arrow-straight brown hair that stopped at her shoulders. As she clicked away furiously, she continually pushed up the sleeves of her father’s oversized navy blue Imagen Corporation hoodie which she had defaced, crossing out the “COR” and writing “BORE” above it. It made her laugh.
Her once-white, now-dingy-orange-from-RealCheez-powder-colored sweatpants was folded over the waistband multiple times and cinched tight. Incongruously, in her hair, she wore a bright blue bow studded with shiny white gemstones. It was one of a set of eight, each in a different color. They were a gift from her father after a business trip to Oz, handmade and “authentic” to the indigenous people there, or so he had said. She had no idea what the indigenous people of Oz wore, or if it was genuinely hand-made, and she didn’t care. She wore one every day, in or out of the house. They made her feel pretty. And feeling like a pretty girl who was straight up pwning pretty much the entire FeedNet of the United American State…well, that thought appealed to her quite a bit.
She sat back and surveyed her “kingdom.” She was running ransomware scams on users’ pods, locking them down and demanding credits. Simultaneously, several AI-driven bots were scraping Feeds of every soldier in MilSec with a dedicated Feed watch count of over ten thousand to make automated “Best Of” and tribute videos. The system would then find relevant ads matching keywords and images from the automatically created Feeds and run them with the videos they published. This automated process attributed to a third of her revenue stream. All of this ran without any input from her, so she was free to focus her attention on her favorite part of her daily routine: making trouble for her competition.
She smiled with glee. One of her scripts found a Citizen’s Feed that had happened to pick up audio of one of her most prominent competitors, Yano Milopolis. Yano was discussing how he thought that relationships between adults and underage kids were perfectly fine. Given that Yano was mostly watched by the more conservative citizens of the nation who would likely frown upon the fact that their favorite Feed star was a pederast, she knew that this clip would be worth a fortune.
She filtered the audio, pulled it through a high-pass, and then attached it to a Feed she found of Yano speaking to someone on the street. She then edited the sound quality so that it could theoretically be believed that the audio came from that camera. Of course, it was a hot mic — the audio could have come from anywhere. But people were lemmings and believed what they saw, and it was easy enough for her to build fake credibility.
Not that credibility was ultimately mandatory in this modern media market’s “Hot Take” economy. As long as it was entertaining and easy to reshare, anything could pass as news if she decided it was.
She could have just as easily released the audio alongside the video without editing, or even just released the audio alone. It would do the trick and cause enough trouble for Yano. But the extra effort was art. It was her personal passion. She didn’t want to just cause him trouble and invite questions about his dubious relationships with minors. She wanted to bypass the trial of public opinion and get as quickly as possible to the execution. And that meant she needed to tell the public what their opinion was supposed to be. And that was: “this douchebag diddles kids.”
She put the final touches on the edited FeedClip, then prepared to release it into “the wild” via one of her several bot-driven CitizenFeeds, built and scripted to look like real-time running commentary of the day’s events posted by a bored, unengaged, underlabored citizen. The bot’s text-to-speech engine was custom-tailored to sound as natural as an uneducated mid-twenties Citizen would, with frequent but consistent mispronunciations of middle-tier vocabulary and unnecessary stressing of certain words and phrases, occasionally sprinkling the word “fuck” or some derivation of it into every single sentence.
Finally, the clip was ready. It looked and sounded completely legit. With the push of a button, Yano Milopolis’s life would be over. It would be the most discussed story on NewsFeed, right after all of the hubbub about Marlowe Kana. Oh, to make the national NewsFeed alongside the biggest story in history…the thought made her smile. It wasn’t even about the money. It was the principle. The undercroft of the Feed economy was hers. She had built it herself — every trick, every tactic, every tool, she had fashioned herself or had discovered in the archives and modified. She was the Queen Troll under the digital bridge. And no one — not Yano Milopolis, or any other competitor, or even Marlowe Kana herself — was going to take her place.
Boy, would the world shit itself if they found out who she really was. She operated under many aliases, all of which had achieved some measure of infamy on various Top Ten Most Wanted, Hated, Reviled or Revered lists across the Feeds.
