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What would you do if you knew how and when you were going to die? Would it paralyse you with fear? Would it supercharge your last days on earth and make you live life to the fullest? Maybe your life is miserable and knowing it will end will bring you a sweet bliss? Would you embrace your fate or would you fight it? Would you try to run and hide? I think that’s what’s happened to Jake. I think he has run and hid, he hasn’t been seen for 4 days now.
Jake and I work together at a clickbait company. They call it something different, some bullshit like ‘Digital content & experience” but in a nutshell we make click bait articles. You know the type of stuff I’m talking about.
‘You won’t believe what these 90’s teenage hotties look like now’.
‘Top 10 life hacks that will change the way you take a piss.’
‘What’s your Disney princess/star wars/gangsteporn name.’
The stuff that’s ruined facebook and will likely ruin every other type of social media before too long. I’m not proud of what I do but it pays the bills. In theory it was a step in the direction of real journalism. My chosen Career path when I left University 3 years ago and had to get a job.
Instead I ended up here at ‘Provoke: Digital content & experiences’. Jake and I were part of the same bunch of new starters. Only 3 of an original intake of 6 are left now. Jake, myself and Daisy my secret love who is perhaps the most beautiful creature in existence. Provoke’s business model is to create content that generates views then sell the advertising space on our pages & apps to make a profit. Simple really but with everyone’s attention span so limited these days you have to keep coming up with new and innovative ways to grab people’s attention.
Each of us ‘creatives’ has to generate enough ideas each month to hit our advertising revenue targets. I generally follow a formula I have dubbed ‘Triple S’ Sex, Sympathy or Sentiment. These seem to be the 3 things that consistently draw in the traffic for me. Chances are if you see a facebook post or meme about how a poor 1 legged, orphaned, ethnic minority puppy saved a Grandma’s life, my hand was behind it.
The key is dragging the bullshit out over as many pages as possible. Provoke will monetise up to 12 ad spaces on any page so the math is simple. More pages, more ads, more revenue. I have mastered the art of turning an utterly pointless and completely fictional 150 word piece into 12 pages of money making art.
There is absolutely no journalistic integrity or scrutiny on the internet. You can pretty much make up anything and even go borderline slanderous on politicians and celebrities and there is almost nothing the regulators can do.
Every Monday morning we have a ‘creative meeting’ in the board room. All the creatives pitch their ideas for the week to the rest of the team and the partner. Feedback for bad suggestions is brutal so they can be feisty affairs. Pepper in the occasional accusation of plagiarism as people jealously guard their own ideas and they can also be great fun. At least they were back when Jake, Daisy and I joined and Tom Bostock was always the partner who chaired the creative meeting. Tom was a great guy, he founded the company and was down to earth, supportive and really helped with the creative process. He brought on another partner, Maaiki Kalma about 6 months ago. Maaiki is very different.
She has a brooding, menacing nature. She is striking to look at, sharp but perfect features, pale skin contrasting with her severe and very black bobbed haircut. Her English is perfect but dusted with a light Finnish accent that makes everything sound like a rebuke. She oozes refinement & class. Immaculate power suits & simple blouses, always black contrasted with white. Her thin lips the same blood red as her manicured nails.
Tragically Tom passed away 2 months ago. Poor bloke was only 37 so the massive stroke came out of the blue and really took the wind out of everyone’s sails. The atmosphere in the office has been terrible since, partly the sadness at the loss of our boss and mentor but as much because it left the poisonous Maaiki in sole charge.
2 weeks ago the Monday meeting didn’t go too well. Jake and I are seen as the senior creatives having been around for the longest. Daisy attends the meetings but she works in the sales team. Her job is to ensure we get the best advertisers paying the best rates, not to worry about having ideas herself. We pitched our ideas for the week, admittedly they were far from inspired. A tense silence settled over the room, Maaiki stared at the pair of us her piercing grey eyes drilling into us.
“Out.” It was a whisper but everyone shot from their chairs. “Not you two.” We sat back down, bracing ourselves. After a long and uncomfortable silence she spoke.
“I pay you for ideas, without ideas you have no value to me.”
“Maaiki, Jake and I will go work on our ideas, try to sharpen them up a bit.” I wanted to get on the front foot and get out of there and figured this was the best approach.
“Your ideas are pathetic and old. I have no use for them being pathetic, old & sharp. I want a game changer from one of you tomorrow morning. McDonalds has plenty of vacancies for morons with no imagination.” She dismissed us with a flick of her hand.
