“Why ‘Jerry’?” Brett asked. “What does that mean?”
“Because it’s gold, Jerry,” said Dennis.
“No, it’s short for Jerry Maguire,” Bradley said. “You know-”
“Show me the money, yeah,” Brett said. “Like, this program is going to make us a lot of money somehow?”
“No, no,” Bradley said. “That’s not it at all. It’s that scene where he gets fired and he’s like-”
“I haven’t seen that movie in years,” said Cheryl to Brett.
“I have,” said Chad. He stared at the table.
“Well,” Bradley said “calling it Jerry Maguire all the time was sort of cumbersome so we started calling it-”
“Yeah, we get it,” Brett said. “Bradley, these gentlemen contacted us yesterday and expressed great interest in speaking to you and your team.” Brett lifted his hand from his smartphone and pointed his first two fingers at the finely-attired men sitting to his right.
“Mr. Lewiston,” the expensive suit nearest him said, “may I call you Bradley.”
“Yes sir,” Bradley said. His nod was a vibration.
“Bradley,” he said. “I’m John Tucker.” He pointed his thumb over his left shoulder. “This is my associate, Malcolm Frobisher. We’ve had an eye on your work for some time now.”
“Bradley,” Brett said. “I need you to be honest about what you’ve been doing for us here.” Brett looked over and met the eyes of his corporate attorney, Cheryl, who sat to his left, then shifted his gaze back to Bradley.
Malcolm watched this exchange and cracked a slight, crooked smile.
“Bradley,” John said. “I need you to tell me what this thing does.”
“Well, I,” Bradley said. He glanced at Cheryl. “I, uh.”
“Screw that I can tell you what it does,” said Chad. His hands were in his lap. He inspected his palms.
“Chad,” said Brett. “I don’t-”
“Guys,” said Dennis. “Guys it doesn’t do shit.”
“Gentlemen,” said John. “Gentlemen,” He opened the manila folder in front of him and produced a stack of paper, which he slid over to Cheryl,
“and lady.” He winked.
“What is that?” Brett asked.
Cheryl furrowed her brow and skimmed the front page. She lifted a finger and turned the page with her other hand. She turned another page. “It’s immunity for the corporation with the stipulation that we cooperate. Same deal for Bradley as an individual. It’s solid enough.”
“What does ‘enough’ mean?” Brett asked.
“You know what it means, Brett,” Cheryl said. She closed the packet. “It means what it means. Don’t fuck around.”
“That’s right,” John said. “No monkey business. Shall we proceed, Mr. Lewiston? Bradley?”
“Where do I start?” Bradley asked. “I’ve never done this before.”
“Start at the night of the beta,” Malcolm said. “Fill in whatever is relevant.”
“Okay,” Bradley said. “Okay. So, it was supposed to be limited. I mean, it was limited. We do this all the time, beta testing different features among users. I mean, we have over 500 million worldwide so there’s really no limit to what we can test. Practically nobody’s page looks the same. We don’t always run it by people, either. I mean, uh, Dennis, he did Willie Nelson remember?”
“What is Willie Nelson other than a musician I enjoy?” Malcolm asked.
Brett looked at Dennis, who turned to Cheryl. “Cher. Seriously?” Dennis asked.
“Seriously,” she said.
Dennis slumped over in his seat. “Okay. Well. I made, in my spare time, which we are allowed to do-”
“Jesus, Dennis,” Brett said.
“We are,” Dennis said, “we’re allowed to code on breaks, or stay late, whatever. Well, I did. I did Willie and it let you search for buy ops in states where pot is legal. Not just stores, I mean, people could post offers, it was supposed to be a music festival thing-”
“Through the network,” Chad said, “but he set the parameters wrong.”
“Fuck you man it was that fucking intern,” Dennis said. He arose from his slump and flopped down on the edge of his chair. It tipped precariously forward and slammed back down with a clack.
“Guys,” Brett said. He looked at John. “Long story short, it was supposed to be a beta in a few legal counties and it got posted to the entire eastern seaboard. By morning we were getting emails from people all over the country.”
“Why don’t we know about this?” John asked. He eyed Malcolm.
