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The email glared at her. Ussa, why aren’t you on SpekeUp yet? All your friends are! This was followed by a list of all her friends’ names, as well as any co-worker or acquaintance and, shit, probably every person she’d ever met. Presented to her was their name, plus their SpekeUp profile photo. The list was so long that the email seemed to stretch on for acres—far longer than any email deserved to be. Ussa sneered at the screen of her iPuck, then blinked at the back button, which returned her to her inbox. She nodded her head at the offending email and jutted her chin toward the garbage icon. The screen projected a literal pop-up, three-dimensional message: Email Has Been Erased. She smiled to herself and continued eye-scrolling through her messages.

“You really should join,” a voice sing-songed behind her.

She glanced over her shoulder. It was Amburr, her copper-haired co-worker. Ussa’s eyes narrowed. Amburr had the distinguished reputation of being the coolest person in their office, because she was a social media celebrity and looked like a Barbie doll. Ussa just found her annoying. “How long have you been there?” she asked.

“Long enough to get a look at that email you deleted. Seriously, why don’t you join? SpekeUp is the best website, bar none.” Amburr walked over and threw herself into the chair next to Ussa. They were seated in the break room, at one of three chrome tables flanked by a series of low-tech vending machines that had probably been there since goddamn 2007, Ussa guessed. The office wouldn’t spring for any upgrades—but then, considering the entire company was likely less than three years from going out of business, that was hardly a surprise. “SpekeUp really is the best, Ussa.”

“You say that about everything. ‘This dairy-free yogurt is the best!’ ‘This denim rug is the best!’ ‘This neon romper is the best!’ Not everything is that fucking great.”

“Okay, so maybe I tend to be a bit effusive—so what?” Amburr batted some of her flat-ironed bangs from her eyes with a shrug. “SpekeUp really is that great. And you’d know if you’d get over yourself and make an account.”

“They’re creepy,” Ussa argued. “I mean, take that email they sent me—how do they even know all those people are my friends? How do they have my email address? It’s invasive.”

“God, you non-conformists are all the same. You won’t shut up about your precious privacy, but think of it this way: would you rather have privacy or technology that makes every part of your life easier and better?”

“My life is better with some privacy in it,” Ussa said. “I’m not anti-tech. I’m just wary of social media. I have been ever since that whole thing with Facebook. I was a kid when Facebook went defunct, and the reasons why that happened made a big impact on me, I guess.”

“Oh, puhleeze,” Amburr groaned. “Don’t be stupid. SpekeUp is amazing and you’re depriving yourself by not being on there. Besides . . .” She glanced at Ussa’s iPuck, still clutched in her hands. “Do you really think your ‘privacy’ is intact with that thing? It’s not just social media, babe.” She smirked.

Ussa put down the iPuck—a device that looked like a hockey puck, with a shiny screen and the familiar Apple logo on the back. She stared at it, wondering if the iPuck, with its treasure trove of her information, had been somehow responsible for SpekeUp finding her email and friend list. Were Apple and SpekeUp in cahoots? She rubbed her head. “God, I wish it were the early 00s. It would’ve been much easier to be a twenty-year-old back then. There was some technology, enough to enjoy life—you know, computers, flat-screens, iPods—but not all this.”

“But this is so much better than what they had in the aughts!”

Ussa snorted. “Says you. The totally unbiased social media star.”

“Is that supposed to be an insult? Because I make serious money on that.” She tossed some hair over a shoulder. “It’s an amazing side hustle. In fact, if I get just a few thousand more followers, I might be able to start doing it full-time! Can you imagine? And then, when this whole company goes under and you’re out there looking for another copywriter job—a job that won’t even exist anymore once this company closes—I’ll have the last laugh.” She paused. “Sorry. I’m not trying to rub it in or anything. But, like, be realistic for a sec. I know we’re not friends, but I like you. I want to help you. I don’t want you to be unemployed and homeless in ten years. Join SpekeUp and I’ll follow you. Anyone I follow gets a huge boost because of my status on there. You’ll get five thousand followers overnight! You can turn that into something big. And, once you’re famous on SpekeUp, you can start making money. Eventually, when this company closes, you’ll be able to support yourself.”

