Signal Interruption – a short story by author Michael Collins that may help you pass the time during lockdown. Dark, horror themes.
It started small.
It started on a private livestream being broadcast from the second-floor Amstelveen apartment of Madame Helena, a small-time indie dominatrix. At the time of the first signal interruption Madame Helena (actually twenty-three-year-old Merta Jaczskinska, in the first year of her Digital Design master’s degree at Amsterdam’s University of Applied Sciences, and performing as Madame Helena on the side to top up her student grant) was eight minutes into a vigorous demonstration of her body’s youthful flexibility and an examination of her partner Jakub’s pain threshold. The eighty-two viewers, each of whom had paid a €30 deposit into Madame Helena’s PayPal account and were breathlessly awaiting to see just where Madame Helena was going to pour the hot wax next, saw the HD image on their laptops flicker, glitch, and fade to black.
When clarity returned the viewers saw a plain stark room, furnished only with a beaten down wooden rocking chair in the centre of the panelled floor. Ethereal golden light streamed through the window in the far wall, throwing shadows towards the edge of the screen.
The signal was silent for a few seconds, then the image flickered again, and someone was sitting – no, rocking in the rocking chair, rocking slowly back and forth.
The chair’s occupant was a little girl, pretty, slim, fair-haired. Pale blue eyes stared out of the screen as she rocked the chair gently in that dreamlike glow. She rocked, holding the transfixed gaze of her audience, for nineteen seconds before speaking one word:
Then she smiled, and the screen flicked back to a fuzzy image of the puzzled sex workers debating whether they should turn the laptop off and on again.
The whole thing – this minor digital insurrection – had lasted just over a minute. Some of the viewers, upon seeing their goddess restored to them, were already regaining tumescence. Nine of them, the ones who had received the transmission at its most potent, at the highest bandwidth, would be dead within the day, hearts crushed, blood vessels burst, lungs inexplicably shredded, the girl’s bland, still face burned into their minds. Four others soon went mad, their minds collapsing in on themselves in a spiral of paranoia and whispering, coaxing voices from nowhere. One found brief local notoriety when he pulled a bread knife in the queue of a coffee shop and stabbed a fellow queuer in a fleshy left buttock.
The survivors (for that is what they were) wrote the whole thing off as just another glitch in the indecipherable, science fiction world that was the Internet. Three days later they were back consuming, one-handed, Madame Helena’s next show. Helena apologised for the ‘gremlins’ that had interrupted the previous stream and gave her lucky fans twenty minutes of riding crop action for free.
The signal of the girl in the rocking chair went unheralded – except perhaps in the frantic dreams of those who had seen her, dreams which grew more and more vivid, dreams of flame and blood and rubble. As those dreams came again and again, rogue waves crashing down on the fragile minds of the people exposed, the image of the girl in the rocking chair took hold, becoming a totem, a siren, an oracle.
It had been a successful experiment.
It was repeated nineteen times over the next twelve weeks.
The girl in the rocking chair interrupted Indonesian video game livestreams, Canadian poker lesson webcasts, and Lithuanian unboxing sessions. Each time she appeared, the signal grew in strength, the audience captured grew, her impact infinitesimal, spreading slowly but surely. Nobody yet connected the dots, apart from a few odd bands of conspiracy theorists – the incidents were too small and too far apart for anything but random connections to be made, so across the world the girl in the rocking chair became just another meme – unsettling and scary, but, compared to Distracted Boyfriend, Sad Keanu, SlenderMan and Grumpy Cat, just a tiny ripple on the infinite surface of the Internet.
The girl in the rocking chair’s TV debut came in the Czech Republic.
The transmission being hacked was a late-night repeat of a Czech telenovela named Trauma Lásky, or The Trauma of Love; a cut-and-paste sitcom about the love lives of hot young twenty somethings which had enjoyed a brief swell of popularity in the mid-90s, was back in the public consciousness due to the high-profile divorce and re-marriage of two of its biggest stars and was thus re-syndicated and given a late slot on Prima Love 2, a private subscription channel ‘for the sophisticated, fun-loving, inquisitive young Czech lady’. It was hitting good numbers – in excess of 100,000 unique viewers across all platforms – and generating lots of consumable, lucrative social media traffic.
The targeted broadcast, an episode titled ‘Dokonalý Sen’, had been pushed back by a football match which had gone to extra time and penalties, depressing the audience figures somewhat: approximately 78,000 tuned in, and perhaps 10,000 had switched off by the time the signal was interrupted.
