“Killer App” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

Nestled amongst row upon row of icons, the little grey square with the smiley face on it didn’t stand out. Beside it, a crimson chameleon and a maroon camera jostled for Laura’s attention. They had the advantage. Warm colours get people’s attention. Every app designer knew that. It was one of a million little brain hacks that should have been second-nature to whoever made the grey square.

Laura’s finger hovered over her phone screen. Against the red tiles, the little grey square receded like a stone at the bottom of a pond. Below it, the words “Happy Time” sat forlornly. Her eyes drifted over to the camera beside it. It was a “Blood Red Halloween Selfie Filter“. Only ninety-nine cents. It looked suspiciously like the “Rose Red Valentine Selfie Filter” she’d bought a few months earlier.

Her eyes drifted back to the grey square. It smiled back at her. Happy Time. There wasn’t a price below it. Her eyes flitted over to the chameleon icon. ‘Privacy VPN‘. Ten bucks per month. She thought about tapping away and doing a currency conversion. Ten bucks had been about seven quid the last time she’d checked. The economy couldn’t have gotten that worse in that amount of time, could it?

She shook her head. What the hell did she need a privacy VPN for anyway? If any of the five intelligence agencies currently watching her internet traffic actually paid any attention, the worst thing they’d discover was the obscene amount of time she spent on Facebook.

Her pattern of likes was so bland that every political party, even the fringe ones, thought that their campaign ads might stand a chance come election time. Maybe that was suspicious in and of itself? Maybe some suits in an undisclosed location had thought she was covering something up? Maybe they had people watching her right now? Maybe she needed that privacy VPN after all?

Laura sighed. No, that in itself would look suspicious. Her finger hovered above the icon. This was silly. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Plus, seven quid a month too. It’d be smarter to buy nothing. It wasn’t as if her phone’s memory chip was short of apps. Half of them cried out for updates every day. It was hit or miss whether she recognised their names.

Do the smart thing. Buy nothing. What’s the point of buying something new if you aren’t going to use it? Her eyes flickered back to the grey square again. No price. It could be free. She tapped on it.

The square expanded to fill half of the screen. Below it, the words ‘Happy time fun‘ appeared in tiny print. It had to be a scam. A virus that would brick her phone at best. She was about to go back when she spotted the review score. Five out of five. She swiped down and read the reviews.

Don’t be put off by the shoddy icon, this game is really addictive. A real indie project too, no micro-transactions. Just don’t expect to get past level thirty. (5/5)

OMG! Downloaded this 4 a laff on my old phone. Stayed up half the night playing. Awesome 🙂 (5/5)

The list went on and on. Each review looked real. There was enough variation in register, syntax and tone to tell her brain that humans had written them. There were enough grammatical errors, mispellings and sloppy phrases to tell her that whoever wrote the reviews hadn’t been paid for them. She tapped the icon.

A pop-up appeared: ‘This app collects personal data in order to improve the user experience.‘ She tapped it without thinking. A few seconds later, the program downloaded. She opened it.

To Laura’s delight, it was a fun game. As simple as Tetris, but with all of the complexity of chess. Sure, the animations were a bit primitive and the sound effects reminded her of computers in old ’90s TV shows, but that didn’t matter. It was fun.

Every now and then, her phone pinged and buzzed. Laura didn’t care about the notifications. The Facebook messages could wait. She reached level thirty. The review was right, it was tough. Something tinkled behind her. The wind howled. She almost beat the level. Nearly. Another go.

As the blade whipped across her throat as swiftly as a bullet, Laura barely registered the single second of stinging pain. Her final thought before the choking darkness engulfed her was ‘Goddamn it, I was so close.’

The masked man stood over the cooling body. An unseen smile played across his lips. As he wiped his knife on his lucky cloth, something buzzed in his pocket. He trembled with glee. Peeling off his gloves like a surgeon after a long operation, he tapped his phone. So many downloads, so little time….