Ussa rolled her eyes. “Thanks but no thanks. I don’t want to make money from being some phony shill, hocking flat-tummy teas and acne cures and juice cleanses that I don’t even use. I’d rather get an office job—”

“Office jobs are vanishing,” Amburr retorted.
“I know. Jesus, Amburr, I watch the news.” She sighed. “Look. My point is, social media makes me uncomfortable. I never tweeted or snapped or insta’d, and I won’t Speke, either. I’m not interested. Okay? I’d rather stick to my boring, rapidly-disappearing office jobs and minimal degree of privacy.” She threw her iPuck into her bag, pushed back her chair and stood up. Amburr opened her mouth to respond, but Ussa disappeared out the break room door before she had a chance. Fuck it, Ussa thought, I’ll just eat at my desk. She slid back into her seat, where she was surrounded by dozens of other nearly-indistinguishable desks, each topped with an ancient computer. Really, those computers were old—circa 2015. The current year was 2038, which meant they were twenty-three in human years and ninety-two in computer years. They were so old they still had keyboards—actual, physical keyboards!—and so old that Ussa, who was twenty, was three years their junior.

Fuck. That.

It was these things that made Ussa wish for another job. Somewhere that could afford to replace their archaic computers and vending machines and whatever else; someplace that didn’t make strangers smile pityingly when she told them she worked there. But Amburr was right, office jobs were rapidly disappearing, and Ussa wasn’t good enough at computers to go work for one of the flourishing tech companies. She was a writer—or wanted to be—and copywriting came easy to her. So she was stuck with the old computer and the grizzled vending machines and the sad job on the brink of extinction.

She pulled out her lunch: a breadless sandwich that tasted like nothingness. The breadless craze was getting on her nerves, but here she was, going along with it all the same. So much for being a non-conformist. She gobbled up the flavorless piece of garbage, each bite another drop of water added to her bucket of self-hatred. She thought of her iPuck, tucked snugly in her bag, its shiny screen and Apple logo so fucking alluring. She spent more time on that thing than she’d like to admit. Not on social media, but on other vapid, time-wasting websites that were hardly superior. I might as well just give in and join SpekeUp. It’s not like she was leading some anti-social revolution, or even had well-defined principals to stick to.

She popped the remainder of her sandwich into her mouth, then glided her fingers over that dumb old keyboard, heading off to SpekeUp’s front page. Log In or Sign Up! it prompted her. She hovered over the “log in” bit, making the link light up. As she deliberated, she chewed her lip. I could just give it a shot. No one would even have to know at first. But then she remembered the social media scandals that worried her—the invasions of privacy in particular—and she drove the mouse away from the “log in” prompt. I can’t do it. I can’t. She abruptly closed the tab, the friendly homepage disappearing. When it was off her screen, she felt her chest loosen. It took her a moment to identify what she was feeling: relief.


It was a month later that the incident with the numbers happened.

Of course the person wearing them was Amburr. Ussa came into work, unsuspecting, and during her lunch break found herself sitting across from the freshly-tattooed Amburr as both of them ate breadless sandwiches.

Ussa squinted. “What—what’s, um, the deal with that?” she asked. It was the most tactful way she could phrase it. She gestured toward Amburr’s left cheekbone, across which the numbers 1782 were written in colorful cursive lettering.

“It’s new ink. Cute, right? I love it,” Amburr gushed.

“So, what, you’re a big fan of the year 1782?”

“God no! It was recommended to me,” she said casually. “By SpekeUp.”


“You’d know this if you were a user, but SpekeUp makes all sorts of recommendations—like for what their users should read, or watch, or wear . . . or get tattooed.” She giggled. “So it recommended I tattoo this on my cheek. These exact numbers. And of course it was perfect for me—I mean, SpekeUp’s algorithm is never wrong. And there’s added incentive to follow their recommendations when you’re an influencer, like I am.” She said the word “influencer” with the sort of reverence you’d expect from someone speaking about their god.