Those who remained viewing through bleary eyes saw the blistering demolition of Katya and Alek’s summer tryst cut off in the middle of Katya’s devastating, tear-streaked diatribe as the signal flickered and faded. Then the girl appeared, radiant and poised, rocking in her rocking chair. She spoke for forty-four seconds in a clear, calm voice. It was impossible to tell what she was saying, as these words were spoken in a language none of the survivors could decipher or understand. But the tone behind the words was as clear as the signal itself: time was running out.
As with the initial interruptions, not everybody was affected – and whomever (or whatever) was directing the transmission had altered its effects, directing the signal, narrowing its focus, like a gardener twisting the nozzle on a garden hose. That meant fewer people were victims of the signal at its full strength – fewer inexplicable deaths, fewer poor souls driven into the wasteland of mental illness, and more people left relatively unscathed.
And ready, willing, and able to spread the word.
The legend of the girl in the rocking chair caught and kindled in the Czech Republic, embers blown into flame. Memes and GIFs began propagating across social media, moving swiftly from private Facebook groups to WhatsApp chats to Reddit forums, ricocheting around the Internet’s white space like a bullet in a panic room.
Some had the earnest fervour of religious imagery – the girl framed in a golden halo: ‘The Girl In the Rocking Chair will save us!’. Some were created in an attempt at humour – Randy Orton hitting the girl with an RKO outta nowhere, or a naked man with a large penis taking the girl’s place in the rocking chair.
Most who consumed these images or videos had not the slightest idea of their provenance. But with every text sent, with every mouse button clicked, with every post liked, she became more real and more important.
The next time it happened was in Bhutan. A public information broadcast launched by the government, which had broken into regular programming, was itself hijacked by the girl in the rocking chair. For two minutes and twenty seconds the girl rocked and talked, and over forty thousand Bhutanese, relative latecomers to the strange attractions of the cathode ray, watched and listened, rapt.
Thirty-four hundred employees of a Japanese tech giant, dialling in remotely to an all-staff video conference, saw the girl appear on their screens in place of their dour CEO.
Then, Bolivia – a cable cooking show.
Then, Estonia – a late-night political debate.
Then, to her widest audience yet, Somalia – an early morning retrospective of ancient Islamic tapestries. This one was the longest transmission yet, at almost four minutes, and whilst the content remained maddeningly nebulous, the girl’s presence was as powerful and vivid as ever.
Now the digital world exploded. The girl in the rocking chair flooded the Internet as people began sharing stories and experiences, theories and thoughts. Dedicated sites were set up glorifying the girl as a religious heroine or the sinister portent of the end of the world. People began dividing into warring camps, shelling vitriol and hate upon each other in poorly expressed, character-limited ellipsoidal form. The more entrepreneurial began creating and selling ‘Girl in the Rocking Chair’ merch – cheap clothing and jewellery with the girl’s image adorned. When a Canadian podcast specialising in Internet culture featured the girl and the signal interruptions, it set off a mini riot in a Calgary park which ended in ten deaths and the hospitalisation of another twenty.
The girl in the rocking chair began featuring in ‘and finally’ segments on American, British and Chinese television, the TV anchors talking about the Internet and meme culture with raised eyebrows and a vague air of knowledge of yet complete disbelief in the copy they were reciting.
After a report written about the phenomenon by a German cyber-security professional was disseminated at a Five Eyes conference in Sydney, governments began quietly looking into their network infrastructure, looking at 5G rollout plans, wondering whether they could blame these hacks on Huawei and China. Discreet conversations were conducted on secure message boards between GCHQ and NSA staffers, each asking the others, is it you? Not us, pal. Is it Israel? Is it China? Data scientists and super-forecasters began investigating countries’ excess death rates, tying to link them to the times and dates of the signal interruptions. Deep in an anonymous concrete St Petersburg block, the Fancy Bear hackers slavishly gathered all the data from the phenomenon, wondering how they could adapt the girl’s message to the Rodina’s ends. Nobody could find the source of the signals.
The girl in the rocking chair ricocheted around the world again and again, clogging up inboxes and message boards, being embedded in phones and computers. Somehow, a video of the Somalia intercept emerged online; whether copied from the original transmission, or created using deepfakes and Premiere Pro, it was becoming impossible to tell the difference. Copycat videos appeared, lots poorly shot in some guy’s living room with his long-suffering girlfriend press-ganged into cosplaying as the girl in the rocking chair. Mashups appeared on YouTube, splicing the girl in the rocking chair into the middle of favourite episodes of TV shows. And on the fringes of the Internet, the media platforms normally filled with hate and bile saw the rise of new, sinister messages: the girl in the rocking chair as herald and harbinger, the signal of a great uprising, the long-promised storm.
