The summer had been almost joyful – a collective project to raise everybody up. But since the second hashtag, when everybody began to turn on each other, the autumn had become a fight for survival. Everyone was your potential enemy, even your loved ones, and anyone you could push down was one less in line for…. for what?

People watched their Halo scores drop, as friends and relatives revealed their secrets online. People began to delete the Virtue app, and as their Halo scores plummeted, so too did the share price of Infotec, the owners of the app. But it didn’t matter anymore. Because there were bigger things at stake. The Aperture information dumps came in tidal waves of misery. Shock revelations had become commonplace now. No-one was safe, and it was almost better to have already been shamed, get it out of the way.
There was no proof that it was the Virtue app that has fed all this information to Aperture, but somehow it knew everything. It was as if the Virtue app had completely malfunctioned, in a manner that was everyone’s worst nightmare. Instead of looking for the good, it had got its tentacles into the bad, and now no stone was left unturned in the river bed of life mistakes.
Suddenly Aperture had become a thing. It had been on nobody’s radar – just a fringe whistleblowing website run by anarchists and bedroom hackers. And yet within days of the second hashtag, it was the main topic of conversation, almost the only headline on the news.

Grace had read about a scandal that had happened around twenty years earlier, in the early days of social media, where an unsavoury app that connected people looking to have extramarital affairs had leaked all of its client information, ruining relationships, families, careers, lives. And many argued that it was deserved. This was like that, only magnified. If you had done something bad in your life – or something perceived as bad – you could almost guarantee it was going to come out. Criminal records, pornographic interests, weird internet search histories, embarrassing medical records, stupidities uttered online long ago and long since deleted, even school reports, it all came out. Anything that might taint you as too right-wing, or too left-wing, or too mean, too crazy, too boring…

At first it was the high profile cases that were reported – the celebrities, politicians and business leaders – and there was something fun, gleeful, about watching the might taken down. Particularly if that pushed them beneath you on the mythical ladder that had now taken root in the world’s subconscious. There was a range of reactions, from suicides, to murders, to public apologies, to public lynchings. New groups sprang up – deep adaptation groups, neo-luddite rural strongholds, support groups, vigilante groups, cults – all of them the polar opposite of the new and strong communities that had begun only a few months before and now were crumbling. While Virtue collapsed, shares in Pharmavo skyrocketed, as people withdrew their life savings in order to buy shots of the so-called wonder drug Moraloxin. Others took doctors and pharmacists hostage, demanding to be treated. And people thought, well good, they may have the drugs but that hostage-taking has be to be a black mark against them, right?

The scariest was when Aperture seemed know people’s thoughts. It found out things it could not possibly find out. Grace turned off her app, deleted Virtue, turned off the camera on her laptop, the smart controls in her apartment – but she was infected with paranoia. She was afraid of her own thoughts – what if they came out? Silly things, meaningless things, terrible things, she must keep them all at bay, and it was exhausting.

Now the hope that this was all some marketing competition drummed up by the Virtue app – that hope was all but gone. And replaced by the fear that this was all about something else, something much bigger. Grace wrote about hoaxes, the great hoaxes of history, and worried that she was incriminating herself. Because it was a sort of blasphemy, not to believe. The only safe option was to buy into it. She knew it was a crafted dissonance, an illusory truth, and yet. And yet. She tried to cleanse her thoughts. In case it knew her thoughts. Even though she didn’t know what it was. But she had heard of these algorithms that could read you through your facial expressions, and so she hid her face wherever she went.

The plague of scandal gradually became the new normality of scandal, and the excitement of waking up every day to salacious news, the fear that you would be next, gradually became the new way to live.  While she awaited her turn – and she knew what it would be – Grace threw herself into a more investigative style of journalism. She began to look into who owned Aperture, but it had a very mysterious structure and she kept hitting brick walls. She looked into Pharmavo, Infotec, and the billionaire Laurent Baptiste who had the largest shareholdings in both. Baptiste had also funded the Veil, although so had plenty of other wealthy individuals and companies.

As she investigated them, she noticed that the world’s billionaires were disappearing from public view. They were cancelling their social media accounts, cancelling public appearances, AGMs, going on holidays and then quietly never returning. It reminded her of that book, what was that awful book she had to read as a student… Atlas Shrugged? That was it, Ayn Rand. God she had loathed that book. Where the rich rebelled against the leftist constraints of the powers-that-be and decided to disappear and abandon the world to its own devices. To slip away to some magical paradise on earth. What was he called, the hero? John Galt, that was it. He said he would stop the motor of the world. Were the modern-day John Galts, these people? Then what about the Veil? They had promised to save the world, and now there really was a motor to keep running, twenty kilometres above their heads. And then Hari Dash disappeared too. Had he gone with them?

She began to make connections, and felt that she was on the brink of some revelation, spiritual or otherwise. It was on the tips of her consciousness, if she could just… just concentrate. But there were so many distractions, not least from the Virtue and Aperture madness. At night she dreamed of volcanoes, and purple skies.

By the time her own scandal was revealed, it was buried beneath such a tidal wave of human shame and misery that hardly anyone noticed. Joel had sort of known already – it had happened at university but before they had met, and he had an inkling of what had happened. But he didn’t know the full extent of her stupidity, naivety, humiliation.. and god that photo… she had never seen that. Was that even her, in that French maid’s outfit, so drunk only the whites of her eyes were showing, makeup smeared, as she performed an act she didn’t even remember performing. It didn’t help that one of those monstrous college rugby demi-gods was now a cabinet minister, and so the photo appeared on page five of a national newspaper.

The day it came out, she texted Joel at work and he didn’t reply. She felt sick when she heard his key in the lock, but his facial expression was not what she had been expecting. His face was ash grey. It could have been anything – all bets were off with the world changing at light speed – but surely it was more than her embarrassing photo?

‘I need to tell you something, Grace.’ His voice breaking, muffled.

He sat on the sofa and put his head in hands. She instinctively didn’t go to him. Eventually he looked up, his eyes through his fingers, and said ‘I’ve been seeing someone else.’

An affair. A secret lover. A fling. A …….. she hadn’t even considered it, not for a second.

‘Who is it?’

‘Someone from work.’

‘Do I know her? How long?’

‘You met her once… about six months I suppose.’

Six months? Grace felt dizzy, like the time when the first hashtag had appeared…
But she noticed with keen awareness that she didn’t care who the scarlet woman was. And she didn’t even feel that much hurt. She felt… a sort of exhilaration. Who was winning at morals now?

What did hurt was the realisation that it wasn’t guilt that bothered him. Perhaps it had before. But now – and the reason he was telling her at all – was not guilt, but fear. He was deadly afraid. He was shaking right there on the sofa. He was afraid of – of what? Shame? Hell? Were they the same?

‘And you tell me now. Now that you are afraid. Tell me this – what are you afraid of? What are we supposed to be afraid of?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’

Virtue