“We do,” Malcolm said. “User side it was called Sticky.”
John nodded. “Yes, yes I do. That must have been, what, four, five years ago? God, I was one year out of academy. I thought it was the Russians?”
“Heh,” Malcolm said. “Brett blamed it on hackers from one of his shell companies, shut that one down. They own a couple of big outlets so it didn’t get legs. It was need to know but now I guess you do.”
“Hah,” John said. He looked from Dennis to Brett. “What a deal.”
Brett pressed his lips together in a tight line.
“It’s still all over Reddit,” Chad said. “And 4chan.”
“Chad,” Cheryl said.
A vein pulsed on Brett’s left temple.
“Right,” Bradley said. “So, where was I?”
“You were describing Jerry, but if you don’t mind, go back a bit and tell me what gave you the inspiration, other than Dennis’s escapades,” John said.
“Okay,” Bradley said,”I, well, you know I like to think of myself as pretty passionate. You know, it hurts me. The things people do, I guess, and working here I get to see it 24/7. Everyone’s feed is full of just, well, garbage. I mean, there are good things too, but it’s a, well, sorry Brett, but it’s a sea of shit.”
Brett considered Bradley for a moment. He smiled with his mouth only. “It’s okay, Brad,” he said. “We want you to express yourself, constructively, in whatever way you feel is appropriate.”
“Oh,” Bradley said. “Okay. Well, it started as a joke. Not really a joke, but.” He paused. “Let me back up.” Bradley gazed at the blank yellow legal pad in front of him on the table. He breathed in deeply through his nose, held it for a second, and exhaled through his pursed lips. Six sets of eyes peered at him from across the table. They waited.
“When they had the shooting back in, oh, last year? No it was two years ago. There have been so many, but that was the one. I got sick of the onslaught of crap opinions and fighting, so much fighting. Everyone has some goddamned idea, right, and most of them won’t do anything about it anyway. The people who actually vote don’t even use our site-”
“That demographic has actually increased ten-” Chad started.
“Chad.” Brett said. “Please go on, Bradley.”
“Well, anyway, I started thinking. We send notifications when people post certain combinations of words. It depends on what it is, I mean, it’s complicated. I can show you the source code but I’m not sure you’d get it.”
“I get enough,” John said. “Your team programs a set of flags, which can be words, time logged on, time between posts, interactions, and so on, and your site can send messages accordingly.”
“Yeah,” Bradley said. “Yeah, that’s the long and short of it. So, these people, I mean these guys, it’s always guys. These guys, they’re on our site. Nine times out of ten, they’re here, and I know they got the warnings. Probably the ‘are you okay’ text but maybe even the Suicide Hotline. And I thought, what if we took it a step further?”
“What is ‘further’?” Malcolm asked.
“Uh, well,” Bradley said. He faced Cheryl. She nodded. “Well,” he said, “what if it checked for a few other things? What groups they are a member of, what they like, where they post, age, ethnic groups, gender, religious affiliation, political interests. It all gets weighed. Then, if they’re over a certain score, they get a different message.”
“Kill yourself!” Dennis said in a cheer. He raised his arms above his head, fists clenched.
“Goddammit Dennis,”Brett said. He bared his teeth.
Dennis flopped his arms into his lap. “What? What?” He said as he glimpsed around the room for support. “I told you it doesn’t do anything. It’s a fuckin’ suicide program. ‘Kill yourself’, haw haw haw. Really?”
The room was silent.
“It did, though, didn’t it?” John asked.
“Do something?” Bradley asked. “I mean, it sent a message that suggested they would be better off dead. It was almost poetic, Chad wrote it-”
“When time, it comes, to fade to black-” Chad said.
“Yeah, like that, but did it work then?” Bradley said “I don’t know-”
“You do though,” Chad said. “We checked. You checked.”
“What does he mean, Bradley?” Malcolm asked.
“Well,” Bradley said, “I stayed late one Friday, you know the one, obviously, and I ran a limited beta in Southern California. It was 250,000 people in metropolitan areas only, selected randomly, but within that group, it sent 17 messages.”
“Go on,” John said.
“Nine of them never logged back on.”