“I don’t get it,” Ussa said. “They . . . told you to tattoo a bunch of random numbers on your cheek? Why?”

“Because these numbers are perfect for me. And this tattoo is perfect for me. SpekeUp knows because it knows me, it knows my posts and my likes and my essence, really.”

“But I just—”

“If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.” Amburr shrugged. “It’s a SpekeUp thing. Join and you’ll understand.”

Ussa, however, didn’t want to understand.


The numbers began showing up everywhere. First it was just the influencers, the social media celebrities, but then it was pretty much everyone. Ussa went from seeing a few people with them a day, to a dozen a day, to forty, and then she lost count entirely. Each had a unique set of digits, and people had them all over the place: their faces, necks, stomachs, arms, legs—any patch of skin would do. It got to the point that whenever Ussa saw someone who did not have visible numbers on them, she just assumed they had the tattoo under their clothes somewhere—no part of her believed that they might not actually have them at all.

Some of their combinations were short—just one or two numbers—while others had so many that the tattoo wrapped around their entire torso. Some had them done up in cutesy fonts and colors like Amburr, and others kept them simple: black, boxy text, easy to read and impossible to miss.

Ussa tried to find some rhyme or reason to the numbers, but she noticed no real patterns. The only think she knew for sure was that, without exception, the numbers only appeared on SpekeUp users. That meant the majority of the population. Still, the occasional non-Speker that she did meet shook their head at the trend in much the same way Ussa did. This was always an old person, someone too close to death to bother keep up with the trappings of modern tech. But some old people were on SpekeUp: Ussa could spot them easily thanks to their tats, which she marveled at from afar. The numbers looked so strange hanging on loose, wrinkled flesh. But there they were.

As more and more people got tattooed, more and more people joined SpekeUp. The numbers weren’t a deterrent. Newscasters—sporting their own set of numbers, some as prominently displayed as Amburr’s—reported on SpekeUp’s record-breaking user base with empty smiles. Ussa watched on her iPuck, in the darkness of her bedroom, wondering what was happening to the world.

She needed someone to talk to. But Spekers were useless—none of them could explain the trend any better than Amburr, and each seemed annoyed when Ussa so much as questioned it. No, she had to talk to someone who got it, a so-called “non-conformist” like her. Those special few who had resisted SpekeUp’s siren call somehow. And since she couldn’t find them in her everyday life, she decided to look elsewhere: on the Internet.

She typed in search terms relating to non-conformists and those who stood opposed to SpekeUp. The first several results all led back to SpekeUp’s web pages and ads, but finally she found a website dedicated to “the SpekeUp resistance.” She clicked and was taken to a low-tech gathering place for people like her, full of threads about the horrors of SpekeUp. There were rumors, conspiracy theories, some of which she rolled her eyes at . . . but there were also many, many threads about the numbers. Some were for complaining and venting (“these fucking tats are everywhere!!” one person wrote, next to about two dozen angry emoji), while others were trying to figure out the purpose of the tattoos. “Some kind of mind-control thing,” one person suggested. Ussa chewed her lip. The mere idea made her feel anxious.

She blinked at the “join” button and was taken to a sign-up form. She verbally entered her email address and chose a username, then started some threads of her own. So glad to have found you guys, she said in one post. I was beginning to think I was all alone.

We all feel that way, at some point, a person replied. But there’s more of us out there than we think.

Are people ever going to wise up and get off that awful site? she asked.

Hopefully. But it’s not looking good.


Three months later, Ussa was still an avid user of the anti-SpekeUp site. Not much had changed: the numbers remained, and SpekeUp’s legion of members continued to grow. And then, one day, Ussa went to work.

