Brian Pinkerton is the author of more than a dozen novels in the horror, science fiction and thriller genres, including Abducted, a USA Today bestseller. His newest book, The Intruders, is a horror story about a small town under attack by mysterious forces. Brian’s other novels include Rough Cut, Killer’s Diary, The Nirvana Effect, The Gemini Experiment and Anatomy of Evil. Brian lives in the Chicago area and can be found on Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, Instagram and brianpinkerton.com


by Brian Pinkerton


Every day, throughout the day, Heather Singer skipped across her favorite social media platforms to join the chorus of voices setting the tone and tenor of the moment. She devoured the obvious—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and Snapchat—while generously sampling the latest up-and-comers striving for the status of The Next Big Thing.

When she discovered The Rating Game, a new social site that emerged out of nowhere with very little fanfare, her first reaction was bewilderment followed by intrigue. After the growing sophistication of other platforms, The Rating Game presented itself with a simplicity so pure that it felt rather quaint. Only a smattering of participants had contributed to the site’s pages, yet its ambitions were bold: a feedback forum for every living human being in the United States.

A growing hum of viral buzz circled the new platform. Heather’s high school classmates posted WTF murmurings about it on other social sites. Her best friend Audrey was among the first to text her: “Did you see your listing on The Rating Game? I’ve already got a 4.8!”

Four-point-eight what? thought Heather, and when she visited Audrey’s page she discovered a weirdly ordinary answer: 4.8 gold stars on a scale from 0 to 5.

Somehow The Rating Game had pulled the entire US population from some database—the census bureau?—and listed everyone’s name, age and hometown alongside an invitation to rate each person on… what?

There were no instructions. No context. No criteria. No clear call to action. No FAQ or About Us. Just a breezy, easy opportunity to leave a rating and, if desired, post a comment (maximum 250 characters).

Heather texted Audrey: “I don’t get it. What’s the point of TRG?”

Audrey responded: “Idk, but if you rate me five stars, I’ll rate you five stars.”

Heather smiled and jabbed her response. “K.”

The exchange of ratings was so effortless it made the site feel trivial. For the next few days, Heather focused on her other social media haunts, only occasionally returning for glimpses at The Rating Game. She was surprised to see participation growing, despite the site’s coy lack of information. She became skeptical of the whole thing—was it just a big online tease to tie-in with the launch of a stupid movie? These days, web-based gimmicks and publicity stunts were commonplace to drum up artificial engagement and snatch up names and email addresses. Traditional advertising didn’t get it done anymore, so everything had to be louder and more clever (or strange) to grab attention in an over-stimulated world.

“I’m confused,” she told Audrey as they walked between classes, hugging textbooks to their chests. “What exactly are we rating people on?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“How smart they are? Nice? Good-looking?”

“Everything, I guess. One rating for the whole person.”

“How crass.”

Heather wanted to ditch The Rating Game from her daily social media monitoring but it became difficult, then impossible.

People wouldn’t stop talking about the site, plus she felt compelled to follow her own ratings trajectory.

On a Tuesday afternoon, while sneaking a peek at her page during Pre-Calculus, Heather discovered her first written review:


She had to smile at that. There was no way to identify who wrote the one-word assessment—they were hidden behind a stupid pseudonym, “Banana Flake”—but the compliment displayed for all the world to see made her feel good.

Accompanying the review, she found a growing number of rating entries, currently at five fives and three fours, establishing a very nice average even if she privately questioned any rating below the best.

That evening, as she was checking the site during dinner (and getting yelled at by her dad for playing on her smartphone at the table), two more reviews popped up, both positive.

“Sweet girl, helped me once with my homework.”

“Nice ass.”

The first one had to be Jenny Karbol, the skinny, long-haired brunette in English class who struggled with her Tale of Two Cities paper that Heather helped revise.

The second one, obnoxious and flattering in equal measures, had to be Everett McDonald, because he had uttered those same words to her in PE class when she was bending down to pick up a softball.

After dinner, she rewarded the compliments. Jenny received five stars and Everett received a four, docked one star for crudeness. After giving it some thought, she left Everett a short review: “Can be a jerk. Maturity a work in progress.”

In The Rating Game’s second week of existence, the site took off, quickly becoming a national sensation. At Heather’s high school, it was the number one topic of discussion and chief distraction. The site’s homepage featured a box that accumulated overall totals for each score, showing a bell-curve distribution—roughly as many high-end ratings as low-end. Overall, more than two million ratings had been entered—and counting.