“Shit Simon.” Jake said as we stood outside of the office vaping. “I don’t have any fucking game changers. You?”
“Nope. We should leave early and grab some beers. If we are going down let’s go down in style and hungover.” My bravado was see-through. I didn’t want to lose my job and was as concerned as Jake. Even so that was exactly what we did. Left the office at 5 and went straight to our favourite bar. To my great delight the beautiful Daisy joined us.
“She’s a fucking stuck up bitch.” Jake moaned. “Anyone any ideas?”
We tossed around a couple of thoughts. Daisy sat quietly sipping her gin & tonic and watching us both. After 40 minutes and 2 pints of re-hashing the same clichés we had used for the last 12 months we slumped back into our seats defeated.
“What’s the essence of social media?” Daisy asked leaning forwards and breaking the silence.
“People use it to stay in touch with their friends?” I replied with a shrug.
“Do they?” Daisy said “I’m not so sure. I guess there is a bit of that but most of what I see is ‘look at me posts’. ‘Here’s what I ate’, ‘aren’t I amazing going to the gym this early in the morning’ ‘My kids are better than your kids’.”
“You’re fucking spot on Daisy. It’s all just ego shit.” I was excited, a bit of insight that might land us an idea.
“So you just need to find the most important thing in people’s lives that gives them the biggest ego trip and you have your game changer.” She sat back in her chair and took a triumphant sip of her G&T.
“OK so what it that? Having kid? Getting a new job? Starting a new relationship?” I had a bit of flow now. “What does everyone have in common that they would love to fucking brag about.” Jake just shrugged and I didn’t have the answer.
“Their death.” Daisy’s words cut across the table and we were silent waiting for what might come next. “Death is the one thing we all have in common.”
“Holy shit you’re fucking right Daisy”
“So I write an App that predicts people’s deaths.” Said Jake, picking up the baton. “We ask them a bunch of questions about their age, weight, lifestyle that type of shit. There will be all kind of data on line I can pull in that can create some sort of formula of when they will die.”
“There are websites that do this type of thing already.” Daisy chipped in. “You need a different angle.”
“She’s right Jake. How about this, people don’t want to actually know the truth, they wasn’t some drama and uniqueness, something to brag about. So you give them how they will die and make the reasons exciting. ‘Bitten by a poisonous spider’ ‘fell off a mountain’, ‘taken out in a gangland hit’. People love that type of thing.” Buoyed by optimism, our plans were formulated over a dozen more drinks.
The last 10 of those dozen drinks seemed like a terrible idea the next morning as we sat in the boardroom waiting for Maaiki to grace us with her presence. She breezed in and registered our bedraggled state.
“Pathetic drunks, this better be good.” This appeared to be our invitation to start so we told her about the concept.
To access the app you need to enter your name, date of birth, gender, country of origin and social security number. We planned to use that to look up individuals to make it seem more ‘authentic’. You then complete 10 questions that are largely meaningless then submit for a response.
The app would scrape the last 2 years of your social media activity to look for any pass times or buzz words that we could use to add a bit of flavour to the death prediction. The prediction itself would be completely random from a list of about 100 exciting ways in which you could die. If the profile scrape came up with any interesting results it would influence the algorithm to make it more likely to predict certain deaths.
From the date of birth, gender & country of origin we would apply some normalisation filters to the random death date to avoid predicting anyone would die aged 300 or anything ridiculous like that. On the spur of the moment I also pitched in that the App would apply further date range modification to the death date in the event of certain predictions. “90 year olds don’t generally drive motor bikes or do bungee jumping.” I added by way of clarification. “I’m going to call the app ‘The Reaper’.” Jake added with a flourish.
Her hard grey eyes assessed us as she sat impassive and expressionless. Her lips turned upwards a little into the faintest of smiles. I had seen Maikki scowl and glower a thousand times but her smile was more fear inducing by far.
“3 things. Firstly you need to change some of the questions. Drop the ones about favourite colour and if they like pets and add in ‘What is your view on suicide’ and ‘Where do you believe you will go upon your death.”
“Of course Maaiki” Jake said nervously.
“Secondly, I want this to go viral. Add in the option to predict some friend’s deaths and send them all messages saying ‘I know how and when you will die.’ It will drive traffic off the charts. Finally I want 8 ad spaces on each question page in the app, 6 on the email that goes out with your prediction then I want another 8 on a page that confirms the answers to your questions before you get the prediction.”She stood and walked out without another word, any trace of the smile long since departed.
That’s how it started.
