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Barney's Specter by Eric Farrell


My hope disintegrates, whispers from my heart going up, up, and away.

The world’s coming down around me.

They’ve stolen my packet data. My fingerprints. My life.

I’m staring down at my phone, snap after snap of hyper realistic simulacra mocking me.

They embody the visage of Barney. A rudimentary leap into deepfake technology.

“Look through the window, and who do I see?” the big dumb dinosaur sings. “Karl, friend Karl, another friend for me!”

I feel like I’m on the verge of being fired. Dumped. Excommunicated. They’ve got everything. My digital fingerprints going back years, through all those deep dives, those lurid search results, all those photos taken and saved.

Everything.

I don’t actually know if this is a single person or a group of people, or why they’ve chosen to confiscate copies of my lifelong digital records. But they’ve effectively got me hostage.

The grift started yesterday.

“Sim sim salabim, we know just what you’ve been watching!”

Then Hadji from Jonny Quest blinked away, and the screen changed.

I stared at a video of myself, taken from my phone’s camera. Not in real time. But recorded video. I wasn’t wearing a shirt. The screen split and the bottom half blinked to the video capture of what I was staring at.

The snaps come from Throwaway-985xehu. Another chimes on my phone.

Barney materializes on my screen again.

“Just relax,” the jovial dinosaur sings. “Packet data, passwords, just relax.”

My phone screen’s camera is live. The microphone too. Even if they want me to respond via snap, I know they can probably see me now.

Barney giggles through another song, in another snap.

“Oh, we are flying in an airplane, looking out the window,” the purple dinosaur sings, “watching your life go by.”

Then the screen switches to that same bisected duality. My shame and my spoils. My self-immolation, immortalized. My ego, catastrophized. There I am, with the sluice of humiliation rushing over my head. A flawless blackmail. I bathe in the defenselessness, knowing my defeat. Disgrace knows no mistress. No family. No livelihood.

I wake up the next morning, grateful my girlfriend leaves for work earlier than I do. No new snap alerts on my phone. No frantic phone calls from family members. No knife in my chest. But I know they’re playing with me. My back is against a wall. They have more than just the humiliating twilight searches. They have my keystrokes. My financial information. The innate intimacy of my life.

I’ve been given a cash app username. Similar one-off handle. They know I’ve got the money. It doesn’t matter how much or how little it is, that’s the genius of the grift—they know how much you got, and they know they can take it.

What else am I gonna do? Risk the shame?

Throwaway-985xehu snaps me.

“Billions and billions and billions and billions…”

The video of deepfake Donald Trump cuts off abruptly.

My orgasm face. My social media misadventures. The sordid missteps of my romantic life. This basest version of me is moments away from being plastered on the internet. And it’s not just me either.

They have feed from the backyard cameras. The front doorbell. Timestamped and logged chirps, every time either of us have left or entered the house. All the dormant automation of life and security is in the palm of their hands. They know right where we are and who we are.

“There is no collusion, everybody knows there is no collusion,” Donald Trump mouths off, in the next snap.

They’ll send it to my loved ones. To my work. My money will be gone. They’ll have my phone data, spy my contacts, and reduce me to a naked laughing stock.

And even if I say yes, they might still leak the information. Despite them alluding to backing off if I pay, I really have no way of this blackmail going down well.

I have the entirety of my checking account on a cash app ledger, with the hacker’s disposable username keyed in.

“When you see the other side chopping off heads, waterboarding doesn't sound very severe,” Trump says, in the next video. The composite graphic of the megalomaniac is stitched into an amorphous, out-of-focus background.

My screen blinks, and this time it’s an email draft, superimposed on my phone. The cursor ticks away in the outgoing address box. My mother’s email, my boss’s email, my girlfriend’s email. A file of my heinous worst ready to go.

Donald switches back.

“I say, not in a braggadocios way, I've made billions and billions of dollars dealing with people all around the world,” Trump says.

Barney’s specter haunts my phone.

I hear the familiar chime indicating a new snap.

It’s been two weeks. My paycheck just hit my account five minutes ago. They’ve rotated through Barney, Hadji, Donald Trump, and a whole cast of others since stealing my packet data. Even though I paid, they’re still mocking me, threatening me.

Now they want a cut of every paycheck.

“I love you, you love me,” the purple dinosaur begins to sing.

“We’re a happy family.”

Eric Farrell is a beer vendor by day, and speculative fiction author by night. His writing credits stem from a career in journalism, where he reported for a host of college, local, and metro newspapers in the Los Angeles area. He has recent fiction in Etherea Magazine, Haven Spec, and Synthetic Reality.

Some of his flash and short fiction can be found on his website, Stygian Space (stygianspace.com).

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