Reading everybody’s reviews fascinated Heather. The ongoing refresh of ratings and commentary made it difficult to put down. Unsung heroes were given their due. Naughty behavior was exposed. Dirty secrets revealed. The ability to opine anonymously unleashed a wave of truths and criticisms without repercussion.

A rising movement against the tool only helped to fuel its popularity. Parent groups, media figures and local politicians attacked The Rating Game as superficial, banal, a fad for lemmings, and indicative of the shallowness of modern society.

Naturally, those who critiqued The Rating Game’s users became targets themselves, bombarded with bad reviews.

Heather’s dad hated The Rating Game and grew increasingly agitated with his daughter’s deepening obsession with the site.

“If you don’t get off that stupid thing, I’m going to give you a bad review and no stars!” he bellowed as she hunched over her laptop, poking through the entries.

“You better not!” she responded, unsure if he even knew how to work the tool.

Heather’s dad learned the hard way he could not escape The Rating Game. One day he returned home from work with a shell-shocked expression and craving for a stiff drink.

“I don’t believe it,” he said after a generous swallow of Scotch to settle his nerves. “My rating is a two. A two! I bust my ass in that office. It can’t be my boss. It’s gotta be the staff, those no-good ingrates. God forbid I should challenge them to actually work with some speed and competence. This is how they get back at me?”

After more Scotch, his tone turned dismissive. “Ah, to hell with them. I don’t care about two stars and a bunch of idiotic comments on some stupid website. Forget it!”

Heather felt bad for her dad. That night she gave him five stars and a review that read: “Best dad ever.” Unfortunately, it only brought up his cumulative rating to a two-point-one.

The next day, for the first time, Heather experienced a bad review of her own. It drove her crazy because she couldn’t pinpoint who was responsible, but there it was for everyone to see: “Kind of stuck up on herself.” Two stars.

Those six words somehow opened the door to further negativity because within 24 hours, two more unpleasant reviews echoed those sentiments.

“Thinks she’s too good for other people.”

“Agree. Arrogant.”

Heather became mad, then saddened. How is this possible? Do they have me confused with someone else? Where did they get this impression?

The negative reviews sunk her into a foul mood she could not shake. To feel better, she released some pent-up displeasure of her own on classmates who had rubbed her the wrong way over the years.

There was Tish Beloitte, who bumped into her in a crowded high school corridor one day, upsetting her books without an apology, snapping “Be careful!” at her. A true bitch.

Then there was Shelly Freese, who didn’t invite Heather to her Sweet 16 birthday party, a misstep made more distasteful when it was revealed she had invited the repugnant Pam Peters into her circle of closest friends.

And speaking of Pam: One star. So many reasons. Heather decided against writing a review—it would be too long and probably contain details that could be traced back. She didn’t want to trigger retaliation. Let Pam stew in the anonymity of her detractors.

The initial jovial tone of The Rating Game was quickly turning sour, a reflection of its participants. What had originally been used as an opportunity to recognize and compliment people for positive actions and attributes now became a weapon to attack and extract revenge for a broad spectrum of injustices. Examples in Heather’s hometown ranged from the genuinely deserving (Ted Turbette, a notorious wife beater) to the unfortunate (Andy Milowski, a student athlete who botched a key play in a regional championship football game).

After initially avoiding The Rating Game, Heather’s mother became increasingly drawn to the site. She posted glowing reviews for longtime friends while reigniting old battles, such as a particularly nasty family feud with a set of cousins. The language in those reviews and the counterattack turned quite spicy.

The most venomous reviews generated the highest page views. With a morbid fascination, Heather spent an entire evening browsing the pitiful souls who earned the very worst rankings—averaging zero to point-five stars. She read about accused pedophiles, animal torturers, disgraced politicians, sleazy con artists, dirty drunks, petty crooks, selfish scumbags, rotten teachers, evil bosses, mean parents, unethical business people, foul-smelling eyesores of questionable hygiene and world-class losers.

She watched with discomfort as her father’s ratings and reviews continued to hover in the mediocre-to-low range. He grew more agitated every night and contemplated various suspects, spitting out their names between gulps of Scotch.

Heather’s mother fared better, comfortably nestled in four-star territory as she had been largely inoffensive, if unexceptional, her whole life.

Heather’s own ratings felt disturbingly volatile, unable to find a consensus. Reviewers couldn’t agree on her demeanor as pleasantly reserved or cold and haughty. She found herself walking the high school corridors in a state of constant unease, exchanging brief words and short glances with others that she desperately tried to read for meaning. Was Sylvia’s smile genuine? Was Freddie’s frown meant for her? Did Mr. Trumbull still resent the time she snickered when he spilled coffee down the front of his shirt in freshman algebra?