Jake began working on the coding and our jobs seemed to be safe for a little while. It wasn’t a complex coding job at all but Maaiki wanted it to have global reach so getting access to the social security records for the majority of the civilised world was a big challenge. Jake planted a few seeds on some deep web message boards as there wasn’t a quick, easy, legal way of getting all of that information. He got a reply after a couple of days from ‘The Tempest’ that linked to some torrent sites to download the individual countries and Jake set his assistant Carl to work.
It took a fittingly biblical 7 days to create the reaper app. Alone in the darkened office, Jake & I stared at the screen.
“Trial run time Simon, who should be the lucky recipient of the Reapers first prediction?” Jake joked.
“Has to be Carl.” I answered instantly. “You would freak the shit out of someone random if they get an email out of the blue predicting their death.”
“Isn’t that the point?” Jake said, I could see the mischief behind his eyes.
“I think that’s the point once we get it up and running. I think for a trial we should probably go with someone how might at least understand the context.” I wasn’t used to being the voice of reason.
Jake agreed and we input Carl’s details. Carl James Matthews.
NI Number CM 762-3458-A-12
Jake milked the dramatic pause before submitting it to get the prediction .
Date of Death: 16/1/2018
Cause of Death: Road Traffic Accident.
I suddenly felt sick to my stomach, this had very quickly stopped being fun.
“Oh fuck that’s tomorrow Jake.” Jake didn’t seem concerned.
“It’s just a stupid random app. Technically the odds of tomorrow being the first prediction are exactly the same as any other day.....I think.” Jake replied calmly powering down his machine. “Cheeky beer to celebrate unleashing the reaper on the unsuspecting world? Mwah Ha Ha”
I never need a second invite. A cheeky several later Jake got a text from Carl. “Very funny dipshit. C U tomorrow”.
Carl & Jake’s calmness made me feel better about the whole situation and the beers were going down nice and easy so I settled myself in for a session.
Carl hadn’t made the office by lunchtime and I felt sick with panic. Jake was pale his texts to Carl unanswered and calls going straight to a dead tone. Jake grabbed his jacket at lunch time “I’m going round to his house.”
I got a choked call from Jake a 3 hour eternity later. “Simon, Carl was hit by a car this morning running to catch the bus. I’m here in the hospital, he’s in intensive care and his parents have just arrived. He’s not going to make it Simon. His family have just been informed by the doctors.” My world collapsed.
The next day 2 men in dark suits came in to the office and Maaiki greeted them and took them into her office. They looked like detectives and after 10 minutes with uber-bitch our fears were confirmed. Maaiki rang through to Jake's phone and he was asked to go to her office and bring his laptop. He was very shaken up afterwards and described the encounter to me after-work.
"Fucking goons." he was edgy and frantic. "They asked to see the Reaper. Said they were very concerned about an email that had come from the app and the similarities between it and the circumstances of Carl's death."
"They can't think you or the app had anything to do with it can they? That's fucking ridiculous. It's just a horrible coincidence. How can a stupid email have any influence on a random car driver that you have never even met?"
"That's exactly what I told them.” There was a long pregnant pause. “They asked me to prove it."
"What do you mean?"
"They said if it was all just a coincidence then I wouldn’t object to putting my own details in the Reaper."
"What the fuck?"
"I didn't want to do it Simon, it was scared shitless but they made me do it."
"Oh shit, what did it say"
Jake opened an email on his phone and pushed it across the table for me to read.
Jake Milton DOB : 18/05/ 1995 Date of death: 23/01/2018 Cause of Death : Murder, Strangulation.
I felt sick. That was a week from now.
"Jake, you said yourself this is all just random outcome generation. There's nothing to worry about." I knew I wouldn't convince him, the worry in my own voice was plain to hear but I felt I had to say something.
"Listen to me Simon. Strangulation isn’t one of the ways to die I built into the app. When I put my own details into that app it didn't ask me the right questions."
"What do you mean?"
"There are 10 questions and I wrote them all. They weren't the questions that came up. These were different questions. They made no sense. 'Was I willing to die?' 'Was I ready for the storm’? Shit that doesn’t make any sense."
"That's fucked up"
"There’s more Simon" he reached into his laptop bag and pulled out a manila folder. I flicked it open.