Amburr was at the center of the office, hanging out by someone else’s desk while a group of their coworkers gathered around, awestruck. Ussa couldn’t see what was going on—not through the throng of office drones—but curiosity got the best of her. She approached Amburr, a bit hesitant, some part of her already on edge: she could feel a tightening in her belly, like a fist was being clenched somewhere inside her in anticipation. “What’s going on?” she asked as she neared the group.

Amburr’s head immediately snapped in her direction—

—revealing a half-bald head. “Ussa! Check out my new hairstyle!”

“Isn’t it great?” one of their co-workers—a plump woman with a round, friendly face—asked. She stared at Amburr in sheer wonderment, eyes wide. “Absolutely perfect!”

“SpekeUp recommended it,” Amburr explained to Ussa, “so of course I figured I’d give it a try.”

“Of course,” Ussa repeated. She sounded numb, emotionless. She stared at Amburr’s half-bald head with glazed eyes. What’s happening? Why is this happening? Immediately she wanted to run home, to the logical reprieve of the anti-SpekeUp website, where she could complain and vent and feel, for once, that someone understood. She knew she could visit the site on her work computer, but something held her back. It felt too strange—too taboo. She didn’t dare.

“Well?” Amburr asked, still staring at her. “What do you think?”

Ussa chewed the inside of her cheek, trying to come up with a measured response. All eyes were on her. “It’s . . . nice,” she said.

“Better than nice!” their round-faced coworker enthused. “I hope SpekeUp recommends I get the same style!”
“Oh, I’m sure they will,” Amburr replied. Her full cherry-red lips stretched into a smirk. “SpekeUp knows exactly what we really want, deep down. What we really need.” She ran a hand along her partially-bald head, admiring the new feel. “SpekeUp knows all,” she added.

Ussa turned around and started hurrying to her desk. She could hear Amburr call after her: “You really should join!” She ignored her. She ignored all of them, her head down, eyes cast toward the floor. When she got to her desk, she was relieved to see her old-as-the-hills work computer, with its clunky keyboard and low-tech monitor. She thought of the simpler era it came from and wished she could go back to the days before SpekeUp, before the numbers, before the craziness.

But she pushed the feelings down and got to work.


This is a problem.

The message flashed across the screen in front of her. It was from Jev, one of her closest friends on the anti-Speke site. He was talking about the hairstyle. In the weeks since Amburr had first unveiled hers, just about everyone on SpekeUp had gotten the same recommendation. Now all of them—men and women, young and old—had removed half their hair. Just like the numbers, they did it without question, almost as soon as the recommendation came in.

What’s it all about? Ussa wrote back. I just don’t get it. Numbers? Hairstyles? What does it mean?

They’re testing the limits, he replied. Seeing how far they can push it, how much they can make their users do.

So where’s it headed?

There was a pause. She wondered what he was doing on the other side of his screen. What part of the world he was in. What he looked like. She pictured his fingers—long, agile—gliding across the screen as he scribbled a response.

Then the response came: I don’t know. But I think they’re going to make them do something crazy, something huge. Only place I can see it going.

Ussa let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding in. Glancing around the room, her lip instinctively curled. Her bedroom was a tiny space, lit only by a single lamp on her bedside table. She was sitting on her mattress, which did not have a frame but rather sat, glumly, on her floor—a floor that was sticky with the residue of too many spilled, poorly-cleaned-off drinks, and littered with candy wrappers. She sighed. In a perfect world, yes, her shoebox apartment would be bigger, her room cleaner, her place of work more successful. Amburr wouldn’t exist, and neither would SpekeUp. In a perfect world, she’d have her iPuck and her computer, but there’d be no invasive social media sites, no strange number combination tattooed on every passing body, no haircut mandates—or “recommendations,” as they called them. In a perfect world, she and Jev and all the other SpekeUp resisters would be the normal ones, the majority. But it’s not a perfect world, she thought.

She leaned back in her bed, closed her eyes. Jev’s messages flashed through her mind. She hoped he was wrong. Somehow, though . . . somehow, she knew better than to doubt him.