She sent the ransom letter to Yano’s Feed, using a forged Imagen Bulletin key signature to allow her to pin it to his HUD and ping him every minute until he read it. She smiled with glee as she glanced over at a different display — credits had been deposited in yet another disposable account, from which she would funnel the money. Her new ransomware was working. She unlocked the target’s HUD embedded in his contact lenses and allowed him to actually see again, giving him a break from the blinding and disorienting flicker that could only be described as the visual equivalent of a tornado siren. All of Imagen’s efforts to patch the vulnerabilities were laudable, but she had a list of zero-day exploits no one knew about that spanned several printed pages. Basically, she could modify her app quicker than they could stop her.
She pressed a few keys and let her victim finally get some peace and a little shut-eye.
In another display, she monitored the view count of the twenty-two separate persona broadcasts she had set up. None of them were real people. All were using Ident-keys from people who had died while on a thrilling safari to the Gaslands, or while in the Subs entertaining narcotics-fueled prurient interests — or as they called it, “doing dirt.” As far as Imagen’s network monitors knew, these citizens were still alive and well and broadcasting fan-made videos of celebrities.
One of them — the most watched of all her personas, with twenty-one million viewers — was her own father, Thomas Cervantes.
It was the persona that kept the mortgage paid and the groceries delivered. It was the one she gave the most love, a tribute to his legacy. It was the one through which she broadcast her Marlowe Kana Feed remixes, by far the most popular subject. The “MKFan_9999” persona earned her hundreds of thousands of credits a month. It was the lead horse in a stable that was beyond rich in attention. The follower counts on the other twenty-one sock-puppet Feeds tallied in the millions each. Between them all, she had fifty million followers, nine million more than there were actual citizens in the United American State. The fact that her father had died with her mother in a freak hovertrain accident years ago was a minor inconvenience. Because he had worked from home, she was able to keep his persona alive and deposit the credits that came in every two weeks like clockwork. His job was easily replaced by scripts, as were the jobs of the dozens of other people she’d assumed the identities and accounts of when they had died. Her father had been a huge fan of Marlowe’s when he was alive, and she felt that using his persona to run her most profitable FeedLeech operation was singularly appropriate.
She was about to check the ad revenue stats for all of her Feed accounts when a tone sounded from the monitor at the bottom-right of her massive multi-screen workstation. She looked over at the security feed of her front door. A man wearing a cap obscuring his face was at the door, tapping his foot. He was dressed in a red and black jumpsuit and was holding a pizza box.
“Fuck,” Regina said. “A goddamn pizza? At two in the morning?? Who the FUCK doxxed me?” She pressed a few keys at the same time and an automated script began running, tracing all incoming requests to her network, searching for whoever had dared to bring her virtual war into the real world. She knew that she wouldn’t be exposed. As far as anyone with any access to her network could ever tell, her dead father was the persona behind the curtain. And that was behind another digital curtain, which sat behind yet another curtain, and so forth and so on.
She smacked a button mounted above her desk on a row of shelving holding several more terminals.
“Who is it?” She asked through the microphone. The intercom repeated her question in a gravelly man’s voice thanks to the custom voice print alteration software she had written.
“Imagen Pizza,” the man replied, though she, of course, knew the answer.
“I didn’t order a pizza,” she said.
“Says here you did,” the man replied, gesturing the boxes upward to indicate the receipt on top. “Thirteen-thirty-seven Maple Street, right?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t order any pizza,” she insisted.
“Look, dude,” the guy in the jumpsuit said, “I gotta drop these pies here or my creds get docked. It’s paid for already. Just take them? Please?”
“Leave them on the step,” she said.
“Come on, you know I can’t without a print.” He complained, referring to the delivery service monitoring system that kept delivery people from running off with the pizzas or other food deliveries, or toiletries, or sex toys…anything and everything one could get delivered directly to their home from Imagen Prime. So it was a requirement that the customer’s fingerprint be inputted upon receipt of an order.
