16 people were dead and only Jake Harrigan knew why. They had been murdered. Only the authorities didn't recognize them as murders. They didn't even know they were connected. So far as anyone but Jake was concerned, 16 people in 16 cities, most of them under 20, died under mysterious circumstance. 16 tragedies but nothing to make anyone suspect that anything was wrong. And that was just the 16 Jake knew about, there were almost certainly more.
It had started with a puzzle. A handful of people had come across a site on the so-called "Dark Web" where nothing was posted but a series of images. they started innocuously enough, a few pictures of someone with a fearful look on their face (later determined to be pics taken by a serial killer before he murdered the woman), then they slowly got more graphic, sanitized pics of the dead in a Civil War battlefield, pictures of slaughterhouses, the famous pic of the Vietnamese monk setting himself on fire, graphic crime scene photos, and so on. Eah worse than the last and displayed like a slide show. Each for just a few seconds. The URL seemed to have nothing to do with the content, and instead seemed to be a challenge. It was "findthekey.onion". Onion, in this case, being a domain extension that was common to sites that were only accessible from certain browsers and were a common feature in the world of the Deep Web.
People, being what they are, began obsessing over the site. A subreddit was formed dedicated to it, unlocking who it was that had created it and why. Was it a weird art project? Some sicko just trolling? And what did "Find the Key" even mean? Key to what?
Jake got into it, not because he had any particular interest in gore but because he loved puzzles. He was 19 and was working on a business degree at Michigan State. He wasn't looking forward to being a corporate drone for the rest of his life, but he was a practical young man and figured that was where the money was. So in his spare time, he threw himself into puzzles as a way to stretch his brain. Sudoko, crosswords, logic puzzles, you name it.
He had come across a few oblique references to the site on the normal web and was intrigued. He found the subreddit before he went to the actual site. There was a lot of back and forth on the site about possible meanings of the pics, who owned the domain, what it could possibly be and whether the whole thing about the key was or was not just an elaborate troll. There even seemed to be some confusion as to whether the site showed the same pics in the same order every time, with some people claiming that they had seen different sets every time and others claiming it was always the same.
James visited the site himself, of course, He watched it for about five minutes as the pics became increasingly graphic and ugly. It left him with an unsettled feeling and his sleep that night was plagued with the images he had watched.
But despite a bad nights sleep, he was hooked from that point on. He joined in on the analysis of the pics. Looked for hidden clues, finding originals and comparing the pictures on the site to those, looking for differences, finding none. The pictures filled his dreams at night, but he took that as just a side effect.
It was an April afternoon, while skimming the subreddit that he noticed something weird. A fellow member of the subreddit going by the user name of "MountainMike" had said several weeks earlier that he thought he was close to deciphering the secret, to finding the key. But after that, MountainMike had never posted again. Then opped he thought about it, several other posters with whom Jake had collaberated had, in recent months, also abruptly stopped posting. No flounces, no drama, they had just stopped. Some of them too had claimed to be close to an answer, but in this forum, EVERYONE was "Close to the answer" all the time. It had even become a bit of a running joke. And this was the internet, people stopped posting on forums and subs all the time. It was nothing new. But somehow, in a way that Jake couldn't put a finger on, it was all too abrupt for many of them. They were frequent and enthusiastic posters on one day, then nothing was ever heard from them again.
To Jake, this was a new puzzle, and as he was getting nowhere on the original, perhaps he might get somewhere on this one. So, despite his sense of ethics telling him otherwise, he began trying to piece together the real world identities of MountainMike and the others who had disappeared. He backtracked through their posts, piecing together little clues to what cities they were from, what jobs they had, anything that could identify them. He finally got a "hit" on a poster named "JingleBalls69". He foound that JingleBalls69 was a kid named "Larry Ball" who lived in Galen, Nebraska and worked at a chain store there. Larry Ball was dead. Jake found a newspaper article from Galen, about how Mr. Ball was struck down at the young age of 22 by a freak heart attack.
Weird, having a heart attack at 22, Jake thought. But stranger things had happened. And over the course of the next few weeks Jake uncovered three more of his missing compatriots, two strokes and a heart attack. All over the country and all dead at an age far younger than people usually died of such things. MountainMike was the next one that Jake found, a 38 year old man named Micheal Collins. Collins worked for Google in Mountain View California and had died the very night that he posted his final post, of "unknown causes".
This was all very strange. All in all, over the course of six months, he uncovered 16 mysterious deaths. All people from the subreddit researching the "findthekey" site. All dead of vague causes that left Jake with the suspicion that their deaths were being explained by doctors and medical examiners who had no idea how these people died, just that they did and there was no real reason.
The dreams got worse during this time. Sometimes, they were so bad that he couldn't sleep at all. If he so much as closed his eyes, he began seeing images from that damned website. It had become an obsession and Jake knew it. He didn't want to visit the site anymore, besides the fact that it was intruding into his every thought, he was just sick of it. He knew every image by heart, he had spent hours there and the number of pictures seemed vast and never ending, yet he had seen so much of it that he knew what the next picture would be every single time. He watched it over and over and over again, hoping to find some clue, SOMETHING that would explain the deaths. He wanted to stop, but he couldn't. He literally couldn't. Even as he began ignoring his coursework and failing in school, from spending so much time on the site and on the subreddit, he could not stop. It had its hooks into him as surely as a meth controlled a meth addict.
One day, around Christmas, Jake flew out to California to find out more about MountainMike. Maybe, he thought, maybe if he could find out what lead Mike had been working on he could take that same path and figure out the secret too.
And then what? Die like the others? Jake had no idea how, but somehow this secret was killing people who got to close to it, possibly solved it but Jake didn't care. He knew the only way out of this was through it.
Jake found pretenses to talk to Mike's family and co-workers. He found little unusual about the man. He was a hard worker, loved his job at Google but had been acting oddly in his final days. Mike's girlfriend told Jake that he had stopped sleeping altogether, citing bad dreams. He had become obsessed with "some weird website" and in his last few days didn't even seem to be eating. From Mike's Co-workers he found that he was noted as a brilliant software engineer, though in his last days, his work had begun to slip and he seemed to be under a lot of stress. Most importantly though, they told him that Mike had been an expert in Steganography, the art of hiding information in something else. Especially including images on the internet.
Steganography, this was the key. The images themselves were unimportant, but maybe one or more, maybe even all of them, hid something else. When Jake returned to Michigan, he began studying the subject and analyzing the photos from the site on a deeper level, looking for something WITHIN them. an out of place pixel here or there, something compressed to ultra tiny size and placed into the photograph. Anything like that.
And he found it. Occasional yellow pixels that were close to none of the other colors near them. Just a handful per photo, and something that would never be seen by the naked eye. So he ran the sequence of photos through a program designed to find these and record their positions on a grid the same size as the photos. Bit by bit, pixel by pixel, an image resolved itself. A yellow symbol that had no meaning of itself, but it hit someting inside of Jake on a subconcious level. That he couldn't describe. He understood now. He understood everything...
It was days before they found Jake's body. His roommates had been away, and when they came back they found him. Slumped in his chair. His laptop was open, but off, so no one ever saw the terrible yellow sign that had resolved itself on his screen. The authorities ruled his death a freak heart attack and no one but those who found the body and the paramedics who dragged his body off ever saw what he had written on a post it note next to his computer "I FOUND THE KEY"