Ussa’s place of work—the doomed-from-the-start company, the aging dinosaur of a business model—went out of business not long thereafter.

The last day of work, Amburr was chipper. She looked beautiful—partially-shaved head and cheek tattoo and all. “Now I get to do my influencing full-time,” she squealed to Ussa over lunch. “It’s a good thing, you know? A blessing. I mean, I like copywriting and all, but it’s dying faster than the polar bears. Social media is the present and future, and I’m here for it.”

“That’s great, Amburr,” Ussa muttered, sinking lower in her seat. She took a bite of her breadless sandwich. Today it tasted like sadness.

“What about you? Do you have anything lined up?”

That was salt in the wound. Of course Ussa had nothing lined up, and Amburr could’ve guessed as much. Still, Ussa refused to let her be smug. “I’m working on it” was her reply, which was as much face-saving as she could manage.

“Well, if you change your mind about SpekeUp, my offer’s still good. I’ll follow you and then everybody else will, too.” Amburr propped her elbows on the break room table and leaned in. “C’mon, Ussa, what do you say?”

For a brief moment, her mind flashed to SpekeUp’s inviting homepage, with its friendly prompts to sign up. She thought of Amburr’s designer handbags and knee-high boots, the money to be made off being an influencer. Easy money, too.

But then she thought of the numbers. The haircuts. The control. The privacy invasions. The price—it was too high. Way, way too high.

So she spoke: “What do I say? What do I say?” She let out an abrupt, unhinged laugh. It was loud, wild, echoing off the walls of the break room. It made Amburr jump. “No! Fuck no! No, no, no, no. Like I’ve told you a hundred thousand times. What’s wrong with you, Amburr? Do you not know what that word means? Because you never say it to SpekeUp when they make a ‘recommendation,’ so shit, maybe you really have forgotten it’s an option. But it is, all right? And I’m saying it. No. See? No, no, no. Fuck no. No, I’m not joining, I’m never joining—no!”

Amburr pushed back her chair. “Fine! Forget it! God. I was trying to do a nice thing—”

“It’s not fucking nice. It’s gross. You’re all gross!”

“No, you judgmental asshole, you are,” Amburr replied. She slung her bag—another of those designer purses—over her shoulder, shot Ussa one last disparaging look, then exited the break room without another word.

They didn’t speak again the rest of the day. And, once the final day of work came to a close, they never saw each other again.


It was inevitable, really, that Ussa would move back in with her parents. And she did, almost as soon as the company went belly-up.

Their house was two stories, with a nice front porch and a roomy backyard. Ussa’s childhood bedroom was on the second floor, mostly untouched. In fact, practically everything was the same . . . save for her parents, of course.

They were Spekers. Had been for a while. And their heads were partially sheered, and they each had a string of numbers tattooed on them: Ussa’s mother had the numbers on her wrist, and Ussa’s father had his proudly over his heart.

What has happened to you? Ussa wanted to scream. Why would you do this to yourself? Her parents—both in their fifties—looked ridiculous with their half-shaved heads and random-number tats, but they didn’t think so. “SpekeUp knows what’s right for us,” Ussa’s mother mused. “It’s amazing, really.”

Ussa kept her mouth shut. What could she say? They were too far gone—like Amburr, like her co-workers, like every SpekeUp user she encountered. The numbers were like the brandings of some fucked up, new-age cult. We know what’s right for you—these numbers! Now tattoo them to your bodies and show us your obedience. Fuck that. She was right not to join. She wouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid, no matter what.


“Ussa, have you heard of Gratt Harrington?”

Ussa looked up from her bowl of milk-free cereal, eyebrows knit. “Who?”

Her mother stood over her in their kitchen, a big grin on her face, blue eyes wide and eager. “Gratt Harrington!” she repeated. There was awe in her voice. “He’s amazing. He’s running for president, you know.”

“Oh,” Ussa said. “No, I haven’t heard of him—”

“Well, see, this is why you should be on SpekeUp. That’s how I found out about him.”