Regina sighed. This was some sort of signal sent by her net competition, she was sure of it. But she didn’t need yet another enemy; she was managing enough of them as it was. And she sure as hell didn’t need some poor pizza guy filing a report on why this particular address was refusing acceptance of a paid-for delivery. Reports led to calls. Calls led to downtime, and downtime led to the loss of territory and profits. And she had to admit, she was kind of hungry.
“What kind of pies?” She asked.
“Pepperoni, extra cheese,” the delivery guy replied.
“Damn, that does sound good…” Regina muttered. “Okay, my daughter is coming down.”
She opened the door of her office, descended the stairs, and approached the front door. The moment her hand touched the doorknob, a shrill alert suddenly sounded from both the terminal in the front room of the house, and every single terminal from her office upstairs. It was the alarm that signaled that her location, in some form or fashion, was being streamed by another Feed.
“Shit!” She yelled, backing away frantically from the door.
She had barely cleared the path before the front door swung open violently. The man in the red jumpsuit burst through the threshold and rushed her, placing his hand over her mouth before she could scream. He pressed her against the back of a chaise lounge that sat in the middle of the living room.
He looked directly into her eyes and whispered, “Shhhhhh.”
Fear shook her from head to toe. Tears welled up in her eyes. She knew who this man was — Lieutenant Alexis “Hax” Curtis, one of the contenders in United America’s “Next Top Soldier.” And he was on the hunt for Marlowe Kana.
Hax was fat by MilSec standards. But his fans know his real strength was in hacking and stealth. And his foes knew that that strength was rivaled by precious few. And just because he carried a few extra pounds didn’t mean he was out of shape. He worked out daily. He kept his cardio up. He just really, really liked Imagen CheezyRanch Triangle Crunchies. But his prosthetic legs could more than carry the extra weight, just as easily as they could kick in the quadruple-locked solid steel door on a small home in suburban Atlanta, where a certain notorious FeedLeech lived.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he whispered. “Someone is coming that I do want to hurt, though. She’s a very bad person, and I need you to be a good person while I take care of her. Can you do that?”
She knew this man from “Next Top Soldier,” a show she despised but had to watch, due to how profitable the videos her FeedLeech operation was made because of them. And she loathed him. He was by far the most vile and disgusting contestant in the show’s history. He played dirty. He rarely bathed. He picked his scabs and spit on the street in public. He blew snot rockets on his enemies after defeating them. He was disgusting in every sense of the word. And right now, he had her pinned against her father’s sofa and she’d never been more terrified in her life.
She desperately wanted to shake her head no — no, she’s not going to be a good person — and knee him in the balls and run to her panic room and trigger the explosives she had planted around the house. But the fear…it gripped her. She couldn’t move. Even if she could, it would have done no good. The same IED that had taken his legs in the Gaslands had famously taken his testicles as well.
He pulled a gun from the waistband of his red Imagen Pizza delivery jumpsuit and held it to her temple. ” Nod yes so I don’t have to ruin this beautiful carpet your parents have.”
She nodded yes furiously.
“Good. This will be over soon, and if you play nice, you will be a hero to the entire nation. They can see you right now. Nod for them, so they know you’re one of the good guys.”
She did as he asked.
“Good girl. Now, I am going to let you up, and when I do, I want you to walk over to that beautiful pre-war desk in the corner and sit at it very, very quietly. You don’t have to do anything else. Just sit. Can you do that? Nod yes.”
Every part of her body shook.
The man cocked his head and blinked. “Ruined carpet, then?”
She whimpered slightly. She shook her head no, and then began shaking her head yes.
“Good. Now go.”
As she trembled her way over to the desk, Hax removed the hidden camera pen embedded in the front pocket of his jumpsuit and placed it on a mantle across the room. The wide-angle lens captured the entire room for an audience that was beginning to tune in by the tens of thousands per second.
He stripped out of the red jumpsuit, revealing lightweight armor that covered his entire body. Pulling a thin veil of fabric over his head from the collar of the armor, he flashed a crooked smile for the camera.
“And just like that…” he whispered, and his beefy hand rose and he snapped his fingers before switching on his thermoptic camouflage and vanished completely into thin air.
“…He was gone.”