She knew a bad rating from Tommy Nettles was a given. Tommy openly bragged that he gave one-star ratings to every girl who rejected his advances (while awarding five stars to Natalie Bowman, who let him get to third base). He was also part of a group of boys who regularly sat in the hallway during free periods with their tablets, giggling as they wrote outlandish, scandalous falsehoods on the review pages of classmates whose biggest crimes were being social misfits—fat, shy or awkward.

As boys colluded to harass the weak, girls formed their own alliances to attack other girls over perceived slights that may or may not have been legit.

Heather declined to take part in any of the group efforts to thwart individual ratings and wondered if that would come back to hurt her own ranking.

As the tally of total ratings exploded on The Rating Game’s homepage, Heather found herself spending most of her free time on the site, preferring it to actual human interaction.

With the fervor of a completist, Heather was determined to review every single person she ever knew. She reached back deep into her childhood (take that, Jamie Slawin, for pulling my hair during recess in kindergarten), remembered teachers (thank you, Mrs. Hoover for the A on my Latin exam!) and impulsively rated any fresh acquaintances made during the day (dreamy Scott Frigo said hi to me, I didn’t think he knew I existed, five stars!)

One semi-regular presence in her life she had neglected to rate was Suzie Flannery, a classmate who lived next door. Heather had known Suzie since she moved into the neighborhood in the third grade and their relationship had experienced ups and downs, as well as long stretches of indifference. This was going to be a tough one.

Suzie currently possessed an aggregate three-point-three rating, so clearly others gave her less than stellar reviews, although not necessarily bad. Heather recalled various childhood squabbles with Suzie over stupid things like dolls and board games but also good times, like the lazy summer afternoons Suzie shared her tree fort and tins of cookies, and that crazy occasion they danced together to Madonna songs on Suzie’s parents’ bed. The happy memories drew out a smile.

But the smile faded when she recalled Gregory. Gregory was the coolest boy in the eighth grade. Right when Gregory was showing interest in Heather, Suzie came along and stole him away with her faster-growing boobs, bouncy blonde hair and silly, eager laugh for his adolescent jokes. It shouldn’t have hurt as much as it did, given that it was back in the eighth grade, but it was the eighth grade, a time when everything was melodramatic and cuts ran deep on sensitive skin. Heather’s psyche hadn’t completely healed, even after Gregory left Suzie to chase Betsy Toomis and a string of other girls in the intervening years.

There were moments when Heather wanted to give Suzie four stars to reward her for the good memories. But in other instances, two stars felt wholly appropriate given Suzie’s bland nonchalance to bludgeoning Heather’s feelings in junior high, a time when Heather was feeling most vulnerable—braces on teeth, zits, delayed breasts and all.

Many tears were shed during that bleak period in her life.

Heather considered splitting the difference and giving Suzie a three. She mulled it over for way too long and then postponed the rating altogether and moved on to others.

She gave her grandma five stars. She gave her Uncle Ned three stars. He had bad breath.

The Rating Game’s addictiveness made Heather extra jumpy when rumors spread that it might be shut down. Civic leaders declared the forum tasteless and unmanaged. Measurement experts criticized the equal weight given to informed and uninformed ratings. “Under this system, a source of authority and intellect receives as much credibility as a hebetudinous fool,” remarked Professor Greenwell from Stanford University. Supporters of The Rating Game criticized the “elitism” of such a statement, arguing that the site valued free speech and true democracy where “every voice matters and every vote is equal.”

The media uncovered examples of bullying, bribery and intimidation to influence ratings. Lawyers weighed in on participants’ risk for libel and slander. Civil rights organizations denounced the disproportionate amount of low ratings for people with ethnic-sounding names.

Throughout the controversy, the creators of the site remained silent and invisible, tucked away behind layers of shell companies and cryptic organizations that revealed nothing about them or their intent. This created rampant speculation about possible big brands behind the bombast. Was it Disney? Microsoft? Apple? Who had the gall to pull off such an epic stunt?

The media worked around the clock to uncover who was responsible and came up empty-handed and frustrated.

“If the intent of this cultural provocation is to generate attention for somebody or something, that goal will be met with unqualified success once the perpetrators choose to reveal themselves,” said an editorial in The New York Times.