“Oh,” Ussa said again, slower this time. She was getting that feeling—that edgy, prickly feeling she seemed to always develop when SpekeUp was mentioned.

From the other side of the kitchen, her father entered. He was tall, thin, his hands in his pockets and bare feet shuffling along the tile floor. Ussa’s mother promptly said to him, “Tell Ussa about Gratt Harrington!”

“Gratt? Hell of a guy.” He smirked, sitting down at the table beside Ussa. “He’s running for president.”

“So I’ve heard,” she mumbled.

“He’s a true visionary,” her father added. “Wonderful, wonderful guy. Not only that, but SpekeUp—”

“SpekeUp endorsed him!” Ussa’s mother cut in. Her face was filled with something approaching boundless joy. She looked just a little bit crazy. “Isn’t that neat? They’ve never endorsed a candidate before.”

“Yeah, and Gratt, he’s running his entire campaign on SpekeUp,” her father added. “First person to do that. A trailblazer.”

“Is he now,” Ussa said, but it wasn’t really a question. Her voice was flat—a cold, dreary monotone.

Her mother answered anyway: “He sure is! To be honest, your father and I didn’t really care much about the election—politics are so boring and frustrating, and all these career politicians are a bunch of liars and crooks, you know. But then Gratt came along, and, well—”

“We’re sold!” her father finished. “Finally, a candidate we care about. Someone honest, hard-working—”

“SpekeUp-certified!” her mother trilled.

“—someone we can trust,” her dad finished.

Ussa looked between them, mouth agape. “So you’re going to vote for him? Just like that? Because fucking SpekeUp says so?”

“Ussa!” her mother chided. “Watch your language!”

“It’s not just any endorsement, Ussa,” her father corrected. “SpekeUp doesn’t get things wrong. The algorithm—”

“Yes, yes,” Ussa cut in. “I’ve heard about the algorithm.” She stared down at her cereal with a newfound contempt, turning her spoon around the bowl.

“SpekeUp would never steer us wrong,” her father continued. “And anyway, isn’t it about time we shook things up? Put someone in the White House who would buck the status quo?”

“He’s right!” her mother enthused. “Gratt’s going to change things. He’s going to do a lot of good. More than any career politician would, that’s for sure!”

“So, what, he has no political experience then? What kind of work did he even do?”

“He’s a businessman,” her mother matter-of-factly replied. “He worked for SpekeUp.”

“Well, there you go!” Ussa shouted. “That’s why they’re endorsing him! He’s running his dumb campaign on their dumb ‘platform,’ and he was one of their employees—a high-ranking one, I’m guessing. It’s not because of their fucking algorithm! Can’t you guys see this?! You’re being played.”

Her parents exchanged concerned glances. For a moment, Ussa dared to let herself dream: Could I possibly be getting through to them? Are they comprehending this? But then they turned back to her, and her hopes were dashed as soon as her father spoke: “Ussa, are you feeling all right? You’ve been acting very strange lately . . .”

“Tense,” her mother added. “And intense. You’re like a whole other girl.”

“We’re worried about you.”

“I’m fine,” Ussa snapped. She got up from her seat, taking her bowl of cereal with her. After dumping it in the sink, she turned back to her parents, glaring at them. “I don’t know how you can possibly be so blind,” she spat. They both opened their mouths to respond, but she was out of the kitchen before they could.

She went upstairs to her bedroom. It was a nice room—prettier than the shabby one in her old apartment—but it still felt like a prison, a byproduct of being under her parents’ roof and forced to abide by their rules. Still, she had a nice desk, and a nice bed, and there wasn’t a wealth of candy wrappers coating the floor. That was something.

She went over to her bed, grabbing her iPuck from the end table, and made a quick dash to her favorite website: the anti-Speke gathering place. Yet another terrible day, full of mindless, spineless SpekeUp shills and idiots, she wrote. Anybody else hear about this Gratt Harrington guy?