"This morning, before all of this fucked up shit with Carl happened I started running some testing on the app to make sure it was ready to go live online tomorrow. I ran 100 names from each of 50 different countries at random to check that all the social security database links were working and that the app was rendering properly in different languages. Standard testing stuff. I printed out the results.” He handed me another manila folder from his laptop case. “These are the outcomes that came back from the sample I ran.” I read down the list:
•UK Harold Stubbs DOB 07/12/1959 DEATH 03/03/2018 Suicide: Hanging
•UK Gary Jennings DOB 21/08/1993 DEATH 20/12/2022 The Last War
•UK Martin Davies DOB 05/09/2009 DEATH21/02/2018 Drown in bath tub
•UK Chris Smith DOB 06/06/1982 DEATH 05/07/2019 Murder: Throat cut
•UK Eoin Crigley DOB 31/01/1971 DEATH 20/12/2022 The Last War
•UK Emily Raymond DOB 19/02/1947 DEATH 06/11/2018 Complications arising from Pneumonia
•UK Nicola Fitton DOB 18/03/1981 DEATH 20/12/2022 The Last War
•UK Mike Abbottson DOB 23/04/1969 DEATH 04/09/2020 Cardiac arrest
•UK Kyle O’Shaugnessey DOB 05/08/1987 DEATH 20/12/2022 The Last War
•UK Daniel Bertrand DOB 06/09/1974 DEATH 20/12/2022 The Last War.
I didn’t get past the first ten. I felt sick to my stomach. “Jake what the hell is this? What the fuck is ‘The Last War’?”
Jake was almost in tears. “I don’t know Simon, this is all too fucked up. I’m going into the office early tomorrow to destroy the app. I need to get it down from the servers. It musn’t ever see the light of day.” I agreed to meet Jake early.
I was shocked out of a deep sleep by my phone buzzing. It was Jake, calling me at 3am. “It’s fucking gone live Simon.”
“What?” I was foggy and confused.
“Someone has put the Reaper live on line, My phone is set up to get alerts when it is accessed. It started going off about an hour ago. Simon it’s going fucking beserk pinging every few seconds as people get a prediction.”
“Fuck, give me an hour and I can meet you at the office.”
We met a little after 4:30am and Jake set to work trying to take the App down from the server. It was down by around 7:20am.
“Simon cover for me. I’m going to call in sick today. I need to get out of here and work out what the fuck is going on and who put the Reaper live.” Luckily we had used Jake’s card to swipe in so I left the office with him and killed an hour at a nearby Starbucks. I went back to the office at 8:30 pretending I had just arrived. Maaiki summoned me to her office the second she saw me enter.
“Where is Jake?”
“He usually gets in about now. I’ll send him straight in to you when he get here if you like?” I tried to sound casual. She started hard at me.
“Fine.” I was questioned my Maaiki again later that day when it was clear Jake was a no show for work. He had obviously called in sick or messaged her. She was livid but I just feigned ignorance and carried on with my work. No mention of the Reaper was made.
It has been like this for the last couple of days. I get called into Maaiki’s office 2 or 3 times a day. She asks me about Jake and I try to act both worried and ignorant at the same time. Last night I got a very disturbing email from Jake to my private account from wherever he is hiding. FROM: [email protected]
TO: [email protected]
23rd Jan 2018
I’m scared and I don’t know what to do.
I have been working on the app for 2 days solid since we pulled it down from the servers. There is something wrong with the code. None of the original questions or causes of death are in the app any more. If I delete these new ones and revert back to the original when I come back to the app a couple of hours later the replacements ones are back again.
I think I’m being watched.
I don’t want to tell you where I am in case they come or you too. There is a dark van parked across the street. It arrived the day after I got here and hasn’t moved since.
The worst thing is Simon, I’ve been running peoples data through the reaper. LOTS of data. I’ve run about 1.3 million people’s records so far. Records from over 100 different countries. No matter where in the world I run a record from they have one thing in common. ‘The Last War’ keeps coming up.
Simon, of the 1.3million records I’ve run so far over 1.1 million of them have ‘The Last War’ as the cause of death. That’s nearly 85% The earliest date I’ve come across for a Last War record is 20th December 2022 and the lastest is 28th December 2022.
No one, not a single record in over 1.3 million so far has a date of death later than the 28th December 2022.
I’m going to just delete the app. I pray this is all just some fucked up mental breakdown I’m going though.
According to the App today is the day I die.
That was 2 days ago, I haven’t heard from Jake since.
That same night at around 11pm the Reaper went live on line again. Maaiki is over the moon at the clicks it’s pulling in, just short of 3 million hits so far.
Let me ask you again. What would you do if you knew how and when you were going to die? Because if this is anything more than Jake's paranoid delusion it looks like we all have until 28th December 2022 to figure it out.