The site’s opposition made noise but could not put a dent in The Rating Game’s massive popularity. Heather had started to ignore homework and skip classes to maximize her time contributing to the ratings and reviews. She punched in hundreds of assessments, experiencing a thrill with every strike. She gave five stars to the military veteran down the road to reward him for his service to his country. She selected four stars for the nice librarian with the sweet face at the local library. She delivered five stars to the singer in her favorite rock band and to the male lead of her favorite TV show. She rated the family where she babysat: one star for the brat kid, four stars for the generally kind parents. Classmate John Garden received three stars for being a good guy but not very bright.

Heather’s longtime friend Monique was awarded four stars, docked a star for her occasional mean streak. To conclude her marathon session with a sprinkle of spite, Heather gave one star ratings to a few people, including Emily Crutchfield, a relentless gossip who possessed one of the most grating voices of all time.

As Heather’s interaction with the site intensified, her father’s refusal to participate continued. He yelled at Heather’s mom when he discovered her sneaking a few minutes on the site. He declared it detrimental to her mental health and complained about the destructive atmosphere it had created at the office.

“Morale is down, productivity is down, it’s a mess,” he said on a Monday morning as he prepared to head to work. “The whole thing is a joke. All the hours I put in, and I’m a 2.4?”

“It was probably those people you laid off,” suggested Heather’s mother.

“I was forced to lay them off,” responded Heather’s dad, voice rising. “I had no choice. We lost a major client.”

“Then give them low ratings in return.”

“No. I refuse to play this game. That’s all it is—a ridiculous game!”

Heather’s rating was faring better than her father’s but it still bobbed below her grade point average, the previous most important metric in her life.

She sought solace from her friend Audrey during lunch in the cafeteria. “I’m only a 3.3. Am I really not that popular?”

Audrey took a bite of pizza and chewed as she mulled it over. “Mmmm… People who know you like you. The people who don’t know you think you’re kind of stuck up.”

The response upset Heather. “The people who don’t know me don’t know me.”

“Well, they think they do.”

“Why am I being penalized for other people’s ignorance?”

Two class periods later, Heather was confronted at her locker by Carol Browning, who was convinced Heather had left her a two-star rating with a taunting comment about her wardrobe.

“That wasn’t me,” said Heather, taken aback by the accusation. Carol vowed to lobby her friends to pummel Heather with low ratings.

“Don’t you dare!” Heather called after her as Carol strutted off to her next class. Panicked, Heather vowed to form her own army if needed. Perhaps strategic teamwork was the only way to come out on top.

During chemistry class, Heather’s average rating dipped to 3.2. The closer she got to Suzie’s rating (3.1), the more she bristled with competitive fury.

There’s no way I’m getting beat in the ratings by Suzie Flannery. That bitch stole Gregory!

She felt squeezed by tension. The site was controlling her moods. Then, worse, it nearly caused a car accident.

As Heather drove home from high school, she kept her smartphone pressed up against the steering wheel, rapidly entering ratings for the names pushed at her by the tool’s algorithms (“Based on your ratings history, you might know [name]”).

She was in the midst of delivering two stars to Alexander Worden (a nose picker) when an oncoming red sedan appeared in the middle of her windshield. Heather let out a short scream, dropped her phone and frantically swerved out of the way with squealing tires. The red sedan passed by very closely, nearly clipping her car.

“You idiot!” yelled Heather.

As a reflex, she stuck out her middle finger at the driver—a withered old woman with big sunglasses and a tight bun of gray hair.

As Heather continued driving, catching her breath, she realized the old woman was Mrs. Breidenbach, a widowed neighbor on her street who always drove too slow and drifted across lanes.

Heather felt relieved she had avoided an accident but guilty for flipping off a hapless senior. This site is making me crazy, she concluded. It’s not healthy.

Fortunately, it was only Mrs. Breidenbach. She doesn’t know me from the other teenagers on the block. She’s probably senile, thought Heather.

The episode had been a wake-up call. Heather promised herself to never again engage with the site while driving. She had to show some self control.

At home she considered testing her addiction by going cold turkey, but quickly suspended the thought. She put aside her homework and then lost herself to another evening of checking her classmates’ ratings, monitoring her own, and entering new ones for various people she had not yet evaluated.

Before bed, she checked her own rating one last time… 3.2. Then she checked Suzie’s rating and was aghast to discover they were tied. That’s not right!

Heather promptly settled on a rating for her childhood friend, punching in a zero. She spent the next 20 minutes texting friends, encouraging them to help drive down Suzie’s score—which they did, no questions asked.