The forum filled with a chorus of affirmative replies. Jev wrote, He’s it.

What do you mean? she replied.

Well, you know how everything SpekeUp’s done so far—the tattooing and the head-shaving—has been leading to somewhere? Some place bad? Gratt Harrington is that place.

Ussa ran a hand over her forehead. It was hot, moist with sweat. She sat up in bed and wrote back, You really think so? She already knew the answer, of course. She’d known since the second her parents said Gratt was the kind of guy they could finally trust.

I’m sure of it. He’s going to be our next president. But it’s not going to stop there. It’s not going to stop until SpekeUp-endorsed affiliates conquer the entire fucking world.


In short order, Gratt Harrington was everywhere.

Only not really—for the most part, he was limited to SpekeUp. When he did interviews, they were broadcast on SpekeUp. Instead of touring the country, he live-streamed with people from various states, or answered questions in an AMA-style format. He was charming and handsome—Ussa knew the latter because she’d seen pictures of him, but the former she knew only from what people told her. Spekers had exclusive access to Gratt. The small minority who, like her, resisted the site, were instead confined to hearing second-hand accounts of his campaign speeches, or seeing the occasional picture pop up on a different website. She followed the news religiously, obsessively, hoping against all odds that Gratt’s popularity would one day deflate all at once like a popped balloon. That the spell would be broken. Of course, it was not to be: he did better and better in the polls, and eventually, to the surprise of no one, nabbed the nomination. By an almost comically wide margin.

Presidential debates were held on SpekeUp’s streaming service, WatchOut. Ussa wasn’t privy to any of that content, so she did not know anything about Gratt, really: not what his voice sounded like, not the promises he made, not his beliefs or positions. But, strangely, neither did many Spekers, it seemed. When Ussa asked her parents—or any stray person she met—to fill her in on where Gratt stood on the issues, they’d inevitably dodge the question: “Well, he has lots of positions . . .”

“It would take a long time to get into that . . .”

“He’s pro-people, pro-America . . .”

“He wants what’s best for the country . . .”

No one, it seemed, could give a definitive answer. And that infuriated Ussa all the more. You’d think they could at least give him some kind of stance on something, anything, she’d written to the anti-Speke messaging boards. I mean, come on! He’s a fucking presidential candidate! How can he have no ideology?

Ideology is alienating, one of the site’s users—a girl calling herself SnakeRevolutionary—replied. They want to get everybody to vote for him. If they have him take a stance on something, half the country could turn against him.

Yeah, but if they’re brain-washed—and SpekeUp has definitely brainwashed them—then they wouldn’t turn against him because they’d do whatever SpekeUp says, Jev asserted. The real reason he has no beliefs, no opinions, is because he doesn’t need to.

You mean to say that he’s all flash, no substance, because no one is able to see through him? So giving him a stance would ultimately be pointless? Ussa asked. Because that’s what I was thinking.

Sometime after Gratt secured the nomination, Ussa dared to ask her parents, for the second time, “Are you going to vote for him?”

It was obvious they were—they hadn’t shut up about the guy since he’d first announced he was running—but still, she was holding out some semblance of hope that maybe they’d wake up and get real.

Of course, they didn’t. “We’re going to race to the polls on Election Day,” Ussa’s father said. “I can’t wait. This is the most excited I’ve been to vote for someone in . . . well, ages.”

“Most excited I’ve ever been,” Ussa’s mother piped up. “He’s going to do amazing things, Ussa.”

“And anyway, SpekeUp gave us their recommendation, and they said he should get our vote.”

“And SpekeUp always knows,” Ussa’s mother said. Her father nodded.

“That’s what everyone tells me.” She smiled—a sad, pitying smile. You poor fools. They’d never understand. Not as long as they stayed on that site, with its friendly homepage and beckoning, shiny features. They’d never think for themselves.


Gratt Harrington won the election.

