Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Weekly Short Story: Like / Follow / Kill

writing, fiction & once upon a time 4 min read

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published four ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.

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The greatest threats to humanity, so we’re told, are non-human forces or entities. Climate change, viruses, and so on — certainly accountable to human behaviour, but not human in themselves — are made both more threatening and more acceptable by their otherness.

In reality, though, we all know the truth: the greatest threat to humanity is and always has been humanity itself. The very first time we ever facilitate the direct expression of our self-genocidal tendencies, we’ll witness the beginning of the end of our existence. With that cheery thought in mind, it followed logically that the medium for such a disaster would be one of our most pernicious inventions to date.


The feature seemed to roll out experimentally at first. A few hundred people in the first hour, as best we can tell. Then a few thousand. And then everyone got it.

The little buttons beside each post had been the same for years. There had been design changes, but the functionality was constant. You could like the post. Reply to the post. Follow the post’s author, if you weren’t already. Or mute their posts from now on.

The network was vast and pervasive. Apparently, at its height of popularity — which was that same day — almost seventy-seven percent of our internet-connected species had an account there. So many people. And so the perfect proxy for us as a whole.

Extensive research has been done, and we know that the first user who got the feature was a nineteen-year-old young man whose display name was simply iAmDave, with a string of numbers after it. Dave had posted a brief appreciation of a jazz album he was listening to, and a second user whose handle was a numerically-decorated variant of MasterOfDestruction had called Dave gay. Dave was indeed gay, and didn’t consider his sexual orientation to be a valid insult, but he knew the remark was meant as such.

Dave got the Kill button at 21:35 local time (Melbourne, Australia) on the day of our decimation, attached to MasterOfDestruction’s slur. Dave did not click the button, but he did screenshot it and make another post with the screenshot attached, including the text “I wish!”.

MasterOfDestruction got the Kill button a minute later, on Dave’s screenshot post, and this time the button was indeed clicked. Dave died at the same instant.

We estimate that fewer than a thousand people were killed in the first hour. When the feature expanded to thousands of other users, though, our fate was sealed. Our analysis suggests that the feature was spread via the social graph, such that anyone connected with either the murderer or the victim would then gain the button on all posts they viewed after that point. The button would also be displayed on all of those people’s own posts, and so on. The proliferation was rapid.

It took almost thirty minutes of the feature’s second hour for the news stories to begin, fuelled by an unprecedented global surge in calls to the emergency services. It took a further eighteen minutes for the first correct conclusions to be shared online, linking the new feature with the sudden and unexplained deaths. This only encouraged people.

Hours three through twelve brought approximately six hundred million deaths.

The button worked even when the social network was pulled offline, leaving only cached versions of its pages in web browsers on people’s own computers. It was quickly discovered that modifying the page’s code to pass a different username as the target parameter would indeed result in the new target’s death. Scripts were quickly created to automate the process.

By the end of the first twenty-four hours, the planet’s human population had dropped by twenty percent. By the end of the second day, fifty percent. And by halfway through the third day, everyone who had ever had an account was dead.

We are the survivors, and we face a very formidable task. We are not technologically savvy, for the most part, though thankfully some of us do have those skills and simply chose not to spend our time on social networks in the old world. Many of us, though, didn’t even have an email account, making communication with each other now even more challenging. I myself can’t type very well, and it has taken hours to produce even this entry.

We don’t know the Kill button’s mechanism of action; indeed, it would seem to be impossible. We don’t know who added it, either. The social network’s parent company disavowed all responsibility during those initial panicked hours, and its local offices were raided by governments around the world nonetheless. A disproportionate number of those governmental agents survived, owing to their employment contracts prohibiting participation in social media as a security precaution.

We have many authoritarians and luddites and religious fanatacists. We have precious few scientists and engineers and teachers. It’s a dangerous composition for a newly scattered society trying to cling to order and survival.

If the button was an experiment, we have to conclude that it was a spectacularly successful one. The hypothesis was, I assume, resoundingly confirmed. It doesn’t say anything very reassuring about our species, and how we feel about each other, but it does at least speak the truth of what we are.

There are already messages about the judgement of an angry deity here. There are sometimes even people in the decaying streets of the old cities, calling out to anyone who can hear, telling them to repent and follow the teachings of one antiquated book or another. It seems that everything we had and everything we’d built was a thin veneer indeed.

As we go now towards an uncertain future, probably split between those who wish to repeat the entirety of history, and those who won’t accept that the old world is gone, I have to wonder whether our growing number of would-be preachers might be right.

Maybe it was the devil’s work, right enough.

There was no known technological means for a digital button on a social media post to kill the post’s author, immediately and irrevocably, wherever they were in the world at the time. But that’s what happened. It happened to billions. It had to have been a power beyond humanity that put the mechanism in place. Surely.

But to do the actual hellish work of it, well, that’s a different matter.

All we needed was ourselves.


That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.

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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.