There were no new broadcasts for months; not that it mattered. The wave now had its own momentum, undeniable and unstoppable.
During an anti-fascism march in Melbourne, a man dressed in a black robe emblazoned with the girl’s image blew himself up in the middle of the crowd. Thirty-four died.
A newly opened mosque in Leeds was firebombed. Eight people died, including a three-year-old child.
A prominent Polish rabbi was abducted and executed by beheading live on YouTube. The killer was wearing a T-shirt with the girl’s face and the words ‘Judgment is Coming’ printed in blood-red letters. The rabbi was sat in a rocking chair during the execution.
Then, the worst: two men and a woman, all dressed in the same outfits as the rabbi’s executioner, all with GoPros strapped to their heads livestreaming to their Facebook Live accounts, stormed a Marseilles lycée. The outrage was global, and instant.
IRL, at least.
The reaction in cyberspace was more mixed.
The fibre optic cables hummed with glee. Message boards were swamped by radical thought and expressions of furious love and pride. The Marseilles livestream was shared thousands of times instantly, its digital footprint bouncing around servers and networks like a fly trapped in a basement. The followers of the girl in the rocking chair, disparate and disordered, came together into larger, organised groups, inspired by their interpretation of her message. Their nascent plans began to coalesce.
The US National Security Agency, tipped off by a couple of increasingly worried whistle-blowers, quietly resurrected its LENS monitoring program with new targets and keywords. It found over two hundred accounts of interest linked to the groups seeking to combine their activities, and working with allies through the Five Eyes alliance, rounded up a total of eighty-eight suspects across six countries. Most of these people, already of official interest related to pre-existing radical organisations or groups, were quietly rounded up and sent to black sites for lengthy and torturous interrogation. The thrust of the questioning was obvious: ‘Who is broadcasting this video?’.
None of the captives had the faintest idea.
Their rendition continued nevertheless.
With its leaders deleted, the movement inspired by the girl in the rocking chair slowly began to lose much of its momentum. Outbreaks of violence and disruption, although still frequent, became sporadic and the message, starved of oxygen by the collective efforts of mainstream media (in turn prompted by their governments) to ignore and downplay any stories which featured the signal hacks, lost its potency in the eyes of the public. It became, once again, a fringe theory, spoken about only by conspiracy theorists in private forums. No new signal interruptions were reported.
All became calm.
Until the third Sunday in July.
Across the planet, eyes were glued to screens. In living rooms, bedrooms, dorm rooms, boardrooms, in bars, pubs, clubs and shops, at schools, businesses, government offices, police station and prisons, at midday and midnight, lunchtime and dinnertime, there was only one thing on the world’s television screens.
This iteration of the World Cup Finals had generally underwhelmed, the failure of pre-tournament favourites such as Germany, the Netherlands and Spain leading to a dilution of quality in the knockout stages. But the finals had been driven by some powerful narratives; Africa’s first ever semi-finalists, in Godfrey Aidoo’s thrilling Ghana, the surge of an Argentina inspired by the iconic Juan Alberto Rosario in his final international tournament, and the performances of an England team struck by tragedy as their beloved centre-back and captain Gavin Nicholls, whose mother had sadly passed away on the eve of their semi-final with Brazil and whose ruddy, rugged features became the tournament’s iconic image as he belted out God Save The Queen with tears streaming down his face. Global audiences had remained high throughout the tournament, which now climaxed with what was, in many people’s eyes, the perfect final in England vs Argentina.
It happened in the twenty-first minute with the score goalless, just as Rosario was preparing to take a corner. Viewers in London, Buenos Aires and around the world saw him standing by the flag, tiny and iconic, one arm in the air signalling his teammates, with the fans all standing behind him, arms aloft, flags waving, a riot of colour and sound. Screens flickered once, twice, then twitched into static for an instant. When the signal cleared, the girl in the rocking chair was revealed once more, presented to the world for the first time in over a year. With a serene, gentle smile on her face she rocked in the golden afternoon light. In her slight arms she held a tiny babydoll.
Then she stopped rocking and stood from the chair. Her smile faded. She turned the doll in her arms to show it face-out. Its button eyes had been ripped out.
The girl spoke. ‘Time’s up,’ she said.
And then all the screens went black.