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art by Justine McGreevy

The Numbers

Timothy Moore is a mechanical engineer, and spends his days crunching numbers and designing nuclear components. Aside from writing short stories, he is currently finishing his first novel. When not writing, he spends his time reading, gardening, acquiring a blend of useful and useless facts, and fumbling around the craft of woodworking. He lives in Ohio. Follow Timís blog at www.timothymoorewrites.wordpress.com

Seven minutes until the numbers unveiled.
Danny slouched on a park bench and let the cold sleet sting his face. Tears tickled down the creases of his nose, and he tasted the salt on his lips. He knew he should be stronger; he knew he should be a lot of things.
Danny had always been a good kid, and he believed he grew into a good man. He always treated his girlfriends with respect and dignity; he always adored them. Megan was the latest to leave. That was four days ago.
All his friends knew it was coming--literally. He rubbed his arms and tried not to think about it anymore, tried not to let them see. The nano-sensors in his brain registered serotonin levels; the electrodes recorded his heart rate and muscle tension. Everything uploaded instantly, and streamed free to the world.
Five minutes till the numbers.
Danny rose from the icy bench and shuffled down the sidewalk. He thought of Megan, and how she seemed to love him at first. She said he was the most wonderful man she had ever known. She said her other boyfriends never really loved her--some even abused her. Now she was with Jason, who embraced the hedonistic lifestyle that others craved, apparently--last night his feed got sixteen million hits.
And Danny had to see it, had to feel it, and experience it. Danny's emotions were too tuned into Megan, and therefore couldn't stop the feed. His nano-sensors streamed Megan and Jason's entire night together--the party, the drugs, the sex. He had pounded his fist into his temples until they throbbed and bruised like dented apples, but the feed wouldn't shut off. Emotions downloaded like memories into his brain. He had gotten aroused from it, and tasted the churning nausea in his throat, simultaneously. He felt destroyed and imprisoned, and the world felt it with him, before laughing and changing the channel.
Danny wandered into the wind, the sleet now shifting to snow. He arrived at Central Square. Towering synth-screens plastered every inch of the exterior buildings, and dazzled the senses with advertisements. A service-bot rolled silently up to him and offered him a nice, refreshing soda, because his nano-sensors registered that crying made his throat dry and sore. Danny blinked through his tears and shook his head no.
Thousands of people were gathered in the Square, and the scene buzzed with energy. Danny felt the excitement transfer to him. He stared up at the massive screens through his blurry vision and saw the countdown clock.
A hand slapped on his shoulder. "Two minutes man!" said a guy a little younger than him. "Hey, cheer up, man! This is gonna be the greatest thing ever!"
Danny glared back at the billboard and swallowed. The numbers, he remembered. That was today.
The numbers were going to be the ultimate social media achievement--a quantifiable value of your soul, an algorithm that would calculate your worth in the world. That number would shine out above your head like a halo from the nano-sensor's holographic projectors. It would be a visual representation of your significance, the definitive tool to rank against one another. Different categories and algorithms would come later--ones for intelligence, attractiveness, biggest partier, etc--but the first number would be the supreme number, the soul number, the computed summation of your morals and ethics and integrity and sins.
Danny wiped his eyes and started for home. The crowd thickened. He brushed and bumped his way through the hungry masses, all waiting for their judgment. People near him automatically downloaded his stream. They turned to him as he struggled past and gave their varied advice--to cheer up, to forget about Megan, to be more of a man and she wouldn't have left, to join the party and hook up with someone else tonight, to not give up.
Finally the crowd thinned a little as Danny approached the perimeter. He felt the buzz behind his eyes from the incoming data; he heard the crowd chanting the final ten seconds, both audibly through his ears and digitally streamed in his mind. He quickened his pace.
People not yet in the massive crowd rushed toward it from adjacent streets and stores and apartments. They flocked to the Square by thousands more, a hurricane of bodies Danny fought to get through. The crowd erupted; the numbers floated above like apparitions.
All around, people cheered and compared their values. Some were elated and boastful of their ghostly scores of 1082, 857, 965; some felt embarrassed at their 568s or 621s. Then people around Danny started growing silent, started to whisper and stare. The moods shifted from the people near enough to see, and then others rushed closer to witness what their digital feeds were reporting. A human wall encapsulated Danny, and he finally lifted his eyes.
In numbers of shimmering gold, Danny looked up at his value and started to cry. The surrounding masses gasped and gawked in wonder. The feed grew worldwide to levels never seen before. Danny, and the rest of the world, stared in awe at his number, which towered into the millions.
"How did you do that?" someone asked.
"That's incredible!" remarked a woman from within the group.
The mumbles and whispers rose like static, and Danny wanted to run. Through his feed, he felt what they felt, and he heard their thoughts. Streams from women poured in wanting to be with him, but he knew it was only because they could now see his value; others doubted him, feared him, mocked him, or gazed with envy.
"You some kind of saint?" shouted a man.
"You think you're better than us?" yelled another.
Danny tried to break through the mob, but none would let him pass. His eyes and temples hummed with the streamed ambivalence.
"Where do you think you're running, saint?"
Danny never saw the first fist swinging, only felt the brutal cold sting of knuckles on his cheek. The thin film of new snow cushioned his fall, but couldn't help him against the beating hands and stomping shoes.
Danny experienced every pain twice. He felt each attack as it happened to him physically, and again a split-second later digitally in his mind--a lingering, echoing agony that trailed on like a comet. Danny's number slowly faded as the feed stretched into the billions, everyone trying to catch a brief glimpse of what they never really wanted to see.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Author Comments

I wrote this story after reading another story from Daily Science Fiction--The Last Seed by Ken Liu. The two stories are very different, except for the obstinate loneliness that affects both main characters. This story is tragic, but no more tragic than everyday life can be. Social media is fun and valuable and just about everywhere today, but as it continues to grow and morph into new avenues of entertainment, communication, and commercialism, the dangers of abusing it wonít be too far behind.

- Timothy Moore
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