Brett furrowed his brow and bit his lip. Cheryl stared down at her legal pad. She had drawn a series of black stars and a question mark.
“But you don’t know,” John said.
“We do,” Chad said. “It’s not hard to check the news, Google names.”
“Weren’t you afraid someone would find out?” Malcolm asked.
“If they used as much of my app as I think they did-” Dennis started.
“Hey Dennis,” Bradley said, “don’t disrespect me like that man.”
“Dude I just calls ’em as I sees ’em,” Dennis said as he folded his hands behind his head.
“What are you talking about?” Malcolm asked.
“Look, it’s standard.” Chad said. “Dennis is acting like it isn’t but it’s open code, we don’t use it much, but you can freeze screen shots, printing, snip tools, whatever, for the duration of the message.”
Cheryl looked up and to the right. “Uh,” she said, “what stops someone from whipping out their phone and taking a photo.”
“Well, Cher,” Dennis said, “that’s the brilliance of me, baby. That other shit is standard but what I did is link the desktop version to the app so that if you got a desktop message, any other device on the same account is camera locked, and vice versa. It doesn’t stop a third party from getting their phone out, or a fucking Polaroid for that matter, but what are the chances of that?”
“Actually, the chances are pretty good for drug buyers but not so good for suicidal people,” said Chad.
Dennis lifted his right fist towards Chad and slowly extended his middle finger.
Malcolm looked at John and cocked an eyebrow. John nodded back.
“Okay guys,” Malcolm said. “We’ve gotten all we need from everyone but Chad and Bradley. The rest of you are excused but please remain available. We may need you for a followup.”
Dennis was already on his feet. “Great. I have shit to do.”
Brett faced Cheryl. “Is this good? I mean, are we good?”
Cheryl frowned. She regarded Malcolm and John then back to Brett. “You still smoke? I need a smoke.”
“Uh, shit. Sure,” Brett said. He hesitated for a moment before he started to stand. “Okay.”
After the door swung closed on its hydraulic, John studied Chad for a moment, then he addressed Bradley.
“All right,” John said, “we’ve established what message you sent, but you keep talking about a message. A warning message isn’t an app.”
Bradley glanced at Chad, then back at John. “I didn’t want to look after that night, but Chad checked for me. There were suicides, but there were also murder-suicides,” he said. “It didn’t work.”
“But it did,” Chad said. “They would have done it anyway, man.”
Bradley’s lips pressed together until his chin turned white.
“Chad’s right,” Malcolm said. “You realized that, didn’t you?”
“I knew then that it wouldn’t stop,” Bradley said. “I knew that people wouldn’t just leave without hurting someone, so I thought, what if I could direct it? What if I could give a suggestion?”
John’s nose crinkled. “What,” he said, “like a hit list?”
“It’s not a list,” Chad said. “I mean, there is a list, but people aren’t presented with it because we figured that would be too overwhelming. It takes your location and means into account, and then figures out who deserves it the most-”
“Deserves?” Malcolm said. He stood up. “How can you calculate such a thing?”
Chad ran his fingers through his hair. “Uh, well-”
“There’s a point system,” Bradley said. “If your net worth is a certain amount, you get points. If you publicly hold certain political views, there are points. More power is generally more points. Violent criminal records count too but also large white collar crimes. I wanted it to be as equal as possible. If you’re on a corner in Gardena you might get a drug runner but if you’re in downtown Sacremento-”
“So this is a revolution machine?” John said. “A hit suggestion box?”
“Wait John,” Malcolm said. He put his hand on John’s shoulder. “Chad. As I understand it, you built this on a previous platform. You linked it to all the information you’ve collected, you allow people to enter more information if they wish, and when they set off those triggers, when the system determines they’re that lone gunman, it pops off a suggestion. Not just that you kill yourself, because that’s a given that they’re going to get shot by police or bodyguards, but kill whoever.”
Chad nodded. “Yeah, in layman’s terms.”
“So it’s not an app, really, like Instagram. It’s a function of the site itself.”
“Correct,” Chad said.
“You may go,” said Malcolm.
Chad looked puzzled. John glanced over his shoulder at Malcolm with a similar expression on his face.
“It’s okay,” Malcolm said to them both. “Bradley can handle this from here on out.”