Before drifting off to sleep, Heather checked Suzie’s rating one more time. She felt victorious upon discovering Suzie’s rating had slipped to a 2.8. She rechecked her own standing: 3.2.

Heather fell back on her bed, exhausted, as if she had just won a grueling foot race.

She slept deep.

Six and a half hours later, she awoke with a jolt.

Her mother was screaming.

Heather raced out of her room and down the stairs, terrified. She had never heard her mother cry out like this before. She found her huddled on the floor by the front door, wearing her nightgown, hysterical. Tears streamed down her face.

Heather crouched to examine her. “Mom, what happened?”

“They—they took him.” She shook uncontrollably. Her eyes were wide with fear.

“What are you talking about?”

“Your father. He’s gone.”


“They took him away.”

“Who took him away?”

“I don’t know…” She grasped for words. “Two men showed up… in white uniforms… They pulled him out of the kitchen. He was eating breakfast. He was…”

“Mom, this doesn’t make sense.”

“I know it doesn’t.”

“We have to call the police.”

“I tried. I called 911, but the line was busy. I don’t know what to do.”

Heather’s heart pounded. Who would want to kidnap her father of all people?

“We’ll get dressed,” she told her mother. “We’ll leave here. We’ll go to the police station. We’ll find him.”

Her mother nodded, still shaking. “All right.”

Heather hurried upstairs.

As she reached her bedroom, she heard another scream, this time coming from outside.

Heather ran to the window and parted the curtains.

She watched in horror as two large men in white uniforms dragged Suzie Flannery, still dressed in her pajamas, down her driveway. Her bare feet scraped bloody against the concrete as she struggled. They brought her to the open end of a plain, white van and shoved her inside.

Heather had to cover her mouth to stop from screaming.

On the front lawn, Suzie’s parents were held back by two more men in white who prevented them from following their daughter. Mr. Flannery struggled violently and one of the uniformed men subdued him with a shock from a taser.

Terrified of being seen, Heather shut the curtains. She backed away from the window, uncertain of what to do. She felt trapped, suffocating.

On Heather’s desk, her cell phone buzzed with a sudden vibration.

Instinctively she reached out and grabbed it.

She looked at the screen. There was a text message from The Rating Game. It said: Congratulations to the winners!

“What?” Heather said out loud to her phone.

She turned to her laptop. What was going on? She put aside the phone and opened her web browser to The Rating Game homepage.

A large, colorful banner at the top read: Thank you for purifying your country. Together we are creating a better society.

The counter that tallied all of the site’s ratings caught her eye. It looked different. The box displayed the total volume of five, four and three star reviews, as before. However, now, according to the counter, the site contained no ratings below a three. The numbers of lower scores were wiped clean, reset at zero.

How was that possible?

Fingers moving quickly, Heather browsed across pages and pages of individual ratings and discovered that, indeed, there were no more low ratings. A large portion of people had been dropped from the site. Anybody below three stars.

She searched for a Suzie Flannery in her hometown and received an error message: Sorry, this individual is not in our database.

“No…” said Heather. She immediately searched for her father’s page.

Sorry, this individual is not in our database.

“No!” shouted Heather, louder. She wanted to pull away from the laptop. But she couldn’t.

Next came the inevitable. She reached down, stroked the keys and searched for her own name.
The listing for Heather Singer filled the screen as quickly and easily as the other hundreds of times she had called it up. It stared back at her, familiar and undisturbed.

Heather exhaled a sigh of relief. Her heart pounded like a drum in her chest. Slowly, she glanced down at her rating…


The absurdity of the moment struck her then. She wanted to laugh, but it came out as a sob.
I’ve passed the test…

She wanted to dance. She wanted to let out a wild shout.

I’ve passed the test!

Just then her phone’s ringtone chimed, startling her.

Heather cautiously reached down and picked up the phone. She grasped it in her sweaty hand and stared at the screen. She recognized the name of the caller with an immediate stab of despair. She answered the call, bringing the speaker to her ear.


The woman’s voice on the other end was thin and old. It trembled.

“Heather Singer?”

“Yes?” Heather couldn’t stop her own voice from shaking.

“That wasn’t very nice, dear. You really should show your elders more respect.”

“Mrs. Breidenbach?”

There was a long silence. Then the caller hung up. The point had been made. There was nothing more to be said. Heather put down the phone.

She turned her head. Her eyes returned to the laptop on her desk.

She stared at her listing.

In that moment, the page refreshed and her number changed. She lost a small portion of her third gold star, revealing a new rating.

Heather began to weep.


intruders rought cut killers

The Intruders