Even once he was president, he still used SpekeUp to communicate with the American people. All official photos and videos of him were posted there; his announcements were made there. It was his home, and no one seemed to mind. In fact, everybody loved it: “He’s communicating with his citizens the way real, regular people communicate with each other!” Ussa’s mother gushed.

“He’s changing the face of the presidency, modernizing it, and he’s allowing for direct communication with him,” Ussa’s father said. “What a great guy.”

Everybody loved Gratt. SpekeUp most of all.

The whole world’s gone crazy, Ussa wrote.

It’ll get better, SnakeRevolutionary replied. It has to.

The anti-Speke website was Ussa’s one slice of normalcy, one reprieve from the dysfunction and insanity of the real world. But soon, even that was taken away.

It happened so suddenly. She went to bed late, after having stayed up into the wee hours of the morning talking to her online friends, then got up shortly after eleven and right away pulled up her computer, eagerly navigating to the magic messaging board.

But it was gone.

In its place was an error message: Sorry, This Website Cannot Be Found. Her brow furrowed. She tried again, reloading the page. The same message appeared. She did that a few times—five or six—before the truth of the matter started slowly, painfully sinking in. “Motherfucker,” she said. She was so close to the screen that her breath fogged up the monitor.

She looked up the site in question, as well as any other site for anti-Spekers. No matter which search engine she used, no results were found. For the rest of the day, all she did was search and scour every corner of the Internet, desperate for answers, desperate for the friends she’d made and so suddenly lost. But she found nothing.

It wasn’t until a week later that she uncovered a new site. The domain name was similar to her old haunt’s, and it was clearly run by the same people. They’re coming for us! the homepage of the new site shouted. SpekeUp is shutting down every website that stands opposed to its regime. Be careful! They will come for you next.

She felt her breath catch in her throat.

She hastily tried to make an account on the site so she could post a message of support, but it was taken down before she could. Just like that, another site had disappeared into the ether. The error message popped up again, seeming to mock her.

For days, she didn’t use her iPuck or computer. She turned against the online world, fearful and disdainful toward it. She barely ate. Still unemployed, she had no use for herself now. She listlessly wandered around the house all day. She stared at the walls. She slept—a lot. Her parents, busy with their own lives, hardly noticed.

Two weeks later, the loneliness was getting to her, eating into her soul. She had no real-life friends to turn to, and even if she did, they’d all be a bunch of brainless SpekeUp zombies. So, for what felt like the millionth time, she pulled up her computer and did a search for anti-SpekeUp websites, hoping against hope that some new one had risen from the ashes and slipped through SpekeUp’s censors.

And then, she found one.

Let’s Stop SpekeUp, its homepage brandished. It was bigger and better than the old one, more high-tech, with more funding behind it. She quickly read the About page: We are a group of independent thinkers and non-conformists, eager to put a stop to the SpekeUp takeover. If you want to join us, you need only sign up to become a part of the rebellion. Together, we can take down this malicious affront to free will. She was practically salivating. She wondered if her friends from the previous site would be there. She wondered if they were waiting for her.

She navigated over to the forums, but they were closed—members only, due to the secretive nature of their content. No matter. She wanted to join, anyway. She went to the sign-up form and quickly entered her information, eager to get on with things and back into the swing of the anti-Speke movement. As she hit “submit,” she felt—for the first time in weeks—a tremendous sense of hope. It made her smile.

The page finished loading. Welcome to SpekeUp! it read. She squinted, rereading it. Must be a typo, she thought. But then she was redirected to a new page—this time, on SpekeUp’s website. That friendly homepage. Welcome, Ussa! it said. Click here to go to your new account. She stared at the screen, gaping. “How?” The word came out a whisper. She thought back.

The site.

The anti-Speke site. The miracle that had somehow slipped through the censors.

It was a trap. It was their fucking website—a dummy meant to fool people like her. She hadn’t signed up to the anti-Speke resistance. She had made an account on SpekeUp. With all her information.

They had her.

A message popped up in the corner of the screen: I knew you’d join eventually. It was from Amburr.

She started to cry.