“Okay,” Chad said as he stood. “Uh, I’ll text you okay?” he said. Bradley nodded silently as Chad left the conference room.
Malcolm walked to the end of the table and sat beside Bradley.
“So, earlier, you were talking about Jerry Maguire,” Malcolm said. “My wife loves that movie. I remember that scene you were describing, before you were so rudely interrupted. Tom Cruise gets fired and he says ‘who’s coming with me? I’m not going to, you know, flip out, but who’s coming with me’, right?”
Bradley chuckled. “Right. ‘Who’s coming with me?'”
John stood up and walked to the end of the table and sat on Bradley’s other side.
“This program is active, isn’t it, Bradley?” Malcolm asked.
“Yes,” Bradley said.
John looked at Malcolm. “What do you mean active? He said it works-”
“Not in that sense,” Malcolm said. “Chad was with him until this step. It’s not a triggered message. Anyone can use it.” He looked at Bradley. “Right, Bradley?”
“A message wasn’t enough,” Bradley said. “Maybe the problems get solved, maybe not, but I thought, what about the guy who has inoperable stage IV cancer? Do we include him? I don’t know if I could justify egging on a person who might survive, who wasn’t a creep, but what if I made it optional? What if I made it more, you know, user friendly?”
“So a guy lives in DC and he has leukemia,” John said. “My God.”
“It’s not just that though,” Bradley said. “Social media wasn’t good enough. As much as we hate to admit here, not everyone is on it. People’s pages are run by their assistants. The media is full of lies. I needed real information. I gave it fields and made the parameters adjustable by the user, but it wasn’t enough. I connected it to every accessible database of public information, but it wasn’t enough. I needed all of it.”
“I know,” Malcolm said. “Which is why we’re here today.”
“I’d guessed that,” Bradley said.
John looked at Malcolm. “We can’t give that to him.”
Malcolm nodded. “We don’t have to. He got in two weeks ago.”
“What?” John said.
Bradley shifted in his seat.
“He’s plugged us into his equation,” Malcolm said. “I thought we’d cooked up some spooky shit for the drone program, but this guy,” he shook his finger at Bradley, “this guy is the spookiest.”
“Have you used it?” John said.
“I’ve done myself, yeah. You know what it says. Do you want to know what yours say?” Bradley asked.
“Oh, I’m not sure I want to,” Malcolm said. “I do need to ask you about last week, when you made some adjustments. Our logs say that you set the time and date on your calendar to noon on November 22, 1963, turned off your GPS, and entered your location as Dallas, Texas.”
“If you know all that, you know what it said,” said Bradley.
“I need John to hear it,” Malcolm said.
“Well, it wasn’t that simple. There were factors I didn’t see firsthand. If the date is set in the past, the fields are populated by the best available information, but everyone didn’t have a tracking device in their pocket-”
“Bradley,” John said.
“Lyndon Baines Johnson,” said Bradley.
John blinked. Malcolm rose from his chair and said, “How’s that for on the job training, John?”
“Uh,” John looked up at Malcolm then back at Bradley. “You didn’t publish this thirty minutes ago or anything, did you?”
“No,” Bradley said. “I’ve been up for days running simulations. It’s something to ask the combined knowledge of the human race who it would have killed at any particular place and time, but it’s here. It’s just here.”
“Good,” Malcolm said. “Good. You’re going to need to leave with us, Bradley. I hope you’re okay with that.”
“I have to be,” Bradley said, “don’t I?”
Malcolm nodded and patted him on the shoulder. He turned to John.
“John, I need you to stay behind. There’s a team arriving in twenty for cleanup. If Brett has questions we’ve got a government contract and he’ll be transferred a significant sum into his offshore holdings by tomorrow morning. The others are fine. All they saw was a suicide message. Chad will get the standard followup just in case.”
“Gotcha,” John said. “So, Bradley, I guess Malcolm knows, but I don’t. What did yours say?”
“Heh,” Bradley said. “It was Brett, but if I’m going with you guys, I have a feeling it’s going to change.”
“Mr. Lewiston,” Malcolm said, “I have the feeling a lot of things are about to change.”